Several Western economies, the US and the UK among them, are increasingly being faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, immigration is a problem in these economies, what with the current population already stretching stone-broke public services and finances to the limit. And with economies growing glacially in these countries, letting immigrants tap into the bone-dry job market is a political hard sell.
This is even if many jobs filled in by immigrants fall at the bottom end of the wage scale with little local interest.
Which explains the local alarm around the news this week that net migration to the UK had increased to 252,000 in 2010. This number, the highest ever, is explained not so much by an explosion in incoming migrants, which remains high, but a drop in people who moved out of the country.
A file photo of migrants caught while crossing into the United States from Mexico (Bloomberg)
The David Cameron government has said that it intends to reduce net migration numbers to tens of thousands by the end of this parliament.
On the other hand, both the US and the UK have much to lose from putting up tighter borders. A recent estimate by the US Travel Association (USTA) says that during a period when international travel was booming, stricter visa rules after the World Trade Center attacks have robbed the country of both jobs and precious income.
Through the decade ending 2010, the US’ share of world tourists has dropped form 17% to 12.7%. USTA estimates that this drop represents a lost tourist spending of some $606 billion and the potential to support almost half a million additional jobs. The US government is trying to respond with a new push to woo visitors from China, Brazil and India.
In the UK, local universities are already complaining that tough new regulations for student visas are driving away applicants. One estimate puts the number of lost applicants, since new regulations came into force in April, at 11,000.
The real problem facing governments in countries such as the US and the UK is not that they are letting too many people in—they have to, given their current economic maladies—but the fact that they are letting too many people stay.
Closing the borders may be politically popular. But the wallet can’t travel without its owner.
Are tight immigration laws advisable in times of economic turmoil? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org