America, the Not So Promised Land – The New York Times

Tara Zahra provides an US historical perspective on return migration (immigrants who return to their country of origin).

In Canada. an estimated one-third of working-age male immigrants leave within 20 years (2006 Statistics Canada study, have not seen anything more recent):

Within Europe, state officials also questioned the myth of the “Golden Country.” This was partly a matter of their perceived self-interest: They were anxious about the number of conscripts and workers lost to “American fever.” But they were also legitimately concerned about the lack of social solidarity in the American “jungle.” The Austrian War Ministry, for example, claimed that “hard labor and an unfamiliar climate, along with the absence of any kind of social protection” resulted in the “complete physical and moral breakdown” of Austrian workers in America.

As European migrants were recruited to replace the plantation labor of freed slaves, some feared that they would be no better treated. Emigration, they insisted, was more likely to deliver migrants to a new form of slavery than greater freedom.

Today’s migrants are not so different from their predecessors. Most make frequent round-trips. They stay in close touch with relatives, aided by low-cost airlines, cellphones and Skype. Many migrants and refugees would like to return home someday, if only they could do so securely. But in a world in which visas are lottery prizes, and refugees die in trucks or find themselves trapped in stateless purgatory, it is not so easy to come and go freely.

In spite of the rhetoric of globalization, we still live with the passports and border controls introduced after the First World War. This system, a response to xenophobic agitation, created the current distinction between legal immigrants and “illegal” aliens. In 1965, the quota system was eliminated, enabling more migrants to come to the United States from Asia, Latin America and Africa. But it remains difficult for migrants to respond nimbly to changing economic or political conditions.

What has not changed is the degree of polarization around migration. Many countries with high levels of migration remain ambivalent about the effects of emigration on their societies. The value of remittances does not clearly outweigh the strain on separated families and the loss of human talent. Migrants continue to have mixed feelings about life in the United States. “We were afraid of poverty,” recalled one family of Bosnian refugees in the 1990s. “We thought we wouldn’t be able to step out on the street because of drugs, murders and similar things. We were afraid that there was no health insurance similar to what we had.”

They came anyway, since “everything looked better than going back to Bosnia with no future at all.”

Americans, meanwhile, are almost perfectly divided about whether immigration makes the United States better or worse, according to the Pew study. Given the overwhelming percentage of Americans descended from immigrants, these attitudes betray deep historical amnesia. We too easily forget the suffering of previous generations of migrants, or imagine that it was redeemed by the relative comfort of their children or grandchildren.

And when these attitudes are combined with xenophobia, punitive migration laws, harsh working conditions and a lack of social support, they raise the same question posed by migrants a century ago. Will my dreams be realized or shattered in America? For most people, the answer will lie somewhere in between.

Source: America, the Not So Promised Land – The New York Times

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

3 Responses to America, the Not So Promised Land – The New York Times

  1. Victoria says:

    You offered some wonderful links in the past day or two, Andrew, and I was very much hoping to read this one in particular. Alas, I’ve hit the 10 article limit.

    I have tried to subscribe. For some reason their purchasing software hates my non-US credit cards. I sent email to their customer service and never got an answer.

    Needless to say I gnash my teeth every time I get one of their “”Special offer. Subscribe now!” advertisements in my in-box.

    Not to say that I’ve given up. I’ve added a NYT subscription to my Christmas wish list and I’m sure that one of my US relatives will take pity on me and offer it as a gift. 🙂

  2. Pingback: Migration not something to fear | From guestwriters

  3. Pingback: Children of Men | From guestwriters

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