What is state failure? See my conceptualisation of state failure on the right flank below.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Two aspects of transnational migration in America, for critical consideration

The MStFB Spillover Monitor Report Series No. 7
In today's first post I'd like to add yet another critical element for consideration in the debate about negative spill-over effects. The issue is transnational migration. Raising the subject nearly automatically brings up the picture of illegal migrants inhabiting poor parts of town in large cities in rich countries. Endless numbers are coming, so goes the assumption. And the issue is very much securitised. Using the analytical framework developed by Buzan, Wæver and de Wilde, we can say that migration comes to be regarded as a threat both in the societal and the economic sector with people of the target country fearing for their culture as well as their livelihood. Security and military experts may then add that among migrants illegally crossing borders terrorists and spies may come, so with them doomsday may come, too - an extreme, but quite common act of securitisation in connection with migrants (just heard it from a whole bunch of security policy experts at a conference here in Hungary, too).
The first point I'd make, having come across The Century Foundation's summary of the new Inter-American Development Bank report on remittances from the United States, is that an overall negative view of migration will blind someone to the fact that allowing it can work as aid - and quite a huge amount at that. With some 73 percent of adult immigrants from Latin America in the US regularly sending money back home to the rest of their family in their country of origin, the total sum for such remittances in 2006 was at $45.8 billion. To this we may add that similar remittances from Canada, Japan, and some other sources raise that sum to $54 billion for the last year. Examples for the breakdown between recipients in 2006: Mexico got $20 billion, Brazil $6 billion, Colombia $4 billion, while Guatemala, the Dominican Republic and El Salvador took $3 billion each. It's clearly a huge amount of money, it goes straight to poor families, and, according to research, it does encourage saving and not merely expanded consumption in the majority of cases. So, as The Century Foundation points out, we should see that always at least three different sets of population have to be considered as affected by migration, not just two. They are the target country population, the immigrants, and immigrants' families staying in the source country. From the IADB report I'll just quote this one sentence still: "At current growth rates, the projected cumulative remittances to Latin America and the Caribbean for the decade (2001-2010) will approach US$500 billion."
The other point I'll make in this post is about the increasing number of US citizens, mostly retirees, going to countries where their purchasing power is bigger than back home. You may think that that sort of migration can only benefit target countries, but that issue is not less complex, either. For further info, you may want to read the Migration Policy Insitute's analysis (pdf) of America's emigrants in Mexico and in Panama, as well as Sheila Croucher's very critical but also quite insightful take on the issue of the (U.S.) American community in Mexico. The teaser-type start to the latter article will effectively give you a crash course on the subject:

"The town I was destined for is full of immigrants, and over the past decade they have arrived in increasing numbers. Most do not learn the local language and reside and socialize within an isolated cultural enclave. These immigrants practice their own cultural traditions and celebrate their national holidays. Grocery stores are stocked with locally unfamiliar products that hail from their homeland. Few choose to pursue citizenship in their adopted land, and most follow closely and participate in the political and economic life of their homeland. Some live and work in the new country without proper documentation and have even been involved in the illegal transport of drugs across state borders. Their presence is so pervasive that local governments have been forced to adapt by providing services to address the needs of this growing foreign population. They are U.S. citizens living in Mexico."

You may wonder about the illegal drugs issue, well, that's about medicine, about getting prescription drugs in Mexico without having to go to the US to receive them and without going through Mexican customs procedures. It just shows that these people are your most typical, textbook transnational migrants. They take advantage of modern communication tools available to not have to give up connections to the real home country. And they live in close communities where they can avoid transforming contact with the locals - in fact they hardly ever have to try and stop speaking English at all. No surprise that the majority of them doesn't speak much Spanish. In their closely-knit communities they deliver a lot of services informally to each other, thus depriving the Mexican state of all sorts of revenues. They also push up e.g. real estate and rental prices, so the locals tend to move out of historical town centres where these transnational migrants show up. And, in another striking similarity with the sort of migration you might conventionally think of, these people, in leaving the territory of their source country, relieve that country - the US - of some social tensions. America's baby boom generation is now a generation of retirees, burdening the pension system. If they move out to places where they can live a grand life on the cheap, that's just fine really, from that perspective. Here's an MSN article - the title should tell you all about this: 'Retire like royalty in a low-cost paradise'.
So how many do opt for that? We don't have exact numbers, primarily becuase of the transnational lives these people tend to live. But the MSN article just quoted says there are 4 million Americans living abroad, with a quarter of them retirees.
In terms of employment opportunities and other benefits, the appearance of retirees can be beneficial overall, in an economic sense, to the host countries. If 100,000 American retirees each spend just $500 really in the local economy in a month, on average, that's already $600 million a year, pumped in. That hasty estimate of mine is likely to be lower than the actual figure of course.
However, in the case of retirement migration, just as in any other debate on migration in general, political, cultural and, last but not least, security considerations, too, will play a part in changing perceptions of the situation by different audiences.

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