Why Do People Migrate?

Over the summer of 2019, reports of inhumane conditions in migrant detention facilities sparked widespread controversy around US immigration policies. Much of the coverage of this crisis focused on the United States–Mexico border and US policies. However, in order to understand migration across the US southern border, it is necessary to explore the reasons why people migrate in the first place.

This Teaching Idea is designed to help students consider their own connections to migration and to learn about migration from El Salvador to the United States as a means to exploring the immediate and underlying factors that drive migration.

  1. What Are Our Own Migration Stories?

    Share with your students that a migrant is someone who moves away from their home, either to a new place within their country or to a new country. Every human being is descended from a migrant.

    Ask your students to reflect on a personal story of migration. This story can be their own story, the story of a family member or ancestor, or the story of someone else they know. This migration may have happened within a country or between countries. Students should respond in their journals using any combination of writing and visuals that they wish.

    Re-imagining Migration suggests exploring personal stories of migration as the first step of their learning arc. You might share additional stories and narratives of migration from their website to help students shape their own stories. Students can share migration stories through Re-imagining Migration’s application Moving Stories. The organization offers advice for using the application in classrooms in their Moving Stories Educator Guide.

    Students may also use the following questions to help guide their responses:

    • Whose migration story do you want to tell?
    • What place did the person leave from and where did they move to?
    • What do you know about why this person migrated?
    • Do you know or can you imagine any challenges this person faced while migrating?
    • How does this story of migration impact you?
    • What more would you like to know about this story?

    Note: Students may choose to share aspects of their story with the class, but they should not be required to share, since their stories may be very personal.

    After students have finished reflecting in their journals, ask them to consider what factors might cause people to migrate. They can draw from the story they reflected on or other stories that they know about migration. As a class, generate a list of causes of migration and save this list for the following activity.

  2. What Are the Immediate Causes of Migration?

    Explain to your students that when people migrate, they are influenced by push factors, pull factors, and obstacles.

    Push factors are the conditions that “push” people leave their homes and move somewhere new. For example, someone may be pushed to migrate by poverty. Pull factors are the conditions that “pull” people to a new place. For example, someone may be pulled to a new place because it has more job opportunities. Some migrants may experience only push factors or only pull factors, but most migrants experience a combination of both. Obstacles are any challenges people face to migrating. For example, a person may risk experiencing violence on the journey from one place to another.

    As a class, brainstorm examples for each of these three categories. If you generated a list of causes of migration in the first activity, ask students to sort them into the appropriate categories.

    Then, have your students read the National Geographic article With Violence at Their Backs, a New Migrant Caravan Heads North. As they read, students should write down the push factors, pull factors, and obstacles that the article discusses around migration from El Salvador to the United States.

  3. What Are the Underlying Causes of Migration?

    Place students in groups. Ask each group of students to review the causes of migration that they wrote down during the previous activity and to choose one of the push factors that relates to El Salvador. Share a Map of El Salvador with your students if they are unfamiliar with where the country is located.

    Give each group a copy of the El Salvador Timeline. They should read through the timeline as a group, and as they read, circle each historical event that they think might have helped to create the push factor they chose.

    After students finish reading the timeline, they should choose one historical event from the timeline to focus on in more depth. They should write down how they think this historical event is linked to their migration push factor. Each group can then present their connections to the class.

    Finish with a reflection. Students can either write their reflections on an exit card or in their journals. Use the following prompts to guide their thinking:

    I used to think . . . (What did students think about migration before completing these activities?)

    Now I think . . . (How has students’ thinking on migration changed after completing these activities?)

    I still wonder . . . (What questions do students still have about migration?)

Additional Resources

For more ideas on teaching migration, see our resources:

  •  Teaching Enrique’s Journey. In six weeks, students explore themes of identity, belonging, and choices by considering the ways in which human migration can affect newcomers and their descendants, as well as their countries of origin and the countries where they settle.
  • Our page Teaching Current Events: Global Immigration highlights our most recent resources that explore the policies, debates and human stories behind this defining global issue.
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