For Love of Family and Family Values: How Immigrant Motivations Can Inform Immigration Policy

By Piacenti, David | Harvard Journal of Hispanic Policy, Annual 2009 | Go to article overview

For Love of Family and Family Values: How Immigrant Motivations Can Inform Immigration Policy


Piacenti, David, Harvard Journal of Hispanic Policy


One of two areas of concern in the ongoing study of immigration theory from Mexico to the United States is the level of analysis in which to operate. To this end, various analyses at the macro-, meso-, and micro-sociological levels of theory have been applied in order to understand the full range of factors that underlie immigration. The second area of concern is completeness of coverage and literature gaps. That is to say, due to the difficulty in generalizing any one ethnography or data analysis to every sending region or town in Mexico, we must always demand coverage of new regions and towns. This, in turn, will provide the broadest range of data possible in order to promote the appropriate changes in the structure of immigration policy.

This project contributes to these areas of concern in at least two ways. First, this sample of more than fifty ethnographic interviews emerges from the southeastern Mexican state of Yucatan. Yucatan represents a newer sending region than its more central and northern counterpart states, where immigration is both more pervasive and of a longer historical duration. Because of this, Yucatan is under-researched on the application of theoretical models of immigration. Second, this sample seems to support the "new economics" of immigration. That is to say, this sample appears to support a meso-sociological, familial approach to the agency of the immigrant actor, effectively placing them within a "household economics" model of immigration. Briefly, the meso-sociological level of analysis consists of informal social groups, as well as formal social institutions such as religion, government, or education. The focus here, though, is on the institution of the family.

This project contributes to these areas of concern by providing the point-of-view insights and experiences of more than fifty immigrants who had either not yet returned or had returned to Madrina [pseudonym], Mexico, from either San Francisco, California, or Kalamazoo, Michigan. The interviews delved into biographical components of their lives, their families, and the impact of immigration on the town, as well as their motivations for immigrating from and returning to Madrina. This article focuses on the motivations for immigrating and returning. All respondents speak both Yucatec-Maya and Spanish and were primarily interviewed in Spanish, with occasional flourishes of Yucatec-Maya; one interview was done in English. In order to prevent confusion, I use the term "immigration" consistently throughout. Neither "migration" nor "immigration" adequately defines the life trajectories of all the respondents in this sample. To be sure, people who expect to only migrate temporarily stay in the United States forever, and people who expect to immigrate and settle forever return to their sending community.

The Main Contention

I contend that Yucatec-Mayan immigrants use a ch'i'ibal-centered, or family-centered, value-rational decision-making process in which to frame leaving and returning to their hometown. This "family-centered immigration model" supports Douglas Massey and others (1994), Massey, Jorge Durand, and Nolan J. Malone (2002), and Jeffrey Cohen's (2004) "household" or "new economics of migration" model. However, I employ Max Weber's "wert-rational" or "value-rational" social action to theoretically underpin this sample. Weber states, "Wert-rational [involves] a conscious belief in the absolute value of some ethical, aesthetic, religious, or other form of behavior, entirely for its own sake and independently of any prospects of external success" (1947, 114). More simply defined, went-rationality is rational action that symbolizes or represents sentimental or emotional values such as respect, caring, and love. Therefore, it is a went-rational or value-rational action to immigrate on behalf of the family's well-being, as that value is the true motivation that underpins immigrating for rational, economic gain. …

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