Immigration as Cyclical Commuting

Thomas P.M. Barnett flags an article on a subject I’ve been keeping an eye on recently. According to the WSJ, global migration patterns have reversed, with immigrants increasingly returning to their countries of origin as a result of the global downturn, in addition to actual immigration slowing down. I’d initially expected the reverse to be true, at least in terms of the latter phenomenon.

According to the WSJ, the reason why fewer people are setting out for the “lands of opportunity” is that they might just find more opportunity at home. I’ve been doing some reading recently on informal economies, and how they’ve proven more resilient in the face of the global downturn than the formal economy. Obviously, there are more gaps in regulation in developing countries to take advantage of. I’d also wager that the immigration slowdown has to do with the IT/CT revolution as well. Accurate information about the actual job market abroad is far more available these days, especially given cell phone penetration in the developing world. So the urge to set out for a “better life” might be tempered by more realistic expectations.

As for the reverse immigration aspect, something I’ve noticed anecdotally so far is that most of the people that I’ve read about who have returned “home” have been people who achieved some degree of success — in terms of income, if not stability — in the developed country, but suddenly found themselves out of work. In other words, they’re heading back with some cash in hand. Remittances and nest-building in countries of origin has long been a part of the immigrant experience. But this, to me, reflects a cost-to-benefit analysis of just where it makes the most sense to ride out a jobless stretch. Clearly, minimizing expenses plays a role, as well as the fact that start-up capital stretches a lot further in a developing economy than in a developed one.

The obvious formula is to make money in the developed world, where fees and payments are higher, and to spend it in the developing world, where costs are lower. I’d always imagined it as either a long-distance or a periodic solution. But we might just be witnessing the first instance of it being a cyclical global phenomenon, closer to commuting to work than to immigration.