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(Mis)Representation: Unraveling the Narrative of Immigrants As Contemporary Economic Threats

Jennifer Kuklenski wrote “(Mis)Representation: Unraveling the Narrative of Immigrants As Contemporary Economic Threats” as part of the 2016 Humanity in Action Diplomacy and Diversity Fellowship.


In liberal democracies today, immigration is one of the most contested issues on the public agenda. Images of immigrants as a “threat” to national security, identity, and economic development are propagated by politicians, both in the United States (US) and Europe, who seek an easy scapegoat to their nations’ most pressing problems. However, the scale of international mobility makes immigration one of the most complex and difficult policy issues to address. The power of mass media to politicize some issues, while depoliticizing others, has deepened uncertainties about the impacts of migrant flows in receiving countries and has staged claims that cannot be easily verified or refuted. The result has been an oversimplification of the issue and public amnesia regarding the well-documented benefits of immigration. 

Immigration is beneficial, perhaps even necessary, for contemporary liberal societies with advanced economies. When countries industrialize, birth rates decline as people have better access to contraception, more women enter the workforce, and young people, focused on their professional careers, start families later. If birth rates remain at current levels in the European Union (EU), for example, the region will experience a shortfall of 20 million workers by 2030 (1). Migrant workers, accounting for approximately 150 million out of the world’s 244 million international migrants, ease the economic impacts of significant population declines (2). According to Gary Freeman, author and professor at The University in Texas at Austin Department of Government, labor migrants have become a “structural requirement” for advanced capitalist economies (3). 

Yet, immigrants are often accused of stealing jobs, driving down native wages, and draining the welfare state. Even political agents, who often concede to employer demands for more liberal immigration policies, provide a public narrative of toughness on immigration. “Stump speeches” promising to curb immigration may meet short-term political goals, but tough immigration policies are a mistake for nations seeking coherent economic strategies (4). Such policies slow the pace of innovation, reduce the supply of workers, and make it more difficult for regional economies to respond to business-cycle fluctuations. 

Continued focus on socio-cultural issues “caused” by immigration is also misguided, and many of the social concerns, such as immigrant criminal activity or access to welfare programs, can be addressed through targeted economic policy. If immigrants and natives alike possess better labor market outcomes, they are less likely to engage in criminal activity or use social resources. Moreover, improved job prospects for immigrants facilitates interactions between people of diverse cultural backgrounds, which builds tolerance and understanding. Intermingling in the labor market may also mitigate the possibility that immigrant communities become marginalized, which in turn may help curb potential conflict between native and immigrant groups. 

Contemporary Migrant Image and the Immigrant “Threat” 

Discourses about immigration are constructed by political actors in an effort to shape perceptions in ways conducive to their own preferences and interests. The discursive construction of immigration as a threat to national identity is one of the most powerful tools used by anti-immigrant actors because it resonates with deeply-rooted in-group favoritism. Once an image of immigration as a threat to national identity is established, it becomes self-reinforcing and is very difficult to dispel. Unlike the claim that immigration depresses wages, the idea that immigration threatens national identity is not easily disproven. The national in-group has become increasingly important among European countries since the 1980s, as evidenced in the World Values Survey, which feeds into anti-immigrant mobilization (5). 

Indeed, in-group favoritism among European countries corresponds with increasingly diversified populations, reinforced by the processes of EU enlargement and integration (6). The contemporary debate is “double-faced,” with official rhetoric underscoring the importance of diversity (as evidenced in diversity charters across the EU) on one hand, and mass public perception of problematic immigration on the other (7). Far-right political actors have capitalized on the dichotomy between official discourse and public opinion and have enjoyed unprecedented victories in many recent European elections. Political parties running on anti-immigration and xenophobic nationalist platforms have managed to “hijack” the immigration agenda in the Netherlands and Denmark, control the government in Poland, help drive the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU, and most recently secure the presidency in the United States (8). The common thread among these platforms is a conviction that immigration undermines the nation. The fusion of anti-immigrant frames based on cultural, religious, and security concerns is remarkably potent because it engages deeply rooted anxieties about identity in an era of globalization and links these anxieties to one of the state’s core functions: collective security (9).

Anti-immigrant political framing, which depicts immigrants as a tool of the international elite conspiring to undermine the average citizen and build a new social order, where borders and sovereignty cease to exist, is most obviously linked to populist rhetoric of far-right political actors. However, the economic framing is often used to justify more stringent immigration controls by moderate and even liberal political actors. Since the global economic crisis that began in 2007, public rhetoric increasingly portrays immigrants as a drain on scarce resources, stealing native jobs, depressing wages, and burdening social welfare programs. These perceptions are troublesome, since they are not necessarily based on facts or reason. Moreover, contemporary migration flows are a product of globalization and despite some political actors’ best efforts, globalization is an actuality that cannot be reversed (10). 

Immigration as a Reality: Accepting and Benefiting from the Inevitable  

Evidence from the US and Europe increasingly suggests that on average, native citizens are more productive in culturally diverse environments (11). The diversity in life experiences, education, training, and problem solving brought by immigrants produces potential benefits by increasing the variety of skills, goods, and services available for production, consumption, and innovation. Immigrants’ skills are also complementary to natives since immigrants often perform different tasks or bring different abilities and skills to the same task. Using their “cognitively diverse” abilities, immigrants bring different perspectives for solving problems and have access to different resources, which may ultimately create more productive, creative, and satisfying workplaces (12) (13). 

For example, prior to the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), Soviet scientists were prohibited from freely exchanging ideas with their Western colleagues. Soviet and Western scientists began to specialize in very different fields within their respective disciplines. After the collapse, many of those scientists emigrated to Western countries and began working with their intellectual counterparts. A third of the mathematicians who emigrated ended up in the US and according to Harvard mathematician Persi Diaconis, the new interactions were “fantastic.” As reported in the New York Times, Diaconis claimed he was introduced to a “totally fresh set of insights and results,” which helped him solve a problem he had been working on for twenty years (14). Of course, mathematicians in today’s globalized world can share ideas without emigrating; however, evidence suggests that the benefits afforded by culturally diverse environments are most rewarding when natives work closely with immigrants (15). In other words, foreigners have the most positive impact on workplace creativity and problem solving when they are working beside their native counterparts.  

According to University of Michigan professor Scott E. Page, diversity may even trump ability. He developed a series of agent-based models to represent individuals within two economies trying to solve simple and hard problems. One economy consisted of only the best performing (similar) agents and another economy consisting of random, but high performing, agents. The results indicated that the economy composed of better (but similar) agents performed worse. Specifically with regard to problem solving, the models suggest that heterogeneity trumps homogeneity time and again, even when the homogenous group is composed of the best and brightest and regardless of whether the problem is easy or difficult to solve. Put differently, his findings suggest that a group of high performers from diverse backgrounds will outperform a group of the most skilled who come from similar backgrounds (16). 

Immigration also causes market expansion. George Borjas, Professor of Economics and Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, found that the total contribution of immigrants to native incomes may be upwards of 55 billion US dollars. Although such predictions may be slightly exaggerated and are arguably small in the context of multi-trillion dollar economies, immigration introduces new interactions between firms and workers, allowing both to gain knowledge for free (17). Moreover, workplace diversity allows firms to access new markets, and studies have shown that increases in trade produces external returns in a nation’s aggregate wealth. Immigrants also tend to be entrepreneurial. In the US, immigrants are thirty percent more likely to start a business, which in turn creates jobs (18). Thus, rather than reducing jobs for native citizens, immigration may actually lead to a greater number of job opportunities through international trade and domestic business. Immigrants in the US are also three times more likely to file patents than native-born citizens (19).

From an economic perspective, the rewards associated with a diverse labor force are clear and easily acceptable, although this is not to suggest that immigration has no costs. National income tends to increase when immigrants enter the country; however, Borjas cautioned that the average wage of workers in the US may actually decrease. He contended that property owners and investors reap many of the benefits associated with the increase in national income and while efficiency may increase, the trade-off is large wealth transfers away from native workers (20). If true, this may explain why US policy-makers more often discuss the labor market impact of immigration as opposed to the aggregate economic benefits. More recent findings contradict those of Borjas, indicating that on average, immigration causes a slight increase in the average wage in the US, while simultaneously keeping prices down (21). Immigration may therefore help increase the standard of living in advanced economies while also providing a necessary check on inflation. 

Even migrants performing low-skilled jobs, who are often perceived as the largest drain to fiscal resources, add value in advanced economies. As previously discussed, much of the evidence suggests that unskilled immigrants complement a largely skilled native labor force. In fact, Borjas argues that low-skilled immigration “greases the wheels” of the labor market (22). Indeed, some industries, such as farming in developed economies, simply could not compete with foreign rivals without the cheap labor afforded through immigration. Immigrants in low-skilled jobs also tend to be more mobile than natives, and this mobility helps dampen fluctuations in the economy, easing the burden on native workers when unemployment rates rise. However, the human capital investment necessary to integrate lower-skilled immigrants into the broader labor market does require large government expenditures (24). 

That said, adult immigrants, skilled or unskilled, arrive at the prime level of their productivity, and the costs associated with raising them, such as health care and public schooling, are not born on the receiving society. Evidence also suggests that taxes paid by both regular and irregular immigrants exceed the costs of the services they use in the US (25). Given the fact that the number of low-skilled immigrant workers in the US is greater than those in other high-receiving countries, and recognizing that tax revenue is lower in the US than most of its European peers, it is hard to accept the argument that low-skilled immigration drains the economies of modern European welfare states.  

The socio-cultural costs of immigration are perhaps more problematic. Negative effects of immigration include the costs of communication problems, based on language or cultural differences, among individuals within the workplace and greater society. Additionally, diverse perspectives inherently produce less agreement on public goods and policies, as well as possible political unrest (and potentially civil conflict) that may result from oppression of minorities. Such problems are heightened in poorer countries, where institutions are unable to manage conflict intrinsically associated with diversity. 

On Integration: The Importance of Economic Policy 

Today, liberal states are largely concerned with integration, which is a multifaceted process with social, cultural, economic, and political dimensions. Social integration involves friendships, residential patterns, and intermarriage rates between natives and immigrants. Cultural integration includes language acquisition and acceptance of the native majority’s beliefs and values. Economic integration entails educational outcomes and labor market participation. Political integration involves participation in public life, such as voting, in the receiving country (26). Although social and cultural integration seem to dominate public and media agendas, Randall Hansen, a political scientist and historian at the University of Toronto, makes a compelling case that the preoccupation with cultural integration, particularly in Europe, is misdirected. He argues that “work, not culture, needs to be the basis of immigration policy.” (27) Moreover, the types of integration are not mutually exclusive. For example, economic integration can help advance social, cultural, and political integration (28).

Immigrant employment is a vehicle for social cohesion in major receiving countries. Unemployed persons are more likely to be involved in criminal activity and use welfare programs (29). Moreover, employed immigrants interact with natives more frequently, which helps in building relationships, tolerance, and an understanding between people of different cultural backgrounds. Labor market integration gives migrants a sense of self and a connection to the wider community. It helps them to learn about local customs, bridging intercultural divides. It makes individuals economically self-sufficient, which enables them to participate more in local activities and helps to facilitate a positive integration for children (30). 

Therefore, the high rates of immigrant unemployment in many European countries is alarming. In 2010, the relative unemployment rate for foreign-born workers across wealthy European countries was sixty-five percent higher than native born unemployment. In Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Sweden, foreign-born workers were more than twice as likely to be unemployed than natives. In contrast, foreign-born workers in Australia, Canada, and the US were less likely to be unemployed than native workers (31).  The reasons for immigrant unemployment are complex and difficult to disentangle, both demand and supply side factors play a role. 

On the demand side, factors such as non-recognition of foreign qualifications, labor market regulations, racial discrimination, and the residential concentration of immigrants in depressed areas account for varying degrees of immigrant inactivity in the labor market. On the supply side, levels of education, training, and skills, in addition to the ability to speak the language, affect immigrant labor market outcomes. Individual factors, such as country of origin, gender, education level, and age, are recognized as the most influential characteristics for immigrant employment outcomes, although Meghan Benton, Senior Policy Analyst with the Migration Policy Institute, stresses that they are “by no means an overwhelming determinant.” (32) In fact, employment outcomes vary for different groups of immigrants across countries. From a policy perspective then, the key question regarding economic integration of migrants is why so much variation in immigrant unemployment exists among countries with advanced economies. 

One important factor at the aggregate level suggests that countries with a lower foreign-born unemployment rate have immigration policies that respond to labor market needs. For instance, Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom, which has the highest level of immigrant employment among European countries, all have point-based systems that match immigrant skills with labor market needs. Alternatively, immigrant unemployment is highest in European countries with large amounts of forced or family migration. This may seem unsurprising; however, it is striking that the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member country with the lowest level of immigrant unemployment, the US, has an immigrant population overwhelmingly made up of family migrants. Immigration policy is clearly not the sole factor for immigrant labor market outcomes. It is thus necessary to consider the effect of non-immigration institutions and policies on labor market outcomes (33).  

Developed countries with the lowest levels of immigrant unemployment are those with liberal market economies, less generous welfare programs, and deregulated labor markets. Alternatively, those with the highest levels of immigrant unemployment are coordinated market economies with more generous welfare programs and greater labor market regulation. Indeed, it appears that national political economy may play a crucial role in immigrant integration (34). Local and regional contextual factors also play an important role. For instance, Scandinavian countries have very few low-skilled jobs available, which makes it difficult for unskilled immigrants to find work (35). Moreover, the language of Scandinavian countries is seldom spoken outside of Scandinavia, which hinders language mastery prior to immigrant arrival. That said, even in the US, where migrant employment outcomes are strong, the nature of immigrant work may impede integration. If migrants are working long hours in low-skilled jobs, they are often segregated from native populations and the level of integration is much lower (36).

Education is another important policy area. Education policy first and foremost must address the availability of schooling and training opportunities for immigrants and their children, which is generally lower and of lesser quality than for natives (37). Educational opportunities for marginalized or minority groups may help address grievances rooted in economic inequality. For example, changing entrance policies for universities can dramatically change the distribution of economic opportunities and offer an avenue of empowerment for marginalized portions of the population. Subsidized programs that promote human capital development in immigrant communities are also important, especially for older migrants. 

For instance, bridging programs help migrants ‘plug gaps’ in their skills, so their work experience can better translate to desired skills in receiving countries (38). A combination of vocational language training has been demonstrated as most effective. Bridging programs may prove particularly beneficial in European countries receiving large amounts of refugees, many of whom possess skills that are not directly transferable to receiving countries. Additionally, programs that facilitate the involvement of migrant parents in their local school systems, to include educational (such as language) classes, lead to improved integration outcomes (39). Better education can also help challenge the status quo and demystify myths about immigration propagated by anti-immigrant political actors. Finally, on the socio-cultural level, education facilitates the intermingling of people from different cultures, which helps build productive relationships. 


Many modern liberal democracies are struggling with the issue of immigration, which is increasingly framed by the mass media, political elites, and greater public as a negative phenomenon. Natives in the US and Western Europe, in particular, seem to be increasingly concerned with the “threat” of immigration to national security and identity, as well as the alleged economic burden posed by migrants. Although identity and security concerns dominate anti-immigrant rhetoric on the far right, moderate and even liberal political actors publicly depict immigration as a drain on resources and a threat to native livelihoods. Careful examination of economic literature, however, indicates that this economic “threat” is imagined. Immigration is a beneficial and perhaps necessary part of coherent economic strategies.  

Further, the continued focus on socio-cultural integration is largely misguided and many of the social concerns, such as immigrant criminal activity or access to welfare programs, can be addressed through targeted economic policy. As a final thought, differences between coordinated market economies and liberal market economies likely affect immigrant participation in the informal economy, the protections enjoyed by immigrants compared to native workers, the level of self-employment among migrants, and the level of workforce discrimination (40). The finding that immigrant unemployment is lowest in liberal market economies means that political economic policies may have an indirect, but profound effect on immigrant integration. The connection between political economy and immigrant integration requires further research; however, the evidence suggests that political economy structures, combined with immigration policies, may help explain why some countries are better able to integrate immigrants into labor markets, as well as greater society, than others and should be taken into consideration, particularly in countries where immigration is currently the most contested issue. 


•     •     • 

About the Author 

Jennifer Kuklenski is an Instructor in the Department of Social Responsibility at Northland College. Her previous faculty appointments include Instructor of Social Science at Gogebic Community College and Instructor of International Political Relations at the University of Maryland University College Europe. Jennifer is completing her PhD at the University of Southern Mississippi, where she also works as a Graduate Assistant in the department of Political Science, International Development and International Affairs. Originally from Ironwood, Michigan, she served as an Intelligence Analyst in the United States Air Force National Guard for eleven years and received her MA in International Security from the University of Arizona. 



The author and editor thank Asha Abdill for her dedicated efforts in reviewing earlier versions of this article.


1. Joseph J. Hobbs, Fundamental of World Regional Geography (Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole, 2013), 70). 

2. “International Labor Organization: Labor Migration,” accessed Jun. 29, 2016, http://www.ilo.org/global/topics/labour-migration/lang--en/index.htm.

3. Gary Freeman, Immigrant Labor and Racial Conflict in Industrial Societies: The French and British Experience, 1945-1975, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979), 3. 

4. Gordon H. Hanson, “Immigration and Economic Growth,” Cato Journal 32, 1 (2012): 25-34. Page 25. 

5. James Hampshire, Politics of Immigration (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Polity Press, 2013), 32. 

6. Elenai Bellini, Gianmarco I.P. Ottaviano, Dino Pinelli and Giovanni Prarolo, “Cultural Diversity and Economic Performance: Evidence from European Regions,” (Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei (FEEM) Working Paper 63.2009: 1-29, 2009).

7. Ibid, 3.

8. Omar Serrano. The Domestic Sources of European Foreign Policy: Defence and Enlargement (Amsterdam, Netherlands: Amsterdam University Press, 2013), 111-113. 

9. Hampshire, Politics of Immigration, 32-34.

10. Hampshire, Politics of Immigration, 32-34.

11. See Bellini et al., Cultural Diversity and Economic Performance, 1-29, and Gianmarco I.P. Ottavioano and Giovanni Peri, “The Economic Value of Cultural Diversity: Evidence from U.S. Cities,” Journal of Economic Geography 6 (2006): 9-44.

12. Alberto Alesina, and Eliana La Ferrara, 2005, “Ethnic Diversity and Economic Performance,” Journal of Economic Literature 43(3): 763.

13. K. Williams and C. O’Reilly, “Demography and Diversity in Organizations: A Review of 40 years of research,” in Research in Organizational Behavior, B.W. Staw and L.L. Cummings, Eds., (Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, 1998).

14. Gina Kolata, “Soviet Scientists Flock to U.S., Acting as Tonic for Colleagues,” The New York Times, May. 8, 1990, accessed Dec. 19, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/1990/05/08/us/soviet-scientists-flock-to-us-acting-as-tonic-for-colleges.html?pagewanted=all. 

15. George J. Borjas, We Wanted Workers (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2016), 160. 

16. Ibid.

17. George J. Borjas, “The Economic Benefits from Immigration,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 9, 2 (1995): 3-22. Borjas (1995) cautions that models used to estimate this amount may be overly optimistic due to the fact that other factors of production are fixed. It is possible that the impact is less when considering large economies, such as that of the United States.

18. Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney, “Ten Economic Facts About Migration,” (Policy Memo, The Hamilton Project, Brookings Institute, 2010), accessed Aug. 1, 2016. https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/09_immigration.pdf.

19. Greenstone and Looney, “Ten Economic Facts,” 19. 

20. Borjas, “Benefits from Immigration,” 3-22. 

21. Greenstone and Looney, “Ten Economic Facts,” 5.

22. George Borjas, “Does Immigration Grease the Wheels of the U.S. Labor Market?” Brookings Papers on Economic Activity 1 (2001): 69-122, Page 69.  

23. Hanson, “Immigration and Economic Growth,” 28. 

24. Meghan Benton, Senior Policy Analyst with the Migration Policy Institute. Telephone interview on Aug. 16, 2016. 

25. Greenstone and Looney, “Ten Economic Facts,” 6.

26. Hampshire, Politics of Immigration, 134-136. 

27. Randall Hansen, “The Centrality of Employment in Immigration Integration in Europe,” (Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute, 2012), 8. 

28. Thanks to Aasha Abdill for her comments on an earlier draft and highlighting this important point. 

29. Gary S. Becker, “Crime and Punishment: An Economic Approach,” Journal of Political Economy 76, 2 (1968): 169-217, accessed Jun. 1, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1830482. According to Becker (1968). Unemployment is positively correlated with crime rates because unemployed individuals possesses a lower marginal return from lawful earning activities and thus, are more likely to be involved in criminal activity. 

30. Meghan Benton Interview. 

31. Hampshire, “The Politics of Immigration,” 141-143.

32. Ibid. 

33. Hampshire, “The Politics of Immigration,” 131-155. 

34. Ibid. 

35. Meghan Benton Interview. 

36. Julie Sugarman, Policy Analyst with the Migration Policy Institute. Telephone interview on Aug. 19, 2016. 

37. Hansen, “The Centrality,” 1-9. 

38. Meghan Benton Interview. 

39. Julie Sugarman Interview.

40. Hampshire, Politics of Immigration; Freeman, Immigrant Labor and Racial Conflict.

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