Migration into the Americas Research Paper

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The history of the Americas is deeply marked by migration in its various forms. Immigration from outside the region has had a demographic impact in the 500 years that elapsed since colonization began: first, by the occupation of territories by the settlers, then by the enforced migration of African peoples, and finally by the immigration of Europeans and Asians that took place in the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century.

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During the second half of the twentieth century the migration trends of Anglo-Saxon North America and that of the Latin American region took opposite directions. While the USA and Canada consolidated their position as great immigration receivers, Latin America turned from an immigration area into an emigration one, with displacements within the region or towards the developed world, especially the USA.

This research paper contains a summary of the voluntary migrations that have taken place towards and within the Americas. No attention is given to enforced migration from Africa, because of its different nature.

1. Colonization

Settlement of the New World entailed the large-scale transfer of population from the colonial metropolises in order to dominate the natives and consolidate the colonizing process. Through the expansion of trade and the predominance of the European continent in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, what Wallenstein has called ‘the European world economy’ (Wallerstein 1974, Cohen 1995) came about. In a systematic way, population movements became part of the general development of human societies under the aegis of the great empires.

The English, French, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese had the greatest influence on the colonizing process. In turn, each colonial empire made its own mark on the new societies that emerged.

European colonizing emigration generally occurred on a voluntary basis, although governments took an active part in promoting it. In the British Isles emigration towards colonizing areas was systematically planned: the idea was to export people in order to consolidate imperial hegemony and also to solve social problems caused by overpopulation in the metropolitan territory.

The Spanish Empire went even further in conducting and controlling the process. The Laws of the Indies reflected a planning drive that went from the design of new cities to management of the emigrating groups, seeking to ensure that they included only Spanish subjects capable of proving their ‘blood purity’ (which meant that they were not descended from gypsies, moors, or converted Jews) (Morner 1985). Among the consequences of this zeal is a register, kept at the Archive of the Indies, that has made it possible to estimate the total flow of emigrants in a reasonably reliable way. Morner (1985) figures that there were approximately 450,000 emigrants from Spain between 1504 and 1650. This was a significant part of the total population of Spain (estimated at about 8 million around 1590), but its quantitative impact on the population of the Americas was of lesser importance. Throughout the colonial period, immigrants coming from Spain constituted a minority as compared with the indigenous population (Sanchez Albornoz 1994).

Spanish immigration was essentially made up by single men. During the first century of the Conquest women made up only 5 percent of the total that crossed the ocean; a century later they constituted 35 percent of the total. This settlement by unattached men quite naturally favored crossbreeding between the colonizers, American natives and Africans, so that the growth of a large mestizo and mulatto population is one of the features of Spanish and Portuguese America.

Estimates of emigration to the North American colonies are more nebulous, since immigrants had much more varied origins. Those from the British Isles were predominant, although many also came from Germany, Switzerland, France and the Netherlands.

In the eighteenth century British emigration came mainly from two population groups, differing both in geographical origin and demographic profile: the ‘metropolitan’ migration from London and the central region of England, and the stream from England’s northern counties and from Scotland. Unattached men were a majority in the first group, mainly craftsmen and tradesmen in search of labor. Immigrants from Scotland and the northern counties of England were usually married couples with many children, mainly working on the land (Bailyn 1986).

The differences in colonizing style in the North and in the South gave rise to different types of societies. This would determine the subsequent development of the Americas.

2. Immigration from Outside the Americas

One of the predominant ideas among the elites that led the independence of the States of the Americas was to attract settlers to the new nations. Besides the need to have people to work and colonize empty territories, and to promote agriculture, they encouraged free trade and the forging of links between industrial centers and the new nations that produced raw materials.

Until the end of the nineteenth century the USA maintained an open-door policy, with only limited restrictions on immigration. Up to the mid-1900s the Federal Government took no measures to encourage the inflow of persons: instead manpower scarcity made the various states compete with each other to capture immigrants by financing their travel and offering them favorable conditions for the purchase of land. The promise of economic success and freedom radiated by the new republic led to an important inflow of immigrants, estimated at 250,000 from 1776 to 1820 (US INS, 1990), but only after 1830 did European immigration become a mass phenomenon.

In Central and South America demographic density varied greatly among subregions, but in general there was a shortage of manpower and attracting European immigrants was regarded as among the high priorities of the new Latin American Republics. From an ideological point of view, immigration schemes were based on the doctrinaire assumptions then in vogue in Europe; namely, that population volumes were equated with economic progress and military power. Additionally, human settlement helped to demarcate the still vague frontiers of the new countries. The example of the USA and the success of immigration in that great republic of the North had a decisive influence on the leaders of the new republics of the South.

In Latin America, the intent to incorporate European migrants (preferably from Northern Europe) whom, besides their families and skills were expected to bring along a spirit of order and hard work was added to populationist arguments. More or less explicitly, the purpose was to ‘upgrade the race,’ an attempt by the ruling elites to fortify their ascendancy over the mulatto and mestizo masses, whose participation in the independence and civil wars had given them considerable autonomy and self-confidence.

Meanwhile the population of Europe was undergoing a transformation unthinkable in previous periods. The effects of the agricultural and industrial revolutions that swept the continent created great mobility towards the towns and cities and a consequent break-up of the links that tied peasants to the land and to their lifelong habits. Internal migrations went hand in hand with international emigration in search of new environments less restrictive of the realization of personal goals. The weakening of feudal bonds also meant the disintegration of traditional patterns of life and family models, and the appearance of new forms of labor relationships and social organization. Migration to the cities and emigration to America represented the extremes of this adventure which implied breaking away from the past and facing the future in unknown worlds.

European emigration was directed mainly to North American countries and, to a lesser extent, to some countries of the south, like Argentina, Uruguay and southern Brazil. According to figures provided by Chesnais (1986 164) some 56 million people were involved in intercontinental emigration from 1821 to 1932. Sixty percent of them left for the USA, 22 percent for Latin America, 9 percent for Canada, and 9 percent for Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Half of the 12 million whose destination was Latin America went to Argentina, 36 percent to Brazil, 6 percent to Uruguay and 7 percent to Cuba. Immigrants arrived in considerable numbers in the USA towards the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century. During most of the nineteenth century emigration to the USA originated mainly in the British Isles and the countries of northern and western Europe. From 1880 onward, immigration from southern and eastern Europe grew in volume. The presence of Asians on the Pacific coast increased gradually. These were Chinese at first and Japanese later. Resistance to this immigration gave rise to the first round of restrictions of immigration into the USA. The Immigration Act of 1882 set limits to the entry of the Chinese into US territory and barred the possibility of their obtaining US citizenship.

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the USA was the largest receiver of immigrants. While European immigrants had predominated from colonial times to the mid 1900s, Chinese migration became increasingly important on the Pacific Coast. The first two decades of the twentieth century set a record in the number of immigrants. From 1900 to 1920, 14.5 million people were admitted, and in several years of that period arrivals exceeded one million persons (US INS 1990).

In Latin America, the struggle for independence and civil wars prevented immigration from developing until the second half of the nineteenth century. It became massive only in the last decade of that century and the initial decades of the twentieth century. The 1929 crisis halted European immigration, and it recovered for only a brief period after World War II.

Italians were predominant in the emigration movement towards Latin America until 1905, when the Spanish became the most numerous contingent. The Portuguese emigrated at first almost exclusively to Brazil and subsequently to the USA and Venezuela. People from the Middle East and Eastern Europe joined the migratory currents to North and South America since the late 1800s, and they grew in numbers in the 1920s. Colonies of German immigrants settled in several Latin American countries and wielded considerable influence in the south of Brazil and in Chile.

The scarcity of population in Argentina and Uruguay meant that immigrants were a significant factor of the population. Around 1860, some 30 percent of the population of those countries had been born abroad. In Brazil the highest proportion of inhabitants born outside the national territory (7.2 percent) was reached in 1900, although in the southern states of the country the scale of immigration was similar to that of Argentina and Uruguay.

In the late 1950s and more definitely in the 1960s European immigration towards the Americas ceased almost completely, both to the USA and to South America. This ended a trend that had persisted with great intensity for more than a century.

3. Regional and Frontier Migrations and Mobility

Intra-regional migration has been very important in the Americas. The causes for such movements have varied. Sometimes they occurred in areas where political borders resulting from the wars of independence divided communities with a common identity and a shared history. In other cases there were regions with different levels of demographic density, land, or manpower availability. In all cases those frontiers were easily crossed and there were no major physical obstacles for population displacements.

The USA has received such migrants throughout its whole history, across both its northern and southern frontiers. Throughout the nineteenth century as well as in several periods of the twentieth century, there was continual immigration from Canada, consisting not only of Canadian natives but also of immigrants from other countries who preferred to continue their quest for more promising lands. Mexican migration to the USA was originally similar to the frontier movements in Latin American regions. Migration through frontier territories took place all the time, but during the Mexican Revolution (1910–1917) population movements towards the north became more important. The participation of the USA in World War I generated a demand for more workers and the first Bracero Program was implemented in 1917 and 1921 (Durand 1996). In 1942 a new program of this kind was carried out, intended to recruit workers for agriculture, the railroads and mining, and this became an important precedent to current Mexican immigration.

In the Caribbean, after the Slaves’ Emancipation Acts (1838), mobility and emigration were a means to achieve freedom from the plantations and to escape the limitations they imposed (Hope 1996). During the nineteenth century, migration occurred mainly among the islands of the region that had sugar plantations (Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic) and towards the banana plantations of Costa Rica. The construction of extensive infrastructural systems (the Central American Railroad and the Panama Canal) towards the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century attracted immigrants from the Caribbean islands, as did oil exploitation in Venezuela and the Dutch Antilles (Aruba and Curacao) some decades later (Hope 1996).

As early as in the 1930s and in a more marked way since the 1950s two things occurred in Latin America that bore directly upon the increase of migratory movements, both inside countries and across their borders.

First high rates of population growth were experienced (on average they reached a peak from 1955 to 1965) owing to decreased mortality and the prolonged persistence of high fertility rates.

Second, largely as a result of the crisis of the 1930s in the central countries, some Latin American nations shifted from an economic model based on the export of agricultural commodities to an ‘inward growth’ project of industrial development, initially intended to cover domestic needs. This scheme gathered new strength during World War II, but it developed unevenly. In some countries (Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Chile, Uruguay, and Mexico) economies tended to become diversified through the increasingly impor- tant role of industry. In others development was slower or came later, but on the whole the region attained high economic growth rates, over and above those of industrialized countries, between 1950 and 1975.

As regards migration, the phenomenon of greatest quantitative significance and economic impact during those years was the increase in urbanization. People moved from rural areas into towns in great numbers with the result that urban populations swelled remarkably, particularly in metropolitan cities.

Until the 1960s, intra-regional migration was confined largely to movements between neighboring countries, and it could be taken as a prolongation of internal migration beyond state borders. Originally, such movements were mostly rural and usually temporary, such as seasonal transfers for harvesting or implementing other concrete tasks. As towns developed and agricultural transformation entailed rural–urban displacements, frontier migration also changed, replacing native populations in rural areas and joining the current towards the cities in the receiving countries.

One case in point is Argentina. Besides receiving European immigrants this country was also a center of attraction for migrants from neighboring countries. Those movements were confined to frontier regions in the beginning, but from the 1950s they shifted their target to urban areas, mainly to the zone of influence of the city of Buenos Aires, where the development of industry and services was concentrated.

In the period after World War II Venezuela also became a destination for both European and Latin American migrants. The Venezuelan government implemented policies to attract professionals and skilled workers from abroad for large investment projects. The rise in oil prices led to a remarkable increase of fiscal revenues and investments from 1974 to 1981. Latin American immigration came not only from neighboring countries but also from more distant areas. Although the economic situation of Venezuela changed in the 1980s and 1990s, Colombian immigration continued during the 1990s, due to the links forged in previous years and the violence prevailing in Colombia.

In the last few decades, the settlement of Brazilian peasants and rural workers (the ‘Braziguayans’), in the Upper Parana River, at the frontier between Paraguay and Brazil has been one of the latest examples in Latin America of rural population expansion through frontiers. This is a movement stemming from infra- structural construction and the increase in economic and political interchanges between Paraguay and Brazil.

Mexico and Costa Rica have been traditional recipients of frontier migrants (Colombians, Nicaraguans and Guatemalans). Since the mid-1970s the lack of stability and violence have been the cause of population movements: internally displaced persons, international migrants, refugees, people seeking a place within the region and people trying to find their way to the USA have made up the migratory picture of the region. According to information gathered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the displaced population in countries of the region reached 1.163 million persons at the beginning of 1990. Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Honduras, in that order, harbored the greatest numbers of refugees (Staton Russel 1995).

4. Latin America, a Region of Emigration

In the second half of the twentieth century, and particularly after the 1960s, migratory destinations for Latin Americans became more diversified. On the one hand, the streams towards the USA grew in volume, as did emigration from the Caribbean into Canada (Table 1). The oil crisis of the 1970s had shattered the economic development of Latin American countries. Those that were oil producers enjoyed a period of affluence that enabled them to increase investments and make their economies more dynamic. Others went into a permanent crisis that foreshadowed what would happen in the 1980s.

Migration into the Americas Research Paper

The decade of the 1980s, which the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) has called ‘the lost decade for development,’ had its effects on international migration. Countries that had been traditional recipients of manpower migration (Argentina and Venezuela) saw immigration from neighboring nations slow down, and there was a new increase in the flow of Latin Americans towards the USA, and to a lesser extent also to Canada. In addition Latin Americans emigrated to Europe and Australia, though in significantly smaller numbers.

There has also been a process of return to the motherland of the children and grandchildren of European immigrants, mainly to Spain and Italy, whose governments implemented policies to promote the retrieval of nationals scattered over the world. By obtaining passports and the possibility of enjoying the rights of European citizenship, many Latin Americans have emigrated and recovered the nationality of their ancestors. In Brazil and Peru, descendants of the previously large generations of Japanese immigrants have also returned to Japan.

The Latin American population recorded in the USA grew from nearly 1 million in 1960 to almost 8.5 million in 1990. In Canada, the number of Latin Americans grew from 80,000 in 1970 to more than half a million in 1990. Changes in legislation in the receiving countries as well as the increasing emigration propensity in the countries of origin produced a change in geographical sources of immigration to North America. Latin America and Asia became the main source of immigrants during this period while European immigration decreased and represented a much smaller proportion of the total. Emigration from Latin America and the Caribbean to the USA reached its highest figures from 1960 to 1970, namely from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and the English-speaking Caribbean. Although Mexican migration has always been the strongest, its greatest thrust took place from 1970 to 1980. During the 1980s, the highest growth rates were from Central American countries.

Reasons for emigration to the USA vary, and, although in most cases they are the result of economic crises in the countries of origin, political violence has also played a decisive role. Political violence gave rise to emigration from Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic in the 1960s, as in the Southern Cone in the 1970s and in Central America in the 1980s. Moves originally due to political violence and persecution triggered off subsequent currents where economic and labor motives predominated.

Emigration to Canada has been considerably less than to the USA throughout, although it has increased remarkably in the last three decades. The English-speaking Caribbean, in particular Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Guyana, have been the main providers of immigrants. Canada had concluded special agreements with those countries to contract short-term workers. Haitians, who were next in numbers of migrants, went mainly to French Canada.

Latin American migration towards the USA is only part of a number of consequences of the hegemony of the USA in the Americas. Apart from the strengthening of economic ties that has taken place in the last decades of the twentieth century, the globalization of the mass media has meant not only greater access to information but also a homogenization of aspirations and values. Common expectations regarding ways and patterns of life have accentuated migratory potentials.

The existence of numerous and consolidated local communities has a feedback effect on migratory flows, even when initial causes lose their strength. Networks are built up through the ties that immigrants maintain with their families or friends in the colonies and countries of origin, and generate solidarity mechanisms that reduce the costs and risks of emigration.

Latin Americans have entered country-specific sectors of the labor market. For instance in the USA Mexican immigration has historically been oriented towards the agricultural sector in the southern states. In recent decades it has diversified into urban activities and services. As from the 1970s, changes in the US labor market have led to transformations in the occupational role of Latin American immigrants. Schematically they can be divided into two groups nowadays: namely (a) those who get highly qualified jobs in science and technology or in managerial circles; and (b) a more numerous group of workers in the area of social and personal services, where Latin American immigrants have traditionally been numerous.


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