When you hear the word “migration,” what comes to mind? Do you think about birds going south for the winter? Do you think about how weather patterns and a changing climate are reshaping where people live? Do you think about illegal immigrants coming into the country to pedal drugs? Your perception of migration may easily be shared with others. After all, Donald Trump campaigned on the platform of returning illegal immigrants to where they came from and building a border wall between Mexico in his 2016 presidential run. And this got nonstop coverage in the news. But, immigration is much more complicated than what we see on the news.
Sure, the news shows us refugees fleeing in masses, people relocating due to water crises, economic despair causing many to leave their homes, and so much more. Although these are real reasons people emigrate, they are only a fraction of the reasons people choose to move to another country. But what sells on the news is doom and gloom. For these reasons, most people see immigration as a negative thing that is causing terrorism and deep divisions. But if we step back to take a broader view on the subject, you will see that immigration does not necessarily encompass the negative connotations that the news and extremists might want you to think of. Let us start with a brief examination of the history of immigration.
For argument’s sake, we will use the United States as our history lesson. The United States may not have been founded on immigration, but immigration helped fuel its growth. According to an article in the Georgetown Law Library titled “A Brief History of Civil Rights in The United States, “From 1820-1860 95% of immigrants in the United States originated from northern Europe. From the 1830s to the 1850s the total number of immigrants to the United States rose from approximately 151,000 to 1.7 million. The majority of these immigrants were Irish, German, and British. Emigration from China to the west coast also increased during this time period. By 1860, Chinese immigrants constituted approximately 25% of California's population.” Immigration did not stop there. In fact, according to the same article, during the Industrial Era in America, “The majority of immigrants were from Southern and Eastern Europe, as well as Scandinavia. However, large numbers of immigrants were non-European. While paling in comparison to immigration from Europe, approximately one million immigrants arrived from Japan, Turkey, and Mexico. In addition, non-Protestant religious groups, including Catholics and Jews, immigrated to the United States during this time period.” America was grown not from within but from outside its borders. Although some did come here due to economic and political unrest, many came to make a better life for themselves and future generations.
If you take a wide lens to the immigration issue, people from all over move to different places for many different reasons. In the United States, it started with the pilgrim’s need to flee religious persecution. But over time, many came to America for the opportunity to make a better life by pursuing jobs and owning land. The building of the Transcontinental Railroad is a perfect example of this. According to the Harvard Library, “This massive work could never have been completed without Chinese and Irish laborers, who comprised the bulk of the workforce. Chinese laborers were brought in by the Central Pacific Railroad in large numbers. Indeed, by the height of the construction effort in 1868, over 12,000 Chinese immigrants were employed, comprising about 80 percent of the Central Pacific's workforce.” Projects like this provided opportunity for immigrants to find work and create opportunity. This notion still resonates today.
Take the Philippines, for example. According to the website Facts and Details, “The Philippines sends more people to work abroad than any country except Mexico. About 10 percent of the Philippines population (about 10 million people) have worked outside the Philippines. Filipinos work in every country except North Korea, Labor Secretary Patricia Santo Tomas told the Los Angeles Times. More than 2.5 million work in the United States and nearly a million in Saudi Arabia, with hundreds of thousands more working in the Middle East, mostly as maids and laborers.” It is not uncommon for Filipino families to experience separation for long periods of time so one member can make money to send back home. The same website substantiates that by stating, “One out of every three Filipino homes has a family member working overseas. It is not unusual for a child to live with an aunt in the Philippines because his mother works as a gas station cashier in Los Angeles and his father works as a construction worker in the Middle East. Filipinos have a long tradition of working overseas.” Just like in America’s early days of immigration, people still leave their home country on their own to go make a better life for them and their families.
But there are other reasons people decide to immigrate to other countries. Some move due to marriage. Others move temporarily to work and then return to their country of origin, to be closer to friends, to be in a more socially diverse place, or to go to college. More examples include moving to help pursue a cause, such as helping others or military service. There are a number of reasons why people emigrate, and they do not always revolve around war, famine, politics, crime, or some other negative force we see in the daily news. While some of these issues certainly play a factor in migration, they do not tell the whole story.
Many migrants come from countries located in the same geographic regions. According to the United Nations, “In many parts of the world, however, migration occurs primarily between countries located within the same geographic zone. In 2015, most international migrants living in Africa, or 87 percent of the total, originated from another country of the same region. The equivalent value was 82 percent for Asia, 66 percent for Latin America and the Caribbean, and 53 percent for Europe.” Many migrants never left their general region. This does not mean, however, that migration does not occur outside of a certain region. The United Nations further states that, “Northern America hosts the third largest number of international migrants, followed by Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Oceania. Between 2000 and 2015, Asia added more international migrants than any other major region, or a total of 26 million additional migrants.” How far someone migrates will depend on their reason. And with a constantly changing world, migration patterns are likely to change as political, economic, environmental, and other factors change.
Immigration is a complicated process with many contributing factors and results. One result of immigration is the economic impact it has. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) published a migration policy debate in 2014 where they discussed this issue. In the debate, they mentioned a list of positive effects migration has on economies, which are listed below.
Migrants accounted for 47% of the increase in the workforce in the United States and 70% in Europe over the past ten years.
Migrants fill important niches both in fast-growing and declining sectors of the economy.
Like the native-born, young migrants are better educated than those nearing retirement.
Migrants contribute significantly to labor market flexibility, notably in Europe.
The Public Purse
Migrants contribute more in taxes and social contributions than they receive in benefits. Labor migrants have the most positive impact on the public purse.
Employment is the single biggest determinant of migrants’ net fiscal contribution.
Migration boosts the working age population.
Migrants arrive with skills and contribute to the human capital development of receiving countries.
Migrants also contribute to technological progress.
While the flow between the numbers of migrants going between different countries is always changing, it is evident that immigration can have positive effects on an economy. If you look at the United States, for example, jobs that once were held by those who grew up in the country, like manual labor or service industries, are now held by immigrants. Without these services, the economy would probably not be in the best shape. In many situations, immigrants actually help make the place they move to more sustainable and solid from an economic standpoint.
The debate over immigration will rage on, and there will be those who argue in blind ignorance against it. There will be those who say it is hurting everyone. But then there will be those who are informed and educated. They will come to realize that immigration not only played a pivotal role in the history of great countries like the United States, but that it has many positive effects. And while there will always be political and socioeconomic undertones when this issue comes up, the statistics will show that immigrants are people too, seeking opportunities to enhance their well-being and offering an economic boom that is undeniable. Next time you turn on the news, drown out the negative noise about war refugees, illegal immigrants peddling drugs, and border walls, and instead think of how great the country you live in is because of legal immigrants who may just be your neighbor, co-worker, friend, or relative.