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Facets of immigration

In Blaming Immigrants – an informative and timely introduction to a critical global issue – economist Neeraj Kaushal investigates the rising anxiety visible in host countries and tests common complaints against immigration

Facets of immigration

Immigration, in the words of historian Roger Daniels, is a fundamental human activity. Can it be restricted? Most immigrants use air routes to enter foreign countries, and these routes are almost entirely controlled by authorities in both the sending and receiving countries. The land and sea routes are somewhat less easy to monitor but, given modern surveillance technology, not entirely outside the realm of enforcement.


Yet only a few island nations such as Australia and Singapore claim to micromanage immigration flows with success. Elsewhere, immigration enforcement is littered with failures, including in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, France, and Italy—countries that should by now be veterans in the enforcement business. With modern surveillance technology, these countries could, if they chose to allocate the required resources, monitor each and every entry and exit. It would be a messy and costly exercise.

Take Donald Trump's January 2017 executive order to restrict refugees and travelers from seven Muslim countries. Together these countries constitute a tiny slice of the overall number of international travelers to the United States. Even so, the executive order caused chaos at international airports, protests in major American cities, complaints from friendly governments around the world, and lawsuits from American corporations, universities, and local and state governments. Imagine the anarchy and economic effects a major restriction on travel and immigration would create!

Welcome to the twenty-first-century global economy. Crossborder mobility is integral to its functioning. The economic, administrative, and humanitarian toll of any major immigration restriction would be enormous, and nations contemplating these notions have to ask whether they are willing to pay the price. The simple fact is that, as I document below, restricting immigration in the twentyfirst century is not possible without substantially depressing overall cross-border mobility. Effective restrictions on immigration require controls on other types of international travels for tourism, schooling, business, and employment. Yet in the current paranoia when Marine Le Pen of France, Viktor Orban of Hungary, Matteo Salvini of Italy, Geert Wilders of Netherlands, Nigel Farage of the United Kingdom, Donald Trump of the United States, and other right-wing leaders demand restricting immigration and expelling immigrants, they do so without reference to restrictions on international travel.

Advocates of anti-immigration policies generally want to restrict immigration but not international travel for business and tourism, in particular of their own citizens. Such travel not only greases the wheels of the global economy but also directly contributes substantially to global economic output. Yet failure to acknowledge the link between immigration and other kinds of cross-border mobility reflects incomplete understanding of immigration in the twentyfirst century.

The New Immigration

Critics argue that if immigration restrictions did not have a disastrous effect on the world economy a century ago when the United States clamped down on immigration with a series of laws culminating in the Immigration Act of 1924, why would it be any different now? The answer lies in the difference between immigration today and one hundred years ago; the differences in global interdependence and globalization today and one hundred years ago. Let's start with the differences in immigration over the past century.

Immigration in the 2010s is a tiny fraction of cross-border mobility. The World Tourism Organization periodically publishes estimates of international tourists. By these estimates, in 2016 there were 1.2 billion international tourist arrivals. This statistic pertains to the number of individual trips, not travelers. A tiny minority travels across national borders ten or more times a year, but the vast majority engages in international travel for tourism just once or twice a year. I asked a number of immigration historians, demographers, economists, and political scientists for a reasonable estimate of the average number of trips per international traveler. The response: it's difficult to guess. But they unanimously agreed that it would be fewer than five. Assuming that on average each international tourist makes three trips a year, that would be 400 million international tourists; assuming that they make five trips a year, the number goes down to 240 million. To this must be added other nonimmigrants, such as students, scholars, and individuals traveling for work, if we are to arrive at an estimate of the overall size of annual cross-border movement. Compare that to the number of people who emigrate globally: about five million a year, according to data from the International Organization for Migration. The number of individuals engaged in international travel is at least fifty times the annual immigration, and possibly even larger.

By contrast, in the early decades of the twentieth century crossborder mobility for tourism and business was modest. The cost, time, risk, and sheer uncertainty of long-distance travel were major impediments to international mobility. On average in 1900 it took four to six months via sea to travel from Bombay to London, a journey that can now be completed in just eight hours by air. There were no designated ships leaving Bombay for London every day or even every week. In January 2017 every day there were at least seven nonstop flights between the two cities, and eighty flights with one or more stops in other cities. Then, thousands of rich Chinese, Korean, and Japanese tourists just did not fly to Paris or London or New York for a weeklong vacation or for an extended weekend as they do in the twenty-first century. Then, cross-border travel for tourism and business was not as big a driver of economic growth as it is in the twenty-first century. In 2016 international tourism was a $1.5 trillion industry globally; China had 120 million inbound and 130 million outbound tourists. The United States received 74 million international tourists, and about the same number of U.S. citizens traveled abroad, of which about half traveled outside North America.

Immigration in the 2010s is far more global than it was in the early 1900s, in terms of both origins and destinations. In the early 1900s most immigrants were from Europe, and most headed to the Americas. In the 2010s immigrants come from all across the globe. In 2016 the top regions of origin were Asia (49 percent of global immigration), Latin America (18 percent), Eastern Europe and Central Asia (16 percent), and the Middle East and North Africa (14 percent). Then, all the leading countries of origin were in northern and southern Europe. In the early decades of the twenty-first century all the top ten sending countries are outside Europe.

The geographic landscape of immigration has reversed in many places: immigrant origin nations of the early twentieth century (Italy, France, Ireland, Spain) have become destinations, and countries that were once destinations (Brazil, Argentina, Chile) are now origins. Demographic projections suggest that by 2050, Africa will emerge as one of the biggest sources of emigration to Asia, Europe, and North America.

(Excerpted with permission from Blaming Immigrants; written by Neeraj Kaushal; published by Columbia University Press. The excerpt here is a part of the chapter titled 'The Costs and Benefits of Restricting Immigration'.)

Columbia University Press

Columbia University Press

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