Immigration as an opportunity- the transatlantic experience


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Presentation by Elizabeth Collett (Director of Migration Policy Institute - Europe and Senior Advisor to MPI’s Transatlantic Council on Migration) on the occasion of the conference on Immigration – a source of wealth and duties for Europe organised by the EESC, the Council of Europe and the French Economic, Social and Environmental Council in Brussels on 15 March 2013.

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Immigration as an opportunity- the transatlantic experience

  1. 1. EESC ConferenceElizabeth Collett – presentation notesImmigration as an opportunity- the transatlantic experienceThank you for the opportunity to speak here today.MPI Europe is a Brussels-based independent thinktank that that aims to provide a betterunderstanding of migration in Europe and thus promote effective policymaking. To do so, MPIEurope builds on the resources of MPI, headquartered in Washington DC, and one of the flagshipprojects of MPI is the Transatlantic Council on Migration. As such, my remarks today will focusupon the transatlantic experiences of, and attitudes toward, immigration, and the kinds of‘wealths’ that immigration has delivered.In Europe, a great deal of energy has been expended upon quantifying the economic ‘costs andbenefits’ of immigration across the continent. Such studies can, on the whole, determine theoutcomes through their methodology. In the UK alone one can find studies highlighting greaterbenefits as well as those highlighting greater costs.The implication of these studies is that immigration is only a public good, and an opportunity, if itconveys significant economic benefits, as this is the only way it can balance out a widespreadassumptive belief that immigration is socially costly for Europeans.For the smaller cabal of immigration experts, the concept of opportunity is far broader than thepurely economic, and extends towards the contribution to the labour market and Europe’s skillspool, the possibility of ameliorating demographic decline, and the cultural contributions that adiverse society can bring.However, this does not necessarily reverberate with European publics, and majorities of nationalsacross Europe express scepticism towards the benefits of immigration and believe it presents moreof a problem than an opportunity.In this regard, it is interesting to assess the experience across the Atlantic, and correlate it with thecurrent political debates in Europe. The remainder of my remarks will draw heavily from twopapers commissioned by MPI for a meeting of the Transatlantic Council on Migration that focusedthe interplay between immigration, identity formation and society: - Irene Bloemraad – Understanding Canadian Exceptionalism - Michael Jones-Correa – Contested Ground For those of you interested, these papers can be found on MPI’s website, along with a set of corresponding papers for the UK, Germany, Spain, France.First, the US:The United States has historically always perceived itself as a country of immigration – theproverbial ‘melting pot’. However, this does not mean that immigration has been seen as apositive development, as successive prejudices towards waves of immigrants to the US – whetherItalian, Polish, or Mexican – may attest.Despite high numbers of immigrants in the US (40m of 309m immigrant in 2010), and thedominance of immigrant background within the US population as a whole, the overall attitude toimmigration is ambivalent, coloured by anxiety over levels of unauthorised migration from CentralAmerica (and particularly Mexico). Such ambivalence tends to be conceptual in practice: individual
  2. 2. immigrants who arrive and work hard are celebrated; it is the whole of ‘immigration’ that causesanxiety.However, the perception from this side of the Atlantic is that, regardless of national attitudes of UScitizens towards immigration, the US as a whole is realising the value (the opportunity) ofimmigration in a way that Europe is not.This is perhaps because, economically at least, this is the case:- Immigrants benefit native incomes: An MPI study on the impact of immigration on overall wages levels found that between 1990 and 2006, there was a 2.9% increase in real wages for the average US worker.- Immigrants create businesses: immigrants are 30% more likely to be entrepreneurs, and 18% of all US businesses are immigrant owned.- Immigrants create jobs: immigrant businesses employed 4.7 people in 2007;This suggests that the idea of immigration as an opportunity is taken as a given for the US. It isunderstood as a positive thing, and the current debate in the US on Comprehensive ImmigrationReform reflects this: that regularisation of unauthorised workers would be economically andsocially positive is implicit within the debate and the central question is whether they should alsobe allowed access to permanent residence and citizenship, and on what basis.Turning to Canada, the experience is very different:Canadian citizens have overwhelmingly positive attitudes towards immigration, at levels that haveremained stable since the 1970s. This is despite the fact that the immigrant population in Canada isfar higher than that in most European countries – around 20% compared to around 12% in othermajor countries of immigration in Europe.Why is this? Some posit that it is Canada’s points system – which rigorously selects newimmigrants, and perceived control of the system, supported by the fact that Canada is remotelylocated, and far from major countries of origin, unlike the US and the EU.But Bloemraad highlights that Canada’s points system and geography are insufficient to explainthis positive opinion, which holds even for groups typically sceptical of immigration, such as theunemployed. (80% of the country thinks immigration is positive for the economy, including 68% ofthe unemployed).Rather, for Canadians, their exceptionalism is found in the fact that immigration is seen as a part ofnation-building, and integral to national identity. Research in Canada found that the more patriotica citizen, the more likely they were to support immigration and multiculturalism. For Canadian’sthe idea that immigration is an opportunity for the nation is hardwired – or mainstreamed – intopublic opinion.There are questions about whether this positive approach will be sustainable in an era of morediverse immigration, and emerging inequalities for those with immigrant or minority background.What can Europe learn from this?- First, that you do not need to regard immigration as an opportunity to realise its benefits…. But it helps. While a lot can be learned from the Canadian experience, the idea of replanting the ideas comprised within the long-term nation-building process- Second, that the opportunities presented by immigration are substantially reduced in a context of persistent inequality, or whether social mobility is stymied by discrimination.
  3. 3. - Third, the opportunities can be squandered by poor policy-making, and failure to capitalise on the value presented by immigrants in terms of recognising skills, and encouraging social and political participation.For Europeans, there is a significant risk that viewing immigration as a risk rather than anopportunity will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Policies currently assume the spirit of minimisingrisk, rather than maximising opportunity – from short-term work permits, integration conditionsfor immigrants, and limiting access to citizenship – which can limit the potential that is presentedby immigrants and their families.