Barbed Wire

Few topics are more politically contentious in the West than migration. In election campaigns, the right predictably attacks the left for being weak on border enforcement and pursuing irresponsibly lenient policies. Scaremongering about the ‘great replacement’, dark portraits of ‘criminal foreigners’, declarations of war on smugglers, complaints about the theft not only of jobs, but of housing and hospital beds – all these have become commonplace on both sides of the Atlantic.

One cannot fail to notice the political ironies of this spectacle. For, given the supposed effects of immigration on the labour market, the right could just as easily be in favour of maximizing inflows. Capital has always hoped for an increasing stock of labour to replenish the mythical ‘industrial reserve army’, put pressure on the unions and lower wages. As early as 1891, Eleanor Marx wrote in a letter to the American trade union leader Samuel Gompers: ‘The most immediate question is that of preventing the introduction from one country to another of unfair labour – i.e., of workers who, not knowing the conditions of the labour struggle in a particular country, are imported into that country by the capitalists, in order to reduce wages, lengthen the hours of labour, or both’.

A classic example was the ‘Great Migration’ in the US, when millions of African Americans left the South, some finding jobs in Northern factories, which were short of workers because the flow of European immigrants had slowed due to the First World War just as US industries were working at full pace to supply its allies with weapons. Empowered by the shortage, the most combative unions – such as the Wobblies – were making substantial demands. African Americans hired in Northern factories were immediately accused by white workers of being ‘strike-breakers’ and branded as a ‘scar race’, reinforcing the racism of the AFL-CIO (several unions belonging to the confederation excluded African American workers for many decades).

So why is the politics of migration more complicated and paradoxical than these alignments would suggest? Firstly, because political coalitions often include conflicting interests. Elements of both the left and the right’s constituencies, for example, may benefit in various ways from illegal migration. The wife of the worker whose job is endangered by migrants, for example, may be quite happy to employ an undocumented Filipina to look after her children, allowing her to stay in work and so keep the family budget afloat. The small-scale entrepreneur trading on the black market, meanwhile, who owes his profit margins to the illegal labour that saves him taxes, social security contributions and higher wages, also has an interest in blocking the legal flow of migrants that would force him to bring his business above board.

Then there are the contradictions between the economic interests of significant segments of the party’s base and its dominant ideology. As Dutch sociologist Hein de Haas writes in his stimulating – if at times verbose – recent book, How Migration Really Works, ‘left-wing parties have to accommodate the conflicting interests of labour unions who traditionally favour restrictive policies, and liberal and human rights groups favouring more open policies. Right-wing parties are divided between business lobbies favouring immigration and cultural conservatives asking for immigration restrictions.’ Rather than dividing the right from the left, migration splits both right and left formations internally.

Upon gaining power, the only way for both left and right to resolve this tangle of contradictions is through hypocrisy: to adopt practices that contradict public proclamations. Left-wing governments are often no more welcoming to immigrants than their right-wing counterparts. Recall that Obama – nicknamed ‘Deporter in Chief’ – consistently deported more immigrants than Trump, despite the ‘big, fat, beautiful wall’ the latter spoke of. As de Haas points out, ‘the highest-ever levels of legal immigration in the US were reached during the Trump presidency.’ Meanwhile, earlier this month Biden attacked Republicans for sinking his immigration bill, which he called ‘the toughest set of reforms’ that would ‘shut down the border’.

In reality, whoever is in government, it is always the labour market, in turn determined by relevant legislation, the business cycle and the geopolitical situation, that determines migration policies. This can be seen from long-term trends: the maximally restrictive phase between the two world wars was followed by an era of liberalisation during the Cold War, followed by a period of more restrictive measures that reduced migration, though it continued to rise. Increased entry controls, often draconian, have often been accompanied by more visas granted for work, family reunification and so on. In recent years the rather counterintuitive consequence has been that policies have often been less restrictive than they appeared.

This is among the surprising conclusions de Haas reaches in the course of dismantling 22 ‘myths’ about migration, drawing on copious and often unexpected data (though some of it marshalled in contradictory ways). One of these persistent misconceptions is that emigration is generated by poverty, meaning the way to reduce the flow of migration is to accelerate the economic progress of the countries people are leaving. As all specialists know, however, the development of a country leads, at least initially, to increased emigration, not to its reduction. The countries that generate the most emigrants – such as Turkey, India, Mexico, Morocco and the Philippines – tend to be in the middle-income bracket, not the lowest.

The reason for this, as de Haas explains, is that migration is the result of two factors: aspiration to migrate and ability to do so. Leaving one’s country is expensive – not only because of the plane tickets and visas, ‘the fees to be paid to recruiters and other middlemen’, but because ‘it usually takes time to migrate, settle and find work’, and relatives back home ‘need to be able to forgo the income from the labour of migrated family members for several months, or even longer’. If development makes migration more viable for more people, it may also increase the desire to emigrate: development does not only improve the living conditions of a country, it also transforms the culture of its inhabitants, especially its young people, who ‘surf the internet, obtain smartphones, are exposed to advertising, see foreign visitors and tourists and start to travel themselves’, and may begin to nurture new ambitions, at first heading to cities, and then abroad. In a growing country, the number of graduate students also tends to increase faster than the number of jobs suitable for their degrees, creating a surfeit of skilled labour that must look further afield.

Another of the myths debunked by de Haas is that tighter border controls reduce migration. Those who erect walls or intercept rafts neglect to consider the boomerang effect of these measures: they interrupt the circularity of some migration. Seasonal migrants who might have gone home instead settle in the host country because they know that once they leave, they are very likely to be unable to return. This settling produces more family reunifications. The grim display of barbed wire and barking dogs is, in other words, largely smoke and mirrors. As de Haas explains, if ‘protectionist’ governments really wanted to crack down on irregular immigration, they would devote themselves to inspecting the places where undocumented migrants work. Rather than patrolling the borders, they would prosecute the employers of those who have already illegally crossed them. They rarely do, of course. In the US, where there are an estimated 11 million undocumented migrants according to de Haas, Customs and Border Protection has 60,000 agents, whereas Homeland Security Investigations has just 10,000, of which only a fraction are dedicated to inspections in workplaces.

As a result, employer indictments have rarely exceeded 15–20 per year, and of these indictments only very few result in convictions. The average penalty for employers was only between $583 and $4,667. Even among foreign workers, the chances of being caught are low: between 117 and 779 individuals out of 11 million, even in the years of Trump’s much-trumpeted ‘crackdown’. It is in this contrast between governments’ inertia with regard to clandestine labour, and the belligerent posture of border controls, that the hypocrisy of draconian immigration policies appears most stark. Such hypocrisy must have something to do with the fact that, as de Haas observes, ‘immigration mainly benefits the wealthy, not workers’, the poorest of whom may lose out (a fact that helps to explain why recent immigrants are among the social groups most opposed to migration).

One could invoke many other examples of the circular self-deception of the so-called sovereigntists. For instance, scaremongering about the ‘great replacement’ is often accompanied by exhorting native women to procreate more, to be ‘brood-mares’, as was the case in Italy under Mussolini. But these sovereigntists ignore the fact that women may have fewer children because the welfare state has been dismantled (fewer crèches, less parental leave) and they can’t afford to give up working to raise children because their partner’s salary has also been reduced to below the level of labour force reproduction – which creates the need for migration.

Another often overlooked aspect of migration politics which de Haas draws attention to is that the rhetoric of tight border controls has a two-fold advantage for the lobbies that benefit from migration. On the one hand, it leaves intact, as we have seen, the migratory flow that is indispensable to a labour market increasingly in deficit (especially of ‘unskilled’ labour: contrary to popular belief, it is precisely lower-skilled workers that advanced economies need most, for agriculture, construction, hospitality, and care of the elderly and children). On the other, it generates huge demand and ballooning profits for the surveillance industry (‘the multibillion-dollar military-industrial complex in border controls’, as de Haas puts it). Between 2012 and 2022, the budget of Frontex, the EU’s border agency, soared from €85 million to €754 million. For the period 2021–27, the European budget for ‘migration and borders management’ totalled €22.7 billion, compared to €13 billion for the previous six years. In the United States, in 2018, the budget for border enforcement was $24 billion – three times the budget of the FBI ($8.3 billion), and 33% more than the sum of spending on the other major federal law enforcement agencies combined. This bounty rains down on the big arms manufacturers – in Europe: Airbus, Thales, Finmeccanica and BAE – and leading technology companies, such as Saab, Indra, Siemens and Diehl.

Then there is the additional industry spawned by the barriers to entry, which have created the need for intermediaries who know how to interpret and circumvent the cumbersome (and often contradictory) national and, in the case of Europe, supranational legislation. This industry feeds huge multinationals specialising in the ‘administration of workers’ such as the Dutch Randstad (€24.6 billion turnover) based in Diemen, the French-Swiss Adecco (€20.9 billion turnover) based in Zurich and in the American firm Manpower ($20.7 billion) based in Wisconsin. These three multinationals ‘administer’ more than 1.6 million workers worldwide (rising to 4.3 million with Adecco’s recent expansion into China) and occupy a central position in the import and export of labour: global gangmasters in advanced-capitalist guise.

Read on: Rachel Malik, ‘Fables of Migration’, NLR–Sidecar.