Why Walls Don't Stop Migrants

Why Walls Don't Stop Migrants


by Anne Marie Jeannet, Researcher with Grant, Department of Policy Analysis and Public Management

In 2010, David Cameron became Prime Minister pledging to cut net migration in the United Kingdom to just tens-of-thousands a year. “No ifs, no buts” he promised. Led by Cameron’s Home Secretary Theresa May (now his likely successor), the UK government implemented a battery of immigration control polices: capping employer-sponsor skilled migration, raising minimum income requirements for family sponsorship and slashing the number of student visas. But by the time his government ran for re-election in 2015, annual net migration had soared to over 300,000.

Cameron’s failure to suppress immigration is just the latest addition to a legacy of failed immigration control policies in Western democracies. Among the most notorious examples is the American case, where beginning in the 1980s, the US government, in an effort to stymie illegal migration militarized the border with Mexico. The policy backfired and over the next twenty years the size of the undocumented population doubled and cost American taxpayers 35 billion dollars in real terms.

There have been infamous failed policies in Europe as well. From 1955 to 1973, the German government, faced with labour shortages, implemented recruitment schemes to bring in guest workers who were expected to return home after their contract expired. Yet much to the surprise of the German government, the migrant workers instead chose to bring their families and stay permanently, establishing ethnic enclaves which still exist today. Germany was not the only country with guest worker schemes to be caught off guard, Austria and Switzerland had similar experiences. Reflecting on this, Swiss author Max Frisch astutely remarked: “We asked for workers; we got people instead.”
The irony of immigration control policies is that while they are not effective in curbing immigration, they are remarkably effective in changing the incentive structure for immigrants. As a result, immigration policies often have unintended consequences: stopping the seasonal movement of foreign workers to move freely in and out fuels permanent settlement instead; clamping down on worker visas brings about a rise in irregular immigration; building walls and regulating air travel just channels migrants into making riskier border crossings.

This occurs because immigration is a self-perpetuating phenomenon which has become a permanent feature of industrialized countries. It is driven by forces beyond the control of domestic governments: structural dependencies on foreign labour in certain economic sectors, international legal norms for family reunification, vast economic disparities between the global south and the global north, armed conflicts and regional instabilities which lead to forced migrations, just to name a few.

Yet even if controlling immigration is a fool’s errand governments nevertheless carry on trying (or at least go through the motions) because there is a strong public demand for the State to act. For many citizens, migration control is seen as a central feature of national sovereignty and a primary responsibility of the nation state. The state then finds itself trapped in a liberal paradox, where the imperative to remain globally competitive pushes for economic openness but that this usually entails higher levels of international migration which brings about domestic political resistance. So far, it does not appear that governments have found a way to manage those political risks. In a recent survey 60% of Europeans and 71% of Americans disapproved of the way that their government manages immigration.

This public dissatisfaction means there are electoral gains to be reaped. Official rhetoric in most Western democracies continues to express the will and the capacity to manage immigration flows. The Brexit’s Leave Campaign urged voters to leave the European Union as a means to cutting immigration (only to back pedal on this promise two days after the referendum result). Across the Atlantic, the Republican nominee Donald Trump promised that, if elected president of the United States, he would extend the fence with Mexico and hit the “pause button” on legal immigration for at least two years. And so the charade of impossible promises to curb immigration continues…

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