Immigrants: Why we need them
On September 13, GMF hosted a luncheon discussion with Philippe Legrain, freelance writer and GMF journalism fellow, and Tamar Jacoby, Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, for a luncheon discussion entitled "They need us, we need them; How immigrants contribute to Western democracies." The event was moderated by Jim Kolbe, GMF senior Transatlantic Fellow.
Based on arguments and anecdotes presented in his book Immigrants: your country needs them, Philippe Legrain discussed how different European countries have tried to find answers to the various challenges migration poses to their societies. Tamar Jacoby addressed the same question from a U.S. perspective.
Jacoby and Legrain pointed out that the debate about increased immigration has become much more polarized in both the U.S. and EU due to heightened security concerns and the fear of immigrants pushing natives out of their jobs and bringing down overall wages. Nevertheless, Legrain stressed that, at least in Europe, countries like the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Sweden have opened up their labor markets to workers from the new EU countries because they recognized the contributions immigrants make not just to the economy in general but also to the general vitality and the entrepreneurial spirit of the society. As Legrain pointed out, this experiment of opening borders has been so successful that most other rich European countries have now rushed to adapt their policies in order to fill jobs and stay competitive.
However, when it comes to migrants from outside, the EU remains much more restrictive. Among European countries, Spain has the most liberal policies, Legrain said. In 2005, the government granted an amnesty to illegal immigrants, giving them temporary work and residency permits, but not citizenship. And while most European countries only allow in highly skilled workers from outside the EU, Spain is starting to recruit low-skilled workers in North Africa, reasoning that it is better that employers' labor needs be met through legal rather than illegal migration. But at the same time, Spain is increasing its efforts to deter Africans from risking their lives trying to reach Spain on flimsy, overloaded boats that often sink and trying to persuade the governments of neighboring countries to cooperate in trying to prevent their citizens from moving.
Jacoby focused her comments mainly on the debates related to Comprehensive Immigration Reform in the United States. As she pointed out, reform of immigration in America is necessary because the current system just can't handle the numbers of people that are coming into the country. Based on this observation, she argued that immigration itself is not the real problem but rather the illegality of workers. Therefore, it's imperative to put in place pragmatic immigration policies that acknowledge the economic forces that promote migration instead of fighting them.
When comparing integration policies in the U.S. and Europe, Jacoby pointed out that the U.S. public has a better attitude toward immigrants, whereas Europe has better policies. According to Jacoby, in the U.S. you can be different but still belong whereas it is very difficult for migrants in many European countries -- often mainly due to strict citizenship rules or inflexible labor policies -- to become a fully accepted member of the native workforce and society, and that is despite very elaborate integration policies many European countries have put in place in recent years.
After the presentation, the audience asked a number of questions covering aspects like the future of Comprehensive Immigration Reform, changing citizenship rights in the EU, the problem of high unemployment rates among migrants, and the impact this has on countries' welfare systems, and the implications of Commissioner Franco Frattini's suggestion for a blue card for immigrants.