Denying the Desperation

At present, there is no single, coherent theory of international migration, only a fragmented set of theories that have developed largely in isolation from one another, sometimes but not always segmented by disciplinary boundaries. Current patterns and trends in immigration, however, suggest that a full understanding of contemporary migratory processes will not be achieved by relying on the tools of one discipline alone, or by focusing on a single level of analysis.
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Rather, their complex, multifaceted nature requires a sophisticated theory that incorporates a variety of perspectives, levels, and assumption… Given the fact that theories conceptualize causal processes at such different levels of analysis-the individual, the household, the national, and the international-they cannot be assumed, a priori, to be inherently incompatible. It is quite possible, for example, that individuals act to maximize income while families minimize risk, and that the context within which both decisions are made is shaped by structural forces operating at the national and international levels. (Massey et al (1993) “Theories of International Migration: A Review and Appraisal” in Population and Development Review

Potential gains in absolute income through migration are likely to play an important role in households’ migration decisions, but international migration by household members who hold promise for success as labor migrants can also be an effective strategy to improve a household’s income position relative to others in the household’s reference group. (Oded Stark and J Edward Taylor (1989) “Relative Deprivation and International Migration” in Demography)

The man in Black fled across the Desert, and the Gunslinger followed… (Stephen King, The Gunslinger—Darktower I)

And when the Lord brings you into the land of the Canaanites, as he swore to you and your fathers, and shall give it to you, you shall set apart to the Lord all that first opens the womb. All the firstlings of your cattle that are males shall be the Lord’s. Every firstling of an ass you shall redeem with a lamb, or if you will not redeem it you shall break its neck. Every first-born of man among your sons you shall redeem. And when in time to come your son asks you, “What does this mean?” you shall say to him, “By strength of hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the house of bondage.” (Exodus 13)

When humans first ventured out of Africa some 60,000 years ago, they left genetic footprints still visible today. By mapping the appearance and frequency of genetic markers in modern peoples, we create a picture of when and where ancient humans moved around the world. These great migrations eventually led the descendants of a small group of Africans to occupy even the farthest reaches of the Earth. (

Suddenly the storm caught them away and swept them over the water weeping, away from their own country… She brought them inside and seated them on chairs and benches, and mixed them a potion, with barley and cheese and pale honey added to Pramneian wine, but put into the mixture malignant drugs, to make them forgetful of their own country. (Odyssey Book 10)

We sat around the circle and they explained “levleika” to us. That time of year in the Northern Sahel when people just cannot make ends meet.  They described the strategies for the worst of times and it basically came down to a great scattering.  The scattering of people near and far to find work, and food, and life.

Even today farther south in the Sahel they refer to the exodus. And sometimes people, especially the men, never return.

We are a migratory species, leaving home in search of lives that home sometimes cannot provide.  I started studying migration seriously in the early 1990s and was astounded at the number of theories that had been set forth, over many years, to explain it.  I always preferred Stark’s concept of relative deprivation–the idea that people seem to inherently compare themselves to their neighbors and, feeling relatively, if not merely absolutely poor, decide to leave to find a better life.  (Much later I discovered that Stark was basically describing Girard’s mimetic desire, though I doubt he knew that).

And while people do leave, it has always been my experience that they harbor hopes, often deep hopes, of returning home.  Migration is a temporary state that will make survival at home possible.  Only much later do they learn that it is too late, or that home is too far, or that home has transformed into the “here.”

Standing in a cornfield in Guerrero, Mexico or sitting around a fire talking to Mauritanians, Burkinabe, or Malians, I learned of the forces that drove people to move.  I learned from a father that his sons really did not want to leave to find work in the US, but that they had had no choice.  Dropping corn and pepper prices meant they could never provide education for their children, homes for their families, or care for the father himself in his old age.  They dreaded leaving.  He feared they would never return.

I formally researched migration for my dissertation, and what I concluded in “Risk Management Strategies in a Changing Social and Economic Environment: The Case of the Assaba Region of Mauritania” was that families not only relied on migrants to provide cash or in-kind goods, but they also used them to “purchase” insurance in places where the market provided none.

I think we should consider that finding a bit: in places in which people cannot purchase life, or homeowners’ or crop, or cattle, or health insurance, migrants enable their families to “create obligations” towards themselves that function as insurance in times of need.  For many poor people around the world migration of family members is a risk management strategy.  Perhaps one of a handful of ways to hedge against catastrophic loss.

But, I have also talked to the migrants who fled things that are far worse than poverty or the need for insurance.  Those cowering in Bassiknou having fled across the Mali/Mauritania border in times of war and pillage, migrated to save themselves.

And I can assure you… to wander the desert, cross a sea in an unseaworthy boat, or cross great distances on foot without certainty at what is at the other end, is the result of deep desperation.  No one can pay you to do that.  No one can organize a “caravan.”  Desperate people do that when there is no other choice and leaving is the only real option among a set of very bad ones.  Sometimes it seems that only God can compel them to go–and then their “captors” (drug lords and gangs and pharaonic types), try to make them stay.  But sometimes they escape.

It has always struck me as grotesque that we will accept the logic that globe straddling companies will migrate around the world in search of the cheapest labor, the highest profits, the most beneficial tax deals, but we will not apply the same logic to human beings who migrate to seek life.

In the first instance we seem to throw up our hands and say “the market.”  We don’t have to like it but, hey, what can we do?  Invisible hand being what it is…

But when people move (especially across foreign boundaries) to seek a benefit we demonize them as criminals, terrorists, disease carriers, “economic migrants” (as in “They are only moving because their economy is in shambles and they want to benefit from ours…”  Really???).

Parenthetically, I have read The Economist newspaper for years.  It is a religiously free market news source extolling the virtues of unfettered trade and the free movement of goods, services, information… but not people.  They, like the current crop of nativists in DC, seem to view people and their cultures as so vulnerable, so fragile, that any incursion of new ideas, practices, dress or… color is seen as a threat.

And so here we hear claims that nearly 4000 terrorists have attempted to gain access across the southern border (not true, but about that number of people on a watchlist tried to enter the US last year), that 6,000 gang members were picked up at the southern border (not true, about that number were arrested or deported from all over the US last year), that 17,000 people clustered at the southern border are criminals (not true, they may have plead a misdemeanor or merely attempted to cross over without authorization, but criminal?–I don’t think that means what you think it means).

And the facts about “evil” migrants everywhere gets conflated with suffering masses on the southern border to create a crisis.

And so our goal must be, as is Italy’s, which has outsourced the rounding up of migrants fleeing across the Mediterranean to the Libyan Navy, to send a clear message that you should not even try.

This is why people who have left their homes in true fear of survival or simply because there is no real tomorrow there, are stranded at our frontier waiting the purposefully glacial-speed processing of asylum requests (hear all about in “Let Me Count the Ways”).

This is why we separate families.

This is why we lie about “facts:” to demonize the innocent.  To deny the desperation. To minimize the misery.

But, we are a migratory species…

One final word.  Let us declare our outrage at how migrants take our jobs, make us lose our culture, overload our school systems, and the myriad other blames we lay at their feet.  And then let us sit in our homes (most likely built by migrant labor), eat our food (most likely picked and processed by migrant labor), and enjoy our vacations (rooms cleaned by migrants, food served by migrants).

We are a migratory species and we all enjoy the fruits of migration. And it is not going to stop.  Not ever.

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