Dear Foreigner-Haters: Immigration is Good for You

Why is there such strong anti-immigrant sentiment in the industrialized democracies, and why does it get focused on Muslims? The shooting rampage and bombing by anti-immigrant Islamophobe Anders Breivik has raised these questions to a fever pitch. But the answers are just not obvious.

I’m not generally a big fan of Milton Friedman. I like my food and drugs and banks regulated, and think I know what happens when they aren’t. But on immigration issues, Friedman had some important insights. Immigration is mostly a response to labor demand, and it is probably fruitless to try to control it too closely. And it could even be economically counter-productive to do so, as Arizona is finding out.

It is mostly a myth that immigrants take jobs away from locals. The places in the US with the highest immigrant populations are not the places with the highest rates of local unemployment. Many immigrants do jobs that locals do not want to do, like pick strawberries or clean toilets in hotels. Others are high-skilled people with imagination who think up ways of enriching people that locals never would have. Remember that labor demand is elastic, not fixed. Sometimes immigrants do labor that just would not get done otherwise (California would have to import strawberries and pay more for them). The evidence is that immigration actually [pdf] benefits the host economy pretty much across the board.

If they are able to do so, labor immigrants tend to return home when the labor market contracts and there is no work for them. (This is the irony of the wall-builders in the US– they are probably forcing immigrants to stay in this country who would otherwise leave).

Let us just consider Poland. In the past 7 years, since it joined the European Union, Poland has lost 2 million residents, declining from 38 to 36 million. At least one million of those are estimated to be permanent emigrants. Most have gone to the British Isles and to Ireland.

Britain has over half a million immigrant Poles now, and they are second only to Indians as hyphenated Britons. The tabloid press has been accused of whipping up anti-Polish sentiment.

But it is baffling. Britain gained the skills of immigrant Poles without having to pay for their educations for the most part. They would not have come if they could not have found jobs that employers would hire them to fill, which means that they met a demand for labor. (Contrary to what some people believe who have not studied economics, labor demand in a society is elastic– it isn’t a zero-sum game, and the pie can expand. A zero-sum game is one where the pie stays the same size and if one person gets more of it, somebody else gets less. Half a million new Polish-British citizens might buy British-made goods and create more jobs). Poles are from a Catholic background and that might make for integration issues in largely Protestant Britain, except that I don’t think young Poles are mostly very religious. Nor are the British. As for ideology, the Poles are hardworking capitalists in this generation and one can only imagine the Margaret Thatcher types approving of them.

Even by 2006, former East Bloc immigrants to Britain were estimated to be contributing over $4 bn. a year to the British economy. The British response to this windfall? The government has now implemented a cap on the immigration of [non-EU] skilled workers that is likely to hurt economic growth! The number of high-skilled workers in a society is predictive of economic growth there, and all the countries that ever amounted to anything brought in a lot of them from abroad. Of course, it is desirable that the wealth they help create be taxed and used to educate and train people of the country for the future, as well. But, again, it is not a zero sum game. Sullen, poor, nationalist little countries that keep out foreigners seldom generate the resources to educate their own high-skilled workers and entrepreneurs, and so they stay sullen, poor, little nationalist countries.

In contrast, Poland has lost 2 million energetic, educated, mainly young people, and half of it is a long-term loss. So who has done better out of this immigration? Britain or Poland? What have the British really got to complain about here? Note that Poland could lose another million citizens permanently over the next generation. Who will support their old? Where will their productivity come from?

Poles are second only to Indians in numbers as immigrants. There are at least half a million and perhaps over a million Hindus in the UK. I am sure they face some discrimination. But I’ve never heard of loonies stocking weapons and killing people over their presence in Britain. Barry Kosmin estimated about a million in the US as I recall. Despite some Indophobia, Western host societies don’t obsess about Hindu immigrants the way they do about Muslim. There is no reason to obsess about either. If the argument is that the hatred of Muslim immigrants has to do with a lifestyle distinct from that of the host population, then it is hard to explain the difference here. If some ethnocentric Western group wanted to make up a charge sheet against Hindus, they could. You have militant groups like the RSS and some terrorism, you have attacks on Christians in India and right wing pogroms against Muslims. Hindus are polytheists and have filed friend of the court briefs in the US against evangelical attempts to put the Ten Commandments in public spaces and schools. I hasten to underscore that this tactic would not be fair, but then neither are similar tactics deployed against Muslims fair. I am glad there is no campaign against Hindus. I am just suspicious that there is such a campaign against Muslims (which predated 9/11), which suggests ulterior motives in the latter case. The Muslims, after all, have all that oil that actually belongs to us and they won’t acknowledge it, and they resist attempts to make their countries mission fields, and they haven’t gone along with our attempt to erase the Palestinian nation. They are therefore set up in various ways as fall guys.

Countries that shun immigration, such as Japan, face shrinking and aging populations. The economic implications of this situation could be dire for Japan. Likewise, how likely is it to remain a substantial world power if it falls from 127 million to 90 million over the next few decades and ends up with disproportionate numbers of retirees? Who will pay for their social security, with few young workers coming up behind them? Who will serve in the Self Defense Forces?

Societies with sophisticated economies and fair economic growth naturally attract labor immigrants. Keeping the latter out will just stunt the growth of and make the country poorer and weaker. Most immigrants in European countries are not Muslims, as the Indian and Polish cases in Britain demonstrate. Likewise, contrary to Mike Huckabee, there is relatively little Muslim immigration into the US, comparatively speaking (about half of US immigrants are Latinos from the New World). Even where immigrants are Muslim, there is no good evidence that they are less assimilable than other ethnic groups. Even their extremists are less prone to carrying out attacks in Europe than European separatists, the looney left, or the Right Wing.

Hatred of immigrants is for all these reasons counter-productive. It is another piece of evidence that human beings are perfectly capable of messing things up, big time, just because they entertain funny ideas divorced from reality.

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29 Responses

  1. Just guessing, but the success of Islam in meeting the spiritual needs of its adherents might expose the overwhelming weaknesses of the entitlement oriented Christian and Jewish followers. Not all, just those whose religious identity says “I am special because I believe in ____.”

    My own religion, of course, is not so strained. Excuse me now while I bow down to the Great Noodly One.

  2. Totally agree with you, and I’m from Arizona. I was in Oaxaca, Mexico, last year. Apparently there are some 10,000 children in the city who were born in USA. Their relatives camp on the steps of the US Consul, asking that he do something for those kids (like a monthly stipend or something). Renowned Oaxaca artist Santiago made 2501 terracotta statures representing young people who left his hometown for work in the US. Whenever he displays the statues, he faces them South. “They went north,” he says, “But their hearts are in the south.” So, it seems, the economic refugees who come to the US are not interested in acclimating to the society so much as earning some money to send back home. I have no idea how many millions have come from Mexico, been educated in the US, worked in the US, and returned to Mexico. But it has not been enough to help Mexico from its morass.

  3. I have to point out that the cap on immigration in the UK applies only to non-EU immigration, and therefore will not effect immigration from Poland and other former Eastern Bloc states which have joined the EU.

    Other than that, I couldn’t agree more with your analysis.

  4. Dr Cole,

    I am a US citizen who now lives in Berlin. As you know, Germany has admitted to failure in assimilating its Turkish immigrant population. Anti-immigration interests are still fringe here, but growing. If any large European country could absorb immigrants easily at present, it would be Germany, as its unemployment has returned to pre-recession (2007) levels. People point to such factors as Islamophobia, the clanishness of the immigrants, or to their intention to not stay in Germany. I don’t see any of these explanations as satisfactory. It’s an important question, because if Germany can’t figure out how to deal with immigration in today’s world, the chances that more stressed economies will do so is not good.

    Thank you.

    • Germany has not admitted to failure, right of center politicians have done so to curry favor with right wing voters. Germany says Turkish-Germans are a success story.

      Turks are only 1/4 of the 6.7 million foreign residents in Germany, and your singling them out is typical of the fallacies to which I was referring.

      But, they aren’t doing so badly. Last year this time, unemployment among Turks in Germany was only 11%, less than in the general population.

      What problems exist with most Turks in Germany come from their being low-wage immigrants largely ignored by the host government (analogous to Mexicans in the US), not from their being Turks. But more are taking citizenship now, the ones who aren’t committed are going to Turkey for the good economy. There isn’t a long term problem here except if you expect Anatolian Turks suddenly to become like people in some German village just because they moved house.

      Germany’s hang-up about immigration may well cost it high-skilled immigrant labor like that of Poles, which its economy needs to sustain growth.

      • Dear Dr. Cole,

        I’d like to comment on some of your statements. I think your are correct about the problems of the Turks in Germany being more related to social than cultural issues. However, if turkish immigration to Germany is a success I would not like to see what a failure looks like.

        According to this study
        link to
        which was highly discussed, Turks are by far the least integrated group in Germany. They have furthermore the highest rate of school dropouts and an unemployment rate of 11% (as given by you) would be clearly above average (7% I think).

        With kind regards

        • Yes, all low-wage immigrant communities who come to industrial countries from rural areas have these problems. Mexican-Americans have sometimes suffered from them, though their unemployment is not as drastic as as that of African-Americans. It is nice of the Germans to be distressed and perhaps they will do something about it. But it is quite common and not a crisis. Our experience in the US is that over time communities come up in the world. American Irish and Poles were once in a similar position, but now are not. We Americans think in terms of a century.

      • Do you really trust this source concerning jobless workers in Germany ?
        From the govermental statistcal agency, they reached a mean of 8.1% in 2009 and came down to 6.1% last month.
        I’ve not been able to find figures for the Turks, but I’d be really surprised if the Germans were discriminated against the Turks in their own country. That doesn’t make sense. However, considering global data for Germany may give a false image. Indeed, the länder of former East Germany knows a much higher rate of jobless workers (maximum over 18% in the worst case in 2009). In the mean time strangers and Turks are mostly located in West part of Germany. So Turks may well be discriminated in the länder where they live, while at the same time, the global results mostly influenced by the situation in the East won’t show it.

  5. “Poles are from a Catholic background and that might make for integration issues in largely Protestant Britain, except that I don’t think young Poles are mostly very religious.”

    Largely Protestant Britain is a myth. British people are overwhelmingly agnostic, of the “never think about it” variety. It is true that a significant minority choose to be married in churches and buried with protestant religious ceremonies, but this is largely because the associated pomp and circumstance is attractive, and most of them never go near a church except as a tourist on any other occasion.

    It is also true that a few constitutional anomalies remain from the 17th century. Nobody cares. In practice, Britain is probably more secular than France, and secular Poles will fit right in.

  6. I do not oppose immigration; I am the son of a DP from Eastern Europe. However, immigration, as practiced in the US or UK has mostly served as a conduit for cheap labor to benefit corporations.

    Prof Cole said: “Many immigrants do jobs that locals do not want to do, like pick strawberries or clean toilets in hotels.”

    Perhaps Americans would perform these mundane chores if there were fair labor standards and wages paid in these “industries”. For decades farms have been given a pass by the government to avoid clean and safe working conditions, bust unions, pay starvation wages, etc, etc. When the UFW finally got traction in California in the 1970s, the immigration tap was opened wide and the union collapsed. Much the same is true with the hospitality industry and home constructions before the financial melt down.

    But Con-gress never would pass laws mandating a change in these deplorable conditions — their benefactors would never allow it. The same is true in the UK. There they have 4 million people on permanent welfare, while they import eastern Europeans for work.

    Immigration is a convenient wedge issue to whip up anxiety of the financially insecure middle class and get them the acquiesce to militarized borders and “homeland security”. Corporations and the rich benefit from starvation wages paid to immigrants.

    • Economic studies don’t actually support the allegation that immigrant labor is mainly brought in for low-wage purposes to benefit corporations, nor that immigrants harm incomes.

      • There is no reasonable way to say just on the spot whether immigration is good or bad and for whom exactly. To determine this, we need certain framework. Discussing workforce structure is a good staring point. What jobs are available and why, who take them and why, who benefit from this situation and what it means in the near and far future…

    • I agree with Gregg. Some immigrant workers are not brought in for low wage purposes. In my area, Microsoft has brought in lots of people from India, and I don’t get the impression they are getting paid less than the going rate for software work. However, most immigrants in the U.S. do come for jobs that pay less than the going rate. This reduces the bargaining power of poor citizenry who would like to get more for their work. The commonly-repeated saying that some jobs are not wanted by locals and thus require immigrants has always seemed a myth to me. If those jobs are not wanted, why do they not pay more than minimum wage, instead of less? Having done my share of manual labor, I can confidently say the pay is the predominant factor in what makes a job wanted or not. And regarding the flow of skilled workers as a benefit to the receiving countries, this reduces the incentive for the receiving country to invest in its own population. Higher education in the U.S. always seems to be getting more and more expensive in the U.S. If skilled workers weren’t available for poaching from other countries, educating locals who have grown up here would have more priority. The flow of skilled workers to wealthier counties also makes it harder for developing counties to hold onto investments they may make in educating their own populace. When people trained as doctors in a poorer country, for example, leaves for a wealthier country, it is a huge loss to the poorer country.

  7. There is a coherent language to discuss these issues: structure of workforce, quality of job market. Using this language, we ask question like how good is the structure of workforce, does economy as it is generate enough good high-skilled good paying jobs? Is there any real deficit in the local applicants for these positions? Why exactly immigrants are so needed?

    And then we find out that there are lots of really bad 3rd world jobs which only illegals will take and mafia will act as their “trade unions”!

    For higher level jobs we will find problems with education which prevent lots of people to get skills for these positions. Also, we will find bitter memories of earlier layoffs which tell local youngsters to avoid industries that treated their parents badly many years before…

    But if we use language like why these lazy people don’t want to take the jobs that are already here, then Miltonian argumentation comes into play.

  8. Sorry to hijack this thread but I feel compelled to comment on your O’Riley post and comments are closed so I’m hoping you’ll let me make this comment.

    Some Christians ard denying the violent side of the new testament and I would like to point out that in Luke, I think 19:27 Jesus (AS) is reported to have said words to the effect of ” bring me those who reject my message and slay them at my feet”.

    If this is metaphorical and the sword quote is metaphorical, why would he (AS) use such violent imagery considering the argument that he (AS) was strictly non-violent

    • Many years ago I was able to buy a book titled “Abraham and Sari”, it was a wonderful novel and beautifully written.
      (and yes, the jealousy between Sari and Hagar was keenly seen) I was puzzled why it had been quickly removed from the market by the publisher. However, woven into the fabric of the story was a political leader, who refined the use of faith to control the population, to the point he created his own ‘religion’ and he, of course, was the anointed one.

      We need to think hard on …

      The use of ‘faith’ by political leaders has been use, well since the beginning of time, it has been used. It was used in Ireland, when cunning rulers moved competing Scot’s on to Irish land, then sometimes the other way around, Irish on to Scottish lands – fully knowing and wanting conflict to stir up between the true- believing Catholic population and the true- believing Protestant populations.

      The result in this conflict between the two competing groups of true-believers was the rulers would obtain their objective, which was more land and added power, stirring conflict was the method of obtaining this end.

      I was at a meeting awhile back, the speaker was a Protestant man from the US who was working in Ireland to bring about peace between the Irish Catholic and Protestant factions, walls were built to divide the communities of true-believers in towns in Ireland, he recounted a day when the young of Ireland, both Catholic and Protestant walked through the streets holding hands, and spoke of his hopes for a peace between the Catholic and Protestant groups on the Emerald Isle one day.

      Maybe it is time people stop wanting their ‘belief’ to be right, and learn to be good, kind human beings and grow wiser to the manipulation of political leaders.

    • Dear Mr. Legere,

      I’m certainly not an expert on the bible (I am not even a christian) but the sources you claim are dubious at best. The ‘but to bring a sword’ quote is clearly methaphorical. Just read the rest of the verse. The second quote (Luke 19:27) is when Jesus tells a parabel. These are clearly not his words but that of the guy in the story.

      It is however, not hard to find evidence of Jesus approving of violence. After all he thrashed the merchants in the temple.

  9. Off topic but related to Juan Coles’ articles.

    The comedian John Stewart on Comedy Central web site has two videos on the demonization of Muslims and the second video is on victimization of conservatives and Christians in the US.

    There are also excellent recent stores by Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central web site.

    Juan might some day do a column on their influence, especially among the young.

    Here is the link

    link to

  10. On a much less important scale, Immigrants also bring us new foods, and new ways to cook what we already have. They bring us new music, new styles, new ways of looking at our culture.

  11. The US treats illegal immigrants working here for low wages with horrendous cruelty, as criminals. They live essentially as stateless persons, semi-slave labor without rights in the US or any possibility of solving problems legally. When their children are born here, they live a hidden life, risking deportation if caught. The US has broken up families and returned parents “home” leaving US citizen children, even babies, behind here parentless. I know of one illegal immigrant Ghanian mother caught and sent from Washington DC to an immigrant detention center (prison, that is) in Seattle that’s run for profit and provides inadequate food. She was separated from her still nursing baby who cried for weeks and refused to eat. The destruction of lives we are inflicting on these immigrants, and the resultant cost to our own society, is unspeakable. If you can, see the new wonderfully well-acted movie, “A Better Life” about a Mexican illegal immigrant and his U.S.-born 14-year-old son. The father is a hard-working gardener in LA whose truck is stolen by another Mexican day-laborer he’s hired to help him out. Since he isn’t legal, there’s no way he can appeal to the authorities for help retrieving his truck.

  12. The only dark-side to immigration is the “brain drain” in the foreign lands which need smart and hard working people to help raise up the poor and uneducated from subsistence hell.

  13. The difference of course, Professor, is that the Poles and other citizens of the EU are free to take up legal residence in Britain, and native born Brits are free to take up residence anywhere in the EU. Not unlike a native New Yorker being free to reside in any of the other 49 states in the USA.

    Additionally, we do in fact have an immigration system that provides for the legal immigration of foreign citizens so long as they meet certain minor immigration requirements and wait for the issuance of an official immigrant visa.

    What we have is a governmental blind eye being turned to a flood of a poorly educated and desperate underclass from Mexico and points south, seeking any kind of employment, ripe for heartless exploitation by mostly U.S. farming and meat processing business interests and who can then prosper while moving dirt-cheap vegetable produce and chicken nuggets onto the kitchen tables of native-born Americans who are a little less poor than the desperate illegal foreigner.

    My own sense is that the massive illegal activity is tolerated because it satisfies certain U.S. business interests while acting as a relief valve for
    the governing political elites of Mexico and other Central American republics who go to bed each night fearing the possibility of waking to a deadly revolutionary rabble crowding through the demolished iron gates protecting their fine estates.

  14. The immigration issue is a very complex one. Those who oppose immigration do so out of fear politically, economically, culturally, religiously,etc, based. It a fear that arises from having people who are different from in any or all of those respects above.It is done consciously or unconsciously out of the need to be in control. The most important control is political control because in most cases it comes with economic control. In the US where, though everybody except the native people, is an immigrant,new immigrants who are different in the above regard are discriminated against. However, with time there is reasonable intergration on their part. This tends to happen less with Muslims for many reasons one of which is the religious yoke.This restricts individual choices and to their credit religion is not divorced from every day living as used to be the case with . Christianity until the rise of nationalism in Europe and other developments divorced the State and Religion.It is usual for a muslim to identfy first with the interest of another muslim from another national state than with that of the citizen of the country to which he belongs. Members of other religions can be proactively converted to the Muslim religion but Muslims convert to other religions under pain of death! Not only that, adherents of other religions are aggresively told that they are no better than dogs. When this becomes the case,there is resentment, fear and conflict. The reason for the resentment of other groups of immigrants are there and are real. Of course, immigration is good for the world and needs to be encouraged for the good of humanity especially since it remains the only route for escape from world tyrants and misery for most.

  15. link to

    We need more Jack Londons on the Left, and fewer Juan Cole’s excusing capitalists, claiming that studies don’t show immigration has harmed wages of the US worker. Here’s good source work.

  16. Zbigniew Brzezinski brought up a depressing insight in a conversation at “Morning Joe” with, among others, Pat Buchanan. He said that when America was a rising power, it attracted immigrants who had a reasonable chance to become part of its middle class. But now that America’s wealth is so polarized, it draws two kinds of immigrants; elite technicians who expect to get into America’s power caste, and poor people so desperate that they come here even though they don’t expect to ever get out of the lower class. This simply reinforces American wealth polarization further.

    So circumstances do change the nature of immigration.

  17. Excellent analysis. I would add the cultural benefits of immigration to the economic ones. Muslim Arabs spread across the Middle East and North Africa and created a vibrant multi-cultural civilization. Europeans invaded the western hemisphere (very bloody invasion) and created a strong economy and a diverse society. Societies that close in on themselves (China and Japan in the past)decay. Historically, migration and the intermingling of cultures has been the great motor of civilization. We should heed the lessons of history.

  18. Immigration is very good for the industrial democracies. But it doesn’t work so well for some of the locals within China. In Xingjiang, the native Uighurs are marginalized and discriminated against by the newcomers, the Han Chinese. The Tibetans have the same problem. These groups don’t mix at all. The state encouraged the Han to go west. And the Han have the political and economic power.

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