Imagine no more borders

A lesson on immigration from the European Union.

Published March 29, 2006 8:37PM (EST)

On a family trip to London last summer, it became a running joke how we couldn't find an English person to sell us a pint of lager. Polish, Czech, Hungarian and Slovakian waitresses and bartenders abounded, but nary a pub featured authentic English-speakers.

The United Kingdom, along with Ireland and Sweden, are the only three "old" members of the European Union who have so far completely opened up their labor markets to the eight Eastern European countries that joined the E.U. in 2004. I learned this today from an Associated Press article reporting the plea of the European Union's Employment Commissioner for the rest of the old guard to likewise end any restrictions.

The remaining E.U. countries have until May 1 to decide whether they want to extend temporary restrictions for another three years. Portugal, Spain and Finland say they are ready to let Eastern European workers in. Germany, Austria and Belgium, citing high local unemployment, plan to demur. The rest haven't told the European Commission what they will do.

The reference to Spain and Portugal is intriguing. Back in the mid-'80s, just before those two countries joined what was then called the European Community, many observers warned that Northern Europe would suddenly come under siege from poor migrant workers from the South. Guess what? It never happened. In fact there are fewer Spanish workers in France now than there were before accession. And the vast majority of studies on the current case of European Union "enlargement" argue that the same will be true this time around. The deluge of Eastern European waitresses in London notwithstanding, few people seem to be worried that a tidal wave of worker migration is in the offing. In fact, if history is any guide, emigration tends to fall, rather than rise, after enlargement.

Free worker movement is a cornerstone of the European Union. It's a testament to progress that something that was utterly unthinkable 10 years ago -- free migration of workers from Eastern Europe to the West -- is now seen as inevitable. Can we ever envision a similar thing happening with the United States and Mexico?

T. Alexander Aleinikoff is willing to at least entertain the possibility. As he writes in a 5-year-old essay posted on the Center for Immigration Studies Web site, "It is time to think seriously about a future when travel within North America is largely unrestricted.

"For some, such a plan appears unthinkable. Removing the border patrol from our southwest border, they will say, will flood the United States with unskilled workers, overburden the infrastructure of localities, and wreak havoc on our welfare system. But in years ahead what is now viewed as a threat will be viewed as a benefit: because the U.S. population is aging and the ratio of workers to retired persons is decreasing, new immigrant workers will likely be the key to the economic growth necessary to sustain social security systems and our standard of living.

"Admittedly, full implementation of a borderless North America must await further economic development in Mexico and the establishment of stronger Mexican social protections to ensure that flows from Mexico not be greater than the U.S. can productively absorb. But on neither of these fronts should Mexico have to reach parity with the United States before freer travel is instituted. A fuller welfare state in Canada has not caused Americans to move north. Moreover, the fears of a mass flow northward from Greece, Portugal and Spain after their entry into the European Union proved unfounded. As sociologists and anthropologists have long told us, economic advantage alone is usually not a sufficient reason for people to move away from familial, cultural and historical homelands."

Who is T. Alexander Aleinikoff? He is a law professor at Georgetown University who once served as the executive associate commissioner for programs in the U.S. Department of Justice's Immigration and Naturalization Service and as general counsel in the Immigration and Naturalization Service. So he may know something about the topic.

His caveats are not trivial. Both Mexico and the United States have a lot of work to do before any borders near the Rio Grande start vanishing. But cast a wistful eye at the European Union. They're figuring out how to pull it off. Why can't we?

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Globalization How The World Works Immigration Immigration Reform Latin America Mexico Unemployment