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Why Immigrants Come

In the debate over U.S. immigration policy, people often overlook the question: “Why do immigrants come here in the first place?” This contemporary guide gives background and seeks to answer that question.

August 17, 2022
| Published:
January 16, 2022



Bracero Program

The Bracero Program matched seasonal agricultural workers from Mexico with approved American employers to fill labor shortages.

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The Naturalization Act

As one of its earliest acts, Congress enacted the Naturalization Act of 1790, determining who could receive U.S. citizenship.

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Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)

In 2012, President Obama enacted DACA to prevent law enforcement from deporting undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as minors.

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Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA)

In 1986, President Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, a bipartisan agreement to address illegal immigration.

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How many immigrants come to the United States for nefarious reasons? How many are simply seeking a better life? Correlative data exists for those questions, but it’s not enough to conclude one reason why immigrants arrive at the Southern border. There simply isn’t enough personnel to gather the survey data necessary to form a comprehensive picture because each individual immigrates to the U.S. for differing reasons. And because there is no concrete data for this question, this topic is even more complex.

Why Do Immigrants Come?

The reality of the situation is that there isn’t a single straightforward explanation to the question as to why immigrants come to the United States. A 2017 report from Doctors Without Borders stated that most immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are fleeing “unprecedented levels of violence outside a war zone” and that “citizens are murdered with impunity, kidnappings and extortion are daily occurrences.” Those three countries are some of the most deadly: El Salvador has the highest homicide rate globally, Honduras has the 4th, and Guatemala has the 14th. Mexico, where approximately 25% of all U.S. immigrants originate, has the 17th highest homicide rate in the world. In 2017, the Pew Research Center estimated that 4.95 million of the 10.5 million undocumented population were from Mexico, 1.9 million from Central America, and 1.45 million from Asia.

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Even with that data, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how many immigrants from Central America are fleeing violence, seeking economic opportunity, or pursuing more nefarious ends (i.e., drug or human trafficking). It’s a challenge to collect data on both legal and illegal immigrants in the first place. Even if that data could be gathered, ensuring completely objective answers without any bias also becomes a problem.


Large groups of people traveled across Central America in an attempt to enter the U.S. at the country's Mexico border, known as migrant caravans. While not all of these caravans made it to the U.S. border, they garnered media attention and resurfaced the national debate over immigration laws.

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According to the International Organization of Migration, the term migrant caravan describes "large groups of people moving by land across international borders." U.S. media predominantly focus on those originating and traveling across Central America to the US-Mexico border. While several dozen arose in the last few years, three particularly large caravans dominated media coverage in spring 2018, October 2018, and January 2021.

Spring 2018

  • A caravan with hundreds of asylum seekers crossed into Mexico in March. Attorney General Jeff Sessions gave orders to prosecute all cases of illegal immigration to states along the border.
  • From April through June, hundreds of immigrants poured into the United States, many of whom were detained as adult immigrants who came with children applying for asylum. Per the Flores Consent Decree of 1997, any unaccompanied minors (i.e., the children applying for asylum) can be held for only 20 days until the government must release them.
  • As families were separated, the Trump administration came under increased scrutiny for its handling of the border crisis.

Fall 2018

  • Another migrant caravan originating in Honduras crossed into Mexico, setting up a similar crisis as spring 2018.
  • President Trump ordered nearly 8,000 troops -- National Guardsman and active-duty soldiers -- down to the U.S.-Mexico border to handle the potential crisis.
  • In November, a group of mostly male members of the caravan attempted to cross into the United States and were rebuffed by U.S. forces with tear gas.
  • Soon after, the President announced he would consider closing the U.S.-Mexico border entirely if the situation did not improve.

January 2021

  • After Joe Biden's electoral victory over Donald Trump in November 2020, a migrant caravan of Honduras citizens, similar to those in 2018, emerged again. However, this caravan was significantly larger, with roughly 8,000 members.
  • There were anecdotal reports from right-wing news outlets of caravan members stating that Biden's pledge to place a 100-day moratorium on deportations was why they decided to make the march from Honduras to the U.S.-Mexico border. However, Mark Morgan, acting commissioner at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said, "Do not waste your time and money, and do not risk your safety and health." 
  • Guatemalan and Mexican forces broke up these caravans before arriving at the US-Mexico border.

Democrats Response. Protecting migrants fleeing their countries due to poverty and violence is important. Those coming in caravans are fleeing by the masses for a reason and are looking to the United States for help. These asylum seekers should not be met with force, but it will take time to restore a safe border. 

Republican Response. Migrants arriving in caravans do so because they believe they will be granted free access into the United States without undergoing the legal process. These caravans should be stopped in their country of origin, and individuals should not try to overwhelm the American immigration system.

Del Rio Bridge Crisis

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In August of 2021, Haiti underwent a magnitude 7.2 earthquake which caused massive destruction and displacement of local Haitians. In addition, political turmoil had swept the nation as its leader Jovenel Moïse was assassinated. Many Haitians began migrating to other countries and gathered en masse to cross the U.S. southern border. Thousands of migrants formed an encampment under the Del Rio bridge as the numbers began to swell and overburden local border patrol agents. An estimated 12,000 to 14,000 migrants were hoping to be processed into the United States as border officials reported more than 200,000 migrant encounters in both July and August. The Biden administration came under fire from conservatives and left-leaning sources for using Title 42 of the Public Health Service Act of 1944 to bar entry to migrants under the pretext of unknown disease transmission.

The Biden administration came under fire from Republicans who argued that the President lacked a strong stance on border protection. This sentiment was furthered by the appointment of Vice President Kamala Harris as his border tzar and her hesitance to visit the border. Democrats were dismayed by Biden’s use of Title 42 of the Public Health Service Act of 1944 to bar entry to migrants under the pretext of unknown disease transmission. Yet, the focus of Democratic ire was towards border agents’ treatment of the migrants. While both sides agreed that this situation could have been handled differently, they still hold different views on what successful action would have been and who is at fault.

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During the news coverage of this event, one photographer captured an image of a border agent riding his horse alongside a migrant and supposedly whipping them with his reins. President Biden denounced the actions in the image and suspended horse patrols along the southern border. Texas Governor Greg Abbott responded by reinstating horse patrols as later evidence showed the controversial image to be misleading. The photographer who took the original picture later told PolitiFact that he saw the agent in question use the reins to control his horse’s movements, not whip the migrant.

Democrat Response. Border patrol was wrong in handling the migrant’s arrivals at the border, and the Biden Administration owes both parties an explanation as to why this occurred. No migrant should be met with force and aggressive treatment regardless of why or how they made it to the border. The current aggressive policies and inhumane actions of the border patrol must be stopped, and policies need to be put into place to create a safe border where migrants are welcomed. 

Republican Response. The Biden administration has repeatedly shown that our southern border is open. President Biden explicitly called for this crisis when he told migrants to surge the border, and now he works to undermine border agents by listening to fake news and removing their horses. Vice President Harris would not even visit the border to assist in this crisis even though she was assigned to help. Only Republicans care about securing the southern border and preventing mass illegal immigration.

Discussion Questions

  1. Who should be responsible for addressing the root causes of immigration?
  2. The Right believes it is up to these nations to fix their own problems of crime and poverty. List two reasons why you agree or disagree with this view. 
  3. Does the United States have a responsibility to keep immigrants fleeing violence?

Immigrant. A person who migrates to a new country, usually for permanent residence.

Nonimmigrant. “Nonimmigrants are persons admitted to the U.S. temporarily for a particular purpose, such as education, temporary work, business, or travel. Once the time allowed for their visit ends, nonimmigrants must leave the country and return home.” (WHGC Law Firm)

Undocumented Immigrant. An undocumented immigrant is a foreign-born person who doesn't have a legal right to be or remain in a country. (Nolo) Is “undocumented immigrant” the same as “illegal alien”? In theory, yes, but neither are terms used in U.S. immigration law; they’re jargon. The United States Border Protection Service uses the term “alien” to define foreign individuals who have entered the country. The immigration reform bill proposed by President Joe Biden would remove the word “alien” from U.S. immigration law and replace it with “noncitizen.”

Refugee. “A person who flees their country due to persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Refugees are eligible for federal resettlement assistance.” (NCSL

Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR). “An LPR is an immigrant who has been lawfully accorded the privilege of residing permanently in the United States. Lawful permanent residents are granted admission to the United States based on family relations or job skills. Refugees and asylees may adjust to LPR status after one year of continuous residence.” (NCSL)

Naturalization. The process by which a foreign-born individual becomes a citizen of the United States. Immigrants must be at least 18 years old; have been lawful permanent residents of the United States for five years (three years if married to a U.S. citizen); demonstrate a basic knowledge of English, American government, and history. (FindLaw)

Visa. “A visa is a permit to apply for entry into the United States. Visas can be designated as immigrant or nonimmigrant depending on the visa holder's purpose for entry.” A visa doesn't guarantee entry into the U.S. but merely allows a foreign national to enter a U.S. city where their status is determined. (WHGC)

Green Card. “A foreign-born person who is not a citizen or national of the United States but who has legal resident status must have an Alien Registration Card (I-551 identification card), also known as a green card. The Alien Registration Card serves as proof of the immigrant's identity and confirms their status as a legal permanent resident.” (WHGC)


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Left Narrative

The usual reason most immigrants are coming to the United States is to seek a better life and find refuge. They come to the United States to make a better life for themselves and deserve to have a chance at a different and safer life than they may have had in their home country. The United States is in a position to help almost any immigrant who needs assistance that their country may not be able to give to them. Therefore, the U.S. has a clear moral responsibility to help those individuals. 

Right Narrative

Immigrants who come to the United States are looking for a better life in the land of the free. The door is open for those who want to enter this country legally and pursue their American dream. Those who come illegally are criminals that should be dealt with by their countries of origin. It is the responsibility of these nations to fix their own home and not the job of the United States to deal with the consequences of other countries’ actions and the extra people that come with another nation’s issues.

Bipartisan Narrative

Immigrants who come to the United States are looking for a better life in the land of the free. The door is open for those who want to enter this country legally and pursue their American dream. Those who come illegally are criminals that should be dealt with by their countries of origin. It is the responsibility of these nations to fix their own home and not the job of the United States to deal with the consequences of other countries’ actions and the extra people that come with another nation’s issues.

Classroom Content

Browse videos, podcasts, news and articles from around the web about this topic. All content is tagged by bias so you can find out how people are reacting across party lines.