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[Excerpt] Immigration is a leading policy concern for many countries around the world, including the United States. Members of Congress have for several years had immigration policy as one of their main legislative issues. Yet, determining an optimal immigration policy has grown increasingly complex as economic, cultural, and security pressures all compete for political consideration. In an effort to tackle some of this complexity, this report serves as a broad overview of the standard theory of international migration and offers a brief synopsis of the major immigration-related policy challenges potentially involved in the legislative debates in Congress. The overview examines several possible issues for Congress as it considers new legislation on immigration reform, including (1) how new immigration legislation might affect migratory behavior and (2) the possible effects of increased or decreased migration on related policy issues.

In addressing these issues, this report lays out a basic theoretical foundation for migration, as well as the mitigating role of laws and regulations on migratory behavior. With the exception of certain trafficking circumstances, all migration is based on a decision-making process by the individual migrant (or in some cases by the migrant’s household). The decision-making elements are commonly referred to as “push/pull” factors. Essentially, while some factors appeal to potential migrants to “pull” them toward another country, other circumstances tend to “push” them away from their place of residence. If the perceived benefits of these push/pull factors outweigh the perceived cost, an individual is expected to migrate.

Despite there being several possible motivations to migrate, the range of choices available for an individual to migrate are limited. Limitations occur in part because of the constraints placed on human behavior by institutions—or “rules of the game”—such as laws, regulations, or even cultural expectations. Policy makers can actively modify a number of institutions to both deter some forms of migration and facilitate others, thereby mitigating the impact of push/pull factors to the policy maker’s advantage. Consequently, institutional manipulation plays a key role in addressing numerous immigration-related policy challenges, because it can be used to facilitate the migration of some potential migrants and deter the migration of others.

The increasingly global migration of individuals has created both challenges and opportunities for advanced industrial countries. Despite the idiosyncrasies and unique policies of certain countries, a string of commonalities underlies the pressures all open economies face. Several of the themes partially mirror debates and efforts occurring in the United States. Perhaps most prominent of these is integration, that is, efforts to peaceably adjust society to accommodate any new demographic dynamics. A second recurring theme is the alleged burden placed by some immigrants on the state, including acts of violence, threats to security, crime, and supposed net non-contributors to the welfare state. A final theme concerns how international migration may provide numerous benefits, including alleviating labor shortages, addressing an aging society, and otherwise providing cultural diversity.

This report will not be updated.


Suggested Citation
Haddal, C. C. (2009). Policy challenges in international migration. Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service.