Will Migration Across the Mediterranean Dominate Migration Across the Rio Grande?

Will Migration Across the Mediterranean Dominate Migration Across the Rio Grande?

The massive migration from Mexico to the United States that began in the 1980s and ended in 2007 was one of the largest in history (Hanson and McIntosh). Nine years after the mass migration, the issue remains politically sensitive, and Donald Trump’s advocacy of building a Wall along the southern border contributed to his winning the Republican nomination for President. The mass movement of people was not predicted. It followed a long decline in the percentage of residents who were foreign born. In 1970 the foreign-born share of the US population was only 4.7%, the lowest in 100 years. By 2010 the foreign share rose to 12.9%.

Conversely, immigration was a much less controversial issue in Europe than the U.S., until recently. Most European countries had extremely low fertility rates, and many leaders welcomed immigrants to offset the retirement of native workers. However, conditions have changed. In 2016 British citizens who voted to leave the EU reported that their main complaint was too many immigrants from other EU countries. Also the large increase in immigration from outside the EU has contributed to the increase in popularity of anti-immigrant political parties (Grennes and Strazds, 2016). People displaced by the wars in Syria and Iraq contribute to the flow of migrants, but there are also many migrants from North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East who come for reasons unrelated to those wars. EU officials attempt to separate refugees from economic migrants, but to many observers, the distinction looks arbitrary. EU members are obliged to accept migrants from other member countries, but individual countries retain authority to regulate migration from outside the EU. Angela Merkel and the European Commission have attempted to implement an “EU solution” by imposing immigrant quotas on members, but the proposal faces strong opposition, especially from Central and Eastern European members. On October 2, Hungary will hold a referendum on whether to accept immigration quotas imposed by the EU.

The New Migration Pattern

Sensitivity to immigration is now switching from the Rio Grande River in America to the Mediterranean Sea. A new paper by Gordon Hanson and Craig McIntosh sheds light on the relative importance of immigration to the U.S. and the EU. It uses recent migration data to forecast future immigration out to 2050. The forecasts take into account demographic variables, as well as income differences, and shocks, such as wars. The main conclusion is that the migration from Mexico to the US is over, and the foreign born population of the US is expected to remain stable in future decades. The conclusion for Europe is just the opposite. The recent increase in migration to Europe is expected to continue even if the devastating wars stop. The main reason for the differences between the US and Europe is the demographic difference in the two regions. The main sending countries to the US have fertility rates, that for some countries have fallen below the fertility rate for the US. However, North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East have high fertility rates that are well above those in the EU. In addition, incomes in the sending countries are much lower than in Europe, and many governments in those countries are unstable.

Decline in Fertility Rates in Mexico, Central, and South America

The spurt of migration from Mexico to the US was influenced by the relative decline in Mexican relative to US income per capita. In 1980 US per capita income was 2.3 times Mexico, but by 2000 it rose to 3.8 times Mexican income. In addition, there were large differences in fertility rates that increased the relative labor supply of Mexico. However, in recent years there has been a large decrease in the fertility rate in Mexico and most of Latin America. In 1960, fertility rates were 6.8 per 1000 in Mexico and 3.7 in the US, but in 2014 the fertility rates were much more equal. The Mexican rate fell to 2.2 and the US rate was 1.9. Fertility rates fell in most of Latin America, and countries such as Chile, Costa Rica, and Brazil, had slightly lower rates in 2014 than the US. There is other evidence of the relative decline in immigration from Mexico. The latest Census data indicate that more migrants came to the US in 2015 from India and China than from Mexico (Wall Street Journal 2016b). This is a major change from the earlier pattern that was dominated by Mexican migrants. The latest data also indicates that the illegal immigrant share of the US population has remained stable in recent years, but the Mexican share of illegals has declined (Wall Street Journal 2016a). The largest increase in illegals has come from India.

Migration Forecasts: More in Europe, Less in America

If these forecasts are correct, the era of rising immigration levels in the U.S. is about to end. Large increases in budgets for greater border control may not be justified (Hanson and McIntosh). Immigration and trade may be convenient scapegoats for the relative decline in the earnings of middle skill workers, even though automation has been the main source of wage reductions and specific job losses.

The same forecasts imply that the era of rising immigration pressure is just beginning in the EU. The EU must prepare for large long-term immigration pressure from non-EU countries in its region. The Mediterranean is expected to replace the Rio Grande as the main avenue for international migration. Wars in Syria and Iraq are major current sources of immigrant to Europe, but many current migrants are from North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, Afghanistan, and areas not directly affected by the wars in Syria and Iraq. In the long-term demographic forces are more important than the wars for migration. The EU needs a more effective policy toward non-EU migrants, including refugees. Individual countries still make policy decisions for non-EU immigrants, but interdependence among EU countries cannot be ignored. If one country, such as Greece or Italy, uses more resources intercepting immigrants, countries further north get fewer requests for refugee status. This is the rationale of Angela Merkel and the EU Commission for a coordinated EU policy toward outside immigrants.

Concerning immigration from non-EU countries, how much coordination is optimal for the EU? In absence of a common EU policy, immigrants will prefer destinations with higher incomes and more generous benefits, such as Germany, Sweden, and the UK (Wall Street Journal, 2016c). In the high income member countries, Euroskeptics have complained that they must accept unlimited numbers of migrants from poorer EU countries as well as large numbers of immigrants from non-member countries. In Germany at the end of 2015, the foreign born population was 21% of the total population, an all-time high (Wall Street Journal, 2016c). Lower income EU members, such as Romania and Bulgaria will not be chosen by many immigrants. However, if a common EU policy is established, and immigrants are allocated to countries by Brussels officials, there will be and has already been strong opposition from low income member countries. This sensitive issue threatens to severely weaken the unity of the European Union. The Brexit vote by the UK indicates that requiring free movement of labor among EU members and non-members who have trade agreements with the EU can also contribute to disintegration. A current example is Switzerland, that has a free trade agreement requiring free movement of labor with the EU, but in a 2014 referendum, Swiss voters insisted on limiting immigration into Switzerland.


The Mediterranean Sea is becoming a more important crossing for international migrants than the Rio Grande River. If forecasts are correct, stronger policies by the U.S. to restrict immigration from the South may not be justified. Also the EU needs to re-evaluate its policies toward non-EU immigrants to deal with the increasing migration pressure coming from demographic trends. Migration flows are influenced both by income differences and longer-term fertility differences (Strazds and Grennes, 2013). The best thing the EU could do to mitigate migration pressures from across the Mediterranean would be to address the “push” factors coming from neighbors to the South. Otherwise, it will have to deal with the effects of more and more young people trying to cross the Mediterranean.


Grennes, Thomas and Andris Strazds, 2016, “The Human Highway to Europe: Roadblocks and Detours”. EconoMonitor, April 12.

Hanson, Gordon and Craig McIntosh. 2016. “Is the Mediterranean the New Rio Grande? US and EU Immigration Pressures in the Long-Run”. National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 22622, September 2016.

Strazds, Andris, and Thomas Grennes. 2013. “Population Dynamics in the New EU Member States: Unemployment Matters Much Less than Relative Income Levels”. EconoMonitor, June 27.

Wall Street Journal. 2016a. “Illegal Immigration Mix Shifts”. September 21.

Wall Street Journal. 2016b “Immigration Source Shifts to Asia from Mexico”. September 7.

Wall Street Journal. 2016c. Immigrant share reaches all-time high in Germany. September 16