Irregular migration is as old as the regulation of migration itself. Yet it has not always been at the fore of our attention, and it has not always aroused the degree of anxiety that surrounds it today. Admittedly, ‘anxiety’ may seem too strong a word. But ‘concern’ falls short of describing the stance towards irregular migration that prevails in Europe and the United States. The rejection of unauthorized migration often borders on stigmatization and demonization. Some countries have made it a criminal offense. Measures introduced to combat it go as far as the humiliating and demeaning practices of Sheriff Arpaio in Arizona and the threat to confine asylum seekers in camps in Nauru or Papua New Guinea. Non-governmental actors often share in the current escalation, including examples such as a well-known Texan actor’s weekend hobby of picking up a gun to chase irregular migrants, or the debate about whether the fence on the US-Mexico border should be doubled or electrified.
That such obsession is eminently contemporary suggests it might not be genuine. Things were quite different in the past. In the North America of the Bracero Program, during the middle decades of the 20th century, the stance towards undocumented migration was one of benign neglect, if not of Olympian indifference. Similar was the case in Europe of the trentes glorieuses: irregular migrants were as a rule tolerated, when not easily legalized. At that time, immigration was seen as necessary and desirable on both sides of the Atlantic. Rather than in substantive shifts in irregular migration, the explanation for the ensuing transition from indifference to demonization is to be found in a dramatically altered evaluation of immigration.
Irregular migration doubtless has deleterious effects. Yet, whether they are sufficient to justify the current climate of opinion and the severity of the measures to combat it is questionable. It certainly implies a breach of sovereignty, but not necessarily more significant than others that are easily accepted by governments. Its negative effects do not generally extend to the economy, as most irregular migrants are workers needed by the labour market, and who lend valuable services to many families, especially in terms of care, which in turn benefits welfare systems. The drastic removal of migrants would be likely to generate chaos.
One reason often mentioned for the harshness of practices which counter irregular migration is that it constitutes a security risk. Were this indeed the case, the reasons for granting irregular migration a high priority could arguably be more understandable and justifiable. But the opposite could also be argued. Irregular migration can be seen as a security risk only if a very broad concept of security is used. There is no evidence of irregular migrants being more likely to commit crime – as long as a distinction is made between immigrants committing crimes and transnational criminal activities. San Diego and El Paso, two US cities with high proportions of irregular migrants, are among the safest large urban areas in the US, according to the FBI. And let us remind ourselves that the major terrorist attacks of the first decade of the 21st century – those of New York, Madrid, and London – were not the deeds of unauthorized immigrants. Irregular flows do have serious impacts in critical entry points, such as Lampedusa, several loci in Greece, the Canary Islands, or Ceuta and Melilla, but this is in terms of emergency situations and local disruption rather than security per se. And most countries are unaffected by such impacts. The relationship between international mobility and security is a complex and delicate one, but a better balance than the present one could be found.
Do the policy correlates of the present state of anxiety lead to reasonable policy outcomes? Are harsher control policies, including those aiming at ‘self-deportation’ effective? The answers are opaque and hard to measure. But the available evidence, both objective and impressionistic, suggests they are not, despite the high and ever increasing costs of control policies. Furthermore, there are a number of unintended consequences, including displacement of crossing points, more casualties, and higher fees for clandestine crossings. Mobility and legal migration may be negatively affected and made more cumbersome, not to mention the moral and political costs and negative impacts on societies that are increasingly inevitably more diverse. The often given justification that severe control policies help contain the rise of the far right hardly resists the test of reality, if the fortune of multiple populist, xenophobic parties and movements that have flourished and prosper in dozens of countries is taken as a measuring rod. In sum, if harsh control policies are costly, generate many unintended effects, and are of limited effectiveness, is the high priority accorded to them reasonable? How many would withstand a cost-benefit analysis?
Do the negative effects of irregular migration really justify the current levels of anxiety and their policy correlates? Do they justify the unprecedented politicization of migration? Do they sanction practices that sometimes impinge on human rights and civil liberties and test at times the limits of democratic politics?
In light of the above, common sense would recommend exploring alternative control strategies, ones that might possibly prove more reasonable and humane, and with fewer side effects than those in vogue at the moment. These might not secure large benefits, but at least they would entail lower costs, whether these be financial, social, or political. They would stem from a revised stance toward irregular migration that would recognize that, while it poses considerable problems, it is unavoidable and not so harmful. Learning to live with irregular migration in a calmer, more civilized way potentially offers considerable benefits. Unfortunately, there are plenty of reasons to be pessimistic.