An Unlikely Third Path: Paying Unwanted Migrants to Go Home

By David North on June 23, 2010

The talk about what to do with America's illegal alien population has been focused on two alternatives: enforcement and legalization.

Stricter enforcement would, it is argued, deport some illegals, cause others to self-deport, and cause potential illegals to stay in their homelands.

Legalization, often described by the open borders people as "the path to citizenship," would be accompanied, it is said, by tighter enforcement and looser nonimmigrant worker programs, which would seriously diminish the size of the illegal alien population, while expanding the U.S. population as a whole. (The latter point is never mentioned).

There is, potentially, a third way, if not for this country. Three other nations are experimenting with paying unwanted migrants to return to their homelands. These programs are voluntary ones.

This is an interesting concept which I suspect would work best if the numbers were small, and the migration paths of the unwanted immigrants were both long and new.

The three nations, according to an excellent study on the subject by the Migration Policy Institute, are the Czech Republic, Spain, and Japan.

In each case legally-present "guestworkers" who have lost their jobs are offered differing mixes of incentives, including one-way plane tickets, to return to their home countries. Sometimes they are paid their unemployment insurance in a lump sum on departure, others get their social insurance contributions back in a single check, and sometimes the payments are made partially at the airport, and partially after they return to their homelands. Sometimes there are additional cash payments.

In all cases the departing migrants must agree to restrictions on any subsequent migration to the countries they are leaving. In most of these programs the number of migrants accepting the offer has been small.

For example, at one time Japan (notoriously disinclined to be a nation of immigrants) hired Brazilian citizens of Japanese ancestry to come to Japan as guestworkers. There were 316,967 of them, according to the MPI article, in 2007; only 12,356 of them applied for the return program, or about 4 percent of the population. (See Table 1 of the article.)

One of the more interesting, and perhaps more successful of these programs sought to reverse the flow of people from Mongolia to the Czech Republic. The guestworker recruiting program had been set up when both nations were under the thumb of the Soviets and the un-recruiting took place, which involved all foreign workers in the nation, after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I would argue that this was, unlike the migration of Mexican nationals to the U.S., a migration without historic roots, and one more easily reversed. About two-thirds of the 2,015 takers of the Czech reverse migration program were from Mongolia (1,220), while only 52 were from the Ukraine. (Between the wars a place often called Ruthenia had been the easternmost province of then Czechoslovakia; it is now in the Ukraine; so the Ukraine-Czech migration route is much older and stronger than the one from Mongolia.)

In the 1970s and early 1980s France had a similar reverse-migration program for non-European Community guest workers, which in those days included the Spanish. I was working with the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. at that time on immigration policy matters, and remember the French officials complaining to me that the program had been misused in two different ways: 1) some people who were planning to leave France and retire to Spain anyway, took the money without causing any change in the demographics; 2) others took the money, went back to Spain briefly, and then returned to France, but this time they were illegal aliens, while previously their presence had been legal.

Unlike the huge distances, both geographic and cultural, between Mongolia and the Czech Republic, you can walk from Spain to France and those on both sides of the latter border speak related languages.

At one point the U.S. was close to experimenting with such a program. During the Carter Administration I had designed a "soft landing" program, had found an organization willing to run it, had secured top staff-level approval for funding from the German Marshall Fund, and thought I had the acceptance of INS (which would not spend a penny on the program.) But at the last minute the Deputy INS Commissioner reversed his position, and vetoed the whole idea.

Given current government financing problems generally, the huge number of illegal aliens present in this country, and what we know from other nations' experiences, I would not write such a proposal today.