Migration Debates. Social and Economic Aspects

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Andrei Korobkov

Professor of Political Science, Middle Tennessee State University

The European developments over the recent years and heated debates at the US primaries have testified to the fact that migration is a truly worldwide phenomenon and its major component, labor migration, constitutes the key factor of the global labor market. According to the UN statistics, the global stock of international migrants is around 231 million, with developed countries hosting almost 135 million people and developing countries giving home to 95.9 million people[1]. Meanwhile, in reality these figures are supposed to be much higher, because this data fails to include many irregular migrants both at national and international levels.

The migration challenges currently facing the Russian Federation are similar to those which other major host countries have to tackle. Therefore, it is important for Russia to learn through other countries’ relevant experience. After the Soviet Union collapse the country has turned into a most popular destination for migrants, second only to the US, with 12.3 million residents born abroad, whereas the United States has a total foreign-born population of about 46 million[2].

Obviously, the rapid changes in Russia’s migration patterns over the recent decades and the country’s various roles in the global migration chain have further complicated the situation and its popular perceptions, even though it is possible to draw some interesting and revealing parallels. Russia acts as a host country and a home country for immigrants and its population falls due to the outflow to the Global North countries. Indeed, since 1991 almost 1.3 million of Russian citizens have received an exit permit to permanently reside outside the post-Soviet space[3] and Russia also acts as a transit country for those who want to reach Europe.

Such trends are typical, for instance, of other BRICS states which as countries have started to appeal to numerous immigrants. Moreover, some of them – above all, South Africa, which has faced a massive outflow of highly-qualified migrants and influx of low-skilled irregular migrants from the neighboring countries – function as transit states.

Migration in Russia. Comparative Analysis

Over the last decades Russia has undergone vital structural and legislative transformation in the migration sphere. For instance, they include the establishment of the Federal Migration Service in 1992. Yet some acute problems still persist in Russian society. As it is difficult to stay in Russia and find jobs legally, immigrants often fail to fully realize their potential. Meanwhile, more than 43% migrants who came from the CIS and Georgia in 2009, had received vocational education, with 18.3% having higher and incomplete higher education and 24.8% having intermediate vocational education[4]. It is noteworthy that 36.3% of temporary migrants with higher education express their readiness to constantly live in Russia as compared with the average of 27.1%[5]. Thus, many migrants have both qualifications and willingness to integrate into Russian society. However, the situation is more difficult, because illegal migrants, in particular irregular ones, make up the bulk of labor force. The estimates fluctuate from 2.1 million[6] to 3 or 5 million[7]. Experts have come to a conclusion concerning 2.4 million[8], and the overall numbers of labor migrants, including those who work legally, vary from 3.8 to 6.7 million people[9].

Both immigration and emigration excite much controversy in Russia. As regards the former, one tends to focus on its ethnic aspects, the threat of eroding national culture, the influx of illicit migrants, an increasing burden on the labor market, and social security mechanisms, higher criminal and corruption rates, as well as threats to national security. Considering the latter, the drain on intellectual and professional resources, above all, arouses strong emotions.

We have already pointed out that in this case Russia is not an exception. The migration situation and reforms in the EU and North America are becoming subject to fierce debate. There is a range of factors which exacerbate the migration problems in the leading Western states. It is linked, to a certain extent, to the end of the Cold War. In light of the bipolar confrontation, free access for immigrants from the communist countries was one of the key slogans. Therefore, it was relatively easy to move to the West and apply for asylum. With the collapse of the bipolar system and the Soviet Union, this issue lost its political relevance while the doors remained open. Under such circumstances, the Western interest in this realm and the fate of most migrants as a whole started to flag. Moreover, migrants began to be regarded as a heavy burden to the West. Consequently, the liberalization of Russia’s emigration regime was juxtaposed with stricter Western rules, which prevented people from coming to the most attractive countries. This changing political role of migration coincided with the sudden influx of people with different cultural backgrounds and economic migrants from Africa and the Middle East, as well as with the deepening economic crisis in the West, which in its turn caused a tougher competition in the labor market.

Certain internal difficulties, both socio-economic (such as economic slowdown and a growing perception of newcomers as competitors in the labor and social domains) and political ones (increasing ethnic tensions and some conflicts in a range of host countries leading, for example, to the rise of far-right movements), prompted the EU countries to close its doors. As early as in the 1990s, the immigration to the EU member states fell from 1.5 million to 680 thousand people. Many European countries witnessed escalating demands for imposing strict limits on immigration and reshaping its migration policies to welcome highly-qualified specialists at the expense of other types of migrants, including refugees.

The recent crises related to the large influx of migrants and refugees from the Middle East and North Africa have revealed not only the fragility and volatility of the Schengen zone, but also the ineffectiveness of the multicultural model, which has been used by European societies over the recent decades. The current developments clearly indicate how dangerous embracing homogeneous groups of people with different cultural backgrounds, their segregation, as well as the refusal to effectively incorporate them into societies can be. It is becoming evident that such policies may lead to internal divisions between residents and immigrants deprived of any rights (or even illegal immigrants), who, by the way, have other linguistic and religious characteristics.

For Russia new migration realities in Europe may not only serve as a valuable lesson but also have negative implications, because there is an increased likelihood that those migrants who will arrive in Russia to come to the West, will have to settle in Russia. It is already exemplified by the fact that against the backdrop of today’s refugee crisis in Europe migrants from the Middle East have found themselves in Russia.

 Lessons from the US Experience

The United States possesses the oldest and largest migration system. Nowadays immigrants account for more than one eighth of the population, with more than 25 million people involved in the country’s economic activities. Immigration is a most important factor contributing not only to population growth but also to qualitative changes in the structure of America’s population, which is approaching 320 million now and continues to rise dramatically. It is expected to reach 438 million by 2050[10], thus enabling the US to secure the third place in the world.

Immigration accounts for almost one third of gross additions to the population and is regarded as a driving force for economic activities, thus providing the US economy with both highly-qualified (that implies cost-effectiveness) and low-skilled labor forces. Interestingly, for a long time the US migration policy focused on migrants’ qualifications. Rather, it stressed their ethnicities and home countries to preserve a significant share of migrant from Western Europe in American society.

Over recent decades, both legal and illegal migration have been subject to fierce debate in America. The fact that only 10 to 20% of the immigrants hail from Europe is important for characterizing the migration situation in the US, but it is hardly mentioned due to political correctness. Thus, migration contributes to rapid change in the ethnic and racial structure. Meanwhile, nearly 2 million people apply for a US citizenship yearly.

In 1986, Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act to address the grave problem of illegal labor immigration. Immigration was on a massive scale, with 6 million immigrants dwelling in the USA in 1986. In contrast to the previous periods, the distinguishing feature of that period was predominance of migrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries. In fact, this document was a compromise as it both legalized numerous immigrants who had already entered the US, and aimed to prevent the future growth of illegal immigration. Illegal immigrants who were able to prove that they had entered the state before January 1, 1982 and resided there continuously, were eligible for amnesty and could apply for legal status and obtain the permanent residence status later on[11]. In contrast, illegal immigrants, who entered the United States after 1982, were subject to deportation.

As of now, racial minorities gradually become a more important constituency as it increased from 26% to 28% from 2008 to 2012. On the whole, in the near future the demographic situation will force candidates into courting minority ethnic voters to secure a victory as the white population will no longer be preeminent in absolute terms by 2044 and the proportion of immigrants will rise from 13.3% in 2014 to 18.8% in 2060.

The assessments of the impact of immigration on the economy are controversial. Immigrants more actively engage in economic activities than the local population, with 57% of non-Americans doing business as contrasted to 50% of local residents.

Migrant labor has the most positive impact on the public purse accounting for about 1.43-1.62 trillion dollars, which is roughly equal to the GDP of California, the ninth largest economy in the world. About half of low-skilled workers in agriculture and construction are immigrants. So are 46% of medical researchers. The aggregate income of only illegal immigrants is estimated at $ 350 billion, with a third spent in the US retail sector and the state’s coffers swelling considerably.

However, the statistics show that the second wave of immigration has not been that productive given the lower poorer skills of immigrants. The first-wave immigrants’ assessment is also contradictory. Some reveal that they account for only 0.1% of GNP[12] while immigration stands in the way of higher wages and is burdensome for the labor market, financial systems and social services of the most attractive destinations in the states.

Despite such statements, in the long run, immigration will obviously stay central to population and economic growth. It provides low-paid labor force and highly qualified specialists, which also implies significant savings in training costs. For example, in the late 1990s – early 2000s, engineers of Chinese and Indian descent managed about a quarter of high-tech businesses in California’s Silicon Valley, with total sales amounting up to 17.8 billion dollars[13]. Half of all Silicon Valley start-ups have one founder who is an immigrant or first generation American[14]. It is also worth mentioning that by 2000 there were 300 thousand experts in the high-tech industries and 35 thousand doctors of Indian origin[15] even though the Indian immigration to the US was actually legalized only after the Second World War.

In general, there are three major areas in which the impact of immigration is particularly strong:

1) The inflow of high-skilled professionals lightens the burden on the American educational system and reduces the costs of their training;

2) The influx of low-skilled and low-paid labor force takes less attractive jobs. It allows cutting production costs and prices, particularly in construction, agriculture and services. The negative side-effect is slower wage growth in these sectors;

3) Training foreign students in American universities on a large scale makes it possible to choose the best candidates to let them employ and apply for the resident status and to give rise to new pro-American groups – bearers of a new political culture and ideology – out of those who later return to their home countries.

The last aspect is particularly important as it ensures the expansion of US political, economic and cultural clout to the countries of emigration. The factor demonstrated its potential during the implementation of the post-war Marshall Plan, when thousands of young Germans were invited to American universities. Many of them stayed in the US, and the rest returned home to become carriers of a new political culture. They were followed by a new wave of intellectual migration, first, from the countries of Western Europe and Japan, and then from South Korea, Taiwan and other Asian and Latin American states. In the 1970s-1980s it was China’s turn, with Eastern European countries and former Soviet states following suit. Thus, it ensures the continuous replenishment of the American intellectual elite which has facilitated the selection procedure of experts from the countries scientifically advanced in certain areas. Today, foreign students and employees make up about half of the academic staff in natural sciences. Foreigners receive up to 75% of the Ph.D. degrees in some natural sciences.

Meanwhile, paradoxically, the labor migration issue is the most controversial one. It is estimated that almost half of illegal immigrants have entered the country legally on tourist, student and even on work visas. They quite easily find low-paid and low-skilled jobs in the city and in rural areas, especially seasonal agricultural or construction workers. Although entrepreneurs in these areas are keen on attracting such immigrants, many Americans, including businessmen, vigorously oppose it. Polls show that there are twice as many immigration-skeptics as immigration-enthusiasts. Almost half of the population advocates restricting the influx.

Accordingly, the resistance to both illegal and sometimes legal immigration is on the rise across the political spectrum and has socio-economic and ethno-political connotations. The Left are particularly concerned about trade unions in the industries where American-born workers fight off competition from immigrants taking low-paid jobs without any social guarantees. Indeed, immigrants not only increase competition in the labor market, but also inhibit the wage growth for low-skilled workers (wages stayed at the same level, if not actually fell, given the PPP adjustment in recent years[16]). Naturally, four-fifths of the Americans polled considered “job security for American workers” a vital task for the country[17].

International Migration. Foreign Experience and Russia

In general, when we consider the heavyweights’ experience, the importance of migrants for economic, demographic and social development becomes apparent. However, it also shows that the segregation policy, new ethnic enclaves inhabited by those unable to integrate despite the formally present free choice of cultural identity can be disastrous both for migrants and for host countries.

Obviously, the migration situation in Russia is in many ways similar to other attractive destinations for immigration. Therefore, foreign experience and its application in Russia would be very beneficial. An effective migration policy could help address many serious socio-economic, demographic, and foreign policy issues, including socio-economic stabilization and development of the neighboring states and the expansion of Russia’s political and cultural influence.


[1] United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2013). International Migration Report 2013, 1-2

[2] Inkpen, Christopher. 7 Facts About World Migration. Pew Research Center // http://ww.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/09/02/7-facts-about-world-migration/; Preston J. Mexican Migration to the US May Be Reversing. Report Says // International Herald Tribune. 2012. 25 Apr. P. 2; A Nation of Immigrants: A Portrait of the 40 Million, Including 11 Million Illegal / Pew Hispanic Center  // http://www.pewhispanic.org/2013/01/29/a-nation-of-immigrants/. Germany with its 10.7 million migrants ranks third among other countries (OECD. 2013. International Migration Outlook // http://keepeek.com/Digital-Asset-Management/oecd/social-issues-migration-health/international-migration-outlook-2013_migr_outlook-2013-en#page1

[3] Population of Russia 2003-200. Eleventh-twelfth annual demographic report/ A.G. Vishnevsky Ed.] Moscow: Nauka.

[4] Population of Russia2009. The seventeenth annual report. Collective monograph ed. by A. Vishnevsky. Moscow (Moscow: HSE Publishing House). P.258.

[5] Mukomel V.I. (2013). Migrants’ integration policy in Russia: challenges, potential, risks] М.: Spezkniga.

[6] Romodanovskiy (2012). Speech of the Director of FMS of Russia [К.Romodanovskiy] at the session of the Government of RF, 9 August 2012, accessed online at: http://government.ru/docs/20062/, 30 October 2012

[7] Concept (2012). Concept of the State Migration Policy of the Russian Federation through 2025, approved by the President of the Russian Federation of 13 June 2012 g.), par. 22 е), 23 ж). Mukomel V.I (2005). Migration Policies in Russia. Post-Soviet Contexts. M.: М.: Institute of Sociology of RAS. P.51

[8] Consensus-estimate (2010). Consensus-estimate of the number of labor migrants in Russia”, April 9, 2010 (“Consensus estimate 9.4.0”), accessed online at: http://indem.ru/ceprs/Migration/OsItExSo.htm, March 11, 2011

[9] Mukomel V. Integration of Migrants: Russian Federation. // CARIM-East Research Report 2013/02, 6 // http://www.carim-east.eu/media/CARIM-East-RR-2013-02.pdf

[10] Statistical Abstracts of the U. S. Washington, D. C.: U.S. Bureau of the Census  // http://www.census.gov/prod

[11] Paradoxically, this amnesty was granted by Reagan’s Republican administration promoting conservative views.

[12] Garment, Suzanne. Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics. New York: Doubleday, 1991.

[13] Public Policy Institute of California, «Silicon Valley’s Skilled Immigrants: Generating Jobs and Wealth for California» Research Brief Issue 21, June 1999, 2.

[14] Fareed Zakaria. «The Rise of the Rest.» Newsweek. 12 May 2008, 31.

[15] Jason A. Kirk. «Indian-Americans and the U.S.-India Nuclear Agreement: Consolidation of an Ethnic Lobby?» Foreign Policy Analysis. vol. 4. no. 3. July 2008, 292.

[16] Nye, Joseph S. The Paradox of American Power: Why the World’s Only Superpower Can 7 Go It Alone. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002, 136.

[17] Nye, Joseph S. The Paradox of American Power: Why the World’s Only Superpower Can 7 Go It Alone. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002, 136.

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