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Immigration studies have yet to reach a consensus on which kinds of human movements constitute immigration. This paper uses the term in its broadest sense, referring to people’s temporary or permanent movements and geographic relocation or displacement across political boundaries.
Throughout history, immigration has been an important social force shaped by the world as well as shaping it. In Global Transformations (1998), David Held et al. delineate three phases of migration: premodern, modern, and contemporary migration. In the premodern societies, mass migration was instrumental to the formation of states, particularly in Asia but also in other parts of the world. Modern migration started from the fifteenth century and occurred in three major immigrant flows: (1) European settlers, or the first mass migrants, primarily sponsored by the states, to North America; (2) chattel slaves from Africa to North America, the largest forced migration in human history; and (3) indentured Asian laborers, or the coolie system, which replaced chattel slavery in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Contemporary migration is said to have started after World War II (1939–1945). In the contemporary era, major migration flows were not only to North America but also to Europe, Australasia, and the Middle East. Among the immigrant populations of the contemporary era were increasing numbers of refugees as a result of wars, localized poverty, and political persecution.
Many scholars, including Joaquin Arango (2004) and Stephen Castles and Mark J. Miller (2003), also note that immigration since the 1970s has taken on distinct features. First, nation-states have exercised more control over immigration, drawing an increasingly more pronounced line between desired and undesired immigrants. On the one hand, there is state-engineered competition for skilled labor, particularly among traditional destination countries such as Australia, Canada, and the United States. On the other hand, border controls, mainly directed at immigrants deemed illegal, have been intensified. Despite the increased border control, however, human trafficking has become more salient. The second character of the latest immigration movements is the increasing number of actors shaping immigration flows. Attempts to manage international immigration have been coming from different levels of society, ranging from transnational immigrant communities to the United Nations. The third feature of the current migration trends is the changing demography of immigrants. Asians, Africans, and Latin Americans have gradually replaced the Europeans as the major immigrant population. In addition, the gendered composition of immigrants has changed. Women now account for around 50 percent of the total immigrant population. As well, more women than before move as independent immigrants. Whereas this change remains merely a statistical fact to many scholars, it has compelled others to try to bring women back into the history of immigration, which has largely been written in a genderneutral or genderless tradition. A good example is the book Women, Gender, and Labour Migration: Historical and Global Perspectives (2001), edited by Pamela Sharpe, which offers perspectives on immigration that take gender into account.
The complex social phenomenon of human movements has spurred much theorizing about the causes and consequences of immigration. The three major theoretical approaches informing immigrant studies are the economic equilibrium approach, the historical-structural approach, and the migration system theory.
The economic equilibrium approach, also known as the push-and-pull theory, is the dominant perspective in the literature of immigrant studies, according to Castles and Miller. The major tenet of this approach is that immigration is the summation of human agency and an outcome of people’s rational cost-and-benefit calculations. Factors pushing immigrants to leave typically include poverty and political repression; factors pulling immigrants away from their origins are often better economic opportunities and political freedom. George Borjas (1989) presents a modern version of the equilibrium approach. He proposes a conception of an immigrant market wherein immigrants, instead of commodities, are exchanged. According to Borjas, individual people are “utility maximizers” responsive to the call of an immigrant market. That is, immigration is regarded as a mechanism through which an optimum distribution of land, labor, capital, and natural resources can be achieved and the social-economic equilibrium of different places can be established.
Whereas the equilibrium approach takes individuals’ decisions as its units of analysis, the historical-structural approach locates the reasons and results of immigration in the macroeconomic and political structures of the world. As Castles and Miller point out, this approach is informed by Marxist political economy and the world system theory. It posits that contemporary immigration is a social process that mobilizes cheap labor for capital and thereby helps to sustain the capitalist mode of production in the era of globalization. From the perspective of the world system theory, immigration is considered a new link between developed and developing nations, which were previously connected through colonial occupation or other forms of domination. As the new link, immigration perpetuates the asymmetrical power relationship between the two.
The migration system theory is an attempt to capture all factors affecting the movements of people. A migration system is constituted by two or more countries involved in people’s movements. This theory directs researchers’ attention to the micro, macro, and meso aspects of migration, as well as historical conditions contributing to migration. Similar to the historical-structural approach, it suggests that prior links between immigrant sending and receiving countries, such as colonial domination, military occupation, trade, and investment, all help to lead to people’s migration movements between these countries. At the macro level, international relations, interstate relations, and immigration and other state policies are important incentives or disincentives to migration. At the meso level, the migration system theory is interested in the roles of individuals, groups, or institutions that mediate people’s movements. At the micro level, the theory addresses informal networks such as family and community connections that facilitate immigration. In recent years, the new links between transnational communities, in particular, have given rise to a new area of study on transnationalism, according to Castles and Miller.
Critique of Immigration Theories and Future Directions of Research
While insightful, each of the approaches proposed has significant limitations. A major critique of the equilibrium approach comes from Charles Wood (1982). Wood points out that, first of all, immigration movement has not brought about the anticipated social-economic equilibrium. Rather, recent decades have witnessed increased disparities in regional development. Second, the ahistorical nature of the approach is problematic. The notion of a free market, on which the whole approach is based, is not the empirical truth in all societies at all historical moments. Finally, with a sole focus on micro-level decision making, this approach misses the large social conditions conducive to the movements of people.
In contrast, the historical-structural approach is mainly criticized for failing to explain how the immigration decision comes about for individual actors, as discussed by Wood and also by Castles and Miller. As well, the consequences of immigration as proposed in the historical-structural approach are uni-dimensional and deterministic. Movements of people may not necessarily lead to deprivation in one country and capitalization in the other. Immigrants may bring multiple effects on both the sending and receiving countries. The central problem with this approach is that it reduces people to labor caught up in the capitalization process on a global scale, rather than treating them as human beings with diverse needs and interests.
Epistemologically, the above two approaches are distinct from each other; whereas the former is functionalist in nature, seeing immigration as a means to social harmony, the latter construes immigration as a force adding to social inequalities and conflicts. Despite the differences, there is no doubt that both approaches illuminate some facets of immigration while disregarding others. For instance, neither of them has addressed the facilities and material conditions that contribute to or contain the movements of people. The migration system theory is advantageous to the others in that it focuses on all key dimensions of immigration. However, despite its promise for a holistic understanding of immigration, the migration system theory does not offer a means of interpretation.
In addition to the problems associated with each approach, there are significant issues related to how the phenomenon of immigration is approached in general. First of all, immigration is often considered an aberration that needs to be corrected or a problem that needs to be addressed. The fact that immigration is an integral part of human history has not been registered in the conceptual underpinning of studies on immigration. Second, studies tend to focus on why people move instead of why few people move or why the majority of human populations are not free to move, according to Arango. Posing the alternative questions makes it necessary to critically consider the roles that nation-states play in controlling or restraining people’s movements, which have yet to be deeply interrogated. Third, immigration studies mainly center on labor migration. Refugees and the so-called illegal and undesired immigrants remain at the margin of immigrant research. Finally, while immigration studies have started to address the issue of gender, insufficient attention has been paid to how the increasing presence of immigrant women engenders political, economic, and cultural changes in both sending and receiving countries.
- Arango, Joaquin. 2004. Theories of International Migration. In International Migration in the New Millennium: Global Movement and Settlement, ed. Danièle Joly, 15–35. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing.
- Borjas, George. 1989. Economic Theory and International Migration. International Migration Review 23 (3): 457–478.
- Castles, Stephen, and Mark J. Miller. 2003. The Age of Migration: International Population Movements in the Modern World. 3rd ed. New York: Guilford Press.
- Held, David, Anthony G. McGrew, David Goldblatt, and Jonathan Perraton. 1998. Global Transformations: Politics, Economics and Culture. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
- Sharpe, Pamela, ed. 2001. Women, Gender, and Labour Migration: Historical and Global Perspectives. New York: Routledge.
- Wood, Charles. 1982. Equilibrium and Historical-Structural Perspectives on Migration. International Migration Review 16 (2): 298–319.
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