Long-term relocation across national borders represents one of the major ways in which the structure of populations in various countries changes. As a result, immigration remains one of the most important and highly charged sociopolitical issues today. Although everyone is a native of one particular nation, people may sometimes find it necessary to move from their native country to reside permanently in another nation. Thus, entailed in the concept of migration are emigration, moving out of a particular nation, and immigration, settling into the receiving nation.
A 1998 UN report indicates that international migration has risen sharply in recent years. For example, in 2000 alone, the United States accepted more than 650,000 immigrants. This number does not include individuals who come to the United States illegally. U.S. law defines immigrants as persons lawfully admitted for permanent residence in the United States. Australia also accepted 76,000 immigrants in 2000, while Canada admitted about 196,800 in the same year. The recent increase in international migration could partly be attributed to the ease with which people can now travel from one end of the globe to the other. This is not to suggest that international migration is a recent phenomenon; immigration has been part of human existence since early ages. For example, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Italian immigrants arrived in the United Sates to look for work, while Russian immigrants came to the United States to escape political persecution. This period also saw the arrival of Jewish immigrants who came to the United States because of the religious freedom the United States offered.
Given the inconvenience involved in relocating to a new country, and the uncertainties people face when they leave their familiar environment, such decisions are not reached casually. Reasons that underlie immigration could broadly be categorized into “push” and “pull” factors. The push factors range from extenuating circumstances, such as being displaced by wars and other natural disasters, and the motivation to escape political or religious persecution, to simple dissatisfaction with one’s economic and social life. For instance, the civil wars in Liberia and Rwanda led many people to flee their countries to seek refuge elsewhere. While some of these people might return to their home countries, many others would remain permanently in the nations that granted them asylum. Similarly, lack of jobs and declining economic conditions might make a country less attractive, motivating individuals to emigrate to escape such economic and social hardships.
While these push factors may explain the inclination to move out of one particular country or region of the world, they cannot fully account for the choice of nations in which individuals and their families ultimately settle. Immigration is jointly determined by the push factors, as well as certain pull factors, such as the belief that a particular country offers religious and political freedom, better chances for social and economic advancement, and greater opportunities for fulfillment in all aspects of life. For instance, individuals may be motivated to migrate to a particular country where they believe their skills would be put to maximum use. This is particularly germane to unintended immigration, where some individuals who travel abroad temporarily to study end up staying longer to pursue their careers.
The statutes that govern whom to admit, and on what basis, are typically created at the national level by the individual countries. The process of creating these immigration policies are guided by the interplay of a country’s actual experiences with immigrants and the dominant perception among the leaders and citizenry of a nation regarding the desirability and value of immigration. For instance, right after the Canadian confederation, the Canadian government pursued policies aimed at stimulating development in the vast territory of the Canadian West. Immigration was used deliberately as an instrument of industrial development and nation building, and Immigration Acts, such as the Free Grants and Homestead Act of 1868 and the 1925 Railway Agreement Act, were passed to encourage recruitment of workers for the agricultural, railway, mining, and the lumber industries. Although the Canadian government was committed to encouraging immigration, based on public perception, not all prospective immigrants were considered suitable for Canada. Specific immigration policies, such as the Chinese Immigration Act in 1885, were therefore established in an attempt to restrict immigration based on national origin. Immigration was strongly encouraged during periods of economic growth, particularly 1896 to1913 and in the 1920s, and strongly restricted in the 1930s. In particular, British and other Europeans immigrants were encouraged, while non-white arrivals were strongly restricted out of concern for maintaining a particular national identity.
Traditionally, immigration policies of many countries have been guided by four broad objectives: fulfillment of international obligations and humanitarian traditions with respect to refugees, reunification of families that have been separated through migration, fostering of strong and viable economies, and promotion of greater diversity. These objectives are reflected in the designated categories under which people are admitted into many countries as permanent residents. While these broad goals underlie many immigration policies, not all goals are emphasized to the same extent by every country. For example, although the United States admits immigrants in accordance with all four objectives, it particularly emphasizes family reunification. Indeed, 71% of immigrants admitted to the United States in 2000 were family sponsored, while 21% were economic based. In contrast, Canada puts a high premium on admitting independent immigrants. This class of immigrants is selected, primarily through a point system, on the basis of their potential to contribute to the enrichment of the labor market and stimulate overall economic development of the country. Points are awarded based on personal factors, such as age, education, and language proficiency, and a cut-off point determines eligibility for migration under the independent category. Australia maintains a similar point system for determining admissibility of independent immigrants, and 53% of immigrants admitted in 2000 fell under that category. Countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany, and Sweden also encourage economic immigrants or immigration of individuals who possess special skills.
Migration could potentially facilitate positive change in the social and economic climates of many regions, and, in many instances, is beneficial to the immigrants and members of the giving and receiving nations alike. For many people, migrating to countries such as the United States and other industrialized countries provides economic opportunities, political security, and religious freedom that far exceed those they could possibly experience in their home countries. Immigrants can also enrich the cultures of the host nations by creating diversity of nationalities, traditions, and languages. Indeed, one of the reasons why the United States opens its borders to immigrants from all corners of the universe is to ensure greater diversity of its population than it currently enjoys. To this end, a sizable number of immigrants are admitted into the United States under a diversity lottery system that is aimed at attracting citizens of countries that are underrepresented in the United States. A potential benefit of this cultural diversity is possible elimination of dominant groups, which ultimately could ensure that different racial, religious, and ethnic groups relate to one another on an equal basis. Apart from these sociocultural benefits, immigration can also prove economically beneficial to the host nation and the given nation alike. In fact, many immigrants maintain ties with their families at home, and regular remittances to them have proven to be an important contribution to the gross domestic incomes of some countries, especially among developing nations. Immigrants can also provide special skills that are in short supply in the host nation, such as the current efforts by Germany to attract immigrants with expertise in information technology (IT). This goal of attracting economic and specially trained immigrants underlies the immigration policies of countries such as Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom.
In spite of the potential benefits of immigration, attitudes toward immigrants and immigration have not always been uniformly positive. In many European countries, for instance, a sizeable number of the citizenry express some concerns about admitting immigrants into their countries. Even members of countries that are historically regarded as nations of immigrants such as Canada and the United States also express misgivings about the continued influx of immigrants. Some survey studies have found, for instance, that only 6% of Americans are favorably disposed toward increasing the current level of immigration in the United States, whereas over 75% would like to see immigration kept below the current levels. The citizenry of Canada, the United Kingdom, and other European and Asian countries would also like to restrict immigration in some way.
Part of the discomfort with immigrants stems from people’s perceptions that immigrants threaten their national identities. This threat entails real or perceived differences between members of the host nations and immigrants in terms of values, norms, standards, beliefs, and attitudes. Thus, greater assumed mismatch between the values of members of the host nation and those of immigrants leads to greater perceptions of threat, and, consequently, to less favorable immigration attitudes. Immigrants may also be perceived as posing a realistic threat to members of the host nation. Realistic threat involves perceptions of encroachment upon a group’s existence, its political and economic power, and the physical or material well-being of its members. Thus, the perception that immigrants compete for limited resources, such as jobs, education, and housing, has been implicated in unfavorable attitudes toward immigrants and immigration. Perhaps fostering perceptions that immigrants are part of the new home they have found would help improve immigration attitudes, as has been suggested by some research findings.
The challenges involved in international migration notwithstanding, various census data indicate substantial increases in international migration. The pattern of international migration reflects the tendency for the most advanced countries to receive the greatest net change in immigration. The United States has been the largest recipient of immigrants, and this trend is expected to continue into the immediate future, especially in light of the current U.S. immigration policies that promote family reunification. Many immigrants in the United States would, predictably, sponsor the immigration of their family members, leading to further hikes in the number of immigrants in the United States. A majority of immigrants to the United States since the 1970s have come from the Latin American and Asian countries, especially from Mexico, and this trend is expected to continue. Other countries such as Canada and Australia are also expected to receive immigrants, as are most of the European nations, especially in the advent of the European Union.
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