Media Briefings

Drivers of Emigration from Latin America and the Caribbean

  • Published Date: June 2012

The UK and Canada, which are more open to asylum-seekers than the United States, are more exposed to immigration from countries where there is civil unrest. In contrast, the United States, which is more open to illegal immigration, is more exposed when labour market circumstances worsen for people in potential sender countries.

These are among the findings of a study of migration from Latin America and the Caribbean to the region’s four primary destinations – Canada, Spain, the UK and the United States – and how bilateral migration flows over the years from 1980 to 2005 have responded to demographic change, economic shocks and political upheaval.

The research by Professors Gordon Hanson and Craig McIntosh, published in the June 2012 issue of the Economic Journal, finds that relative to the other destinations, US immigration is much more sensitive to demographic and economic shocks in the origin countries and much less sensitive to civil and military conflict in those countries.

Latin America and the Caribbean have some of the highest emigration rates in the developing world. Surging emigration from Latin America is in part due to the high frequency of balance of payments crises, natural disasters and civil and military conflict.

In addition, over the last three decades, Latin America has experienced a demographic bulge, with large numbers of young people coming of working age and entering the labour force. Such an increase in regional labour supply is likely to have put downward pressure on wages and raised the incentive to emigrate.

Due to a combination of geography and history, the majority of emigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean head for either one of the hemisphere’s rich countries – Canada and the United States – or for one of its former colonial powers – Spain and the UK. These four destinations are host to three quarters of the region’s emigrants.

The destinations differ sharply in how their immigration policies treat migrants on the basis of their skills, refugee status and country of origin. These differences are important in light of the low skill levels of most Latin American emigrants, the propensity of the region for economic and political instability and the variation in the colonial histories of these countries:

· In the United States, nearly half of immigration from Latin America is undocumented, with border enforcement only partially impeding the inflow of illegal migrants. In contrast to the other destinations, the United States is relatively closed to political refugees from Latin America (with the exception of Cuba).

· Canada’s remoteness keeps its immigration legal. The country uses a point system to regulate labour inflows, which heavily favours skilled applicants, while also allotting slots to refugees and asylum-seekers.

· The UK restricts immigration from countries outside the European Union, with exceptions for skilled workers, asylum-seekers, family members of UK citizens and some Commonwealth citizens. The UK also has low levels of illegal immigration compared with the United States.

· In Spain, large-scale immigration is a recent event, beginning in the late 1990s. Agreements with former colonies have enabled individuals from these countries to enter Spain, with many ultimately obtaining work permits.

This research examines how bilateral migration from Latin America to the region’s four primary destinations responds to demographic change, economic shocks and political upheaval. The goal is to characterise how differential immigration policies in the destination countries mediate the impact of shocks in origin countries on bilateral migration flows.

The researchers measure bilateral migration rates by year and age cohort, using data on immigrant stocks from destination country censuses and on the size of origin country birth cohorts from the World Bank.

The main findings are that relative to other destinations, migration to the United States is much more sensitive to demographic and economic shocks in the origin countries and much less sensitive to civil and military conflict in the origin countries.

The authors interpret these results to mean that greater openness to illegal migration (as in the case of the United States) makes a destination more exposed to wage shocks in origin countries, whereas greater openness to asylum-seekers (as in Canada and the UK) makes a destination more exposed to civil unrest in origin countries.

ENDS

Notes for editors: ‘Birth Rates and Border Crossings: Latin American Migration to the US, Canada, Spain and the UK’ by Gordon Hanson and Craig McIntosh is published in the June 2012 issue of the Economic Journal.  View the article.

Gordon Hanson and Craig McIntosh are at the University of California, San Diego.

For further information: contact Craig McIntosh on +1-858-822-1125 (email: ctmcintosh@ucsd.edu); or Romesh Vaitilingam on +44-7768-661095 (email: romesh@vaitilingam.com).