Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Economic Crisis and Migration - The Exodus from the U.S.

Back in October I wrote about how the economic crisis was affecting immigration in Europe.  Now that I have read the MPI report, Migration and the Great Recession, I'd like to talk about the United States and how the crash of 2009 changed the migration equation.

MPI sets the stage:  "The economic crisis struck following nearly two decades of unprecedented prosperity across much of the United States.  For much of that period, labor demand outpaced the domestically produced new worker pipeline.  The U.S. economy came to rely on large numbers of of immigrant workers, and as a result, the number of foreign born increased from 20 million in 1990 to more than 38 million in 2008. "  But the official U.S. immigration system is not well-adapted to rapid changes in demand and so an informal "just in time" system  (illegal immigration) filled the gaps right up to 2008.

So what happened when the crisis hit in 2009?

A mass exodus.

It is estimated that over 300,000 undocumented workers have left California alone since 2008.  A July 2011 New York Times article claimed that "the illegal Mexican population in the United States has shrunk and that fewer than 100,000 illegal border-crossers and visa-violators from Mexico settled in the United States in 2010, down from about 525,000 annually from 2000 to 2004."

In addition to the flight of undocumented workers there was also an exodus of legal immigrants.  They went back to places like India and China where there was work and opportunity.  This website says the Chinese Education Ministry, "estimates that the number of overseas Chinese who returned to China in 2009 having received a foreign education reached 108,000: a sharp increase of 56.2% over the previous year. In 2010, this number reached an all-time high of 134,800 (a significant proportion studied in the U.S.) "  When you consider that a significant number of start-ups in the United States are created by foreigners, this is cause for concern.

Legal in-flows also decreased though not as dramatically as the illegal ones .  MPI reports that, "demand for temporary employment-based visas for highly-educated immigrants also slowed measurably, with the annual quota for H1-B highly skilled visas taking more than 6 months to fill during each of the last two years compared to a matter of days or weeks in the years immediately prior to the recession."  Those still coming from Europe are very different from previous waves of immigrants - they are young, well-educated and very temporary.  They come to work, make their money, and go home.

I would add to this another figure that may or may not be related to the economic crisis.  Recently the AARO (Association of American Residents Overseas) revised its number of Americans citizens abroad to about 6.3 Million (the previous figure was 5.5 Million).  If we had better numbers would we see more native-born Americans becoming international migrants as a result of unemployment and bad economic times at home?  There is not enough data on American emigration to draw any reliable conclusions and, in any case, I fear that no one really wants to know the answer.

All this demonstrates that there is a serious disconnect between the reality and the immigration debate in the United States.  Politicians there seems to be just as manipulative as those in France when it comes to using this issue to get votes.  It's almost surreal to listen to Michele Bachman talk about building a double-fence between the U.S. and Mexico.  Is she aware that the unemployment rate in the U.S. is 9.1% and only 5.26% in Mexico?  The wall(s) she proposes are completely superfluous but the voters she appeals to seem blissfully unaware of this.

In both Europe and the United States are we looking at what Laurence Gonzales would refer to as
"a failure to revise the mental map?"  The old frames were 1.  the rise of the EU and slow but steady growth and financial stability in the Euro-zone and 2.  the "Land of opportunity" meme that has characterized the United States for much of its history.  Politicians and citizens in both places seem to be operating on the assumption that nothing has fundamentally changed and so, by extension, they don't have to.

The United States is and has always been a country of immigration.  Of all the things that can be said to hold Americans together, the most important may be a belief that their country is a "land of opportunity" and that everyone wishes to come to America to be a part of it.  Today it is still a place where opportunity is to be found but it's not the only place.  There is competition and migrants have a very effective method of expressing their preferences - not at the polls but with their feet.

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