Immigration: Push-Pull or is it More Complicated?

     International migration is a subject that has been highly debated in the last few years.  Every country has issues with international migration whether it is from brain drains in a country to too many immigrants that cause economic problems in a country. International migration is a recent phenomenon and no one has yet to come up with a solution to the problems it creates or figure out exactly what causes it to occur. Two current theories that I find particularly intriguing are the push-pull theory advocated by many scholars such as Jagdish Bhagwati and a theory proposed by Alejandro Portes and Jozsef Borocz which concludes that international migration is a product of past historical development. Both acknowledge there are economic, socioeconomic, and political reasons to migrate but Portes and Borocz emphasize the short-comings of the push-pull theory and expand on those short comings.

     The push-pull theories emphasizes that human flows occur in diverse ways and have prompted corresponding concerns and policy actions worldwide.  In this theory international migration occurs between the rich and poor countries.  Often the migration flows are from poor to rich countries. Often the people in poor countries migrate from poor countries to the rich countries are either skilled or unskilled laborers and they are either legal or illegal. The push factors that make migrants migrate over international borders often include improvement of one’s standard of living, enhancement of education and other opportunities for one’s children, attraction of better professional facilities in the case of skilled immigrants, political instability, war, and other like factors.

     While there are many push factors there are also pull factors. Some of the pull factors include that as rich countries age and birth rates are going down there is an increase and hunger for unskilled and skilled labor, to supplement the domestic labor force and also to ensure the social security system does not end up bankrupt. Furthermore, even though technology allows us to outsource, proximity of personnel is often indispensable. No one in the United States likes to be put on the phone with someone in India. It is annoying and often a waste of time as language differences create to many problems.

     These push- and pull factors are the factors that many scholars believe drive immigration across national borders, however, Portes and Borocz believe that these push and pull factors are part of something much deeper, a historical pattern of development that has adapted to contemporary times. In terms of international labor migration, they believe it does not arise out of comparisons of economic advantage but out of having a history of prior contact between sending (often poor) and receiving nations (often rich).  During the period of slavery, men and women were shipped to places which were in need of more human capital. While this was forced labor, a trend began, and today while the labor flows are self-initiated it goes back to past political asymmetries between poor and rich nations. The domination of many countries in the past has led to many identifiable imbalances in the sending countries, one being a large marginalized society. As the world becomes more globalized these marginal societies see what is attainable in the world (often consumer goods) and want to obtain such things but it is impossible in their countries. Their viable solution is to migrate to a place where their expectations are attainable; which often tend to be the receiving nations of the past.   

    Portes and Borocz also argue that the push-pull theory does not account for the stability factor in international migration. Why does not everyone migrate internationally given the same “expelling forces and external inducements” (p. 611)? Instead of supply and demand governing the phenomenon they believe that international migration is often a social phenomenon. They have found through various studies that people migrate when they have a connection in the place where they are going. Whether it is friends, family, or some other sort of social connection, often this connection gives them the incentive to leave and also often provides a financial safety net when they arrive. Thus, international migration is based on the movement of capital (a historical trend) and it also provides migrants with “means of survival and a vehicle of social integration and economic mobility”. It is not just the push factors at work, but also social factors at work.

     While the push-pull theory does have its rationalities, Portes and Borocz see that it is not the state that plays the exclusive role in international migration, but it is “the product of past historical developments” (p. 626). The push-pull factors of each state play a role but it is really the activities of multiple private actors from large corporations to households which create the international migration flows. The state has trouble regulating these flows today because they do not understand the nature of these flows. Portes and Borocz believe that understanding movements of capital, technology, institutional forms and cultural innovations, as well as other parts of the international political economy today are important in understanding what creates the phenomena of international migration. Focusing so narrowly on push-pull factors will not help to understand a very complex phenomenon in today’s society.


If you have access to J-STOR – CLICK HERE for Portes and Borocz’s paper.

If not then it can be found under Contemporary Immigration: Theoretical Perspectives On Its Determinants And Modes of Incorporation in the International Migration Review, Vol. 23, No. 3, Special Silver Anniversary Issue: International Migration an Assessment for the 90’s. (Autumn, 1989), pp. 606-630.

To read about Jagdish Bhagwati’s Book CLICK HERE


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