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Immigration Behavior: Toward a Social-Psychological Model for Research


Migration and immigration activities have been germane to both human and animal kingdoms. While migration is now largely undertaken by animals in a grander and more patterned approach, immigration has been specifically in the domain of Homo sapiens.


Animal migration represents a collective travel with long destinations. The act suggests premeditation and unwavering willfulness known to humans as inherited instincts.  On the other hand, immigration has been a complex process beyond simple explanations. Contrary to animal migration, human immigration has been disorganized and sporadic.


Recently, biologists have identified five major characteristics that apply in varying degrees and combinations to all migrations. They involve prolonged travel that carries animals outside their familiar habitats. Their movements are rather linear (not zigzagging). They entail certain behaviors of preparation such as overeating for the long and arduous trek. They demand special allocation of energy. Finally, the migrating animals maintain a strong commitment to the greater mission, which keeps them undisturbed from side temptations and undeterred by challenges (e.g., storms) that would turn other animals aside when in non-migrating mode. The Long and perilous journey must be continued.


An example of their commitment for a course of action is the wildebeests’ migration. Once the herd decides to migrate, none of the rivers such as the Massai River in Kenya, deeply infested by ferocious crocodiles, would deter them from crossing the dangerous, murky waters hiding death and destruction. One by one, they all plunge into the river toward greener pastures without any attempt to retreat to their old habitats. The exodus cannot be reversed regardless of any real or potential hindrance or hurdles.


Animals seem to migrate for two major reasons: one reason is for moving into a more favorable environment such as birds escarping harsh winters to warm locations; the second reason is to find abundance of good food for survival and propagation of their species. To a lesser degree, humans such as the Laps of Norway and the Mongols in Central Asia till today also migrate for the same two reasons as cited above: better climate and better food supply for their domestic animals.


When it comes to humans as to why they immigrate, economists and social-scientists provide us with a myriad of isolated reasons. An extensive review of the literature and a meta analysis of studies on immigration, leads one to assume that the main purpose of immigration can be subsumed under two major categories of incentives: material and non-material.


Material incentives is mainly economic benefits (e.g., better standard of living), while non-material incentive would consist of social-psychological reasons such as the chance for self-actualization. Studies on immigration, whether scientific or anecdotal, have isolated mainly material factors such as better opportunities, availability of jobs, better standard of living. Other researchers have proposed some non-material factors such as political strive at home, corruption of the government, no hope for self-actualization.


For the sake of brevity, here is a multi-dimensional model of immigration behavior from a social-psychological approach. Here are the major components of the Social-Psychological Model of Immigration Behavior is presented verbally (Figure 1 is not included in this editorial for space consideration):


I. Immigration Behavior is to study the variables and factors contributing to the individual’s decision process. The unit of analysis in the following proposed model is the Individual who is confronted with the challenge of deciding whether to immigrate into another country or to stay put in his or her country.


II. The Individual’s psychological variables, such as Need, Motivation, Learning, Perception, and Attitude process the Individual’s choice of Material or-Non-Material or a combination thereof of primary reasons for immigration.


III. Social-Environmental Factors influencing the Individual’s decision process consist of political situation, persecution, physical environment (e.g., climate at home country), economic conditions (e.g., job opportunities), etc.


IV. Personal factors which also influence the Individual’s decision process are age, marital status, personal goals, etc.


V. The Individual’s outcome of the decision process: immigrate to a perceived “utopia” or not to immigrate and stay at home.


VI. Feedback in terms of level of satisfaction and cognitive dissonance.


The proposed Multi-Dimensional Social-Psychological Model of Immigration behavior (to immigrate or not to immigrate) can be stated: I B = f(P variables + S-E factors + Individual  factors), where…


IB= Immigration Behavior; f= is a function of; P = Psychological variables; S-E= Social-Environmental factors; I= Individual factors


The factors behind migration are easy to explain while immigration is complicated. The behavior of immigration is obvious to detect, but why the individual immigrates is mixed with reality and wishful thinking. Even those who immigrate or plan to immigrate do not know for sure as to why. The individual who has planned or who has already immigrated has to justify his or her act by putting the blame on bad government or the monopoly of the oligarchs, etc. Some people have the tendency to invoke God or manifest destiny to rationalize their behavior.  They do things in the name of God, Allah, Moses, etc. to ease their conscience in carrying out their inner desires.


Let us take “Persecution” from Social-Psychological Factors to see how it would influence the individual’s immigration behavior. The Soviet Jews began to immigrate to Israel mainly because to avoid persecution. Hypothetically speaking, these Jews felt that they lacked freedom and considered themselves persecuted because of their religion. So, their decision to immigrate was based on non-material reasons (e.g., safety). Once in Israel, though, they experienced very low satisfaction from the move and even they had cognitive dissonance (of questioning whether they had done the right decision to leave the Soviet Union). The low satisfaction and the incidence of cognitive dissonance may have stemmed from the constant conflict with the Palestinian demands and their suicide bombers.


We need a model, a theory to guide research. Europe, for example, has been concerned with the influx of immigration especially from the Muslim countries.  It has been estimated that there are well over 20 million Muslims living in Western Europe alone, who reportedly defy assimilation. Additionally, the Christians of the Middle East are immigrating to the West in droves, mainly due to the internal political unrest. the Christian population nowadays are leaving the Middle East not to seek greener economic pastures, but rather for safety from the danger of revolutionary strive in the countries they happen to live.


The proposed model will put the beast of immigration on the table for scientific analysis, explanation and prediction. In other words, this model would serve as a source, a unified theory to generate hypotheses to be empirically tested and validated.


History has lessons to teach our new generations of policy decision makers: whenever a nation constantly loses its population to other countries, that nation is eventually doomed to oblivion. More bluntly stated, a nation without a vision will perish.




Z. S. Demirdjian, Ph.D.

Senior Review Editor

California State University, Long Beach, CA

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