It is certainly too soon to say that the problem of illegal migration has been resolved in the United States and Europe. But over the past decade, it has been reduced from a major challenge to governmental authority to a manageable problem, largely as a consequence of weakening economies and expanded enforcement measures. The challenge for the near future will be to maintain that control as economies recover, and to do so in a fashion that is more in keeping with the values and economic interests of Europe and the United States.
The numbers are quite striking. 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.
There is no perfect understanding of why the numbers have fallen in recent years. Economics clearly tell much of the story. The recession and weak growth of the past five years have made both the United States and Europe less attractive destinations for migrants who are motivated primarily by work opportunities. Enforcement has certainly made a difference as well. In the United States, the number of Border Patrol agents has doubled since 2005, workplace verification rules are spreading, and a number of states are cracking down on illegal migrants. Deportations are at record levels. And the numbers attempting to enter illegally are now so small that the U.S. government has the resources to do more than just return them back across the border to Mexico to try again. Many now face criminal penalties or are removed to remote locations.
Matthew Carr's fine new book, Fortress Europe, details similar developments in Europe over the past decade, in which the free movement of labor within the continent has been accompanied by increasingly aggressive measures to seal the external border.
What are the policy lessons to be learned from this period of declining illegal migration? As Carr points out, building on a solid consensus of academic research, illegal migration is a perfectly rational response by those, mostly from poorer countries, seeking to better their lives. And that permits a rational policy response on the part of governments that continues to make illegal migration unattractive even when economic recovery finally takes hold. Most of efforts to date, however, have been focused only on disincentives - border barriers, deportations and other measures to discourage illegal migration. These will and should continue, along with increased efforts to require employers to verify the immigration status of new workers. Tougher workplace controls and penalties must be put in place, including a private right of action that would allow companies to sue competitors that hold down costs by employing unauthorized migrants.
What has been missing is a set of incentives to encourage, in reasonable numbers, legal migration. In the United States, that means overhauling a rigid system in which family preferences are the primary means of migration into one that is more flexible and responsive to economic demand. Ironically, the only part of the current immigration system that actually responds to the economy is the illegal part.
In both the United States and Europe, it is time to experiment again with larger guest worker programs. These programs acquired a bad name in the United States in the 1960s, largely due to the low wages and poor working conditions for guest workers, while in Europe they became a conduit for permanent irregular migration. But the tools now exist to control guest worker programs more effectively. 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.
Illegal migration will never be abolished; the desire to migrate to richer countries will always exceed the willingness of those countries to absorb new migrants. But the progress over the past decade shows that a reasonable level of control is possible for governments. A stronger mix of penalties and incentives should be used to build on the control that has been achieved.
Edward Alden is the Bernard L. Schwartz senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was the project director for the CFR Independent Task Force on U.S. Immigration Policy, and is the author of The Closing of the American Border: Terrorism, Immigration and Security Since 9/11.
This article is published as part of the "Border Policies: Lessons for Improvement" theme week.