Causes of Latin American Migration to the United States

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  • 0:03 Introduction
  • 0:58 Neoclassical Economic
  • 1:58 New Economics of Migration
  • 3:50 Segmented Labor Market Theory
  • 4:52 World Systems Theory
  • 8:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stephen Benz

Stephen has a JD and a BA in sociology and political science.

This video examines the causes of Latin American migration to the United States. In particular, we look at 5 theories of Latin American migration and highlight them with examples of different kinds of Latin American migration.


In the summer of 2014, the United States experienced a massive surge in immigration across the Mexican-US border. What was alarming, however, was how many of the immigrants migrating across the border were minors. The sudden and large influx of young migrants brought immigration from Latin America once again into the national spotlight. But the rise of Latin American migration to the United States is not a recent phenomenon. Whereas immigration to the United States used to be predominately European, most immigrants today to the United States come from Latin America. But what are the roots of Latin American immigration?

In this video, we will review the different theories explaining the causes of immigration from Latin America to the United States. While reviewing these theories, we will look at specific countries with a history of migration to the United States and explain how these histories fit into the different theories of migration.

Neoclassical Economics

The old adage is that 'people will move to improve'. Similar to this adage, neoclassical economics argues that immigration from one country to another country will occur whenever an individual finds it in their best interest to migrate to another country. Essentially, individuals run a cost-benefit analysis to determine whether the costs of moving from one's home country are outweighed by the benefits expected when arriving in another country. If they think the benefits outweigh the costs, the potential immigrant will decide to move.

Proponents of this theory argue that the high influx of immigrants from Latin America to the United States is due to the difference in wage levels. Accordingly, the high wages in the United States relative to Latin American countries drive individual desires to migrate toward the United States. For example, some studies suggest that Mexican migrants can expect to earn up to 5 times as much in the United States as they would in their home country. Clearly, this plays an obvious role in a migrant's decision to move.

New Economics of Migration

A second theory that also helps explain why migration might occur between two countries is the New Economics of Migration Theory. This theory argues that migrants don't move because of the pull of higher wages, but because of the push of ineffective markets in their home country.

Take, for example, a Guatemalan citizen looking to buy a home for his family. Under normal circumstances in the United States, someone would go to the bank in order to secure a mortgage toward buying a house. But in Guatemala, there may not be a strong enough banking system that he can rely on to obtain ownership of his home. In the absence of such a system, our Guatemalan citizen will have to look for other ways to raise the capital necessary to buy a home. And one of those ways available to him is to migrate towards the United States temporarily so that he can raise sufficient money to construct his home. In other words, this theory holds that migration is a temporary solution to overcome deficiencies in the markets of the immigrant's country.

An important prediction of this theory is that immigration will only be temporary, not permanent, and that immigrants will remit, or send back, lots of money to their home country.

There is a lot of evidence to support this theory. For example, the Pew Research Center estimated that in 2013 Mexican immigrants remitted $23 billion dollars back to their home countries. Other Latin American immigrants, the same study found, remitted $32 billion dollars back to their home countries. Such high levels of money being sent back home suggests that many of the immigrants will one day return home and that most migration was to complete some project in their home country or to help out their family raise money in some way.

Segmented Labor Market Theory

A third theory, called Segmented Labor Market Theory, argues that migration occurs because of the high demand of developed countries for immigrant labor. According to this theory, a service economy like the United States has two kinds of jobs: high paying jobs with great benefits and desirable conditions and low-skilled jobs that are often hazardous or unwanted. According to this theory, immigrants come to the United States because they help fulfill the unwanted and hazardous low-skilled jobs that many American citizens refuse to perform.

A primary example of this is the agricultural business which in many areas is fulfilled by Mexican migrant workers. Agricultural jobs, such as crop picking, usually pay very little, are only temporary, remotely located, and require a lot of hard work. Consequently, few Americans would want such jobs. Thus, Segmented Labor Market Theory highlights that immigration occurs because immigrants fulfill necessary but unwanted jobs in the labor market.

World Systems Theory

A fourth theory, called World Systems Theory, looks at international migration from a macro-level perspective. This theory argues that the rise in international migration is a result of globalization. Globalization is the process by which the world economies have become more integrated. This theory argues that as capitalism has spread worldwide, the economies of third-world countries have dramatically changed.

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