Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them

‘Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them’, by Philippe Legrain; Abacus, 2007. 384pp

Reviewed By Steve Nash | September 2007

This is a thought-provoking and timely book. Thought-provoking in that it makes you think through your ideas about migration; timely in that it goes to the heart of society’s feelings about change and the modern world. The issue of immigration is never far from the news and raising the question of open borders as Philippe Legrain does is always going to be controversial. Images of Palestinians smashing down a wall that separates them from Egypt in order to be able to get basic provisions is supported by many because it seems to be an affront to our basic humanity and yet advocating that these barriers come down everywhere and people are allowed free movement and settlement evokes strong feelings of anxiety.

In fact by the end of this book you have the feeling that the author himself has rather lost his nerve. He moves from a position of presenting the free market case for migration to advocating temporary work schemes as the practical way forward.

The book divides into two parts. The first puts the economic case for migration whilst the second part looks at answering some of the political questions that are raised. This first part presents a very strong case in favour of the economic benefits of migration. If allowed it could help towards a doubling in size of the world economy. It increases productivity by allowing for the redeployment from less productive to more productive employment. He shows how the Border controls that are in place around the world raise the cost of migration and create a growing market for criminals. Without these controls people could move back and forwards with ease whereas at the moment once having gained entry illegally that person is going to be determined to stay. It is that tantalising vision of a more human-centred world that allows for the free movement of people as well as goods and services that Legrain holds out to us.

There is a very interesting chapter on ‘Remittances’ – the money that migrants send back to their home country. At present this amounts to about $160billion a year, six times the amount of government aid. Legrain makes the point that aid campaigners would be better supporting migration as the most effective way of aiding the third world. I would have liked to have seen this point embellished. Today the opposition to immigration is implicit within the widely held view that the world economy has expanded too far already and is leading to ecological disaster. Greater migration of people would exacerbate this problem. This explains why the aid campaigners don’t campaign for migration. Rather than take on these mainstream prejudices rooted in cultural pessimism Legrain ignores them and instead concentrates on the conventional conservative critics of immigration.


This forms the backdrop to the second half of the book and this is the most disappointing. He spends a chapter looking at Samuel Huntingdon’s doom-laden book on the effect of Mexican immigration on America. Legrain’s answer to these conservative fears is to look to multi-culturalism as a solution or at least a flexible variant of it that would allow for a dynamic reinterpretation of the nation state. He raises the problem with multi-culturalism himself in stark terms stating that ‘Respect for cultural and religious differences can veer into defining people exclusively by their cultural or religious background.’ and yet goes on to make a case for it. Canada is cited as a good role model. And without any hint of irony Israel is also used as a positive model. Try explaining that one to the Palestinians the other side of Israel’s border. This is the least convincing section of the book and once Legrain tries to deal with the welfare issue he begins to backtrack on the case himself.

In answer to Milton Friedman’s statement that ‘It’s just obvious you can’t have free immigration and a welfare state’ Legrain advocates temporary work schemes so preventing migrants from claiming welfare benefits. But either the right to migration is a universal right or it becomes a right issued at the discretion of the state: and when push comes to shove Legrain seems to come down on the side of the discretionary power of the state. What he advocates in practice is not dissimilar to what we already have. As with so many ‘free marketers’ the political implications of their own arguments often prove unpalatable to them in practice.

What the book highlights is that if you are going to make a case for migration you really need to start from the political assertion of migration as a universal right for all human beings. Trying to reduce this to an economic cost benefit analysis will not stand up against your opponents. Nevertheless this book is a welcome contribution to the debate. It uses a wealth of facts to back up his arguments and is a stimulating read.


Buy Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them here


Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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