Immigration Essay

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Sociologists look at migration as a social phenomenon. Their research is focused not on individual immigrants but on immigrant populations and their characteristics, because the characteristics of immigrant flows and immigrant populations are essential for understanding migration processes and the reaction to these processes from the receiving societies. The volume of the migration flow, its demographic structure (only young males, or whole families e.g.), the homogeneity or heterogeneity of the immigrant population according to educational attainments for instance, this kind of variable is relevant for the description of immigration as a social phenomenon.

A second decision relates to the societal context of our field of study. Because migration is such a ubiquitous phenomenon it has occurred and still occurs under very different circumstances. The world counts to date millions and millions of people who have migrated out of their own free will or as compelled by ethnic cleansing, civil wars or natural disasters. The receiving societies differ fundamentally in nature and stability of state formation to mention only one important characteristic.

The most important historical development impinging on migration processes has been the rise of the modern state, at least in the western world. Government by the people for the people implied a distinction between citizens and non-citizens. With the rise of the state as the dominant social institution state borders have become the main impediments for migration flows. The distinction between internal and external migration became accepted as a fundamental distinction for the analysis and assessment of migration processes. Modern welfare states have developed a system of migration regulation controlling entry, residence and access to the labor market. The aim of these regulations is to select immigrants who are expected to contribute to society and to prevent immigrants, who are expected to become a burden, to settle in the country. However, the practical application of these mechanisms of migration control proves to be far from easy. In all states migration control has become a political issue and studies around the regulation of migration and the links to other aspects of social traditions, definitions and interests show a kaleidoscope of situations even within the category of welfare states, let alone in very different states such as the emirates around the Gulf. To make control over migration flows even more complicated all western states have signed the Convention of Geneva (1951) and thereby recognized the rights of refugees on settlement in a country, regardless of the interests of the host country. No government is in practice prepared to accept such an open-ended regulation. Hence we see governments continuously specifying the definitions and rules around the rights of asylum seekers.

The migration process does not end with the entry of immigrants in the receiving society. The relation between immigrant and host society has been, under various headings (assimilation, integration, incorporation), a main theme in the sociology of migration, especially in the USA. It was soon clear that the massive immigration of the late nineteenth century would change US society and that not all immigrants would become White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Immigrants became on one hand Americanized, but on the other hand changed American society by introducing new religions, customs and lifestyles.

Recently the question has also come to the fore of what the impact is, or can be, of the modern means of transport and communication on the relation between immigrants and their new surroundings. Alba and Nee (2003) summarize the classical American studies and scrutinize the evidence with regard to the assimilation of modern immigrant communities. They point out that the rapid changes in the economy and the concomitant labor market indeed affect the ways immigrants adapt to the new society. The US mainstream, as in many other countries, now looks different from the mainstream in the industrial era, but that is not to say that there is no mainstream and that immigrants are not assimilating to it.


  1. Alba, R. & Nee, V. (2003) Remaking the American Mainstream: Assimilation and Contemporary Immigration. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, and London.
  2. Brochmann, G. & Hammar, T. (eds.) (1999) Mechanisms of Immigration Control: A Comparative Analysis of European Regulation Practices. Berg, Oxford and New York.
  3. Cornelius, W. A., Martin, P. A., & Hollifield, J. A. (eds.) (1994) Controlling Migration: A Global Perspective. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA.

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