From Migration Restriction to Migration Management

Contrary to popular opinion, international migration does not stem from a lack of economic development, but is part and parcel of the development process itself. The principal driver of migration is the globalization of the economy and the worldwide integration of factor markets. As markets for goods, financial capital, information, commodities, and services globalize, so do markets for labour and human capital. We observe the global integration of markets for skilled and unskilled labour as immigration.

The extension of markets into predominantly agrarian nations and former command economies is inevitably transformative and disruptive, displacing many people from traditional livelihoods. In the context of rapid development, migration becomes an accessible strategy that common people can use to adapt to the flux and change occurring around them. Most of those uprooted in this way simply move internally to expanding cities and contribute to urbanization. Historically, however, a fraction has always moved internationally by seeking work and opportunities in higher wage areas overseas.

As industrialization spread across the face of Europe during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, successive waves of migrants were unleashed in country after country, and more than 50 million Europeans ultimately left the continent for destinations in the Americas and Oceania. Likewise, as globalization accelerated in the last quarter of the twentieth century and nations became linked by international flows of investment, trade, transportation, and communication, immigration rebounded—only this time the flows were from Asia, Africa and Latin America in the now developed nations of Europe, the Americas and Oceania.

As before, today’s migrants do not come from stagnant, backward areas of the world, but from those regions that are in the throes of dynamic social, political and economic change. In many ways, what is surprising is not how many immigrants exist today, but how few there are given the massive economic inequalities that prevail between nations. Presently, only 3 per cent of the world’s people live outside the country of their birth. However, half of them are local displaced persons who happened to cross an international boundary or immigrants who were “manufactured” by the late twentieth century dissolution of multinational nation states, such as the Soviet Union. Only around 1.5 per cent are long distance migrants produced by the actual workings of the global economy.

As a general rule, these international migrants are not desperately seeking to escape abject poverty but are purposeful actors acting strategically to improve their lives and adapt to change using one of the most accessible tools at their disposal. Those who depart internationally are not the poorest of the poor, but those with access to some form of available means to facilitate the trip, be it financial, social, or cultural. Moreover, when they head overseas, migrants do not disperse randomly or necessarily proceed to the nearest destination. Instead, they move to places where they are connected by larger relations of investment, trade, politics, and earlier periods of colonization, which yield stable migration systems that perpetuate over time and across space.

At present, there are a handful of such systems around the globe and, under these circumstances, the task of policymakers in destination countries should not be to erect walls of punitive enforcement to prevent the feared entry of massive numbers of poor people from around the world, but to manage the much smaller set of flows that follow from each country’s particular pattern of integration within the global economy. Once the social and economic infrastructure for a stable system is in place, restrictive policies generally backfire by preventing circulation within the system and promoting long-term settlement, often against the desires of the migrants themselves.

When European nations ended guest worker recruitment in the 1970s, for example, migrant workers who earlier had come and gone secure in the knowledge that they could return should the need or desire arise, dug in their heels and sought permanent residence. Rather than circulating, they sponsored the entry of spouses, children, and other relatives, causing foreign populations to grow rather than shrink. Likewise, when the United States militarized its southern border after 1986, the consequence was not to stem the inflow of undocumented migrants from Latin America, but to curtail their return migration and transform what had been a circular flow of male workers going to three states into a much larger settled population of families living in 50 states.

The policy actions required to manage international migration successfully are no great secret. Shifting from restriction to management simply requires policymakers in developed nations to identify those developing nations to which they have strong ties of trade, investment, and history that currently operate to produce significant numbers of immigrants, and then working bilaterally with leaders in those nations to enact policies that facilitate international movement, encourage circulation, and harness the energies and earnings of migrants to promote development at home, while providing these nations with development assistance to facilitate the transition to an industrial service economy.

The most salient model for such an arrangement is the European Union (EU), which upon admitting new members initiates a transition period to full labour mobility while providing funds to ease the disruptions associated with structural adjustment, draws upon special accounts such as the European Social Fund, the European Regional Development Fund, and the Cohesion Fund, into which wealthier EU nations regularly make payments. A good example is what happened when Spain was admitted to the EU. For hundreds of years, Spain had been a country of emigration, first to locations overseas and later to locations throughout the EU. Despite a 30 per cent gap in real gross domestic product (GDP) per capita between Spain and Northern Europe, the country was ultimately admitted with full membership and put on a pathway to free labour mobility.

Rather than building a wall at the Pyrenees to prevent a feared influx of Spanish migrants, however, the EU transferred $59 billion in structural adjustment funds to Spain to improve its social, economic, and physical infrastructures and brought conditions in Spain up to basic EU standards. As a result, when EU accession occurred in 1986, there was a net inflow of Spaniards back to Spain and, like other EU nations, Spain quickly became a net receiver of immigrants from overseas.

Since 1986, the United States has spent $35 billion on Mexican border enforcement even though the two nations have been united under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) since 1993. Like the EU, NAFTA arranges for the free cross-border movement of goods, capital, commodities, information and services. Unlike the EU, however, NAFTA includes no real provisions for the free movement of labour. Although Mexico’s GDP per capita is admittedly far below that of the United States, the gap is no larger than that between Poland and Western Europe at the time of the former’s accession to the EU. If the United States had devoted $35 billion to structural adjustment assistance to Mexico rather than border enforcement, and if it had created legal avenues for the circulation of migrants back and forth across the border, it is likely that the undocumented United States population would be a fraction of the 11 million persons it is today. Paradoxically, when it comes to immigration flows, less restriction and more management can yield more actual control and smaller numbers of immigrants in the long term.