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Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Asking Better Questions about Migration

Interesting article up on the Open Border website by Alex Nowrasteh.  Many discussions about illegal immigration are uninteresting because they start from the assumption that it is a huge problem, worthy of our attention and our tax dollars.

In his article Mr. Nowrasteh challenges that assumption and asks instead:   Why are there so few unlawful migrants?  The U.S. has a population of around 315 million.  The EU is even larger with 500 million.  And yet, both regions have relatively low numbers of illegal migrants.  You cannot tell me that 10-11 million sans papiers out of a U.S. population of over 300 million means that the barbarians are at the gate, swamping the native population and intent on destroying their "civilization."

Nowrasteh argues that there are two reasons that hordes are not storming the gates:  uncertain economic benefits and the fear of punishment.  These are the things, he says, that deter many people from migrating illegally.

It's an interesting argument and his points are well taken.  Is it the whole story?  I don't think so.  He makes two assumptions that I question.

The first is that low-skilled labor migration is all about economics.  We look at a low wage country like Mexico and we assume that, of course, people there want to move to a country where they can make more money.  I don't think it's that simple.  I look at economics as just one factor among many that influences that decision to migrate.  Other reasons may include wanting to be with family (lots of families split by nationality in border areas), improving the chances of one's children or escaping persecution/discrimination.  Is a young woman limited by her sex in her home country migrating in order to make more money or out of desperation because her life choices are limited where she is?  Or a father who brings his children to a country with a better educational system so that they might have better opportunities?  Or what about a gay couple where one is an American citizen who can't get a Green Card for his or her partner?  There are reasons other than employment or higher wages that migrants seek under certain circumstances.   And that is true for all migrants be they highly-qualified or semi-skilled labor.

The second is that fear of punishment is an effective deterrent.  It is surely a factor but looking at the 10-11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. many of them have lived there for over 10 years.  Some left during the Great Recession but there are still many who are long-term residents who aren't going anywhere.  Perhaps the risk of getting caught crossing the border deters only those who are at the very beginning of their migration journey and are unsure about the cost/benefits.  I'm not sure it is effective for those who are determined to leave one country for another.  The costs cited in the article can be lowered.  Instead of paying a smuggler, many come in as tourists or students and overstay.  Others have access to migrant networks - friends and family who can help.  Fear of punishment can be much less where the migrant has support and assistance waiting for him on the other side of the border.

My last quibble with his argument is that it is U.S. centric.  The article was clearly written with an American audience in mind and Americans have a tendency to see all migration questions through the prism of Mexican migration.  Another answer to the question "Why aren't there more illegal immigrants in the U.S.?" might be that the U.S. is no longer the only choice destination for migrants.  There are other places in the world with better education and social welfare systems that are respectful of human rights and have solid opportunities for the skilled and semi-skilled migrant.  Migrants today know more about these places, and the choices available to them, thanks to the Net and social media, not to mention the global/local press.  Eva Hoffman argued that there is no center anymore:
Multivalence is no more than a condition of contemporary awareness, and no more than the contemporary world demands. The weight of the world used to be vertical: it used to come from the past, or from the hierarchy of heaven and earth and hell; now it's horizontal, made up of the endless multiplicity of events going on at once and pressing at each moment on our minds and our living rooms. Dislocation is the norm rather than the aberration in our time, but even in the unlikely event that we spend an entire lifetime in one place, the fabulous diverseness with which we live reminds us constantly that we are no longer the norm or the center, that there is no one geographic center pulling the world together and glowing with the allure of the real thing.

That greater awareness of all the world has to offer is not necessarily favorable to the U.S.  I would argue that the perception of the U.S. is also a deterrent to migration.  Americans might be surprised to learn that some potential migrants view the U.S. as a very violent society that does not take care of people in need.  That the truth is much more complex is lost on those who get their information about that country through scary headlines in the local paper or on the Internet and horror stories passed along by word of mouth.  In every country I have ever lived in or travelled to, I have encountered people with this vision of the U.S. and I think that is one hell of a deterrent to both illegal and legal migration.


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