Last month I blogged about the bright side of modern-day global “nomadism”; that is, some of the ways that new technologies are reshaping individuals’ connectivity and mobility, and ultimately enhancing opportunities (for law professors, at least). But the current economic crisis has also highlighted the darker side of the new global nomadism—while we live in an age where “rich and uprooted elites” may jet around the world in search of fun and opportunity, the same forces which increasingly allow people to tap into global networks and traverse territorial barriers are also pushing “poor but equally uprooted workers [to] migrate in search of a living.”
In the U.S. and Europe—where over 40% of the world’s migrants currently reside—mounting job losses and financial volatility are sparking debates over the extent to which migration and migration policies are, or should be, linked to economic cycles. In both regions, migrants (whether classified as legal or illegal) have been viewed as part of a flexible labor pool, providing a ready supply of workers who can be tapped during times of economic growth and discarded during downturns. Historical data appears to support this relationship; in the U.S., the flow of migrants has waxed and waned at least to some degree along with periods of economic growth and recession. And while both economic and political forces played important roles, immigration plummeted during the depressions of the 1890s and 1930s.
It’s not surprising, then, that in recent years workers flocked to the countries which spawned the biggest bubbles—in the U.S., the U.K., Ireland, and Spain, which all enjoyed housing and finance booms, immigration surged in recent years. But there are signs that the impact of the current downturn on migration flows may be different from the past, and that the U.S. is following a markedly different path than some of the European countries which joined it during the boom.
First, it’s not clear where migrants will go if they leave the U.S. and Europe. Unlike a regional downturn, a global downturn by definition means that there are also fewer jobs available in migrants’ countries of origin. Moreover, remittances to home countries—which formed a significant part of the transnational capital flows of recent years—appear to be dropping rapidly, which will further stifle economic prospects outside the U.S. and Europe.
Second, the U.S. appears to be seeking to reduce the flexibility of its migrant labor pool, while many European countries, such as the UK and Ireland, are attempting to increase the flexibility of their migrant labor pool.