E.g., 04/22/2024
E.g., 04/22/2024
As Europe and the United States Face Similar Migration Challenges, Spain Can Act as a Bridge
Image of female worker at the Boqueria market in Barcelona making a crepe
Marcel Crozet/ILO

Immigration is rising to the top of political debates on both sides of the Atlantic. The dynamics vary from country to country, but there are strong continuities—and deep connections—in what is going on in Europe and in the United States. And Spain is a key connector between the debates on both continents and can play a vital role in addressing some of the shared challenges as well.

Spain receives its greatest number of immigrants from Latin America, as does the United States, although both countries also draw newcomers from around the world. And their governments have worked together to address displacement crises from Afghanistan and Venezuela to Ukraine, among other countries, and have shared migration routes from Africa too. This has allowed for mutual learning and increased collaboration around refugee pathways and labor migration.

On both sides of the Atlantic, labor demand is real. The United States and European countries mostly have aging native-born populations that have fewer prime-age workers each year, and labor market growth is increasingly driven by immigration. In the United States, there are an average 8-10 million job openings each month, and roughly half of recent labor market growth has come from immigration.

In the European Union, there is greater variety. The employment rate in the fourth quarter of 2023 was high by European standards at 75.5 percent, with 2.7 percent of jobs vacant. Present-day aggregated data on migrants’ access to the labor market are not yet available, but in 2022, the European Union issued 3.5 million first-residence permits to non-EU citizens, of which 1.6 million were directly related to employment. The European Union is expanding its workforce with immigrants, although this may not always be explicitly acknowledged.

Countries will have to figure out their legal immigration systems in order to keep their economies robust into the future. Spain took a step closer to dealing with this in 2022, aiming to address growing mismatches in the labor market with a reform that includes agile procedures for recruitment of foreign-born workers and new mechanisms for regularization of existing workers. Legislative changes in Germany this year also aim at attracting more foreign-born high-skilled workers and have opened new pathways for other skill levels.

But most countries in Europe have yet to come to terms fully with how to address long-term labor demand, and the U.S. government remains at an impasse on reforming a legal immigration system with preference-based visa levels last adjusted in 1990. In the future, worker shortages and imbalances in labor markets will require thinking about priorities for employment visas and the mix of permanent and circular migration, as two of our colleagues have suggested with a proposal for a bridge visa in the United States.

Yet the reality is that the immigration debate on both sides of the Atlantic today is dominated by a focus on irregular migration and the inability of asylum systems to make fair but swift decisions about who should receive protection and who should be returned. Major displacement crises, including from Afghanistan, Haiti, Nicaragua, Syria, Ukraine, and Venezuela, mean that international protection remains as important today as ever. But slow-moving asylum systems often become a draw for irregular migrants while doing little to protect those in need. Reforming these and making them work fairly and efficiently remains a key imperative.

The European Union’s decision in March 2022 to activate the Temporary Protection Directive to provide temporary status and work authorization to millions of displaced Ukrainians was one route to avoid overwhelming asylum systems with individual status determinations while maintaining a commitment to protection. The development of a common asylum system in the European Union, while a work in progress, is another important step. And the EU Pact on Migration and Asylum agreed last December reaffirms these aims by building trust in asylum systems and in the management of common external borders, although the way forward now needs to be negotiated and implemented.

Similarly, the U.S. government’s launching of sponsorship programs granting temporary status to  Ukrainians and to certain Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans has been a particularly novel effort to bring order and legality to migration streams from countries in crisis. This approach has been quite effective in reducing irregular migration from at least the first four countries, though less so with Venezuelans, who are less likely to have potential sponsors or passports. Similarly, the effort to create Safe Mobility Offices (SMOs) in Latin America, while still a work in progress, has allowed the U.S. government to identify some of those with protection needs and resettle them through an orderly process, rather than see them arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border. This initiative has resulted in collaborations with international organizations such as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), as well as a partnership with Spain. A bipartisan border compromise hammered out in the U.S. Senate, which was discarded even before it could get to a vote, would have streamlined and resourced the U.S. asylum system in ways that allow for faster yet fair asylum decisions.

Spain has extensive experience with managing migration from multiple global origins. It has an active legal immigration system, which was reinforced by the new legislation in 2022. It also has extensive experience in circular migration projects with Morocco, one of its closest neighbors, that helps the Spanish labor market while giving Moroccans a chance for an employment contract for seasonal employment. Spain has struck similar agreements with other countries, including Ecuador, Colombia, and Honduras; Guatemala will soon join. These are not unlike U.S. seasonal programs with Mexico and more recently northern Central American countries, which seek to address key labor market needs while reducing irregular migration pressures. Indeed, there is much for Europe and the United States to learn from each other about how these partnerships with neighboring countries work in practice.

While Spain plays an active role in EU debates on migration policy, it also has increasing cooperation with the United States on shared migration flows from Latin America. The joint collaboration around the SMOs and labor migration underscore these growing efforts.

And there are other areas of collaboration beyond Latin America. The European Union has and will continue to focus on Africa, something that is of growing interest in the United States as Africans become a growing percentage of all U.S. immigrants. While most come on a visa, an increasing number are flying into South America and heading north to the United States rather than trying to get to Europe. And the European Union and the United States have worked together to address a series of high-profile refugee crises, including from Afghanistan, Syria, and Sudan, in recent years. 

An inclusive, transatlantic dialogue on migration among multiple stakeholders would help provide a more global perspective on how to address the challenges of border management, humanitarian protection, and labor migration on both sides of the Atlantic. The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) has long played a role in this through its Transatlantic Council on Migration, and there are increasing consultations between policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic that seek to build shared understandings. Spain, in particular, can play a vital role as a bridge between the two hemispheres.

Anna Terrón Cusí, Spain’s former State Secretary for Immigration and Emigration and former Director of the Fundación Internacional y para Iberoamérica de Administración y Políticas Públicas (FIIAPP), is an MPI Senior Fellow. Andrew Selee is MPI’s President.