"You only leave home when home won't let you stay," writes Warsan Shire in her recent poem1
responding to the refugee crisis engulfing Europe. While most of those people are fleeing violence and war, others may be seeking economic or education opportunities not available at home. It is these migrants making the difficult decision to leave hoping for a better life for their families who are at the heart of Esteban Quiñones'
research. He recently won a traineeship from the National Institutes of Health in collaboration with the UW Center for Demography and Ecology for his project, collaborating with Jenna Nobles
and Brad Barham
"Conflict or political refugees have little choice but to leave," says Quiñones, "but I want to understand the factors behind the more intentional decision-making of people who think long and hard about when, why and where to go. Are there particular human traits, such as a greater
Financial Flows to Developing Countries, 1980 – 2014 (in US$ billions
tolerance for risk, or a tendency to be forward-looking, that explain why some people choose to migrate but others do not? How do the aspirations of youths, informed by the internet, broaden their opportunities?"
Labor migration is a worldwide phenomenon with a large economic impact. In 2014, 250 million migrants were working outside their home countries, and another 750 million had migrated within their countries. Remittances totaled $538 billion, with roughly 70% of that money flowing to households in developing countries, according to the World Bank.
Quiñones will follow up an earlier study of southern Mexican coffee producing households whose family income depends on remittances. "On average, less than half of their income comes from coffee production and wages, so these households rely on remittances from migrant family members to send their kids to school and keep food on the table," he explains. Quiñones will survey the same households that were interviewed 10 years ago and reported on in a series of articles by Brad Barham, with grad students Seth Gitter
, Jessa Valentine and Jeremy Weber
The research will use recent approaches in behavioral economics to learn whether there are observable characteristics that distinguish migrants from non-migrants. "I am fascinated by this phenomenon because migrants self-select without signaling how they are different from their peers. It's a decentralized, grass-roots mechanism that flexibly responds to government, economic, social and other conditions," Quiñones notes.
Widespread use of smart phones is connecting rural Mexican youth with migrants to other parts of Mexico, as well as the U.S.. "We saw kids hanging out next to the community school wireless routers at all hours of the day and night to be in touch with friends and family beyond their village," reports Barham after a recent pilot visit to Oaxaca. "The quality and depth of their engagement with friends who have left home can certainly shape the aspirations of these youths as they weigh the risks and rewards of leaving," says Barham.
Rural Oaxaca, photo by Seth Gitter
Environmental impacts of climate change, whether catastrophic or slow-moving, have also been cited as future drivers of migration by "environmental refugees" fleeing coastal flooding, desertification, soil erosion, droughts and other disruptions. Quiñones will incorporate climate data in his analysis to learn whether environmental change has contributed to migration in Mexico. Some recent studies show that people will adapt more readily than they will seek greener pastures.
The multifaceted project will also assess labor market outcomes for migrants. "Contrary to what people often think, migrants tend to gain better jobs and skills from their difficult relocation decision," says Quiñones. His preliminary findings show gains across all occupation categories, but with considerable variation among skill levels, age, and gender.
As politicians continue to debate immigration laws, "policy makers have a lot to learn from research that helps us understand who is likely to migrate and why," says Quiñones. "Developing countries can improve their policies on agriculture, rural education and health, and other factors that sustain rural communities and support economic and social development." The developed countries, which are typically migration destinations, can gain by tailoring their immigration and assimilation strategies.
"Esteban's academic training and extensive field experience positions him well to deepen our grasp of the complex determinants of migration," says Barham.
"My parents migrated from Ecuador," explains Quiñones, "so I am personally motivated to understand why people endure the difficulty of moving to and working in a foreign place."