Failing walls and security blankets, the role of borders in the 21th century?

Last Tuesday, CGR and CRED organised a viewing of the docudrama “Who is Dayani Crystal?” a crude picture of the woes faced by the migrants venturing illegally from South and Central America to the United States.  The film offers real footage of border agents and consulate officials’ efforts to identify a corpse found on the Arizona side of the Sonoran desert with the name “Dayani Crystal” tattooed on his chest, mixing it with a fictionalised recreation of the tattooed man’s travel from his native Honduras to an uncertain destiny –ultimately a fatal one- in the United States.  The contrast between the hard but hopeful recreation of the migrant travel and the bleak real footage of his final destiny humanises the grim statistics around the USA-Mexico border, the final destination of numerous migrants that became, as one US official puts, “invisible in life, invisible in death”. 
The decision that looms over the film is not so much the migrant decision to travel to a country that offers a better prospects but the US decision of erect a wall through the dessert. One of the US officials trying to identify the film’s protagonist links directly the heightened scrutiny of US borders with the spike of migrants deaths in the desserts, rather than a decrease on immigration. A quick glance through the academic literature seems to validate this critical observation; tougher border patrols have multiple effects on migration but hardly a significant effect on deterrence. Sorensen and Carrion Flores (2006) conducted an empirical inquiry on the effects of the operations of heightened border control, his main conclusion being that they diverted immigration towards alternative routes; a similar conclusion reached by the research of Bohn and Pugach (2013) that found that tougher enforcement shifted migrant’s choice of location, with California and Texas losing shares of Mexican migrants in favour of other states. Angelucci (2011) analyses the different border enforcement policies into the net flow of Mexican undocumented migration since the seventies, finding that while the marginal effect of enforcement may reduce the inflow and select more productive migrants it also increases the length of current illegal migrations.  It would not be out of line to say that increased enforcement on easy crossings drives migrants towards more precarious crossings.
Despite this, increased border patrols and tighter controls remain part of the broad political consensus. The past Thursday, President Obama made a positive case for migration and signed an executive order protecting from deportation a substantial part of US illegal migrants, as a counterpart promised to increase border security. It is not just the United States the only country using heightened border security as a deterrent for immigration: Between 1998 and 2007 Spain built a wall across their northern African territories on Ceuta and Melilla, the wall includes three different fences and barbed wire. As the US uses the Sonoran desert as natural barrier, Europe uses the Mediterranean. Recently Italy has closed his Mare Nostrum mission, a wide sea search and rescue operation that has been substituted by a less ambitious European Programme named Triton. Despite costing only a third of the Mare Nostrum budget, the United Kingdom has withdrawn its support for the operation
Migrants look down golfers in an attempt to enter Melilla. Source:
These policies, tend to score points across voters that link immigration with the so-called “benefit tourism”, thus in the UK Cameron uses the defunding of Triton to show a strong stance on immigration defending himself against the electoral threat posed by UKIP. Similarly, Obama increases border security as a preventive defence towards possible accusations of being soft on illegal immigration. Be that as it may most of academic research tends to discredit the concept of “benefit tourism”, the latest example being Dustmann and Frattini (2014) analysis of the “Fiscal Effects of Immigration to the UK”that presents a positive but nuanced picture of immigration effects on the UK. Overall migrants arrived to the UK since 2000 have made a positive contribution, especially those from the European Economic Area (EEA). Before 2000, it found that EEA migrants had made a positive economic contribution while non-EEA migrants have a negative fiscal contribution in line with natives. Similar results had been found on the United States; however these arguments fail to strike a chord across voters. It could seem completely irrational spending money on failed policies to prevent something that seems highly beneficial. 

One of the main reasons is that while there is a positive economic case to be made on migration, the negative case is based on cultural perception rather than economic facts. Professor Ian Goldin – from the University of Oxford – explained at the Guardian that the economic benefits are diffuse and only visible on the long term, while the cultural shock is located and immediate. In this sense, as Professor Tim Bale – from Queen Mary University of London School of Politics and International Relations – has pointed, parties that want to address migration should think culturally as well as politically. Heightened border control could be seen as the shortest route to think culturally on immigration, a sort of national security blanket (Gualasekaram, 2012) that aims to soothe concerned voters, albeit ineffectual when it comes to reduce migration levels. It could even backfire if the promise to reduce numbers but the inability to do it so is perceived as hypocrisy, a real risk taking into account that governments tend to relax border control when the demand for undocumented labour increases (Hanson and Splimbergo, 1998).
Harsh border controls, such as the ones faced by the man tattooed Dayani Crystal, are apparently cemented into western political consensus; however they seem a highly ineffectual policy with dramatic consequences over migrants. A naïve alternative of talking down citizen’s cultural concerns with economic arguments it also seems to have backfired, to judge by the rise of anti-migrants populist parties across Europe. Thus perhaps is time to assume the need to acknowledge and address the cultural concerns caused by migration and the reasons behind them, rather than use short term solutions that are ultimately ineffective. Mainstream Politicians may have assumed that Mrs. Duffy is not a bigoted a woman but, as the recent Rochdale by-election has shown, have yet to find how to address her concerns.

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