Skip to main content

Immigration Nations

Human migration predates the nation-state system by millennia. From the dawn of humankind, climate, topography, and search for new food sources and shelter have contributed to migration. When situated against the backdrop of the human tendency to move, settle, and often move again from one part of the world to another, the nation-state, we recognize, is a relatively recent way of organizing and naming a group of people who live in a particular place and time. In addition, war, genocide, coups d’état, religious persecution, imperialism, and the rise of industry and commerce (industrial revolutions) are added factors that have motivated population movement.

What does all of this have to do with contemporary migration to the United States? Plenty. Most national societies throughout the world are composed of groups differentiated by ethnicity, language, and prior national origin. At the moment of French unification, for example, the contiguous territory known as France was inhabited by people of divergent religious, linguistic, and other ethno-national characteristics: Catholics, Cathars, Occitan, Provençal, Breton among them. As France extended its overseas empire, its colonial departments were populated by various indigenous peoples in Africa, the Caribbean, and what was once known as Indochina. At the moment of German unification in 1871, fears of Eastern European migration led to the creation of citizenship laws that emphasized genealogical lineage, so-called blood ties, over rights and responsibilities as the principal criterion for German citizenship.

In these and other national societies and territories inhabited by diverse populations, dynamics of power, expressed principally in economic and political relationships, identify and distinguish insiders from outsiders. Recent rioting in South Africa in response to the sudden influx of Zimbabweans fleeing civil strife was based, in part, on anxieties over the presence of a new minority group that would, according to one argument, depress the wages of hardworking South Africans and upend the country’s stability. In Greece, the popularity of the new right-wing party named Golden Dawn is based on its leaders’ ability to project a message that blames immigrants, particularly non-European immigrants, for increasing crime, instability, and a heavier tax burden upon properly Greek (read white, European) citizens.

Thus, perceived differences (often religious, racial, or ethno-national classification) become politically salient when people perceive (rightly or wrongly) that certain segments of a population have advantages because of how they are identified in society. Faculty and students affiliated with the Racism, Immigration, and Citizenship Program, which I co-direct with Erin Chung in the Department of Political Science, want to understand why certain immigrant groups enter countries with little fanfare and commentary, while others generate fear, anger, and suspicion. Minority groups, particularly those associated with “cheap”—or in the case of slavery, non-wage labor—are often considered as the least worthy and potentially most dangerous.

Push and pull factors have motivated people from all over the world to emigrate to the United States. In the current moment, the rise in Spanish-speaking populations from Central America, the Caribbean, and South America have generated acrimonious discussions and controversial federal and state legislation, such as the Dream Act and immigration reform laws in Alabama and Arizona. These debates invariably involve matters of national identity: What does it mean to be an American? Does it matter which language will predominate in the United States? What difference does it make if whites in the United States become a numerical minority in the national population? The responses of the U.S. citizenry and its government to these and related questions reveal collective national anxieties and fears, hopes, and dreams, about a society in the process of transformation. Responses to such questions also reveal attitudes and commitments to the economic, political, and social aspects of a democratic polity.

Times of economic crisis often exacerbate perceived and actual differences between peoples in diverse societies. Immigrants, particularly those from minority groups, often provide the easiest target for blame, ostracism, and violence, the source—it would seem—of a society’s socioeconomic problems. Yet in most cases around the world, immigrant laborers occupy the least-attractive, lowest-paying positions and sectors in national economies—jobs, ironically, that are essential to the growth and development of those economies.