Book Review: Immigrants, by Philippe Legrain

Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them, by Franco-British economist Philippe Legrain

In Defense of Immigration

The United States may think of itself as the nation of immigrants, but in terms of new people arriving every day, countries like Germany, France, and Austria are not far behind. With a 12.5 percent foreign-born population, Austria stands just behind the U.S. at 12.8 percent, compared to France’s 10 percent and the 13 percent in Germany.

Yet, even with these numbers, all of these countries struggle with a negative attitude toward immigrants. The methods they use to stanch the flow of people, as well as the way they treat them once they arrive, are often in violation of human rights, according to studies by the EU and a range of non-governmental organizations. With their native populations shrinking, these immigrants are considered critical to sustaining the motor of economic activity and bringing new ideas and energy to social and cultural life.

It is this dilemma that journalist and economist Philippe Legrain mentioned in his 2007 book called Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them (Princeton University Press) – a powerfully argued defense of immigration not only as a positive cultural force but also as an economic necessity for most highly developed countries.

In his very readable prose that reflects his years writing for The Economist, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal and other leading financial and political publications, he points out that tragedies, like the drowning of the Africans off the shores of France and Spain, and the constant reinforcement of the laws forbidding immigration are not only inhumane, but also against European interests.

“In the years from 1995 to 2000 the population of Europe would have fallen 4.4 million, were it not for the arrival of 5 million immigrants,” writes Legrain. Europe, for example, admits some 2.8 million foreigners each year, and roughly another 800,000 come in illegally.

Illegal or otherwise, the countries have benefited. In a study of fifteen European states, he found that “a 1% increase in the population through migration is associated with a boost to the economy between 1.25% to 1.5%.” 

Still, the fears are deeply rooted. Europeans tend to fear that immigrant populations will dilute their native cultures. Again, Legrain argues, the opposite is much more likely, as immigrants often refresh, rather than destroy a culture. Faced with so much misery at home, and forced to leave their familiar surroundings for places with new languages and customs that only leave them feeling unwanted. Under such circumstances, they are often highly motivated to adapt and to make a contribution, eager for success and ready to work harder to create a better life for their children. While there are sometimes high-profile counter examples, a survey conducted in the U.S. reports that 69 percent of the immigrants surveyed have a full time or a part time job.

As the host nation evolves, conservative populations no longer dominate politics, leaving less room for nationalistic ideas like those of Austria’s Freedom Party or France’s National Front.

Austria is no longer only for the Austrians, and according to Philippe Legrain, this is a very good thing.

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