Immigration is one of those issues where "contempt before investigation" is the order of the day. Most of what the American and French public think about immigration is based on perception and bears very little connection to reality. I've met French citizens from small towns who are convinced that immigrants are running amok in France and destroying the social welfare system even when these folks live in rural areas where they are zero migrants, and their sole source of information about all this is television. I've also met Americans who are convinced that migrants are storming the gates and committing all kinds of nefarious acts which include going to U.S. universities for free (and I laughed so hard when I heard that).
No one really wants to hear otherwise which brings me to think that the issue is not so much the immigrants as it is a manifestation of native citizens' fears (globalization, budget deficits and the rising cost of a university education in the U.S.) and a kind of reassurance that the country is still a Great Nation and an attractive destination. Just look at how many people want to come live here, they say. And there is something to that. Imagine a world where no one wanted to go to either France or the U.S. That would be a real kick in the ego, wouldn't it?
The U.S. has around 11 million undocumented migrants out of a total population of around 313 million. The native birthrate has dropped, the country is growing very slowly and is getting older. Index Mundi has these statistics: median age is 37, population growth rate is 0.9%, fertility rate is hovering around replacement and it has a high infant mortality rate compared to other modern nations. The net migration rate however is a healthy 3.62/1000 but that's still lower than their northern neighbor, Canada, which has a net migration rate of 5.65/1000. (The net migration rate is the difference between the emigrants (people leaving) and immigrants (people arriving).
Of the estimated 11 million unauthorized migrants, Huddleston says that 60% have lived in the U.S. for over 10 years and many have children who are U.S. citizens. To put that number in perspective that's equivalent to the number of U.S. citizens living outside the U.S. (6 million). I find it hilarious that homeland Americans think that 6 million Americans abroad is insignificant but 6 million long-term "illegals" in the U.S. is a really Big Deal.
There are very few paths to legalization in the U.S. and Huddleston says that there hasn't been any major legalization program (amnesty) in 27 years though Congress has voted small targeted programs over the years. That coupled with more restrictions on legal immigration makes for an untenable situation. Ferreting out those migrants is expensive and intrusive for everyone. People don't come with signs on their foreheads or tattoos that say, "I'm legal" or "I'm a citizen." So to catch undocumented persons, the authorities must make life difficult for the general population. It's also bad for democracy to have people who can't vote or fully participate in the political life of the country. And if that isn't enough, may I also point out that if these folks should return to their home countries the U.S. cannot apply their worldwide citizenship-based taxation system to them. If the U.S. kicks them out or asks them to leave, they are free and clear of the tax and reporting obligations applied to U.S. citizens and Green Card holders who live abroad. And now that I think about it, that just might be one hell of a reason for a migrant to the U.S. to stay under the radar and NOT accept an amnesty program. It keeps one's options open if the intention is to make some money or have an adventure and then move on retire in a third or in the home country. Think about it.
In comparison France has a population of around 65 million. Again according to Index Mundi it also has an aging population and a low birthrate - in 2011 the fertility rate was hovering around replacement (2.08 births per woman). Total population growth is estimated at 0.497%. The net migration rate is low compared to the U.S. and really low compared to Canada - only 1.1/1000. That means that about as many people leave France as enter France.
Huddleston says that France has had much more comprehensive migrant policy as do other EU countries. Legalization programs are part of the French toolkit for managing migration and have been for years. Sarkozy, the former president was nonetheless very much against amnesty programs and he applied important restrictions on who qualified for legalization. But programs do exist - some have been exceptional (time-limited) and others are on-going. In general when there is a conservative government these programs become more restrictive with tougher criteria for qualifying. We shall see what the Socialists will do.
What has been the result of these two very different policies. Huddleston is very clear about what he thinks:
Compared to the United States, the 27 EU countries have a much lower unauthorized population, which ranges from 1.9 to 3.8 million in 2008, based on the low-to-medium quality estimates from the EU’s CLANDESTINO project.These overall estimates represent less than 1% of the total EU population and between 7 and 13% of the foreign population.
Compared to the EU the U.S. has a much higher undocumented migrant population which was nearly 4% in 2011. And Pew says that the number of undocumented represents a whopping 27% of the total immigrant population in the U.S.
Prudence. All of these numbers need to be taken with a grain of salt. It's not easy to count people who don't want to be found, right? For an idea of how the official numbers can be questioned, Bruno Aubusson has this article, Les démographes doutent mais les politiques savent.
But if we assume that these numbers are roughly correct it makes one wonder why there is so much fuss about it. Even if we doubled the official EU figure to 2% then that would mean that 98% of the EU population are either citizens or in the country legally. Ditto for the U.S. with 11 million undocumented out of a population of over 300 million. Yes, it is something to be managed but it's not nearly as bad as politicians and the general public make it out to be. The "flood" they see, looks more like a "steady trickle" to me. And I really have to question whether the time, money, energy, loss of civil liberties and annoyance for the native population and legal immigrants, not to mention the expansion of government, are really justified. What do all these measures really buy the local population? An interesting statistic that I would like to see is how much money has to be spent to catch one undocumented migrant. That would bring a lot of clarity to the situation because it would put a price tag on the hunt. And since migrants will continue to arrive "irregularly" it is a line on the national budget that will never ever go away. Unless, of course, the country becomes so unattractive (bad economy, high unemployment rates, violence, and more attractive destinations elsewhere) that the net migration rate goes negative (more people leaving than arriving). Frankly I would worry a lot more about that because it really would be be a clear sign of the national "déclin" that I hear so many French and Americans worrying about.
Last word. All these measures meant to punish the undocumented - the resistance to amnesty programs and more restrictive criteria for the paths to legalization and citizenship - have a terrible effect on another issue dear to the hearts of natives: integration. I know from my own immigrant experience that where citizenship seems impossible (or very onerous), the desire to integrate dissipates. Why spend the time and effort to be a part of something when you could be thrown out at any moment or if you think you will never be able to participate fully in the life of that country? In some ways it can even be an act of resistance - if you won't accept me then I won't accept you and your ways. And what does that lead to? A vicious circle where everyone involved is cutting off their noses to spite their faces.
I'll be watching events unfold on both sides of the Atlantic - the U.S. Congress on one side and the Socialists on the other - in the hope that sanity will prevail.