Wednesday, February 5, 2014
Another Context for Understanding American Immigration
Actually, that wasn't it at all. This photo was taken on a cruise from New York (U.S.) to Southhampton (England) and Bremen (Germany). These people weren't coming to America, they were leaving it.
How could this photo have been so misunderstood by Americans? The answer to this and a review of other odd ideas Americans have about immigration can be found in Donna R. Gabaccia's book Foreign Relations: American Immigration in Global Perspective.
The underlying narrative about immigration in the United States goes something like this: immigrants come to America from their poverty-stricken, badly governed, repressive (sexist, racist, homophobic), politically incorrect countries. They hit the shores of the U.S. and they are transformed into something else. Something better. Old allegiances are cast off. They are Americans-in-the-Making. They gratefully take up the opportunities America has to offer. They become citizens in huge numbers and then they have American-born children who dream of one day becoming President of the "greatest nation on earth."
This is what is taught in every American school to every American child. This is how it works here in America and we should all be very grateful to our ancestors for having slipped the leash and left France, England, China, Germany, and all the other inferior places in the world. E pluribus unum. Amen.
Do I think this is still true today in 2014? Absolutely. God help the American immigrant living in the U.S. who, when asked some variation of this question, "How does it feel to be free?" gives the wrong answer. Or the American emigrant facing down a homelander who wants to hear why he or she is living somewhere outside the United States. I have learned from bitter experience that these kinds of queries are very dangerous and there are only a very few acceptable answers which can be summed up in three words: War, Commerce, and Empire-building.
Gabaccia does a very good job of challenging the myths about American immigration. But her argument is much more than just myth-busting. What she's saying is that the context that Americans have for talking about immigration in the 21st century is simply too limited. Since it's perceived by the American government and public as a strictly domestic concern, the debate tends to be focused very tightly on the United States (controlling borders, building walls, deporting "illegals", amnesty programs, and so on.) And that simply isn't true.
Looking around the world today, all kinds of countries have exactly the same concerns about immigration as Americans do and face the same challenges. Furthermore, immigration always involves more than one country which puts it firmly in the realm of foreign/international relations. Immigrants don't come out of thin air - an American immigrant is always some other country's emigrant.
To get that larger view, no better place to begin than the United Nations 2013 International Migration Report.
Just look at all the countries that are prime destinations for international migrants. The U.S. and Canada are there, of course, but so is Mexico, France, Spain, Australia, and many other places.
"Nothing," says Gabaccia, "makes the challenges of globalization more visible - or more terrifying, apparently - than mobile people." And Americans are just as scared (maybe more so post-911) of this as people in other countries.
Gabaccia sees the immigration debates in the U.S. as a "symbolic defense" against a world that Americans perceive as being hostile to them. There is a connection between Empire-building, American intervention outside her borders, globalization, and immigration. When a people see the world as unfriendly, it's not a leap for them to be suspicious of people coming from those places.
Add to that the dawning awareness that these immigrants do not necessarily behave according to the myth: they do not leave their old allegiances behind - many are duals and live transnational lives; they do not necessarily integrate as fast as the natives would like; some simply refuse to ever become U.S. citizens; they send huge amounts of money out of the country as opposed to investing it locally: and they don't seem to value "freedom" in the way that they were perceived to value it in the past.
Gabaccia says that these things have always been true. Even in the grand era of American immigration (18th - early 20th century) immigrants were doing all the things described above but it simply wasn't visible in the way it is today. To a certain extent, I contend, it still isn't. Where are the figures for American emigration? You won't find precise numbers or studies coming from the U.S. government - only State Department estimates. Why is that? Surely those numbers are important, too, and would add an important dimension to the debate about immigration in the U.S.
The lack of data is construed by many homeland Americans as a sign that, well, it's so small as to be insignificant and it's simply a few rich folks escaping tax obligations. Really? "The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence" and there are other sources of information if one is curious and starts looking. Something that, interestingly enough, U.S.-based journalists are not at all motivated to do. And yet the data is there. Patrick Cain, for example, writing for Global News Canada produced this report Canadian data doesn’t support stereotype of the wealthy U.S. expat using public Canadian census data. Another good recent source is the already mentioned 2013 UN study on international migration. Using that study American immigration and emigration are the subject of this Pew article which has this intriguing chart:
In an otherwise very good book about American immigration in a global context, Gabaccia has the same blindness to American emigration as any other American academic or journalist. American emigration is mentioned in just one context - Empire-building in the early 20th century. She gives some tantalizing data (and a a few harsh words) of what Americans abroad looked like in that period: "In 1910, 10,000 American citizens like the Cadens constituted 2 percent of the population of Mexico City; another 11,000 lived outside the capital city, making Americans the third largest group of foreigners (after Spaniards and Guatemalans) in Mexico." And, "In Canada, in 1911, there lived an even more astonishing 303,680 persons born in the United States: they constituted 4 percent of the population."
That was the state of emigration 100 years ago. And in the final chapter of her book which talks about the period from 1965 to the present day, there is nothing. It is as if these Americans abroad simply ceased to exist. (There is one mention of a Chinese Accidental American in the Nixon era.) And that's a pity, not only because I am genuinely interested in this data for obvious reasons, but because I think a discussion of this would have contributed greatly to her overall argument. There is an estimated 6-7 million American civilian citizens abroad in 2014 and I strongly suspect that they aren't out there "Empire-building" any more.
There are reasons why homeland Americans are uncomfortable with the topic of emigration and they are closely tied to feelings about immigration and a sense that the U.S. has lost control over globalization and is facing a hostile world in the early 21st century. And that, I think, is worth a mention or two.