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Yave Begnet

Closing the Border Slows Return Migration

Carter Dougherty writes today in the NY Times about return migration to Poland sparked by the strengthening Polish economy.

Driven by economic necessity, the Polish government is beginning a major effort to pave the way for migrants to return. It has sponsored advertising campaigns abroad and set up Internet-based job banks.

“Four years ago the debate was on the advantages of migration and what the government could do to make it possible for Poles to work all over Europe,” said Justyna Frelak, a migration specialist at the Institute for Public Affairs in Warsaw. “Now we are talking about the costs of migration, for family, for children, for Poles abroad, and about the labor shortages that result.”

Since 2006, unemployment in Poland has dropped to about 8 percent from about 14 percent, and the economy has grown at a steady clip — 6.5 percent in 2007.
. . .
The pioneers of reverse migration are not yet visible in statistics. But across Europe, the possibility of returning to Poland is now the talk of the diaspora, a group knit together by low-cost airlines, cheap cellphones and the Internet.

The parallels to the Italian migrant experience from a century ago are striking. Mark Choate at Brigham Young University has a new book out titled Emigrant Nation: The Making of Italy Abroad. In the book, Choate focuses on emigration (out-migration) from Italy rather than immigraton (in-migration) to the U.S. He explains how Italian emigration was a crucial factor in the formation of the modern Italian nation, a factor that was consciously utilized by Italian policymakers much the way the Polish government is now attempting to work with, not against, the migration flows of its nationals to better serve the national interest.

From the Times article:

Marcin Zochowski, 28, worked for a year in Scotland as a carpet layer and sometime carpenter before heading home to Warsaw. Thanks to flights on Wizz Air, one of Europe’s many low-cost airlines, Mr. Zochowski expects to work occasionally in Britain or Ireland, but also in Poland, seeking to maximize his earnings as well as his time with his wife and 19-month-old daughter.

Because he works in construction, he sees ample opportunities, not least because all of Europe, not only Poland, appeals to him.

“I will travel back and forth for work, but it will depend on what I find,” Mr. Zochowski said. “I have a family, so it makes sense to work a month and then come back.”

Likewise, Choate writes of 20th-Century Italian migration (p. 8):

For Italy to gain benefits from its emigrants, the fruits of their sacrifices would have to return home. The state encouraged and welcomed all return migration, be it from patriotic loyalty, economic disappointment abroad, or visits to family at home. Approximately half of Italian emigrants returned, bringing capital and experience with them. [emphasis mine.]

Most Americans probably don’t know that so many migrants eventually returned to Italy. It hurts a little to those of us raised on stories of Ellis Island to consider that the great majority of Italians who came to the U.S. hoped to go back someday, and when they could, did. But the longing for home is universal, and the decision to leave home in the first place is often only the least bad of several unsavory options.

High rates of return to Italy, though, ironically depended on the option of coming back to the U.S. if necessary. From Emigrant Nation (p. 94):

[I]n 1922, . . . anti-immigration legislation in the United States reduced Italian immigration to a trickle. Because immigrants who left the United States would not be allowed back into American ports, return migration to Italy virtually ceased. Italy’s cyclical and temporary transatlantic migration became a diminutive one-way migration.

The Polish and Italian experiences demonstrate that return migration is greatly facilitated by relatively porous borders. Knowing that a decision to move home need not be permanent paradoxically makes that return trip much more likely. And, in fact, closing the U.S. border has effectively sealed inside the U.S. millions of undocumented migrants who used to be able to travel back and forth relatively freely.

Rather than continue along the current misguided path, U.S. policymakers should keep in mind the lessons of history and work closely with sending nations like Poland and Mexico to better serve the interests of both the sending and receiving nation.

Yave Begnet: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 8:16 AM, Jun 26, 2008 in Immigration
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