The Agenda

Edward Alden on Unauthorized Migration in the U.S. and Europe

I was struck by the dramatic difference in the number of unauthorized migrants in the U.S. vs. the European Union, as reported by Edward Alden of the Council on Foreign Relations:

In the United States, the population of unauthorized migrants rose dramatically from 1990, when it was just over 3 million, to roughly 12 million in 2007, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Since then it has fallen and leveled out at roughly 11 million, and the number of people attempting illegally to cross the land border with Mexico is now the lowest in more than four decades. In Europe, the numbers have fluctuated more, but the total population of irregular migrants has declined on average steadily since 2002, according to the Migration Policy Institute. The total EU population of irregular migrants is thought to be between 2 and 4 million. [Emphasis added]

Alden argues that the U.S. needs to consider creating a new guest worker program, as the current immigration system is not sufficiently responsive to changing labor demand over the course of the business cycle. He claims that these programs can be made to work reasonably well:

Secure identification schemes and more sophisticated border management databases are making it easier for countries to monitor both the arrival and departure of temporary workers. Close cooperation between sending and receiving countries – as in the Canadian program for seasonal agricultural workers from Mexico – can help ensure that guest workers return home as required. Social security and other payroll taxes should be refunded to temporary workers when they return home to encourage voluntary return; a more radical approach would require additional withholding of wages to be paid only upon return. 

And to discourage over-reliance on migrant workers, governments should do away with cumbersome “labor attestation” schemes that require employers to verify that they have tried to hire native workers. Instead, a tax or other additional levy should be required on every foreign worker, creating a strong incentive for hiring natives but permitting employers to look abroad when they cannot find the domestic workforce they need.

My sense is that Alden’s optimism about the effectiveness of these technologies is likely to prove misplaced, but I wouldn’t dismiss his views out of hand. I do wonder if the U.S. can learn any useful lesson from the EU regarding how to contain the population of irregular migrants, given the fact that there are far fewer of them in the EU. Part of the story, I assume, is that many of the EU’s newer member states are less affluent than core states, and so migrants from central and eastern Europe have met some of the demand that might have otherwise been met by irregular migrants.  


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