This week’s post was supposed to be “A Brief History of Immigration”, but as I began to delve into the topic I realized that there is nothing brief about this subject. It’s been going on in one form or another since prehistoric man picked up his/her bundle of sticks and followed the herds. So, I’m putting the history of immigration off until I can do something like justice to the topic. That said, I’ve been thinking a great deal this week about emigration/immigration and what it means to be an “immigrant”. Sadly, I think I have more questions than answers. Perhaps you can help me puzzle through a few of them
When we ask ourselves what are the most common reasons why people willingly leave (or flee) their homes to live in another country, the most common answers typically have something to do with money, shelter, food, persecution, and family. Mind you, those are just the broad strokes categories. To be sure, there are a host of other reasons why mankind is perpetually on the move. And once you throw in things like slavery and colonization, the gumbo gets really thick. Are slaves, and colonials really, truly immigrants?
To answer that you’ve first got to get beyond the question of why these people relocated, and drop into second gear, or, “how” they moved (or were forcibly relocated). Is “immigrant” simply a function of moving from one country to another, or is the classification also dependent on motive? Are slaves not immigrants? If your gut reaction is to answer no to that because slaves were moved against their will, then what about the MetLife employee forcibly relocated (albeit by his company) to Somalia or northern Greenland? Let me be clear, I’m in no way comparing human trafficking to corporate wage slavery, but the actuary in our example was forcibly relocated somewhere against his will.
Is immigration time dependent? Are students studying in Ireland for three years any less of an “immigrant” than a relocated software coder during those three years? Is the person who has dreamt of living in Ireland since they were ten, saves up, and finally makes their move more worthy of being called an immigrant than the guy who gets a wild hair one Thursday, and has a flat in Galway by the following Tuesday?
It seems like “immigrant” is just the term for people who go, period, with no regard for why, or how. But in today’s world, where there are seemingly so many more ways to respond to the how and why, it’s hard not to make judgments about people’s motives. From the point of view of the people who were born and raised in the immigrant’s new home, it must be hard not to make judgments and ask questions with an eye/ear on, “Is this person going to contribute or consume”?
While we are on this subject, this past weekend I sat down with a group of recently arrived expatriate Americans. There were two graduate students in the group. While the students were quite nice, it occurred to me that the reasons they’d chosen to emigrate came down to a fairly cold calculus. The university they’d chosen in Dublin was of a very high quality, relatively low cost, and offered a comparatively quick way to get their degrees. When I heard them say this, I felt a little tickle in the back of my brain. Within 24 hours it had metastasized into a full-blown brain leech that would not be ignored.
Is this student brand of immigration any less of a form of resource colonization than zinc mining in Africa? Sure, the university and the country are taking in money in the form of tuition and living expenses. But colonizers always spend money in the countries they “take under their wing”, but that’s still money that primarily benefits the colonizer (food, shelter, clothing, and entertainment), and pales in comparison to the riches they extract. Are foreign students taking admission slots that could be given to deserving locals?
And are they “immigrants” if they come here knowing they will leave in three years? My in-laws still think (at some level) that they’ll probably move back to India in the next few years. It’s a view they’ve held since they came to North America over forty years ago. Yet you would be hard pressed not to call them immigrants.
When are you truly an immigrant, and what makes that difference? I don’t feel like an immigrant yet. Is that important? Is the real determining factor when society starts treating me as an immigrant?
I recently heard someone say that all immigrants around the globe have more in common with each other than they do with the residents of any other country (be it the country they emigrated from, or their new home). The point was that the act of emigrating is so affecting, and does such a complete job of changing one’s view of the world, that as an immigrant you well and truly become a citizen of a worldwide immigrant population, and are no longer “of” or “from” any one country.
I’m not sure I buy that.
I welcome your thoughts?
Things to look forward to in upcoming posts:
- Modern Immigration
The Logistics of International Moving