November 14, 2010

Perils of a Point System for Immigrants to Denmark

After the American Century

Danish politicians, particularly those on the right side of the political spectrum, are toying with the idea of introducing a point system for immigration. The idea is to admit applicants for residence in Denmark based on points that reward such things as advanced education, mastery of Danish before arrival, a strong knowledge of English, and specific skills.  The uneducated, and especially the illiterate, would be pretty much excluded under this system, unless they were excellent football players. The idea clearly is to attract those who can enrich the country and keep out those who would be a drain on its resources.

A related idea being discussed is to make new residents wait for several years before they are eligible for unemployment and some social services. People would earn points toward full membership in the welfare state after  two or even three years. This is a seriously flawed idea. Why should someone who is highly educated and skilled want to come to a country that will treat them as a second-class citizen for years? Danish society will not have paid for their education or training, yet it will immediately benefit from their contribution and from their taxes. It is hard to see any good reason for such a rule, or any way that such a rule can help attract the talented.

Furthermore, the logic of such rules could spread to the Danes themselves. Why should a new university graduate qualify for unemployment before he or she has worked for three years, just like the skilled immigrant? The only difference between them is that the native Dane has already cost society quite a large sum, so, logically, the native Dane should contribute for much longer than just two or three years before eligible for any benefits. I am not advocating this idea, merely pointing out that if the political calculus becomes that of only giving benefits to those who have earned them, then many unlucky Danes would perhaps never qualify for benefits from their own welfare state.

There is one other scenario to consider as well. Suppose a highly trained person, say a physicist or surgeon, comes to Denmark and after two years still is earning points toward full eligibility. Before he or she can "cash in," however, a new job offer comes from a country without such silly rules. The physicist and the surgeon leave, and Denmark loses their services. Worse yet, they decide to sue Denmark for recovery of the value of the "points" they accumulated. Since the government has created such a system, these "points" will have a clear monetary value. Would not the European Court likely rule that at least some of the taxes immigrants paid for welfare services they could never enjoy ought to be refunded? 

This is just an example. Many other lawsuits could be imagined, as lawyers calculate the value of unused "points" lost. The lawyers and the accountants would make money. The government would have to hire more people to deal with the complaints and the lawsuits. And, of course, Denmark's reputation would be damaged by the controversy, regardless of who won the individual cases. A brilliant idea, obviously.