Common section

Chapter 12

Shift Happens: Migration

In This Chapter

bulletStudying early human dispersal

bulletDeciding where to go

bulletMarking migration magnets

bulletMarketing and mental mapping

N ew Britain and New Holland are towns in Pennsylvania. New Prague and New Ulm are towns in Minnesota. And who could forget New Lisbon, Wisconsin; New Leipzig, North Dakota; and New Hamburg, New York? One can’t help but wonder what was going on in Old Prague, Old Lisbon, and Old Leipzig that caused people to up and embark on the journey of their lives. Goodness knows, shift happens. And thank goodness it does, because geography would be pretty dull without it.

At issue in this chapter is migration, which is key to understanding

bulletThe distribution of people at the global, regional, and local scales

bulletDifferences in population growth

bulletPatterns of ethnicity and culture

bulletEnvironmental issues related to population growth

Migration is travel that involves a change in residential location. Together with birth rates and death rates (described in Chapter 11) it’s a central component of population geography. More specifically, migration is fundamental to understanding population shifts present and past, including ones that ran their courses long before the dawn of recorded history.

Populating the Planet

Perhaps the greatest migration story of them all involves the populating of the planet. Scientific evidence suggests humans originated in East Africa. The Bible talks of the Garden of Eden, somewhere in Mesopotamia. Either way, the basic argument is that homo sapiens began by occupying one very small part of planet Earth.

That didn’t last. When Columbus reached the New World, he discovered that other humans had gotten there long before he did. Throughout the Age of Discovery, other explorers also found that, time and again, other humans had beaten them to their newly found lands. Throughout the Americas, the Pacific Islands, the far Northlands, Eurasia, Africa, Australia, and New Zealand, you name it. Humans were just about everywhere except Antarctica. How had they done it? That is, assuming humans originated in a single region (and no credible evidence has been found to the contrary), how had they managed by 1492 to assume a near-global distribution? The answer is land bridges and ocean voyages.

Bridging the oceans

Once upon a time it was possible for humans to walk between certain continents and other land bodies that are today separated by straits and shallow seas. The key word in that sentence is walk — and on dry land, too. That was made possible by something rather peculiar that happened during the last ice age.

Earth has experienced several ice ages during the past million years. We’re not certain what caused them, but climates then were definitely cooler on average than they are today. The most recent ice age began about 120,000 years ago and ended about 10,000 years ago. During that period, humongous amounts of seawater evaporated, condensed in the atmosphere, fell to Earth as snow, and compacted to form glaciers instead of returning to the sea as runoff. Thus, as the glaciers grew, sea level dropped. The exact extent of the decline is unknown, but for several thousands of years sea level was as much as 475 to 500 feet lower than today.

Thus, a world map at the height of the ice age would have looked a lot different from today’s (see Figure 12-1). Substantial areas that had been ocean bottom became dry land, so the continents and other land bodies grew while the oceans shrank. Most importantly, several land bodies that had been separated by water became connected by land bridges — dry land in places that had been straits or shallow seas.

The land bridges lasted for thousands of years. Formerly ocean bottom, they became grasslands and woodlands that provided habitat for animals. Most importantly, of course, the land bridges provided firmament that allowed humans (over many generations) to migrate and occupy lands that had been unknown or out of reach. For example, people could have walked from present-day France to Ireland (see Figure 12-1). Similarly, of course, the ancestors of Native Americans migrated over dry land from Siberia to Alaska. Other connections are also evident on Figure 12-1, though some are controversial. We’re not certain, for example, whether the Strait of Gibraltar was ever a land bridge and opinion varies as to the location of ice age coastlines in the Indonesian and Philippine archipelagos.

Eventually, the last ice age came to an end. Climates warmed, and as glacial ice receded their melt waters flowed to the oceans, which rose and inundated the land bridges. Thus, continents and land bodies became disconnected — just as they had been before the ice age started. But something significant had happened between the appearance and disappearance of the land bridges. Humans had migrated across them, giving rise to native populations that, many generations later, would greet European and other explorers.

Voyaging afar

Sometimes people were separated from their nearest neighbors by thousands of miles of ocean far too deep (14,000 feet or so) for any land bridge to explain their arrival. Therefore, ancient voyages of substantial scale must have occurred. Relatively recent research suggests the requisite navigational skills were based on knowledge and application of star positions, bird behavior, cloud types, ocean swells, and wave refraction. For example, when Captain James Cook reached the Hawaiian Islands in 1778, he found natives of Polynesian ancestry. Thousands of miles of ocean separated these people from any neighbors, proving that voyages had occurred. Other islands were found to have similar populations, and not just in the Pacific. Thus, the Merino people of Madagascar, off the southeast African coast, speak a Polynesian language.

Making colonial connections

The Age of Discovery foreshadowed an era of expansionism and colonial acquisition on the part of several European powers that would have major consequences for population geography. Specifically, exploration led to knowledge of and interest in distant lands that were perceived to have strategic or economic value — or both. These interests led to claims on territories that became colonies.

Establishment of colonies led to creation of migration fields, which are countries or regions that generate (such as the European powers) or receive (such as Australia, New Zealand, and parts of the Western Hemisphere) major migration flows. These migrations, in turn, led to the creation of regionally distinctive population characteristics that endure to this day. Thus, for example, what were once sparsely populated “native” lands in Australia, New Zealand, and parts of the Western Hemisphere now bear the unmistakable imprint of European settlement. In addition to free men and women, large numbers of indentured people — including non-Europeans — also relocated. Many Indians (by which I mean South Asians instead of Native Americans), for example, migrated within the British Empire and added significantly to population geography as far away as the Caribbean. The effects of all migration on native populations varied from elimination, to relegation onto reservations, and absorption or intermarriage.

Reciprocal flows of goods and people between European countries and their colonial possessions became commonplace. Low-cost raw materials were sent from colonies to colonizer, where they were made into higher-cost manufactured items and sent back to the colonies for sale. Thus began business and trade relationships that persist to the present, though not necessarily in the same, one-sided manner.

Likewise, in matters of migration, disproportionately strong migration fields exist among the countries of former empires. Thus, a visit to virtually any large city in England reveals ethnic neighborhoods dominated by West Indians, Pakistanis, and other ex-colonials. Similarly, a review of immigration in Canada reveals a migration field in which the countries of the former British Empire are disproportionately evident.

Forcing involuntary migration

Migration is not always a matter of personal choice. Sometimes it’s involuntary — forced upon certain populations. Examples include the expulsion of Jews from parts of Europe, Native Americans from their homelands, and, more recently, various peoples from their homelands in the former Yugoslavia. But undoubtedly the most terrible case of them all, and the worst chapter of colonial history, is the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Beginning in the 1400s and continuing for nearly four centuries, untold millions of Africans were kidnapped and forcibly shipped off to the Caribbean islands, South America, and North America, probably in that order in terms of numbers of enslaved people. The impact is, of course, clearly seen today in the demographics of receiving areas, and perhaps in Africa as well. Much of the raiding that fed the Atlantic trade occurred in the latitudinal Middle Belt that lies between the underside of West Africa and the Saharan fringe. Demographers of the African scene have long regarded this area as underpopulated, and several explain that observation as an enduring legacy of the slave trade.

Choosing to Migrate

In a majority of cases nowadays, people migrate because they choose to do so. The decision to migrate varies from simple to complex. Sometimes the key element is a push factor. This is a characteristic of a region that causes dissatisfaction among residents and encourages them to emigrate. The most common push factors are war, political unrest, famine, persecution, dislike of the physical environment, and economic hardship. Push factors have been responsible for some of the greatest migrations in history. Emigration from Ireland due to the potato famine is a case in point. Another — and perhaps the greatest migration in recorded history — is the relocation of Muslims and Hindus within the Indian subcontinent after its partition into India and Pakistan.

In other instances the decisive element in the decision to migrate is a pull factor. This is a characteristic of an area that exerts an attractive force that draws people from other regions. Being the opposite of push factors, pull factors include peace and harmony, lack of persecution, a pleasant environment, and economic opportunity. Many times, of course, both push factors and pull factors play a role in decision-making.

While push and pull factors encourage migration, potential barriers to migration have the opposite effect. These deterrents may include

bulletPhysical barriers such as oceans, mountain, and deserts

bulletEconomic barriers such as the costs of migration and of establishing a new home

bulletCultural barriers that involve the sobering prospect of leaving a familiar religious, linguistic, and relational environment for an unfamiliar one

bulletPolitical barriers that may include policies of one’s own country that discourage emigration, as well as those of potential receiving countries that discourage immigrants of one sort or another.

Numerous countries offer numerous examples of these and other migration concepts. Possibly none, however, surpass the United States.

Coming to America

The United States is often and justly referred to as a nation of immigrants. Prior to 1875, anybody from any foreign land could legally and freely enter the country and become a resident. Thereafter, Congress began passing a series of laws (which exemplify political barriers) that restricted immigration on such criteria as morality, race (starting with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882), and national origin. Laws in recent years have been characterized by annual caps on the number of newcomers and a system of preferences for family members, skilled workers, and people from under-represented countries.

Review of sources of immigrants reveals a significant change in migration fields. Considering U.S. immigration history from 1820 (the beginning of record keeping) to 1998, Europe was the principal source area, accounting for seven of the top ten countries overall (see Table 12-1). In various ways these Europeans satisfied the cost of migration (an economic barrier) and made passage across the Atlantic Ocean (a physical barrier). Once in America, of course, they often found that their Old World culture traits were obstacles (cultural barriers) to integration into to emerging social fabric. But migrate they did, ultimately because negative conditions in the Old World (push factors) and the attractions of the New World (pull factors) proved more powerful than barriers to migration.

Germany has the distinction of being the number one donor nation of all-time, but Mexico has been closing the gap at a torrid pace. The fact that Mexico recently passed Italy for the number two slot is impressive enough. The fact that about 60 percent of all Mexicans who have ever immigrated to the U.S. have done so since 1980 is astonishing. While future Americans still come from Europe, many more now come from Latin America and Asia. Indeed, countries in the latter areas accounted for nearly all of the top ten sources of immigrants in 1998.

Table 12-1

Just as source areas have changed, so, too, have the final destinations of immigrants. Cities have always attracted large numbers of them, either as points of arrival or potential employment. But in the first half of America’s history, an abundance of rural land (due to displaced Native Americans) was also available to pioneer settlers.

In many instances, immigrant groups of like origin from different parts of Europe settled large contiguous tracts, basically transforming the frontier into an ethnic quilt. Often, of course, settlements thrived, populations grew, and towns arose, resulting in the New Pragues, New Lisbons, and New Leipzigs that dot America. In these rural (or formerly rural) areas, land tends to be owned rather than rented, and therefore it gets passed down over the generations. As a result, a persistent ethnic geography that dates from pioneer days remains over much of America.

By the second half of America’s history, the frontier was largely gone and with it the opportunity for new immigrant groups to settle large rural tracts. Accordingly, immigration assumed an increasingly urban focus, and so it remains. In cities, people tend to rent their residences rather than own them. Thus, the propensity is for ethnic turnover to occur in certain neighborhoods with each new wave of immigrants. As a result, if you live in New Prague, New Lisbon, or New Leipzig, then the countries in the right-hand column on Table 12-1 may surprise you. On the other hand, if you live in New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles, then this information may be yesterday’s news.


Channelized migration, which links geographically specific points of origin and destination, characterizes the growth of several urban immigrant enclaves. For example, a sizable and growing Dominican neighborhood exists in Upper Manhattan. Detailed examination reveals that it is far too simplistic to describe the migration as people from the Dominican Republic moving to New York. Rather, people from particular towns or regions of the Dominican Republic are settling in particular parts of the ethnic enclave in Manhattan. Thus, specific channels are found within the overall flow of immigrants from the Dominican Republic to the United States. Similar examples appear in other parts of the United States regarding this and other immigrant groups. Similar examples have also been documented in other countries all over the world.

Neither channelized migration nor migration in general is strictly international. Many countries provide cases of internal (domestic) migration whose characteristics and impacts are no less significant. Again, the United States provides excellent examples.

Migrating at home

Domestic migration involves residential relocation within a given country. While some moves may involve crossing the street, others may be cross-country or inter-regional. The latter are of particular interest to geography for two reasons. First, and as we shall shortly see, they may be symptomatic of waxing and waning economies of different areas. Second, they may have significant political ramifications. In the United States, Canada, Britain, and other democracies, the number of legislative representatives allocated to a state, province, or region is based on the number of residents. In the United States, for example, the population of each state determines the number of U.S. Representatives that its citizens elect to Congress. As state populations rise and fall because of migration and other factors, the allocation of delegates to Congress changes, and therefore so does the geography of political clout.

Relocating within America

Americans are a people on the move. They commute, shop, take their kids here and there, and go away on vacation. But they also move in the sense of changing their residential locations. In fact, U.S. government data suggest that about 20 percent of Americans move each year, and that about 3 percent change their state of residence each year. The latter figure may not seem like a lot. But given some 285,000,000 Americans, that means about 8,000,000 people leave one state and move to another each year.

“The brain drain”

Brain drain refers to the global tendency for highly educated and skilled citizens of developing countries to migrate to the more developed nations. This population shift saps (or drains) the developing world of intellectual resources as it adds them to the already more well-to-do countries. People the world over seek education that prepares them for modern highly skilled, good-paying jobs. The economies of developing countries typically do not, however, generate large-scale employment of this type. In contrast and by their very nature, the economies of developed countries do. Indeed, in some developed nations the number of such jobs exceeds the indigenous supply of qualified applicants. One result is immigration laws in developed countries that give preference to highly trained foreigners who are prepared to fill the vacancies. In the United States, for example, the 1990 Immigration Act set aside 140,000 slots annually for foreigners with valuable skills. The years since have witnessed pressure to increase that number. The effect of these and similar policies is to increase the brain drain. While this policy clearly benefits the receiving developed countries, it also exemplifies the saying that “the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.”


Principally because of this domestic (that is, interstate) migration, the populations of states and regions of the United States are growing at different rates (see Figure 12-2). Nevada, for example, grew by an astounding 66 percent during the 1990s, while the population of North Dakota grew by only 0.5 percent. Overall, we can pinpoint discernible regions of growth. The highest rates of increase are occurring in the southern tier of states (the Sunbelt) plus the Northwest. The lowest rates of growth are occurring in the Northeast and Upper Midwest (the Snowbelt).

As implied above, these differences have little to do with natural increase and are only modestly related to immigration from foreign lands. Instead, the patterns in Figure 12-2 are largely a function of domestic migration in general and complementary migration fields in particular. That is, people have generally relocated from the low-growth areas to the high-growth areas.

This relationship has been in high gear for at least the past 30 years. Reasons for it include

bulletA surge in retirees migrating from the northern Snowbelt (a push factor) to the warmer climes of the Sunbelt (a pull factor)

bulletA rise in employment opportunities (pull factors) in the southern tier (and the southeast in particular) as businesses moved in to take advantage of the region’s comparatively low wages, low taxes, and low energy costs (which also attract of their own accords good numbers of immigrants)

bulletA related rise in unemployment (a push factor) in the Northeast and Upper Midwest (due to the closure of numerous heavy industrial plants in the traditional manufacturing belt) and the desire and willingness of the jobless to relocate where jobs are available

bulletThe attractive outdoor amenities and recreational potential (pull factors) associated with the climate, beaches, landscapes, and open spaces of parts of the South and West

Normally, one thinks of growth as a good thing. But some high population growth areas are now victims of their success at attracting migrants. Most of the 25 fastest growing cities in the U.S. are in the Sunbelt or West, where the imagery of open space and the great outdoors has met with traffic jam and urban sprawl (see Figure 12-3.) Other areas have witnessed a growing disparity between the need for water and the supply of it. Primary examples are California, Arizona, and Florida, where thirsty cities and even thirstier agriculture are increasingly pitted against each other.

Giving a Good Impression

Decisions to move to or vacation in particular destinations tend to be based largely on the knowledge and impressions people have about them. Different people have different attitudes toward different places. Some locales may impress you as desirable places to live, some may be undesirable, and some may make no impression one way or the other. Sometimes these attitudes are based on personal experience and verifiable facts (objective reality), and sometimes they are based on what people have heard or read or imagine to be the case (subjective reality). When you think about it, don’t you have strong positive or negative feelings about some places, including ones you have never visited?

Playing the mental game


Mental maps are tools that geographers use to display and analyze the impressions (subjective realities) that people have about different locations. The example provided in Figure 12-4 shows a mental map of the United States that reflects attitudes of college students who live in New York City. Now, before somebody gets upset and writes a nasty letter to the publisher or me, remember that this map reflects attitudes that some people have toward places that perhaps they have never visited and about which they may have no direct personal knowledge. Thus, what they think they know about a given state or region may have no basis in reality. Moreover, just as some New Yorkers have negatives images about certain parts of the country, it’s also true that people in other parts of the country have very negative attitudes toward New York.

Looking at the mental in Figure 12-4 may cause you to ask, “What was going through the minds of those students?” In fact, like most mental maps, this one reveals a handful of factors that repeatedly determine place desirability or undesirability. They include the following:

bulletHome: Dorothy said it best: “There’s no place like home.” No matter where you conduct a mental map exercise, you find that most people like where they are. Thus, New Yorkers like New York, Londoners like London, and so forth. Home, after all, is known and predictable and usually doesn’t hold the nasty surprises that a move might.

bulletDislikable neighbor: A dislikable neighbor often borders one’s desirable home. Thus, many people in New York City have very negative perceptions of New Jersey. What this factor says about the human condition is open to debate.

bulletPhysical environment: Some people perceive some states to be more environmentally attractive than others. Most college students in New York City, for example, generally have positive views of states that they perceive as having warm beaches, hilly and/or mountainous topography, and forests or related greenery. On the other hand, places that are cold, flat, and desert-covered are worthy of avoidance.

bulletSocio-cultural environment: People come in different races, speak different languages, adhere to different religions, have different sexual orientations, and so forth. Thus, when people assess the desirability of a particular destination, they often ask themselves, “Will the people who live there accept me, or will I find it difficult to fit in?”

bulletJob prospects: If you give a mental map exercise to people who are retired or about to be, then job prospects typically don’t mean diddly. But because most college students are pondering employment after graduation, they are usually attracted to states that are viewed as offering good job prospects.

Getting an image adjustment

Mental maps can be a lot of fun to play around with, but they may strike you as rather trivial. In fact, they have a very serious side as predictors of potential migration. Most places seek to attract entrepreneurs and businesses that can create jobs and generate tax revenues. Mental maps can sometimes reveal that a particular place has what may be called an “image problem” in certain parts of the world, or is simply not seen as a great place to do business.

This perception may encourage officials in that place to create ad campaigns or engage in other marketing measures designed to promote a positive image. If you routinely watch TV or listen to the radio, then sooner or later you are bound to see or hear a commercial that encourages people and businesses to move to a particular place. The reason is simple. Officials who live in that “particular place” know that shift happens. They also know that getting it to happen in their direction can add to employment, tax revenues and political clout.

Putting your best image forward

I cannot end this chapter without a word or two about tourism — a migration of sorts that has much to do with geographical impressions and subjectivity. Tourism is a multi-billion dollar industry that is likely to grow as more countries develop and more people have more disposable income. Seemingly every country and locale wants a piece of the multi-billion dollar travel and tourism pie. They won’t get a sliver, however, unless tourists perceive them as a desirable place to visit.

Enter advertising, which is a major means by which tourists find out about and assess destinations that are anxious to attract them and assist in the disposal of their disposable income. In the world of tourism advertising, objective geography tends to give way to fantasy geography. It’s not that tourism ads lie, but they definitely do put a certain spin on reality. Thus, I have yet to see a travel ad that shows a rainy day (even for Ireland, which isn’t called the Emerald Isle for nothing). No matter the destination that is being touted, the landscape is always gorgeous, the locals are always smiling (and often dressed in traditional garb that nobody really wears anymore), and the tourists are healthy and fit. And why not? The goal is creation of a positive image that potential tourists will find attractive. Will tourists visit places they perceive as unattractive? Would you?

Applied Geography: Marketing Venezuela

Some time ago the Venezuela National Tourist Office embarked on an advertising campaign to promote tourism in Caracas, the capital city, and Margarita, a resort island. The ads ended with the words “Venezuela, the country in the Caribbean.” One thing the ads did not include was a map. What it would show, of course, is that Venezuela is in South America while Margarita is indeed in the Caribbean. But “country in the Caribbean”? Venezuela is certainly by the Caribbean, or borders the Caribbean, or lies alongside the Caribbean. But in the Caribbean? Close, but no cigar.

Why would a country in South America profess to be in the Caribbean? The answer is that potential tourists from the United States have a much more positive image of “Caribbean” than “South America.” The former evokes images of sun, surf, palm trees, and piña coladas. The latter (at least as some are concerned) evokes images of drug cartels, slums, leftist guerrillas, and cholera epidemics. So why not call yourself “the country in the Caribbean” as long as there is an ounce of truth in it?

If this sounds a bit duplicitous, you’re right. One application of geography is to selectively filter the information people obtain about a place so as to manipulate perceptions of potential tourists. Another application, however, is to help people see through the smoke screen and perceive the whole truth, not just an ounce of it.

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