Why Do People Migrate?

Last Updated: July 15, 2021

Migration has dominated the headlines in recent years. We have followed news coverage of migration across the US–Mexico border, the refugee crisis sparked by the conflict in Syria, and migration from Venezuela to Colombia, among many other stories. The UN estimates that in 2019, 272 million people around the world migrated to a new country, while many millions more moved within their countries. We are all touched by stories of migration, whether it is our own story or that of an ancestor, family member, or friend.

In this Teaching Idea, students reflect on individual stories of migration and then learn about migration from El Salvador to the United States as a means of exploring the underlying factors that drive migration.

Note: Our friends at Re-imagining Migration suggest 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 or use the activities in their Moving Stories Educator Guide.

What follows are teacher-facing instructions for the activities. Find student-facing instructions in the Google Slides for this Teaching Idea.

  1. Why Do People Decide to Migrate?

    In this activity, students focus on the migration story of one individual. For the first part of the activity, students can complete one or both of the following options:

    Option 1: Ask your students to describe 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.

    Option 2: Ask your students to read one of the following migration stories. (Note: Some of the migration stories contain descriptions of violence. It is important to preview materials to determine if they are appropriate for your students.)

    Then, ask your students to draw a Character Map for the individual whose story they read or described. Students can draw the character map on their own piece of paper or on the Character Map handout. Ask students to share one aspect of their character map in small groups.

    After students finish sharing, explain that when people migrate, they are influenced by push factors, pull factors, and obstacles.

    Push factors are the conditions that “push” people to 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. Students can use the story they reflected on or other stories they know about migration to help them think of ideas.

  2. What Are the Underlying Causes of Migration?

    In this activity, students focus on the country of El Salvador to learn more about the historical roots of present-day migration. Share a Map of El Salvador with your students if they are unfamiliar with where the country is located. 

    Place students in small groups. Ask your students to read an excerpt from “Migration Isn’t Going to Stop”: Salvadorans Join New Caravans from Al Jazeera. (Note: This article references sexual violence. It is important to review materials to determine if they are appropriate for your students.)

    Ask each group of students to underline the push factors described in the article. Then, ask each group to choose one push factor to focus on. 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 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.

  3. Final Reflection

    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

  • To learn more about the civil war in El Salvador, teachers can watch the documentary film Harvest of Empire: The Untold Story of Latinos in America from 1:06 to 1:27. (Note: This video requires a Youtube login to view and is likely not appropriate for younger viewers.)
  • For more information on how the US-owned United Fruit Company influenced conflict and migration in Central and South American, listen to NPR’s Throughline podcast There Will Be Bananas.
  • Use our six-week unit Teaching Enrique’s Journey to help 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.
  • OurTeaching Current Events: Global Immigration page highlights our most recent resources that explore the policies, debates, and human stories behind this defining global issue.
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