Irregular Migration: Borders against the Law of Supply and Demand

Updated: October 26, 2021 3:26 PM

The biggest challenge when analysing the phenomenon of irregular migration is to separate fact from political spin and selective hyperbole.

migrationCentral American migrants, moving in a caravan through Juchitan, Oaxaca are pictured atop a train known as "The Beast" while continuing their journey toward the United States, in Mexico April 26, 2019.(File photo: Reuters)

By Juan M Amaya-Castro, Ph.D., 

Recent months have seen a fast-paced rise in the number of detained undocumented migrants on the Southern US border. The highly politicized nature of migration control means that this rise becomes a major news item, with Republicans blaming the Democrat President Biden for what they call a “crisis”. The biggest challenge when analysing the phenomenon of irregular migration is to separate fact from political spin and selective hyperbole. The thing that gets less attention however is that most of those detained are quickly deported. The last 12 months have seen approximately 1.7 million detentions and over 1 million deportations. Irregular migration numbers are however infamously deceptive. They can vary depending on how many resources a country spends on border control and law enforcement, on the degree of organization and stealth that smugglers rely on, or on the routes taken by undocumented migrants. Many irregular migrants enter the country of destination with a valid visa and then stay beyond its expiration. And so, one should always be careful to attach too many conclusions to these numbers.

There are however several interesting tendencies in this latest spike. First, a very significant number of people arriving at the Southern Border of the US come from small Central American nations, such as El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. Some are very eager to blame organized crime and gangs of smugglers, but the truth is that weather conditions such as droughts and hurricanes, linked by scientists to climate change, have made thousands of people destitute. In addition, migration experts point to the fact that irregular migration flows respond to the economic situation in the US. The financial crisis of 2008 saw falling numbers that only began to increase as the economy picked up pace. Though the strong anti-immigration rhetoric of Trump, and the more immigrant-friendly of Biden, may have effects, these are negligible in comparison to the strong demand for labour that is slowing down economic growth right now in the US. Right now, the US economy demands the cheap labour offered by Mexicans and Central Americans.

A second novelty in this latest surge of irregular migration concerns the large numbers of people who venture into the inhospitable Darien Gap on the border between Colombia and Panama, coming not only from Venezuela and the Caribbean, from Haiti, but also from South Asian countries such as India and Bangladesh. These migrants face a long journey, first through the jungle of the Darien Gap and then through Central America. It is very likely that these flows are facilitated by increasingly well-organized smugglers. This is a dire situation. Not only do migrants pay significant sums of money to these smugglers, but they also run the very real risk of falling in the hands of traffickers, getting abandoned, or even killed. Thousands will never reach the US border.

While the Trump administration spoke of building a wall on the border, it also pressed Mexico and Central American countries to do a lot of the policing of migrants on its behalf. The Biden administration has continued this policy of extra-territorializing US border control policies, albeit in a friendlier tone. Recently, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Colombia and other countries in the region to coordinate what is called a regional approach to migration control, but which is more properly seen as a further externalizing of the US border. It is here that we see the cruel irony of migration control. Law and order approaches, as we have also seen in the Mediterranean region, only incentivize organized smuggling. It would seem in this sense that draconian border control measures are a negative investment in that they not only add to the difficulties of border control, but also to the vulnerability of the migrants themselves. It would make more sense to have migrants pay for visas or other working permits. In the past, the most effective measure against irregular migration has been to allow for more regular migration.

It is therefore fortunate that Blinken also talks of addressing the so-called root causes of irregular migration and ameliorating the worst situations of economic despair that drives thousands of people to endeavour this most perilous journey. This makes sense as a long-term investment in border security. However, long-term investment requires long-term commitment, and all too often are these policies prone not to be sustained due to changing political winds in Washington. It is in this sense that we should interpret what is in fact a surge in media attention, to what is in fact a structural characteristic of contemporary globalization. Lest we focus too much on the haphazard efforts of governments to offer the spectacle of control, we should remember that migrants are economic actors that respond to the law of supply and demand.

(The author is affiliated to the Centre for Migration Studies (CEM) of the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá (Colombia). Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited.)

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