More Questions Than Answers About Immigration

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

About Glenn Kaufmann

I'm an American freelance writer, photographer, and web publisher. I specialize in writing about travel, food, arts, and culture. I also write dramatic scripts for stage and screen. I'm based in Ireland.
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6 Responses to More Questions Than Answers About Immigration

  1. Wow! You gave me brain freeze! And I’m still having to look up emigrate and immigrate everytime I need to use one of these words.

  2. Great questions.
    John A. Jackson (RIP: used to be a sociologist in TCD in Dublin) has written one of the standard texts (‘Migration’, Longman Pearson). He says that there are three criteria – spatial, temporal (time) and social. In other words, if a person crosses a boundary, that’s spatial. If, in time terms it’s at least open to the possibility that it may be permanent, or long-term, that’s the time dimension. At the very least it suggests that a time-limited period, like a course of studies, is not really ‘migration’. And if the person who has made the move has a new social network (i.e. not like the Cork student who goes home to Kerry every weekend, with the washing, and still has a social life entirely around the home place) then that’s another element suggesting that it actually is migration i.e. an intention of a sort to make a new life somewhere or at least to be _open_ to the possibility that it _might_ happen..

    There is no easy answer to this – where, for instance, to seasonal migrants fit in? But, as your point about the American grads getting the local experience and advancing their own careers on the cheap suggests, a lot has to do with intention, attitude, motivation. For most people it’s intangible – there is that moment of gradual realisation (and I’ve been there) when you realise ‘hey, I _might_ be in this for the long term’. All of a sudden the locals, and local culture and politics and everything else, begin to look a bit different and you begin to prepare yourself for the possibility that ‘you’ might become part of the ‘them’, while keeping your own identity. I don’t think that really happens for most students; in the end as students we’re tourists, surfing other people’s worlds. But there are lots of exceptions!

  3. Pingback: Modern Immigration | An American in Dublin

  4. S. B. says:

    I think immigrants can feel a certain fellowship. I have lived in Ireland for a year, and my father-in-law has lived in Ireland for 30 years (from South America originally) and we both talk about “home” together. No one else quite understands how it feels to be so far from family and friends.

    And personally, I don’t think grad students are robbing Irish resources. I considered attending grad school here, but ended up getting my Master’s in the states. I found the non-EU tuition rates in Ireland to be quite high. You have to live here for 3 years to get the EU rates, and you also have to live here for 2 years to collect Social Welfare, so I don’t really see this as showing up and leaching off the system. You generally have to contribute something before you can “consume”, and contributions to society are of course not always monetary. Certainly one could argue that attracting a community of highly educated people would have a certain positive effect on society.

    • cluster says:

      ‘I don’t think grad students are robbing Irish resources’
      I completely agree, S.B. Grad students help to subsidise the system for everybody else while also adding welcome diversity.

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