The Global Struggle with Illegal Migration

No End in Sight, by Demetrios G. Papademetriou, Migration Policy Institute, Sept. 1, 2005 – For nearly two decades now, capital and the market for goods, services, and workers of many types have weaved an ever more intricate web of global economic and social interdependence.

No aspect of this interdependence seems to be more visible to the publics of advanced industrial societies than the movement of people. And no part of that movement is proving pricklier to manage effectively, or more difficult for publics to come to terms with, than irregular (also known as unauthorized, undocumented, or illegal) migration.

Most international mobility — regardless of legal status, whether permanent, temporary, or circular, and whether for work or to join families — also preoccupies the less developed countries, albeit from different perspectives. For them, movement is an essential lifeline to both their citizens and their economies because of remittances, now probably approaching $150 billion per year.

While developed countries are concerned with their set of problems — threats to security, perceived lack of control, effects on labor markets — less developed countries have their own concerns about unauthorized migration. These include the seeming gross disregard for the human rights, labor rights, and other basic rights of their nationals who enter the illegal immigration stream, and the trafficking industry that has grown around such movements.

Measuring the Inexact: Estimates, “Guesstimates,” and Rough Approximations

At the root of these sets of contradictory interests and reactions is the fact that this phenomenon’s reach is nearly universal. When the UN Population Division releases its latest estimates of the stock of those currently living outside their country of birth for a minimum of one year (its definition of an immigrant) in late 2005 or twoearly 2006, that number will likely be between 190 and 200 million. This estimate would put the immigrant stock at about 3.3 percent of the world’s population.

Of that 190 to 200 million, about 30 percent are likely to be in the Americas, with Canada and the US probably accounting for about 42 million immigrants. Continental Europe’s share will probably be a little more than 20 percent, though the uncertainty level is higher because European states do not always include unauthorized in their statistics. The other half are spread across the world, with Asia having the largest number.

What may be equally significant about those estimates is what they do and do not count, or count incompletely. For instance, the UN figure includes the 25 to 30 million persons (most of them ethnic Russians) who were reclassified as international migrants when the Soviet Union collapsed and broke up into a large number of independent states.

Most temporary immigrants and irregular immigrants are not included, in large part because government data systems do not report them. Such statistics are also subject to individual states’ political determinations about what to collect and, more importantly, what to report. For instance, Canada uses a “working guesstimate” of about half-a-million unauthorized immigrants. A closely held British estimate of about the same size was leaked earlier this year and caused great embarrassment to the government.

There are important exceptions to this “rule.” The US and several South American countries either produce or otherwise do not deny illegal population estimates by reputable analysts. Furthermore, in the US case, national censuses are thought to capture between half and three quarters of that population. There is every reason to believe that carefully conducted censuses elsewhere would do as well.

Despite the difficulties, statistics on international migration are essential to making observations about the overall scale, distribution, and direction of all immigration flows. Of these, illegal/irregular migration has been by far the fastest rising single form of migration during the past 10 years.

A rough estimate about the share of unauthorized immigrants in the world’s immigrant stock might put it at between 15 and 20 percent of the total (between 30 and 40 million immigrants). Among them, the US has the largest absolute number of irregular immigrants with between 10 and 11 million, about 30 percent of its total foreign born population, probably followed by South Africa, where estimates vary wildly but all are in the several millions.

Continental Europe also has a large number of unauthorized immigrants, with the southern parts of the European Union accounting for the largest absolute numbers. Altogether, Europe probably “hosts” between seven and eight million irregular immigrants, although that number fluctuates in accordance with regularization programs, such as the recent one in Spain. These fluctuations tend to be cyclical because large proportions of those who regularize typically fall back into illegal status when they cannot meet the conditions for legal status.

Nor is illegal immigration the exclusive domain of rich countries. Mexico, the world’s most proficient source of unauthorized (and legal) immigrants, also hosts about a million irregular immigrants of its own, many of them American retirees who have settled in Mexico without official permission.

Estimates about migration flows reinforce this picture. Although annual migration flows are even harder to estimate than stocks, a best guess may be that they stand at between 10 and 15 million per year. As with immigration stock numbers, flow numbers are very sensitive to who does the counting and, hence, who is counted.

The flow estimates used here include legal permanent and longer term temporary stays, which can be counted with some confidence; unauthorized entries and stays, which are extremely difficult to count (discussed in the section immediately below); and asylum seekers who are relatively easy to count but particularly hard to classify.

The United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand — the so-called traditional countries of immigration — probably account for more than a third of all such annual flows. The other advanced industrial societies combined probably take another one-quarter of that total, with the UK in the lead in recent years; a large proportion of these migrants enter through the asylum route.

Two groups of countries account for most of the remaining flows. These are the growing regional economies in the top quintile of the developing world and states adjacent to advanced industrial countries. It is that last group where many irregular immigrants are often stranded or temporarily “deposited” by their traffickers/smugglers. In countries such as Georgia, for example, migrants from Asia wait for an opportunity to reach their desired destinations in the European Union. Few among such migrants are thought to be interested in returning to their home countries or staying there if they are forcibly returned.


As the preceding discussion makes clear, illegal immigration takes several forms, four of which are the most common.
Undocumented/unauthorized entrants. These are nationals of one state who enter another state clandestinely. Most such entrants cross land borders, but sea routes are also employed regularly, and wherever inspection regimes are permeable, so are air routes. In all instances, the entrant manages to avoid detection and hence, inspection. (In the US, where persons who use this type of entry account for about two-thirds of all illegally resident immigrants, the category is called “entry without inspection,” or “EWI.”) Increasing proportions of such clandestine immigrants are smuggled or trafficked.
Individuals who are inspected upon entry into another state, but gain admission by using fraudulent documents. The fraud in question may involve the person’s identity and/or the documentation in support of admission. A variant of this class of entries involves the making of fraudulent asylum claims where issues of identity, documentation, and the narrative in support of the asylum claim may be falsified.
Violators of the duration of a visa. These include individuals who enter another state properly but “willfully” overstay their period of legal stay, thus lapsing into irregular status.
Violators of the terms and conditions of a visa. Nationals of one state who enter another state with the proper documents and procedures, but at some point violate the terms of their visa. The most frequent such violation is the acceptance of employment. In a nearly institutionalized variant of such violation, language schools in some countries, such as Japan, have been notorious for admitting students who actually spend their time working. Another variant of this class of violation is when persons with special visa privileges — such as holders of “border crosser visas” that allow border residents from an adjacent country to reside and be employed in the other country within strictly prescribed time and geographic parameters — systematically abuse these parameters.
While these four classes of illegal entries and stays capture the overwhelming majority of all immigration violations, it is important to note that many foreigners also find themselves in temporary technical violation of the host nation’s immigration laws in what are otherwise legal entries and essentially legal stays. For instance, a business visitor may engage in a business activity that requires a different visa classification.

Such violations of immigration laws happen with considerable frequency, and, although some are important, most are relatively “innocent” because they are not systematic and are of short duration. In fact, most statistical systems either ignore these infractions or are otherwise incapable of capturing and counting them.

Furthermore, in administrative and regulatory terms, many of these violations are typically the result of inflexible rules and understaffed (and thus overworked) immigration bureaucracies. More than six million immigration petitions — many of them requests for a change in immigration status — were pending in the US in 2004. Many of these petitioners probably lapsed into illegality during the lengthy adjudication delays.

Controlling Illegal Immigration:

(Read the rest of this long article on Migration Information Source).

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