May 2009 07

Illegal immigration is a controversial issue for all developed countries.  Political parties and campaign groups have argued all sides of the debate: potential tax revenues versus the cost to taxpayers; whether it will harm or help local economies; the political benefits of stricter immigration policy versus a more liberal approach.  In the United States an estimated 11.9 million people are "unauthorised immigrants" – with almost a third of these entering since March 2008 alone – making up approximately 5.4 per cent of the US work force according to the Pew Hispanic Center.  In the UK there are between 524,000 and 947,000 illegal immigrants – according to a study commissioned by Boris Johnson from the London School of Economics – almost two-thirds of which are estimated to live in or near London.

On Monday, thousands rallied in London for a campaign called "Strangers to Citizens", in support of scheme that would grant amnesty to long-term illegal immigrants. The rally called for permanent residency for the 450,000 illegal immigrants they classified as ‘long term’ (been present in the UK for roughly 4 years). Bringing these people into the legal workforce, they argue, would generate more than £1 billion in tax revenues, citing a recent study by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR).  London Mayor Boris Johnson echoed the calls, adding that bringing thousands of people out of destitution and jobs far below their qualification is "morally right".  The hope is that allowing these workers the opportunity to work legally will stave off higher levels of illegal immigration and have economic benefits for Britain as a whole.

However, there are several holes in this argument. For one, Spain enacted a similar amnesty program for long-term illegals in 1985, and again in 2005.  Over 44,000 previously undocumented immigrants were given settlement rights in the initial program; twenty years later, the number soared to over 700,000. Although other factors play into the boom in illegal migration to Spain, the intended decline in the rate of illegal immigration simply did not happen; there is little reason to believe it would here either.

Secondly, does an amnesty really pay off for the taxpayer?  The IPPR argues that it would.  According to their research it would cost approximately £4.7 billion to deport the 500,000-plus illegal migrants in the UK.  Perhaps, but the costs associated with illegal immigration are far more complicated than the IPPR literature suggests.  The Home Office doesn’t even provide an "average cost of deportation," which one might think to be an easy figure to work out, due to the multitude of factors that weigh into each individual case.  The National Audit Office and UK Border Agency provide average cost ranges for returning failed asylum-seekers, factoring in the marital status, number of dependents, and the destination country among others, in a paper titled "Management of Asylum Applications by the UK Border Agency", but these again just make clear how difficult it is to present firm figures (such as the IPPR does).

Perhaps more importantly, the cost of allowing illegal immigrants could vastly outway the costs of deportation.  Migrationwatch estimates that, based on the average 25 year old immigrant – married with two children, working for minimum wage – that a two-child, two parent family would receive about £291,000 in total Housing Benefit and £19,000 in Council Tax Benefit over their lifetime if given legal status. In areas such as London, where there is a high concentration of immigrants, the cost of living is higher, and so the bill creeps over £1 million.  Unemployment rates among immigrant groups tend to be higher than the UK averages too, and the risk of living entirely on taxpayer-funded benefits is much greater among immigrant populations.  In the long run, the cost to the taxpayer could be far higher if the 450,000 long-term illegal immigrants are granted amnesty.

Again, we cannot draw conclusions from the simplified figures in the Migrationwatch estimate, just as with the IPPR’s. It is unlikely that every illegal worker would remain in low-skilled labour, and their earning capacity could increase significantly, decreasing the cost on the UK pocketbook over the course of their life.  If these people are given the suggested two-year "trial-period" outlined by Boris Johnson, they would have the opportunity to show their earning potential and their ability and willingness to contribute to the UK economy and society.  There is something to be said for the fact that by staying here for so long already, in such a high risk situation with low pay, many illegal immigrants clearly do want to be here and do want to work.  All that aside though, the potential burden on welfare, the NHS, schools, etc, means that the true cost of an amnesty – even if not as high as Migrationwatch’s – is likely to be much higher than the IPPR’s £4.7 billion deportation cost.

Leaving costs aside though, is an amnesty program "morally right?"  Those in the Monday rally believe so in the case of long-term immigrants. But is amnesty fair when thousands of skilled workers across the globe are enduring a drawn out and complicated process to qualify for official migrant status to the UK?  Such people have a much higher earning potential on average, and they are more likely to contribute to the UK system and society.  Are those who spend two years exhausting all the legal channels for immigration less deserving than those that broke the law and violated immigration standards?  The UK has recently tightened its immigration policy, ending specific immigration schemes and making the qualifications for entry more stringent.  In a twenty first century global economy when a recession means that more British people are willing to do lower paid, low skilled jobs, does it make good sense to grant amnesty to illegal migrants while simultaneously restricting labor mobility in the skilled labour market?

The immigration issue is far more complicated than numbers can convey.  The announcement by a team of Oxford University researchers to carry out an unprecedented 5 year programme of study into the issue, including into the costs, is welcome. But until they publish any results, we must ask whether the UK, by granting amnesty to illegal immigrants, would simply be setting itself up for a situation like Spain, as immigrants are drawn to the country in the hope of work in a recovering economy and potential future amnesty? And are the costs of deporting migrants really greater than the benefits of letting them stay?  The numbers are still unclear, but the potential for greater cost is alarming.  Clearly there are benefits to be allowing these migrants to stay, but measuring the benefits versus the costs is far less clean cut than any of these groups are willing to admit.

Maria is a graduate of the London School of Economics and Political Science, where she completed her Master’s degree in Politics and Government in the European Union. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in International Affairs and Economics from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.



  • Graeme Pirie

    I think you’ve failed to question the basic cost of deportation. £4.6 Billion equates to £10,000 per illegal.
    WHY? A one-way ferry ticket back to where they came from (France) would cost around £5. Send coaches round, pick them up and drop them back at Calais. Stuff the appeals & human rights rubbish. If they shouldn’t be here let them appeal from wherever they came from.
    An amnesty is an absolutely stupid idea, I can’t think of anything else that would do more to encourage even more illegals.
    Considering the money, you’ve not factored in the benefit of the extra 500,000 jobs that these people are doing just now. They could be filled by the layabouts currently living off the dole.
    The problem is the total failure of government to:
    a) ensure that it’s not beneficial for them to want to come here in the first place
    b) stop them at the border
    c) deport them immediately when they’re caught.
    I suppose that’s what happens when we have a home secretary that spends so long collating her bath plug & porn film receipts.
    We can solve the problem by firstly getting rid of the shower of idiots “in charge” right now and demanding a competent performance from the next government.

  • Hardeep Singh

    Some interesting points Graeme but … “They could be filled by the layabouts currently living off the dole” well that’s just it. The problem with these so called layabouts is that even with jobs available they would still choose not to work. Remember many of them have made a conscious decision not to work and it’s futile to go around organising the economy around them. What we need is simply to reduce their national pocket money so they can stay at home if they wish to but it won’t be funded by other people’s hard work.
    As for illegals being deported don’t tell the bulk of the cost of deportation is no doubt the usual course on modern society – legal costs. The EU can house them in whichever country they choose to if they’re so worried about human ‘rights’. Once you’re caught yopu should be made to pay a higher tax rate for the first couple of years.

  • Graeme Pirie

    Hardeep – yes I agree, that’s why my last paragraph referred to “competent government”.
    And pigs might fly as well…. (if they can get out of the trough of course!)

  • Hardeep Singh

    That awfully composed sentence above should have read:
    “As for illegals being deported don’t tell me the bulk of the cost for deportating them is no doubt the usual curse on our modern society – legal costs”

  • http://timothywallace.blogspot.com Tim W

    A more open immigration system combined with a less generous welfare system would be cheaper in the long run, as well as providing more incentives to everyone to work and become self-reliant.

  • Roland Gilmore

    Without going into the details, as a voluntary worker for a charity, I can confirm that legal fees in a case we are involved with have exceeded £5K with no resolution to date. Factor in the 100s of £Ms spent on immigration detention centres, courts, police and border control staff and without repatriation costs, £10K+ is easily achieved.
    Perhaps illegal immigrants should be made to repay costs in the same way as students have to repay tuition fees. I suspect there would not be as many takers then.
    The simplest change is to allow them to work while their case is reviewed. No work; no benefits.
    I do not believe Spain give automatic benefits to illegal immigrants the way we do.

  • AndrewM

    “I think you’ve failed to question the basic cost of deportation. £4.6 Billion equates to £10,000 per illegal.
    WHY? A one-way ferry ticket back to where they came from (France) would cost around £5. Send coaches round, pick them up and drop them back at Calais. Stuff the appeals & human rights rubbish. If they shouldn’t be here let them appeal from wherever they came from.”
    Hell. Why stop there? Pistol ammo is what, £1.50 per round? Then, since we’re stuffing human rights, let’s sell their organs. We could make a profit on illegal immigrants! Bring us your poor, your tired, your huddled masses….
    I’m not in favour of an amnesty, largely. But I don’t think comments like yours, Graeme, really help to move the debate forward.

  • Tony Rogers

    “The political benefits of stricter immigration policy versus a more liberal approach”
    What’s “liberal” about mass immigration when it relies on authoritarian legislation to control the natives? There is nothing liberal, in the classical (i.e. uncorrupted) sense, about mass immigration. Quite the opposite. Indeed, I wonder what percentage of the “non-jobs” on this site are dependent on it?

  • P. Witcomb

    Well said Graeme Pirie. You are quite right – kick them out!

  • Howard Thomas

    Out of interest a friend of mine was deported from the States simply for overstaying his visa by 6 months.
    He was told that should he return within 5 years he would(if caught ) spend 6 months in jail.
    Did he go back? Obviously not—are you mad he said when I asked him the question.
    there was no series of appeals—simply piss off Mr xxxxx and don’t come back.—We could definitelty learn something here in the UK