The Costs and Benefits of Immigration

Posted on January 11, 2011

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So far I have discussed immigration from the point of view of the immigrants, who they are and why they make such a big decision. The countries they move to also have a stake in the matter. They are materially affected by immigrants and have several options for controlling the flow of people entering their borders. Today I’m looking at the advantages and disadvantages of allowing immigrants entry that countries face.

I’ll begin with the costs. Immigration is usually only an issue in countries where the number of people seek entry is large relative to the population. As we have seen, immigrants are often poor, oppressed or otherwise vulnerable in their place of origin. They are thus often below the standards of living, health and education that wealthy, free countries hold for their populace, and they require services, usually paid for by governments, to bring them up to that level. These services are costly, and natives resent sharing already stretched budgets and services with newcomers. Immigrants are often seen as bringing crime with them if they are unable to find jobs to support themselves once they arrive. If they do find jobs, they are seen as taking those opportunities from the people who were already there and then sending their earnings to family and out of the local economy. Two other objections are both more subtle and also linked. Immigrants are often linguistically, culturally and ethnically different from the populations they join, and because of the relative poverty and lack of education of some of them, they often have more children. A large immigrant population, growing faster than the people they live near, will change the cultural balance. With every change comes loss, as the previous status quo is replaced by the new one, and so there are often many people for whom a large influx of immigrants means the loss of their distinctive culture, one they prize.

Not all disruption is negative. Some of the jobs that immigrants take on are ones that no native would do at an economically viable wage. In America examples include laborious fruit harvests, particularly in California, construction, landscaping, childcare and other basic services. Once they get jobs, immigrants pay taxes and contribute to the economy, both directly as income taxes and the work they do and also by buying goods that contribute to sales taxes and to the businesses of their adopted land. Their fertility can also be a boon in aging societies, like those of most of the developed world. They provide young workers to pay for and care for the aged natives, who aren’t, in much of Europe and parts of Asia, providing enough of their own youth. They bring in skills, in a wide variety of professions, that enhance the economies of their hosts. Even the cultural change that is so often feared is also often valued. Diversity and synthesis both produce vibrant new food, music, fashion and any other conceivable form of culture. Lastly, a moral case can be argued for allowing immigrants in, for extending to those who lack them wealth, freedom and tolerance and thereby spreading both the benefit and the defense of those ideals, and shrinking the influence of oppression and misery.

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