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Ambition and Emigration Among Latin Americans

Ambition and Emigration Among Latin Americans

Those who are driven to succeed more likely to want to emigrate

by Jesus Rios and Steve Crabtree

This article is Part 3 of a series on attitudes toward migration in 20 Latin American countries.

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- U.S. media reports that depict Mexican and Central American border crossers as desperate, literally risking life and limb for the chance to live in the United States, give the impression that most of these immigrants have simply run out of options in their countries.

However, Gallup surveys conducted in 20 countries throughout Latin America in 2007 reveal that, particularly in the larger and more economically self-sufficient countries, the desire to emigrate may not be a sign of desperation. On average, the 24% of residents region wide who say they would move permanently to another country given the opportunity are not significantly more likely to be jobless or even unhappy with their current lives than those who say they would prefer to stay in their countries. (See "Latin Americans' Motives for Migration" in Related Items.)

An analysis of those who say they would like to emigrate suggests that, in general, they are no less capable than those who would like to stay in their countries. Rather, those wishing to emigrate are most likely to express frustration with the limitations they face, specifically the lack of opportunities to use their talents to improve their economic status. This idea -- that stymied ambition is a common motivator among Latin Americans wishing to emigrate -- challenges another blanket assumption, which is the fourth and final one we will address in this series.

Assumption #4: Latin Americans who have high aspirations, optimism, and energy can "make it" in their home countries and are not likely to migrate.

Ambition and optimism certainly do not seem to be predictive of a desire to stay put. Latin Americans who display entrepreneurial tendencies are somewhat more likely than those who do not display entrepreneurial tendencies to say they'd emigrate given the chance. Overall across the 20 countries studied, 29% of those who say they have considered starting a business would do so, versus 20% of those who have not considered starting a business. Similarly, 29% of those who say they have a plan, idea, or invention for improving their standard of living would emigrate, vs. 20% of those who do not have a plan, idea, or invention for improving their standard of living.

Residents throughout the region were also asked a series of questions about their attitudes toward life. Those who selected responses that reflect a desire for personal prestige -- "Work hard and get rich" and "Try to make a name for yourself" -- were more likely than those who selected other responses to express a desire to emigrate.

Why might those with a drive to work hard and achieve wealth and fame be particularly likely to want to emigrate? One factor may be the commonly held belief in the region that governments do not promote business success. Majorities of residents in 14 of the 20 countries studied say they do not have confidence in the stability of commercial rules and laws in their country. In 15 of the 20 countries examined, majorities say business owners in their country can't trust the government to let their businesses make a lot of money. Region wide, 33% of those who disagree that people in their country can get ahead by working hard would like to emigrate, vs. 23% of those who agree with that statement.

Overall, the results presented in this series suggest the U.S. debate over Latin American immigrants would benefit from a more data-driven perspective. The reality that public opinion in many cases debunks or at least brings into question common generalizations implies a need for leaders to more carefully consider what immigrants bring to the table. Economist Eric Jensen said in a recent meeting of the Richmond Association for Business Economics that the United States needs immigrants to sustain economic growth as baby boomers retire: "What we want to think about is not potentially exclusionary policies for immigration but policies that somehow make the most of what we have once we have people here." At the least, Gallup's research calls for a nuanced perspective, one that acknowledges the varying realities and aspirations of potential immigrants.

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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