All Commentary
Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them

New Immigrants Offer Economic and Social Benefits to the Developed World

Little, Brown • 2006 • 374 pages • $28.00 (Canadian)

Between 1840 and 1920, over 60 million people emigrated to North and South America, mostly from Europe . More than 40 million of them came to the United States . They came to escape political oppression, religious persecution, and economic stagnation due to the heavy hand of government on commerce, trade, and industry in the Old World.

During most of this time neither passports nor visas were required. In 1942 the German free-market economist Gustav Stolper referred to this earlier period as the era of the three freedoms: the free movement of men, money, and goods. At a cost as little as the price of a steerage ticket on a ship, anyone could make his way to the shores of America to have a second chance in life—and who, at some time, has not wanted a second chance?

Those immigrants often clustered in port communities made up of people from the same part of the old country. This provided a private safety net that enabled the new arrivals to become acclimated to their new home. Countrymen who had arrived earlier often helped the newcomers obtain shelter, find a first job, start to learn the language, and adjust to a different culture.

Of course, there were opponents of free immigration even during these relatively laissez-faire days of the nineteenth century. They argued that immigrants were arriving in too large a number and that they would never assimilate. It was said that many of the Germans who arrived in the 1860s and 1870s only wanted to speak German, listen to military-band music on Sunday afternoons in the park, and seemed to drink a lot of beer. Then it was said that the Poles and Italians who arrived in large number in the 1880s and 1890s could never be “real” Americans—they were all drunkards and “Pope worshipers,” just like those Irish who had arrived even earlier! Then it was the turn of the Eastern European Jews, who came to America in large number in the 1890s and the first decade of the twentieth century—they were accused of being countryside penny-pinching peddlers, as well as being the “Christ killers.”

Well, all these people came, and many more from many other lands. We are their lucky descendants. They crossed oceans, gave up all they knew in the old country, so they and we, their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, could be freer and more prosperous than if they had never left their homes. They helped make our unique melting pot of many cultures, languages, religions, and ethnicities a combination that produced something new and special— America.

The nineteenth-century period of free immigration was a momentous epoch in the history of mankind. It is too little understood or appreciated in the new era of legal restrictions on the movement of people.

In his new book, Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them, Philippe Legrain tries to explain the benefits that may be expected from permitting a wider door to global migration. He reminds us of the cost that is borne today by those trying to have their second chance. Hundreds of would-be new arrivals to the United States and the European Union never get that chance because they die in the desert or in the waters off southern Europe as they attempt to get through the border patrols determined to keep them out. A vast black market in human beings feeds corruption, abuse, and violence as the poor and the oppressed try to make it to nations with greater freedom and economic opportunity.

But Legrain’s main point is not to tug on our heartstrings by pointing to the tragedy and suffering of modern illegal immigrants—though he wishes us not to forget this human cost. Instead, he wants us to appreciate the economic and social benefits from taking advantage of what new people can offer to the developed and more prosperous nations of the world.

First, he explains that America and Europe can gain from the arrival of low-skilled workers. In fact, our native populations have become so well educated and wealthy by global standards that most of our fellow citizens are unwilling to do many jobs that need doing for an economy to run smoothly. Who will clean our office buildings, be the nannies for our children, serve as orderlies in our hospitals, mow our lawns, be waiters in our restaurants, or do hundreds of other low-paying but essential tasks? Each earlier wave of immigrants to the United States filled these jobs as the first step to a new life in America . If immigrants can’t get on the bottom rung, many tasks may not get done or will cost far more, for they will be done by people who could be profitably employed at more productive jobs.

Legrain understands why there is a greater openness to higher-skilled immigrants who are considered more likely to financially pull their weight and significantly add to the productivity of the workforce. But he argues that it is economically absurd for governments to try to micromanage the selection of new entrants to the workforce. In this case some bureaucrats and politicians, such as in Australia, decide what sectors of the market are or should be expanding and then screen for immigrants who would fit those sectors. Central planning works no better in picking people than in guiding the manufacture of hats and shoes. The market is its own natural attractor for potential immigrants and works far better than the stiff and usually misguided and politically motivated hand of the government.

He also points out that immigrants do not “steal” jobs that otherwise would go to Americans. If there were a fixed number of jobs to be filled, then how would native-born Americans find employment when they reached working age? The fact is there are always more wants that can be satisfied if we have more resources available to do the work—and this includes the two hands and mind that come with each new member of a society. Flexible markets and competitive prices and wages are always able to accommodate greater supplies of useful things, including labor, that can improve the human condition. Furthermore, this “stealing our jobs” view suffers from the “lump of labor” fallacy, namely, that all labor is perfectly interchangeable. Labor skills are just as diverse as resources, raw materials, and specifically designed capital equipment. They complement each other in the market to expand the ability to meet consumer demands. Thus new immigrant workers most often enhance the productivity and demand for other workers in the market, increasing the opportunities of almost everyone in society.

Legrain also challenges the often-expressed fear that current waves of immigrants are threatening the cultural and national identity of the country. He points out that there is no homogeneous American culture. Each new group has both assimilated and added a new element to the cultural mix. Even when most immigrant waves came from Europe in the nineteenth century, they represented a wide variety of languages, religions, cultural heritages, and ethnic backgrounds. They and their descendants have made America different from what it had been. Each generation makes its society distinct from what its grandparents would have taken for “normal” and “American.” We should not be afraid of such changes, for future generations will look back on a vast number of them as improvements.

Furthermore Legrain contends that like virtually all earlier waves of immigrants, those coming to America today will slowly but surely end up integrating into the society. The first generation has difficulty with the language, but their children are bilingual, and the grandchildren often do not speak (or do not speak well) their grandparents’ original language. The immigrant still feels a strong tie to the old country, where he still has relatives, friends, and all his childhood memories. The immigrant’s children may visit the old country and have a hyphenated sense of identity—Polish-American, or Italian-American, or Irish-American, or, today, Dominican-American. But the grandchildren have far less or no such identity. They are just “American.”

Finally, Legrain looks at the evidence and shows that the impression that immigrants—especially illegal immigrants—place an excessive burden on the services of the welfare state, and therefore on the American taxpayer, is not borne out by the facts. Even if it were otherwise, legalizing the illegal immigrants would end their underground existence, making them eligible to be fully plundered as taxpayers like the rest of us.

The immigration issue will not go away. Indeed, it will continue to challenge the thinking of Americans and the policies of the government here and in other parts of the world. With all the fears expressed about the dangers from greater immigration, it is important that someone has articulated the benefits that a country might expect from having more-open borders. Philippe Legrain does an excellent job in explaining those potential gains, and his book offers important insights into this ongoing debate.

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