When I wrote about an incident of racial profiling that my wife and I suffered in Dublin, much of the feedback from Irish locals was along the lines of “Well of course we dislike ‘them’ (immigrants). They’re taking all the jobs.” This has always seemed an odd and troubling argument, particularly when it surfaces, as it often does, in this society that has historically used emigration to insinuate itself into nearly every corner of the globe.
Yes, there are legitimate reasons why the Irish have had such a longstanding tradition of leaving their home, and starting fresh elsewhere. And I don’t doubt that Irish immigrants have accounted themselves well overall. But, the notion that immigrants are a drain on an already strained system instinctively turns mind to thoughts of all the things that immigrants contribute to their new homes.
A woefully incomplete list, just off the top of my head (and in no particular order), includes:
- Food – How many of our favorite restaurants, foods, and beverages including pasta, imported beer, salsa, tortillas, Naan, pita bread, sushi, hummus, chorizo, and others) are now widely available thanks largely to the influence of a robust immigrant community? Granted, many of these food imports may may largely be the result of capitalism and market expansion, but the initial toehold for things such as curry in the U.K., salsa in the U.S. (and many others) were established largely because a few ethnic groceries and restaurants could afford to sell and stock those items thanks to an immigrant customer base that would buy them, and thanks to restaurant workers and entrepreneurs who could produce authentic food. Over time, these populations have altered the face of local food cultures to the point that we now take these foods for granted.
- Arts & Crafts, Design, and Clothing – As immigrants move into an area and begin to feel more and more accepted, they gradually share their sense of style, design, and creative expression. Eventually, when there is enough demand, they open businesses, and make requests of existing arts and crafts businesses. As businesses grow, and thrive, immigrant clothing, jewelry, art, music, and design are seen and noticed in the workplace, in restaurants, churches, and on public transportation. Before long, they are emulated and displayed in trendy mainstream outlets.
If you’ve ever bought an elaborately designed scarf in an upmarket shop, I’d be willing to bet that either your purchase, or something else on the same rack, has roots going back to another culture.
- Real Estate – Everyone has to live somewhere. And as life improves in their new home, most immigrants will look for ways to “buy in” to their community. And buy they must, as few if any of them will be in a position to inherit property in their new homes.
- Help Locals Find Better Jobs – Because they are often simply grateful for the chance to work at all, many immigrants willingly work service sector jobs that locals are unwilling to take on. While some of these jobs are often exploitative, there is a need and a place for low paying, low skill jobs. And they do keep the economy working.
Well, when immigrants come in and work those low skill jobs as a way of gaining an economic foothold, they may well free up a slightly more skilled local worker who can then move up to the next skill/income rung in the local economy.
If all things are working properly, as the service sector fuels the economy, medium and higher skill jobs should be created. But if the economy is to remain viable, the lower tier jobs must be backfilled (often with immigrants).
- Increased consumer base – From the moment immigrants arrive in their new country they increase the market for local businesses. And, as their circumstances improve in their new homes, their spending will most likely increase and fuel the local economy.
- Golden Expats – In today’s world of global outsourcing, many temporary and permanent emigrants head overseas on generous “expat packages” which include high-end housing and transportation allowances. The result is an entire immigrant population with loads of disposable income, and the means to do their bit for the real estate and automotive sectors. Additionally, some of these executives are expected to “entertain” as well, and must maintain a certain standard of living – generally one that drives the economy quite nicely.
- New Business startups – In addition to starting ethic and culturally-centered business (as mentioned above), some emigrants head overseas frustrated with the restrictive business climate in their home country. When these immigrants settle somewhere, they’ll put their entrepreneurial drive and ingenuity to work in their new home. And when these businesses hit their stride, they’ll create jobs, and fund untold opportunities for suppliers, and potentially inspire other new market startup businesses.
- Tourism – As immigrants get to know their new home, and have friends and family come to visit them, they contribute to the tourist economy by visiting all of the things that locals take for granted. Let’s be honest, when is the last time the average 40-someting tech manager from Stepaside took the family to the Cliffs of Moher? I’ve been to Cork City twice in two months. Enough said.
- Active Citizens – Traditionally, once they qualify for citizenship and enjoy voting privileges, immigrants tend to have a higher voter turnout rate than other “locals”, making them among the more engaged members of their communities.
Given these and other examples, it’s hard to deny that immigrants can, and do, contribute to their new homes in many positive ways. But, ultimately it is through personal engagement, and day-to-day interactions hat they have their greatest impact, breaking down the barriers of misunderstanding.
Travel and assimilation can, and should be, the ultimate salve for xenophobia. It’s hard to hate people when they have a face, and you’ve swapped rugby talk at the bus stop, or shared complaints about government incompetence, or the latest water restrictions.
Things to look forward to in upcoming posts:
- Corporate Taxes Abroad, and the Con Artistry of Luring Foreign Investment