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Quantifying the impact of all this is tricky. A report by PricewaterhouseCoopers concluded that a surge in migration has helped to lift Britain's growth rate above its long-term trend.
Alexandros Zavos, of the Hellenic Migration Policy Institute in Athens, reckons that immigration into Greece has recently added as much as 1. For countries that have long had high rates of immigration, such as America, sustained economic growth partly reflects an ever-growing workforce. Sceptics say that migration may boost the economy as a whole, but on a per-head basis the benefits for the natives are less impressive.
Migrationwatch, an anti-migration group in Britain, reckons that for the average Briton the inflow of foreigners provides just a few extra pence a week. Roy Beck, an anti-immigrant activist in America, suggests that countries with ageing workforces should try to make their economies less labour-dependent. But some jobs such as cleaning or nursing cannot be sent abroad or mechanised. And even if more natives can be trained to do highly skilled work, shrinking native workforces in many countries could mean economic contraction. Some of the sceptics' arguments touch raw political nerves, particularly when it comes to the least well-off natives in the host country.
In America the share of national income that is going to the poorest has been shrinking in recent decades. Inequality has increased and the real wages of the least skilled have fallen. Circumstantial evidence suggests that foreigners, who typically work in less skilled jobs, might be partly to blame. If the illegal workers could be counted, the figures would probably be much higher still.
Do migrants make life worse for poor natives? Studies comparing wages in American cities with and without lots of foreigners suggest that they make little difference to the income of the poorest. But Mr Borjas also calculated how a rise in the number of migrants might have encouraged the creation of jobs, which reduced the impact on wages. This tallies with the outcome of natural experiments in recent history, such as the influx of , Russian Jews into Israel in the early s, the return of , Frenchmen from Algeria in or the homecoming of , Portuguese after the collapse of their empire in Africa in Each time the influx of workers expanded the workforce and wages dropped slightly, but subsequently recovered.
Given prolonged immigration, argues Steven Camorata of the Centre for Immigration Studies, the impact is sustained. Worse, say the sceptics, migration may limit poor natives' chances of moving up to better-paid jobs.
Now for the tweaks
With changing economies that reward skills, it is anyway getting harder to move up the ladder from low-wage jobs to better-paid ones. Now migrants, especially those with skills and drive, are making life even harder for the weakest natives. A second worry is that migrants will put a strain on public services and the tax system. It is in schools, public housing and doctors' surgeries that natives come face to face with migrants and it is often at the local and state level, where responsibility for such services usually lies, that hostility to migrants seems strongest.
Local councils in Britain complain that clinics and schools are overloaded and central government is slow to dish out help, and local police in areas with many immigrants blame foreigners for a rise in crime. In Greece, as new illegal immigrants arrive at remote spots on the border, officials complain that they lack funds for policing and social services. Several states have passed tough new laws banning illegal migrants from using their public services. But crowding, although likely to cause resentment, results from the unexpected arrival of those migrants, with bureaucracies taking time to allocate resources to the right places.
In itself, it does not prove that migrants are a drag on public services as a whole. Indeed, migrants often make a large contribution to the public purse. When a foreign worker first arrives, usually as a young adult, fully educated and in good health, he makes few demands on schools or clinics.
A legal immigrant will pay taxes just like any native; even an illegal one will contribute something if only through the tax on those bottles of bison grass vodka. On the other hand, voters in many rich countries seem increasingly hostile to immigration, which suggests that politicians may find it more and more difficult to allow immigration to continue at its current high level.
If only there were some means of getting all the benefits of migration but none of the costs. That is the thinking behind the latest solution now being promoted: circular migration. Europe's commissioner for justice and home affairs, Franco Frattini, wants to see more temporary migrants in the EU. For the highly skilled, he suggests a blue card similar to America's green one to ease the temporary entry of professionals and their families into Europe.
Foreign workers with the most skills make up just 1. A blue card would at least make it clear to migrant professionals that they would be welcome. On the other hand, highly skilled workers go in search of dynamic economies, along with the high pay and bright careers they offer, and a blue card would do nothing to bring more dynamism to Europe. What of the less skilled? Mr Frattini points to a pilot project in Spain over the past two years in which Moroccans—especially women—have been brought in to do specific jobs on farms and in hotels for a few months at a time and then sent home again.
Contracts are drawn up beforehand, travel is part-funded by the EU , everything is above board, and so far every migrant has gone back as agreed. As a result, 10, Moroccan workers did not have to run the risk of taking a patera across the Strait of Gibraltar. They were able to send remittances home but put no strain on Spain's public services. Mr Frattini wants to launch another pilot programme in his native Italy, where southern farmers might recruit workers from Egypt or Tunisia.
Moldova and Ukraine want to get involved in similar schemes. If the projects work one in Corsica was less successful , Mr Frattini would like to scale them up, with member countries eventually setting import quotas for foreign labour. The EU is planning to establish job centres in north Africa, beginning with one in Mali, to offer a legal route to jobs in Europe, and also provide some language training.
But this part of what Mr Frattini and others call circular migration has been tried before and seems unlikely to bring the hoped-for benefits. Germany's Gastarbeiter scheme began in , drawing workers first from southern Europe and north Africa and then Turkey. Something similar was done in France and the Netherlands, mostly with workers from north Africa.
America imported Mexican farm labourers under its Bracero programme. The trouble is that such a dirigiste design is not well suited to today's liberal democracies and their flexible labour markets. And unless schemes are tightly regulated and the exit of workers is enforced by law, everybody has an interest in keeping the supposedly termporary workers in place. Employers would much prefer not to have to train new people every six months, and workers want to keep their jobs or move on to better ones.
Many of the guest workers who arrived in northern Europe from Turkey and north Africa in the s and s never left, and eventually brought their families to live with them too. The old joke that there is nothing so permanent as a temporary migrant has more than a grain of truth in it. It might be possible to create financial incentives for migrants to leave at the end of their contract period. Co-operation between the governments of the host and the sending countries would be essential, says Mr Frattini. And migrants could be policed more tightly with the aid of new technology: ID cards, databases with biometric details, systems like E -verify in America that allow employers to check whether workers are authorised to be in the country.
Proponents of circular migration admit that it would entail a loss of privacy. The biggest problem, though, is that people who expect to be packed off home after six months will be seen as second-class residents, and will have less incentive to integrate with their hosts. Why learn the language or adopt local habits and values for just a few months?