Freeing migration from the state: Michael Trebilcock’s model for immigration policy

The author explores Michael Trebilcock’s “The Law and Economics of Immigration Policy” as an opportunity to reflect on the capacity of broadly conceived, transnational policy prescriptions to contend with the complexity of migration as a global phenomenon, the specificity of national contexts, and the limits on state actors’ ability to socially engineer the character of present and future generations through immigrant selection. Trebilcock’s The Law and Economics of Immigration Policy sets out a broad prescriptive model for migration policy. It is informed by a classically liberal endorsement of free movement of labour, a commitment to efficiency, and a preference for market over state regulation. Trebilcock claims that his policy proposal will significantly liberalize immigration in prosperous liberal democratic states and be politically palatable. The key lies in pre-empting the objection that increased levels of immigration will impose or exacerbate the negative fiscal impact of immigrants on receiving states. Trebilcock would privatize selection by delegating it entirely to the market (employers) or the family (relatives), and institute a mandatory private insurance scheme payable by sponsors to insure against the risk that an immigrant will impose fiscal burdens on the state in the period leading up to eligibility for citizenship. While applauding the objective animating this proposal, the author relies partly on Ninette Kelley and Michael Trebilcock’s own historical/institutional immigration scholarship to challenge its viability. First, the author suggests that Trebilcock’s claim that his model is politically pragmatic is predicated on a contestable understanding of the nature of political opposition to immigration. Second, it is not obvious that Trebilcock’s model, taken on its own terms, would actually liberalize immigration across the range of states where he would seek to implement it. Finally, where the vast majority of immigrants are admitted on the basis of ascriptive kinship criteria, the author argues that family matters – and will continue to matter – in the future direction of immigration.

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