Channeling Circular Migration

by Cristina Rodriguez

I would like to return to the theme of how we should approach the dynamics of erosion Peter has identified and to reiterate that I think we should be asking not whether these forces are inevitable, but rather: what are their real costs, and what might be the costs of trying to reverse them? First, even if the overinclusiveness of our constitutional jus soli rule and statutory jus sanguinus provisions, and our increased acceptance of dual nationality, weaken the institution of U.S. citizenship, these are developments we must maintain. Second, though illegal immigration may have its benefits—it arguably is economically efficient, imposes fewer fiscal costs that legal immigration, and screens for the immigrants with the greatest fortitude—it is a form of “membership” that we should strive to reduce. The question on that score is whether we can accomplish the reduction by asserting a sovereign interest in border enforcement, or whether we must expand opportunities and forms of legally sanctioned membership beyond what today’s system allows.

Finally, to me, the most difficult question is posed by circular migration. Whether or not it is occurring with the same frequency as in previous eras and whether or not it is inevitable—something others have been debating—we still need to think, as a matter of policy, about how best to channel it. With respect to semi- and unskilled workers, our current strategy of responding to illegal immigration through strict border enforcement, which Doug Massey has shown is turning what would otherwise be cyclical migration into the semi-permanent settlement of illegal immigrants, seems untenable.

But the question is whether we should permit migrants to cycle in and out of the United States pursuant to some kind of labor migration agreement with Mexico (or other states) as frequently as makes economic sense for Mexico, the U.S., or immigrants themselves. Or, at some point should we expect migrants to make a permanent commitment to the United States or return to their countries of citizenship? I worry about the civil society implications of migrants using the United States as a kind of economic way station, particularly for prolonged periods of time. Circularity reduces incentives for integration (migrants without long-term time horizons in the United States are less likely to invest in acquiring the social capital necessary to be full members), which in turn reduces the willingness of Americans to support immigration more generally and threatens to give rise to sizable cohorts of quasi-members of secondary status.

Some circularity, even in a context where immigrants have become U.S. citizens (or are born with two citizenships), is likely inevitable, and it would be unduly coercive to prevent it. This is not an argument for forcing everyone who steps foot in the United States to stay forever. But actively embracing circularity as immigration policy could institutionalize a practice on a large scale that is inconsistent with what should remain our goal: turning immigrants into citizens to ensure the perpetuation of the American project as a society whose members are all equal participants.

Obviously an important component of making this work is not just willingness on the part of immigrants to make long-term commitments to the United States, but also making the road to citizenship a possibility for those who cross our borders. Peter has already talked about the importance of reducing barriers to naturalization, but I also want to underscore the importance of opening up the road to naturalization to the migrants we are increasingly admitting on a temporary basis (whether by tolerating illegal immigration or authorizing small or large-scale temporary work visas across the labor market spectrum). Expanding the availability of citizenship may contribute to the lessening of its value. But, consistent with my first post on thinness itself having value, my strong intuition is that making citizenship available creates incentives for immigrants to affiliate with and integrate into the United States. Though it could turn out to be empirically false, my strong hunch is that the possibility of permanent security and membership itself gives reasons for immigrants to invest long-term in the communities around them, instead of keeping their sites focused exclusively elsewhere, even if citizenship doesn’t cost them that much. Indeed, the possibility of dual citizenship, which Mexico now allows, may reduce the incentive to invest somewhat; cf. the difficulty I acknowledged previously of participating equally in two different societies. But if we are worried about circular migration reducing attachment to the United States, which Peter might or might not be depending on how ready to accept the inevitable he is, then we should think about how to structure the parameters of circular migration to offset some of its downsides.

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