Darwinian Migration

What will it take for the global community to commit to solving the illegal immigration problem worldwide?

September 12, 2006

What will it take for the global community to commit to solving the illegal immigration problem worldwide?

Increasing numbers of young men and women wish to move to wealthier countries, especially in Europe and North America. While it is a well-recognized human right to leave and return to one’s country, there is no comparable right to enter another country.

This apparent contradiction is exacerbated by the fact that the supply of potential migrants in poorer countries greatly exceeds the demand in the wealthier countries.

Given the considerable obstacles and difficulties in obtaining legal entry, millions of people in poorer countries are choosing to enter richer countries illegally. And among the fortunate few entering legally for a short visit, many are deciding to stay on illegally.

A cursory look at the daily news provides a glimpse of the illegal flows. Thousands of exhausted Africans, for example, are arriving in overcrowded wooden boats on the shores of Italy, Malta and Spain. The U.S. Border Patrol has caught more than 900,000 people this year along the United States-Mexico border.

Official government policies in receiving countries aim to stop or discourage illegal migration and return illegal migrants to their home countries. However, this is generally not the policy on the ground. Once in the country, jobs, housing, health care and other critical support services are often available to illegal migrants.

In addition to possible friends and family members, illegal migrants may find assistance and support from a variety of sources.

These include employers, labor unions, business groups, social service agencies, schools, clinics, churches, community organizations and ethnic associations.

Moreover, unless the illegal migrant commits a crime or is considered a security risk, authorities usually take little noticeable action. This accommodating behavior on the part of law-enforcement agencies does not escape the attention of the general public.

Faced with the growing presence of illegal migrants, many governments are struggling with solutions. Repatriation is often ruled out on grounds of practicality — it is simply too difficult to carry out, given the enormous financial costs involved in identifying and sending illegal migrants home, as well as possible disruptions to the economy.

In addition, the political will needed to implement repatriation programs is normally lacking or weak at best. Human rights and humanitarian concerns also give rise to legal and ethical questions regarding the repatriation of illegal migrants.

Among the criteria for granting amnesty or legalization are three critical factors: employment, duration of stay and children.

Gainful employment is considered a strong argument in favor of legalization — as it demonstrates that the illegal migrant is not dependent and contributes to the economic well-being of the society.

A lengthy duration of stay in the country and children are viewed as compelling reasons for legalization showing the desire, commitment and investment to become members of the host community.

Does this process of gaining additional workers and future citizens make for sound migration policy? Certainly, governments will say it is not good policy. Indeed, many governments are increasing their efforts to deter illegal migration.

As a result of their inability or unwillingness to return illegal migrants to their home countries, many governments are deciding to offer amnesty, legalization or regularization programs, including public information campaigns to discourage illegal migration and increased border enforcement.

At the same time, however, governments readily acknowledge that repeatedly offering “last chance” amnesty or legalization programs is encouraging others to come and reside in the country illegally, as well as keeping pressure on the borders.

The international community, regional groups and individual nations are all struggling with the question of how best to manage international migration, especially illegal flows.

Little agreement exists, however, as to what should be done or, indeed, whether this is even an appropriate topic for discussion at the international level.

At the United Nations, for example, migration has not been on the agenda in the form of a global intergovernmental conference similar to those on the environment, urbanization and women's issues, among others.

Given its controversial nature, especially among receiving countries, achieving a global consensus on how best to address the many complex facets of international migration seems unlikely in the near term.

Although the United Nations General Assembly has decided to convene a "high-level" dialogue on international migration and development on September 14-15, 2006, the only agreed-upon outcome is to be a chairman's summary of the two-day gathering.

All of which is why, at least for the time being, the de facto message for many men and women in poorer sending countries and the implicit principle guiding many governments of richer receiving countries will remain in essence Darwinian migration: If you can get in, then you can stay in.

More on this topic