One reason immigration policy is harder than most other government business is that there are only wrong answers. While it is possible to imagine the Platonic form of a schools policy, trade policy or energy policy, the only way to have an immigration policy that doesn’t cause misery to the people caught up in it is not to have one.

Part of the problem is that almost every would-be immigrant has sympathetic motives. Whether you want to move because you think you have a better chance of earning more money elsewhere, a happier future for your children, or are simply in search of a better quality of life, every denied immigration request is someone’s squashed dream.

The closest everyday analogy to a nation’s immigration system is a hiring process: you can’t guarantee that you will find the right candidate, the process of turning people down is always painful, and other than the vanishingly small number who join with the intention of defrauding their employer, essentially every job applicant is a sympathetic person. And, like a hiring process, when done badly it can create resentment among the existing workforce. So, it needs to be carefully managed and prepared for in order to avoid internal difficulties.

Also like a hiring process, any immigration policy makes most people who come into contact with it miserable — whichever end of it they are on. Anyone looking at my visa application to move to the US because I think I have a better chance of establishing my own billion-dollar tech company there has been given the unlovely job of explaining to me that my chances of doing so, in any country at any time, are precisely zero.

Refugee policies are easier. We can say with extreme confidence that anyone in Ukraine has a compelling case for wanting to leave it, so governments can streamline the process by allowing anyone with a valid passport to treat that document as a visa. And we know what refugees need to make a better life for themselves in a new country: support for their mental and physical health needs, free and easy access to the labour market and help integrating into a new country, usually but not exclusively in the form of language lessons and somewhere to live.

Your country’s ability to do these things is a pretty good test of how effectively governed it is. If your planning and housing system doesn’t have enough flexibility and spare capacity to accommodate some refugees, you almost certainly have a sclerotic planning and housing system. If your community colleges can’t provide them with good enough language skills — people who were already working and living perfectly happily in another country — to enter your labour market, you almost certainly have a very bad adult education system. And if your political class doesn’t have the wit to allow anyone with a valid Ukrainian passport visa-free access to your country, then you almost certainly have a low-wattage political class.

If your country cannot do any of these things, congratulations! You are almost certainly the UK and you are almost certainly heading for a second successive lost decade.

While all border policies are unhappy in their own way, they aren’t all equally misery-inducing, or all equally economically harmful. What might an immigration system that aspired not necessarily to be “good”, but at least “not actively terrible” look like?

A good rule of thumb if you are doing a lot of things badly is simply to do less. Reducing the amount that immigration departments have to do, for example, by easing up rules on family reunion when people already have a job, rather than involving themselves unnecessarily in every relationship that forms across borders would be a good start. So too would greater humility about what governments can do well.

As so-called points-based immigration systems such as Australia’s and the UK’s demonstrate, governments can’t reliably predict the needs of the economy at such a granular level. Every year, both countries have to adjust their list of “shortage” occupations to reflect the businesses that were unable to meet their employment needs and therefore unable to grow as much as they might otherwise have done during the previous 12 months.

The British government, however, is so committed to the idea that it knows the employment needs of businesses better than businesses do themselves that its immigration enforcement regime now stretches potentially into every workplace, property transaction and life event of any note in the UK. This creates the perverse situation where the British state is more effective and better optimised to locate illegal immigrants who have succeeded in some way, be that by buying a house or getting a new job, than they are at finding victims of human trafficking.

Why not instead simply allow any established profitable business, research institution or public sector body to make its own hiring decisions and to issue visas themselves? Governments should trust that such organisations are better at working out who to hire and when than they are. Instead they should focus on things governments can do well — enforcing statutory wage floors and building social security systems, say — and concerning themselves with the treatment and integration of immigrants, rather than trying to guess what, in any given year, the “right” number of migrants to a country should be and what exact jobs they should be doing when they get there.

stephen.bush@ft.com



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