Friday, October 29, 2010

On Theoretical Approaches to Understand Irregular Migration

Irregular migration is inescapably situated within “regular” migration.  Thus we begin our review of the theoretical approaches to irregular migration by looking at the current theories of regular migration.  Figure 6 on the next page attempts to present in a unified schematic form the current theories that help explain international migration.

The first is the wage differentials theory (which I classify in Figure 6 as micro-level theories) cited by Massey et al. (1993) and espoused mainly by neoclassical economists.  This theory argues that higher incomes at the target destination countries are the main impetus to migration, a decision made primarily by the individual with the objective being income maximization.  Moreover, having the motivation to migrate to search for better incomes will not necessarily mean one can readily leave for one’s chosen destination country.

To be sure, border controls and immigration restrictions will limit the degree to which one can act on one’s individual decision to migrate.  This intense motivation of migrants to seek better incomes, on the one hand, and the zealous border controls by the state, on the other hand, creates an inevitable downward spiral in terms of skills vis-a-vis job matching.  Immigration restrictions, in general, are designed to favor medium- to highly-skilled migrants, individuals who may have more options at working at their home countries and thus have theoretically lesser compulsion to seek higher incomes abroad.

Figure 6:  A Schematic of International Migration Theories

Yet these better-educated and better-skilled migrants end up taking unskilled work abroad, prompting the question of whether “there are ways of channeling economic migration more efficiently?” (Jordan Duvell, 2002).  The lesser skilled, filtered out successfully by immigration restrictions, are then forced to explore various irregular migration routes, and if they are successful end-up taking even more unskilled work.

In addition to border control and immigration restrictions, employment opportunities in destination countries that are assumed by migrant hopefuls to have higher income potential are highly constrained by, among others, housing prospects, transport costs and the need recruitment practices of agencies and employers (Cohen, 1996).

The second of the micro-level theories is the “new economics” theory which argues that migration is more a household, rather than individual, decision and that in addition to considering the assumed higher wages in a destination country other variables such as crop insurance markets, futures markets, unemployment insurance, and capital markets are also equally evaluated by the household (Massey, Arango, Hugo, Kouaouci, Pelegrino, & Taylor, 1996).  In essence this “new economics” theory argues that households do a more holistic evaluation of a wider set of variables in order to ensure that family income is maximized and constraints in saving up needed capital are minimized.
If wage differentials and new economics comprise the “push” theories, that is, that factors in the sending countries impel migrants to leave their country, then the dual labour market theory is the “pull” theory.

Modern, industrial economies of the destination/receiving countries are structured in such a way that creates a need for migrant workers from source/sending countries (Piore, 1979).  For example, increasing salaries to better compete for good local workers will necessitate doing so across the organization so as to maintain the consistency of prestige and the corresponding position. This “structural inflation” motivates employers to seek cheaper alternatives, that is, to hire migrant workers who are not mindful of salary levels as it compares to others in the organization.  

Indeed, it is not hard to understand the simple mindset of determined migrant worker.  What may be considered by locals as low wages for certain jobs are considered as bearable, if not sufficiently acceptable, wages by migrant workers as these are 1) always compared to having no job at all back in their home countries or 2) foreign exchange rates results to net gains when the money is sent back to their home countries as remittances.

Another aspect of the Dual Labour Market Theory is economic dualism.  As demand for a product fluctuates, capital investments and labour react differently, varying in terms of who shoulders the maintenance costs so that when demand eventually picks up these inputs can be re-started or re-employed.  Equipment and buildings (capital investments) can be operated at a lower capacity, but not removed, the owners of the capital shouldering the continuing depreciation costs.  Labor, on the other hand, can be laid off during off-peak demand, and re-hired as necessary to match demand increases, the workers thus bearing the costs of their unemployment during the lean season.  Massey et al. (1996) argue that this economic dualism results in a bifurcation of the labor force.  On the one hand, high-skilled workers go to capital-intensive industries.  On the other hand, low-skilled workers are pulled into labour-intensive industries, with no guarantees whatsoever on the length of their employment, creating, if you will, a permanent demand for temporary workers – the perfect haven targeted by the droves of low-skilled migrant workers.

Japan, for example, has two distinct sets of policies with regards to skilled and unskilled workers, and ironically, it is this separation of policies that creates the pull for irregular migrants workers who target these unskilled jobs (Spenser, 1992).

This kind of acquisition of migrant workers can also viewed in terms of the mobility and flexibility of the labor input itself, as being shaped and defined by the requirements of employers (Jordan & Duvell, 2002).

The integrated, single economic system argued by the world systems theory can be seen as the ultimate rationalization of the existence of migrant workers (Eades J. , 2005).  As capitalists continuously strive for greater profits by increasing sales and lowering costs, migrant workers presents themselves as the cheapest labor inputs as they are not subjected to state regulation given their essential non-existence, non-acknowledged presence in immigrant countries.  The continued specialization and increasing efficiency with which capitalists develop business processes create niche economic conditions that ultimately result in creating a demand for migrants (Palidda, 2005).

As nation states vary in wealth and power, there is an inevitable surplus of either work or labor in both immigration and emigration countries, which the desperate, poverty-stricken or opportunity-seeking migrant worker hones into with the same accuracy as a hawk on a deep dive to sweep up its prey.  Migrant workers who are unable to play within the immigration rules, are classified as “irregular,” a stamp created by the core states as a necessary outcome of their responsibility to keep the material benefits of capitalism circulating only within its “regular” citizenry.  Indeed, this kind of primacy of the national interests, oftentimes called “nationalism,” is interpreted by world systems theorists, to be ultimately detrimental to the global integration of all economies.  Seen on a supra-national scale, whole countries notorious as immigrant countries (Mexico, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand) can be regarded, using the world systems theory, as entire countries of the proletarian, semi-proletarian and super-exploited social class that provide cheap labor inputs to the capitalists.

The conflicting interests of capitalist states – the need for cheap labor versus the need to prevent irregular migrants from competing with regular citizenry for material benefits – may offer an explanation as to the largely ineffective migration policies worldwide as seen across most migration literature.  Illegal migrants continue to arrive in immigrant countries despite all odds.  Their physical presence and concomitant material- and non-material needs in an immigrant country use the material resources in that economy – regardless of whether the state acknowledges this or not.  

As irregular workers are simultaneously attracted and exploited by nation states, their human, working and social/cultural conditions continue to deteriorate, confirming the symbiotic relations between the capitalists and the state.  Since migration policies are brokered within this context, that is, as instruments that balance the interests of the capitalists and the state, current research has not been able to show a useful perspective that can truly integrate the interests of the irregular migrant within the overall world systems.

Thus we can say that micro- and macro-level theorists argue that in search of better paying jobs and improved family financial security, workers decide individually and/or as a family unit to take advantage of employment opportunities created by virtue of the integrated world economic system where industrial, developed countries have a consistent need for low-paid, piecework/temporary workers

Once migration has started, a number of theories discuss factors that facilitate, if not direct, its continued existence.  The Network Theory looks at how migrants, now successfully reaching foreign shores, through natural human interaction are able to cultivate new, or maintain and deepen existing relationships with other fellow-migrants and non-migrants in both the destination and source countries (Massey, Arango, Hugo, Kouaouci, Pelegrino, Taylor, 1996).  This network of acquaintances and liaisons starts initially with fellow migrants based on common interests, values and beliefs but soon extends to even non-migrants.  

Expanded and exhaustive migrant networks now spanning several countries, and even continents, serve to lower the barriers-to-entry for new migrants (such as finding housing, navigating the logistics of settling down in a foreign land, etc) as they are able to avoid costly, first-timer mistakes by learning from the established best practices of the current local migrants.  This creates a ripple effect in that easy entry of new migrants motivates new migrant hopefuls and this, in turn, further expands existing migrant networks, ad infinitum, forming what has been called “chain migration” (Eades J. , 1987).

As these networks become more sophisticated, yet remaining informal, they can be seen as transnational communities that play a number of important roles, namely: a). they function to identify alternative procedures to work around not-so-helpful immigration policies; b). they help business networks function through their pervasive, connections over multiple boarders; c) they may contribute to pushing the agenda of various political groups through their ethnicity-based solidarity; and, d) local activities conducted abroad enhance homeland heritage and language (Iredale, Hawksley, Castles, 2003).  To be sure, transnational groups across countries also work through various cooperative agreements with government bodies in order to facilitate needed migrants with specialized skills (Gabriel & Pellerin, 2008). 

Adding to the complexity of the migration process is the role played by organized groups with complementary, competing or adversarial roles in relation to the migrant’s needs – as espoused by the Institutional Theory.  When companies or employers – the demand side of the equation – who are looking to hire migrant workers – the supply side – due to the theorized effects of structural inflation and the dual labour market are restricted by immigration policies from recruiting at will, a situation that is rife with exploitation and profit is created (Massey, Arango, Hugo, Kouaouci, Pelegrino, Taylor, 1996). 

On one side of the fence are the legitimate private, for-profit recruitment and employment agencies that attempt to match skills specified by the overseas hiring company with the qualifications of the available migrant hopefuls. Those who fall through this legitimate process and are unable to migrate resort to tapping the equivalent, but clandestine, counterpart organization, the illegal recruiter, which specializes in creative means to get a migrant into a country without papers or without authentic ones.
Providing a counterbalancing effect are the government organizations, from both receiving and sending countries, that seek to improve regulation of the legal recruiting processes and to stamp out the illegal activities.  These state organizations are complemented by non-government, non-profit organizations that, by virtue of their size and specialized, geographic or thematic focus areas, may be more responsive to immediate calls for help from exploited migrants seeking safe havens.
Massey et al. (1996) argue that cumulatively the institutions that are in one way or another involved with migrants form a separate layer of facilitating or restricting migration variables, wholly independent from the individual, family or economic migration factors discussed in the above-listed migration theories.

In summary, migration must be understood in three dimensions:  1). cause and effect, 2). continuing/going concern or process, and 3). global context and impact.  Fully grasping this multi-faceted subject will be the first step at untangling the problems that plague it.  Individuals are pushed to find alternatives to be better providers to their dependents (cause: wage differential and new economics of migration theories) yet this desire will fizzle out naturally were it not for the existence of distinct requirements of companies, due to their perpetual pressure to stay profitable (cause: dual market theory), that in fact feed the 10- or 20-fold income earning fantasy of migrant hopefuls.  The undeniable fact is that there are far more numbers of migrant hopefuls – fueled by poverty worldwide – than there are allowable entry units, guarded closely by national interests within the existing global order of power and vested interests (global: world-systems theory).  

Choosing who can leave and who must stay are the institutions and organizations that broker the prized, limited entry permits on behalf of private, commercial and state interests (process: institutional theory). Once successfully inserted into a foreign land and slaving away at work, the migrant workers, as social beings, naturally entrench themselves further through social connections and networks that have the ripple effect of further enhancing future migration (process: network theory).  Existing data track the successful migrants, but no one has been able to find a way to count the unsuccessful migrants, that is, those who applied but were rejected and chose to stay home or those who, undeterred by their rejection, resort to the illegal route, becoming an “irregular migrant,” creating an extremely vulnerable situation for themselves in the host country (effect: institutional theory).   Moving beyond the realm of statistics and, more importantly, beyond the safety nets of basic social services, irregular migrants struggle to survive through any and all means they can mobilize (effect:  network theory).  Regardless of legal status, all migrant workers send money back home (global: world-systems theory), propping up the failing economies of their home countries with their steady remittances.  As unstoppable global integration forces (i.e. information technology, environment challenges, interdependence of financial markets, global security concerns, etc.) continue to shape migration trends, how will its most vulnerable sector – the irregular migrant – manage to survive unwanted?   At this point, we can now appreciate how the subject of irregular migration within the theories of regular migration is only superficially interrogated by the current literature on theoretical approaches.  As this study’s scope can be said to inhabit the domain of the second theme (of three themes I cite above -  that is: continuing/going concern or process) I wish to highlight a number of areas where the current literature is insufficient.

First, the emphasis of current theories is on the first theme (causes and effects).  This study wishes to investigate how, beyond those causes and themes, “illegality” is also continuously emerging and transforming the social system (structure and people).  In this light, it may be said that this study’s scope is more in-depth as it theorizes that “illegality” is sustained by the particular relations of its “component” units and the new “entities” created from that interaction (to be discussed further below).

Second, there seems to be a de-emphasis on the temporal aspect of “illegality” in the current literature on regular migration.  As we will see, one of the biggest (if not the biggest) going concerns of Bilogs is the overwhelmingly negative attitude towards them by locals.  This is a concern becomes a real threat when they translate into action – such as vigilant Japanese neighbors reporting “suspicious” foreigners, triggering then mandatory police visits which then successfully result in apprehensions of overstayers.  This study then needs to employ a framework that better incorporates the temporal aspect into its formulation of how present-day cultural/ideational themes are in anchored on strong historical bases.

This then is the reason why this study develops a “Sustenance” framework – that may complement the “cause and effect” emphasis of current frameworks – that incorporates the roles of the main actors of migration as well as emphasizes the temporal dimension in its theorization.   As a handle to investigate  in a more in-depth manner how “illegality” is continuously generating or emerging from its social context, this study chooses to employ the Critical Realist approach (to be discussed in detail in next section).

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