Volume V, Number 1, Spring 2009

"U.S. Foreign and Immigration Policies in the Caribbean Basin by Éva Eszter Szabó" – Review by Andrea Kökény

Andrea Kökény has a PhD degree in History from the University of Szeged, Hungary. She is currently a Senior Assistant Professor at the Department of Modern World History and Mediterranean Studies at the University of Szeged. E-mail:

U.S. Foreign and Immigration Policies in the Caribbean Basin
Éva Eszter Szabó
Szombathely: Savaria Univ. Press, 2007
Paperback, 311 pages
ISSN 1788-2532
ISBN 978-963-9438-80-4

“American immigration policy and law must be formulated in awareness of their international impact and must be designed to advance our foreign policy.” This quote from the 1953 report by the Presidential Commission on Immigration and Naturalization sums up the main argument of Éva Eszter Szabó’s recent book on the importance of the correlation between US foreign and immigration policies. An expanded and updated version of her PhD dissertation, the book builds on case studies from the 1959-1966 period in Caribbean Basin history to explore the way American rules and regulations on immigration became an important tool of American foreign policy.

The first chapter provides a theoretical framework and gives an overview of different migration theories. It starts out with what Szabó calls the “classical migration theory”, according to which push and pull factors trigger migration. This model, developed by Ernst G. Revenstein in the late 19th century, held sway until after World War II. It was based on peoples’ evaluation of the unfavorable situation in the sending country (e.g., unemployment, overpopulation, political oppression and/or religious persecution, natural disasters and/or diseases) as well as the favorable situation in the receiving country (e.g., employment opportunities, political and religious freedom, etc.), and their reaction to them. Szabó’s criticism is that, even though this model took the existence of nation states and their border control into consideration as factors in diverting or completely stopping migrations, it failed to acknowledge the impact of political and public policy aspects.

The exploration of migration theories continues with the economic approach, which appeared in the post-World War II era and was influential until the mid-1970s. It found an explanation for international migration in labor market differentials and inequalities in the level of development between countries. Building on the push and pull model, it traced the push factor in the underdevelopment of the sending country and the decision of the individual to maximize income by taking advantage of the opportunities offered in a developed country. According to Szabó, this theory offers only partial truths as it cannot be the poorest who account for the largest number of migrants because in order to migrate one has to have the necessary resources. She also notes the lack of an explanation for differences in the historical timing of migration waves, especially between countries at similar levels of development.

For this reason, she proceeds with an analysis of the historical-structural theory. Based on Immanuel Wallerstein’s world systems theory of 1974, this model examines the relationship of the sending and receiving countries not only in terms of economics but also taking into consideration the political, social, military, institutional, cultural, and cross-country contacts that can set migration into motion. This kind of contact, i.e., penetration, on the part of the core country gives the first push to emigrants on the periphery, and it is often not the closest neighbor that becomes their destination but the country with previous historical ties.

The sociological theories of migration in the 1980s complemented the previous ones by emphasizing the importance of social networks, personal relationships based on kinship, friendships, common origin, and ethnicity in facilitating migration. According to this argument, migration can become a self-reproducing process because of the ever-expanding cross-national ties between the ethnic communities in the receiving country and their communities back home. As a result, the original causes of emigration may no longer determine the dynamics of international movement, which then may continue in the absence of earlier incentives.

From the 1980s, the scope of theoretical literature on international population movement has further widened by studies attempting to bring in and integrate the political aspects of migration. Advocates of the political perspective have criticized the other theories for neglecting the role that government migration policies might play in spurring or halting migration flows. Building on the political aspect Szabó emphasizes the importance of the link between international migration and international relations. She argues that migration policies can become as much a source of conflict between states as a basis for cooperation, and thus international migration can be a tool of foreign policy at both ends of the migration current.

Having examined the various migration theories, Szabó formulates one of the theses of her book: these forces – economic, sociological, historical-structural, and political – that drive international migration coexist. She admits that the forces that initiate and regulate migration are basically push and pull factors but elaborates on the previous theories and develops what she calls the synthetic dual approach. She claims that these factors determine the different stages of migration to varying degrees, with some dominating a given stage and others acting as primary and secondary contributing factors. Based on this hypothesis, she contends that at the initial stage of a massive immigration flow it is a combination of historical-structural and political factors or the correlation between foreign and immigration policies that dominates the migration process. In the subsequent stage, however, it is predominantly economic factors that account for keeping the flow in motion, and it is sociological factors that determine the perpetuation of migration.

Szabó suggests that immigration policy must be studied as an issue subordinated to domestic and foreign policy interests and claims that the role of the latter group of interests in setting migration policy fully came to the fore in the Cold War period. She argues that amidst the superpower rivalry and the war against communism the use of immigration as a tool of foreign policy came to supplement traditional instruments of foreign policy and at times even replace them.

Her other thesis is connected to the definition of the boomerang effect theory. It holds that the consequences of penetration and the subsequent correlation of foreign and immigration policies to ensure penetration will come back to the penetrator, i.e., the receiving country, like a boomerang, in the form of constant, massive immigration flows. In the meantime, the context of migration is transformed from a mostly politically generated outflow to a mostly economically and sociologically generated phenomenon. Transnational communities are established, whose existence will, in turn, influence later developments in foreign and immigration policies towards the given sending country.

Szabó contends that the US, the world’s classic immigration country, serves as the best potential subject to test her boomerang effect theory. She claims that the interaction of foreign and immigration policies is illustrated at its best in US relations with Latin America and especially with the Caribbean Basin. There, she finds, geographical proximity has made this correlation a much more subtle issue than in the case of Asian or southeast Asian immigration. That is the reason why she decides to focus her attention on two mass migration waves to the US – those of Cuba and the Dominican Republic. She outlines the historical cross-country relations and analyzes access rules around the time of the beginning of these flows: the period of 1959-1966.

Both Cuba and the Dominican Republic had long constituted penetrated systems before the onset of massive migration flows to the US. Szabó describes the connection between Cuba and the United States as a love-hate relationship, emphasizing the fact that Cuba has always been strongly coveted by the US since the beginning of the 19th century. She also says that in no other Latin American country has US influence been exerted as continuously as in the Dominican Republic, especially because of the existence of its aggressive, expanding, and chronically unstable neighbor on the island of Hispaniola, Haiti. The US gradually became involved in all segments of the internal affairs of these nations at the end of the 19th century. This process also brought extended social ties with the penetrated areas, and the would-be sending societies became thoroughly familiar with American culture and institutions prior to the onset of large-scale emigration. The boomerang that had been thrown at the turn of the 19th-20th centuries came full circle between 1959-1966. The US suffered the consequences of penetration in the form of mass immigration from these Caribbean countries.

Szabó explains that the role of Cuban mass migration in the period under examination was strategically an important factor in the American effort to destabilize the Castro regime. She argues that the US government carried out a practically unrestricted immigration policy in the pursuit of this foreign policy aim, in which it bent parts of immigration laws and administered immigration regulations loosely to facilitate the exodus of Cuban refugees from communism. They were welcomed for strategic as well as ideological reasons and were expected to be useful in discrediting the Castro regime. It was thought they could serve as agents for the policy of containment in Latin America.

With the fall of the Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic in May 1961, that country entered a period of instability with political, social, and economic tensions. The American aim this time was to stabilize and strengthen the new Dominican government to prevent another Cuba, that is, a communist takeover. Dominicans, coming from a friendly regime, were not classified as refugees but as economic migrants, and were admitted on a generous scale in order to contribute to the stabilization of the political situation by reducing social tensions. Immigrant and nonimmigrant visas were liberally granted by the consulates and the laws against visa overstayers and illegals were laxly enforced as a matter of national interest as defined by the American government. Szabó contends that the Dominican flow also functioned as an instrument in gaining a US-friendly regime near Cuba. Thus, a paradoxical situation developed in which the same migrant-accepting policy managed to serve different foreign policy goals. This is what Szabó offers as proof for the supposition that amidst Cold War pressures the preservation of US hegemony and considerations of national security and regional stability determined the way the US dealt with issues of international migration in the region.

The two case studies also demonstrate that the initial stage of immigration in both countries was determined by historical cross-country relations and political decisions in the field of foreign and immigration policies. Then, as Szabó argues, these massive population movements boomeranged back on the US and started to generate their own flows, which continue to date and turn into perpetuated sociological phenomena that have outlived the original motivations that triggered them.

The influence of the US over the Caribbean Basin continues to be decisive, but for the very first time in history the region is having a deep impact on the US. The movement of goods, services, capital, and technology has increased. Nevertheless, Szabó concludes, it is not the economic or strategic dimensions, but the social aspect of the Caribbean Basin that has had the most dramatic implications for the US. Ever since the 1960s, the very composition and character of the US have been reshaped by the waves of both legal and illegal immigration from the region and by the large refugee movements from there. As a result of this new mass migration, the US is slowly changing the way it looks at itself. The growing Latino presence and influence in the US is expected to strengthen in the 21st century. This process also indicates the long-term consequences of US penetration and the correlation between foreign and immigration policies. As Éva Eszter Szabó says: “Today’s Latinization of the US is the result of yesterday’s Americanization of the Caribbean Basin.”

Szabó suggests that her approach is not necessarily limited to this region. The scope of research could be expanded to examine the point of departure and the development of mass migrations between the US and Europe and between the US and Asia. This reviewer also wonders what a case study of another US neighbor could/would reveal and looks forward to reading about the special relationship between the United States of America and Mexico.