Security, Protectionism & Liberalization of Labour Markets –Goal Conflicts in the Governance of Migration

Conflicting policies affect migrants’ lives in the sending as well as receiving countries
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Conflicting policies affect migrants’ lives in the sending as well as receiving countries


by Michele Wucker

Governance of migration touches on a broad range of economic, security, development, and social protection issues from the perspectives of both sending and host countries. At times, policies intended to address one of these areas may conflict with other policy priorities. Host-country restrictions on money transfers for security reasons end up hurting development in migrant-sending countries. Labor market requirements cause problems related to rapid demographic change. At other times, internal conflicts may develop within a policy area, as in airport and other security measures directed at certain groups, aiding in short-term detection of instruments of harm but potentially creating longer-term problems by creating tensions among the groups that are targeted.

In yet other cases, policies may help one group but hurt another; for example, laws that drive immigrants underground by withholding rights and legal status may help employers who do not need to train their workers, but also hurt employers who must invest in training. Or policies may be sold as helping one group -like laws that make it prohibitively difficult for the foreign-born to work legally in the name of protecting native-born workers, but in reality hurt all workers by making it easier for unscrupulous employers to abuse non-native workers. In this case, there is a gap between perceptions of policy impacts and realities, thus making unnecessary conflicts appear or hiding them.

The challenge in migration policy is to identify the conflicts inherent in any goal that is being pursued, to balance the relevant concerns, and to find ways to mitigate those conflicts so as to maximize benefits and minimize unintended, counterproductive consequences. Key to this process is understanding exactly what the effects of any policy might be.

Security and Goal Conflicts

European countries have experienced a range of immigration-related security challenges in recent years, from high-profile terrorist acts in London and Madrid carried out by recent immigrants and citizens born to immigrant parents; to riots in Paris; and ethnically or religiously motivated attacks on immigrants in many countries. Migrant-sending countries are concerned with the possible radicalization of émigrés in the host country; with the need to ease social tensions through emigration and the related need to keep skilled workers and to co-opt émigrés into projects that allow technology transfer to the sending country.

In the United States, migration-related security concerns tend to focus -with widely varying degrees of accuracy and relevance-on border crossing by unauthorized immigrants seeking work; high-skilled workers in sensitive industries; on questions of secure identification technologies and policies, particularly as regarding air travel; on Muslim, Arab, and South Asian minority populations; and on gang activity by youths principally but not exclusively from Central America and Asia.

Paradoxically, some of the policies intended to discourage unauthorized migrants from coming to the United States have also discouraged them from returning home, and thus have increased the number who live and work in the United States. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the price of crossing the border with the assistance of a coyote, or smuggler, has reportedly escalated dramatically. Because migrants fear not being able to return to the United States after visiting home, they have responded by staying semi-permanently.

Policies aimed at driving out unauthorized immigrants also conflict with the stated goal of promoting integration of immigrants. Because many families are mixed –including both legal and unauthorized migrants as well as citizens-increased enforcement can have a significant negative impact on families and communities. This in turn has troubling implications for the second and third generation, when children grow up in families where relatives’ status is unstable.

Looking at the French example, where rioting in the Parisian suburbs in 2005 was the consequence of economic and social exclusion, it becomes particularly clear that the contributing factors to security problems are much broader than traditional definitions, and that the solution must involve measures that include but by no means are limited to policing, incarceration and other “hard” security measures.

Economic and Labor Goal Conflicts

A large, work force that is deemed to be “temporary” but in most cases is permanently marginalized has stark implications for future generations, raising both moral and security issues, as well as economic questions. Temporary workers, without the rights that citizens or permanent residents enjoy, are vulnerable in the work place, and thus easily exploitable, with consequences for both native-born workers and for longer-term social, political, and economic stability.

There is significant tension between the needs of businesses with the least amount of value added by labor –for example, agricultural harvesting, meat packing and other repetitive tasks -and businesses for whose purposes some training is required, such as higher-level manufacturing and services. Businesses whose margin comes from skirting health and occupational safety rules, avoiding some of the pay owed to workers, have very different policy interests from businesses which see productivity as stemming from health, education and skills of workers. Policies that prioritize the needs of productivity based businesses are more likely to align with the interests of workers as well.

Social provision policies on health, education, and general welfare trade off short- and long-term fiscal goals: they entail costs in the short run, but social investments in health and education have long-term productivity benefits. Where social protection systems fall short or taxes are high, the costs of providing services to immigrants often perceived as pitting native-born citizens against the foreign-born and non-citizen members of the population, because this view ignores the long-term benefits of social investment. Immigration restrictionists argue that immigration must be limited in order to protect the rights of native-born workers. Yet the very restrictions that they advocate on migrants diminish the rights of all workers, by creating a marginalized sub-class of workers whom employers threaten with the prospect of deportation as a way to deny overtime, back wages, and safe working conditions. The goal then must be policies that promote rights of both immigrant and native work forces through protection of rights for all.

Sending and Receiving Nation Interests

There also are goal conflicts inherent in the interests of migrant sending and receiving countries. The question of brain drain, in which the exodus of skilled workers can impede sending countries’ development, is paramount. This is perhaps the most complex of the policy challenges, with implications for education, technology transfer. Professor Oded Stark argues that the emigration of high-skilled workers can provide incentives that prompt other citizens of migrant-sending countries to seek to acquire additional skills. This possibility is particularly worth taking into account in cases involving health-care workers from developing countries, notably in Africa and the Philippines. Some studies contend that developing countries benefit when technological progress in developed countries –which rely heavily on foreign-born scientists, often from developing countries - lowers costs around the world. Skills are too little likely to be tapped to their full potential when scientists remain in countries without research clusters that have the resources to help develop knowledge. In addition, as an oft-cited California Institute for Public Policy study shows skilled émigrés are highly likely to invest in businesses in their countries of origin.

In other words, the question is not just whether skilled migrants emigrate, but what policies can be put into place to ensure technology transfer and improved education of those left behind.

Finally, there is a short-term contradiction in linking migration and development policy as a strategy to create the conditions that allow people the opportunity to stay in their countries of origin. Under the “migration hump” phenomenon, improved development in the sending country initially increases migration because more people can afford to leave. Policies must then seek medium to long term improvements for development to be an effective tool in rationalizing migration flows,

Reconciling Goals

The examples above show that to effectively design migration governance policies, they must take into account possible side effects of the policies under consideration, as well as the goals under consideration in related policy areas, to avoid working at cross purposes. Security policy must take into account economic realities and goals; labor market policies must take into account rights; and social provision policies must address the interplay of costs and benefits. Policies can be designed to mitigate the goal conflicts, making policy choices less of a zero-sum game than perceived. In other cases, an analysis of the facts reveals that there is less of a goal conflict than perceived. Sorting out reality and perception thus is a major component of reconciling policy intents and impacts.


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Michele Wucker is Executive Director of the New York City-based World Policy Institute, a non-partisan centre for progressive global policy analysis and thought leadership.