Scrambling for the Immigrant Elite

Now the rich countries don’t want poor people. Many of the production-line jobs they came to do have been automated – or the industries they came to work in, as the cotton mills of Lancashire in the UK, have mostly closed. The Immigration Bill now before the U.S. Congress and Senate is crafted to legalize the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants and to “attract… the world’s brightest and best-educated people.” As automation takes over more unskilled work and as the demand for labour emphasizes skills that higher education usually teaches, the needs of the United States and other developed countries change.

The heated debates over immigration and its consequences power the rise of the populist parties in Europe and push centrist governments towards tougher curbs. But the debates may soon seem beside the point: The traditional emigrant states are beginning to want their best minds back. The hunt for clever people is globalized: Universities, companies, even government bureaucracies seek them here and seek them there. The needs of the developed world and the greater needs of the developing world now conflict.

Western immigration has a long history. Pakistanis were employed to staff the declining cotton industry in the north of England from the 1960s. Mexicans have come into California and Texas to work on farms since the mid-19th century: The massive flows have been in the last few decades, with nearly one-third of the Mexican foreign-born population arriving since 2000. Germany imported Turkish immigrants since the sixties with no right or prospect of citizenship, to work in its automobile and other industries.

These days, citizens (including ethnic minority citizens) see in immigration a threat to jobs, social services and their culture. The problems aren’t illusory or, as some liberals have maintained, merely the product of racist attitudes. Germany’s 3-4.5 million citizens of Turkish origin do pose a real problem of integration. The economist Theo Sarazin’s 2010 book, Germany Is Destroying Itself, was excoriated by much of the establishment for its uncompromisingly bleak picture of an unassimilated Turkish population, until part of his argument was accepted by Chancellor Angela Merkel.

As the head of the Demos think tank, David Goodhart, stresses in his recent book, The British Dream, over the past decade and a half UK immigration has been unprecedentedly rapid and large, as it has been in France. It has meant a substantial change in the look and culture of some urban areas and increased ghettoization. Goodhart, a liberal himself, was also harshly criticized – only to later see some of his critics agree with him.

Tensions are present in emerging countries as well. Last month, the Turkish Industry Minister Nihat Ergun said that his country no longer wishes to transfer qualified labor to Germany; he has called for a “reverse brain drain.” Turkey is now economically successful; it wants to continue being so, and that takes skilled and ambitious citizens.

This wasn’t the first such declaration and won’t be the last. The rich Western states, many looking at shrinking populations, should all try to emulate Canada’s immigration policy and target highly educated immigrants. As Ergun’s comments show, highly skilled and professional workers were always part of the exodus: Now, the emigrant countries will strive to keep them or woo them back. At the same time, though, Western states will spurn most of the unskilled workers and their families, generally with little education, who had been the mass of immigrants, legal and illegal, in the United States (mainly Mexican), the UK (Pakistani), Germany (Turkish) and France (North African).

Emigration can help poor and relatively poor countries because emigrants send back money to their families – it’s estimated to be around 10 percent of the Philippines’ GDP, 2 percent in Poland and Mexico. It’s much higher in the poor states of Central Asia, whose men increasingly find low-paid work in Russia. But it tends to fall the more successful the emigrants’ countries become. In the mid-seventies, as workers flooded into Germany, the cash they sent back was more than 4 percent of Turkish GDP: Now it’s 0.12 percent. Emigration gives hope – but it’s also a sign of failure.

Mexico, presently undergoing a welcome spurt of growth, needs its professionals and skilled workersas Turkey does. The demands of countries that are leveraging themselves out of mass poverty should trump those of countries that did so decades ago. The rich world’s duty is not to take their best-educated people but to support growth that is sustainable and not corrupt. That can mean more aid, fewer trade barriers, the sharing of expertise, and investment. The influence of the poor who seek a better life has grown, is growing and will grow: As the barriers go up, they need hope at home.

The old arguments about racism, which have so exercised liberals, are not wholly beside the point – racism remains everywhere – but they are less relevant than they were. The fortunate rich countries will benefit at least as much when the aspiring poor countries grow; and for that they need their cleverest people. It’s truly liberal to say: Keep your tired, your poor, your huddled masses…and your energetic, your aspiring, your entrepreneurial individuals – and improve their lives. Then the racism and condescension that thrives on the struggles of immigrants in unfriendly host communities will dwindle, and maybe even, over time, die.

(John Lloyd is a Reuters columnist but his opinions are his own.)

(John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is Director of Journalism. Lloyd has written several books, including “What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics” (2004). He is also a contributing editor at FT and the founder of FT Magazine.)