Immigration is a complex topic. It takes different forms, and has varied effects depending on the type and level of immigration from source nations, as well the social and economic environment in the receiving country. Policies that might work successfully in a resource rich, low population country like Canada, could have negative consequences when applied to a high-density country like the United Kingdom. When I bought Immigrants after reading a recommendation from the economics editor of the Times, I was expecting an economically literate analysis of the pros and cons of immigration. Instead, the author, through a series of anecdotes and haphazard presentation of academic findings, provides a Panglossian vision reducing the complexities of the issue down to one finding: immigration = good.
First, as a good portion of the book seems more concerned about establishing the author's credentials as a socially enlightened liberal, rather than providing a thoughtful analysis of the social and economic impact of immigration, let me say up front that I'm not a reactionary conservative nor a national socialist (i.e. Nazi for those who are less historically inclined) as the author labels (really, he does) those who question the wisdom of unfettered immigration. I view myself as a liberal - not Daily Worker leftist, to be honest, but I am a gay, Guardian-reading, Islington resident, and an immigrant to the UK to boot. I should also add that I trained as an economist, and I'm a firm believer in the power of markets to set prices.
Coming to the book, my primary concern with high levels of immigration is the negative impact that it can have on the wages of low-skilled native born workers and the subsequent impact that income inequality has on welfare spending, culture and society as a whole. Given that standard economic models would predict that low skilled immigration would depress wages for native born low skilled labour (i.e. supply goes up, prices go down), there's a fairly high hurdle of proof in coming to the counterintuitive conclusion that immigration benefits low skilled workers. The author acknowledges the importance of this issue by devoting several early chapters of the book to the effects of low skilled immigration, though his argument that the negative effects are minimal is woefully unconvincing. First, he cites the case of large scale immigration to Israel from the former Soviet Union in the 1990's as a test of whether high levels of immigration depress wages. The study he cites shows a mildly negative effect on wages, though it leaves out any mention of the fact that concurrent with this wave of immigration, Israel lost access to its previous source of inexpensive labour, Palestinians from Gaza and the West Bank, who have subsequently seen a dramatic fall in their standard of living. I wouldn't blame all of the problems of the Palestinians on Russian immigration, but if the study had actually included the impact on the welfare of all concerned, the analysis would have shown a highly negative effect on wages. At the very least, Israel in the 90's is not a good test case of the impact of immigration on low skilled labour, and the way this is presented in the book is downright misleading.
The author also briefly looks at the work of George Borjas, an economics professor at Harvard who has found a negative wage effect with high levels of unskilled immigration, but rather than reviewing and addressing the issues in Borjas's work, Legrain simply dismisses the work by stating that immigrant and native workers are not close substitutes for one another. What evidence does he provide for this? He cites statistics showing that, in some fields of work in the US, immigrants are poorly represented, while in others they make up a large percentage of workers, i.e. in the year 2000, 54% of workers in the tailoring trade were foreign born, as were 44% of workers in plaster-stucco masonry. Now, to me, that would just seem to argue that in many fields of work, immigrant labour is, indeed, very substitutable. This is hardly an adequate criticism to justify entirely writing off Borjas's work.
More fundamentally, the problem with Immigrants is the anecdotal, and often contradictory, nature of the arguments in the book, which, while adding colour to the debate, are by nature selective and unreliable. While reciting a litany of immigrant success stories, why didn't the author perhaps also mention people like Emmanuel Nteziryayo, an immigrant from Rwanda who lives on welfare benefits in Manchester with his wife and 5 children, despite being on the list of 100 most wanted suspects of the Rwandan genocide? Or how about "Adam" (the police don't know his real name), a five-year old Nigerian boy who's headless, armless torso was found floating in the Thames in 2002, evidently the sacrificial victim of a West African cult operating in London? Or how about Irman Shahid, Mohammed Faisal Mushtaq, and Zeeshan Shahid who abducted, repeatedly stabbed, and then doused in gasoline a 15-year old boy from the streets of Edinburgh in 2004 simply because he was Caucasian, before the three fled to Pakistan? Sure, there are some immigrants who succeed and bring a lot of benefits to the country they move to, but then there are plenty of horror stories out there too. Just because engineering grad students from India and Taiwan have gone on to create successful hi tech companies in Silicon Valley does not mean that every unemployed farmer in Michoacan should be allowed to move to California.
Not only are Legrain's arguments anecdotal, though, they're often contradictory. In the first part of the book, Legrain criticizes Australia and Canada for excluding low skilled labour through point systems and quotas aimed at recruiting highly skilled immigrants, but then when the discussion turns to the cultural impact of immigration in the latter half of the book, Legrain often cites the case of Canada as a success, in contrast to the negative cultural experience in the US and Europe. Canada has had success in integrating its immigrant population, but that can't be separated from the fact that Canada has discouraged low skilled migrants who are likely to experience poverty, marginalization and cultural alienation. Most frustratingly, when it comes to the conclusion of the book, Legrain advocates a "guest worker" program of permits for temporary low skilled labour. Given who this benefits and harms (middle and upper class consumers at the expense of low skill labor), this type of immigration is currently the most politically feasible form of increasing immigration post 9/11, but it is also precisely the type of immigration least likely to be well integrated into society along the lines of the Canadian model, for which he had just spent the last half of the book advocating. This is a perfect example of the muddled thinking in Immigrants that reduces everything down to the one argument that immigration is always good, no matter what type, no matter what level. In the end, I came away with the feeling that the book was written more to prove the author's international hipster credentials, than to actually come up with workable policy suggestions.
Lastly, (this is a small point but it makes it hard to take the book seriously) if you're going to write a book with large sections about US social and economic policy, could you at least take the time to learn who was President when (or at least have your editor do a little fact checking on Wikipedia)? Calvin Coolidge might not have accomplished much as President, but he didn't fiddle his way through the Great Depression. Coolidge left the Presidency in January 1929. The Great Depression didn't start until after the Wall Street Crash in September 1929.