Immigrants in the West Aren't Going Away

Since arriving in France from Mali six years ago, Youba Soumbounou has sorted trash at factories and warehouses near Paris. He got his job by using fake papers and has been told five times by police to leave the country.

His employer, which he asked not be identified, didn't fire him. Instead, it has joined other French waste-treatment companies such as Veolia Environnement (VE) and Derichebourg in seeking legal residency for laborers they need. "If we didn't have access to foreign workers, we simply wouldn't be able to do our work," says Pascal Decary, head of human resources at Paris-based Veolia Propreté. The company found out last year that 18 of its workers have phony documents, Decary says. "There was never any question of us abandoning people who have worked hard for us all these years, doing jobs that natives don't want to do."

France is banning Muslim head coverings. Anti-immigrant parties in Sweden and the Netherlands have made significant inroads. U.S. President Barack Obama has deferred an overhaul of immigration laws because of opposition in Congress and in states such as Arizona. Yet most industrialized nations have done little to oust immigrants. "If you look beyond the noise, you don't hear anyone saying there shouldn't be any immigration at all," says Jean-Pierre Garson, head of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's international migration unit in Paris. "They can't. Parts of the economy would grind to a halt."

A 2008 report by the British Parliament says 17 percent of the U.K.'s economic growth in 2004 and 2005 was the result of immigration. The Washington-based Center for American Progress, run by John Podesta, who was chief of staff to former President Bill Clinton, said in January that making it easier for undocumented workers to gain residency and attracting guest laborers would add $1.5 trillion to the U.S. economy over the next 10 years.

Whether to do undesirable jobs or pay into weakened pension funds, workers from poor nations are needed by the West, says the OECD's Garson. "Decisions are often made on the basis of the emotions of the day," says Ben Noteboom, chief executive officer of Randstad Holding, the world's second-largest staffing company. "Yet that emotion will fade away because in the end, when we are in a hospital, we need nurses."

In the U.S., News Corp. (NWSA) Chairman Rupert Murdoch, along with chief executive officers from companies including Delta Air Lines (DAL), Xerox (XRX), Marriott International (MAR), and Yahoo! (YHOO) are lobbying to ease the way to citizenship for many illegal immigrants. In September, Murdoch urged a House Judiciary subcommittee to bring "an end to the arbitrary immigration and visa quotas."

Companies that support immigration can face a hostile public. The minority Dutch government that depends on support from the anti-immigrant Freedom Party plans to ban full-face Islamic veils. Polls show as many as 70 percent of Germans at least partly support former Deutsche Bundesbank board member Thilo Sarrazin, who wrote in a recently published book that Turks and Arabs are making Germany "dumber."

No matter how fearful voters in the West are, the logic of numbers is unrelenting. European countries where women have fewer than two children, on average, have to keep bringing in non-Europeans to maintain their populations, living standards, and pensions, says André Sapir, an economics professor at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. "Eastern Europe is not going to be the reservoir of labor that Southern Europe ceased to be in the 1970s," he says. "It can't replace North Africa."

The bottom line: Anti-immigrant feeling is running high in the West, yet the economic need for immigrants' labor and spending power remains strong.

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