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Opportunity: The Reason They’ll Keep Coming

Hunger Report Monday

Legalization, a path to citizenship, and secure borders—these are perhaps the most notable elements of recent  immigration reform proposals, proposals that seem to be moving  with surprising swiftness after a long period of inaction. The growing prospect of comprehensive immigration reform will finally allow the U.S. government to “hit the reset button” and legally recognize the 11 or so million people who live and work in this country without legal status. Yet, much like the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, the current legislative proposals offer few answers for the next wave of Latin Americans who are sure to arrive —whether over, around, or through the tighter U.S.  borders.

So far, none of the proposals effectively address the glaring reason immigrants have always come, and why they’ll keep coming — opportunity. Persecuted English or Dutch people in the 17th and 18th centuries, famished Irish potato farmers in the 1840s, or European survivors of World War II—all were willing to leave their familiar homelands for opportunity. For 20th and 21st century Hispanics the motive has not changed.

European Immigration
After World War I, far fewer Europeans were allowed to legally enter the United States than wanted to. (1921, political cartoon)

We don’t hear much these days about unauthorized immigration from Western Europe. That’s because economic opportunities there are comparable or better than those in this country. Yet very little attention has been paid to the conditions that drive people in Latin America to enter the United States illegally. Migration for economic opportunities is a time-honored strategy for escaping poverty. Despite the hazards of life as an unauthorized immigrant, and the less than dazzling jobs such immigrants are able to secure, the United States still offers far better work prospects than the rural areas of Mexico and Central America where the majority of migrants are coming from.

Until economic opportunities improve in Latin America, we can expect immigrants to keep coming. Solutions to the complex questions of legal amnesty, pathways to citizenship, and border security are long overdue. But these efforts must be accompanied by serious conversations among U.S. leaders about Latin American development and economic growth. The U.N. Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have shaped efforts to improve the lives of poor people for 13 years now, with half-hearted U.S. participation. If the United States is serious about finding better answers to  the immigration question, it is time for us to step up our commitments to global development, particularly in the poorest rural areas of Mexico and Central America.

For more on development and immigration policy, read the 2013 Hunger Report: Within Reach, Global Development Goals.

 Derek profile thumbnail
Derek Schwabe
 is the 2013 Hunger Report project fellow at Bread for the World Institute.

 

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