World

One in Four Latin Americans Wishes to Emigrate

by Jesus Rios and Steve Crabtree

United States named as preferred destination by 33%

This article is Part 1 of a series on attitudes toward migration in 20 Latin American countries.

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The debate over immigration policy in the United States will likely only grow more heated as the election year rolls on. Along with the war in Iraq, the economy, and healthcare, immigration is among the top issues Americans say they will consider in casting their vote in November.

But will voters be accurately informed? The alarmist tone adopted on both sides of the immigration debate sometimes relies on conventional wisdom that may be false or outdated. Recent Gallup Polls from throughout Latin America suggest that certain widely held assumptions regarding migration from the region are not entirely accurate -- at the least, they tend to oversimplify the characteristics and motivations of Latin Americans who consider leaving their countries. This article is the first in a series that challenges several such assumptions. Part 1 addresses the prevalence of emigration intent in Latin America; parts 2 and 3 will examine who is most likely to want to emigrate and why.

Assumption #1: High proportions of residents throughout Latin America would like to emigrate.

It's true that in a few Latin American countries the prevalence of those wishing to emigrate is among the highest in the world. In 2007, Gallup asked the following question in 66 countries worldwide: "Ideally, if you had the opportunity, would you like to move permanently to another country, or would you prefer to continue living in this country?" Six of the 15 countries whose residents were most likely to say they would move are in Latin America.

However, this doesn't imply that such high percentages are found throughout Latin America. In most of the more populous Latin American countries -- including Mexico -- migration intent is moderate or low by international standards. The region has enjoyed five straight years of economic growth, and its larger economies in particular have seen improvement. In Brazil, for example just 18% of residents say they would like to emigrate. Results weighted by country size reveal that region wide an average of 24% of residents say they would move permanently if they could.

Of course, several local factors, including immigration laws and proximity to a desirable destination country, influence the degree to which the desire to emigrate is fulfilled. But these survey results -- combined with others, such as the fact that Latin Americans tend to score relatively highly on measures of wellbeing -- appear to refute any notion that majorities throughout the region would leave at the first opportunity.

Assumption #2: Most Latin Americans who would like to emigrate have the United States in mind.

The poll also asked respondents throughout Latin America who indicated they would emigrate if they could to which country they would like to move. Though the United States was the most popular single choice, it was selected by a third (33%, average) of respondents region wide. Even in Mexico, the proportion who say they would choose the United States as their ideal destination is less than a majority, at 45%. Respondents cite Spain more frequently than the United States in several South American countries, including Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, and Peru.

Survey Methods

Results are based on face-to-face interviews conducted in 2007 with randomly selected national samples of approximately 1,000 adults, aged 15 and older, who live permanently in the 20 Central and South American countries polled. For results based on these samples, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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