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Saturday, November 5, 2011

MPI Report on EU and US Immigration Policies

The Migration Policy Institute has just released a report called Shared Challenges and Opportunities for EU and US Immigration Policymakers.

This is a good overview of current immigration policy in both regions. Since there are so few comparative studies out there, this one is worth a look. MPI's recommendations also have the virtue of being calm and sane at a time when elections on both sides of the Atlantic are provoking just the opposite.

Immigrants seem to be a "problem" everywhere but concrete proposals for how to shape immigration policy are hard to pin down. Some proposals seem almost entirely in the realm of punitive fantasy (electric fences along a thousand mile border or the French "Guantanomo" solution).

All this is terribly unrealistic not because it is impossible but because the outcome is not desirable and not at all what anyone really wants - not natives, migrants nor nation-states. The MPI report puts it very clearly: "Immigration is a significant component of any strategy to boost economic growth and competitiveness." Period. If you want your economy to grow and you want your country to be competitive in the world market, then you will have immigration. One of the great paradoxes of globalization is the fact that capital is highly mobile but people are less so. Matching opportunity and people is one of the great challenges of our age. Both the EU and the US are having trouble meeting this challenge.

On the U.S. side MPI reports that they were blessed with a strong employer-driven system which has traditionally done a very good of matching people to jobs. Today this system seems to be breaking down and has become an inefficient bureaucracy which creates uncertainly because it has lost the ability to meet labor needs in real time. The EU on the other hand is a mishmash of different immigration policies that range from point-systems to employer-driven systems to quotas. The member-states appear ready to work toward a common EU policy on migration, but even with the EU Blue card effort, they have a ways to go.

The U.S. does a bit better than the EU when it comes to selective immigration - luring the highly-skilled, highly educated workforce to its shores. But the MPI report makes a very good point that just because this has been true in the past does not mean it will be true in the future. I had a very illuminating conversation with an Indian who works in hi-tech who said that he judged a country not only on its opportunities but on its infrastructure. If I have to drive on poor roads, send my children to private schools and pay for private healthcare, he said, my interest in the U.S. wanes since paying for these things out of my own pocket severely cuts into my salary. I had not thought of it that way but I concede his point.

The MPI report has several recommendations to make to both the EU and the US. In both regions, they say, the bureaucracy needs to be reduced and procedures clarified and stream-lined. Governments should encourage business to participate in the debate and have some say in the process. Some of the international students being kicked out of France right now have jobs but their employers do not seem to have had any say in the implementation of the new policy.

And finally, both regions need to create a mechanism by which immigration policies can be quickly reviewed and fine-tuned according to the actual data (the "facts on the ground"). Immigration is a moving river - by the time a law has actually gone through the legislative process the situation (economic, demographic, political and so on) may have radically changed. Flexibility and agility are key here and I have to wonder if some of the smaller (but very attractive) countries like New Zealand may not have an edge. The "Silver Fern" program is a brilliant idea and I cannot imagine either the US or the EU being able to do something similar without years of debate.

Of all the MPI recommendations, I think the most crucial is providing some clarity and simplifying the procedures. When you look, for example, at the EU Blue Card program, it has all the elements of a shipwreck in the fog looking for a coastline. Information is hard to obtain and just figuring out how and where to apply has many people gnashing their teeth in frustration. The U.S. is not much better with a Byzantine bureaucracy and long waiting times for visas. I defy any American or any European to, off the top of his head, explain U.S. or EU immigration policy to the curious (but uninitiated) foreigner.

On one side you have jobs and countries undergoing demographic crisis. On the other you have people ready to fill those jobs and ready to re-locate and put their talents to use by raising families, starting businesses and contributing to the overall welfare of a nation that is not their own. The current state of immigration policy in the EU and the US reminds one of a dysfunctional dating service and if they can't do better than this than they both deserve to sit at home alone while everyone else dances 'til the wee hours of the morning.

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