Modern Nomads: The Dark Side

Last month I blogged about the bright side of modern-day global “nomadism”; that is, some of the ways that new technologies are reshaping individuals’ connectivity and mobility, and ultimately enhancing opportunities (for law professors, at least). But the current economic crisis has also highlighted the darker side of the new global nomadism—while we live in an age where “rich and uprooted elites” may jet around the world in search of fun and opportunity, the same forces which increasingly allow people to tap into global networks and traverse territorial barriers are also pushing “poor but equally uprooted workers [to] migrate in search of a living.”

In the U.S. and Europe—where over 40% of the world’s migrants currently reside—mounting job losses and financial volatility are sparking debates over the extent to which migration and migration policies are, or should be, linked to economic cycles. In both regions, migrants (whether classified as legal or illegal) have been viewed as part of a flexible labor pool, providing a ready supply of workers who can be tapped during times of economic growth and discarded during downturns. Historical data appears to support this relationship; in the U.S., the flow of migrants has waxed and waned at least to some degree along with periods of economic growth and recession. And while both economic and political forces played important roles, immigration plummeted during the depressions of the 1890s and 1930s.

It’s not surprising, then, that in recent years workers flocked to the countries which spawned the biggest bubbles—in the U.S., the U.K., Ireland, and Spain, which all enjoyed housing and finance booms, immigration surged in recent years. But there are signs that the impact of the current downturn on migration flows may be different from the past, and that the U.S. is following a markedly different path than some of the European countries which joined it during the boom.

First, it’s not clear where migrants will go if they leave the U.S. and Europe. Unlike a regional downturn, a global downturn by definition means that there are also fewer jobs available in migrants’ countries of origin. Moreover, remittances to home countries—which formed a significant part of the transnational capital flows of recent years—appear to be dropping rapidly, which will further stifle economic prospects outside the U.S. and Europe.

Second, the U.S. appears to be seeking to reduce the flexibility of its migrant labor pool, while many European countries, such as the UK and Ireland, are attempting to increase the flexibility of their migrant labor pool.

For migrants to form a flexible labor pool, they must have the ability to come and go; in other words, circularity of mobility is important. While the current data on the extent to which immigration in the U.S. may be declining is mixed, it appears that recent U.S. immigration policies are interrupting the circularity of migration.

First, the U.S. is deporting immigrants at record levels. However, the penalties for immigration violations are also rising, making it increasingly difficult, or even impossible, for people kicked out of the U.S. to legally return. This may have a further unanticipated impact on mobility; studies suggest that people are less likely to voluntarily leave, or risk leaving, a country if they know they cannot come back. Finally, immigrants in the U.S. have traditionally been more geographically mobile within the U.S. than native-born residents. However, the recent rise of state involvement in immigration enforcement—as states and localities are increasingly passing laws targeting immigrants—means that immigrants’ abilities to move across state lines in search of jobs has also been restricted. (Danielle Citron recently posted a fascinating blog about the troubling implications of recent national, state and local laws targeting immigrants’ privacy).

In other words, the U.S. appears to be interfering with the mobility of its migrant labor force by preventing immigrants from entering or returning to the U.S. (via increasingly stringent immigration and deportation rules); preventing people from moving within the U.S. (via state and local laws increasingly targeting immigrants); and discouraging people from voluntarily leaving the U.S. (by limiting their ability to ever return).

A different story appears to be playing out in Europe, according to the Economist and the Migration Policy Institute. The European Union has been dismantling barriers to mobility between its member states, allowing workers to migrate to where the jobs are throughout the continent. Moreover, some countries, such as the UK, have been offering migrants who leave in certain circumstances a guaranteed right to return (there is some evidence that the flow of migration to the UK appears to have reversed, with increasing numbers leaving). Both of these trends should increase labor market flexibility, and it has been suggested that such policies may increase prospects for recovery. Interestingly, one country that has limited the right of return—Spain—has been unable to persuade migrants to leave despite offering people thousands of dollars in incentives to leave.

As we search for solutions to the current crisis, it will be interesting to see how these various approaches correlate to greater economic growth. Despite the difficulty of untangling the effects of economic and political forces on migration, we shouldn’t lose sight of new lessons we may be able to learn about the links between migration and economic growth.

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2 Responses

  1. Matt says:

    Very interesting, Shruti. A few quick thoughts. First, this sort of thing, to me, shows the importance of trying hard to craft a good and well-working guest-worker program. Such programs are very unpopular with most people working on immigration from a liberal perspective but I think this is a mistake, both pragmatically (a good guest-worker program is likely the best we can hope for, and if liberals don’t work towards it we’ll get a worse one) and more theoretically (it seems to me that most of the deeper objections to guest-worker programs can be met and are often based on confusions as to what such a program must be like.) This is something I’m working on now myself. Secondly, it seems to me that more dark than light is thrown on questions of migration by comparing internal EU movement to other migration since the increased freedom of movement inside the EU has been achieved only with the increasing state-likeness of the EU itself and an increasingly strong external border. So, internal EU movement has become more like normal internal state movement, and it’s not clear that that is a very good model for thinking about international movement. That’s a minor point in your picture but something that seems important to me, especially since people talking about migration often don’t give it enough credit, I think.

  2. A.J. Sutter says:

    Unfortunately, many of the lessons purported to be learned about economic growth are based only on correlations; witness debates about “happiness”/”well-being” and the “environmental Kuznets curve,” among other topics. (Caveat: linked references represent the neo-liberal side of both issues, and in the EKC case radically so.)

    Still, I think you’re right to make a connection. There is a point of view, more publicly debated in Europe but still kind of fringe in the US, that economic growth is not a good thing, at least for OECD-type countries. While the European discourse is broadly-grounded, the US discourse is especially focused on environmental issues, including the physical impossibility of unlimited growth due to the law of entropy, and the undesirability of the inevitable build-up of “high-entropy” waste from economic activity. (This is distinct from the more widespread US “peak oil” discourse, which seems to focus more on the impossibility, and less on the desirability vel non, of continued growth.) The leading living US exponent of this view, U. Maryland economist Herman Daly, is also a vociferous opponent of immigration. The Carrying Capacity Network, on whose board Daly sits, has advanced the argument that a Mexican family who comes to the US is likely to have more kids than non-immigrant families, and each family member will have a bigger environmental footprint than if they stayed at home, e.g. in the US they all might have cars. While most of the other anti-growth discourse I’ve seen doesn’t forground immigration as an issue (including that of the late N. Georgescu-Roegen, Daly’s mentor on matters entropic), at least some people see restricting migration as a way of intentionally reducing GDP growth.