On February 28, 2014, Avenir Suisse proposed a plan for how the “anti mass-immigration” referendum decision could be put into practice. This envisaged a 10 year target figure for newcomers, alongside a package of measures to curb immigration. The scheme inevitably also left room for numerical quotas should the target threshold be overshot after five years. That meant even Avenir Suisse’s scheme potentially had to grapple with how “effective” quotas could be implemented in practice. The new “Avenir Special” publication sets out the potential tools, examines their advantages and disadvantages and makes recommendations. It also incorporates factors influencing immigration, along with examining cross-border commuters, entry entitlements for additional family members and the concept of a “Swiss first” system for job vacancies.

Setting immigration quotas via a clear and transparent rule-based system

Not surprisingly, the analysis of tools to control immigration – whether currently in practice or just theoretical – reveals all have major flaws (see table). Just establishing quotas is very tough. To insulate the process from lobbying by all manner of interest groups, a rule based quota scheme is recommended. For example, quotas could be set based on the health of the economy. To be avoided as far as possible are too many sub-categories, because differentiation can make the system too vulnerable to special interests. A further drawback of “sharp” instruments is the almost inevitable heavy administrative cost entailed. Among the methods assessed (points systems, levies, auctions or even an immigration fund), a points system seems least appropriate – at least in its purest form. That is mainly because such a scheme cannot be tailored precisely to the recruitment needs of Swiss companies at any given time. Moreover, decisions about immigrants are no longer taken by prospective employers, but are based on a few formal criteria.

The advantages of auctions

More promising is a price-based system involving a levy on immigration – a concept based on so called Club Theory. But among the latter’s disadvantages are the inherent danger price levels could come under political perssure, and the inadequate control over numbers – meaning insufficient correlation with precise annual goals. An auction system, by contrast, allows such control. Under this alternative, potential immigrants (or their employers) bid what they’re prepared to pay for entry permits. The study reveals this tool comes out best – or, at least, is the “least bad” option. It allows immigration to be steered systematically towards productive sectors of the economy and simultaneously follows the broader social aims of integration. But auctions can only work to greatest effect if differentiation is avoided. That means the system would be most efficient if auctions were held only for a single nationwide quota or, at most, for a relatively small number of sub-categories. The more subsets added, the more the system becomes bogged down in red tape.

Cross border commuters as part of the solution

Three cross cutting issues affect all the potential measures similarly. The first question to be addressed is if, and how, cross border workers should be included in quotas. Avenir Suisse believes such commuters are a way to defuse immigration policy. Cross border workers are not immigrants as such, and burden only the transport infrastructure (which suffers hardly any less pain from domestic commuters). In all other respects linked to immigration problems, such workers are, by contrast, barely relevant. So they should not be subject to quotas. The second issue involves family reunification. It’s obvious that under any rigid set of immigration rules, it should be possible to influence the mix between entrants to the labour market and permits for additional family members – to the detriment of the latter. That should be relatively easy to implement using price based systems (levies or auctions), or the points based schemes, without harming the fundamental possibility of family reunification. Thirdly there is priority for Swiss citizens. In all market-related solutions – levies, auctions, funds – it is not necessary to define this principle separately, because an employer’s very willingness to pay demonstrates no appropriate (but “cheaper”) Swiss candidate was available.