Migration regulation and the freedom of citizens (a review of Immigration and Freedom by Chandran Kukathas)

In Immigration and Freedom, Chandran Kukathas offers a distinctive analysis of the politics of immigration. His interest in migration goes beyond the usual concerns about jobs and culture to its effect on freedom. He argues that the conditions attached to migrant residency reduce freedom for both migrants and non-migrants.

In my country of Australia, migration control sometimes affects citizens as much or more than immigrants. Employers cannot always hire the staff they need and must understand complex distinctions between visas. Real estate agents can only sell some types of property to foreigners. Educational institutions are required to monitor international students and report potential breaches of visas conditions. Political parties must check that their donors are not foreigners. Citizens who fall in love with migrants suffer exorbitant visa fees and intrusive questions about their relationship to get their partner permanent residence (the book has a nice epilogue, ‘Imagine If You Needed a Visa to Fall in Love’).

Immigration and Freedom was written pre-COVID. With a later finish Australia’s prolonged COVID-motivated border closures would have shown how much border control affects citizens as well as migrants. We have learned that citizenship does not, as we previously thought it did, include a right of return. International arrivals are capped well below demand. Citizens stranded overseas pay a high financial, emotional and sometimes health cost. And we have discovered that tourists and temporary migrant visa holders in Australia have an important right that citizens do not: to leave.

Kukathas is a political theorist, and his book is strong on the political dimensions of migration. He notes that ‘migration is about demography, while immigration is about politics.’ People have been moving around for tens of thousands of years, but the institutions of immigration – states capable of defining borders, determining who belongs within them and under what conditions, and enforcing their decisions – are relatively recent.

While reading Immigration and Freedom I saw a news story about a Belgian farmer who moved a stone because it was in his tractor’s way. This seemingly mundane action was international news because the stone marked the border between Belgium and France, and the farmer had just taken French territory. The stone was put there in 1819, around the time that precise borders were replacing borderlands in Europe. But these clarified boundaries could usually still be freely crossed. Passports were not commonly needed for international travel until nearly a hundred years later, when World War I security concerns led to more controlled borders.

As states grew an increasing number of rights and obligations depended on a person’s relationship to them. Resident citizens are full members with all rights and obligations, but often prompted by migration many more categories of membership, with more limited rights and obligations, have been created. Who is and is not a member and at what level are not natural categories; in every country history and politics determine membership.

Countries define full membership in varying ways: place of birth, legal status of parents, varying levels of ancestry, and arrangements for acquiring citizenship. In the United States, everyone who is born there is a citizen. A person born in Australia, however, is only a citizen if at least one parent is a citizen or has permanent residence. Although such children can become citizens after ten years of residence, until that time they have the same legal status as a migrant, even if they never cross an international border.

People who cross international borders are not necessarily migrants, in the legal sense, either. The children of Australians born overseas can acquire citizenship by descent and then move to Australia. They have migrated but, legally, they were citizens before they arrived. Most people crossing borders plan to stay briefly and then return home. In neither their own minds nor the law are they migrants.

Being a migrant is a mix of psychology and law. A desire or a decision to stay in a country for a long or indefinite period mixes with the precise legal rules that distinguish visitors from migrants, migrants from citizens, and one type of migrant from another.

Migration politics is not just about who comes or in what numbers but how migrants will relate to the existing members. Will migrants add skills or take jobs, will they assimilate or stay apart? If they remain distinctive, is this positive diversity or negative division? On these topics Kukathas engages sceptically with the arguments of writers, mostly fellow academics, who prefer strong control of migration.

As much as culture or jobs, migration control is about welfare states. Since the early 20th century, welfare states have driven a huge increase in resident obligations (taxes and compulsory social insurance contributions) and rights (social security payments and free or subsidised social services). Who is liable to pay and who is entitled to benefit are therefore central political issues. This is why Milton Friedman, quoted in Immigration and Freedom, observed that open borders and welfare states do not mix.

Kukathas responds that most migrants come to work, not to go on benefits. He also notes that many states require a waiting period of several years before new migrants can get social benefits and services.

The costs to government of migration can be managed this way. Australia delays benefit entitlements for new permanent residents. It takes advantage of a temporary migrant workforce that pays tax but receives few of the services these taxes fund. Migration in Australia is a positive for the government’s budget, with its welfare state redistributing income from recent migrants to longer-term residents.

While these policies remove one objection to migration, the distinctions involved are problems in themselves. They contribute to the bureaucratic complexity of multiple categories of residence, the costs of which to migrants and non-migrants Immigration and Freedom highlights. They offend against principles of equality, which Immigration and Freedom sees migration rules as often undermining.

After reading Immigration and Freedom I see more clearly the tension between the freedom to cross borders and rights once across them. The fewer the rights on arrival the easier it is cross a border.

Visitor visas are often routinely granted in unlimited numbers but expire after short periods, do not permit work, and carry no entitlements to state services. Temporary migration visas usually have eligibility criteria but bring more benefits than a visitor visa – longer stays, work rights, and sometimes other entitlements. In Australia, temporary visa holder numbers, which had grown significantly pre-COVID, are not limited. Permanent residence allows an indefinite stay, work rights, eventual social security entitlement and provides a pathway to full citizenship. But it is restricted by eligibility criteria and annual grants are capped.

Australia is a high migration country, with 30 per cent of its population born overseas. But this happened because concerns about migration were addressed by selectively accepting migrants and limiting their rights after arrival. Immigration and Freedom emphasised to me that relative freedom to migrate comes at the price of restrictions on migrants and non-migrants, added bureaucracy, and sometimes invidious distinctions.

This review originally appeared on the GoodReads site.

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