Send Them Back? Not So Fast. On the Benefits of Labor Migration

Two leading academics agree that there is a big immigration problem: Politicians see migrants as a drain on the economy rather than a potential gain. Professors Douglas Massey and Moshe Semyonov outline how to address a worldwide crisis.

Asher Schechter
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Asher Schechter

We’re all familiar with the stereotype: A Mexican, Sudanese or some other migrant steals across the border in the dead of night. He comes from a poor and backward country, in the hope of finding work and a better life. He does not speak the language of his new home, but manages to make his way to a major city, where he joins his fellow migrants. Together they take people’s jobs, raise the crime rate, rape women, bring down property values, and spread diseases and other ills.

The truth behind this stereotype, however, is that the Mexican, Sudanese or Chinese migrant is a growth engine that can contribute to a country’s GDP and may prove a significant source of tax revenue. Revealing this truth is what Princeton University sociologist Douglas Massey devotes much of his time to these days.

“In the U.S., the term ‘migrant’ is associated with illegal Mexican immigrants. That is the stereotype, which is strengthened periodically by politicians, who always find it easy to present immigrants as a threat to the country and to the culture, especially in times of economic hardship, when they would rather citizens be angry at immigrants than at them,” Prof. Massey says in an interview with Haaretz. However, he points out that “all the studies show that immigration brings economic benefit. Even among the weaker segments of society − the ones that supposedly are thought to compete with immigrants for jobs in the service sector − the negative effect of immigration is small.”

The issue of migration, and its economic utility, has preoccupied the entire world in recent years. Globalization made it easier for workers to move from one country to another: Foreigners were responsible for 70 percent of the growth in the European workforce in the past decade, and for 47 percent of the growth in the U.S. workforce over the same period.

Along with the stereotypical immigrants − African refugees and migrants from developing countries − the world has also been exposed in the past decade to high-skilled immigrants (known by the acronym HSI): software engineers from Israel or scientists from India, educated immigrants with sought-after professional skills who move to countries such as the U.S. and are considered a commodity for which there is rising demand, because studies have shown that they bring with them growth, jobs and economic prosperity.

It turns out, though, that unskilled immigrants also contribute quite a bit to a country’s growth: according to a study by the multinational banking group BBVA, illegal immigrants from Mexico contributed around 4 percent to America’s GDP in 2011. Since the authorities do not recognize them, that year the immigrants sent home income totaling $23 billion, which the U.S. government cannot tax.

Today, after a decade of political paralysis on the subject of immigration and numerous campaigns by activists to naturalize illegal immigrants − among them the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, who outed himself last year as an illegal immigrant − the Obama administration intends to lead a comprehensive reform that will address the millions of illegal immigrants currently in the United States. Under Obama’s proposed reform, illegal immigrants would be offered the opportunity to participate in a naturalization process that would grant them citizenship within eight years. According to Massey, though, eight years is too long a time to wait.

“We were stupid economically. We’re still stupid economically,” says Massey, who was the keynote speaker at an international conference on migration held at Tel Aviv University in January. “There are 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. today, and a large percentage of them came there as children. What’s happened is that we are paying for their education and their healthcare, and then when they turn 18 and become productive, we don’t let them work. We’ve already invested the money in them. Instead of managing immigration and naturalizing the immigrants so we can benefit from its fruits, recent administrations squandered $18 billion a year on enforcing the immigration laws, and the upshot was that the number of illegal immigrants grew.

“Clinton started building the fence along the border with Mexico,” Massey continues, “Bush carried on with the fence, and Obama also continued the same policy − in his first term, the administration deported a record number of immigrants, more than any other administration − and the Border Patrol got the biggest budget in its history. I don’t understand why: No one is trying to steal [across] the border anymore. Mexico’s economy changed and the Mexicans are no longer leaving. I guess they just stare at the fence.”

Immigration has also made headlines in Israel in recent years, thanks to the tens of thousands of Sudanese and Eritrean refugees and migrants who have ended up in the poor neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv. The previous interior minister, Eli Yishai, held that these are migrant workers who should be deported because they increased the crime rate and threatened to take jobs away from locals.

Massey has very different advice: “Let them stay,” he says. “It does nobody any good that they are sleeping in public parks. Israel’s secular population has a low fertility rate, which means you need unskilled labor in areas like agriculture and services. You should make it easier for them to enter and exit. If you try to keep them from crossing the border, they’ll stay here.

“That is what happened in the U.S.: the more militarized the border became, the more immigrants who arrived did not want to cross the border again, because it was so dangerous. It just made them stay and lessened the number of returnees. If you allow them to profit and return to their homeland, they will do so − like most migrants. This is especially true in a country like Israel, which is a kind of theocratic state, as opposed to the U.S., where you can assimilate into society more easily.

“You don’t want to be a place that isn’t considered attractive to immigrants, because places that don’t draw immigrants are almost always backward and poor,” Massey says. “Instead of trying to prevent immigration waves, it is better to stop resisting them, and to try to manage them in a manner more appropriate to the economy and society, with temporary visas that enable immigrants to enter and exit. Any other attempt causes the opposite result and only leads to more immigrants.

“That is what happened in Western Europe in the 1970s. In 1973-1974, the Western European countries had a stable immigrant population, although mostly male. Workers came, profited and went back to their families, and others arrived in their place. And then they closed the borders, and everyone stayed. You must accept the phenomenon of immigration as reality. Any other policy is beneficial neither to society nor to the country, but only to the employers of foreign workers who don’t want to pay them minimum wage or give them proper work conditions.”

Free movement

Massey, 61, is among the world’s leading experts on international migration. Migration, he explains, is not an unusual phenomenon, but rather a necessary and inalienable component of the 21st-century economy, one that can be a significant engine for growth if it’s only handled in the right way.

“You can’t manage a global economy with free movement of all the components of production, except for one,” he says. “In a global economy, people will move from place to place. So once upon a time Mexicans immigrated to the United States to look for work, and today Spaniards and Portuguese emigrate to Mexico, Brazil or Argentina to find work. Suddenly places like Singapore or South Korea have become highly developed and are attracting many immigrants, both skilled and poor. This is a dynamic economy, and part of the dynamism is also reflected in the movements of migrants.”

Many developed economies, he points out, have also developed a dependency on migration. “Without migration, we wouldn’t have agriculture, for example. No American would agree to go to a field in the desert and irrigate melons in 30-degree heat. And if he were to agree, you’d have to pay him so much that you wouldn’t be able to make a profit, because that is how the global market works.”

As a migration scholar, Massey finds himself encountering many prejudices and misconceptions. “Sometimes I lecture in the U.S., outside of academia, and people in the audience say to me: ‘It’s easy for you to talk, you don’t have to compete with immigrants for jobs.’ ‘What are you talking about?’ I say, ‘half of my department was born overseas.’ But for some reason they are not perceived as a threat, because they are not perceived as migrants − even though they are.”

Ever since the economic crisis began, but also prior to it, manifestations of opposition to immigration have appeared throughout the world. In Greece, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party has become a significant force, thanks to its xenophobia; in France, Marine Le Pen and her National Front party have become the country’s third-largest political power; in Israel, the wave of incitement against the migrants led to waves of vandalism in south Tel Aviv. In the public arena, parties and politicians opposed to immigration have a clear advantage. The public, whether it’s Israeli, American or British, has trouble seeing the advantages of migration and remains fearful.

“It is very frustrating,” Massey admits. “I do what I can: I talk on television, write for The New York Times and magazines, and speak in public − but I’m a professor and I have students to teach. On the opposite side, there are organizations that have lots of money and whose job is to spread anti-immigrant propaganda 24 hours a day, whether because they do not understand the modern economy or for other reasons. It’s not a fair contest. No matter how many academic studies indicate that immigrants tend to commit crimes less than the regular population, the moment one immigrant commits a crime, it will be very hard for us as academics to explain the reality. Because the reality is complex, and it’s easier to spout slogans.”

Meaningful change

Despite the difficulties, Massey is optimistic. In the U.S., which has invested tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars over the past decade in an effort to block migrants from entering the country, he sees a meaningful change. “We know in the U.S. that we are an immigrant society; we just need to decide which immigrants,” he says. “The situation in the U.S. will change, in my opinion, because of the rising political power of the Latino population. Already, Latinos constitute 16 percent of the population. Together with Asian immigrants, who are the main immigrant group to the U.S. today, they constitute more than 20 percent of the population.

“Without the Latinos, who voted for Obama and not for the Republican party − which voiced such severe opposition to naturalizing immigrants that it was viewed as anti-Latino − Obama would not have won in Florida, for example. And even if they are not citizens, the immigrants who are in the U.S. today will have children, and those children will be American citizens since they were born here, and at 18 they will vote. Long after I’m dead, third-generation Mexicans might complain about the migration from Siberia.”

The policy is ‘No policy’

“Israel’s migration policy is that there is no policy,” says Prof. Moshe Semyonov of the departments of sociology and of labor studies at Tel Aviv University, when called upon to explain Israeli policy on the matter.

“First of all, a clear distinction has to be made with Israel’s migration policy on Jewish immigrants − olim, every one of whom is entitled to Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return and the renewed Citizenship Law. In this sense, it is very clear who is entitled to citizenship and also receives massive support from the state.”

The problem, Semyonov says, begins with Israel’s lack of policy vis-a-vis immigrants who are not Jewish. Everything was simpler before the first intifada started in 1987: Most of the foreign workers were Palestinians from the territories, who worked the same jobs that are now the province of foreign workers from various countries. Since the intifada, Semyonov says, “we became part of the global migration. The solution we came up with for the shortage in foreign workers is to do what other countries do: import cheap labor. Those same foreign workers are actually migrant workers. They cannot become residents, and certainly not citizens. Naturally, a large share of them wind up staying, and then when there is a second generation it encounters many problems, because it has nowhere else to go − these kids grow up in Israel but can’t become residents of the country or its citizens.”

The number of foreign workers in Israel is unclear, says Semyonov, and depends on which of the various authorities is doing the counting. He estimates the number at some 100,000. Half are working here legally and the rest are illegals without work permits. “It is very easy to get to Israel. They come and stay because, overall, the conditions here are not bad at all,” he says.

The migration problem and Israel’s lack of policy on the matter, he adds, has grown more complicated still in recent years, with the arrival of tens of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers from African countries such as Sudan and Eritrea. “Israel’s policy on the refugee issue is lack of policy. A policy not to make clear decisions on these matters. There are clear protocols for how a country is to determine the status of a refugee or asylum seeker − we are signatories to all of the treaties − but we are not acting accordingly. Nor are they arresting them, as they said they would. They are being packed off mainly to Tel Aviv or Be’er Sheva, some to Eilat, and are not given work permits. But eyes are closed and they are told, ‘If you work, we won’t arrest you.’”

The big problem, Semyonov believes, is that Israel’s lack of a migration policy is costing the state quite a sum of money. Massey agrees. It is not just the support the state needs to provide to refugees and asylum seekers, but also in terms of the tax revenue it loses out on when people work off the books. “These people, when all is said and done, are relatively healthy. They don’t have health insurance, but they use health services. At Ichilov [Hospital, Tel Aviv], for example, they complain that it’s costing them tons of money to provide first aid to refugees. There is no one to cover that, but you have to give them preliminary care, and that care is costing the state quite a bit. If there were an arrangement under which refugees could work and receive the basic services and pay for them, it would cost the state less,” Semyonov argues.

“I do not support the view that refugees commit more crimes than other populations, but if you let them make a living, you wouldn’t have the damage caused by crime and harassment, which cost the state a great deal of money,” he adds. “In general, if the country had an organized system that documented these people and enabled them to know that they have something to gain by keeping to an orderly path in accordance with the law, and also something to lose if they break the law, we would have far fewer problems,“ Semyonov concludes.

Douglas Massey. “You should make it easier for migrants to enter and exit. If you try to keep them from crossing the border, they’ll stay here.”Credit: Eyal Toueg
Sudanese and Eritrean migrants in south Tel Aviv. Credit: Ilan Assayag