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

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. •

9 thoughts on “After the pandemic, let’s not keep families separated by borders

  1. I like this article.

    [Internet security would not let me tick the box. It’s all too complicated.]

  2. What do you suggest? Your claim is that you don’t want “open borders” so there will not be free access to Australia but you also object to “stringent” border restrictions where you leave undefined what you mean by “stringent”? Do you support an immigration quota defined in terms of numbers admitted or in terms of the attributes of migrants sought? What rules do you suggest for moving away from “open door”?

    Your claims on wages are the standard ones. Yet they are surprising claims since basic immigration models require a fall in wages to get welfare gains. Without the wage fall capital and other resources are not more productive because of the arrival of more workers. But in any event looking at wage effects is a poor way of assessing the welfare effects of immigrants since immigrants affect all markets in an economy not only labour markets. Their arrival is equivalent to the abolition of a prohibitive tariff between current Australia and the newcomers. This will be welfare improving in standard terms if markets work well (generally they don’t – and many migrants will be attracted by failures linked to the provision of public goods) and if there are no adverse distributional effects. Since most of the gains from labour immigration go to owners of fixed assets who can sell these assets into a larger market these distributional costs are significant.

    Its true that congestion can be priced to ensure welfare gains but this isn’t enough. The revenues from such pricing need to accrue to non-immigrants to be sure of gains so that roads effectively need to be privately owned to ensure welfare gains to those originally in Australia. That is a very strong requirement. In practice higher congestion costs will be levied on all and the revenues will be distributed as public goods among the immigration-inclusive population.

    Nor do you mention the increased cost of public goods caused by population increase – a cost born by all but, in Australia at least, mainly attributable to the major source of our national population growth – immigrants. The north eastern extension to the ring-roads surrounding Melbourne will cost $18b – a cost largely attributable to population growth and emphatically not negligible.

  3. “Regrettable as all this is, most of us accept it as necessary.” – J.Q.

    Yes. Current border closures and ring-fencing within Australia and of our national border have most emphatically been necessary. Without that, contact tracing and other measures we would have have been facing the same tragic, egregious, utterly disgraceful and approaching catastrophic neoliberal system-caused and elite caused failures happening in the rest of the West, except N.Z.

    It could be quite a while yet, say up to 2 years or more before, international travel re approaches “old normal” and we must actually hope it does not because of the very likely probability that more and more serious zoontic pandemic crises will follow on the heels of this one. Also this non-essential consumption plays a roll in driving climate change.

    Within these strictures and difficulties we ought still to try to meet the family reunion standards J.Q. proposes. We can do it but we will need purpose built quarantine stations outside each major city going forward. These will remain indefinitely albeit episodically necessary from now until doomsday basically.

    We also need to adopt a zero population growth policy. Australia, ecologically speaking, is already full. We can achieve what we need with a balancing of immigration, emigration, births and deaths and still do this without applying racism or unjustified and excessive nativism. To avoid this part of the discussion is intellectually and scientifically disingenuous. Too easily throwing out the nativist epithet is unhelpful. Would indigenous people be termed “nativist” if they opposed further immigration until their own needs were properly met? They know their country is already collapsing ecologically under the pressure of non-indigenous late comers and their white guy economics. We late comers have taken over the country in the last 200 plus years and then arrogantly and unilaterally assumed the right to bring in ever more non-indigenous people under white colonialist and imperialist capitalist economic theory: theory which ignores ecological concerns and manifestly understands less about the environment than indigenous people. This in itself could be seen as paternalistic at best.

  4. I see border closures as a consequence of nationalism and I see nationalism as a struggle for identity by malcontents, aka deplorables.

    Nationalism has become a political force; MAGA and Brexit both being good illustrations of triumph by the losers over those who are different in colour, religion, income, education – anything that will give them a point of difference.

    Nationalism is the politics of losers; it’s by losers and it’s for losers.

    For the UK Brexit has been a massive own goal, in gaining an island they have lost a continent.

    In the US MAGA has demonstrated that the Republican Party is a party with only one policy, that being nationalism. In pursuit of this ideal enormous sums are spent on walls, border protection, the military and tariffs while the dangers of under resourced infrastructure, like public health, continue threaten the population.

    Without nationalism the Republicans would be unelectable, a spent force.

  5. Before broadly decrying “nationalism”, we need to define what we mean by “nationalism”.

    “The term “nationalism” is generally used to describe two phenomena:

    (1) The attitude that the members of a nation have when they care about their national identity; and
    (2) The actions that the members of a nation take when seeking to achieve (or sustain) self-determination.” [1]

    In terms of realpolitik, we are confronted by the reality that the current world is divided into nation states. If we live in a secular, liberal democracy, we note the fact that it is only within our borders that we have a vote and it is only in determination of our own government that we have a democratic voice. In other self-determining nations, people choose their governments in their own way or have their government form imposed on them by internal, authoritarian elites.

    Those living in secular, liberal democracies, of a range of forms closer to or more distant from the general ideals of same, will have a level of attachment and commitment to those ideals and the form of them in their own nation. Without borders at all, to take the extreme of the argument, maintenance of a small to medium sized secular, liberal democracy would be impossible. It could, in theory, be subject to “swamping” in the form of the influx of so many immigrants that the country loses its previous character. Part of the character lost could no doubt be the basic character of being a secular, liberal democracy.

    Every successful invasion of already occupied lands has partaken of an immigrant swamping characteristic. This is where a secular, liberal democracy like Australia has a dark past as we know. White people (among them my forebears) invaded, occupied, stole land, murdered previous inhabitants and/or pushed them, directly or by general population pressure onto missions and reservations. Out of these developments we now have a secular, liberal democracy for (most) white people and still something much less in practice for many indigenous people. However, we are still attempting to address that or at least some (small “l”) liberal people are.

    To pretend (if any one does) that open borders, in an overpopulated world, would not result in swamping of small democracies, and thus in our case, the very likely swamping of liberal democratic values themselves, would be unrealistic. It is indeed well and good to hold values that “people who look, live and pray differently from the ones (we) are used to” are very likely to be good citizens. But there is a “theoretical minimum” of values that they must adhere to, to be compatible with our values. Otherwise, we invite destruction of the better part of our values. I certainly hold that we cannot countenance the loss of our politically secular, our liberal (tolerant) and democratic nature (imperfect as they still are). These are non-negotiable. Otherwise we admit we want to live under some form of theocracy, oppression and authoritarianism.

    I am strongly secular and agnostic, and term myself both humanist and scientific in outlook. Everyone who prays, prays differently from me, so I am much exercised (at times) in tolerating religionism, their prescriptive pronouncements, their overweening claims about possessing ultimate truths and their fondness for exemptions from tax laws which atheists and agnostics (other than corporatist oligarchs) must obey. There are religions and philosophies I respect and some (in at least some forms) which I strongly reject. Among the ones I strongly reject are the monotheistic fundamentalist and sectarian forms. Inter-faith and ecumenical approaches I can respect. High level syncretist Hindu, Buddhist and Taoist philosophy I respect much more than Western monotheistic philosophy and Cartesian Dualism.

    So yes, sometimes when praying differently involves the push to theocracy, I would resist such movements most strongly. And when other values run strongly counter to secular, liberal, deomcratic, their bearers, especially in number, simply cannot be permitted entry to residence in a country which wishes to remain democratic. Then there’s the ecological footprint issue which I have already written about.

    Everybody maintains borders and boundaries at every level. It’s not possible to live without them. We have integument (skin). We have personal space. We have private spaces. We have safe spaces, invitational spaces and so on. Australia’s border, wisely administered generates a (relatively) safe space for tolerance, self-determination and democracy in an extremely dangerous world where those qualities exist sadly only in a minority of places. We will lose that literally over my dead body. Not that I could be a combatant at my age but I would of course be collateral damage. The world is absolutely becoming this dangerous now. Fundamentalisms and tyrannies are advancing over great portions of the globe. People need to wise up to this new, dangerous reality. Extreme, unrealistic open-border idealism is an invitation to swamping, invasion and destruction. Excessive armoring on the other hand makes one slow and inflexible and is an invitation to have your hard shell cracked. This is all going to take a lot of wise statecraft. The West seems to lack that at the moment.

    1. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

  6. The Oxford dictionary defines nationalism as thus;

    “identification with one’s own nation and support for its interests, especially to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations.”

    If all nations adopted that strategy we would be at war.

    The antonym to nationalism is internationalism, which implies cooperation between states.

  7. The pandemic have sped up the process toward above its natural speed of reaction to internationalizm within a process of decline before large international conflicts. I find it positive, because the reaction to pandemic border closures will reverse some of the natural course to national divisions across and within the borders.
    We are on the course toward large international hot conflicts. Initiated by class victory of elites that created the GFC crisis. Just as corporate mangement blames something else for their failure so the public management blames someone else for their failure to manage properly their countries. Hence, the rise in nationalism that also crosses the borders. As the desperation of public at large grows so the nationalism grows as an excuse provided to them by the elites leading to closure of borders.
    This is as a reaction to previously wide open borders (internationalism) triggered by economic ruin.
    The pandemic, speeding up the proces of closures from nationalism will trigger a counter reaction as described by Quiggin due to familles being separated and relax border controll. We should ride this wave of reopening the borders toward internationalism in order to prevent incoming conflicts that clearly we are on the trajectory towards.
    Stop blaming others and start solutions to economic decline is the only way forward. Otherwise there will be more of the border closures and growing isolations where even worse social developements can rise.
    After the pandemic we have to ride the reaction to nationalistic border isolations.
    P.S. There was a different solution to pandemic prevention then border closure. Here in the EU where that was impossible, the testing for virus or quarantine period was enforced to people entering a country. And it worked when the meassure was implemented. By relaxing such measures the spread of virus restarted.
    Hopefully the vacinations will work so that we can travel again and restart international cooperation in order to prevent another world conflict.

  8. akarog,

    I don’t accept the Oxford dictionary definition as definitive in philosophical or sociopolitical terms. It’s a biased and moralizing definition, at least in the absence of a fuller definition with more parts. This equates to a high level editorial mistake in a dictionary. The definition on its own actually editorializes which it should not do unless it qualifies that definition as one of several possible or as colloquially or commonly understood. I don’t know if you have elided parts of a fuller definition so it may not be the Oxford dictionary doing this.

    To further expand, the addition of “especially to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations” refers pejoratively to one variant of nationalism and seems to imply that that is the only or main type of nationalism almost everywhere and always. It all but excludes arguments of enlightened self-interest being combined with a realistic degree of altruism. Is Scottish nationalism comparable with German nationalism circa 1935, for example?

    The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy definition is more comprehensive and not laden with prejudicial presumptions. It still encompasses the potential for your quoted meaning but without the prejudicial assumption of this being the main or only type.

    I back the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy definition over the Oxford definition or the portion of that definition that you quoted.

  9. On the flip side the EU countries still reject to close borders to fight the pandemic. As bad as things are everywhere now, the first best solution would be a severe lockdown everywhere that would make closing borders obsolete. As those light lockdowns are handled in real life, id still very much like to see closed borders to Czechia, where the infection numbers are 4 times worse than in Bavaria (quite an achievement as they are terrible here). And by closed I mean closed, including work commuters. Right now the opposite is happening. The cross border effect is pretty obvious in case numbers. Even the most decadent things like cross border shopping short trips (tax rate arbitrage games) are still either legal or zero enforcement is happening between nations with very different COVID-19 rates.

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