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After the pandemic, let’s not keep families separated by borders

Summary:
That’s the headline for a piece that ran in the Canberra Times on New Years’ Eve, looking at the way borders separate families for serious reasons (like controlling the pandemic) and for frivolous ones (for example, because of spurious claims about the effect of migration on wages, or because people are uncomfortable about a changing population). Like most Australians, my wife and I have spent much of 2020 unable to visit family and loved ones. International borders closed first, cutting us off from our newly married US-based son and his wife. That was soon followed by the closure of state borders, and even the imposition of borders within states, narrowing our family circle to two. Reopenings have allowed some travel, of course, but always with the fear that we might be

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That’s the headline for a piece that ran in the Canberra Times on New Years’ Eve, looking at the way borders separate families for serious reasons (like controlling the pandemic) and for frivolous ones (for example, because of spurious claims about the effect of migration on wages, or because people are uncomfortable about a changing population).

Like most Australians, my wife and I have spent much of 2020 unable to visit family and loved ones. International borders closed first, cutting us off from our newly married US-based son and his wife. That was soon followed by the closure of state borders, and even the imposition of borders within states, narrowing our family circle to two.

Reopenings have allowed some travel, of course, but always with the fear that we might be stuck on the wrong side of a border with a renewed outbreak. But we have been lucky compared to the many people separated from their spouses and young children.

That’s only one of the costs imposed by travel restrictions. Intending migrants and temporary visitors who had accepted job offers here have been unable to take them up, while Australians working overseas have been stuck there, unable to get a flight home. Regrettable as all this is, most of us accept it as necessary. The alternative, after all, is a mass tragedy like that we see in so many other countries.

Britain has been among the countries hit hardest by the pandemic. And, with the discovery of a highly contagious new strain of the Covid-19 virus, restrictions on travel to and from that country have become even tighter. The economic and social costs of these restrictions are evident for all to see.

Now, just as the grip of the pandemic has tightened again, Britain is formally leaving the European Union and bringing an end to the era of free movement between Britain and the rest of Europe. The inevitable result will be many more separations of the kind families have experienced in the pandemic year. 

Young people who formed relationships on holidays or during study overseas will have to navigate a thicket of visa requirements if they are to live together and perhaps marry. Even being married is not a guarantee: Britain, for instance, imposes an income test (currently about $A32,000 a year) on spouse visas.

One of the cruellest effects of the pandemic has been to separate elderly parents, sometimes ill and dying, from their children. But this same effect is the deliberate outcome of Brexit. A typical case is that of a British citizen, living in Europe and with a European spouse and children, with sick parents in England. Before Brexit, the family could move to England to look after the parents in their final years, with the ability to work and pay taxes there. Now they face not only the income test but the prospect that the non-British partner may be unable to work.

In Britain’s case, there is nothing new in this, except the extension of restrictive policies to the European Union. The British government has long sought to discourage migration by creating what it calls a “hostile environment” for anyone who falls outside its increasingly Byzantine rules. And, while Britain has been particularly hostile, similar policies apply almost everywhere, including Australia.

Now that the pandemic has given us all a taste of being separated from our loved ones by impassable borders, it is worth reconsidering whether stringent restrictions on movement across national borders are actually justified.

On examination, many of the most common justifications are either flimsy or frivolous.

In the flimsy category, the most notable is the claim that immigration reduces wages and job opportunities for low-income workers. The evidence is mixed, but even the estimates pushed hardest by restrictionists imply relatively small negative effects, which could easily be offset by changes to tax and welfare policies. But the governments that have been most keen to limit freedom of movement have also been the ones pushing policies — from regressive tax cuts and anti-union labor market reforms to resisting increases in minimum wages — that harm low-income workers.

In this context, it’s worth noting that the strongest support for Leave (more than enough to account for the margin by which the referendum was carried) came from retired people over 65, for whom the threat of competition for jobs was irrelevant. Young people, who actually had to weigh the benefits of excluding competition from foreigners against the costs of being locked out of work in Europe, overwhelming voted for Remain.

An equally flimsy justification for hostile borders is the claim that migration creates problems of urban congestion. Those who use this claim to justify keeping family members apart are rarely willing to support modest, but politically contentious, measures to reduce congestion, such as road pricing and urban consolidation.

At the frivolous level, but probably among the most significant sources of support for immigration restrictions, is the discomfort felt by many about people who look, live and pray differently from the ones they are used to. Quite simply, this discomfort has no moral standing. 

But the most frivolous justification of all is “because we can” — or, to put it in the grandiose language of national sovereignty, “we will decide who comes here, and under what circumstances.” The rush to turn immigration departments, here and in other countries, into absurdly costumed “border forces” is an illustration 

The weakness of these claims does not imply that immigration should be unlimited, a position often described as “open borders.” In reality, we are nowhere near having open borders. On the contrary, borders operate on the default presumption that no-one should be allowed to cross them, unless they fall into some special category. We have all experienced the operation of this presumption during the pandemic.

The number of people who actually want to migrate for personal and family reasons is limited. There must be some level at which migration would have clear and substantial effects on wages but we are nowhere that point at the moment.

For the moment, even repatriating Australians stranded abroad seems beyond the capacity of our government. But when international travel finally resumes, we should ask ourselves whether it makes sense to keep families separated in order to maintain arbitrary quotas, or pander to nativist prejudice. •

John Quiggin
He is an Australian economist, a Professor and an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow at the University of Queensland, and a former member of the Board of the Climate Change Authority of the Australian Government.

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