Immigration

The Key to Deterring Migrants Is to Blow Up the Economy

Anti-immigration politicians vilify foreigners who already left.

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Several years ago our housecleaner gave us notice. She'd landed a well-paying job at the Mexico City airport that was a hell of a lot more enticing than scrubbing gringos' bathrooms. Angela and her family had come to the United Stated for economic opportunity, but her country now had more to offer and she was happy to return home.  

Angela wasn't alone; in recent years, more immigrants have been returning to Mexico than have entered the United States. If Donald Trump ever gets his chance to build a giant wall along the border, it may only serve to keep people in. That's assuming the wall is effective at all, of course. Research suggests that governments have a lot less control over cross-border movements than politicians claim. Policymakers can make life less pleasant for migrants, but pursuit of opportunity matters much more than laws and even the yoojest barrier along a dotted line—going where the jobs are is one of the more effective ways of alleviating poverty, after all. So, if you want to keep migrants from flocking toward prosperity, blow up that prosperity—which the United States did a good job of around 2008.

"From 2009 to 2014, 1 million Mexicans and their families (including U.S.-born children) left the U.S. for Mexico," reports the Pew Research Center. During the same period, "an estimated 870,000 Mexican nationals left Mexico to come to the U.S."  That represents a net outflow of roughly 140,000 people.

Pew speculates that border security efforts have played a role, but such policies have ebbed and flowed over the years, independent of immigration numbers. More telling is that the reverse in the flow came as the Great Recession whacked the American economy. "The slow recovery of the U.S. economy after the Great Recession may have made the U.S. less attractive to potential Mexican migrants and may have pushed out some Mexican immigrants as the U.S. job market deteriorated," notes Pew. Polling now finds that Mexicans no longer necessarily see opportunity as being better north of the border: "a third (33 percent) of adults in Mexico say those who move to the U.S. lead a life that is equivalent to that in Mexico—a share 10 percentage points higher than in 2007."

At the same time, the apprehension of non-Mexican illegal immigrants at the border has increased and outnumbered Mexicans as of 2014 by 257,473 to 229,178. Presumably, even the hobbled U.S. job market looks better than life at home for the new stream of migrants who remain undeterred by arrests, deportations, and a hostility toward foreign workers that bridges the ideological divide, such as it is, between presidential contenders Trump and Bernie Sanders.

That economic forces count more than policy when it comes to spurring or discouraging migration is something that government officials may not like to discuss, but which researchers continuously find. "With no legal constraints to population mobility, workers/households will move—at least in part— in response to economic opportunities," former World Bank economist Lant Pritchett wrote in 2004. He illustrated his point with the example of Ireland, from which a huge proportion of the population fled in the wake of the potato famine.

Immigration is a powerful and effective means for escaping poverty, Pritchett told Reason in 2008. And the biggest barrier to improved prosperity is "men with guns."

But men with guns, it turns out, have limited power. "Restrictive immigration control policies create a profitable niche for those exploiting the black market of international migration," Eiko R. Thielemann of the London School of Economics pointed out after examining migration patterns in OECD countries. Migrants move primarily based on employment opportunities, existing networks, and perceptions about the overall attractiveness of the places they go, so that "asylum destination choice is affected above all by 'structural' factors that, at least in the short and medium term, are beyond the reach of asylum policy makers."

Ultimately, mass deportations, employment restrictions, and border fences become minor obstructions around which immigrant smugglers can plan and from which they can turn a buck. Immigrants will continue to cross national boundaries so long as they find prospects on the other side to be more attractive than what they leave behind. And they'll stop coming only when those prospects evaporate and the grass on the other side of the fence stops being so comparatively green.

As we've seen, that grass turned crispy and brown about the time officials in D.C. bailed out their buddies in the financial and automotive industries. Many Americans complain that the economy has remained sluggish since, and it turns out that Mexicans agree. The key to deterring immigrants, nativists should note, is to make the place kind of suck. Unfortunately, that makes it lousy for everybody.

And actually improving the economy would improve prospects for the native-born and migrants alike.

But even with a net outflow of Mexicans nationals from the United States to Mexico, politicians continue to talk up fear of immigration and to tout restrictive policies. That's because mass deportations, employment restrictions, and border fences are at least as profitable for office-seekers as they are for migrant-smuggling coyotes.

Angela and other Mexicans, like people around the world, chase opportunities with little regard for the fear-mongering of political candidates. But for politicians, stirring the pot of unfounded concerns while their country becomes an unattractive destination is opportunity.

NEXT: Why a Celibate Prime Minister and a Hollywood Porn Star Are India's New Deities

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  1. So, I guess we could discourage low-skilled workers from migrating here by raising the minimum wage to something like $25. That would eliminate low-skilled jobs almost entirely, which would eliminate low-skilled migration. Problem solved!!

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  3. Who specifically is an “anti-immigration” politician?

    1. Re: GregMax,

      Who specifically is an “anti-immigration” politician?

      Anybody who peddles the same misinformation peddled by the American Council for Immigration Reform.

      Those politicians.

    2. All of them.

    3. – “Who specifically is an “anti-immigration” politician?”

      That’s a label applied by those who simply can’t comprehend the difference between wanting to control illegal immigration and being a brown-people-hating xenophobe.

  4. First of all, end the drug war so that Mexicans don’t have to come here to escape the violence there. Secondly, go after the employers of these people. A fine would make it unprofitable to hire illegals. Great opportunity for a guest worker program as necessary.

    1. Re: dajjal,

      First of all, end the drug war so that Mexicans don’t have to come here to escape the violence there.

      Well, drug cartel violence is not sorely the problem of Mexicans. Besides, Mexicans (and most immigrants from Latin America) come to the US looking for a better opportunity than what they find in their countries; they may say when caught that they’re running away from the violence perpetrated by the drug cartels but, most of the time, such violence affects drug dealers mostly.

      Secondly, go after the employers of these people.

      You mean turn the country into a police state? Sure, that always works.

      A fine would make it unprofitable to hire illegals. Great opportunity for a guest worker program as necessary.

      Guest worker programs are managed by government. That means implicitly that the program will be riddled with inefficiencies, red tape and long lines. Why not simply allow a free market of labor? As Tucille pointed out, when people no longer find the work they want in the US they simply go back to their own countries, which means there is NO need for these guest worker programs.

      1. Make guest worker visas easy to get and very simple to complete…one page only. Enroll them, let them work, let them pay taxes but stay off the dole (main purpose for the registration). The worker visas would require periodic (every couple of years) re-registration, after completing a couple of visa cycles make the path to citizenship easier. Put all existing illegals into this system as well.

        No wall. Not completely open borders either. Monitored borders with required re-upping and a simplified path to citizenship to those that earn it and want it. Make it so easy they will have no need to sneak in.

    2. Prohibition, to call it by its right name, is definitely destroying the economy, and that worked for Herbert Hoover’s Republican Party. In March, 1931 Congress reduced all permissible European immigration by 90% as the German government suspended civil rights. By May 1931deportation was touted as the political weapon to force observance of the prohibition laws. Hoover had since 1929 been restricting immigration and pushing for every conceivable form of prohibition in every country in the world. On June 19 1931 another Hoover proclamation changed quotas again and immigration went to zero, then negative numbers. By September racketeers were shaking down foreigners with fake deportation warrants as beer kingpin Al Capone was shipped to prison.

      War is something waged against things able to surrender, not poverty, drugs, terror, women or cops.

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  9. There has never been any mass deportation. Deportation under Obama typically involved people caught near the border who were not in the country long term.

    Trend like this should disprove the notion that sending illegal aliens back to their motherland would be like banishing them to a new world. The adjustment will be tough for kids actually born in America, but otherwise most immigrants have some stakes and connections in both worlds and can transition between them.

    The Mexicans who are returning home were being squeezed out of jobs by a slow economy and competition from a wide demographics that doesn’t exist in Mexico. The downside of Mexicans dominating certain field is that they’ll inevitably push each other out.

    A nation cannot be open borders AND a highly regulated welfare state. One does not ultimately serve the other.

  10. these people are ILLEGAL ALIENS…

    illegal aliens you want to give a “Merit System” have…

    Before an illegal alien receives his/her first paycheck or cash payment, they have committed some 26 Federal, State and Local laws.
    1. They conspire to cross the border illegally. (1 count)
    2. They hire a coyote or are provided passage by a Drug Cartel in exchange for guided passage into the USA. (1 count)
    3. They cross the Border with a coyote and in many cases smuggle drugs. (1 count)
    4. They travel, illegally, to their destination or to a destination determined by their “smuggler.” (1 count)
    5. They obtain fraudulent documents via identity theft, or via manufactured documents?.driver license, green card, social security card, birth certificate (each count a felony). (4 counts)
    6. They look for work using these documents. (1 count)
    7. They fill out work documents falsely, i.e., Federal and State IRS forms, SSN forms, Immigration forms, Workers comp. forms (each a separate felony. (6 counts)
    8. They drive on our roads without a legal license, registration, insurance. (3 counts)
    9. They get paid via check or under the table, thus conspiring with the employer to defraud the government(s) via the use of false documents. (2 counts)

    1. 10. They open bank accounts via the use of false documents in violation of Federal Law and the Patriot Act. (2 counts)
      11. They obtain housing via the use of false documents. (1 count)
      12. They obtain a car or truck via the use of false documents. (1 count)
      13. They obtain healthcare via the use of false documents. (1 count)
      14. They secure public service benefits via the use of false documents ? food, housing, healthcare, etc. (3 + counts)

      At a minimum this list shows that they commit at least 28 crimes of identity theft, conspiracy, obtaining false documents making false statements, fraud, violation of Federal and State and Local laws, etc.

      AND THE LIST GOES ON.

      The above list correctly demonstrates that they are not simply in violation of our laws just for crossing the Border, they are in violation for multiple misdemeanor and criminal acts in just a very short period of time and they continue to compound their violations via the passage of time, via falsification of documents, false statements, perjury and the list goes on.

      1. I deal with these cases every week. In their home countries superstitious looter politicians have passed the exact same laws making it illegal to work–whether for Jesus, to please Karl Marx, for Socialism, against greed, out of altruism, because of prophesies such as “freedom would not work if we had it,” they enforce these laws at gunpoint. These laws used to be imported from Spain, Portugal, Rome and the Soviet Union, but now they are exported by These States. Of the “crimes” enumerated above, only 5 and possibly 13 & 14 (conniving with looter politicians to rob the dupes that elected them) have actual victims. The masked writer can only be a Ku-klux republican or democrat in here trying to make the case for National Socialism.

    2. Beer and condoms were ILLEGAL in 1920.

  11. Ha! It’s actually good to hear that government restrictions don’t stop people from going to where the opportunities are. But give the U.S. politicians a chance–they might still trash the U.S. economy to the point that no one wants to come here anymore. Immigrants don’t turn countries into 3rd world nations – politicians do!

    1. Congress did that in 2008 with asset forfeiture laws to confiscate real estate and goods. But treaties with other looter governments soon spread that practice abroad, so U.S. bankers and brokers were able to sell their securities short and recoup American losses. The outcome, after all, was by then pretty predictable. When citizens do it, it’s insider trading (fines, forfeiture and imprisonment), but when Congress does it, it’s a Troubled Asset Relief Program (reelection, plums, tax hikes, bigger staff, more pages and interns, more regulations, political pay raises, forced usury, stock booms)


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  13. So many straw-men, so few fires.
    The problem isn’t that the brown-skinned are the ones coming here, illegally – though the fact that the most porous border is one that separates our nation from one where brown skin is the rule makes it seem like that.
    I would be just as enthusiastic if all the illegal immigrants/visa overstayers from Latvia – my grandfather’s country of origin before his legal emigration – had their lily-white asses rounded up and deported, because no one should be rewarded with being allowed to stay when they have broken the law to get here. It is patently unfair to all those doing it the right way and waiting for permission to enter.
    The idea of the wall is symbolic and all the politicians, who claim to want to “first secure the border” are talking through their anal cavities. Eliminating the incentives, financial and societal, is the way to stop, and reverse illegal immigration, to the point that a border could easily be a line in the sand, so long as crossing it would be of no benefit to the perpetrator.
    I don’t think I need to go further into how and why the opposition to illegal aliens crossing into the U.S. doesn’t have anything to do with what the open borders crowd accuses us of but, like all lefties, even libertarian ones, they won’t listen, anyway.

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