The Motivation for Movement

In this lesson, students apply a geographer’s framework to the migration of women who leave Latin America and enter the United States without legal documentation. Students explore the motivation for movement among their peers and then compare their classmates’ experiences with those of some of the women profiled.
Grade Level


Students will be able to:

  • Identify the push-pull factors that motivate women to come to the United States without legal status
  • Develop empathy for the circumstances of undocumented workers
  • Gather data and present it in graphs
  • Track the history of border policy along the Rio Grande
Essential Questions
  • What factors push women to leave their home countries?
  • What factors pull women toward the United States, despite the difficulties that immigrants face when they arrive without legal documents?
  • How has U.S. border policy along the Rio Grande developed since the 1940s?


In 2010, the Southern Poverty Law Center interviewed 150 immigrant women from Mexico, Guatemala and other Latin American nations. All of them thought they had realized their dreams—to come to the United States, where they could find work and support their families. They landed jobs in fields and factories, where food is harvested and processed before turning up on American tables. But they also found themselves exploited in the workplace, making poverty-level wages and suffering from grim conditions and humiliating situations that were impossible to report because of their undocumented status. Their stories are featured in the SPLC report, Injustice on Our Plates: Immigrant Women in the U.S. Food Industry.

Movement—of people, goods and services—is a central theme in the study of geography. When it comes to human migration, geographers ask: Why do people move? What factors push them to leave a place? What factors pull them toward another? In this lesson, the third of seven lessons based on the report, the Motivation for Movement, students apply a geographer’s framework to the migration of women who leave Latin America and enter the United States without legal documentation. Given the high stakes—separation from family, risks to personal safety and workplace exploitation—the motivations for leaving a home country and settling illegally in this one must be particularly powerful. Students explore the motivation for movement among their peers and then compare their classmates’ experiences with those of some of the women profiled in Injustice on Our Plates.

Additionally, Teaching Tolerance offers a teacher's guide, available as a PDF.



human migrationhyoo-muhn my-gray-shuhn ] the movement of people from one area to another 

push-pull  [ poosh puhl ] a theory that says people are pushed by adverse conditions to leave an area and pulled toward another area by the promise of favorable conditions

border policybohr-der pawl-uh-see ] laws, rules and agreements that govern the movement of people into and out of the United States for both short and long periods of time


Relocation Reasons

1. Use the handout called Migration Interviews to interview a classmate about his or her personal and family experiences moving among cities, states or nations. (Note: If students in your class are sensitive about sharing this information, have students write answers about themselves on the interview form, rather than having students interview each other.)

2. Use the format shown in Push-Pull Factors to make class lists on chart paper of push and pull factors. Have pairs share the push-pull factors they discovered as they interviewed each other and list them on the charts. Once a factor is on the list, add a mark for each time that factor is mentioned again. By the time you’re finished, you should have a list of push factors and a list of pull factors. You should also have a record of the number of times each factor was mentioned by your classmates. (Note: To avoid putting any student in an uncomfortable or potentially dangerous situation, collect the interviews and read aloud people’s reasons so that students don’t associate specific reasons with individual students. If sharing some information might expose a student and his or her family, do not share it.)

3. Read Motivation to Move. Identify the push-pull factors that shaped the decisions of the women you read about. Add the factors to the part of the chart labeled Women’s Decisions. As a class, discuss: What similarities, if any, do you see between the experiences of your classmates and the women you read about? What differences, if any, do you see?

4. Working alone or with your partner, make a bar graph of the data you have collected in your class and in the readings. Across the horizontal axis, list the push factors and then the pull factors. Number the vertical axis so that you can make bars to show how many people identified each push and pull factor. Make the bar graphs using three colors: one for the bar of any factor that only your classmates identified, one for any factor that only the women in the report identified and a third for any factor that both classmates and the women identified. This will allow you to see similarities and differences between the women you’ve read about and your classmates.

5. Study the graph. Discuss with your classmates any insights you have, patterns you see or generalizations you can make. Use these questions to guide the discussion: Why do people move? Do push or pull factors seem more important in the decision to move? How do the reasons for your classmates’ movement compare to the reasons on the part of the women in the readings? What might account for similarities and differences?

6. Now think again about your/your family’s experience coming to this country. Write a first-person essay describing their/your experience, organizing the essay around the concept of push and pull factors.


In Their Own Words

Use the story of Araceli and a map of the Americas to show her journey. For each arrow that shows movement, identify which push and pull factors were present. You might use different colors to convey that information (don’t forget to make a key for your map) or write the information on the arrows. Take the role of Araceli and write a paragraph that sums up your motives for the moves you have made. Identify whether push or pull factors seemed to be more important.


Past to Present

Learn more about the changes in border policy along the Rio Grande over the past 50 years. Divide into five groups. Each group will take one of the following topics:

  • The Bracero Program
  • Operation Wetback
  • The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965
  • Clinton-era policies regarding the U.S.-Mexico border
  • Post-9/11 policies regarding the U.S.-Mexico border

With your group, research your topic and create a web page that highlights and organizes the most important information. As a team, use the web pages to create a class website. It should include a homepage that has an overview of border policy, a timeline and a link for each of the five topics.

Use this source to get you started:

U.S.-Mexico Border Policy Report