Adios, Amigos

I had a weird dream the other day. Immigration, which is in a downward spiral in the U.S., continues to fall dramatically. At a certain point the debate shifts to the desperate need to attract foreigners. Eventually, headlines such as  “a million immigrant visas to be granted on a first come, first serve basis everywhere” or “immigrants to be exempted from income taxes for ten years” pop up in the papers. But the immigrants shun the appeals.  At some point, the natives decide that local conditions are irreversibly bad. We begin alarming headlines— “Mexico to adopt measures against illegal border crossing by U.S. citizens”. Eventually, one of the political parties in Mexico decides to counter the collapse of the fertility rate, which has dropped by one third since the 1960s, with foreign workers. Hundreds of thousands of Americans flock across the border. Eventually another Mexican party whips up a xenophobic sentiment by announcing it will support vigilante groups in key parts of the border. A majority of Mexicans support the move. This party gets into power and enforces draconian anti-immigration measures but the numbers don´t move. Americans keep flocking in—until a severe recession hits the country, at which point the trend is reversed. Then somebody posts an entry in a Mexican blog titled “Adiós, amigos.”

In my dream, the market is the real force behind immigration, running a couple of steps ahead of policy makers. It has always been so in real life too although few politicians realize it. Now that the upcoming presidential elections have shaken president Obama into deciding to officially allow up to 1.4 million illegal immigrants who came in as children to remain is a good time to reflect on what has been happening to immigration in the U.S. and Europe. Essentially, the market has been doing its job. Just as immigrants were lured into developed countries when there was demand for whatever they had to offer, they have been flocking out or ceasing to come ever since the Great Recession set in. The net immigration of Mexicans in the U.S. has stopped and may have actually been reversed. Asians have now surpassed Hispanics in general as the largest incoming group.

Something equally dramatic has taken place across the pond. More people are now leaving Spain than coming in! Just over half a million people left last year, of whom 10 percent were Spaniard. And these were not wealthy investors—you now find Spanish waiters and hairdressers in Latin American capital cities. The number of illegal entries by boat from Africa has dropped by 80 percent in a decade! Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom—according to International Passenger Service—the number of people coming in fell by almost 10 percent last year, a trend that will be reinforced this year.

Are we to believe that law enforcement agencies have suddenly become superhumanly efficient all over the world and managed to do what they were powerless to accomplish in previous decades? This, at least, is what anti-immigration haws keep arguing. And even if they were right, did many of them not argue in recent years that they would consider supporting a path to legalization for immigrants already in the U.S. if the borders were under control? Why are they not pushing for some form of legalization now that net Mexican immigration has ceased?

Is law enforcement really responsible for what is happening? If it were, how come that despite the increase of border patrol agents the apprehension of Mexicans trying to come in has plummeted by two thirds in half a decade! Are we to believe that immigrants, who never in the past showed any sign of being intimidated by law enforcement, have suddenly become scared? Then why is it that in the first few years after border controls were greatly beefed up immigration actually rose, while it began to fall after the recession set in?

Between 2006 and 2007, one year after president George W. Bush enhanced border security, the top ten states in terms of undocumented foreigners saw a 470,000 rise in the number of illegal immigrants. The numbers really began to drop as soon as the recession set in. In California the proportion of undocumented foreigners dropped by 8.4 percent between 2007 and 2009; in Florida, where the bursting of the real estate bubble was catastrophic, the drop amounted to as much as 25 percent. Net annual immigration was reduced by 16 percent in the 2007-2008 period compared to 2000-2007.

The explanation is much simpler. It has to do with supply and demand. The housing bubble had been Christmas for immigrants—they built, renovated, painted and landscaped the millions of houses and backyards that were bought and sold. Once the housing market collapsed, those jobs disappeared and so did the “pull” factor. At the same time, other forces were holding the immigrant supply in check, among them the fall of Mexico´s fertility rate and the growth of that country´s middle class. Which is where my dream comes in . . .

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