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Why Migration?

Years of work and arduous debate went into the writing of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, a vast revamping of the law aimed above all at stemming the flow of undocumented immigrants. Yet the flood of unauthorized entries continued to grow unabated. A new law signed in November, 1990 allowed increasing numbers of immigrants with a flexible cap of about 700,000. Yet 1991 entries reached over one million. What is it about immigration policy that makes it so ineffective?

U.S. policy-makers and the general public believe the causes of immigration are evident: poverty, unemployment, economic stagnation and overpopulation drive people to leave their countries. Whether to accept immigrants thus becomes a humanitarian question, unrelated to U.S. economic policy or political responsibility.

These basic assumptions – shared by conservatives and liberals, the latter typically more generous that the former – have led policy-makers to treat immigration as autonomous from other major international processes and as a domestic rather than an international issue.1 They focus on regulating who may cross the border legally, and on encouraging foreign investment to alleviate the conditions which supposedly spark migration in the first place.

The central role played by the United States in the emergence of a global economy over the past 30 years lies at the core of why people migrate here in ever-increasing numbers. U.S. efforts to open its own and other countries' economies to the flow of capital, goods, services and information created conditions that mobilized people for migration, and formed linkages between the United States and other countries which subsequently served as bridges for migration. Furthermore, the relatively open nature of the U.S. labor market, epitomized by the notion that government should stay out of the marketplace, provides a necessary condition for immigration to occur.

Measures commonly thought to deter emigration – foreign investment, or the promotion of export-oriented agriculture and manufacturing in poor countries – have had precisely the opposite effect. Such investment contributes to massive displacement of small-scale agricultural and manufacturing enterprises, while simultaneously deepening the economic, cultural, and ideological ties between the recipient countries and the United States. These factors encourage migration. Proponents of the proposed North American Free Trade Agreement between Mexico, Canada and the United States, for example, may claim it will discourage people from leaving Mexico by providing employment opportunities there. Yet it is more likely to exacerbate the flow of people across the border.2

The prevailing assumptions about why immigration occurs do not explain the new immigration from certain Asian and Caribbean Basin countries. Many countries with high population growth, vast poverty and severe economic stagnation do not experience large-scale emigration. Poverty and stagnation had long characterized most Asian and Caribbean Basin countries when large-scale migration flows started in the 1960s. And not all migrant-sending countries are poor; take, for example, South Korea and Taiwan.

In fact, emigration took off at a time when most countries of origin were experiencing accelerated economic growth according to conventional measures, considerably greater than countries that did not experience large-scale emigration. Annual gross national product (GNP) growth rates during the 1970s ranged from 5% to 9% for most of the leading migrant-sending countries. Even in Mexico, official GNP growth rates ranged between 4.2% and 7.5% in the early 1970s and then again late in the decade. South Korea is the most obvious example. With a growth rate of GNP among the highest in the world during the1970s, it was also one of the countries with the fastest growing levels of migration to the United States.

This is not to say that overpopulation, poverty and economic stagnation do not create pressures for migration; by their very logic, they do. But the common identification of emigration with these conditions is overly simplistic. If these factors were a constant long before emigration commenced, what accounted for the sudden upsurge in migration to the United States?

In the case of the Dominican Republic, the answer seems to lie in linkages with the United States that were formed during the occupation of Santo Domingo by U.S. Marines in 1965. The occupation, to suppress a popular uprising against a pro-U.S. coup, resulted not only in greater political and economic ties, but in personal and family linkages due to the settlement of middle-class political refugees in the occupying country. U.S.-Dominican ties were further consolidated through new U.S. investment in the Dominican sugar industry to replace that lost as a result of the Cuban revolution.

Dominican migration to the United States began to increase soon thereafter, rising from 4,500 between 1955 and 2959 to 58,000 between 1965 and 1969. The real take-off occurred in the early 1980s, as sugar prices fell and the United States invested heavily in tourism, offshore manufacturing, and non-traditional export agriculture on the island.

Haiti has not been subjected to direct U.S. military intervention since the 1920s. But the mass emigration which began in the early 1970s occurred parallel to a surge in new U.S. direct foreign investment in export manufacturing and the large-scale development of commercial agriculture. This created a strong U.S. presence and forced, often through violent means, independent farmers into a rural proletariat.

Despite El Salvador's longstanding poverty, only in 1981, when U.S. military involvement escalated sharply, did emigration begin on a massive scale. People left out of fear for their lives and because it became impossible to eke out a living with the war raging around them. But it was the linkages created by U.S. investment during the 1970s, and its military presence after 1980, that made emigration to the United States seem like a real possibility, even though for many the United States represented the enemy. Sarah Mahler found that many Salvadorans who emigrated to the United States had first worked as migrant laborers on export-oriented coffee plantations.3

Even in Mexico, where territorial continuity is routinely interpreted as a principal cause of immigration, the pattern of linkages is similar and in many ways unrelated to the existence of a shared border.4 This is also true for East Asians. After the Korean War, the United States actively sought to promote economic development in the region in order to stabilize it politically. U.S. troops were stationed in Korea, the Philippines, and Indonesia. Massive increases in foreign investment occurred during the same period, particularly in South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines. Together, U.S. business and military interests created a vast array of linkages with those Asian countries that subsequently developed large migration flows to the United States.

That migrations are patterned is further reflected in the figures on the U.S. share of global immigration. Though inadequate, the available evidence compiled by the United Nations in the mid-1980s shows that the United States receives about 19% of global emigration.5 The United States receives 27% of total Asian emigration, but 81.5% of all Korean emigration and almost 100% of emigration from the Philippines. It receives 70% of Caribbean emigration, but almost 100% of emigration from the Dominican Republic and Jamaica, and 62% from Haiti. And it receives 19.5% of all emigration from Central America, but 52% of emigration from El Salvador, the country with the greatest U.S. involvement in the region.

Follow the Money

One common factor in this pattern over the last two decades is direct foreign investment in production for export, especially manufacturing and assembly of components and consumer goods such as toys, apparel, textiles, and footwear. While total U.S. investment abroad increased between 1965 and 1980 with large amounts continuing to go to Europe and Canada, investment in the Third World quintupled, much of it going to a few key countries in the Caribbean Basin and Southeast Asia. A large proportion of investment in non-industrialized countries went to industries producing for export, which tend to be labor-intensive, precisely one of the rationales for locating factories in low-wage countries. The result was rapid employment growth, especially in manufacturing, during the post-1965 decade. At a lower level, this was also the case in Mexico.

According to conventional explanations of why migrations occur, this combination of economic trends should have helped to deter emigration, or at least to keep it at relatively low levels. The deterrent effect should have been particularly strong in countries with high levels of export-oriented investment, since such investment is labor-intensive and thus creates more jobs than other forms of investment. Yet it is precisely such countries, most notably the newly industrializing countries of East Asia, which have been major senders of new immigrants.

To understand why this occurs, we have to examine the impact of such investment on people's lives. Perhaps the single most important effect is the uprooting of people from traditional modes of existence. It has long been recognized that the development of commercial agriculture tends to displace subsistence farmers, creating a supply of rural wage laborers and mass migrations to cities. The recent large-scale development of export-oriented manufacturing in East Asia, the Caribbean Basin, and Mexico's Border Industrialization Program has had a similar effect. In each case, the introduction of modem relations of production transforms people into migrant workers and potential emigrants.

In export manufacturing, the catalyst for the breakdown of traditional work structures is the massive recruitment of young women into jobs in the new industrial zones.6 The mobilization of large numbers of women into wage labor disrupts village economies and rural households which traditionally depend on women's often unwaged work in food preparation, cloth-weaving, basket-making and various other types of craftwork. Today most people in these regions have been thoroughly proletarianized.

One of the most serious and ironic consequences of the feminization of the new proletariat has been the rise in male unemployment. Not only must men compete with the new supply of female workers, but the massive departure of young women from rural areas, where women are key partners in the struggle for survival, reduces the opportunities for men to make a living there.

More generally, in some poorer, less developed regions or countries, export-led production has come to replace other more diversified forms of economic activity oriented to the internal market The impressive employment growth figures for most of the main emigration countries do not convey the severe limitations of the type of growth involved and the frequent destruction of a more diverse economy.7

For men and women alike, the disruption of traditional ways makes entry into wage labor increasingly a one-way proposition. With traditional economic opportunities in rural areas shrinking, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, for workers to return home if they are laid off or unsuccessful in the job search. This is particularly serious for female workers in new industrial zones, who are often fired after a short period of employment in order to keep wages low and replace workers whose health begins to fail due to poor working conditions. Moreover, beginning in the late 1970s when tax concessions from local governments in the older zones were exhausted, many companies packed up and moved on to "new" countries where labor was even cheaper.

Due to all of these trends, people first uprooted from traditional ways of life, then left unemployed and unemployable as export firms hire younger workers or move production to other countries, may see few options but emigration—especially if export-led growth strategies have weakened the country's domestic economy.

But the role of foreign investment in encouraging large-scale emigration does not end there. In addition to eroding traditional work structures and creating a pool of wage laborers, foreign investment contributes to the development of economic, cultural, and ideological linkages with the industrialized countries.8 Workers employed in the export sector – whether as managers, secretaries, or assemblers – are, after all, producing goods and services for people and firms in industrialized countries. For these workers, already oriented toward Western practices and modes of thought, the distance between a job in the offshore plant or office and a comparable one in the industrialized country itself is subjectively reduced. It is not hard to see how emigration comes to be regarded as a serious option.

Beyond the direct impact on workers in the export sector, the linkages created by foreign investment also have a generalized ideological effect on a receiving country or region, making the culture of industrialized countries seem less foreign and the prospect of living there more attractive. This ideological impact turns a much larger number of people into candidates for emigration.

Immigration and U.S. Economic Policy

No analysis of immigration would be complete without examining changes in labor demand. While the internationalization of the economy contributed to the initiation of labor migrations to the United States, their continuation at high and ever-increasing levels is directly related to the economic restructuring of this country.

Beginning in the late 1970s, the supply of low-wage jobs in the United States expanded rapidly, while the labor market became less regulated. Such tendencies facilitated the incorporation of undocumented migrants by opening up the hiring process, lifting restrictions on employers and typically lowering the cost of labor.10 The increase in low-wage jobs was in part a result of the same international economic processes that channeled investment and manufacturing jobs to low-wage countries. As industrial production moved overseas or to low-wage areas in the South, much of traditional U.S. manufacturing was replaced by a downgraded sector characterized by poorly paid, semi-skilled or unskilled jobs.

Three trends converged: first, the growing practice of sub-contracting, and the expansion of sweatshops and industrial homework (all of which have the effect of isolating workers and preventing them from joining together to defend their interests); second, the downgrading of skill levels required for jobs through the incorporation of machines and computers; and third, the rapid growth of high-technology industries that employ large numbers of low-wage production workers. These conditions make the United States an attractive location for foreign manufacturers and other types of firms and, at the limit, make certain areas of the country competitive with Third World countries as production sites.11

The rapid growth of the service sector also created vast numbers of low-wage jobs, in addition to the more publicized increase in highly paid investment banking, management and professional jobs.12 The growth industries of the 1980s – finance, insurance, real estate, retail trade, and business services – feature large numbers of low-wage jobs, weak unions if any, and a high proportion of part and female workers. Sales clerks, waitresses, secretaries, and janitors are among the growth occupations.

The expanded service sector also creates low jobs by raising the demand for workers to serve lifestyles and consumption requirements of the income professional and managerial class. The concentration of these high-income workers in major cities has created a need for legions of low -wage service workers – residential building attendants, restaurant workers, preparers of specialty and gourmet foods, dog walkers, errand runners, apartment cleaners, childcare providers and so on. The fact that many of these jobs are "off the books" has meant the rapid expansion of an informal economy.13

Immigrants are more likely than U.S. citizens to gravitate toward these jobs: they are poorly paid, offer little employment security, generally require few skills and little knowledge of English, and frequently involve undesirable evening or weekend shifts. In addition, the expansion of the informal economy facilitates the entry of undocumented immigrants into these jobs. Significantly, even immigrants who are highly educated and skilled when they arrive in the United States tend to gravitate toward the low-wage sectors of the economy.

While the transfer of manufacturing to less industrialized countries has helped promote emigration from them, the concentration of servicing and management functions in major U.S. cities has created conditions for the absorption of the immigrant influx. The same set of processes that promoted emigration from several rapidly industrializing countries has simultaneously promoted immigration into the United States. The fact that the primary generators of low-wage jobs are the major growth sectors of the U.S. economy, such as high technology and services, rather than the declining sectors, suggests that the supply of such jobs will probably continue to expand for the foreseeable future. As long as it does, the influx of immigrant workers to fill these jobs is also likely to continue.

Profit Knows No Borders

While individuals may experience their migration as the outcome of their personal decisions, the option to migrate is itself the product of larger social, economic and political processes. One could ask, for example, if there are systemic linkages underlying the current East Europe, and Soviet  migrations to Germany and Austria. Rather than simply posit the push factor of poverty, unemployment and the general failure of socialism, we might look at the fact that before War II both Berlin and Vienna were major receivers of large migrations from a vast eastern region. And the aggressive campaign during the Cold War years, touting the West as a place where economic well-being is the norm and well-paying jobs are easy to get, must also have had some effect in inducing people to migrate westward.14

Similarly, as Japan became the leading global economic power and the major foreign investor in Southeast Asia in the 1980s, a familiar combination of migration-facilitating processes appears to have been set in motion: the creation of linkages that eventually come to serve as bridges for potential emigrants, and the emergence of emigration to Japan as something that would-be emigrants see as a real option.

Japan is a country that never considered itself an immigrant country, has always been proud of its homogeneity, and has kept its doors closed to foreigners. Now it is experiencing a new illegal influx of workers from several Asian countries with which it maintains strong economic ties and investments in off-shore manufacturing but no shared border: Pakistan, Bangladesh, South Korea, Taiwan, Philippines and Thailand.

The impending free-trade agreement between the United States and Mexico is perhaps the best example. At the Bush Administration's insistence, immigration was kept off the negotiating table. The administration claims, however, that an agreement would stem illegal immigration from Mexico. Yet the considerable growth of export-assembly industry in northern Mexico over the last two decades has not deterred Mexican emigration. On the contrary, it encouraged new migrations from the interior of the country to the northern border zone, which in turn served as a platform for crossing into the United States. On a broader scale, the maquila program has consolidated a transnational border economy within which trade, investment and people move rather freely.

A free-trade agreement could substantially strengthen existing economic linkages and create new ones, from cross-border personnel transfers to the packaging and trucking of goods made in Mexico for the U.S. market. Such linkages would engender new patterns of communication, work and travel between the two countries – and would further integrate Mexican workers into the U.S. economy, intensifying Mexican contact with U.S. popular and work cultures. These conditions could spawn a generalized notion that people are entitled to free movement across the border.

Perhaps we need new ways to think about the process we call immigration. The category itself, with its strong emphasis on the concept of national borders, seems inadequate. The forging of strong economic and geopolitical relations between countries of unequal development and unequal job opportunities tends to promote labor migration from poorer to wealthier countries. Until policy-makers understand this basic fact, and abandon the notion that immigration control is a police matter, attempts to "stem the flood" will continue to fail.

1. This article uses materials from the author's recent books. 'The Mobility of Labor and Capital; A Study in International Investment and Labor Flow," (New York: Cambridge University Press 1988), and "The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo." (Princeton University Press, 1991).

2. See Saskia Sassen, “Free Trade and Immigration," Hemisphere (Winter/Spring 1991).

3. El Salvador's tradition of internal migration for the coffee, sugar and cotton harvests meant that peasant farmers had already been mobilized into wage labor. See also, Sarah J. Mahler, "Tres Veces Mojado: Undocumented Central and South American Migration to Suburban Long Island." (Ph.D.diss.. Dept. of Anthropology. Columbia University. 1992).

4. The large mass migrations of the 1800s followed the same pattern. They emerged as part of the formation of a trans-Atlantic economic system binding several nation-states through economic transactions and wars that brought massive flows of capital, goods and workers. Before this period, labor movements across the Atlantic had been largely forced, notably slavery, and mostly from colonized African and Asian territories. Similarly, the migrations to England in the 1950s originated in what had once been British colonies. Finally, the migrations into Westem Europe on the 1960s and 1970s occurred in a context of direct recruitment and of European regional dominance over the Mediterranean and part of Eastern Europe. There are, I would say, few if any innocent bystanders among countries receiving large labor migrations.

5. This figure is derived from data on permanent settlement, which excludes illegal immigrations and unoffical refugee flows between countries, a growing category. This and other figures in this paragraph are from "Demographic Yearbook," (United Nations, 1985) and "World Population Prospects,"(United Nations, 1987).

6. Most of the manufacturing in these zones is of the sort that also employs women in developed countries. Electronics assembly, toys, textiles, and garments account for the largest share, but it is diversifying fast. For the initial phase of this process see, for example, Norma Diamend, "Women and Industry in Taiwan," Modem China, Vol.5, No.3 (July 1979); Helen I. Safa, "Runaway Shops and Female Employment: The Search for the Cheap Labor," Signs. Vo1.7, No.2 (Winter 1981); E. Boserup. "Women's Role in Economic Development," (New York, St. Martin's Press, 1970); also E. Bodding. "Women: the Fifth World". Foreign Policy Association Headline Series No.248, (Washington. DC: February 1980) and June Nash and Maria Patricia Femandez Kelly, 'Women and Men in the International Division of Labor" (Albany: SUNY Press, 1983).  See also the film. "The Global Assembly Line," by Lorraine Gray.

7. In a detailed examination of the employment impact of export-led industrialization, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) found that in general, this type of development eliminated more jobs than it created because of its disruptive effect on the rational manufacturing sector, especially in the less industrialized countries of the Caribbean and Southeast Asia, 'World Industry since 1960," Progress and Prospects (Vienna: UNIDO, 1979).

8. Each country is unique and each migration flow is produced by specific conditions in time and place. Yet the general dynamic in the U.S. occurs in other countries characterized by economic dominance and the formation of transnationa1 spaces for economic activity. This type of analysis seeks to capture the impact of the internationalization of the economy on a) formation of migration flows, and b) the labor marks in the receiving country, particularly changes that may contribute to the absorption of immigrants.

9. Comparing 1973 and 1989 income data shows that relative incomes fell for 80% of all families and rose for 20%. The truly rich, the top 1%, gained the most. Much of the 20% at the top represents an upper middle class, rather than "the wealthy." See U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1989, Series P-60, No 168.

10. Saskia Sassen, 'The Mobility of Labor and Capital.”

11. The inflation-adjusted hourly earnings of factory production workers rose by 70% from 1947 to 1973. From 1973 to 1987 they fell by 5.4%. The real value of the minimum wage fell by about 23% from 1981 to 1989. See Gary Burtless, ed., "A Future of Lousy Jobs," (Washington: Brookings Institution, 1990), p.15.

12. These trends have sharpened over the last few years, bringing about growing inequality in the U S occupational and income structure. Inflation-adjusted average weekly wages peaked in 1973, stagnated over the next few years and fell in the decade of the 1980s. Up to 1973 there was an increase in the degree of equality in the distribution of earnings. Since 1975, the opposite has occurred. In the decade from 1963 to 1973, 9 out of 10 new jobs were in the middle earnings group, whereas after 1973 only one in two new jobs was in the middle-earning category. If one were to add the increase in the number of workers who are not employed full-time and year-round, then the inequality becomes even more pronounced. Part-time workers increased from 5% in 1955 to 22% in 1977, and by 1986 were a third of the labor force. Approximately 80% of these 50 million workers earn less than $1,000 a year. Paul Blumberg. "Inequality in an Age of Decline," (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), pp. 67-79; Robert Z. Lawrence, "Sectoral Shifts and the Size of the Middle Class,” Brookings Review (Fall 1984); Bennet Harrison and Barry Bluestone. "The Great U-Turn," (New York: Basic Books, 1988). A report by the House Ways and Means Committee found that from 1979 to 1987, the bottom fifth of the population experienced a decline of 8% in its personal income while the top fifth experienced an income increase of 16%. And data from the 1990 Census shows that the top 20% of the income structure accounted for most of the increase in personal income in the decade of the 1980s while the bottom 40% lost ground.

13. A comparison of trends in New York, Los Angeles, and other major cities can be found in Saskia Sassen, "The Global City’, part three.

14. Saskia Sassen. "Six Concepts for Analyzing Immigration: Do They Work for Germany?" Work in progress for the Wissmschaftszentmm (Berlin, Winter 1992).


Population & Immigration       ?õ¬?       Vol. 4 No. 2      ?õ¬?       Summer 1993

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