Economist Leader makes the case why immigration is a good thing


Hi Blog. No mention of Japan in this week’s Economist Leader (and no wonder), but I put it on with links to a fuller article because it makes many arguments that ought to be heard. Why should Japan accept NJ and encourage immigration? Because it stands to benefit. Here are some arguments from the experts, tracing many of the social trends, backlashes, and lessons that apply just as well to Japan. Underlined for your convenience. Arudou Debito in Sapporo


Global migration
Keep the borders open
Jan 3rd 2008 From The Economist print edition

The backlash against immigrants in the rich world is a threat to prosperity everywhere

ITALIANS blame gypsies from Romania for a spate of crime. British politicians of all stripes promise to curb the rapid immigration of recent years. Voters in France, Switzerland and Denmark last year rewarded politicians who promised to keep out strangers. In America, too, huddled masses are less welcome as many presidential candidates promise to fence off Mexico. And around the rich world, immigration has been rising to the top of voters’ lists of concerns—which, for those who believe that migration greatly benefits both recipient and donor countries, is a worry in itself.

As our special report this week argues, immigration takes many forms. The influx of Poles to Britain, of Mexicans to America, of Zimbabweans to South Africa and of Bangladeshis to the Persian Gulf has different causes and consequences in each case. But most often migration is about young, motivated, dynamic people seeking to better themselves by hard work.

History has shown that immigration encourages prosperity. Tens of millions of Europeans who made it to the New World in the 19th and 20th centuries improved their lot, just as the near 40m foreign-born are doing in America today. Many migrants return home with new skills, savings, technology and bright ideas. Remittances to poor countries in 2006 were worth at least $260 billion—more, in many countries, than aid and foreign investment combined. Letting in migrants does vastly more good for the world’s poor than stuffing any number of notes into Oxfam tins.

The movement of people also helps the rich world. Prosperous countries with greying workforces rely ever more on young foreigners. Indeed, advanced economies compete vigorously for outsiders’ skills. Around a third of the Americans who won Nobel prizes in physics in the past seven years were born abroad. About 40% of science and engineering PhDs working in America are immigrants. Around a third of Silicon Valley companies were started by Indians and Chinese. The low-skilled are needed too, especially in farming, services and care for children and the elderly. It is no coincidence that countries that welcome immigrants—such as Sweden, Ireland, America and Britain—have better economic records than those that shun them.

Face the fears

Given all these gains, why the backlash? Partly because politicians prefer to pander to xenophobic fears than to explain immigration’s benefits. But not all fear of foreigners is irrational. Voters have genuine concerns. Large numbers of incomers may be unsettling; economic gloom makes natives fear for their jobs; sharp disparities of income across borders threaten rich countries with floods of foreigners; outsiders who look and sound notably different from their hosts may find it hard to integrate. To keep borders open, such fears have to be acknowledged and dealt with, not swept under the carpet.

Immigration can, for instance, hurt the least skilled by depressing their wages. But these workers are at greater risk from new technology and foreign goods. The answer is not to impoverish the whole economy by keeping out immigrants but to equip this group with the skills it anyway needs.

Americans object to the presence of around 12m illegal migrant workers in a country with high rates of legal migration. But given the American economy’s reliance on them, it is not just futile but also foolish to build taller fences to keep them out. Better for Congress to resume its efforts to bring such workers out of the shadows, by opening more routes for legal, perhaps temporary, migration, and an amnesty for long-standing, law-abiding workers already in the country. Politicians in rich countries should also be honest about, and quicker to raise spending to deal with, the strains that immigrants place on public services.

It is not all about money, however. As the London Tube bombers and Paris’s burning banlieues have shown, the social integration of new arrivals is also crucial. The advent of Islamist terrorism has sharpened old fears that incoming foreigners may fail to adopt the basic values of the host country. Tackling this threat will never be simple. But nor would blocking migration do much to stop the dedicated terrorist. Better to seek ways to isolate the extremist fringe, by making a greater effort to inculcate common values of citizenship where these are lacking, and through a flexible labour market to provide the disaffected with rewarding jobs.

Above all, perspective is needed. The vast population movements of the past four decades have not brought the social strife the scaremongers predicted. On the contrary, they have offered a better life for millions of migrants and enriched the receiving countries both culturally and materially. But to preserve these great benefits in the future, politicians need the courage not only to speak up against the populist tide in favour of the gains immigration can bring, but also to deal honestly with the problems it can sometimes cause.

Jan 3rd 2008 From The Economist print edition
Despite a growing backlash, the boom in migration has been mostly good for both sending and recipient countries, says Adam Roberts

8 comments on “Economist Leader makes the case why immigration is a good thing

  • 1TruthTeller says:

    The Japan Times of January 7th 2008 had a piece by former UK ambassador Mr. Hugh Cortazzi on the same topic. His closing comments go as follows: “The approach by Japan, faced with an aging and declining population, seems to be that it would rather acquiesce to inevitable economic decline rather than accept significantly higher rates of immigration. Some foreign observers…see this as a recrudescence of Japan’s chauvinism and isolation.” (Mr. Cortazzi comments that this appears to be an exaggeration.) He concludes that the Japanese government just wants to show solidarity with the Americans (by implementing the fingerprinting programme.)

  • Sadly I get the impression that Japan is opting for robots over immigration, applying a futuristic veneer over its old-fashioned xenophobia.

  • Would a higher percentage of foreigners help Japan’s economy? The US seems to be sinking fast, and it’s had dramatic immigration increases in the last 20 years or so. Isn’t it more that Japan has structural problems that need to be dealt with, the same as the US?

  • I would challenge the claim that the US is “sinking”. The US remains one of the wealthiest and most influential nations in the world – witness how economic hardship such as the subprime lending crisis can so quickly spread to other nations. What is more, when considering the impact of immigration, it is necessary to think in a much longer time frame. The US, Canada, Australia, and the UK (as well as Western Europe) have all been countries open to immigration for most of their histories. At least some of the historically high levels of economic growth in these nations must be attributed to immigration of both highly educated and less educated individuals.

    The argument that current economic woes are due to immigration are a case of spuriousness where people attribute causality to one possible factor among many. There are so many other reasons that are likely behind current problems – high oil prices, massive government deficits on added security and military budgets, tax policy – that I would suspect the negative impact of immigrants ON THE COUNTRY AS A WHOLE to be quite small – if at all. In fact, most studies in the Economics literature find that immigrants provide a net positive benefit to an economy, as well as add to the creative dynamism of a more open society. Think of the contribution to not only the economy, but also culture, politics, and art of the vibrant immigrant communities in the cities of the world like New York, Rome, Frankfurt, Sydney, London, and Paris.

    What I find so surprising when comparing Japan to other industrialized and wealthy countries, and perhaps disheartening, is the entire lack of debate over immigration policy. Due to the fact that the political elites of all parties, as well as the masses, share a consensus that Japan should place strong limits on the number of immigrants due to unfounded fears of “social instability”, “the language barrier”, and “the lack of newcomers to integrate”, it is simply a non-issue.

    What little discussion there is is almost always related to the the costs of allowing people to immigrate rather than the benefits (and recently slips into ridiculous dicussions about crime and terrorism). Can you imagine how much political courage and willpower it would take for a political party in Japan to not only challenge another political party, but also public opinion, the bureaucracy, and interest groups (who all have a stake in the status quo) and actually make immigration a real live issue? Apart from a few specific businesses who cannot get special kinds of labour domestically (whether it be highly educated IT workers or people to staff factories and farms), what particular groups really have the perception that they would benefit from having more immigrants?

    It is a classic case of a collective action problem – Japan as a whole would (probably) benefit from higher levels of immigrations but no political party is willing to pay the high costs (in terms of popularity or support from particular groups) to make this an issue. Not to mention that the entire incentive structure for Diet members is set up so that they are more concerned with raising money for the next election, strengthening their koenkai, and providing pork to their electoral districts that they are unlikely to make any real effort to do what is best for the nation as a whole. I cannot imagine a single ministry that want to upset the status quo either.

    My main question is, if there is going to be any debate or reform of current Japanese immigration policies, then where is the political will going to come from?

  • Matt,

    We can agree to disagree about the situation in the US. I’d say the top 10% or so have been doing well, while many are living on credit or the housing bubble.

    The historical benefits of immigration to the US are obvious, though one could question the idea of bringing in unskilled labor in a post-industrial economy. All I can say is I enjoyed living in Southern California decades ago, and find it to be a depressing mess nowadays. Your opinion may be different.

    Also, hasn’t there been a dramatic increase in immigrants in the last 20 years or so in Japan? It sure seems that way walking around Tokyo. In other words, what’s wrong with Japan taking an incremental approach?

  • Japan’s “system” resists any kind of major change. All the major changes that have taken Japan have been from foreign countries(black ships, etc.). Small victories can be won on the local and regional level, but only foreign pressure seems to open the floodgates.


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