To Study Migration Today, Look to a Parallel Era

To Study Migration Today, Look to a Parallel Era


The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 18, 2000




When I began my teaching career more than two decades ago, population growth was the main obsession of demographers.

My focus was on the unfashionable subject of migration. I have always been interested in the crossing of boundaries, both geographical and cultural.


At the time, migration did, indeed, seem like something of a static topic, for the Western democracies all maintained liberal asylum and refugee policies, and sponsored the entry of "guest workers" from developing nations. Those policies, however, were predicated on the assumption that a third of the world's population, living in communist countries, wouldn't be allowed to emigrate. Potential floods of immigrants were stanched by the political dams of the cold war; Western "liberalism" toward immigration was, in other words, dependent on Eastern authoritarianism.


That has changed. In the last decade, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, migration has become a powerful and politically charged force, and those of us in migration studies have found ourselves in demand by academe, government, and the private sector.

We are relatively few. Out of about 2,600 demographers in the United States, only 120, including students, express an interest in immigration.


But policies on immigration that are being formulated now will be among the most powerful determinants of the future political and economic shape of the world. Those policies currently have an isolationist bent at odds with the international momentum toward globalization, and that contradiction needs to be examined carefully.


To be clear, it's not that population growth is unimportant, and it's certainly not that it's over. Last fall, the global population surpassed six billion; by about 2015, it is projected to reach seven billion; and by 2050, United Nations demographers project, it will reach nine billion.


However, the U.N. also forecasts that during the 22nd century, the earth's population will drop below the current level. In the meantime, the rise in population will primarily be due not to unchecked birth rates (births have decreased from an average of five per woman in 1950 to 2.7 per woman today), but rather to greater longevity, decreased infant mortality, and the unprecedented billion or so people now reaching childbearing age.


Some theorists, such as the Colorado physician and epidemiologist Warren Hern, compare population growth to a cancer on the earth, focusing on its environmental impact. Social scientists such as Barry Bosworth and Gary Burtless -- editors of Aging

Societies (Brookings Institution Press, 1998) -- point to declining birth rates, as well as restrictive immigration policies, and the graying of populations in Europe and Japan, predicting that those trends will prompt the revamping of public retirement programs.


Whatever one's policy focus or convictions may be, however, in the near term -- barring some calamity or a radical shift in family-planning trends -- migration will play a greater role than reproduction in determining the strength and tenor of our societies. To see why that is, and how it might play out, it is instructive to look back at the period from 1865 to 1915, which in many ways mirrored, and paved the way for, our own era.


Like our own time, the period between the end of the American Civil War and World War I was characterized by an expanding international economy based on free trade and mobile capital. The stability of the trade system was ensured by a hegemonic nation, Britain, capable of projecting its power anywhere in the world. To facilitate the transnational movement of capital and goods, a rudimentary but functional set of international institutions had evolved -- the gold standard and a multilateral payments network -- and trading nations moved steadily toward liberal democracy, even as greater inequalities arose within those nations. (From 1870 to 1913, the ratio of unskilled wages to land values fell from 2.4 to about 1.0. That is, the value of labor sank in comparison with employers' other assets.)


That first transnational economy was closely associated with the migration of labor. Within nations, migration led to rapid urbanization; between nations, it led to massive immigration. The rate of immigration to the United States, for instance, rose from 54.8 per thousand in the 1870's to 107.6 per thousand in the first decade of the 20th century.


The international population flows were supported by an expanding infrastructure of personal networks and social organizations that linked people and communities in distant places. Through letters, and foreign-language newspapers published in the United States, fresh information maintaining ties of kinship and friendship coursed back and forth across the Atlantic. Hometown leagues, burial societies, and various benevolent associations were organized to help defer the costs of transatlantic travel; offer money, jobs, and information to new arrivals; and secure loans that allowed settled immigrants to improve their lives.


Given the falling costs of transportation and communication, moreover, international migration by the turn of the century had become somewhat circular. Large outflows of emigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe were counterbalanced by large influxes of return migrants and remittances from the Americas and Oceania. Returning migrants and the money they brought with them played an important, but largely unappreciated, role in the social transformation and economic growth of Europe.

According to one chronicler at the time, as a result of remittances into a Yugoslav village, "tile replaces thatch, taxes and debts are paid, field is added to field, better tools and cattle are bought, . . . churches are built and adorned."


The growing prosperity, optimism, and cosmopolitanism that accompanied the first wave of globalization came to a sudden end with the outbreak of world war in August 1914. Over the next four years, the leading industrial powers engaged in an unprecedented and massive destruction of land, labor, and capital, and most assumed crushing, unpayable debts in the process. When the war finally ended, political stability was gone. The regimes of most belligerent nations had been overthrown; Britain, as a world power, was fatally wounded; and the nascent system of international institutions was in tatters -- the gold standard abandoned, trade barriers erected, the payments network dismantled.


World War I opened a Pandora's box of conflicting forces, and it would take most of the next century to reconcile them. They included the intensification of the struggle between labor and capital, the polarization of political ideology between communism and fascism, and the widespread retreat from liberal democracy (including liberal immigration policies) among former trading nations.


The period from 1918 to 1945 brought the collapse of international trade, the rise of autarkic economic nationalism, and the implementation of chauvinistic restrictions on trade, investment, and immigration. Although the world economy hobbled along for a while on the strength of the wealth accumulated in the United States during World War I, by 1929 it all came crashing down. A decade of depression later, the ideological contradictions that had been unleashed in 1914 were partially resolved on the battlefield between 1939 and 1945, as a coalition of communist and liberal democratic states arose to defeat fascism in World War II.


However, the end of that war did not bring about a full resumption of the global regime of free trade, because an armed standoff continued between the liberal, capitalist democracies and the communist dictatorships, with new superpowers at the core of each bloc: the United States and the Soviet Union. In the West, the United States took the lead in rebuilding the transnational market economy in a way that would correct the mistakes of the earlier era and avoid another catastrophic war. It joined with other liberal states to charter a new and more effective set of international institutions that together could guarantee international security, liquidity, convertibility of currencies, investment, and trade -- the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, and (later) the World Trade Organization. At the same time, the United States supported the economic rebuilding of Europe and its reconstitution as a union of liberal, capitalist states.


Those innovations led to a revival of trade, first among the nations of the present Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and then -- as decolonization proceeded -- between the developed and developing countries. As in the earlier era of globalization, increasing flows of capital, goods, and information were accompanied by the large-scale movement of labor, first within the O.E.C.D. and then between the Third and the First Worlds.


Emigration from poor nations usually did not spring forth spontaneously, however, but was deliberately instigated by developed nations in the 1940's through the 1960's as they negotiated a series of international agreements to arrange the recruitment, transportation, and employment of the temporary "guest workers" from developing countries. In the United States, the Bracero

Accord with Mexico brought in 4.5 million Mexicans during the period from 1942 to 1964. In Germany, a binational guest-worker agreement arranged for the importation of some 600,000 Turks between 1961 and 1973. Until 1990, however, international migration could never reach its full potential because of the cold war.


It was only with the end of the cold war that the world returned to the stage of political and economic development it had reached in 1914. To a great extent, the contradictory forces set in motion by World War I were not fully reconciled until the fall of the Berlin Wall. Only then did we reestablish conditions for the full flowering of international trade and the emergence of a new global economy.


As in the earlier period of globalization, we now observe a hegemonic nation capable of projecting its power worldwide to guarantee international security (only this time, that power is the United States), an evolution toward liberal democracy among trading partners, rising inequality within and between nations, and the existence of institutions to solve the many problems inherent in a transnational economy.


As a result, markets for land, commodities, capital, and information are increasingly global in scope, yielding a rising volume of international trade. Indeed, it was only recently that the percentage of America's gross domestic product attributable to international trade reached its 1914 level. Exports are currently 10.8 percent of G.D.P., and imports, 13.5 percent. As in the first period of globalization, moreover, international flows of goods, capital, and information have been accompanied by increased migration. For example, before the Berlin Wall fell, about 5,000 people annually applied for asylum in Britain. A decade later, that figure had risen to more than 70,000.


However, for all the astonishing parallels between 2000 and 1914, there's one stark difference. The economic powers at the core of the global economy now seek to impose controls on the international movement of people, whereas before 1914 no controls effectively existed. Even as the United States, Canada, the European Union, Australia, and Japan work to ensure the openness of global markets, they are unwilling to accept the free flow of labor across international boundaries. Take, again, the example of Britain. To discourage seekers of asylum from other countries, Britain recently passed a law providing for vouchers worth about $58 per person per week, as opposed to the more-generous welfare benefits that new immigrants were given previously. Instead of being able to settle wherever in the country they want, the asylum seekers are sent to one of 13 designated areas, some of which are far from support networks for refugees. A similar law was passed in Germany in 1995, and Austria, Switzerland, Italy, and the Netherlands have all either recently passed such statutes or are considering them.


Of course, there's more to the story than immigration restrictions on the books. The true level of immigration depends not just on a country's statutes, but on the strength of its bureaucracy and constitutional protections, the independence of its judiciary, and its tradition of migration. The United States -- because of its unprecedentedly low unemployment rate -- is, for all practical purposes, looking the other way as thousands of illegal immigrants work in jobs no one else wants.


Still, in essence, today's global economy is characterized by the deregulation and internationalization of all markets save one. It will be up to sociologists, economists, political scientists, and other specialists in migration to advise policymakers as to whether that contradiction can be sustained, and, if not, how it can best be resolved.


Will wealthy democracies sacrifice the growth of international markets to the exclusion of new residents? Or if not, what social, political, and financial challenges will arise from incorporating vast groups into new homelands? To what extent do new technologies and global markets reduce the need for immigrant labor forces in the developed world?


The United States and other prosperous democracies have tried to stop international migration through repressive means such as doubling the number of border-patrol officers, giving them more resources, building additional fences along borders, or criminalizing the hiring of undocumented workers. A more enlightened policy would be to recognize immigration as a natural outgrowth of nations' incorporation into the global economy, and to work to maximize immigration's desirable features while minimizing its negative consequences.


Repressive enforcement actions should be reserved for immigrants from nations otherwise unconnected to us by virtue of trade or investment. For immigrants coming from nations linked to us via well-established movement of capital, information, goods, and culture, America should work toward policies that serve our domestic interests rather than simply trying to suppress immigration. Such policies -- to protect internal wages and labor standards, and to bolster economic development in the regions of emigration -- could include promoting shorter stays, limiting settlement, and encouraging return migration.


The very strains of today's inequality and culture clashes make the world vulnerable to simplistic and extreme political rhetoric, as they did in 1914. As scholars and as citizens, those of us in migration studies must work to ensure that the historical parallels, while intellectually fascinating, don't augur the same calamities humanity faced last time at this same dangerous -- but potentially liberating -- socioeconomic crossing.


Douglas S. Massey is chairman of the sociology department at the University of Pennsylvania and president-elect of the American Sociological Association. He is coauthor of Worlds in Motion: Understanding International Migration at Century's End (Oxford University Press, 1998).


2000 by The Chronicle of Higher Education