Book Review: Immigrants – Your country needs them

Today’s book review is Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them, by Philippe Legrain. Legrain is a British journalist (but with a complex heritage involving Estonia, the US and France) who started writing this book just after the July 2005 terrorist attacks on London.

The book’s introduction is titled “It’s time for fresh thinking about immigration”, and it comes from a very pro immigration stance. That said, it is not a polemic. It consists of a considered survey of what is happening with the movement of people around the world – legal and illegal, skilled and unskilled, economic and humanitarian (although that can be a pretty fine line). And then, in most cases, there is a critique of the policies that could make the movements better for the world as a whole. For example, Legrain points out that Australia’s points system for choosing skilled immigrants often gets us more educated unskilled workers, as employers are reluctant to employ someone with overseas work experience, even if it is in a high demand occupation.

The insight which was new to me was how effectively migration from poor countries, whether permanent, or “guest worker” can act as foreign aid from the rich world to the poor world. The most famous economy reliant on this is the Philippines – up to 40% of the country’s economy, by some estimates, could be made up of remittances from Filipinos and Filipinas abroad. And if  you’ve ever been in Hong Kong on a Sunday (the day the maids get the day off and spend it socialising with each other in the public spaces) you would have been struck by the sheer numbers of people involved.

Much of the book involves going through the detailed arguments that are commonly made against immigration, or for border controls, and refuting them one by one. The final chapter is then a plea for rich countries to open their borders with as few limitations as possible, basically because in the author’s view, that is the quickest and simplest way to improve the standard of living in all countries, as much of the money made by immigrants will find its way back to friends and relatives back home.

I’m pretty pro-immigration, myself. My boys’ four grandparents were born in three different countries (none of them Australia, where they were born). I’m part of a privileged small sliver of the world that has had extraordinarily free travel opportunities, both for work and leisure. I spent three years working in the UK, and have seriously considered (without any worries about visas) moving to the US and Japan for work. Yesterday I caught up with friends who were born in Malaysia, and have been educated and/or worked in Australia, Malaysia, Hong Kong and New Zealand. They live in Taipei, Taiwan, these days, but will probably come back to Australia to live permanently in the next few years. Very few people in the world  can even dream about such opportunities.

The book correctly points out that there is a lot of movement around the world that is of skilled workers, like me and my friends, as well as unskilled, and there is little backlash about the skilled movement. But in the unskilled labour market, that is a different story, even though it is clear in many countries that the demand is there – many rich countries are short of unskilled workers to do the jobs that can be regarded as demeaning (fruit picking, cleaning and the like).

But I think this book is too quick to brush aside real issues. The big inconsistency for me was Legrain’s eagerness to allow guest workers (to use an old fashioned term). His view was that as long as you have open borders, guest workers will be quite happy to go home, and will not be a burden on a society that provides for its sick and poor – benefits like healthcare, old age pensions, etc can be only provided to citizens or permanent residents.

It’s easy to imagine that the initial few years of such a policy might work well. If Australia let in anyone who wanted to come on that basis, we would probably initially get a cheap labour force, with little or no burden on the taxpayer. But I like to think that Australians are more generous than that, in the medium term. We would gradually find it shocking that long term residents of this country were not entitled to medical care. We would expect to educate their children.  And gradually, the state would provide some form of benefits to immigrants, which would make the country more attractive, and then pull more immigrants than the country could cope with.

Although most guest workers start out expecting to stay for a few years and go home after they have made their fortune, many end up staying for much longer than they had planned, perhaps permanently. And if they view themselves as guest workers (and society views them that way), then they are much less likely to integrate well into their host society. Legrain suggests that if the know that they can come back, they are more likely to go home. That’s probably true, up to a point. But even unintegrated migrants have generally made a new life in their new country. They may not speak the language, but they have a new social group, and support structures. Perhaps fewer of them will stay permanently, but some will, without ever seeing themselves as part of that country. I’ve posted before about the emotional side of migration – it’s hard even if you are wholly committed to it. And making it harder for people to commit in the first place, by treating people as second-class not even citizens, will create real social costs in the long term.

I very much enjoyed reading this book. Mostly, I found myself nodding my head at the arguments – familiar to anyone who has followed an immigration debate. But by going so far in its ultimate conclusion – advocating the removal of all boundaries – I suspect it loses even its target audience – the lucky skilled workers who will only benefit from more migration of people to compete for other, less lucky, people’s jobs.