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Immigration waves to Western countries are not only ‘manageable’ ( in terms of sufficient space and resources to accept immigrants); rather, they continuously bring advances in innovation, knowledge and wealth regeneration, keeping the West leading the most important sectors in modern global economy. Progressive arguments that say the West has a moral responsibility towards immigrants only tell half the story.

We know that modern civilisation in North America was made by immigrants who kept coming over generations and took the land from the indigenous peoples. We also know that modern Europe accumulated its wealth from colonisation and the exploitation of the natural resources and human labour of other continents; a trend that started before, during and after the industrial revolution, which could not have objectively happened without such exploitation (even while assuming, for the sake of argument, that the technological and scientific innovation that sparked and established the industrial revolution was independent of the said exploitative economic conditions of the time). 

These historical facts remain to be important to know whenever we seek to analyse modern global economics and politics. Yet these historical facts alone do not relay the full reality. For example, they do not stop some folks from taking exception to European migration to North America by claiming that Europeans are the ones that championed, and are championing, the modern civilisation project that makes North America attractive to other immigrants. Even when speaking of slavery, some people entertain the thought – or even vocalise it – that while many immigrants (and slaves) provided the “muscle” Europeans were always the ones to provide “the brain” of the industrialisation and modernisation project in this part of the world, without which the muscles would not have made a significant difference anyway. 

These claims extend up to this day. Emigrants from other parts of the world to North America (with exception to ones from Europe) are seen, by some folks, as ones that are coming to benefit from the achievements of early European migrants in “the new world”. Since North Americans who are already here would like to enjoy the wealth, relative safety and relative liberties (i.e. compared to most other parts of the world) it wouldn’t make sense for them to keep welcoming new migrants with open arms. 

Large numbers of people from the North American middle and working classes seem to sincerely believe that accepting more migrants will deteriorate the living conditions of those who are already here. Many taxpayers also seem to sincerely believe that their states will be spending resources on sheltering and feeding the newcomers instead of using those resources for maintaining and improving public services, and also believe that migrants render the local economy in a bad shape as they grossly consume more than they produce. Some also argue that even when some of these migrants actually work they lower standards of work and threaten the job security of “locals” (i.e. older immigrants). 

What has been clarified, and needs to be reiterated time and again, is that all these claims, above, are objectively false. Their falsity has been proven by the same data that speak to their concerns. I will reference some of that data below, but I would also like to highlight one particular aspect that, in my opinion, makes all the difference. 

It has been rightly said, by American physicist and educator Neil deGrasse Tyson, that “innovations in science and technology are the engines of the 21st century economy” [1]. This is an obvious reality. The world in which we live today, in any part of it, is wholly encompassed by technological existence; i.e. the tools, machines, artefacts and facilities that are the product of innovations in science and technology, in various degrees. This is the reality everywhere in the world today, even in those parts where there are less complex, less affluent and less resource-intensive technologies.

As put by another physicist and educator, Ursula Franklin, “Technology has built the house which we all live in” [2]. Unlike former times in human history, there is very little chance for any of us nowadays in living outside that house for any considerable length of time. Therefore it matters very much today to ask: who makes this technology? Who innovates science and technology today, and where are they located? So far there is a legitimate claim that most of those who make, remake and innovate technology and science, are currently concentrated on the Northern hemisphere. More particularly in parts of the world that are globally referred to as the West (and Western Civilisation). 

They mainly include North America, Western Europe and Australia. There are other places around the world today that are big hubs of innovation, such as China and Japan (and we can nowadays also speak of India, Brazil, and the Asian Tigers) but the West still holds the lead, so far. After all the nuance and political politeness is removed what remains is the core of the claim: that the West is the best, and it rules the world because it leads the world in the making, remaking and innovation of science and technology—the true marks of intelligence and superiority among humans. 

The West, as known, is inherently the creation of Europeans and European descendants. That is why “Western culture”, which has given us the best humanity can offer today shall remain celebrated, and shall remain robust and free from being mixed too much with other “lesser” cultures and traditions that do not equally celebrate scientific knowledge, innovative free thinking, and social values of a truly civilised life. That is why North America, Western Europe and Australia shall be very careful in selecting the quantity and quality of who migrates to them from the rest of the world. 

The rest of the world should be more and more influenced by the West instead of the other way around. There it is, the claim, without any cosmetics. What this article will seek to clarify is that this claim, above, is simply inaccurate. It does not hold truth nowadays, if it held some a while back for a finite phase in history. The evidence-based argument of this article is that continuous waves of migration to the West – with focus on data from the United States of America (USA) as an example – positively correlate with the continuous advances of both wealth, on the one hand, and STI (Science, Technology & Innovation) on the other hand. 

This positive correlation shows, in more detail, that the continuous waves of migration to North America are one major reason for the continuous advances in wealth and, more importantly, STI in that region. Innovations in science and technology in the West are no longer led by “Westerners” but by the collective forces of statistically diverse societies, in general, and with significant contribution from immigrants. 

What the data says

An elaborate study that was published in a report in 2010 by the Brookings Institution on “Economic Facts about Immigration” [3]. The study investigated what the data says about the reality of the economic impacts of continuous waves of immigration to the USA. It investigated what immigrants take, when they come to the USA, what they give back to the country, and also where they generally end up in the fabric of American society. The report itself is fully available online, but I am going to focus on particular two areas: what immigrants contribute to innovations and advances in science and technology, and what immigrants contribute to the cumulate wealth of the USA. 

Consider this: If you put first-generation immigrants to the USA on one side, and put the entire country’s population on the other side (including second-generation folks who were born and raised by the first-generation immigrants) you will find that: - In terms of advanced academic education (assumedly a good indicator of advanced knowledge and skills in modernised societies), the percentage of PhD holders among immigrants (1.9 percent) is almost twice that of the entire USA-born population (1.1 percent). At the level of Master’s degrees, immigrants and USA-born citizens have a similar percentage. 

Overall, while only 12 percent of the USA population are first-generation immigrants, 11 percent of them hold an advanced degree (above a bachelor’s degree), “slightly above the fraction of [USA born Americans with post-college degrees.” - With their advanced degrees, foreign-born university graduates in the USA show stronger indicators of innovation than the rest of the USA population: immigrants are three times more likely to file for patents than USA-born Americans. And out of each 10,000 graduate students in American universities, about 1,100 foreign-born are granted patents while less than 400 USA-born are.  

Additionally, and overall, the entrepreneurial spirit – which goes along well with the innovative spirit – of immigrants is also higher than USA-born citizens. Estimates are that about 350 businesses are registered monthly in the USA by immigrants compared to about 270 by USA-born Americans. The data above shows that new immigrants are leading participants in the innovation-driven economy of the USA. They proliferate on both the knowledge-production side and the business-growing side, and they often do so as leaders, despite their smaller percentage compared to the entire USA population. 

Furthermore, another study by the Brookings Institution found that over 42 percent of foreign students in USA colleges and universities, in bachelor or higher degree programmes, are enrolled in degree programmes of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), and many others are also studying in the business fields. About 45 percent of them find jobs within the USA economy and work there after graduation, at least for a while (needless to say a good proportion of them later seek to continue living and working in the USA) [4]. 

Another recent study, published in the Harvard Business Review [5], on “How diversity drives innovation” asserts that companies, which employ a more diverse workforce “out-innovate and out-perform others” and are more likely to report growth in their market share and capturing new markets [6]. The explanation for that is simple: groups of more diverse backgrounds have more diverse perspectives and generate more diverse ideas, leading to more innovations. It is also no surprise that the leading cities in the world today in the innovation economy are overall among the most multicultural cities in the world as well [7]. 

The findings from all these studies mentioned consolidate well and give a more comprehensive and confirmed picture. Even more interesting is when we look at the overall impact of immigration on the public budget of the USA. According to the official statistics consulted by the Brooking Institution, taken from the US Census Bureau, first-generation immigrant households, overall, pay more taxes than the cost of public services all immigrants use. That is not even withstanding how much they contribute to sustaining the national market as consumers of goods and services. 

The above indicators should also be considered with other realities: that immigration to the USA now is more diverse than it has ever been before—i.e. recent immigrants are coming from more diverse backgrounds than before. And often these recent waves of migration break many stereotypes. For example, a census study by the US Census Bureau, between the years 2008-2012, found that “Compared with the overall foreign-born population, the foreign-born from Africa had higher levels of educational attainment” [8]. That is, if considered as one group, immigrants from Africa are the most formally educated among all immigrants from the rest of the world. 

Could we say then that it seems that the USA gains more advances in innovation, knowledge and wealth from the continuous waves of immigration? That the USA would not be in the current high standing, compared to the rest of the world, in terms of flowing generation of innovations in science and technology, and economic growth, without immigrants? I think we could. 

Brain drain: the cake the west keeps and eats too

As knowledge proliferates throughout the world, and as access to information and ideas and tools is more or less distributed worldwide (with still some uneven-ness yet not in the same fashion as decades ago) there is no surprise that the rest of the world is catching up with the West in terms of advances and innovations in science and technology. 

At least at the brain level—i.e. the knowledge and skills of individuals and groups from all over the world who are fortunate enough to have access to good education and room for experimentation in technology and science. Westerners technically do not lead the world on that front anymore. Indicators show that Westerners now have a fair share of that front but don’t hold a strong majority in it anymore. Yet, Western countries still fairly lead the world on that same front. The secret to that is not really a secret—it’s the so-called brain drain migration.

The labour market, division of labour and incentives in Western countries still have more capacity to recruit and retain stellar minds and creative talents. Bright and fortunate minds from developing societies, who had the chance of an education that matches and sharpens their talents, find it easier to join the ranks of “first world” societies and build a life for themselves there, as the labour market there can absorb them more efficiently (generally speaking) and the infrastructure and public services (and the wonders of the market) there offer them a quality of life better than that which they would have had to be patient with – at least for a while – in their home countries. 

Their choice becomes even easier when there is political unrest in their home countries due to corrupt and/or brutal regimes (which might just be supported and/or funded by the same Western countries they end up migrating to). The peculiar thing about migration to the West is that the West gets to clearly benefit from it while at the same time enjoy bragging about it, as a goodwill gesture, and also complain about it when it feels like doing so. On this one, the West can have the cake and eat it too. 

Pro-immigration Westerners justify their position to their fellow citizens on grounds of compassion for migrants and paying a debt to humanity. The rhetoric of calling for helping those in need as an expression of humanity, and appealing to the senses of compassion, decency and empathy, in countering the “anti-immigration” camp, is not a bad rhetoric. It makes a difference, and sometimes wins over some hearts and minds. However that rhetoric is both sentimentally and factually incomplete. It only tells half the story. For once, it underestimates, or bypasses, that while some humans may feel for others who are drowning (figuratively and literally) they do not want to drown with them, and if they feel that they may drown with them they will choose not to help, without feeling extremely guilty about it. 

Also, factually, there is a gross misinformation about how the continuous wave of migration is not only economically good for the West, but that it is actually what keeps the West leading the world today on most indicators of modern progress. So dealing with immigration becomes a Western monologue, with both sides of “the debate” being led by Westerners. The West appears compassionate for the rest of the world, on the one hand, and superior enough to determine which humans are worthy of joining its civilisation on the other hand. Neither side of this “debate” seriously entertains that the West is doomed without immigration; that it is actually a matter for survival for the West to keep accepting and encouraging steady and diverse immigration. 

The real face of the anti-immigration camp

We can see why the Western anti-immigration camp keeps repeating the same arguments about why immigration is bad for the economy and bad for the overall quality of life of Western citizens, even when those arguments have been proven to be lacking evidence many times. It is because the public faces of that camp cannot speak bluntly of their true reasons for being anti-immigration (or, to be more accurate, very selective in immigration policies. 

Many Europeans migrate annually to either North America or Australia and they are rarely bothered). Ultimately, the real resistance to migration is cultural resistance. Many North Americans are sincerely anti-immigration for cultural reasons. More migrants will mean wider cultural shifts from what the old citizens are used to, and that frightens many of them. It may come as a surprise for only a few, but a large number of North Americans do not like cultural diversity, have minimum experience of what it actually looks/feels like, and want to keep it that way. 

Whether it is for religious reasons (i.e. wanting to keep a predominant Judaeo-Christian worldview) or for confused chauvinistic (or simply racist) reasons, there is little that can be argued with folks who embrace such views, because, frankly, migration flows certainly bring cultural changes. In fact, North America is one clear witness to that, as its cultural trends changed, significantly, many times in history—when the first European migrants came; when the African forced-migration happened; when the American Revolution happened; when the US civil war happened; when the second wave of European migrants came in result of the World Wars 1 and 2; when the influx of migrants from Latin America increased; and so on. 

Culture is never a static thing. It is either dynamic or it’s dead, and North American life is a living example of that—not always a positive example but an example nonetheless. An objective look at North American life, in general, can show that cultural change is ironically the one constant thing there. It may just not be able to gracefully accommodate all flavours of bigotry. That is why, for those who are anti-immigration for cultural reasons, we cannot offer solace, but we can tell them to either choose between a vibrant economy and a modern life of enjoying the advances of science, technology and innovation, on the one hand, or a stale culture on the other hand. You cannot choose both. 

There is an inherent inconsistency in the xenophobic approach of some anti-immigration folks. For example, when someone as prominent in American life as the [former] vice-president Joe Biden, says casually on national TV that he’s “Irish” (he didn’t say Irish-American) [9] no one ever questions his American-ness. It is taken for granted. There is absolutely nothing wrong with referring to your Irish ancestry in public without asserting your American identity in the same sentence. But you can imagine how some folks will freak out if the president, Barack Obama, said one day that he is “African” or “Kenyan” (without saying African-American) and how even liberal Americans will be at best apologetic for the president in ways they didn’t even have to worry about in the case of the vice-president. 

In essence there is nothing wrong with Americans from Irish, Scottish, Italian or Scandinavian ancestry expressing that in public and at ease; it’s just that, for the sake of consistency, that freedom should be available across the board. This is one reason, in addition to many others, the xenophobic approach cannot really deny its bigotry if it expresses itself openly in public. So it mainly chooses to express itself in public in the only other way it knows how: national economy and national security. 

Ironically, Western economies acknowledge that they need two “foreign things” to survive: foreign resources and foreign consumers. These are economies that perpetually need resources to make commodities and consumers to buy these commodities. If the anti-immigration proponents really succeed in keeping the West for themselves, the West itself will become a place of devastated economies that no one would want to migrate to in the first place. 

Who truly loses from international migration? 

One can finish this article by the counter-narrative that the current conditions of continuous “South-to-North” migration is only a bad deal for economic South (the economic Southern hemisphere). It largely means that a big percentage of their bright, innovative, highly-skilled folks, and potentially important consumers for their growing markets, are lost to industrialised/developed societies that now have their own share and more of such important resources. 

For example, “In parts of sub-Saharan Africa and Central America, sometimes more than half of all university graduates migrate to Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, with potentially serious consequences for critical sectors such as education, health and engineering” [10]. In modern history, no country has been able to achieve genuine economic and technological transformation without its own people taking the lead. If this south-to-north migration continuous to take place – for understandable reasons but problematic nonetheless – the West will only continue to get wealthier and more technologically advanced, while most developing societies will continue to be relatively poorer and less modernised.

However, and despite all, there are still some good things happening now in some developing parts of the world. There are big indicators of growing economies, increasing implementation of modern technologies, and better education and health indicators in parts of Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia. Even some funny things are happening: many Westerners are now migrating to developing societies, but in a different way. We can call this form of migration “opportunity migration”. 

These opportunity migrants do not need to migrate for economic survival or political reasons, but purely for even better opportunities in wealth and career. A recent study by the International Organisation for Migration found that more Europeans currently migrate annually to Latin America and the Caribbean than the other way around (i.e. more than Latin Americans and Caribbean people migrating to Europe) [11]. Parts of Africa have also recently witnessed a considerable flux of Western migrants that are responding to opportunity calls in some of the growing economies there. Interesting shifts and trends are happening throughout the world. 

In a conversation I once had with a group of friends about the big brain drain migration of highly skilled/educated Africans towards the West, a friend of mine commented, “It seems that even the full half of Africa’s cup is also empty.” A worrying yet unescapable thought. 


* Gussai H. Sheikheldin is a scholar of technology and institutions (in societies and in economies). His interdisciplinary academic and career profile combines engineering, public policy and sustainable development. Native of Sudanic Africa and resident of North America, he writes on academic and public platforms in both English and Arabic. Twitter: @GussaiHS 


[1] Video on Tech Insider: “Neil deGrasse Tyson has a problem with all the US presidential candidates”. 16 October 2015 on: 

[2] Ursula Franklin, 1989. The Real World of Technology. CBC Massey lectures, Tuesday, 7 November. 

[3] Michael Greenstone & Adam Looney (2010). “Ten Economic Facts about Immigration.” Report by the Hamilton Project, Brookings Institution, USA. 

[4] Neil G. Ruiz (2014). “The Geography of Foreign Students in U.S. Higher Education: Origins and Destinations”. Brookings Institution Website: 

[5] Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Melinda Marshall, and Laura Sherbin (2013). “How Diversity can Drive Innovation.” Harvard Business Review, December Issue. 

[6] Diversity was measured, in this study, in two dimensions: inherent and acquired attributes, and the included both ethnicity and work experience in other countries. 

[7]Innovation Cities Index 2014, top 20 cities leading the global innovation economy: 

[8] Christine P. Gambino, Edward N. Trevelyan & John Thomas Fitzwater (2014). “The Foreign-Born Population from Africa: 2008–2012.” American Community Survey Briefs. US Census Bureau: ACSBR/12-16. (pg. 9). 

[9] TV interview with Vice President of USA Joe Biden at “The Late Show” hosted by Steven Colbert, CBS channel, September 2015. Colbert as well joined Biden in saying that he’s “Irish”. 

[10] OECD. “Migration and the Brain Drain Phenomenon”. Viewed 3 November 2015 on: 

[11] “More Europeans Migrate to Latin America Than Vice Versa, Study Finds”. Global Voices (website), 26 June 2015: 

* The views of the above article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Pambazuka news editorial team 

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