Nationalists' Immigration Policies are Self-Defeating

Nationalist groups seem to be gaining steam across Europe and around the world. News outlets and social media are raising their visibility, bringing views once relegated to the political sidelines into the spotlight. Chief among these groups’ priorities is immigration. Britain First, for example, claims immigration is “spiralling out of control” and “placing unsustainable demands upon this country’s resources.”

If we look past the passionate rhetoric, however, it’s clear that anti-immigration policies are far more likely to harm native-born citizens than to help them. Here in the United States, we should keep this lesson — and some facts about immigration — in mind.

Britain First’s views are a good example of anti-immigration protectionism. Its platform advocates laws favoring natural-born British citizens for access to employment, housing, education, healthcare, and other goods and services. Convinced that immigrants take jobs from natives, it wants to curtail immigration severely and even eliminate it entirely for certain groups. These views are fairly standard among nationalist groups, including those within the United States and throughout Western Europe, according to a survey by The New York Times.

But their logic is flawed and simplistic. It’s based on a view that ignores the positive economic impact of immigration, especially its ability to promote economic growth and the widespread benefits it brings to native citizens.

Western countries are facing structural problems that immigration can solve. These include flagging social security institutions, revenue problems associated with aging populations, and a dearth of much-needed skills. Healthy levels of immigration help satisfy all three, resulting in a net good for a nation.

Both low- and high-skilled immigration have been shown to benefit the U.S. economy. A 2013 Congressional Budget Office analysis found that a proposed bipartisan bill to increase legal immigration significantly would have increased the average wage by 0.5 percent by 2033 and GDP by 5 percent. High-skilled immigrants, in particular, help accelerate innovation, bringing much-needed skills in the science and technology fields.

Immigrants not only increase the number of people employed; they also increase worker productivity in general. A study from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco found that immigrants stimulate investment, in turn producing efficiency gains and boosting income for immigrants and natives alike.

None of the above is to say that immigration is completely without cost. It is true that immigration can harm the job prospects of unskilled workers. Statistics vary, but in the short term, immigration can negatively affect the wages of natives with no more than a high school-level education.

In general, however, immigration clearly benefits society as a whole. Just as we shouldn’t shun new technologies that increase productivity and prosperity on a wide scale — while also, as a side-effect, reducing demand for certain workers — we should not forego the huge positives of immigration. In effect, rejecting immigrants to protect the wages of some native workers ends up punishing many more.

Immigration also benefits immigrants’ home countries, especially developing countries. The World Bank estimates that an increase in immigration equal to 3 percent of the workforce of high-income countries would lift worldwide GDP by $356 billion. This increased global economic growth has the potential to spur even more mutually beneficial economic exchanges that lead to more jobs and higher standards of living in both immigrants’ native countries and their new ones.

Putting aside the divisive and illiberal rhetoric of nationalist groups — and the harmful activities some engage in — the core policies of such groups conflict with their stated aims: better outcomes for their own nationals. Ironically, nationalists reserve their greatest animosity for the policies that could most help their own countries flourish.