Why immigrants emigrate: U.S. foreign assistance and migration policy

Posters and demonstrators at the "Time is Now" immigration reform rally at the U.S. Capitol on April 10, 2013. U.S. foreign assistance and immigration agencies do not work together, according to Andrew Wainer of Bread for the World Institute. Photo by: David Sachs / SEIU / CC BY-NC-SA

This month the United States Senate will begin debate on what would be the most far-reaching reforms to U.S. immigration policy in 50 years. The Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in May on a vote of 13-5. The bipartisan support in committee has given the proposal momentum as the full Senate takes up the bill.

The 1,000+ page bill includes most of the major components of an immigration overhaul: An earned legalization process for 11 million unauthorized immigrants, increased enforcement both at the border and inside the United States, and a revamped guest worker program for both low-skill and high-skill sectors.

But even as policymakers attempt to fix what everyone agrees is a broken immigration system, the proposed legislative solutions overlook one of the system’s most important “moving parts” — the economic hardship in immigrants’ home countries that drives them to seek work in the United States without authorization. Unless immigration reform acknowledges and responds to the poverty that drives immigration, it will be incomplete. This is where the U.S. development community can play a new, important, and creative role in helping to integrate economic development and poverty reduction into U.S. immigration policy.  

There is significant evidence that poverty overseas and unauthorized immigration to the United States are connected. A May 2013 national survey, for example, found that 78 percent of unauthorized immigrants came to the United States either for “better jobs and economic opportunities” or “to create a better life for your family or children.”

In surveys of newly-arrived immigrants to the United States, 91 percent of Mexican immigrants said they arrived with “very little money.” Only 6 percent said they arrived with “a good amount of money.”

The vast majority of unauthorized immigrants come to the United States for economic reasons. This means that unauthorized immigration is almost certain to continue as long as would-be immigrants continue to face grim economic prospects in their home countries.

Mexico and Central America are logical places to focus on integrating U.S. migration and development policies, since more than 70 percent of all unauthorized immigrants to the United States come from this region. Unfortunately, U.S. foreign assistance and immigration agencies do not work together.

U.S. assistance to Mexico almost completely ignores the types of economic development that could create alternatives to unauthorized immigration. In 2009, a tiny percentage of U.S. development assistance to Mexico was directed toward development projects that could have an impact on immigration. Almost all U.S. foreign assistance to Mexico (96 percent) was instead related to security, even though Mexico is the source of about 60 percent of all unauthorized immigrants.

In Central America, the United States has more development assistance programs aimed at reducing poverty, projects that could potentially make finding work in one’s hometown a viable alternative to immigration. In 2011, the United States invested $97 million in development funding for El Salvador, $92 million for Guatemala, and $54 million for Honduras. These countries — the three largest sources of unauthorized immigration after Mexico — also host major U.S development initiatives, including the Millennium Challenge Corporation, Feed the Future, and the Partnership for Growth.

Despite working with communities and populations prone to unauthorized immigration, such as smallholder farmers, none of these programs have even begun to track and measure their impact on immigration. For example, in November 2006 the United States approved a five-year, $461 million MCC compact with El Salvador, which is the second-largest source of unauthorized immigration to the United States. But within the compact’s evaluation plans — generally known for their rigor — there was no measure of the impact on immigration.

Because development and immigration are so closely linked, there is potential for the development and immigration policy communities to work together more effectively to achieve the central goals of each, which are reducing poverty overseas and reducing unauthorized immigration respectively. This potential is recognized at the highest levels of the U.S. government. During his visit to Mexico last month,  President Barack Obama said: “I also believe that the long-term solution to the challenge of illegal immigration — so we’re not dealing with this, decade after decade — is a growing, prosperous Mexico that creates more jobs and opportunity for young people right here.”

But awareness among leaders and analysts has not been translated into practical policy changes. Here are three recommended improvements that would be first steps toward U.S. development and immigration policies that are more integrated:

  • U.S. development programs in nations and regions that supply large numbers of immigrants should include evaluation indicators to measure the impact of their programs on immigration. Policymakers and the public should understand the impact of American foreign assistance on immigration to the United States, but right now we have no idea of the connection(s) between the two.

  • The U.S. government should conduct a baseline assessment of the major factors driving unauthorized immigration from Latin America to the United States. The assessment should specifically include Mexico and Central America, since more than 70 percent of all unauthorized immigrants to the United States were born in this region. The findings of the assessment should inform a multi-agency strategy to take action on these major contributing factors.

  • A revised guest worker program that matches low-skill workers overseas with U.S. labor market needs will be central to transforming unauthorized immigration into legal immigration. Guest worker programs for agricultural laborers and other low-skill workers should include opportunities for home communities to participate in recruiting and training the workers. This way, they can use some of the fees charged for those services to develop their local economies.

Andrew Wainer is the senior immigration policy analyst at Bread for the World Institute.

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About the author

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    Andrew Wainer

    Andrew Wainer is director of policy research for Save the Children. He was formerly a senior immigration policy analyst at Bread for the World Institute, which provides policy analysis on hunger and strategies to end it. He has also worked as a journalist and social researcher in Latin America and the United States. Andrew’s research and journalism has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal, among other publications. He holds a master’s degree in Latin American studies from UCLA and is fluent in Spanish and proficient in Portuguese.