BORDER GUARDS earlier this week on the German-Polish boundary stopped a truck filled with 76 illegal immigrants from Ukraine and Moldova headed for the Netherlands.
Except for its human implications, the story might inspire a yawn. In essence, a similar story happens almost daily on some border around the world. Millions from poor countries are striving desperately to enter rich nations. International migration has become a hot topic in the US and in many other countries.
"It is a very big issue," says Joseph Chamie, director of the Population Division of the United Nations in New York. And he expects migration to become even more of a political issue in the years ahead.
These migrants are not only the poorly educated, creating job competition for lower- income workers in industrial nations, some have postgraduate degrees. Just last month, several American engineers, some with doctorates, paraded with picket signs outside a convention of engineers in Dallas to protest H-1B visas given high-tech workers. "Bill Gates Unfair," one sign read.
Engineers parading on picket lines are relatively rare. However, Microsoft, headed by Mr. Gates, is one of many United States companies that bring in foreign engineers to do programming or other mostly technical jobs under a special visa program that has become highly controversial.
Today, 175 million people reside outside their country of birth. That's about 3 percent of world population, and more than double the number in 1970. With the world's population at 6.3 billion and growing by 77 million a year, pressures to migrate, mostly from poor nations, are increasing.
Kofi Annan, secretary-general of the UN, has made international migration a "priority issue." Over the next few years, the UN will likely devote more money, more discussion, and more meetings to immigration issues. When the General Assembly meets in October, it will discuss the problem and possible ways of dealing with it.
A new UN report carefully sums up the problem: "The vast majority of migrants are making meaningful contributions to their host countries. At the same time, however, international migration entails the loss of human resources for many countries of origin and may give rise to political, economic, or social tensions in countries of destination."
Because of their growing numbers, immigrants - legal and illegal - became an election issue recently in Denmark, France, the Netherlands, and Austria. Australia was widely condemned last summer for keeping Afghan, Iranian, Iraqi, and Palestinian asylum seekers in deplorable conditions.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, US Attorney General John Ashcroft announced policies rolling back protections enjoyed by immigrants, even those legally in the US but not yet citizens. Some of those policies were reversed after protests by civil rights groups and American Muslim and Arab groups.
In the US, a political battle is shaping up over the current yearly visa cap of 195,000 visas under the H-1B program. That cap expires Sept. 30. It then will revert to 65,000 in the absence of further congressional action. The 235,000-member Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers-USA has called for letting that reversion take place - "especially in light of record unemployment among US engineers and computer scientists," president-elect John Steadman stated Feb. 14.
Whether the IEEE-USA will prevail in Congress is an open question. Picketer Gene Nelson, an out-of-work biophysicist, says the high-tech firms will make the "false claim" that unless "techies" from places such as India can be brought to the US, their jobs will be contracted out abroad, making use of the Internet and other modern, cheap communications.
Jagdish Bhagwati, an economist at Columbia University in New York and an immigrant himself, welcomes H-1B visa immigrants. It would be "crazy" to cut them back, he says. "They provide skilled labor that easily integrates into the economy."
Mr. Bhagwati sees borders of the US and other rich nations as "beyond control."
A majority of Americans want tighter management of immigration, opinion polls show. The same is true in many European nations. But the ability to control migration has shrunk, Bhagwati maintains.
In the US and elsewhere, ethnic groups that include many voters fight these restraints, as they want more family members and friends from their homelands to join them. And since most voters don't usually choose a candidate on the basis of his or her immigration views, those groups have political clout.
Moreover, businesses campaign for immigrants, to keep costs down. In the case of H-1B workers, employers often manage to get a wage bargain. Various studies find these immigrants earn 15 to 30 percent less than comparable American workers. Mr. Nelson calls H-1B workers "indentured labor" because their visas can depend on keeping their jobs.
Another control issue involves simple humanity. Migrants, legal or illegal, are people. When Mexicans die in the deserts of Texas or Cubans drown on the way to Florida, it rouses concern. Groups supporting civil rights or immigration try to protect those making it across the borders. Judges are often sympathetic when pitiful immigration cases come before them. It can be hard to sort out migrants seeking mostly an improved economic life from those genuinely needing asylum.
Governments, Bhagwati argues, must reorient their policies from trying to curtail migration to coping and working with it to seek benefits for all. In the current issue of Foreign Affairs, he proposes creation of a World Migration Organization under UN auspices, something like the World Health Organization. He first proposed this idea in a 1992 opinion-page article in the Monitor.
But the US and Europe are reluctant to discuss migration at the UN headquarters because it is such a sensitive issue politically both at home and sometimes in foreign relations. They prefer to bring it up in some regional setting.
The European Union, for instance, has been talking with North African nations about illegal immigration. Last July, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Spanish counterpart, José Maria Aznar, proposed that the EU withdraw aid from countries not taking effective steps to stem the flow of illegal immigrants.
The US has been involving Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America in talks about migration issues. Mexican President Vicente Fox has been urging President Bush to create a new guest-worker program for his countrymen in the US and "regularize" the immigration status of 3 million to 5 million illegal Mexican immigrants. But after Sept. 11, that idea has been put on hold by the Bush administration, to the irritation of Mr. Fox.
Japan has decided it doesn't want to become an immigrant country, despite the prospect of a rapid decline in population.
"It is difficult to predict how this will evolve," says Mr. Chamie, of the UN's Population Division.
The division has been studying the issue with the intention of providing "scientific, rigorous, objective reports," as Chamie puts it. Some findings (see box, below) may be surprising.
Russia, for example, has a large number of migrants because of the breakup of the Soviet Union. Many born in what are now independent states are still living in Russia and are thus classified by the UN as migrants. Several Middle Eastern countries have enough oil wealth to import a large number of foreign workers. Most of them do the "dirty, difficult, and dangerous jobs," such as construction, or the menial jobs, such as household help. But their employers consider them temporary workers and thus are often less hesitant to send them home to India or Pakistan or elsewhere than are European nations.
• Sixty percent of the world's migrants currently reside in more-developed regions; 40 percent in developing nations.
• Most of the world's migrants live in Europe (56 million), Asia (50 million), and North America (essentially the US and Canada - 41 million). That means almost one person in every 10 living in well-to-do nations is a migrant.
• In contrast, only one in every 70 persons in developing countries is a migrant.
• Between 1990 and 2000, the number of migrants in the world grew by 21 million, or 14 percent. In North America, the number of migrants rose by 13 million (48 percent). Europe's migrant population grew by 8 million, or 16 percent.
• Without immigrants and their children, the population of Germany would have started falling in 1972, in Italy in 1993, in Greece in 1997, and in Sweden in 1998.
• The number of migrants in developing nations fell by 2 million between 1990 and 2000.
• About 9 percent of migrants are refugees. Refugees numbered 16 million at the end of 2000. Most of them - 13 million - live in developing countries.
• In 2001, 44 percent of developed countries had policies to lower immigration levels. So did 39 percent of developing nations.
• Remittances of migrants to their homelands are vital in many countries. They exceed 10 percent of gross domestic product in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cape Verde, El Salvador, Jamaica, Jordan, Nicaragua, Samoa, and Yemen.
Source: International Migration Report 2002, United Nations Population Division