Why we still need immigration

Following my last post on immigration, some people have written to me with comments on this topic, and based on some of those exchanges I wanted to add a post-script on this topic. One correspondent suggested that immigration was no longer right during an economic downturn: there would be no jobs to come to, or if there were they would be given at the expense of the indigenous population, who would see this happening and develop racist inclinations.

I should say right away that the threat of xenophobia or racism is always real and needs to be watched. But in so far as the comment suggests that immigration occurs in the context of a fixed labour pool and that it deprives the locals of jobs it is quite wrong. Of course the answer will depend somewhat on the types of immigration that may be taking place and the characteristics and skills of the migrants. But assuming for a moment that we manage immigration in such a way that a significant proportion of the migrants are ready to work and have some skills that we currently need then immigration is likely to stimulate economic activity and lower unemployment, even for the locals.

Without immigration we neither have sufficient numbers of skilled workers nor a high enough birth rate to persuade many investors that Ireland is a good place to develop knowledge-intensive enterprise. Recent Leaving Certificate results again show the perils we are facing as a country by the low numbers of students doing science and excelling in mathematics. What this might suggest to a company – say, from the US – looking for an overseas location for R&D facilities or high value production is that Ireland is risky as a location. If on the other hand we have demonstrated that we are willing and able to make up the shortfall by allowing immigration this may off-set the problem somewhat. The resulting investment will do much more than just give jobs to immigrants.

Immigration does not necessarily have this effect in all countries and societies and all contexts. Where the indigenous population is large and there is an economic downturn the effect of strong immigration may be negative. But Ireland’s circumstances are quite different. The truth is that if we want to maintain our recently won prosperity and see a continuing wave of foreign investment then we will need immigration. Without it we are likely to decline fast.

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3 Comments on “Why we still need immigration”

  1. tatoca Says:

    Being an immigrant myself, I can assure you that Ireland do not make it easy for immigrants who do not come from Europe. I have been here for over 7 years now, always employed and sponsored by my employer, and the way we are treated at the visa office is degrading. Also, I have the right to residency after living legally here for 5 years, and I have been waiting for 2 years on my paperwork, when a few weeks ago they sent me my application back because there is now a new requirement for an extra piece of documentation (this is not mentioned anywhere…). And I won’t even go into the questioning at the airport immigration every time i come back into the country.
    The reason companies need to “import” workers is due to the lack of qualified people in Ireland for certain areas. This is one of those subjects that can get me going for hours, but I’ll just stop here 🙂

  2. universitydiary Says:

    Thank you for the comment, Tatoca. Yes, there is a whole issue of some importance regarding how we treat immigrants who arrive here, and what kind of experience they have with the agencies and officers of the state. We cannot expect to manage immigration successfully if people arriving in Ireland and trying to sort out their affairs here are treated discourteously or with excessive bureaucracy.

  3. Wendymr Says:

    Interesting commentary, and fascinating to read as one who recalls the days when Ireland used to be a net exporter of human capital, not the other way around – and as someone who was one such export.

    Whether or not immigrants are needed is one debate. What to do with them when they arrive is another, and your previous correspondent raises one very important aspect of that. I now live in a country where the majority of population growth is driven by immigration (Canada), and we here are now streets ahead of anything offered by Ireland, or the UK for that matter, to newcomers. Free ESL classes, free employment preparation programmes, free occupation-specific language for the workplace, bridging programmes for foreign-trained professionals, mentoring programmes, work-experience programmes, and more. (Free, of course, at the point of provision; paid for by general taxation). Even with all of these programmes – and I am a provider of some of them – newcomers to Canada face higher rates of unemployment and social deprivation than native Canadians, and those in employment on average have lower pay and are more likely to be employed in occupations well below their qualifications – which, on average, exceed the academic qualifications of Canadian-born individuals. Employers will openly state preferences for Canadian experience, Canadian references and Canadian education – even when the overseas education has been demonstrated to be equivalent to Canadian education, and sometimes better. It’s not only non-native speakers of English or French who face these barriers; I have also worked with British and Australian newcomers who have a tougher job than Canadians finding work, though admittedly not as bad as, say, Hispanics, Chinese or people from the Middle East or Africa. And this is in a province where there are labour shortages in some areas and anticipation of shortages in others.

    (Of course, in oil-rich Alberta newcomers can find work very quickly, though still in positions lower than their experience should suggest).

    All of which is a very long-winded way of saying: invite immigrants to come to Ireland by all means, but there have to be provisions and supports in place for them once they arrive, and employers have to be educated on the benefits of a diverse workforce. A few employers in my city do embrace diversity in a very positive manner, and it doesn’t hurt their bottom line one bit – and, given that people not born in Canada are also customers, it doesn’t hurt the companies’ reputations either.

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