02/2009: Lisa S. Roney


Lisa S. Roney
Director of Research and Evaluation (until January 2009),
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS),
Department of Homeland Security, Washington, D.C.


‘The benefits and challenges of circular migration
for sending and receiving countries’


Ü Eurasylum: Circular migration, which aims to encourage the temporary migration of selected categories of labour, and which therefore also aims to reduce the adverse effects of brain drain from developing countries, is increasingly recognised as a form of migration which, if managed well, can help to match the international supply of and demand for labour, as well as generate a number of additional benefits. As was written by Dovelyn Rannveig Agunias and Kathleen Newland in a Policy Brief published by the Migration Policy Institute in April 2007 (Circular Migration and Development:Trends, Policy Routes, and Ways Forward): “Circular migration is a “triple-win” solution to what was originally thought of as a zero-sum game. It offers destination countries a steady supply of needed workers in both skilled and unskilled occupations, without the requirements of long-term integration. Countries of origin can benefit from the inflow of remittances while migrants are abroad and their investments and skills upon return. The migrants are also thought to gain much, as the expansion of circular migration programs increases the opportunities for safer, legal migration from the developing world”. Can you discuss, briefly, some of the challenges you see to achieving such circular migration policies?

Ü Lisa S. Roney: Clearly the world is on the move. In his report on International Migration and Development, the Secretary General of the UN talks about a new era of mobility, and there is much evidence to support his claims. The term circular migration means different things to different people, and indeed to different nations as they formulate immigration policy. For some countries such as the United States, circular migration is not at the forefront of immigrant policy discussions. However, multiple migrations, including a different type of circular migration, have come to reflect the reality of much – maybe even most – of the skilled migration flows (and perhaps unskilled as well), whether temporary or permanent in nature. For policymakers in other countries, circular migration connotes a guest worker type program where migrants come, work, and then depart for their homeland, without becoming invested in the host country. Many countries, in the EU in particular, are trying to formulate immigration policies with mechanisms to routinize this latter type of flow and combine it with development policies to create the triple win solution you mention. The success of this type of circular migration depends on many factors including the relative demographic, political, and economic stability and social conditions of both sending and receiving countries that form the well-described push and pull factors affecting migration.

Immigration is a complex issue and has many consequences for both sending and receiving countries. The departure of unskilled or low skilled and unemployed workers from developing countries has long served as a safely net for sending countries and provided needed workers for receiving countries. While the departure of workers from developing countries has at least in theory made it possible for some of those left behind to obtain jobs and develop skills that might not otherwise have been feasible, more typically the successful immigration experiences of those who have left have increased the demand to migrate and encouraged settlement in receiving countries. The question is to what extent and how quickly these patterns can be changed through policies and bilateral or multilateral agreements between sending and receiving countries. Can immigration and development policies be geared to improving conditions and creating jobs in sending countries sufficiently by maximizing productive use of remittances and the planned return of temporary migrants who have new skills and capital to contribute their home country? How long will it take for these changes to increase conditions in sending countries so that the demand to immigrate is reduced?

Ensuring the large-scale return of temporary workers has been an elusive goal to date. How long will it take for sending country development to be sufficient to induce migrants to return home and stay? Returning home must actually become the positive experience policy makers envision where migrants will willingly give up the life they perceive in the host country in favour of life at home. The willingness of migrants to return home relates not only to individual circumstances and prospects in the home country but also how returning migrants are treated on their return. Policies and incentives in both sending and receiving countries, of course, greatly affect the likelihood of return. In addition to economic and political stability in the home country, which may present challenges in themselves, welcoming policies, including economic support and various forms of relief upon return, can also make returning more attractive at least in the short term.

In the end, the question is whether the model of circular migration being considered in the EU is a somewhat utopian view that, in reality, may be very difficult to achieve. It will require overcoming challenges of increased development and security in sending countries and overcoming the perception that the receiving country is a better, safer place. While I am an optimist, I am concerned that imbalances in the population, political, and economic situations in sending and receiving countries will make the success of a coherent circular migration policy a very long-term if not elusive goal. However, I would like to be proved wrong because the notion of a triple win policy that would benefit everyone is, by definition, in everyone’s interest and good policy.

Ü Eurasylum: In its Communication on “Circular migration and mobility partnerships between the European Union and third countries”, adopted in May 2007, the European Commission suggests innovative ways of managing labour migration in partnership with countries of origin. In particular, it seeks to identify novel approaches to improving the management of legal migration to the European Union from those source countries that are willing to make significant efforts to fight illegal migration and to facilitate the reintegration of returnees, including through adequate employment opportunities upon return. Can you discuss any possible parallels or contrasting strategies between the US’ and EU’s approaches to circular migration as a means of improving the cooperation of countries of origin in the fight against irregular migration?

Ü Lisa S. Roney: The United States does not currently have a policy related to circular migration as this terminology is currently being used in the EU. The United States has a largely laissez faire approach to migrants once they enter the country as long as they do not stray from the provisions of their particular immigration status. One former program of note – the Bracero Program between the United States and Mexico, which began in the 1940s and ended in December 1964 – was a program operated under a bilateral agreement that included considerable migration that was of a circular nature (as opposed to circular migration). The Bracero Program established seasonal patterns of work for Mexican laborers, primarily in agriculture in the Southwest United States, that brought many of the same migrants – and indeed later their children and grandchildren into this migration stream. When the program ended, these well-formed migration patterns continued, typically through undocumented migration flows. Although plants (maquiladoras) were established in the Mexican border area to employ Mexican workers at home to assemble U.S-made components into finished products, these operations were only partially successful and over a relatively short period. Over time the characteristics of post-Bracero flows from Mexico to the United States changed from largely agricultural flows within the Southwest to include related industries such as food processing in neighboring states, and ultimately into a wider, less seasonal range of jobs throughout the United States. Faced with what was perceived as a signfiicant national undocumented migrant problem, the U.S. government increased border enforcement, which had the direct effect of reducing return flows because it became signficantly more difficult for migrants to return home and reenter. Thus migration that was increasingly less seasonal in nature also became less circular because it was no longer safe to return to Mexico and plan on easily reentering to engage in employment. Instead, more and more undocumented migrants stayed for longer periods of time and became part of the U.S. resident population.

The United States addressed this problem through legislation in 1986 that legalized some three million persons, made it unlawful to employ unauthorized workers, and strengthened border enforcement. While border enforcement has presumably been effective to some degree – but certainly far from totally, worksite policies have posed considerable challenges because of the cost and difficulty in enforcing them. Interestingly this statute also established a commission to examine, in consultation with Mexico and other Western Hemisphere sending countries, the conditions leading to unauthorized migration and any mutually benefical reciprocal trade and investment programs to alleviate such conditions. That body concluded that economic opportunity was the primary driving force behind unauthorized migration to the United States and that while economic development in sending countries was the long-term solution to reducing migration pressures, it would in the near and medium term be expected to increase unauthorized migration. However, immigration and development policy have not been directly linked.

Legislation is now being considered to deal again with a U.S. undocumented population that has grown to about twice the size of that in 1986. The nature of legislation being considered has varied but has in general focused on programs that would allow some migrants that have demonstrated long term residence and employment to gain lawful status – although possibly only temporarily. Most proposals would also require that employers check government databases to ensure that all persons they hire are U.S. citizens or authorized noncitizen workers. Although legislative proposals have also considered incentives for the required return of migrants following periods of guest worker employment, these proposals have not been vetted wtihin the United States or bilaterally or multilaterally. No one is certain when comprehensive immigration reform legislation will again be seriously considered in the U.S. Congress, but many experts feel that enactment of legislation is at least one to two years away.

Ü Eurasylum: A workshop you chaired during the 13th International Metropolis Conference in October 2008 was entitled “Are Circular Migration, Development, and Immigrant Integration Compatible Policy Goals”. Through examples from both North/South America and Europe/Africa the workshop explored, in particular, the ways in which circular migration and integration may be conflicting policy goals for sending and receiving countries. Can you discuss some of the key highlights and conclusions of this debate?

Ü Lisa S. Roney: I was very pleased with the outcome of the workshop. We had a large audience that stayed to discuss the issue past the closing of the three-hour session. It became clear that as a group we were using the term “circular migration” to mean at least two different things. The key question, then, coming out of the discussion was whether circular migration is a policy or a phenomenon. From the discussion it appears that in North America – the United States and Canada – circular migration is viewed as a phenomenon. Both temporary and permanent immigrants sometimes return to their home countries. In today’s global society people are more mobile and it is not uncommon for migrants to have spells of repeat migration or migration among their home country and more than one receiving country depending on their specific skills and labor demand. This can be considered circular migration but it is a phenomenon and not a stated policy. It is neither planned by sending or receiving countries nor resulting from a specific policy to encourage (or discourage) circular migration. Attention is not given to what the migrants contribute during any return to their home country or whether their migration has had a positive or negative effect on the sending country. Similarly, the group concluded that a seasonal temporary worker program is not a circular migration program. That too is is a phenomemon. In contrast, the EU’s view is that circular migration as a means to regularize needed migrant worker flows on a temporary basis while ensuring return and saving on social service and integration costs is a policy. Similarly, such efforts to maximize benefits for sending countries by increasing development through migrant remittances from workers while they are abroad and benefiting from their new skills and capital when they return home is a policy.

Open borders were viewed by many of the participants as a key factor to the success of a circular migration program because it creates a safety net where the door to the receiving country is always open for migrants to return. One example of this was the fact that workers from new EU states were willing to return home because they knew they could return to their jobs within the EU if necessary. Similarly, policies making life in the receiving country easier for migrants, such as allowing job portability, were also seen as key to success of any circular migration policies. Many members of the workshop also believed that a circular migration program had to benefit the individual immigrant in order to be effective. The political realities of implementing a circular migration program also were seen as somewhat problematic because politicians have short term objectives and often even shorter memories; moreover, open borders and migrants themselves are now often seen as security risks.

Workshop participants agreed that there is little empirical evidence to suggest how well circular migration policies might work and that research in this area is needed. It was agreed that among others factors, attention to migrant characteristics was important. Characteristics including age, number of years in the receiving country, language ability, occupation, educational attainment, family status, and country of origin, were posited to be likely to affect how well circular migration policies could be expected to work and, therefore, were worthy of study before policies were implemented.