Legrain on immigrants

Tonight I attended a lecture (in the Sydney Ideas Series) from Philippe Legrain on his latest book: Immigrants: your country needs them. It was also the occasion of his Sydney book launch but luckily – in this open world – I ordered the book a month ago from the UK (and thereby avoided the high Australian book prices).


Legrain’s lecture will be available on the University of Sydney podcasts site, but here’s a short impression of both book and lecture. In short, Legrain’s message is: Let them in! Because it’s better for ‘Us’ and it’s better for ‘Them’ and for the countries where ‘They’ come from. Being trained as an economist at LSE in London, it’s not surprising that this message is very much based on economic rationales.

Many countries already have accepted the belief that allowing highly skilled migrants to enter the country is a necessity in order to survive in the current global knowledge economy. Legrain first of all argues that rigid and bureacratic assessment systems – like used in Australia – don’t make any sense since governments simply don’t know what the labour market needs will be in the future. Furthermore, innovation can not be attributed to specific types of people, but requires diversity and creativity.

What is more provacative is Legrain’s compelling case for immigration of low skilled workers. Because ‘we’ not just need managers, but also cleaners and taxi drivers and since ‘We’ don’t want to do these jobs anymore, and ‘They’ do, we should let ‘Them’ in. And of course there are plenty of humanitarian reasons to do so as well.

Obviously, the immigrants themselves will benefit if western countries open their borders to legal immigration. But so do the countries where they come from, both through the skills that the immigrants return if they go back and through the remittances they send home. These remittances make up between 200 and 600 billion US$ and end up right in the pockets of the people that need it most. Compare this with the 80 billion US$ in development assistance, which might end up in the wrong pockets (or Swiss bank accounts).

While reading the book I frequently agreed with Legrain’s economic arguments, but I kept asking myself: what about the friction between the ‘Us’ and the ‘Them’ after ‘They’ immigrate, so apparent especially after 9/11. In the last few chapters Legrain does address the issue, especially for the cases of the Latinos in the US and the Muslims in Europe (he especially addresses the problems in France, Germany and the Netherlands).

I often had the feeling that I was not the one that needed convincing; the people in inner city London, Amsterdam, New York or Sydney are not the ones that needed convincing. And I am afraid that the ones he has to convince are not very receptive to these arguments. I think I agree with Roy Williams’ conclusion in The Australian:

“These are lofty ideals, yet most people in the West remain old-fashioned nationalists. They love their country viscerally and as it is, or as it was when they were younger. Rightly or wrongly, they view immigration with caution, even regret.”

I hope that Legrain’s book will at least make people think twice about all the myths (and political rhetoric?) surrounding the issue of immigration. The book is definitely worth a read!

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