The Times Takes a Timely Look at Migration

The New York Times has a fascinating look at an angle of the immigration story that often goes unnoticed: international migration patterns.

The piece is timely, both because of renewed interest in the immigration debate in the U.S., and because you might expect the world’s economic turmoil to slow down the movement of people around the globe. Not exactly.

Instead, as the Times reports:

Globally, the number of migrants appears undiminished, and last year they sent home more money than forecasters expected. Many migrants did lose jobs, but few decided to return home, even when others offered to pay.

In some places, demand for foreign labor grew.

To tell this tale, Jason DeParle reports from Manila. One-quarter of the labor force in the Philippines works overseas, the Times says, and “the country set records last year for the number of workers sent abroad and the sums they returned.”

There’s a nice rhythm to DeParle’s reporting, as he describes a place where working overseas is routine.

Doctors go abroad to work as nurses. Teachers go to work as maids. Would-be migrants set off sparks at the Tesda Women’s Center, where the government offers free training to female welders.

The story makes frequent mention of steps the government takes to help its citizens find work far and wide, but never quite explains why it’s working so hard to get them those gigs. Is it because the country is dependent on all those wages that get sent back home? A bit more on that end of the equation might help readers better understand this unusual dynamic.

But the piece provides a good bit of larger context, using the extreme case of the Philippines to illustrate the mobility of workers that’s now built in to the global system. And here’s a fascinating fact about what it means for the U.S.:

Of 15 million American jobs created in the decade before the bust, nearly 60 percent were filled by the foreign born, according to a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. To be sure, the crisis has hurt migrants, often disproportionately. A report by the Migration Policy Institute found that in the past three years, joblessness grew by 4.7 percentage points among native-born Americans, while rising 9.1 points among immigrants from Mexico and Central America.

Anti-immigrant sentiment has sometimes soared with migration, here and around the world. But, the Times is smart to notice, despite that, and the downturn, migrant workers aren’t rushing back home in droves.

Spain, Japan and the Czech Republic tried to pay foreign workers to go, but found few takers. Likewise, the number of Mexicans leaving the United States has not grown, said Jeffrey S. Passel of the Pew Hispanic Center. While the economy and tightened borders have reduced new arrivals, he said, the total population of Mexican migrants remains unchanged.

There’s lots more here, about why this might be happening. Hint: sometimes people move for “noneconomic reasons,” like to be with other members of the family.

As it happens, Mike Konczal has an interesting post today, filling in one very economic part of the story—how immigration affects wages. It’s probably not what you think:

One of the most counterintuitive ideas in the current debate is that the long-run impact of immigration on wages is zero. Counterintuitive and controversial. Simple supply and demand would lead us to believe, all things being equal, that a larger supply of labor would lead to less price of labor, which are wages.

Yeah. Interesting, isn’t it? The rest is a bit wonky, but worth a read, especially as the immigration debate heats up.

And well done to the Times for this interesting look at a phenomenon that the press rarely notices.

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Holly Yeager is CJR's Peterson Fellow, covering fiscal and economic policy. She is based in Washington and reachable at