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As record-high numbers of undocumented migrants cross the United States-Mexico border illegally, one key question is how the U.S. got into this situation, and what lessons can be learned from how other countries respond to border security and immigration problems.

Having worked both inside the U.S. government and in the private sector, I have observed the growing importance of welcoming foreign citizens to one’s country for improving economic growth, scientific advancement, labor supply and cultural awareness.

But migrants entering and staying in the U.S. without visas or proper documentation can create problems – for the migrants themselves, and for overtaxed governments that lack the ability to quickly process asylum cases in immigration courts, for example, or to provide temporary shelter and other basic services for large numbers of arriving migrants. These strains are happening now in many places in the U.S.

A black and white photo shows a large crowd of people, mostly men wearing hats, crowded on the second story of a small boat, which is coked.

Immigrants arrive at Ellis Island in 1923, one year before Congress reformed immigration laws in the U.S., making it harder to enter the country.
Underwood & Underwood/Underwood Archives/Getty Images

U.S. immigration trends

In 1924, after decades of the U.S. welcoming foreign-born citizens to its shores, Congress passed the Immigration Act, restricting the numbers and types of people who could legally enter and stay in the U.S.

That legislation ushered in even more xenophobia and division in the U.S. over the ethnic origins of immigrants – cutting off large-scale immigration, especially from Europe and Asia, until jobs needed to be filled – and there weren’t enough people in the U.S. to fill them.

In the 1960s, immigration laws were reformed again, ushering in waves of immigration from Asia because the U.S. needed people to work at unfilled jobs.

Today, once again, some U.S. politicians are pushing for new ways to restrict immigration. Much of their work focuses on making it harder for migrants to get asylum – meaning legal permission to remain in the U.S. if they have a legitimate fear of persecution in their home countries.

Overall, U.S. border officials encountered more than 1.1 million people illegally crossing the U.S. border from April 2022 through March 2023 – a sharp rise from previous years, when the number of people illegally crossing each year hovered at less than 300,000.

U.S. authorities are now stepping up deportations, quickly sending more undocumented people back to their home countries.

A shifting response to immigration

Globally, international migration to rich countries reached an all-time high in 2022.

So, how do other countries, including Canada and Germany, respond to migrants crossing their borders without a visa or proper documentation?

One answer has been to reform their immigration systems to make deportation easier.

Germany, for example, has been wrestling with increases in undocumented immigration.

Germany Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced at the end of 2023 that he supports large-scale deportations for migrants who are rejected for asylum.

Germany deported close to 8,000 people, many of them fleeing the war in Ukraine, in the first part of 2023. In total, an estimated 92,119 immigrants entered Germany illegally from January through September 2023.

New German government reforms will increase that figure and no longer require officials to announce deportations in advance.

Italy, which is also battling a huge influx of undocumented migrants from North Africa, recently doubled the amount of time that it can detain undocumented migrants, rising from three months to at least six months. This decision is seen as an effort to deter more migrants from illegally entering Italy.

In November 2023, Italy signed an agreement to build two new immigration detention centers across the Adriatic Sea in Albania.

This allows Italy to skirt a European Union policy that requires its member countries to consider and process all asylum applicants’ requests within a year of their arrival. Since Albania is not part of the European Union, it could quickly deport the migrants that Italy sends there.

In December 2023, the European Union’s 27 countries also voted on a major overhaul of asylum laws. These changes will make it easier for countries to deport migrants who fail to get asylum. They also direct the European Union to give money to countries that allow more asylum seekers to stay in those countries.

Other approaches

Right now, Italy and Greece bear much of the brunt of migration in the EU.

More than 31,000 undocumented migrants, mainly from Syria, crossed into Greece in 2023, up from 18,000 undocumented people who entered the country in 2022.

The parliament in Greece is considering new laws that would enable the country to issue tens of thousands of undocumented migrants residence and work permits to address labor shortages.

Greece is also pushing the European Union to slap economic sanctions on countries, like Pakistan, that refuse to take back the undocumented migrants that Greece deports to their home countries.

Closer to home, Canada is also experiencing a surge of undocumented migration into Quebec and other places, prompting some Canadians to feel growing anxiety, in part because of perceptions that the sudden population growth is also raising the country’s already-high housing costs. Canada deported 7,232 undocumented people in the first six months of 2023 – a rise compared to the 7,635 deportations Canada carried out in the entire year of 2021.

Canada also announced in December 2023 that it is planning to allow people who entered the country with valid, short-term visas, and who continue living in Canada after these visas expire, to apply for permanent residency. This would mainly affect foreign students and temporary workers.

A man in a grey uniform and a black police vest speaks to a small group of people who wear jackets and have suitcases as they approach him.

A Canadian officer speaks to migrants as they arrive in Quebec in March 2023.
Sebastien St-Jean/AFP via Getty Images

An uncertain way ahead

Back in the U.S., the fight over immigration continues, with Republicans eager to crack down and Democrats who generally want to avoid harsh new standards that could lead to more deportations and mass roundups of undocumented immigrants.

Traditionally, Democrats have been supportive of immigration and the rights of undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

But the wave of migrants who arrive in cities like New York and Chicago without any money, jobs or places to live is severely straining city governments’ capacity and budgets. Local leaders like New York Mayor Eric Adams are pleading with the federal government to help with a crisis that, as Adams said in September 2023, has no clear end in sight.

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