International Affairs Forum: What is immigration?
Dr. Caroline Nagel: The term immigration is a variant of the term ‘migration’, which refers very broadly to the movement of people from one place to another, be it internationally or within a given country. Scholars and policy makers tend to reserve the term immigration for the movement of people across international borders, especially for the purposes of permanent settlement. With that said, different countries use the terms ‘immigrant ‘ in different ways. In the United States, for instance, a distinction is made between immigrants and those holding ‘non-immigrant visa status’, i.e. those who are coming to the US to work or study on a temporary basis; in contrast, the British government counts anyone who comes to Britain with the intention of staying for a year or more as an immigrant.
IA-Forum: What are the factors responsible for immigration? Can you briefly explain these factors?
Dr. Nagel: Immigration (or migration, to speak more generally) is a complex phenomenon that takes shape at multiple scales, from the global economy to the household. From a layperson’s perspective, it is helpful to think in terms of ‘push and pull factors’, meaning the forces that encourage or compel people to leave one place and the forces that draw them to another place. On the push side, poor economic prospects, civil conflict, environmental degradation, or political persecution can spur outflows of migrants. On the pull side, demands for workers and relative political security often draw people to particular destinations. Of course, in the ‘real world’, migration dynamics get very complicated. While we see broad patterns of people leaving poorer, less stable places to live in wealthier, more stable places, it is not the case that people simply up and leave one place and settle someplace better. To begin, migration is expensive and risky, and most of those facing the direst economic and political circumstances do not have the opportunity to migrate to a better life. The vast majority of people displaced by civil conflict, for instance, are displaced within their own country or to a neighboring country; only a tiny fraction of refugees are able to flee to the wealthy countries of the Global North. Territorial boundaries play an important role in shaping and restricting migration flows. While we live in an increasingly globalized world, in which goods, information, and capital flow with ease across national borders, governments have an unprecedented capacity to control who enters and leaves their territory. Discussions of ‘broken borders’ aside, most wealthy countries exercise tight control over the entry of people to their territory using sophisticated technologies, and immigrants must fulfill a plethora of criteria (skill levels, official refugee status, presence of family members, etc.) in order to settle legally.
IA-Forum: Do you think the aspirations of immigrants are fulfilled?
Dr. Nagel: To ask whether immigrants’ aspirations are being fulfilled, we first need to ask what their aspirations are. Clearly, the aspirations of most immigrants settling in North America, Europe, Australia, and other wealthy regions revolve around economic opportunity. On this front, the academic literature presents a mixed picture of immigrants’ success. For those with low skill levels, the dramatic decline of the American manufacturing sector has meant the narrowing of opportunities for economic advancement for immigrants and native-born citizens alike. In the absence of plentiful manufacturing jobs, some immigrants have found economic security in starting their own businesses, and immigrants have disproportionately high levels of entrepreneurship, as seen in the multitude of ‘ethnic’ shops, supermarkets, and restaurants in virtually every American city today. But for many other immigrants who lack high levels of skill and education, economic opportunities are limited. In the United States today, immigrants with low skill levels are concentrated in jobs that are typically viewed as undesirable: cleaning and janitorial work, poultry and meatpacking operations, childcare and domestic work, construction, and landscaping. Despite this, evidence suggests that immigrants—at least those with legal status—do advance in socio-economic terms over time, though perhaps more slowly than their late-19th Century predecessors. For those lacking legal status, prospects are undoubtedly grimmer. The fact that hundreds of thousands of people continue to migrate to countries of the Global North every year to work in exploitative conditions speaks to these workers’ need to support families back home and, in some cases, their strong desire to build up capital for enterprises in places of origin. Indeed, migrants worldwide(both legal and undocumented) send billions of dollars every year to their countries of origin –far outstripping foreign aid and direct foreign investment in the Global South.
While low-skilled immigrants may find their economic aspirations limited by the realities of a post-industrial economy, even those with high levels of education may find ‘success’ elusive. Silicon Valley and Wall Street are filled with immigrant success stories, but recent research shows that many highly skilled immigrants suffer from a lack of recognition of their professional credentials; moreover, highly skilled temporary workers (most of them from India and China) tend to work longer hours for less pay than their US-born counterparts, and do not always have a green card to show for their efforts. Skilled female immigrants, as well, are frequently given jobs that do not fully utilize their skill and credentials, contributing to a phenomenon known as ‘brain waste’. Despite these challenges, skilled workers from the Global South look to an American work permit or green card as a ticket to economic advancement.
To be sure, not all immigrant aspirations revolve around economic opportunity. For many, coming to a country like the United States holds the promise of security, rights, and individual freedoms. Researchers have documented, as well, that migrants, and especially young female migrants, find fulfillment in the sense of adventure and personal independence that comes with migration. With this said, we should not forget that immigrants endure many hardships in their places of settlement. In addition to exploitative labor conditions, many immigrants encounter a great deal of public hostility and racism. In the European context, for instance, refugees and asylum seekers are typically assumed to be ‘bogus’ and are subject to detention and other forms of punitive treatment. In recent years, Muslim immigrants in Europe, North America, and Australia have had to fend off accusations that their religious beliefs and cultural practices are contrary to Western values. And undocumented immigrants are being targeted aggressively by lawmakers, despite the crucial labor these workers perform in wealthy economies.
IA-Forum: What is the goal of U.S immigration policy?
Dr. Nagel: It is difficult to identify a single goal of US immigration policy because policy is shaped by many actors and interest groups with starkly different views on immigration. Moreover, while immigration is the purview of the federal government, officials at the state and local level create and implement policies that affect immigrants in different ways. In recent years, for instance, state and local officials have passed numerous laws aimed directly or indirectly at immigrants, including English-only laws, laws regulating (or banning) housing typically used by immigrants, and laws to prevent undocumented immigrants from using local services. They have also passed laws granting sanctuary to undocumented immigrants and forbidding local law enforcement officials from working on behalf of federal immigration enforcement agents.
From a broad perspective, I think it is helpful to look at US immigration policy as embodying numerous tensions: between the imperative for territorial sovereignty and the imperative for labor mobility; between the image of America as a melting pot of immigrants and the image of America as a nation under siege by cultural outsiders; between the desire for ever greater mobility of capital, consumer goods, and labor, and the desire for high levels of security. These tensions play themselves out over and over again in congressional debates. In the 1980s, for instance, there was a concerted effort to overhaul the immigration system and to limit flows of immigrants, which had grown significantly since the mid-1960s. Once in committee, however, legislators were lobbied heavily by agribusiness interests, who wanted to ensure a steady supply of seasonal workers, as well as by Latino and other ethnic minority activists, who did not want to see immigration numbers reduced. In the end, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 did little to reduce flows of immigrants, legal or otherwise; indeed, many argue that this law paved the way for even greater numbers of immigrants by granting amnesty to hundreds of thousands of undocumented (mostly Mexican) workers. In the 1990s, in response to public concerns about the growth of the undocumented population, the government took measures to fortify the US border with Mexico, boosting numbers of border patrol agents, building walls and fences, and adding high-tech surveillance equipment. Yet some scholars argue such measures were largely for political show, as government officials continued to do little to prosecute employers for recruiting and hiring undocumented immigrants.
Politicians, in short, are swayed to a greater or lesser degree by popular hostility toward immigrants and employer demands for a ready supply of cheap, flexible labor. Much of the animosity toward immigrants for the past three decades has been targeted against undocumented workers, who are accused of taking jobs, committing crimes, and implanting foreign culture on American soil. But even with the recession, there are demands for foreign workers, and employers in the construction and agribusiness sectors often contend that they will go out of business if they do not have access to ready supply of low-waged workers. During his second term, President George W. Bush made a concerted effort to reform the immigration system, proposing a new temporary work permit program and an amnesty for undocumented immigrants who could prove long-term residence in the United States. But such ideas soon became politically untenable in Washington’s increasingly partisan environment.
At a Congressional level, at least, immigration legislation is unlikely to go far unless one party gains a filibuster-proof majority. But this does not mean that immigration policy will remain completely unchanged. First, as I alluded to earlier, local and state governments will continue to pass their own measures, as Arizona did recently. Inevitably, some of these measures will be declared unconstitutional, but as more and more cases go to court, states and localities will become more adept at writing legislation that passes Constitutional muster. Second, the current Administration has significant leeway in shifting enforcement priorities. And indeed, the Obama Administration has begun to make significant changes to existing policy, instructing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers to focus their removal efforts on undocumented immigrants with criminal records and to target employers of undocumented workers more aggressively.
The focus on undocumented immigration seems to have shifted attention away from legal immigration. For the time being, and America’s commitment to a broad, expansionary immigration policy appears firm, despite some economists’ warnings that the skill and education levels of immigrants have been falling significantly over the past several decades. Since the late 1980s, annual legal immigration has never fallen below 650,000 people; in most years, it has been closer to one million. Every year since 2005, over one million people have immigrated legally to the United States. Meanwhile, the number of individuals given non-immigrant visas has quadrupled from 9.5 million in 1985 to over 39 million in 2008. Today, immigrants constitute almost13 percent of the US population—a figure that has not been seen since the early 20th century. A far larger percentage of the US population has at least one parent born overseas. Given the dynamics of voter politics, it seems unlikely that many politicians will risk the wrath of newly minted citizens by supporting draconian cuts in immigration. Then again, such draconian measures are not unprecedented, and a prolonged economic slow-down might lead to more serious discussion of a scaling back of legal immigration.
Dr. Caroline Nagel is Assistant Professor at the University of South Carolina, Department of Geography
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