WASHINGTON: Illegal immigration is increasingly forcing itself onto the European agenda. President Nicolas Sarkozy recently announced that France will make illegal immigration a top priority for its EU presidency. An EU directive, recently adopted by the European Parliament, authorizes 18 months of detention for illegal immigrants and seeks to streamline the process of returning these immigrants to their home countries.
The sheer size of the illegal immigrant population in Europe – up to 400,000 in France and a half-a-million in Britain alone – justifies this attention and explains why European leaders are pushing for a common EU border, asylum and immigration policy.
Europe is not alone in confronting this issue. The United States has nearly 12 million illegal immigrants, and the easy availability of a job at a higher pay than back home is a constant lure. As in Europe, illegal immigration often takes the form of surreptitious boat or foot traffic and sometimes occurs through visa and asylum fraud.
The United States and the European Union have much in common – and much to learn from each other. As the two great immigrant destinations, America and Europe should resolve to work cooperatively to address this issue.
For example, many immigrants who enter the European Union illegally cross multiple borders to get to Europe. Here in the United States, we see the same pattern. Every year, we apprehend tens of thousands of people illegally crossing our border with Mexico who come not from Mexico but from countries further south or, indeed, from half a world away.
Three years ago, more than 10 percent of those apprehended on the land border were non-Mexicans. More recently, the United States has cut this percentage in half. Instead of releasing those illegal migrants while awaiting a hearing, as had been done in the past, we now detain virtually all of them and return them home within a few weeks.
Rapid return has been the key to discouraging further illegal immigration. But rapid return to some countries has been difficult for both the United States and the European Union.
Together we can do much to establish and enforce the principle of international law that requires nations to take back their citizens upon deportation.
There are other ways in which the Americans and the Europeans can cooperate effectively on immigration issues. We could, for example, share information to catch those engaged in asylum fraud.
Asylum is an important and noble part of immigration policy, and America has a long and proud history of protecting those who flee persecution. But asylum can also be abused by those who are not genuine refugees, but are simply looking for countries with better economic opportunity.
We have found that a surprisingly large number of asylum seekers engage in serial fraud and forum-shopping, seeking to enter the United States after they have been turned down in the EU, and vice versa. Often they seek to disguise their identity through the use of fraudulent documents. We are making this more difficult by taking the fingerprints of all asylum seekers and searching our own records for previous contacts with the applicants.
But trans-Atlantic asylum fraud can only be stopped by information-sharing between the United States and the EU.
Similarly, we have a common interest in border security. As Europe crafts common security standards at its airports, harbors and land-border checks, it can benefit from cooperation with the U.S. in standardizing biometric technology to hold down costs and get the benefits of our experiences, good and bad, with particular technologies.
Immigration will be among the principal concerns for policymakers in both the U.S. and the EU for the foreseeable future. The ease of travel and the permeability of international borders will drive increased immigration – legal and illegal. Now is the time for the EU and the U.S. to begin working together to combat illegal migration while encouraging legal migration.
Stewart Baker is assistant secretary for policy for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.