E.g., 10/04/2023
E.g., 10/04/2023
Evidence from the Great Recession Is In: Migration Flows Dropped, Unemployment Among Certain Immigrants Rose

Evidence from the Great Recession Is In: Migration Flows Dropped, Unemployment Among Certain Immigrants Rose

The writing was on the wall by late 2009, but 2010 confirmed the migration trends glimpsed months earlier in major immigrant-receiving countries: the global recession that began in late 2007 caused migration flows to drop, halting rapid immigrant population growth, and it pushed unemployment levels for some immigrants far higher than those of the native born.

Migration Flows

In the United States, flows of illegal migration from Mexico, the top source country for decades, declined dramatically as seen in data from both the U.S. and Mexican governments. According to Mexico's statistical agency INEGI, the emigration rate from Mexico hit 10.1 per 1,000 people between the second quarter of 2006 and the first quarter of 2007, or before the U.S. recession began. During the same period between 2009 and 2010, emigration dropped to 4.9 per 1,000 people. The rate of Mexicans returning from abroad remained about the same, proving that the mass return some predicted simply did not materialize.

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As Department of Homeland Security data reveal, apprehensions in the United States — the overwhelming majority of them Mexican citizens — sank to 613,000 in 2009, 23 percent lower than in 2008.

The drop was not limited to illegal migration, however. The demand — and number — of temporary workers at the high and low end decreased as well. The United States issued 23 percent fewer visas for intracompany transferees and 50 percent fewer for low-skilled seasonal workers in 2009 than in 2007. While the H-1B "specialty occupation" visa quota of 65,000 was once filled in a matter of days, it took nine months to reach the cap in 2009. H-1B demand in 2010 remained sluggish, with about 49,000 petitions filed as of late November.

During the recession, the U.S. immigrant population fluctuated between 37 and 38 million according to data from the Current Population Survey (CPS); it most certainly did not continue the fast growth seen between 2000 and 2007. As of October 2010, CPS reported a foreign-born population of 38.5 million.

Like the United States, the European Union (EU) saw fewer unauthorized migrants as well. EU Member States reported to Frontex, the EU border management agency, 106,200 detections of illegal border crossings in 2009, down a third from 2008. Italy and Spain saw detections decrease, but numbers were up in Greece (see Issue #9: Crackdown on Illegal Migration Makes Greece Main Entry to Europe).

After attracting hundreds of thousands from Eastern Europe's new EU Member States, particularly Poland, to its booming economy, the United Kingdom saw those flows begin to sharply contract in 2008. In fact, the number of Eastern Europeans joining the labor market almost halved from 2007 to 2009, according to data on the issuance of national insurance numbers (required for legal employment).

Between the third and fourth quarters of 2009, data from the UK Labor Force Survey found the size of the Polish national population in the United Kingdom decreased 2.2 percent, and labor force data collected in Poland suggests a more substantial decrease over the course of the recession.

The pain to Ireland and Spain was swift and intense as the construction sector, which employed tens of thousands of immigrants in both countries, crumbled.

Over the last decade, most immigration to Ireland came from the new EU Member States in Eastern Europe. Immigration to Ireland from new EU countries fell by 40 percent from 2008 to 2009, and 60 percent fewer work permits were issued in the first months of 2010 compared to 2008. Ireland's reversal of fortune is transforming it back into an emigration, rather than immigration, country (see Issue # 7: When All Else Fails, Leave: Emigration from Europe's New Destinations on the Rise).

Spain's immigrant population was more diverse, with large populations from EU Member States as well as Latin American countries and Morocco. While Spain added 957,206 foreigners in 2006-2007, the number of new foreigners dropped two-thirds to 317,733 for 2008-2009, according to the Spanish Ministry of Labor and Immigration. In addition, the number of foreigners abroad offered jobs in Spain fell from 48,693 in 2008 to 4,429 in 2009. Not surprisingly, Spain's foreign population has grown slowly since 2008, mainly due to family reunification.

The downward trend was not limited to the United States and Europe. Singapore, where the recession prompted the government to take a less welcoming approach to immigration (see Issue # 8: Not Just the Highly Skilled – Only the Best and Brightest, Please), saw slower growth in the number of permanent residents and nonresidents between June 2009 and June 2010.

Australia, which did not experience a recession but nonetheless saw more sluggish growth in 2009, reported a 5 percent decrease in permanent residents coming via its skilled stream from July-December 2008 to July-December 2009;nNet migration — still positive — dropped 9 percent in the same period. The decline in permanent resident numbers is not surprising since the government announced in March 2009 a 14 percent reduction in the number of skilled migrants it would accept.

While Canada, notable for not reducing its immigration targets during the recession, welcomed more permanent residents in 2009 than 2008, the number of temporary residents initially entering the country dropped about 11 percent, from 134,378 in 2008 to 119,114 in 2009, according to Citizenship and Immigration Canada.


As observed in 2009, unemployment hit some immigrant groups particularly hard due to their concentration in sectors like construction, manufacturing, and some types of less-skilled service jobs. The most vulnerable included Mexican and Central American immigrants in the United States, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis in the United Kingdom, and Moroccans in Spain. Given the slow pace of recovery in these countries, higher-than-prerecession levels of unemployment will likely persist into 2011.

Unemployment in Ireland and Sweden continued to rise in 2010, reaching 17 percent for the foreign born in both countries, while joblessness among immigrants in Spain rose above 30 percent but showed signs of stabilization.

In the United States, the unemployment rate among the native born and immigrants peaked in January 2010 at 10.4 percent and 11.9 percent, respectively. Among immigrants from Mexico and Central America, the unemployment rate also peaked during the same month, but at a much higher rate — 14.6 percent. Unemployment declined somewhat for all groups over the course of 2010, in part due to seasonal trends, but remains well above where it was prior to the recession.

In October 2010, the U.S. unemployment rate for the native born was 9.1 percent, 9.2 percent for all immigrants, and 10.6 percent among Mexican and Central American immigrants. Three years prior, in October 2007, it stood at 4.6 percent among the native born, 4.2 percent among all foreign born, and 4.8 percent among Mexican and Central American immigrants. In other words, things are slowly improving, but Hispanic immigrants are hardly out of the woods.

Question: Will the increasing labor force participation seen in 2010 among immigrants, especially Hispanics, put pressure on U.S. borders?