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Your Country Needs Them
Philippe Legrain

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A Q&A with author Philippe Legrain

Why does my country need immigrants?

The US needs immigrants because they are different, and that something extra they add to the mix enriches the economy, culture and society. For a start, they tend to be enterprising and hard-working, because it takes courage to uproot yourself in search of a better life and because those with the most grit have the most to gain from doing so. Those who come from countries that offer fewer opportunities to their citizens than America does are more willing to do the low-skilled jobs that America's aging and increasingly wealthy society relies on, but which its increasingly well-educated and comfortable citizens are unwilling to take--essential services, such as caring for the young and the old, and cleaning homes, offices and hospitals, that cannot readily be mechanized or imported. Others bring exceptional individual skills that American companies need if they are to compete in a global marketplace. And immigrants' collective diversity and dynamism helps spur innovation and economic growth, because if people who think differently bounce ideas off each other they can solve problems better and faster. Just look at Silicon Valley: Intel, Yahoo!, Google, eBay and many others were all co-founded by immigrants

More broadly, immigrants broaden the range of cultural experiences available in the US, and this mingling of cultures leads to distinctive innovations. As John Stuart Mill rightly said: "It is hardly possible to overrate the value, for the improvement of human beings, of things which bring them into contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar . . . it is indispensable to be perpetually comparing [one's] own notions and customs with the experience and example of persons in different circumstances . . . there is no nation which does not need to borrow from others."

You say that immigration enriches the economy; yet, some economists point out that the benefits of immigration are not equally distributed across society. Farmers and hotel managers may benefit from more workers to harvest their crops or clean their rooms, but construction workers and cooks face greater competition for jobs and lower wages. Why should Americans welcome greater competition for their jobs in the form of increased immigration?

Fears that immigrants threaten American workers are based on two fallacies: that there is a fixed number of jobs in the economy, and that foreign workers are direct substitutes for American ones. Just as women did not deprive men of jobs when they entered the labor force in large numbers, foreigners don't steal Americans' jobs-they don't just take jobs; they create them too. When they spend their wages, they boost demand for people who produce the goods and services that they consume; and as they work, they stimulate demand for Americans in complementary lines of work. An influx of Mexican construction workers, for instance, creates new jobs for people selling construction materials, as well as for interior designers. Overall, immigrants don't cost Americans jobs: While the number of immigrants has risen sharply over the past 20 years, the unemployment rate has fallen.

But do some American workers lose out from immigration? Hardly any; most actually gain. Why? Because, as critics of immigration are the first to admit, immigrants are different to Americans, so they rarely compete directly with them in the labor market; often, they complement their efforts.

Low-skilled immigrants tend to do jobs that Americans shun: virtually no Americans pick fruit, for instance. Even when immigrants do work in similar lines of work, they tend to compete only indirectly with American workers: a Mexican with little education and English is scarcely a substitute for an American high-school graduate. Even when Mexican construction workers work for lower wages than American ones, they don't necessarily harm them: if construction work is cheaper, more people can afford to have their house done up, so employment in the building sector rises; and Mexican builders tend to do the low-end tasks, while Americans generally do the more lucrative higher-end work. Of course, some Americans may lose out; but most won't. On the contrary, immigrants' labor often complements that of American workers, and thus boosts their wages: a foreign nanny may enable an American nurse to go back to work, where her productivity may be enhanced by hard-working foreign doctors and cleaners.

Study after study fails to find evidence that immigrants harm the job prospects of American workers. A study for the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) by Gianmarco Ottaviano and Giovanni Peri finds that the average wage of US-born workers rose by 2% in response to the inflow of foreign-born workers between 1990 and 2004. The workers who gain from immigration account for 90% of the US-born labor force, while those who do not gain-high-school dropouts, who lose only slightly, by 1%-are a small group whose numbers continue to shrink each year.

If most people stand to benefit from immigration, why is it so politically contentious?

It is partly the misplaced belief that immigrants are an economic threat or burden, partly a fear of cultural change. More recently, it has gotten mixed up with fears about terrorism. In large part, though, these views reflect a dislike of foreigners, as psychological studies confirm. People then tend to construct an elaborate set of seemingly rational arguments to justify their prejudice. For instance, in Who are We?, Harvard academic Samuel Huntington complains that Latino immigrants are generally poor and therefore a drain on US society, except in Miami, where they are rich and successful, and Americans can't compete; he says it is worrying that Latinos have until recently tended to cluster in certain cities and states, and then he says it is worrying that they are starting to spread out. Immigrants can't win: they're damned if they do and damned if they don't.

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