15 November 2005

Eugenics, an American point of view

[Eugenics - The study of hereditary improvement of the human race by controlled selective breeding.]

“The overwhelming number of immigrants who came to the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were really in search of economic opportunity. They were in search of better jobs, higher wages, education for their young, a better livelihood and better lives down the road. But they were also concerned - and this was especially true of minority groups in parts of southern and eastern Europe - with political liberty, the ability to participate in the political system, the ability to function in the world without the oppressiveness of a totalitarian regime. And, of course, they were also interested in religious liberties.

The vast majority of immigrants who came to the United States spent at least some time in cities. Many ultimately would go out to the countryside and would be engaged in farming activities, but most spent some time in the cities. And many made their livelihoods and their futures in the cities as industrial workers. Naturally, with such high concentrations of immigrants, it changed the whole nature of American urban life. Foreign language newspapers appeared. Stores that catered to the specific food needs and consumer desires of the newcomers arose. The newcomers themselves used the high concentration of population in cities as ways of launching themselves as entrepreneurs - push carts, small stores; these were the ways that many of these newcomers entered the economy. The cities buzzed with the activity that came out of these various immigrant groups.

America was the glowing land of opportunity, but when they actually arrived, they discovered something else other than a glowing land of opportunity. They discovered at best a land that had jobs, but often a land that was not completely receptive to them and where they would in some cases suffer even greater hardship and poverty than they had in their home countries.

Not everyone who came to the United States liked it. Not everybody who came to the United States succeeded in the way that they thought they ought to. Many were also lonely for family and for friends. In some cases, men returned to find wives because they weren't happy with the women who they met in the United States. They wanted a woman from the old country who understood the ways of their group.

And so there was a constant flow, a circulation, if you will, of immigrants back and forth between their home countries and the United States. And some groups were actually labor migrants.

[There was a kind of] love-hate relationship that the United States and its people had with new arrivals in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. On the one hand, the United States desperately needed the labor of these newcomers. On the other hand, they were strange to many Americans. They were of different religious persuasions. They were poorer. They looked different from most native-born Americans. And so, there was a fear of the stranger. On the one hand, we wanted immigration. On the other hand, we didn't want immigrants. And so there was an effort to repel those newcomers, sometimes by simply discouraging them, not giving them jobs, not being decent to them and fair to them in terms of housing, and so on.

There was also an effort to pass laws and restrictions that would repel newcomers. Many Americans felt that they needed protection from these immigrants, protection from their bodies and protection from their culture.

Opposition to immigration was really of two kinds. There were Americans who feared that the newcomers would take their jobs or drive down the wage scale and resisted immigration because it simply wasn't in their own economic best interest to support immigration. American labor unions, including the American Federation of Labor, opposed immigration very often because the immigrants worked for lower wages.

But there was another genre of immigration opponent that was concerned with who the immigrant was and what the immigrant was. Organizations like the Immigration Restriction League was concerned about the racial composition of these newcomers. In the United States and in other countries of western Europe during this period, there was an increasing attention to eugenics, the belief that you could improve the human condition and improve human stock by careful breeding.

Overall, eugenicists looked at immigration as an enormous challenge. Not all immigrants were inferior, but many eugenicists believed that it would be to the advantage of the United States to limit immigration severely, particularly from parts of Asia and parts of southern and eastern Europe, precisely those areas that were the big donors of immigrants to the United States in the late nineteenth, early twentieth century. And so eugenicists became major advocates of limiting immigration.”

[Entire Citation: Alan Kraut, Professor of History, American University, in an interview with PBS.]

13 November 2005

The transnationals

Immigrants have not remained the same over the years. They have changed from one generation to another, becoming more modern in their outlook to immigration and what it means to their current generation. Compared to the once-in-a-lifetime moves that the earlier immigrants had made years ago, the contemporary immigrants are likely to move back and forth between their country of origin and the new host country. Thereby, creating an entire generation of transnational ethnic communities moving around the world.

However, these transnational ethnic communities tend to split the socio-economic and political loyalties among migrants, creating an imbalance in the societies they migrate to, and slowing down the process of absorption and integration I had written about in my previous posts. These transnationals (that’s the nomenclature used to categorise them) tend to organise themselves around their own ethnic communities, obviously relying on a common language and a common cultural heritage.

There are other changes as well. According to Rina Cohen of The Institute of International Affairs of the B’nai Brith Foundation, Canada, which studies the immigration of Jews into Canada, “In most cases, transnationals become bilingual and bicultural, but different communities may exhibit various levels of cultural separatism in relation to the host society.” In a chapter titled, The New Immigrants: A Contemporary Profile, she writes:

“Individuals who took part in large immigration waves in the past never fully cut off their bonds with the homeland. However, they rarely returned. Due to the financial and technical limitations of the time, these bonds primarily lasted in the cultural and sentimental domain, and were seldom manifested in active shuttle movement or intensive communication across borders. Economic ties with countries of origin were demonstrated through periodic monetary remittances to both relatives and charitable organizations. Although many of the immigrants of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries fostered the dream of return to their homeland, for most of them, in reality, it never happened and settlement in the host countries was a once-in-a-lifetime, irreversible process. Thus, integrating into the host community was a necessary element in a successful process of immigration.”

Today, there is something else to be factored in. And that’s technology. With the developments in telecommunications and the Internet, the transnationals have taken on another hue. No longer is it necessary for them to travel anywhere physically. The technologies allow the transnationals – or anyone, for that matter – to be in more than one place at one time. Which means maintaining physical and social links with their country of origin is now that much easier.

All this is, of course, changing the socio-economic and political order of both receiving and sending countries.

12 November 2005


"A nation, in that sense, is like a very large extended family. Now, in the great settler nations, such as the United States and Australia, which experienced continuing, periodic immigration, the cultural element in nationhood has been much more important than the ethnic element. Even though the new immigrants arrived bearing existing cultural heritages, they went through a process – partly automatic, partly conscious policy – that assimilated them into the existing cultural identity of their new nation. The entire English-speaking world, unlike the bureaucratic European Union (EU), is designed to both assimilate and retain their immigrants’ private cultural and ethnic identities from their past lives. Hence, while immigrants were assimilating into the culture of the United States, there was a second process going on as well: the national identity of the host country was assimilating influences from the immigrants’ ethnic cultures.

Because of this great absorptive capacity and ability to turn immigrants into Americans in a relatively short time, America is not naturally a multicultural society. It has an enriched common culture that draws upon different cultures to produce a distinctive mix in which members of the society have common memories and allegiances. They can look back to the same heroes and sing the same songs, and from that everyday culture they draw ideas, emotions, and memories that they can exchange easily with one another. Such a civilizational society is quite different from multiculturalism, which asserts that numerous cultures should remain distinct within the society and that assimilation involves surrendering an important part of one’s soul. The English-speaking world, by contrast, is open to these cultural influences, which means that newcomers are not only able to adapt to it but also are able to retain enough of themselves not to feel that they are surrendering their souls. The society that emerges from such a process – when it is well done – is a relatively stable, effective one that unites people.

Immigration, of course, always creates problems for both host and immigrant. For example, when large numbers of Irish Catholics began to immigrate to America in the nineteenth century, they were seen by most Americans, who were Protestants, of course, as incompatible with the nation’s liberal political traditions… In fact, the history of almost all American immigrant groups includes a period of "ghetto" ethnicity followed by assimilation and absorption into the wider society.

Thus it seems likely that in order for absorption to work, a society must have either moderate, steady immigration, which makes assimilation possible, or periods of great immigration followed by pauses in which the country absorbs and digests those who have arrived."

[Entire Citation: "The European Challenge to American Power" by John O'Sullivan, American Outlook, March-April 2001]

10 November 2005


Re-adjustment is an issue with immigrants of all types – not just those who cross borders illegally.

While some immigrants adjust willingly and easily to a new culture, other immigrants have strong attachments to their culture of origin and find such a transition difficult. A few immigrants even develop the ability to negotiate two cultures comfortably, without sacrificing their identification with either culture.

Ethnic identity comes into play and involves attitudes, values, behaviours, and evolving changes in the social context. The older the individual immigrant, the more strongly embedded are these attitudes, values and behaviours. During a geographic re-location, the process of a new identity formation is challenged. Simultaneously trying to learn a new language, dealing with a new culture, relating to peers, finding employment… creates stress and pushes back the re-adjustment process.

Faced with such challenges, what is an immigrant to do?

According to Christine J. Yeh, Department of Counseling and Clinical Psychology, Teachers College, Columbia University, studies have identified four coping strategies that immigrants can use in their acculturation process:
1. Assimilation – i.e. interaction with individuals from the host culture and devaluation of one’s own culture,
2. Integration – i.e. maintenance of one’s culture as well as interaction with individuals from the host culture,
3. Marginalisation – i.e. rejection of one’s culture of origin as well as avoidance of individuals from the host culture, and
4. Separation – i.e. maintenance of one’s culture of origin and minimal interaction with other groups, especially individuals from the host culture.

Easier said than done! This is pure theory and difficult to implement – or even rehearse – in one’s own life. Rarely does the acculturation process proceed without problems. It is usually stressful, and difficulties in adaptation crop up everywhere. To start with, one of the major barriers for immigrants is learning a new language.

There’s more. In many cases, differential acculturation takes place, creating generation gaps within immigrant families and groups in terms of values, expectations, attitudes and behaviours. These heighten family/group conflicts and delay the overall re-adjustment process.

08 November 2005

An immigrant's life

For illegal immigrants, the grass is not always greener on the other side. Life is degrading, even traumatic. Most illegal immigrants stay in groups, making up their own campsites, before venturing out to build shacks as shelters. Food is scarce. Water even more scarce. Sanitation is a serious problem… leading to diseases… and death. The weather is merciless. And, there’s always the lurking fear of getting caught by border patrols. Beaten, tortured, raped. Deported. For illegal immigrants, life sucks!

Only while reading a
paper called ‘The Life of Illegal Immigrants’ on the Internet did I find out aspects of an illegal immigrant’s life which I had no clue of. The paper, which draws heavily on Leo R. Chavez’s 1992 book, "Shadowed Lives: Undocumented Immigrants in American Society," about lives of illegal immigrants in the United States, explains, for instance, that the illegal immigrant’s border crossing can be viewed in three phases: separation from the known social group or society; transition; and incorporation into the new social group or society. Each phase has its own idiosyncrasies and challenges… to be overcome.

In the end, it leaves something to think about: "What we must realize is that people can have a common goal and still have their own identity, therefore retaining their culture and still having a sense of patriotism to the United States."

I wonder if the US is listening.

07 November 2005

Never mind the consequences

Lives and livelihoods are subject to insecurities. And, this fact is particularly true for the billions who inhabit the developing countries. In countries like Mexico or Bangladesh, where millions of people work in the agricultural sector, whose incomes from production suffer everyday due to market fluctuations and recessions, this problem takes on a serious note. Added to this are the insecurities of the millions who are unemployed, and those who work without proper employment contracts.

Unlike developed nations, most developing countries don’t even have formal social protection mechanisms like social security or unemployment benefits or healthcare endowments of any kind. When income from agricultural production suffers, or jobs disappear, people have little to fall back on. The need for food, water, shelter, healthcare become powerful drivers for migration to urban areas, or across borders. For many, crossing international borders in the search of income opportunities seems like the only answer… no matter what the consequences are.

And what consequences are we talking about? The US-Mexico border is a case in point.

Illegal immigration across the US-Mexico border has always been a problem for the United States. Border patrols have been active for decades, but over the years have become mired in corruption. So, a new strategy is in place. On the US-Mexico border, the US government has decided to deploy military troops (over 10,000 soldiers in the last count), besides the usual border patrol, to stem cross-border migration. Some fear, these troops are not trained to help or save people, but rather to engage illegal immigrants in combat – to search and destroy, and to kill.

Even farmers and ranchers in Arizona, Texas and California have decided to take matters in their own hands. Not only have they driven illegal immigrants off their properties, some ranchers have even shot the aliens and left them to die in the desert. Imagine having to live through poverty in your own country, then heat-strokes and dehydration in the desert – even hypothermia at night – only to be shot down like dogs when you’re closer to civilization… and to living your dreams!

This, of course, has increased tensions between the two countries. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has stepped in. Human rights activists and the media are out there doing their jobs, but no solution seems to be in sight. Meanwhile, cross-border migration continues unabated, never mind the consequences.

Closer home, illegal immigrants across the Indo-Bangladesh border perhaps face a similar predicament.

05 November 2005

Should borders be open?

Whether it’s choice or necessity, people migrate… temporarily or permanently. Perhaps, what’s important is to regulate it, manage it better, rather than put a stop to it altogether.

This was one of the viewpoints expressed when BBC News Online asked several economic and political commentators to outline their views on whether countries should operate an open border policy.

In their introduction to the online article, BBC News stated, “The issue of migration is high on the political agenda for governments around the world. Western governments are often under pressure to restrict the entry of migrants. Developing countries find themselves losing highly-skilled professionals while at the same time receiving important revenues from emigrants.”

According to Brunson McKinley, director general of the International Organization for Migration, “…when managed effectively, migration holds great potential for migrants and for host communities. The ultimate goal is not to obstruct or prevent mobility but to better manage it for the benefit of all.”

Free movement of people is supposed to be a fundamental human right, but some felt that borders are essential to nationhood and, therefore, the idea needed to be sanctified.

For instance, Sir Andrew Green, chairman of MigrationWatch UK, spoke against an open border policy. He stated matter-of-factly, “Given the huge disparities of wealth, open borders would lead to massive flows of people from the third world to the industrialised world until conditions there approximated to their home countries. This would be a recipe for chaos and would be entirely unacceptable to the inhabitants of the industrialised world.”

Jagdish Bhagwati, Professor of Economics at Columbia University, New York, raised another point. He felt migration was not always a matter of economics or politics. Often, communitarian arguments were brought in to moderate or to limit the flows of people across borders. In his view, creating a proper world body – something along the lines of the International Labor Organisation – to steer and regulate the process of migration could help deal with the issue.

To learn more, log on to Should Borders Be Open?

04 November 2005

Can India learn from the U.S.?

Illegal immigration is not just India’s problem; it’s an issue the world over. Millions of people cross over borders in African nations due to war and oppression. Millions from African, Asian and Arab countries migrate to Europe for jobs and better living. However, the U.S. is still the most attractive destination for immigrants, with a constant flow of illegal crossings over the U.S.-Mexico border.

According to Centre for Immigration Studies (CIS), “There are an estimated 10 million to 12 million illegal aliens in the country, a number estimated to grow by more than 400,000 a year.” Another CIS report states that this illegal immigration problem is unlikely to go away or reduce in magnitude as “communities of recently arrived legal immigrants help create immigration networks used by illegal aliens and serve as incubators for illegal immigration, providing jobs, housing, and entree to America for illegal-alien relatives and fellow countrymen.”

How does the U.S. government tackle this problem?

“The standard response to illegal immigration has been increased border enforcement. And, in fact, such tightening of the border was long overdue. But there has been almost no attention paid to enforcement at worksites within the United States. Nor has there been any recognition that the networks created by high levels of legal immigration contribute to mass illegal immigration.”

In an article Use Enforcement To Ease Situation in The Arizona Republic dated October 23, 2005, Steven A. Camarota, Director of Research at CIS, says: “To deal with the problem some advocate a mass amnesty coupled with increased legal immigration, while others want mass deportations. But there is a third way: attrition through enforcement.”

And, here’s the scary part: Camarota boldly advocates, “If America becomes less hospitable to illegals, many more will simply decide to go home. To do this, we should enforce the law barring illegals from holding jobs by using the national databases that already exist to ensure that each new hire is legally entitled to work here… Attrition through enforcement is really the only option if we want to solve our illegal immigration problem. Implementing such a policy will save taxpayers money, help American workers at the bottom of the labor markets and restore the rule of law.”

Is there a lesson for India here?

[Citation: The Center for Immigration Studies]

02 November 2005

Nowhere people

The illegal immigrant problem continues between India and Bangladesh. According to a South Asia Forum for Human Rights’ (SAfHR) working paper, “the more they try to grapple with ‘security concerns’, the more it eludes them.” The working paper is authored by Ranabir Samaddar, who has also authored a book, ‘The Marginal Nation: Transborder Migration from Bangladesh to West Bengal’ on the subject of cross-border migration originating between the two countries.

No-where People from the Indo-Bangladesh Border, as this working paper is called, highlights the human rights aspect of the problem:

“The unfortunate reality is that both India and Bangladesh wish the problem to vanish, both wink at each other, both suffer the nightmare of millions of peasantry on the move, both adopt communal vision and denounce these people who are voting on the state-system in South Asia with their feet, and both desperately pray that these nowhere people somehow vanish, giving the political class of the two countries relief.”

“Solution, to the problem of ‘illegal immigration’ within the traditional ‘security perspective’ seems to be an impossible goal. However, if the ‘problem’ is not perceived essentially as a security problem – i.e. an invasion of a country by illegal immigrants from another – but rather, if the states could be persuaded to see this as a human problem – i.e. indigent people crossing international borders in search of a decent livelihood – then hopefully we could find a solution through a combination of measures.”

But Samaddar just doesn’t leave the discussion to human rights. He feels the implications of cross-border migration affects socio-economic and political issues as well. As he says,
“In this reappearance of partition politics, cartographic, communal, and political lines are being replicated within the borders, creating new visible and invisible frontiers. The unique feature of these nouvelle frontiers being produced internally is that these are not vertical lines separating two spaces, but concentric circles continuously dividing and reassembling these divided spaces into the universe of the nation, law, citizenship, rights, obligation, morality, and habitation.”