Much has been written on the flight of millions from Global South countries in recent years. The main drivers of this out-migration have been civil war and/or high levels of social deprivation. This flow of migrants has had profound political implications in the Global North where it has been linked to the rise of new populist movements and parties. Indeed, the Trump phenomenon has played on growing American xenophobia that has been deepened by economic instability, labor precariousness, and regional poverty--all of these features have characterized the current phase of U.S. capitalism.
Migration from Latin America: As a Survival Strategy it is not Really a Choice
In an earlier post, I talked about the ways in which economic exclusion, often linked to U.S. economic and foreign policy, contributed to the rapid rise of migrants from Central America and Mexico, particularly during the 1990s and first half of the 2000s. It is true that migrants to the U.S (those who eventually make it into that country, including those who remain illegally), do improve their incomes. Migrants working in the United States also send remittances payments to their families that are essential to economic survival of their families back home.
However, there is considerable risk involved in this type of migration: many lose their lives in the attempted journey and others are sent back—indeed, an increasing number of migrants have been sent back in recent years. Moreover, migration involves the long-term separation from family and community. We need to remind ourselves that if Central America and Mexico (and many other parts of the world) were not plagued with high levels of deprivation and criminal and civil violence, but instead had a modicum of peace, prosperity and economic opportunity, the outflow of migrants would dwindle. The massive flow of out-migration from Mexico and Central America, began in the wake of the civil wars of the 1970s and the debt crisis and severe economic recession of the early 1980s. Admittedly, the remittance payments that flow from the U.S. southward do improve living standards for the Mexican poor. These payments also allow political leaderships such as those in Mexico, to claim, at times, that poverty levels are declining. This type of assertion allows the foolishly optimistic to continue under the illusion that economic globalization is having a positive impact on poor countries. Sadly, today the out-migration avenue of economic survival is becoming increasingly closed off due to President Trump’s anti-immigration policies and toughened border policies.
Emigration from the U.S. and Exclusion
At the same time, there is another type of out-migration—migration from the United States and this migration is also linked to the problems arising from economic globalization. Large expat communities are found in a number of Latin American countries such as Mexico and Ecuador. Many of these expats are retirees seeking temporary respite from cold climates. However, an increasing number have been driven out of the United States by the pressures of economic survival. This is particularly true of expats in Ecuador, where the cost of living is considerably lower than in Mexico. While the largest expat community is found in the Ecuadorian city of Cuenca, smaller towns host a growing number of American economic refugees. The stories behind many of the expats in these communities are sad ones; these are often people who lost their jobs, their businesses and their homes during the 2008 economic crisis. They left behind families and friends, who they now rarely see. Retirees are often those with only a meager social security income (generally around $11,000 a year) to live on. With low rents (one can rent an apartment for as low as $350.00 a month in Cotacachi, for example) and low food prices, however, expats find they can live considerably better in Ecuador than in the United States. Nevertheless, in comparison with small-town Ecuadorians (many of whom are Indigenous and poor), expats live a prosperous life style.
Promoting Expat Migration as a Growth and Employment Strategy
While Ecuador has always been welcoming to foreigners, it is clear that the government sees attracting expats as a good way to stimulate growth and employment expansion. A law passed in 2017 makes it easier than ever to gain temporary or permanent residency in Ecuador. Expat residents also have the use of the national health care system, which was greatly improved under President Correa (2007-2017), and foreigners can legally work in the private sector without a work permit. There are also no restrictions on the purchase of property by foreigners. There is evidence that the rise in the number of expats has had some positive impacts. In towns such as Otavallo and Cotacachi, the construction of new houses and apartments is providing employment opportunities and increased incomes for some locals. New restaurants, often catering (at least in part) to American tastes also provide employment opportunities. Expats are good customers for beautiful and low-priced local crafts, upon which a great many locals depend for income.
At the same time, there are number of drawbacks. The expat presence puts upward pressure on local prices, particularly property values. This rise in prices is unlikely to be compensated for by the increase in economic opportunities arising from expat spending. Many Ecuadorians will remain poor and will be adversely affected by this process. In addition, most expats remain isolated from Ecuadorian life. They prefer to live in gated communities. They can obtain television programing entirely in English and have neither the need nor the opportunity to become knowledgeable about Ecuadorian economic and political life. Over time, this could spur growing resentment among Ecuadorians.
Perverse Political Consequences
I have observed that many of these American expats are highly critical of the American political scene with its profoundly unfair social and economic impacts--not surprising given how many of these people have personal experience along these lines. Expats, however, are no longer in a position to have much impact on U.S. politics. Out-migration, particularly that driven by economic necessity, has removed the very people who might be rallied to the cause of economic and social reform. Arguably out-migration from Latin America to the United States operated as a similar safety valve—although Trump’s anti-immigration policies and the forced return of migrants to Latin America, will likely result in a rise in political upheaval in the region, particularly in countries that have had the highest levels of out-migration.
Economic globalization has given rise to increasing levels of socio-economic and regional inequality. This process is closely linked to out-migration, as those who have benefited the least from economic globalization, or have been excluded from its benefits almost entirely, have pursued an exit strategy as the preferred means of economic survival. There have been worrisome political consequences arising from all of this—and there will very likely be even more serious ones in the future. Global capitalism is creating exclusion everywhere and the consequences should worry us all.