E.g., 06/20/2024
E.g., 06/20/2024
The Global Struggle with Illegal Migration: No End in Sight

The Global Struggle with Illegal Migration: No End in Sight

For nearly two decades now, capital and the market for goods, services, and workers of many types have weaved an ever more intricate web of global economic and social interdependence.

No aspect of this interdependence seems to be more visible to the publics of advanced industrial societies than the movement of people. And no part of that movement is proving pricklier to manage effectively, or more difficult for publics to come to terms with, than irregular (also known as unauthorized, undocumented, or illegal) migration.

Most international mobility — regardless of legal status, whether permanent, temporary, or circular, and whether for work or to join families — also preoccupies the less developed countries, albeit from different perspectives. For them, movement is an essential lifeline to both their citizens and their economies because of remittances, now probably approaching $150 billion per year.

While developed countries are concerned with their set of problems — threats to security, perceived lack of control, effects on labor markets — less developed countries have their own concerns about unauthorized migration. These include the seeming gross disregard for the human rights, labor rights, and other basic rights of their nationals who enter the illegal immigration stream, and the trafficking industry that has grown around such movements.

Measuring the Inexact: Estimates, "Guesstimates," and Rough Approximations

At the root of these sets of contradictory interests and reactions is the fact that this phenomenon's reach is nearly universal. When the UN Population Division releases its latest estimates of the stock of those currently living outside their country of birth for a minimum of one year (its definition of an immigrant) in late 2005 or two early 2006, that number will likely be between 190 and 200 million. This estimate would put the immigrant stock at about 3.3 percent of the world's population.

Of that 190 to 200 million, about 30 percent are likely to be in the Americas, with Canada and the U.S. probably accounting for about 42 million immigrants. Continental Europe's share will probably be a little more than 20 percent, though the uncertainty level is higher because European states do not always include unauthorized in their statistics. The other half are spread across the world, with Asia having the largest number.

What may be equally significant about those estimates is what they do and do not count, or count incompletely. For instance, the UN figure includes the 25 to 30 million persons (most of them ethnic Russians) who were reclassified as international migrants when the Soviet Union collapsed and broke up into a large number of independent states.

Most temporary immigrants and irregular immigrants are not included, in large part because government data systems do not report them. Such statistics are also subject to individual states' political determinations about what to collect and, more importantly, what to report. For instance, Canada uses a "working guesstimate" of about half-a-million unauthorized immigrants. A closely held British estimate of about the same size was leaked earlier this year and caused great embarrassment to the government.

There are important exceptions to this "rule." The U.S. and several South American countries either produce or otherwise do not deny illegal population estimates by reputable analysts. Furthermore, in the U.S. case, national censuses are thought to capture between half and three quarters of that population. There is every reason to believe that carefully conducted censuses elsewhere would do as well.

Despite the difficulties, statistics on international migration are essential to making observations about the overall scale, distribution, and direction of all immigration flows. Of these, illegal/irregular migration has been by far the fastest rising single form of migration during the past 10 years.

A rough estimate about the share of unauthorized immigrants in the world's immigrant stock might put it at between 15 and 20 percent of the total (between 30 and 40 million immigrants). Among them, the U.S. has the largest absolute number of irregular immigrants with between 10 and 11 million, about 30 percent of its total foreign born population, probably followed by South Africa, where estimates vary wildly but all are in the several millions.

Continental Europe also has a large number of unauthorized immigrants, with the southern parts of the European Union accounting for the largest absolute numbers. Altogether, Europe probably "hosts" between seven and eight million irregular immigrants, although that number fluctuates in accordance with regularization programs, such as the recent one in Spain. These fluctuations tend to be cyclical because large proportions of those who regularize typically fall back into illegal status when they cannot meet the conditions for legal status.

Nor is illegal immigration the exclusive domain of rich countries. Mexico, the world's most proficient source of unauthorized (and legal) immigrants, also hosts about a million irregular immigrants of its own, many of them American retirees who have settled in Mexico without official permission.

Estimates about migration flows reinforce this picture. Although annual migration flows are even harder to estimate than stocks, a best guess may be that they stand at between 10 and 15 million per year. As with immigration stock numbers, flow numbers are very sensitive to who does the counting and, hence, who is counted.

The flow estimates used here include legal permanent and longer term temporary stays, which can be counted with some confidence; unauthorized entries and stays, which are extremely difficult to count (discussed in the section immediately below); and asylum seekers who are relatively easy to count but particularly hard to classify.

The United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand — the so-called traditional countries of immigration — probably account for more than a third of all such annual flows. The other advanced industrial societies combined probably take another one-quarter of that total, with the UK in the lead in recent years; a large proportion of these migrants enter through the asylum route.

Two groups of countries account for most of the remaining flows. These are the growing regional economies in the top quintile of the developing world and states adjacent to advanced industrial countries. It is that last group where many irregular immigrants are often stranded or temporarily "deposited" by their traffickers/smugglers. In countries such as Georgia, for example, migrants from Asia wait for an opportunity to reach their desired destinations in the European Union. Few among such migrants are thought to be interested in returning to their home countries or staying there if they are forcibly returned.


As the preceding discussion makes clear, illegal immigration takes several forms, four of which are the most common.

  1. Undocumented/unauthorized entrants. These are nationals of one state who enter another state clandestinely. Most such entrants cross land borders, but sea routes are also employed regularly, and wherever inspection regimes are permeable, so are air routes. In all instances, the entrant manages to avoid detection and hence, inspection. (In the U.S., where persons who use this type of entry account for about two-thirds of all illegally resident immigrants, the category is called "entry without inspection," or "EWI.") Increasing proportions of such clandestine immigrants are smuggled or trafficked.
  2. Individuals who are inspected upon entry into another state, but gain admission by using fraudulent documents. The fraud in question may involve the person's identity and/or the documentation in support of admission. A variant of this class of entries involves the making of fraudulent asylum claims where issues of identity, documentation, and the narrative in support of the asylum claim may be falsified.
  3. Violators of the duration of a visa. These include individuals who enter another state properly but "willfully" overstay their period of legal stay, thus lapsing into irregular status.
  4. Violators of the terms and conditions of a visa. Nationals of one state who enter another state with the proper documents and procedures, but at some point violate the terms of their visa. The most frequent such violation is the acceptance of employment. In a nearly institutionalized variant of such violation, language schools in some countries, such as Japan, have been notorious for admitting students who actually spend their time working. Another variant of this class of violation is when persons with special visa privileges — such as holders of "border crosser visas" that allow border residents from an adjacent country to reside and be employed in the other country within strictly prescribed time and geographic parameters — systematically abuse these parameters.

While these four classes of illegal entries and stays capture the overwhelming majority of all immigration violations, it is important to note that many foreigners also find themselves in temporary technical violation of the host nation's immigration laws in what are otherwise legal entries and essentially legal stays. For instance, a business visitor may engage in a business activity that requires a different visa classification.

Such violations of immigration laws happen with considerable frequency, and, although some are important, most are relatively "innocent" because they are not systematic and are of short duration. In fact, most statistical systems either ignore these infractions or are otherwise incapable of capturing and counting them.

Furthermore, in administrative and regulatory terms, many of these violations are typically the result of inflexible rules and understaffed (and thus overworked) immigration bureaucracies. More than six million immigration petitions — many of them requests for a change in immigration status — were pending in the U.S. in 2004. Many of these petitioners probably lapsed into illegality during the lengthy adjudication delays.

Controlling Illegal Immigration

Clearly, virtually no country is untouched by, or immune to, the effects of international migration — particularly its unauthorized variant. The issue is thus certain to remain a top agenda item in national, regional, and "global" conversations for the foreseeable future.

It should thus be no surprise that illegal immigration now preoccupies most better-off societies, or that this preoccupation is beginning to spill over into how governments and publics alike have begun to think about most immigration and immigrants. Deep and increasing concerns about the potential connection of new and old immigrants to terrorism make the political and security resonance of the issue even more pronounced (see next section).

There is an emerging appreciation among analysts and privately, at least, among some government officials that perfection cannot become the policy goal when dealing with the complex social and economic issues associated with unwanted immigration. The standards it demands are too high, and any policy designed to meet them will ultimately be judged a failure.

In no policy field within immigration has the rhetorical pursuit of perfection led to more governance (and political) "dead ends" — rather than contributing toward effective solutions — than in "defeating" illegal immigration exclusively through law-and-order responses.

In Europe and the U.S., this basic premise seems to have remained valid even when such responses have been at least somewhat coordinated to include much tougher border controls, ever greater labor market regulation, higher energy interior policing, and more persistent efforts to reduce the demand for asylum (by making it more difficult both to launch applications and succeed in the adjudication process).

Four reasons for such systemic "failure" seem to be most important.

First, "law-and-order" measures alone are ineffective throughout the world. That observation seems to hold even when public investments on enforcement skyrocket as they have in the U.S. and several other countries. The U.S. example also suggests that even the near militarization of borders is much less successful than the proponents of such responses always argue.

In fact, such investments and measures notwithstanding, net illegal immigration to the U.S. has been rising by an average of 500,000 persons per year for a decade. Nor do that policy's perverse effects stop there. Several hundred would-be immigrants die each year as they attempt to cross into the United States illegally from Mexico.

Furthermore, many Mexicans who used to move back-and-forth (what many analysts call "circularity") now find themselves "locked-in" once they make the much higher investments (in smuggler fees and personal risk) necessary to defeat U.S. border controls.

Second, immigration systems bind sending, receiving, and transit countries together, creating self-feeding dynamics that encourage ever more migration. These dynamics include both "push" and "pull" factors. As a response, flexibility and smart, clear rules that a state can enforce firmly may be better policy goals for advanced industrial societies than denying the importance and resilience of immigration.

Third, unless a state buries itself in isolation, all transnational contacts (economic, political, social, and cultural) have at least some migration consequences. Attempts to deny such consequences by preserving a state's stale immigration formula simply route immigrants toward illegal entries and stays.

Globalization, then, however one defines it, is thus also a major migration lubricant. If a state believes it benefits from the openness globalization institutionalizes, working with globalization's forces on migration may be more productive than working against them.

Fourth, people fleeing circumstances they consider intolerable will enter the illegal migration stream and test various receiving states' defenses repeatedly. They will in fact do so regardless of whether they must risk their own lives, pay exorbitant fees, or subvert the asylum system or any other available means of entry. Once they arrive, they insert themselves deeply into the underground economy.

To some politicians, interest groups, and the public, this and similar notes of skepticism about the policy status quo may sound uncomfortably close to downplaying illegal immigration's adverse effects or may imply "going soft" in controlling it. Of course, either path would prove shortsighted and harmful in any state.

A strong "law-and-order" component to the overall approach to illegal immigration is nonetheless necessary because illegal immigration subverts a society's legal order and undermines or perverts a variety of foreign and domestic policy priorities.

There are many examples of foreign policy complications, but one from U.S. and Mexico may be most familiar. Most analysts agree that Mexico's top foreign policy priority in its relationship with the U.S. since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into effect in 1994 has been to inoculate the agreement — and its enormous economic benefits — against contamination from the debate over illegal Mexican migration to the U.S.. That policy has been very successful.

However, things got more complicated in 2002, when the UN Security Council decided not to support the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The vote took place with Mexico in the Council chair, and Mexico actively campaigned against the U.S. position. Since then, the Bush administration's interest in doing a special bilateral deal with Mexico on immigration seems to have dissipated for good.

One of the most significant consequences of illegal immigration may in fact stem from the increasing strength of smuggling and trafficking syndicates. Since such networks increasingly get only part of their fees up front, unauthorized immigrants often mortgage their very lives and futures to their smugglers.

This class of modern-day indentured servants undermines the receiving society's system of wage and working conditions, its social contributions' schemes, and its legal and social order. From the sending countries' point of view, smuggling syndicates not only endanger their citizens' lives and systematically exploit them, they also undermine the legitimacy of their public institutions and complicate their relationships with transit and destination country governments.

Because of their large, bureaucratic nature, government agencies are not well equipped to fight the agile, transnational, and relatively small trafficking networks. As a result, governments are not well positioned to "win the war" on illegal immigration.

Government agencies are also hampered by three additional forces. First, governments are at their worst when they must act across borders and cooperate effectively with other nation-states. The second is that, relative to their opponents, government agencies tend to be grossly under-resourced both in terms of funds and access to technology. Finally, governments have to observe rules that hamper their ability to respond ruthlessly and without regard for the law or rights — rules that are meaningless to the transnational criminal syndicates that run the trafficking networks.

What may be the governments' greatest disadvantage, however, is that as they line up against market forces, they must fight a war in which their efforts are resisted from key constituencies within their own state. These include economic interests; increasingly less sustainable labor market and social protection rules; humanitarians who feel that protecting those who flee is the highest order of responsibility (a near "calling") of wealthy liberal democratic societies; and many of society's other governmental and societal forces that are more committed to openness than the politics of the day may allow.

The Illegal Immigration/Terrorism Nexus

Terrorism experts have targeted controlling illegal immigration as a top priority, and many opponents of immigration have jumped on the opportunity to promote their policy and political objectives on this issue.

Yet irregular immigrants and terrorists are fundamentally different. The former seek work and/or the opportunity to reunify with their families. The latter follow the dictates of religious firebrands who apparently seek to promote religious and political goals at home through terrorist acts there and abroad. Recruiting terrorists from among irregular immigrants or "disguising" terrorists as irregular immigrants is certainly a possibility, but so far neither seems to be a preferred option.

Nonetheless, many of the concerns terrorist experts and immigration opponents articulate are legitimate. Porous borders and inattention to, or simply ineffective, interior controls can create opportunities for terrorists to enter targeted countries and cause them harm.

But most would-be terrorists are likely to continue to enter through a legal port of entry. Even the best visa and border inspection systems cannot prevent such entries because the intelligence on which a state's frontline officials make decisions about whom to allow in will never be foolproof. This is not an "immigration" issue; it is an issue of trying to make error-free decisions about the billions of international travelers who cross borders each year.

The attacks on the United States, Madrid, and London make clear that some foreigners were able to take advantage of these countries' entry management systems and, to a much lesser extent, their immigration systems proper, and plan and launch their attacks from within. Furthermore, there is little doubt that the terrorists' "cause" had sympathizers in the immigrant and ethnic communities of which the terrorists were nominal members — and that such sympathies can aid and abet terrorist acts.

Therefore, protecting a country from terrorism will require governments to do more than simply improve border enforcement. Intelligence and police work will have to be the first line of protection, as will much deeper international cooperation than is either the case today or appears likely in the immediate future. At the same time, it would behoove governments to thoroughly examine their foreign political and economic relations with an eye toward identifying policies that fuel hatred toward them.

In addition, by systematically promoting their inclusion, participation, and engagement, governments can turn ethnic and immigrants communities into key allies in the fight against terrorism, rather than incubators and protectors of the next wave of terrorists. In the U.S. case, the cooperation of immigrant communities has already proven valuable in apprehending potential terrorists.

Conclusion: An Integrated Approach to Illegal Migration

Regulation is a critical part of any robust management system and the ultimate guarantor of a system's integrity. With complex and constantly evolving regulatory systems, such as control of illegal immigration, setting the right goals is absolutely essential.

In that regard, instead of seeking perfection, with its predictable disappointments, controlling illegal immigration might proceed from the twin premises that uncertainty and imperfection will be a way of life, and policies will always be partly an exercise in the inexact.

To deal with this reality, a school of thought is emerging that argues that channeling much illegal immigration into regulated pathways might be a more realistic course than articulating policy goals that seek total control or exclusion—goals that tend to create unrealistic public expectations and fuel further climates of intolerance.

The U.S. may be on the path to testing some of these propositions by seeking to curtail illegal immigration in large part by opening up legal channels to much greater legal, temporary, and permanent immigration.

There are some modest precedents for experimenting with this approach. For instance, Italian and Greek bilateral efforts to stem illegal migration from Albania and other Balkan states, in the largest part through the issuance of legal work visas, are thought to have borne substantial public and labor market order gains.

Similar agreements and more-or-less formal understandings with Turkey and Morocco (the latter also involving Spain) are testing related propositions, although they are too recent and too narrow to enable one to assess their effectiveness.

At the end of the day, there is widespread analytical agreement that immigration more generally and most forms of irregular migration have been central to their prosperity of receiving societies. Against that realization governments must stack the political and other adverse effects of illegal immigration. These must now include at least a theoretical potential connection to terrorism. What might then be done?

First, governments can widen and deepen legal immigration channels of various forms. Greater legal access by immigrants does not translate, ipso facto, into the silver bullet solution to migration's challenges that some immigration advocates may argue. Without it, however, governments will always find themselves in untenable positions both in regard to their control efforts and public perceptions of their overall governance skills. Perversely, such criticism will likely come both from those who feel that they are not doing enough to produce results and those who argue that they are doing too much of the wrong things.

Second, governments can systemically and regularly review internal controls with an eye to reducing opportunities for unauthorized immigrants to gain footholds. There are at least two tracks to internal controls. The first must focus on the labor market while the other must be mindful of the increasingly complicated array of "law-and-order" issues, in particularly terrorism. In the first track, regulators will likely find their task easier if they work with the market and civil society while the second track may demand a reorientation of law enforcement priorities and the development of additional law enforcement methodologies.

Third, governments can entice irregular immigrants to come out of the shadows. In addition to the gains in labor market and social policy order, the security imperative also argues in favor of regularization. The vetting part of such a process allows governments to dramatically reduce the "haystack" of unknown foreigners into a more manageable sized one. As a result, the application of investigative resources would stand a better chance of identifying the few proverbial "needles" that are of legitimate security concern.

Fourth, the state's border control stance can be reviewed frequently with an eye to continuing only investments that make sense and bear fruit. Agreements between major countries of origin and destination that focus on sharing responsibility for the management of migration flows should be pursued simultaneously and in earnest. Such agreements would need to be truly bilateral and balanced in terms of what each party gives and what it gets in return.

Systematically assessing the performance of new policies, testing the durability of new regulatory frameworks, and laying out menus of policy alternatives might give initiatives like these a better chance of bearing the desired policy fruit than the policy status quo. And in doing so, the win-win outcomes that well regulated international migration promises will have a better chance to grow and mature.


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