The poverty of the ‘migrants contribute’ argument

One of the most prominent arguments against the racism and nationalism of border enforcement is to draw attention to the contribution that migrants make to the UK. A botched attempt to make it was made on question time last night and it back-fired big time. While I adopt a pragmatic approach to arguments in general (if it works, use it!) here are some reasons to be wary of it.

1. Analytical problems of the migrants contribute argument

a. It reduces people to their economic contribution
The migrants contribute argument participates in the ‘common sense’ idea that we should value each other based on their contribution society, however, often this is code for economic contribution. This neoliberal logic grounds a person’s right to citizenship in their participation in a national economy – usually through work and taxation. But this logic unduly celebrates work as a means of valuing ourselves and others. At the same time, it obscures the diverse ways that people participate in communities and families including ways that the majority in a community might not recognise.

b. It mischaracterizes the ties that connect migrant labour to European wealth

Europe’s relative wealth, including the development of the Welfare State, has been built using the labour of slavery, the accumulation of colonialism, the maintenance of neo-colonial and imperial power and racist labour exploitation based. The idea that people without British citizenship contribute both presents this history as a cosy, consensual agreement, drastically underplays the dependence of the European state on the labour of Black and Brown people and obscures the cost and conditions of the migrant labour.

2. Strategic problems: It is unlikely to gain support and it does not go far enough to achieve pro-migrant ends

a. Who does migration benefit?
Claims that migrants contribute in general beg the question of who they contribute to. On the one hand, we know that society isn’t organised to foster prosperity for all and the widespread feeling of being unjustly excluded from the riches of neoliberal growth is deeply entwined with emboldened nationalism and border-racism. So when we value migrants because they make profit or make coffee – it will not convince someone who doesn’t benefit from these activities.

On the other, it reinforces the kind of us-them thinking that the border is premised upon. We should not encourage people to require that their lives or country is being contributed to by someone in order for me not to want them to face everyday racism, be put in immigration detention or forcefully removed.

b. The trope of the good and deserving migrant

In order to create a socially just society, we need to be challenging the ‘legitimate’ social exclusion of people who are unemployed, homeless and those with criminal convictions. These are social problems that require social solutions – yet arguments based on how migrants contribute will always draw attention to those that don’t ‘contribute’ expected ways.

c. It invites questions of who contributes more?
In order to form discourse that builds a consensus around free movement, we need to build narratives that value everyone – both communities who have moved and those who are relatively static. The notion that migrants contribute, in conditions of austerity, industry collapse means that those who need to be included in a progressive vision of the future are excluded. Focusing on migrants doing important jobs dovetails with the classism and snobbery that British working class aren’t doing the jobs they are supposed to be doing.

3. There are better arguments

a. Free movement as a right that states have a responsibility to protect
The freedom to move and build lives and communities of one’s own is an essential part of human life. Recognising and fighting for the inherent value of the freedom to move and stay in new places is necessary to bring into view socially just futures. It is on this basis that we need to convince people to support the development of the open societies and infrastructure needed to enable less border control.

 b. Focus on the violence of border control
A focus on migrants contributing means that we silence the main instrumental reason we should be rejecting border control. Arguments that are based on harm done by the individual foreground the experiences of those who are the victims of state violence and adopts the stand that our collective liberation is dependent upon ending the violence and domination dealt out by the state where-ever it occurs and whoever it occurs.

For these reasons, we should be very wary of using claims that migrants contribute in order to pursue anti-border goals. It is both analytically misleading, strategically misguided and there are better arguments to use.

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