Illegal Immigration – Why it happens

15 02 2011

Economics and labor markets

The net flow of illegal immigration pattern is almost entirely from countries of lower socioeconomic levels to countries of higher socioeconomic levels, and particularly from developing countries to developed countries. While there are other causes associated with poorer countries (described below), the most common motivation for illegal immigrants is the pursuit of greater economic opportunities and quality of life in the destination state.

Under the basic cost/benefit argument for illegal immigration, potential immigrants believe the probability and benefits of successfully migrating to the destination country are greater than the costs. These costs may include restrictions living as an illegal immigrant in the destination country, leaving family and ways of life behind, and the probability of being caught and resulting sanctions. Proposed economic models, based on a cost/benefit framework, have varying considerations and degrees of complexity.

Neoclassical model

The neoclassical economic model looks only at the probability of success in immigrating and finding employment, and the increase in real income an illegal immigrant can expect. This explanation would account for the economies of the two states, including how much of a “pull” the destination country has in terms of better-paying jobs and improvements in quality of life. It also describes a “push” that comes from negative conditions in the home country like lack of employment or economic mobility.

Neoclassical theory also accounts for the probability of successful illegal emigration. Factors that affect this include as geographic proximity, border enforcement, probability and consequences of arrest, ease of illegal employment, and chances of future legalization. This model concludes that in the destination country, illegal workers tend to add to and compete with the pool of unskilled laborers. Illegal workers in this model are successful in finding employment by being willing to be paid lower wages than native-born workers are, sometimes below the minimum wage. Economist George Borjas supports aspects of this model, calculating that real wages of US workers without a high school degree declined by 9% from 1980-2000 due to competition from illegal immigrant workers.

Large scale economic evidence supports neoclassical theory, as may be seen in the long-term correlation of relative wages/unemployment and illegal immigration from Mexico to the US. However, immigration scholars such as Gordon Hanson and Douglas Massey have criticized the model for being oversimplified and not accounting for contradictory evidence, such as low net illegal immigration from Mexico to the US before the 1980s despite significant economic disparity.Numerous refinements have been suggested to account for other factors, as seen below.

Trade liberalization

In recent years, developing states are pursuing the benefits of globalization by joining decline to liberalize trade. But rapid opening of domestic markets may lead to displacement of large numbers of agricultural or unskilled workers, who are more likely to seek employment and a higher quality of life by illegal emigration. This is a frequently cited argument to explain how the North American Free Trade Association may have impoverished Mexican farmers who were unable to compete with the higher productivity of US subsidized agriculture, especially for corn. NAFTA may have also unexpectedly raised educational requirements for industrial jobs in Mexico, since the new maquiladoras produced export products requiring skills and education that many unskilled workers did not have.

Structural demand in developed states

Douglas Massey argues that a bifurcating labor market in developed nations creates a structural demand for unskilled immigrant labor to fill undesirable jobs that native-born citizens do not take, regardless of wages. This theory states that postindustrial economies have a widening gap between well-paying, white-collar jobs that require ever higher levels of education and “human capital”, which native-born citizens and legal immigrants can qualify to take, and bottom-tier jobs that are stigmatized and require no education. These “underclass” jobs include harvesting crops, unskilled labor in landscaping and construction, house-cleaning, and maid and busboy work in hotels and restaurants, all of which have a disproportionate number of illegal workers.

Since the decline of middle-class blue-collar jobs in manufacturing and industry, younger native-born generations have chosen to acquire higher degrees now that there are no longer “respectable” blue-collar careers that a worker with no formal education can find. The majority of new blue-collar jobs are the “underclass” work mentioned above, which suffer from unreliability (i.e. temporary jobs versus a career in a factory), subservient roles, and, critically, a lack of potential for advancement. At the same time, entry-level white-collar and service jobs are much more appealing. These they offer advancement opportunities for native-born workers to enter the dominant educated class, even if they currently pay the same or less than manual labor does.

Hence, this theory holds that in a developed country like the US, where now only 12% of the labor force has less than a high school education, there is a lack of native-born workers who have no choice but to take undesirable manual labor jobs. Illegal immigrants, on the other hand, have much lower levels of education (about 70% of illegal workers in the US from Mexico lack a high school degree). They are still willing to take “underclass” jobs due to their much higher relative wages than those in their home country. Since illegal immigrants often anticipate working only temporarily in the destination country, the lack of opportunity for advancement is less of a problem. Evidence for this can be seen in one Pew Hispanic Center poll of over 3,000 illegal immigrants from Mexico in the US, which found that 79% would voluntarily join a temporary worker program that allowed them to work legally for several years but then required them to leave.

The structural demand theory posits that simple willingness to work undesirable jobs, rather than for unusually low wages, is what gives illegal immigrants their employment.

Structural demand theory argues that cases like this show that there is no direct competition between unskilled illegal immigrants and native-born workers. This is the concept that illegal immigrants “take jobs that no one else wants”. Massey argues that this has certain implications for policy, as it may refute claims that illegal immigrants are “lowering wages” or stealing jobs from native-born workers.


While economic models do look at relative wealth and income between home and destination countries, they do not necessarily imply that illegal migrants are always impoverished by standards of the home country. The poorest classes in a developing country may lack the resources needed to mount an attempt to cross illegally, or the connections to friends or family already in the destination country. Studies from the Pew Hispanic Center have shown that the education and wage levels of illegal Mexican immigrants in the US are around the median for Mexico, and that having family who have emigrated or being from a community with many emigrants is a much better predictor of one’s choice to emigrate.

Other examples do show that increases in poverty, especially when associated with immediate crises, can increase the likelihood of illegal migration. The 1994 economic crisis in Mexico, subsequent to the start of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was associated with widespread poverty and a lower valuation for the peso relative to the dollar. It also marked the start of a massive swell in Mexican emigration, in which net illegal migration to the US increased every year from the mid-1990s until the mid 2000s.

There are also examples where natural disasters and overpopulation can amplify poverty-driven migration flows.


Population growth that exceeds the carrying capacity of an area or environment results in overpopulation. Spikes in human population can cause problems such as pollutionwater crisis, and povertyWorld population has grown from 1.6 billion in 1900 to an estimated 6.7 billion today. In Mexico alone, population has grown from 13.6 million in 1900 to 107 million in 2007.

In 2000, the United Nations estimated that the world’s population was growing at the rate of 1.14% (or about 75 million people) per year. According to data from the CIA’s 2005–2006World Factbooks, the world human population currently increases by 203,800 every day. The United States Census Bureau issued a revised forecast for world population that increased its projection for the year 2050 to above 9.4 billion people, up from 9.1 billion people. We are adding a billion more every 12 years. Almost all growth will take place in the less developed regions.


Family reunification

Some illegal immigrants seek to live with loved ones, such as a spouse or other family members. Family reunification visas may be applied for by legal residents or naturalized citizens to bring their family members into a destination state legally, but these visas may be limited in number and subject to yearly quotas. This may force their family members to enter illegally to reunify. From studying Mexican migration patterns, Douglas Massey finds that the likelihood of a Mexican national to emigrate illegally to the US increases dramatically if they have one or more family members already residing in the United States, legally or illegally.

Due to inability to marry, same-sex couples in which one member has an expiring visa may face an “unpalatable choice between leaving and living with the person they love in violation of U.S. immigration laws”.

Wars and asylum

Illegal immigration may be prompted by the desire to escape civil war or repression in the country of origin. Non-economic push factors include persecution (religious and otherwise), frequent abusebullyingoppression, and genocide, and risks to civilians during war. Political motives traditionally motivate refugee flows – to escape dictatorship for instance.

It is important to note that the status of “illegal immigrant” may coincide with or be replaced by the status of “asylum seeker” for emigrants who have escaped a war or repression and have illegal crossed into another state. If they are recognized as “legitimate” asylees by the destination state, they will then gain legal status. However, there may be numerous potential asylees in a destination state who are unwilling to apply or have been denied asylum status, and hence are categorized as “illegal immigrants” and may be subject to punishment or deportation.

There are numerous cases of mass emigration from poor or war-stricken states. These include examples from Africa, Colombia, and El Salvador.

After decades of armed conflict, roughly one of every 10 Colombians now lives abroad. For example, Colombians emigrating to Spain have “grown exponentially, from a little over 7,000 in 1993 to more than 80,000 in 2002 and 244,000 in 2003.”Also, figures from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security indicate that Colombia is the fourth-leading source country of unauthorized immigration to the United States. According to its estimates, the number of unauthorized Colombian residents in the United States almost tripled from 51,000 in 1990 to 141,000 in 2000. According to the US Census Bureau, the number of authorized Colombian immigrants in the United States in 2000 was 801,363.Census data are important because, as the Department of Homeland Security states, [U.S.] “census data are more complete and reliable [than INS’s data] because of the national scope of the data collection, the vastly larger data sample, and the extensive preparation and follow-up activities involved in conducting the decennial census.”

El Salvador is another country which experienced substantial emigration as a result of civil war and repression. The largest per-capita source of immigrants to the United States comes from El Salvador. Up to a third of the world’s Salvadoran-born population lives outside the country, mostly in the United States. According to the Santa Clara County, California, Office of Human Relations.


Illegal immigrants expose themselves and citizens to dangers while engaged in illegal entry to another country. Aside from the possibility that they may be intercepted and deported, some considerably more dangerous outcomes have been known to result from their activity. As an example, illegal immigrants may be trafficked for exploitation.


After the end of the legal international slave trade by the European nations and the United States in the early 19th century, the illegal importation of slaves has continued, albeit at much reduced levels. Although not as common as in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America, some women are undoubtedly smuggled into the United States and Canada.

People have been kidnapped or tricked into slavery to work as laborers, for example in factories. Those trafficked in this manner often face additional barriers to escaping slavery, since their status as illegal immigrants makes it difficult for them to gain access to help or services. For example Burmese women trafficked into Thailand and forced to work in factories or as prostitutes may not speak the language and may be vulnerable to abuse by police due to their illegal immigrant status.


Some people forced into sexual slavery face challenges of charges of illegal immigration.

Since the fall of the Iron CurtainWestern Europe is being confronted with a serious problem related to the sexual exploitation of illegal immigrants (especially from Eastern Europe), for the purpose of prostitution.


Each year there are several hundred illegal Immigrant deaths along the U.S.-Mexico border. Death by exposure occurs in the deserts of Southwestern United States during the hot summer season.





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