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© Frank

interviews

A Lack of Political Will, Pt. I

by Rey Koslowski
August 5, 2021

This interview with Rey Koslowski,  Professor of Political Science at the University at Albany, was conducted and condensed by franknews

Rey | My research is largely on international migration and border security, primarily looking at international cooperation on migration. I'm particularly interested in the politics of immigration policy-making. I'm also interested in emigration — policies regarding exit and the impact of immigrants on their home country politics.

I have been doing this for way too many years, several decades now. My research was originally focused on migration within the European Union. Gradually over time, the focus has moved more to US immigration policymaking and has since branched out from there to comparing the US with Canada and Australia, and even countries like China. 

I compare migration policy in different parts of the world and put the United States in a comparative perspective, but also examine the broader consequences of migration for international relations. 

I love talking to people who have studied this for a long time because even to my layman's ear, the arguments about borders and immigration are stale. There is a consistent level of migration happening, I think about 3.3% worldwide, and I wonder –

I'm gonna have to correct you here. I believe what you are referring to is the UN's figures on the international migrant stock. There are 281 million international migrants in the world, which is approximately 3.5% of the world's population right now. Migrant stock is not about the people who are migrating (or migrant flows), but rather those who have migrated, according to the UN’s definition, the number of people who are outside of their state of birth or nationality for more than a year. So that number includes my 90-year-old aunt who came to the United States in the 1960s, but it also includes some of the refugees from the DRC who are now in Albany. 

I like to think in terms of the broader concept of global mobility, which includes all people who have crossed international borders for any length of time, for any purpose. For example, this includes the 1.5 billion international tourist arrivals in 2019, more than doubling 673 million arrivals in 2000, according to the UN World Tourism Organization.  I’ve estimated that there were well over 2 billion international border crossings per year. That’s, of course, before COVID-19 travel restrictions were imposed worldwide last year.  When you say all these people are still migrating, that perhaps gets to the issue a little bit better. 

I guess I mean, more generally, that there’s a consistency to human movement over time. 

Yes, the number of migrants as a percentage of the world population has been consistently around 3% to 3.5% since I started studying this decades ago. So it's remained fairly consistent but relatively small. The majority of people never leave their country of birth, even Americans. 44% of Americans have passports and fewer than half of Americans have traveled abroad. If you think about large populations of India and Sub-Saharan Africa and even China for that matter, large majorities of those populations never will leave their country. Those who cross borders need to have sufficient resources to do so, whether as a short-term tourist or a permanent immigrant.  Migrants are not the poorest of the poor.  In contrast, the number of international border crossings has increased dramatically over the past few decades mostly because a relatively small but growing percentage of the world’s population has enough money to travel internationally – for some, many times in their lifetimes and even many times per year.  

I want to talk about border security in the U.S. You look at a place like El Paso, it’s been increasingly militarized over the last few decades. But has that done anything to deter migration? Is there a correlation between borders and security in a tangible way? 

Let me start with the question of deterring migration. Most of the focus has been on unauthorized migration when we talk about the border.

There have been many episodes of "securing the border" by either hiring more border patrol agents or building more fences — this is referred to as increased border security or the militarization of the border. 

Quite frankly, I would suggest to you that this is much more about symbolic politics than it is about policies that are effective in reducing the number of unauthorized migrants to the United States. 

In the mid-1990s Operation Hold the Line and Operation Gatekeeper stationed border patrol agents every hundred yards along the border to deter people from coming. Border Patrol also put up fences so that people trying to cross in urban areas would have to go around through mountains and deserts. The thinking was that migrants wouldn't cross where it is so dangerous. Well, guess what, they continued to cross and as a result, we have more people dying in the desert. 

And then of course after 9/11, there was an additional focus on border fencing, through the Secure Fence Act in 2006. But despite all of those resources, the population of unauthorized migrants in the United States basically increased from around 6 million in 1996 to about 12 million in 2007. And it's been around 11 million the last few years

I would suggest that all of this fencing and increased Border Patrol staffing didn't reduce the unauthorized population in the United States. In fact, Doug Massey and others have made the argument that essentially what happened is that people who had been going back and forth, particularly in agriculture, basically, were now fenced in. Instead of going back and forth to be with their families in the off-season after they made some money, families started to reconstitute themselves in the United States, and were, in most cases, smuggled in. That's how we got to this point. 

When it comes down to it, US policymakers aren't willing to do the one thing that they've often said is really important – and that reduces demand for unauthorized migrant labor.

We have very little enforcement of employer sanctions, people who hire unauthorized migrant workers. 

There is a fairly good correlation between the business cycle and migration. During the Great Recession, for example, there were fewer apprehensions along the border and many more people leaving the United States. It's not surprising that as we see more demand for labor, we see more migration. 

You touched on symbolic politics as a way to look like someone is doing something. Why does that still work?

One thing to be clear about is that many permanent residents and naturalized citizens compete in similar labor markets with unauthorized migrant workers. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, labor unions were pushing for tougher border controls and to get employer sanctions.  When labor unions were stronger back then, Democratic politicians would often say, "we are in favor of legal migration, but we need to stop illegal migration.” 

One of the reasons that we've seen a certain realignment politically is because along comes a guy who has been employing unauthorized migrant workers, is probably one of the best at practicing these symbolic politics of border control, and starts his campaign no less with this issue. And then he becomes the “champion of the working class.” 

Democrats also used to oppose NAFTA and trade liberalization,  if you go back to the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. In many ways, Trumpism was a means of taking away those issues from the Democrats that appealed to the economic interests of the working class. Keep in mind how well Trump did with Latino voters in 2020. This was a surprise for a lot of people, but a lot of these economic issues resonated and particularly resonated in the Southwest. 

How should today’s left respond to these claims about immigration and migration?

I think there needs to be a bit of a rethinking and relistening to a broader range of constituencies that are concerned about economic competition from unauthorized migrants. I think that is a starting point. 

Gallup for many, many years has asked the public, "Do you think that the level of immigration in the United States should be decreased, increased or kept at the same level?" And for a long time, the majority of Americans thought that it should be decreased or kept at the same level while fewer than 20 percent thought it should be increased. Now there are more people who would say we need more immigration. But, I think in general, the percentage of those in the middle, is shrinking. We are polarized in the way we are approaching the politics of immigration. 

And, if you look at all comprehensive immigration reform efforts in the past, reform has only been enacted through coalitions of Republicans and Democrats. It's really hard to see anything like that occurring in the current Congress. Part of the challenge here is that everyone feels like the system is broken, but we don't have the wherewithal to politically address this.

Disappointing.