The Right Not To Migrate

Rory Fewer
February 12, 2014

Arts Policy Nexus

(To read other articles in our Arts-Policy Nexus series click here.)

This is the first in a series of Arts-Policy articles examining global migration through a cinematic lens. Tune in next week for part two.

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Despite increased surveillance along the U.S.-Mexico border, changing patterns of unauthorized crossing from Latin America into California, Arizona, and now south Texas show that migrants are still willing to risk their lives in return for better quality of life. Marc Silver’s recent documentary, Who is Dayani Cristal?, offers a glimpse into the life of one migrant by following the true story of Yohan Sandros Martinez, a Honduran man who died in the Arizona desert while trying to cross illegally. The film traces how his corpse was discovered, identified, and later returned to his family while also recounting his life experiences and reasons for migrating. The story casts a bright light on the dark realities of illegal global migration.

Almost immediately, the audience realizes how personal the story of an “illegal alien” truly is. Honduras is the country with the highest murder rate in the world. Interviews with family members offer a dismal portrait of Yohan’s family in the country – a father tilling farmland, a hungry wife, a son sick with leukemia. Coming from a struggling farming family and lacking the funds for proper medical care, Yohan leaves Honduras seeking an opportunity to make more money to provide for his family members.

Many of the world’s migrants share Yohan’s story – the struggle to leave an impoverished and violent community to work in the United States. His circumstances beg the question of whether or not migration is really a choice. Did Yohan have the choice of staying in Honduras while his family suffered? What about one’s right not to migrate? Marc Rosenblum, Deputy Director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington D.C., has provided answers to difficult questions surrounding the right not to migrate:

WP: The criminalization of illegal immigration has led many Americans to see it as a crime motivated by individual choice, removed from larger social pressures. Are most instances of migration actually a choice? Regarding migration from Latin America into the United States specifically, what are some factors that contribute to forced displacement?

MR: Immigration experts distinguish between “forced” and “voluntary” migration. Forced migration refers to migration resulting from war, natural disasters, and other factors that forcibly displace people. Most migration to the United States from the Western Hemisphere is considered “voluntary” migration, predominantly motivated by migrants’ desire to improve their economic circumstances. In reality, however, most migration decisions fall on a continuum between these two types: many migrants from countries like Honduras may feel “forced” out by a combination of poor economic conditions, rising violence and weak state institutions, and occasional natural disasters.

WP: Do current policies limiting immigration perpetuate the need for certain populations to migrate?

MR: Historically, most migration from Mexico to the United States followed a circular pattern, with migrants moving back and forth between their home communities and certain U.S. destinations on a seasonal basis. Since the 1980s, tighter border enforcement has raised the costs of illegal migration to the United States, and this circular migration has become increasingly unusual. At the same time, low-skilled migrants have increasingly found year-round employment opportunities. Both of these factors have contributed to a shift toward longer-term unauthorized migration flows, and to growth in the number of unauthorized women and children in the United States.

WP: Has American agribusiness forced farming communities to migrate?

MR: Under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Dominican Republic-Central America-United States Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR), Mexico and the countries of Central America have opened their markets to U.S. agricultural products, lowering the price of agricultural goods in the region. These changes have disrupted traditional subsistence agriculture, and arguably contributed to out-migration pressures. Free trade agreements have also likely contributed to certain manufacturing jobs and expanded exports from the region, however, and economists are divided on the overall impact of this type of “creative destruction” on employment in (and migration from) the region.

WP: One migrant in the film states in an interview that “migrants are not a threat, they are an opportunity.” In what ways does the American economy rely on migration to survive, and how do these needs come into play with policies limiting immigration?

MR: Many sectors of the U.S. economy employ large numbers of immigrant workers, including agriculture, food service, health care, construction, and manufacturing. Most economists agree that immigrants lower productions costs and increase economic efficiency; immigrants also are more likely than natives to be entrepreneurial and open their own businesses. Some employers have a difficult time finding U.S. workers at competitive wages. For these reasons, strict immigration limits tend to reduce economic growth and would force some U.S. employers to move production overseas or limit their operations.

On the other hand, immigrants also compete with certain U.S. workers for jobs, and an abundance of immigration may slow wage increases and discourage innovation. In theory, policies limiting immigration attempt to strike a balance between these competing pressures. In practice, however, U.S. immigration policy has been slow to adjust to changing economic demands; the current system is not well designed to maximize the benefits–or to minimize the costs–of migration.

WP: What are policymakers doing now to change how we deal with illegal immigration? How can we potentially learn from other models around the world?

MR: Policies to respond to illegal immigration include policies to apprehend unauthorized migrants at the border (i.e., border enforcement), policies to identify and deport unauthorized immigrants from within the U.S. (interior enforcement, including immigration screening in jails at prisons and worksite raids), and legalization programs. Policies to prevent illegal migration include sanctions against employers who hire unauthorized workers (i.e., to reduce the “jobs magnet” that attracts unauthorized immigration) and visa programs that match employers and families with lawful workers and relatives abroad.

For the last three decades, U.S. policies have focused on border enforcement, and recently on interior enforcement, while directing little attention to employer sanctions, legalization programs, or visa reforms. (Almost all sides in the U.S. immigration debate recognize the need for more effective employer sanctions, though legalization and visa reforms remain controversial.) Some other countries have been more successful than the United States in designing visas to match employer demands, and some have stronger employer sanctions provisions – though no other country confronts illegal migration on the scale that now exists in the United States, so none offer ready off-the-shelf solutions.

WP: This film portrays dangerous methods of unauthorized border crossing, including hopping trains, crossing through gang-controlled areas, and walking for days through the Arizona desert. What measures are there for ensuring the protection of migrant populations? Why do we criminalize and how can we protect?

MR: U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the agency responsible for border enforcement, deploys teams of specially-trained border agents to rescue migrants stranded in the desert, and also works with Mexico and countries in Central America to discourage unauthorized migrants from risking their lives by crossing the border illegally. A hallmark of a successful immigration enforcement system would be that unauthorized migrants would be deterred from making dangerous crossing attempts. But when migrants are not successfully deterred, border enforcement tends to push unauthorized migrants into riskier crossing strategies. To some extent, these dynamics follow automatically from any imperfect enforcement system, as markets are driven underground, rather than out of business.


Who is Dayani Cristal? leaves its audience with the saddening notion that although Yohan’s body was identified and returned to his family, all of the problems which initially led to his migration and death still remain. This documentary includes interviews with missing persons investigators in the consulate and the owners of an independent hostel providing food and shelter along the migration route. While there are efforts on both sides of the border to increase the recognition and protection of migrant populations, larger issues comprising the gray-scale between “forced” and “voluntary” migration make it impossible for many to stay in their home countries. World policy makers on immigration reform should consider the spectrum of reasons for migration.


This discussion is part of the World Policy Salon series, which are made possible through the support of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung North America. World Policy Salons promote dialogue among the next generation of leaders in business, policy, and the media, regularly convening midcareer professionals to discuss a range of foreign policy issues and global affairs.


Rory Fewer is a research assistant at World Policy Institute.
[Photo courtesy of Athena Cinema]

Rory Fewer

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