The immigration bill and the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement: The latter was recently and unceremoniously agreed to by both countries and now is awaiting Congressional approval, while the former is a piece of legislation that drew ardent support and fervent hate before dissolving into one of the largest public policy blunders so far this Congressional session. [IMGCAP(1)]
These are two very different paths for what many see as two very different issues. One is viewed as a cornerstone of the modern free market, the other an issue enveloped in a debate largely focusing on the principles of society and concerns about security. Traditional supporters of one traditionally oppose the other.
Yet in his new book, “Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them,” British author Philippe Legrain argues they are essentially two aspects of the same issue: globalization. Immigration (or, as he prefers to look at it, migration) is to the free flow of labor what free trade is to the unfettered movement of goods and services.
“The economy doesn’t stop at national borders,” he noted.
Yet migration often does.
“I think the only way to square the circle is that people who believe in a free market also tend to be nationalistic,” he said, while “it is a paradox [that] at the same time you see people who are generally suspicious of globalization” support immigration.
Legrain supports both.
“I used to be called a right-wing bastard,” he said, referring to the time after he released his pro-globalization book “Open World: The Truth About Globalization” in 2004. “Now I get e-mails calling me a commie.”
Legrain’s book initially was released in Europe on Jan. 4 and will debut in the U.S. market on July 25.
And like Legrain, who was born in Britain to an Australian-American mother, the book has a pan-oceanic focus. He discusses issues over migration that arise in both America and Europe, using examples and statistics (lots and lots of statistics). Furthermore, he not only explores the economics side of immigration but touches on the social aspects as well.
To balance out numbers and financial analysis, he narrates the debate with stories from the border — stories like that of Inmer Omar Rivera, whom Legrain refers to in the book as “a model of what many think an American should be.”
Legrain documents the Honduras-born Rivera’s effort to illegally enter into America, after leaving a steady job in his native country, across the U.S.-Mexican border to work to support his son.
The author also points to immigrant involvement in starting some of the country’s most revered new technology companies, such as Sergey Brin (Russian) of Google and Andy Grove (Hungarian-American) of Intel.
Not only do these migrants spur innovation, he argues, but they also help foster new business links between their new and old countries.
Not all migrants, however, move with the aspirations of founding high-tech companies or developing the “next new thing”; many come with more pedestrian intentions such as filling vacancies in — as the phrase always goes — jobs Americans don’t want to do themselves. These unskilled (although that phrase might not be entirely correct; Legrain noted there are foreign taxi drivers in Canada with medical degrees) immigrants are the ones who often draw the most ire, especially in Europe, where immigration programs tend to be more focused on skills than family ties.
Legrain cites many historic and modern statistic to support his argument that these immigrants help, not hurt, a nation’s economy.
“If you think about it, the U.S. had an open border in the 19th century,” he said. “And it was the time when the U.S. went from a provincial backwater to the most powerful nation on earth.”
Furthermore, he said the recent addition of Eastern European countries to the European Union has allowed many workers from the former Soviet bloc unrestrained access to work in the rich Western ones (although some member countries have imposed limitations).
“It’s a fantastic experiment, people say open borders don’t work, and here is an example of how it does work,” he said. “What you see is far from society collapsing, actually society and the economy are better off.”
Legrain said one reason immigration doesn’t decimate a country’s economy is because immigrants don’t come in droves — uprooting oneself and moving to a foreign country is, after all, a fairly drastic measure — nor are many aiming to become permanent citizens.
“The paradox of immigration controls is they force people who want to move temporarily to become permanent migrants,” he said.
In the book, he chronicles the difficulties of illegally crossing many a nation’s border, and he said that once a person has done so successfully it is too risky to return to his or her home country and then try to recross that border to work. He also argued the current system is responsible for the deaths of many migrants and, once they make it into a country, fosters a two-tier society.
“To the extent government permits it, there are going to be more and more people who are going to spend part of their life abroad” and part in their home country, he predicted.
However, as the recent Congressional debate over immigration shows, the prospect of open borders anytime soon is highly uncertain.
“In a globalizing world, to a certain extent, migration is inevitable,” he said, but added later, “The damages of terrorism and the false association of it with immigration have certainly set things back.”
But as the populations of rich Western countries age and demand for elderly care increases, Legrain said the electorate’s views toward immigration could soften.
“As the baby boom generation starts to retire they are going to stop thinking ‘Who is going to take my job?’ [and switch] to ‘Who is going to take care of me?’” he said. “If it suddenly becomes in their interest, it could change the debate.”