Immigrants: Your country needs them

A British economist takes a look at one of the 20th century's most debated topics, immigration, and builds a compelling argument for the benefits.
Philippe LegrainÆs curriculum vitae is his best defence in taking on the politically charged subject of immigration. A British economist and journalist, Legrain has also served as a special-adviser to the director-general of the World Trade Organisation. Now, following the success of his first book, Open World: The Truth About Globalization, which energetically supported free trade, he turns his pen û more controversially û to the export and import of immigrants or ôhuman capitalö.

Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them richly illustrates how liberal immigration has benefited the worldÆs leading nations and enriched the poorest. ôThe World Bank reckons that if rich countries allowed their workforce to swell by a mere 3% by letting in an extra 14 million workers from developing countries between 2001 and 2025, the world would be $356 billion a year better off, with new migrants themselves gaining $164 billion a year, people who remain in poor countries $143 billion, and natives in rich countries $139 billion,ö Legrain writes.

Everyone knows the joke about the economist stranded on a desert island with a tin of food saying, ôsuppose we had a can-openerö, so it is fair to say that the World Bank estimates may not carry the visceral punch these figures ought to carry. Nevertheless, Legrain lists copious examples of how immigrants and their new home countries have benefited.

CaliforniaÆs Silicon Valley provides one obvious example of how immigrationÆs propulsion of initiative and creativity has transformed the global economy; demonstrating how men and women from around the world moved to the US and created systems that have, in turn, utterly changed the face of global communications and economics. And everyone gets rich: including immigrantsÆ home countries, where they have returned to open up foreign markets and identify manufacturing and technical skills.

ôThese new international links are boosting the US economy while providing fresh opportunities for once-peripheral Pacific economies,ö Legrain writes. It is easy to argue the benefits of skilled migrants, but LegrainÆs arguments that unskilled migrants, the ôhuddled massesö, do little or no harm to the employment prospects of native workers stretches thin. It is fair to say that refusing migrants jobs that natives do not want is counterproductive, but what does it benefit a metropolis like Toronto to have the most-educated taxi drivers in the world?

Legrain makes several proposals, among which is his suggestion that immigrants be encouraged to go home after they have successfully worked abroad. Most people want to live in their homes, he reasons, so if immigration was temporary, nations may find it more palatable. This is the emotional reasoning of a person who loves his home country, but who wants to go home to a country where medical care is dangerously limited or corruption holds sway?

Immigration is û on this evidence û a beneficial force, but like all aspects of capitalism, the benefits are unevenly distributed. The rich are happy; the poor considerably less so. For many, immigration can be a brutal change, arguably for the worse. Issues of xenophobia, racism and the spectre of terrorism play a large role here and will not swiftly go away, if they ever do.

Legrain holds the moral upper hand, while his economic arguments are sound. This is not new territory, but it is eloquently argued and, one hopes, will one day be a majority opinion.
¬ Haymarket Media Limited. All rights reserved.
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