Unintended consequences of migration policy

In 1986, US immigration policy underwent a profound shift when the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) was passed by a split Congress and Republican President. Employer sanctions, an expanded border patrol and an amnesty process formed the foundation of the law. The idea was to stem the increasing flow of Mexican arrivals. The “stock” (a rather sickening migration term for the population within a country) of Mexicans in the US had risen from ~600,000 in 1960 to ~2,200,00 by 1980, increasing from 6 per cent to 15 per cent of all migrants in the US.

The reforms were highly ineffective. Throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, Presidents Clinton and Bush continued to throw money at enforcement and border security. This had two primary effects. Doug Massey outlines them in his excellent paper “Understanding America’s Immigration ‘Crisis'” (covered here and here recently at Wonkblog). The first was that migrants started doing things differently, like crossing the border at different geographical locations and heading to different states to work.

Changing behaviour


(Source: Understanding America’s Immigration ‘Crisis’, Doug Massey)

The graph shows the direct effects of ‘Operation Blockade’ under President Clinton. Migrants responded to enforcement by changing their method of arrival and their final destination. This dispersed the population of illegal Mexicans across the US, decentralising migration populations.

Secondly, and more importantly, the additional enforcement had a major impact on the flow between the two countries. Just not in the way the US government hoped. The additional enforcement significantly raised the cost of movement through greater risk of being caught, significantly increased risk of death or major injury and higher fees to people smugglers (to use the Australian vernacular). What did people do? Massey showed they kept coming to the US but stopped returning to Mexico.

From the Wonkblog article: “In 1980, 46 percent of undocumented Mexican migrants returned to Mexico within 12 months. By 2007, that was down to 7 percent. As a result, the permanent undocumented population exploded.”

If you had to design a policy response to increase the number of Mexican migrants living in the US, more enforcement and border patrols were the answer. This is seen in the stock increase from 4.2m people in 1990 to 9.2m in 2000.

This is an illustration of how migrants respond to changes in government policy. It is not a perfect parallel with the environment of asylum seekers in Australia. Very few asylum seekers to Australia would seek to return to their home countries. However it’s one example amongst many showing the effects of policy change. In many cases we just don’t know what will happen.

In Australia, thought bubble policies aimed to deter – such as those announced today by the Coalition – are very likely to fail, if they are ever implemented (which I doubt). While most of the attention is focused on the ridiculous boat buy back program, the other $67m committed to disrupting people smuggler operations is akin to previous US efforts to stop flows simply by throwing money at enforcement. Shut down one port of departure, another will arise. Add navy patrol vessels to certain routes, others will be created.

The Opposition has form in this area. Former Departmental Secretary for Immigration Andrew Metcalfe warned in 2011 about the inadequacy of ‘Pacific Solution 2.0’. Metcalfe was intimately involved in every piece of asylum policy between 2001 and 2012. He recognised that the behavioural change in migrant networks, driven by smugglers, would deem a renewal of old policies worthless. This advice was the impetus behind the Malaysia ‘Solution’, opposed by the Coalition (and the Greens).

This is not to say that immigration policy is useless. Far from it. Tim Hatton, an economic historian at the ANU, estimates access and processing policies accounted for ~30 per cent of the reduction of boat people in 2001-06 (see Table 7 here). In plain speak, access policies such as resettling all asylum seekers in PNG, were much more likely to alter behaviour than maintaining mandatory detention networks across the country. Whether this is a ‘good, fair or just‘ approach is another question completely. Whether these conditions hold up in a changed environment is also open to interpretation but there is strong evidence from across the world that well targeted policies can impact asylum seeker flows to individual countries.

Australian asylum policy is confused and completely uncertain of itself. Shouting from the rooftops during an election campaign about additional deterrence measures is extremely unlikely to change anything.

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