Can Regular Migration Channels Reduce Irregular Migration? Lessons for Europe from the United States

February 14, 2018

Richer countries are under pressure to respond to and regulate high levels of irregular migration reaching their borders. A prominent recommendation is for richer countries to expand opportunities for lawful or regular migration. Suppose they do. Will more regular migration simply raise migration overall, or will it substitute for and reduce irregular migration? The question underlies discussions around the Global Compact for Migration, a future international agreement on migration governance now being negotiated by United Nations Member States.

This brief sketches an important historical episode in which, in order for lawful migration channels to effectively alter the incentives and ultimately suppress irregular flows, those lawful channels were coupled with enhanced immigration enforcement. Likewise, enforcement efforts in this case have only been broadly successful when coupled with expanded channels for regular migration.

Key Takeaways

  • Lawful migration channels are often suggested as a tool to reduce unlawful migration, but often without much evidence that they work.

  • There is evidence that lawful channels for migration between Mexico and the United States have suppressed unlawful migration, but only when combined with robust enforcement efforts.

  • Massive demographic pressures for migration between Africa and Europe will continue to resemble past pressures between Mexico and United States. The evidence from the US suggests that lawful channels could be a critical tool for Europe, alongside enforcement to suppress unlawful migration.

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