Saturday, October 23, 2010

On the necessity of immigrants

Anti-immigrant sentiments aside in immigrant-receiving countries at all levels of economic development, the necessary existence of 3D jobs--alternatively Dirty, Dangerous and Demeaning, Dirty, Dangerous and Demanding or Dirty, Dangerous and Difficult) and the reluctance of natives to take these jobs ensures that immigration will continue at some level. Gregory Viscusi's Bloomberg BusinessWeek article "Immigrants in the West Aren't Going Away" makes this point effectively.

Since arriving in France from Mali six years ago, Youba Soumbounou has sorted trash at factories and warehouses near Paris. He got his job by using fake papers and has been told five times by police to leave the country.

His employer, which he asked not be identified, didn't fire him. Instead, it has joined other French waste-treatment companies such as Veolia Environnement (VE) and Derichebourg in seeking legal residency for laborers they need. "If we didn't have access to foreign workers, we simply wouldn't be able to do our work," says Pascal Decary, head of human resources at Paris-based Veolia Propreté. The company found out last year that 18 of its workers have phony documents, Decary says. "There was never any question of us abandoning people who have worked hard for us all these years, doing jobs that natives don't want to do."

[. . .]

"If you look beyond the noise, you don't hear anyone saying there shouldn't be any immigration at all," says Jean-Pierre Garson, head of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's international migration unit in Paris. "They can't. Parts of the economy would grind to a halt."

A 2008 report by the British Parliament says 17 percent of the U.K.'s economic growth in 2004 and 2005 was the result of immigration. The Washington-based Center for American Progress, run by John Podesta, who was chief of staff to former President Bill Clinton, said in January that making it easier for undocumented workers to gain residency and attracting guest laborers would add $1.5 trillion to the U.S. economy over the next 10 years.

Whether to do undesirable jobs or pay into weakened pension funds, workers from poor nations are needed by the West, says the OECD's Garson. "Decisions are often made on the basis of the emotions of the day," says Ben Noteboom, chief executive officer of Randstad Holding, the world's second-largest staffing company. "Yet that emotion will fade away because in the end, when we are in a hospital, we need nurses."

For immigrant-receiving countries, the problem may soon be not an excess of immigrants but a deficit of needed immigrants. Even accounting for the likelihood that low-fertility countries may be just as likely to produce a given volume of emigrants as a high-fertility country, the world's demographic transition will eventually lead to a contraction of the world's working-age population. In these circumstances, countries offering less attractive conditions for migrants will lose out to the ones which offer better deals. Future, take care.


Scott said...

It is odd that most developed countries have strict limits/quotas for official immigration and yet generally there is a general willingness to overlook illegal immigration for the benefit of employers. The conflicting ideas about immigrants in any particular country drive this inconsistency. Fears that immigrants will drain social welfare programs or change the culture are common populist themes; while business owners tend not to want to pay taxes to provide basic social services such as schools for immigrants. It is strange to see this in the US as the population is wholly made up of descendants of immigrants.

Colin Reid said...

I don't think it's that odd, it just reflects the political balance of power in these countries. When politicians act to push immigrants to the margins of society, they can claim to benefit the poor by giving the impression that they are reducing immigration (when immigrants are already stuck on the margins, immigration does in fact hurt the poorest among the established population), but by marginalising the existing flow without appreciably reducing it, they are actually helping the middle-class (whose jobs and social status are protected from foreign competition) and those with a large stock of wealth (who get the biggest share of the profits from cheap labour). Unfortunately I think this undermines the case for having immigrants mainly do jobs that 'the locals don't want to do' - think of the effect on people who could only get 'undesirable' jobs even in the absence of immigration. It seems optimistic to assume that an immigrant group joining at the bottom of the pyramid could allow the entire native population to move up a step - for one thing, do the locals have the skills to move upwards en masse?

Also, the global picture of demographic moderation and decline isn't quite right. It's true that fertility is low and/or falling rapidly in most of the world. But the part of the world where this isn't the case - a big chunk of Africa, plus a few countries in Asia - produces a disproportionately large and rapidly growing influx of young people with little hope of employment in their home countries. So it seems the rest of the world will have a large potential immigrant pool for a long time to come, albeit from a rather shorter list of countries. It may be significant though that most of these countries are nowhere near the US geographically.

Luke Lea said...

"the necessary existence of 3D jobs--alternatively Dirty, Dangerous and Demeaning, Dirty, Dangerous and Demanding or Dirty, Dangerous and Difficult) and the reluctance of natives to take these jobs ensures that immigration will continue at some level"

I've spent my life in those jobs. Believe me, it is all a matter of wages. Low-skilled African-Americans and whites are hurt by the massive influx of low-skilled Mexicans, even as those as those further up the scale (who derive much of their income from their capital as opposed to their labor) gain. Something similar was true in the U.S. around the turn of the 19th century. Immigration restriction had a lot to do with the prosperity of the 1950's and 60's and the emergence of a middle-class society.

If you cannot discuss these issues honestly in terms of its trade-offs then there is no reason for me -- a new reader -- to be following this blog. Damn!