Around the time the US Congress debated the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), opinion surveys on the subject showed an intriguing divide. When voters were asked about individual components of Obamacare, it turned out that a lot of components enjoyed widespread support, and that there was quite a lot of agreement between Democrats, Republicans and Independents. However, as soon as the word “Obamacare” was mentioned, the issue suddenly became hyper-partisan, and divisive. Republicans, in particular, now claimed to hate it.
Something similar is happening with immigration in Britain today. Ask about “immigration” in the abstract, and you will get the impression that the country is deeply divided on the subject, and that the majority is intensely hostile to it. But ask more specific questions, and you will get a very different picture. There are large groups of immigrants that are widely accepted, or even popular – including among people who express negative views about “immigration” in the abstract. Highly skilled migrants, foreign investors and entrepreneurs, immigrants from culturally similar countries and foreign students are particularly popular.
There is a common narrative that if you support a more liberal immigration policy, you are part of an out-of-touch metropolitan elite which sneers at ordinary folks. If you want to show how much you are in touch with “the people”, you need to signal your commitment to cutting immigration numbers.
But this is highly misleading. Yes, some types of immigration are unpopular, and you are not going to get popular support for a libertarian open-borders policy any time soon. But as I show in my new paper, Immigration: Picking the Low-Hanging Fruit, it would be perfectly feasible to liberalise our immigration system in some respects, without antagonising the public in the process. The paper does not outline an “ideal” immigration system. It outlines the most liberal immigration system that is just about compatible with public opinion.