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Immigration Doesn’t Just Happen



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Tyler Cowen asks “Why do Brazilians emigrate so infrequently?”:

It is a populous country, yet there are few major Brazilian communities in the United States.  Only parts of Massachusetts, Queens, and Newark, New Jersey come to mind.  The U.S. Census estimates about 250,000 Brazilians living in the United States, which is many fewer than come from El Salvador, namely about two million.  Why is there such a difference?  The Brazilian number may well be an undercount but unofficial estimates still lie well below those of El Salvador.

But the possible answers he offers, and some presented by Steve Sailer in the comments, all pretty much miss the point. It doesn’t have anything to do with Brazil being “too much fun to leave” or that its people “don’t care all that much about education and don’t have a particularly strong work ethic.”

The answer is “networks.” No one wakes up one day in Rio and says to himself, “Today I will move to Weehawken!” People go where they have networks of relatives and friends and countrymen. It’s not just that El Salvador is closer to us than Brazil, but also that we were actively involved in the civil war there for years, creating the kind of relationships that lead to migration.

Sailer mentions Indonesia as another example of a place with little emigration, but, in fact, there’s a not-inconsiderable number of Indonesians in the Netherlands. Why? Because it was a Dutch colony, and centuries of Dutch rule created the networks that lead to migration. This is why, while we have few Indonesians here, next-door Philippines is one of our largest immigrant-sending countries — we ruled the islands as a colony for half a century and then had an intimate military relationship (Clark and Subic Bay, among other things) for another half century. In fact, all colonial or quasi-colonial expansion creates such networks and thus migration — viz. Pakistanis in the UK, Algerians in France, Koreans in Japan, Central Asians in Russia, Turks in Germany.

Even immigration from Mexico is the result of networks created by government policy, rather than simple proximity. The Bracero Program, that imported Mexican men to work “temporarily” on farms in the Southwest, helped create networks that continue today, with the children and grandchildren of braceros moving here (assuming the braceros didn’t just stay in the first place, which many did, thus serving as anchors for others who had never come). This is true for the current guest-worker programs, too, such as the H-2A and H-2B programs.

The lesson is that even policies billed as alternatives to immigration, if they create migration networks, will actually lead to more immigration. This is one important reason to end the ridiculous Visa Lottery — it only applies to countries that don’t already send a lot of immigrants here, thereby creating networks of friends and relatives for potential future immigrants (legal and illegal) that simply did not exist before. Likewise, refugee resettlement must be limited as much as possible, with assistance delivered in place — because it creates new migration networks which then continue indefinitely, even after the circumstances which created the original refugee flow change.

In short, immigration flows are set in motion by the state, and will remain in motion unless acted on by an external force — i.e., a change in immigration policy.



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