VoxEU Column Migration Politics and economics

The rhetoric of closed borders

Illegal immigration is widespread. In 2008, approximately 12 million immigrants lived unlawfully in the US alone. This column argues that illegal immigration is largely a tale of political failure. It shows that governments find it best to “talk tough but do nothing”. By imposing quotas but not effectively enforcing them they can mislead the public that want a limit on migration while appeasing those who want more migrants.

Illegal immigration is widespread. In 2008, approximately 12 million immigrants lived unlawfully in the US, and large numbers of undocumented foreigners resided also in other advanced destination countries (Fasani 2009, Triandafyllidou 2010).

Understandably, illegal immigration has become a very prominent issue in the policy debate and a major challenge in the design of policies pursuing the control of the flows of migrants.

Let’s be clear on one thing. Illegal immigration can exist only insofar as countries restrict (according to some criterion) the number of migrants that they are willing to accept. If national borders were open, there would be no notion of illegal alien as such. This leads us naturally to two questions:

  • Why do governments try to close (at least to some extent) their borders?
  • And why do they fail to keep them “closed”? 

The first point can be easily understood by considering the redistributive effects of immigration. Despite an overall welfare gain for the receiving country, the benefits of migration tend to be unevenly distributed. The crudest representation of the costs and benefits of migration for the receiving country (leaving aside the obvious important benefits for the migrants themselves) boils down to a very simple arithmetic. The downward pressure migration puts on wages means larger profits for firms’ owners employing “cheaper work” and lower wages for the workforce employed in such firms.

The crux of migration policy is striking a balance between these opposing interests: the fears of the numerous individuals (often the majority) who stand out to loose from migration (Facchini and Mayda 2008), against the pressures of organised pressure groups representing the firms who benefit from foreign work. This ultimately leads to a widespread use of restrictions to the free mobility of labour in order to achieve a desired migration target.

Why are there so many illegal migrants?

The adoption of migration targets is only one aspect of migration policy. Naturally, if targets are binding, large numbers of potential migrants will not be allowed to legally enter the desired destination. Yet while some will be discouraged and decide not to emigrate, others will try to enter illegally. The large numbers of illegal migrants suggests that enforcement of migration targets is far from perfect.

But the causes of imperfect enforcement are less than obvious. “Second best” arguments would suggest that (some amount of) illegal immigration is an unavoidable consequence of constraints on policy instruments. Yet, the sheer size of illegal immigration casts some doubts on this benign view of a “constrained” welfare maximising government. In fact, the analysis of enforcement activities reveals a striking empirical regularity: enforcement taking place at the US border is negatively correlated to the patterns of economic activity in sectors which intensively use illegal immigrants - like agriculture, construction, personal services etc. (Hanson and Spilimbergo 2001). Furthermore, governments do not seem to be guided by welfare maximisation in their choice of enforcement instruments. As pointed out by Hanson (2006), they far too often resort to ineffective enforcement activities (e.g. border enforcement), even though they could use more effective ones (e.g. domestic enforcement).

Talk tough and do nothing

This evidence suggests that the number of illegal immigrants might be the result of an intentional government policy, which responds to the needs of particular economic interests, rather than of its inability to control the actual flow of foreign workers. This begs an important question. If governments deliberately avoid the enforcement of migration targets, why do they set such targets in the first place? These are daunting questions as a growing wave of anti-migration pledges is swiping the European political landscape. This emblematic statement from the recent speech by David Cameron on immigration summarises the quandary of immigration policy:

But there was something else we heard on the doorstep – and it was this: "We are concerned about the levels of immigration in our country . . . but we are fed up of hearing politicians talk tough but do nothing.

To understand the “talk tough but do nothing” problem we need a new framework where migration quotas and its enforcement are jointly determined. Bringing together these two important aspects of immigration policy, in recent research (Facchini and Testa 2011) we show why governments may find it optimal to set restrictive migration targets that they will deliberately not enforce.

Our analysis takes place within a second-best world, where some amount of illegal immigration is unavoidable because governments set migration quotas and enforcement with imperfect knowledge of the actual inflow of potential migrants. If such flows end up being “too large”, enforcement will be insufficient to limit the number of migrants to the desired level. But policymakers face another difficult task, which can induce them to raise illegal immigration above the “second-best” level.

Government have to reconcile opposite stances on migration coming from different fractions of the society (the gainers and losers from migration), while trying to secure re-lection for themselves. Setting restrictive migration targets and, at the same time, strategically relaxing their enforcement, may be instrumental to achieving electoral goals. The logic of political calculus is straightforward. To maximise their chances of winning elections, governments pander to the electorate by imposing “migration quotas”. At the same time, exploiting their superior knowledge over the public on various aspect of policy making – from the appropriate level of funding, to the most effective forms of enforcement activities necessary to implement their migration targets – they carry out a lax policy enforcement, which de facto allows more migrants to enter in a concealed (illegal) manner. In this way, they satisfy the requests of sectors which employ foreign work, and minimise the risk of alienating the majority of the electorate, which oppose a policy openly allowing more migrants. The same logic also explains why less effective enforcement tools may be preferred to more effective ones. Once migrants have entered illegally, the incumbent government will blame the lack of policy tools (second-best argument) to explain the insufficient enforcement. The electorate are not fools, but given their limited information, they can often be deceived.

In a nutshell, governments face stark incentives: the rhetoric of closed border helps them gain in popularity among the electorate; the reality of lax enforcement (through insufficient enforcement or ineffective use of enforcement activities) responds to the interests of sectors who gain from employing foreign workers. As the mantra of closed borders is climbing high in the discourse of many European governments, whereas many sectors remain dependent on foreign work, the gap between “rhetoric” and reality can only grow bigger. Illegal immigration is largely a tale of political failure.


Facchini G and C Testa (2011), “The rhetoric of closed borders: quotas, lax enforcement and illegal migration”, CEPR Working Paper 8245.

Facchini G and A Mayda (2008), “From individual attitudes towards migrants to migration policy outcomes: Theory and evidence”, Economic Policy 56:651-713.

Fasani, F (2009), “Deporting undocumented immigrants: The role of labour demand shocks”, Mimeo.

Hanson, GH and A Spilimbergo (2001), “Political economy, sectoral shocks, and border enforcement”, Canadian Journal of Economics, 34:612-638.

Hanson (2006), “Illegal migration form Mexico to the US”, Journal of Economic Literature, 44:869-924.

Triandafyllidou, A (ed.) (2010), Irregular Migration in Europe, Myths and Realities,  Ashgate. 

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