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Social Studies & History

Immigration: Push, Pull, or Both? (Part 3)

Author: LoriStokes

View “Part 1: Ancient Immigration” and “Part 2: U.S. Immigration: Legal v. Illegal” of this series on immigration.

We’re all familiar with teaching the topic of immigration in the context of push and pull factors: what factors drive people to leave their own countries (push) and what factors attract people to new countries (pull)?

Push factors include war, injustice, lack of economic opportunity, religious persecution, etc. Pull factors include equal opportunity, jobs, toleration, peace, safety, etc. But what happens when pull factors are missing, and push factors continue to occur in the new land immigrants reach?

The plight of the Syrian refugees fleeing the war in their country is an unfortunately clear example of this blurring of push-pull lines. They are fleeing the usual push factor of war. But they are not pulled into Europe by the promise of freedom, safety, jobs, and acceptance—those things are currently lacking in many European countries. In fact, the refugees will encounter further push factors in those destination countries: prejudice, violence, lack of jobs, lack of housing, lack of goodwill.

In this case, people running for their lives from terror are turned into “masses” and “waves” of “refugees”—negative terms used by European countries to describe their perceived threat of being overwhelmed by immigrants. It is all too easy to see people who left everything behind to find safety as fundamentally poor, dirty, and just too “foreign” to be desirable new immigrants. Thus they are denied immigrant status and remain refugees.

When immigrants are not welcomed in a new country, they can end up embarking on a long odyssey of immigration, moving from place to place in search of acceptance and security. This in turn can make the original problem worse: countries that might have accepted the immigrants the first time around become wary of accepting people who seem like rootless migrants, unable to “settle down” and establish normal lives. A vicious circle is drawn as withholding of pull factors pushes immigrants on to new destinations, where they are likely perceived as being pushed out, mistrusted, and denied pull factors.

The key to breaking the cycle of nonstop push and no pull is to remember that no country has the same status all the time. The same European countries that are now pull destinations were once push countries that sent millions of people to the United States because the nations were poor and lacked equal opportunity. Syria itself, to continue our example, was for many generations one of the richest and most stable countries in the Middle East, while Hungary, for example, was one of the poorest nations under Soviet occupation and control. Hungarians would have liked to be able to live in Syria!

This understanding that people’s status as living in a pull nation or fleeing a push nation is changeable and determined by factors outside their control should provoke more sympathy and understanding for the immigrants so often dismissed as chaotic “waves” of refugees.

Classroom Activity 

There is a great exercise demonstrating this random assignment in Social Studies in Action. View the full activity and explanation in the program “Population and Resource Distribution.”

When students are suddenly separated from their friends and peers by nothing more than artificial lines on the floor, it helps them to realize that national boundaries are just lines drawn on the ground that separate people who are not fundamentally different from each other. Once you’ve established your students’ “nationalities” by armband, try putting the names of the countries into a box and randomly pulling one out: it will be devastated by war. Students living there will have to leave it and move into neighboring countries. Now you and your students can simulate the disruptions to resources that occur in both the push and pull countries, and see how attitudes might harden against refugees who seem to threaten resources.

There are multiple ways to keep this simulation going over time: switch countries, so the previous push nation at war becomes a pull nation, and the previous pull destinations experience problems that force their people to emigrate. Have multiple countries at war at once. Allow students to work through various solutions to their problems until they feel they have reached a just and workable conclusion—then mix things up again. It’s a good way to learn about a real-world problem because it mimics the ever-changing political process of push and pull we see taking place around the world. The activity asks students to consider what actions citizens of the world can take to rectify inequities.

(Image Copyright: doomko / 123RF Stock Photo)

1 comment

  1. Victor Bonilla

    Excellent summary. However, I didn’t find any treatment of the issue of assimilation of “foreign” populations into their new host nations. This is a very important issue that should be considered along with the other matters you raise. Included topics should have: absorptive capacity of the host economy, social benefits and other systems. Cultural assimilation or not?
    Keep it up.


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