Immigration and reason

As many readers of this blog will know, and others will suspect, I am an immigrant, and indeed this has defined much of my life. My family migrated to Ireland when I was 7 years old and I remember being acutely aware of my very different cultural and national background as I first went to school here. It did not stress me, but it was there. Then, when I was 13, we returned to Germany, and because by now I had become Irish I felt myself to be an immigrant there, too, and oddly enough the cultural assimilation was more difficult this time. And then, at the age of 20, I returned to Ireland, and was an immigrant all over again. Not to mention how it all worked out when I migrated to the UK, twice, and back again to Ireland, twice. You get the idea.

Nowadays when people ask me what country I identify with, I answer that I am an Irish citizen and that this defines me most. But of course I carry within me the influences and tastes of the places I have lived in. So I find it difficult when people push a nationalist agenda (see my recent post). Equally, I understand the importance of a cultural anchor, and I understand the desire or need to keep hold of traditions and values that have grown out of a place.

However, migration has always been a part of human history. As far back as we have records, there have been huge migratory movements, and these have come to define who we are. The people we now call ‘Irish’ are the descendants of wandering tribes and peoples, some from faraway places. The same is true of the English, some of whom today try to argue that they have a specially defined unique island heritage; but they are Saxons, Celts, Romans, Normans and goodness knows what. If the British National Party had been allowed to determine immigration policy from the time of Christ onwards, then there would now be none of the people who make up the BNP.

So what is it that makes immigration such a sensitive topic? Those who try to defend anti-immigration views (or views seeking a restriction of immigration) tend to frame it in terms of the capacity of a country to assimilate migrants and maintain adequate levels of employment for the ‘indigenous’ population as well as the migrants. But in reality that is just a front. Fear of immigration is not fear of unemployment (particularly as much of the evidence shows that immigration boosts employment and reduces demographic stresses in matters such as pensions). Rather it is fear of the culturally unknown or unfamiliar. Talk of being ‘swamped’ by migrants is really an expression of fear of things as important, or maybe as trivial, as unfamiliar food and hearing languages we do not understand.

Of course migration must be sensitively managed, for example through measures that avoid the ghettoisation of migrants. But migration is here to stay, not least because this global community cannot be as easily compartmentalised geographically any more. Furthermore, countries with a demographic deficit – where the existing population cannot satisfy the need for people or for skills – actually need immigration in order to maintain an economic balance and make growth possible. Ireland is now one of these.

Five or so years ago I suggested in a widely reported graduation address that immigration is good for Ireland. I received some hate mail as a result, and have been severely criticised on some pretty weird websites. One of these, citing (though not quite correctly) what I had said, concluded that I was ‘possibly the most evil person in the world’. I believe it is time that we become more mature about migration, and better at managing our cultural heritage in a way that lets migrants join in it so as to keep it fully alive. But if we allow migration to become the political issue of the day (as it is always threatening to be in a number of European countries), then we are in deep trouble, and the values we think we are defending will become mean-spirited.

Properly managed migration should not be threatening. It is time for us to handle this in a sensible manner.

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10 Comments on “Immigration and reason”

  1. Vincent Says:

    The danger in the UK is not from the people from cities that have issues with migrants, but those who would fit as the Conservative wing of FF here. The Farmer with between 50 and 200 acres, the merchant in the village and middle sized town, and the tradesman. In the UK these are the people that are being pushed economically in a very real way. Their connection with the countryside is not from the tailboard or ramp sipping Moet while Pretty Jessica attempts to get the CC round of a TDE without leaving the imprint of her rump in some Gloucestershire field. But they are the Mrs Thatcher grouping of the conservatives.

  2. kevin denny Says:

    It has to be some sort of distinction to be described as “possibly the most evil person in the world”: I am jealous. I am an avid enthusiast for immigration so I think that makes my claim even stronger. Some of the most vibrant countries, economically, culturally and otherwise, were built by immigrants: the US, Canada and Australia for example [quietly overlooking New Zealand]. Immigrants bring new skills, new ideas and challenge our pre-conceptions. Given that Ireland is not exactly famous for its cuisine, its unique contributions being coddle, boxty and eh…well thats about it, our culinary landscape is improved immeasurably by the presence of immigrants.
    Its also efficient, to bring an Irish person to the point where they can contribute to the economy, you have to feed them, educate them and so on. Immigration provides “instant adults” saving all those costs. So Céad míle fáilte I say.

    • Kevin, to be fair isn’t there also boiled cabbage? But seriously, maybe not in food but in other matters Irish emigrants have hugely enriched other cultures, and indeed have been able to overcome adversity and oppression at home by enjoying a welcome elsewhere. So Irish people perhaps more than almost anyone else should welcome migrants. And in fairness, mostly they do. But when I see some local politicians popping up with an anti-iimgration agenda, I get worried. It is important to nip such stuff in the bud.

      It is the same in Australia, which I have recently visited (post coming up shortly). Australian society is dominated wholly by immigrants – everyone except the Aborigines comes from migrant families. And yet you now have a major anti-immigration movement there. It is totally bizarre, and ion the case of those who support it, incredibly stupid. Again, the majority are better than that, including the current PM, but still, you’d have to worry. And where are those hyperventilating US politicians of the right fulminating about immigration coming from? And why do they tend to have European sounding names? Where do they think their forefathers came from?

      I do agree with you as top the description of me. I have in fact toyed with putting this on my business card.

      • kevin denny Says:

        Theres been an anti-immigration movement in Oz on and off, well immigration from certain places to be precise.
        I agree entirely that we of all people should be open to immigration, don’t we expect special treatment for our illegals in the US?
        Having said all that, where does one stop? Say the US was to remove all immigration barriers. There would be a huge influx and the standard of living of many current Americans would fall. Of course the standard of living of many of the ex-post population in the US would be higher (because the immigrants are better off there). So how do you decide what weight you put on differnt peoplwes welfare? George Borjas’ book Heavens Door is very good on this.
        Its something of a philosophical conundrum but in deciding immigration policy do we maximize the welfare of (a) the ex-ante (current) population of Ireland (b) the Irish in Ireland (c) the Irish wherever they are (d) the ex-post population i.e. after we let people in?
        There is no simple answer I think and these different choices will have very different implications.

  3. Actually, someone has just alerted me that I have been the subject of more recent colourful comment around this issue:

    Scroll to the comments further down the page and you’ll see what I mean. I gather I am to be boiled in oil!

  4. Neal Says:

    The sad fact is that many people take the short-sighted view – it’s hard to imagine where they came from one/two generations ago, let alone 5-10-15 (which also makes the difficult to describe climate change, etc. on a whole other issue)! As someone who has been lucky enough to travel extensively (40+ countries in before the age of 30!), I can see the links and ‘common-ness’ across the world and the fact that we could all learn a little bit from each other.

    I can see the logic of immigration controls but it should only be to keep a balance on it (like the issues Kevin discusses with the influx that would happen in the States).

    and yes, the Irish community has had a massive influence worldwide – we even seem to have the only truly worldwide celebration day in St. Patricks Day! 🙂 Which I suppose wouldn’t have happened without migration…….

    nice post!

  5. Simon Pollock Says:

    Quoted in The Times

    I wonder what the response to the research of Dr.Robert Putnam is ie. that ethnic diversity weakens society and what binds a state together.

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