Illegal immigration in the United States Essay

Why do immigrants come to the United States? - Illegal immigration in the United States Essay introduction?? In a way, the answer is obvious. They come to improve their prospects, to get better jobs, to earn more income, to raise their standard of living, to provide more promising opportunities for their children.

The simple answer is doubtless correct. The attractiveness of the United States to immigrants is at least partly its prosperity; as long as the United States remains one of the richest countries, it will surely attract immigrants. The simple answer is not the complete answer, however. If the relative prosperity of the United States were the only cause of immigration, the flow always would have been greatest from the poorest countries. It has not been. When England was the world’s richest country, for example, it provided most of the immigrants to the United States. When other European countries began to grow economically and catch up to England in the nineteenth century, they displaced England as the principal source of immigrants to the United States. The question of why immigrants come is more complicated than it first appears.

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It is important to the debate on immigration to understand what has caused the recent acceleration. Most of the arguments about immigration end up with some sort of policy recommendation: to reduce immigration, to increase it, to change the countries of origin or the skill levels, to block unauthorized entries more completely, to rethink refugee policy and so forth. Policies to change the immigrant flow are in danger of being ineffective, however, if they are developed in ignorance of the forces that lead people to come in the first place.

Almost the first thing one notices about immigration is how varied and multifaceted it is. The very meaning of immigration differs among different groups of people. Immigration is perhaps typically thought of as a once-and-for-all decision. People decide to pack up their bags, say goodbye to their neighbors, move to the United States and make a permanent commitment to their new country. In some cases, though, this is not what happens at all. Some people immigrate without cutting their ties to their home countries, intending to stay for only a brief time. After immigrating, they move back home, perhaps in their old age, but perhaps much earlier; some move back and forth frequently. They sometimes maintain personal connections, property and even jobs in both places.

Different groups of immigrants have had different sorts of commitments when they first arrived. Italians, for example, whose immigration began in earnest toward the end of the nineteenth century, often moved back and forth across the ocean, sometimes as often as annually. Many Italians entered the United States as young people, spent their working lives there,’ then returned to Italy in retirement. In contrast, Jews have usually made a permanent commitment to the United States upon arrival. The victims of persecution throughout Europe, they have had little to return to in their countries of origin (Hatton, 1994).

Perhaps the least permanent immigrants into the United States have been the Mexicans, the largest group of entrants in the latest wave. To be sure, some people of Mexican origin have been in the United States for generations., and some recent Mexican immigrants have no doubt that they are in the United States to stay. Many others cross the border frequently, however. They maintain an active presence on both sides of the border, to such an extent that many areas in both countries are now best viewed as transnational communities (Johnson, 2000).

People move to the United States for a variety of reasons. Part of the fascination of learning about the subject is to begin to understand the variety, not to try to reduce it to a single cause. Jorge Durand and Douglas Massey illustrated this particularly clearly in the case of Mexican immigration to the United States (Durand and Massey, 1992). In a review of studies of thirtyseven Mexican communities, they found enormous differences. Some migrants came from relatively stable communities, others from disrupted communities. Some intended to leave Mexico for good, others for only a brief time. Some migrants were from the poorest stratum of their communities; others were relatively prosperous. Some owned land at home, some did not and some used their U.S. earnings to purchase land. In some cases, the commercialization of local agriculture opened new options to poor people and therefore reduced immigration to the United States; in other cases, commercialization led to unemployment, deprivation, and more emigration. Some communities sent almost exclusively adult men to the United States, whereas others sent balanced groups of women and children along with the: men. In some Mexican communities, a majority of the people had migrated to the United States at some point in their lives, and in other communities only a small minority. Among the thirty-seven communities, almost every possible pattern was found. Durand and Massey concluded that the social structures of individual communities differ greatly, that it is the interaction of community structure with individual and family preferences that leads to the decision to migrate and that therefore a large number of different patterns and causes naturally emerge.

Students of migration have approached the subject from many perspectives. Some use economic models, some sociological. Some studies focus on social change at a large-scale level, some on individual decision making. Some are historical, others are ethnographic and still others are abstract and even mathematical. Naturally this variation leads to vigorous scholarly debate among the practitioners. One of the interesting features of the research, however, is how compatible most of the approaches are with one another. Almost all have something useful to add to our understanding, and almost all can be verified empirically (Massey et al., 1994).

American immigration policy is a hodgepodge of diverse regulations, the result of political compromises among narrow interest groups. If one were to try to discern the purposes of the country’s immigration policy by reading the relevant legislation and by examining the statistical record, one would conclude that Americans’ principal goal in the area of immigration is family reunification (Graham, 1991). Although Americans care about family reunification, they have many other pressing concerns related to immigration: jobs, wages, economic growth, public finance, cultural diversity, language acquisition, responsibility to refugees, even fairness. Yet these concerns are translated into policy either obscurely or not at all.

The two approaches – national interest and ethics – are in some tension with each other. Those who base their views on national interest believe that Americans have a responsibility only to themselves (Allen, 2004). They believe that Americans should think in terms that are broader than just their personal interests but that the standard for judging immigration policy should be to maximize the welfare of all Americans taken together. From this point of view, the benefit to the potential immigrants has no standing: if their entry helps American residents, let them in; if it hurts, keep them out.

I would like to argue, however, along with others, that the criteria for evaluating immigration policy should include not just interest but morality. Interest is inward looking and self-serving; morality looks outward to the rights and welfare of others. To pursue the national interest may be more ethically defensible than simply to pursue one’s personal interest, but the national interest has its moral limitations. It would be a curious ethical system that accorded moral worth to some people and denied it to others solely on the grounds of whether their legal residence fell within a particular geographical boundary.


Allen, Jeffrey. (2004, February). Illegal Immigration-Not Racism. Stanford Review 32, p.1, XXXII/Issue1/Opinions/opinions2.shtml (accessed November 19, 2008), 1-2.

Durand, Jorge and Massey, Douglas S. (1992). Mexican Migration to the United States: A Critical Review. Latin American Research Review 27, pp. 3-42.

Massey, Douglas S., Goldring, Luin and Durand, Jorge. (1994). Continuities in Transnational Migration: An Analysis of Nineteen Mexican Communities. American Journal of Sociology 99, pp. 1492- 1533.

Massey, Douglas S., Arango, Joaquin, Hugo, Graeme, Kouaouci, Ali, Pellegrino, Adela and Taylor, J. Edward. (1994). An Evaluation of International Migration Theory: The North American Case. Population and Development Review 20, pp. 699-751.

Hatton, Timothy J. and Williamson, Jeffrey G. (1994).What Drove the Mass Migrations from Europe in the Late Nineteenth Century? Population and Development Review 20, pp. 533-59.

Johnson, Kevin R. (2000). Immigration, Citizenship and U.S./Mexico Relations. Bilingual Review, 25, p.23


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