Immigrants provide a necessary contribution to modern, rich societies

Immigrants provide a necessary contribution to modern, rich societies Magnus Fröderberg/

According to professor Alejandro Portes and associate professor Shahamak Rezaei, most modern and wealthy societies need immigration for both economic and social reasons. Due to low fertility rate the societies do not reproduce themselves, which challenges the welfare state’s taxation fundament; in order to maintain the current level of welfare, we need taxpayers to contribute positively to public budgets. The demographic transition requires that taxpayers come to the country from outside; it requires in-migration.

Immigrants not only contribute to the society in economic terms but also in social and cultural terms. Furthermore, Portes and Rezaei state that immigration contributes to the fostering of new ideas and innovation.

Immigration and ethnic diversity can be a good thing – provided it is equal

According Rezaei, based on statistical evidence, there is over-representation of immigrants in Denmark who are overeducated. According to the same statistics, the incident of overeducation among native Danes is tremendously lower. Such a large number of overeducated immigrants is problematic on both an individual and societal level. On the individual level it affects job satisfaction and productivity and the society as such experiences inefficient allocation of human capital, productivity and growth.

Furthermore a large proportion of especially non-western immigrants stands outside the labour market and do thereby not contribute economically to the welfare state. While immigration contributes to a diverse and thereby, according to Portes, more interesting society, the large amount of immigrants being  outside the labour market results in unequal diversity, which leads to lower trust and weakening social cohesion.

In an ethnic diverse society, characterised by social heterogeneity, relational based trust will diminish. But trust does not need to be based on mutual knowledge, it should be based on universal norms and rule-based governance. The organic solidarity that stems from rule based society and governance is what makes people feel like substantive citizens and what ensures society’s cohesion.

Immigration will lower the cultural homogeneity and thereby relational based trust on societal level, but strong institutions will reduce the risk of system breakdown. According to Portes, no western societies have been seriously threatened by immigration; it has not been a thread towards value systems or structure. On the contrary; immigration constitutes a much needed injection of youth and energy to the western societies.

Immigrant enclaves are no opposition to successful integration

Immigrants tend to form enclaves with people with the same background, religion, language, and so on; based on identification based trust. This is common behaviour; we often choose to interact with people that are similar to ourselves.

Rezaei regards ethnic enclave economy to be one of the most essential things to ensure that immigrants form successful businesses but it might not be optimal in a universal welfare state regime such as the Danish welfare state. The enclaves provide trust and a sense of security in the short run but it might become a huge barrier in achieving socio-economic mobility and socio-economic assimilation in the long run. From a business point of view, the disadvantage is that the members of the enclave tend to know he same things and have access to the same kind of information, what you need in business in order to develop and enhance innovation, is new information, new ideas. The dilemma is that the much needed internal trust might become external distrust. It is thus essential to know when to get closed and when to open up for outside inspiration – this terminology is in literature called as “coupling and decoupling”

From an integration perspective, the enclaves should vanish, and they tend to do so more or less by themselves over a couple of generations. Typically first generation immigrants prefer to speak their own language for comfort and for trust. In successful enclaves children attend school and successful ethnic enclaves cannot entirely self-contain; they have to have markets and to interact with the society outside the enclave. The exchange with the surrounding society facilitates a process of incorporation, so that over a few generations, successful enclaves tend to self-destroy. This requires two important aspects: the receiving society must be somewhat open – it must not discriminate or marginalise; and the culture of the ethnic group must be instrumentally oriented towards economic success and not driven by cultural or religious conviction, stating that the group must remain apart.

Integration should not be accelerated

According to Portes integration should be seen as a gradual process of incorporation into the mainstream. Instead of trying to accelerate or enforce integration, there must be room for immigrant groups to find their own way. One of the problems that has occurred in European countries has been the great anxiety to integrate at all costs; not acknowledging that the process takes time. The best the society can do is to provide a space to allow immigrant groups to find their own way.

Rezaei states that a lot of countries, including the Nordic countries, try to develop initiatives directed towards immigrants in order to enhance integration as a top-down process. But like other sub groups, immigrant groups will themselves take initiative when they experience that something works in their disfavour, thereby initiating a bottom-up approach. According to research, a mixture of the top-down and the bottom-up approach will be most successful and time efficient.


The article is based on presentations made on the conference Diversity as a Resource in Adult Education, in Copenhagen, 11. April 2014 and an interview conducted in relation with the conference. The interview can be seen on the video. Read more about the conference here (in danish).
Alejandro Portes is Professor of sociology at Princeton University and University of Miami. He is the founding director of the Center for Migration and Development at Princeton.
Shahamak Rezaei is associate professor at Roskilde University and visiting scholar at Princeton University.


Video: Tinne Geiger