Mass. -Throughout history, immigrants have shared a
common fate: Hearts may lie in the old country but fortunes
depend on the new.
Traditionally, transplants said good-bye to home and family
and started a new life. But today, it's a smaller world
where cheap airfares and telecommunications shrink distances
and expand possibilities.
"Today you can call each night from Jamaica Plain to the
Dominican Republic and say, 'José, do your homework!'
You can really be involved on a day-to-day basis," says
Peggy Levitt, assistant professor of sociology at Wellesley
College and associate at the Weatherhead Center for International
Affairs at Harvard University.
While it may be easier to keep a foot in both worlds, that
advantage creates concerns for what Levitt calls "The Transnational
Villagers" in her new book by the same name (University
of California Press, July 2001).
Levitt, who lives in Concord, Mass., studied immigrants
from a town in the Dominican Republic who moved to the Boston
neighborhood of Jamaica Plain. As she investigated their
lives, she saw a phenomenon: One village extended across
an international divide.
"When somebody cheats on his wife or gets a visa or dies,
the news travels as fast here as it does down there," Levitt
said. "This is why I call them the transnational villagers.
It is living your life across borders so that you are engaged
in regular social, economic and political activities that
span national boundaries."
No longer do immigrants leave behind a homeland to adopt
a new country. "We have this idea in the United States that
immigrants may become U.S. citizens and sever their connections
to their home communities and countries," Levitt says."But
a lot of that is based on immigrants at the turn of the
last century, when the great migration came from Europe.
Now we have a whole new wave of migration that started after
1965, primarily from Latin America and Asia. These people
are not severing their ties. This book offers an in-depth
examination of how people live transnationally--and the
social and political consequences of that. It explores how
these dynamics ask us to rethink what we mean by membership
Living between two worlds creates opportunities and problems.
"When migrants travel regularly between sending and receiving
communities, their health care and education is uncoordinated
and can lead to poor outcomes," Levitt said. "One solution
would be greater cooperation between home and host country
health and educational systems."
Transnational migration has positive economic effects for
the home and host country. "Migrants do many of the jobs
that native-born workers in the U.S. no longer want to do,"
Levitt said. "At the same time, they are also supporting
many of those who remain behind who cannot find work because
of economic underdevelopment."
In fact, migrants often organize benefit associations that
make major contributions--an aqueduct or a baseball stadium,
for example--to their hometowns. "They want to go back home
to retire," she said.
"They want a comfortable place to go home to visit."
The downside to support is the loss of a cultural and economic
base back home. "Farming, which was the main occupation
of choice, has become non-viable in many parts of the Dominican
Republic,"Levitt says. "There is a whole generation of kids
who do not want to do farming because it is more prestigious
to go make a lot of money in the United States. They are
waiting around to emigrate and not involved in any profitable,
Dependency and unrealistic expectations follow. "People
grow accustomed to a level of consumption that they can't
support with their own resources," she says. "Everybody
has a VCR, a TV and a CD player but they couldn't have bought
these things themselves. As a result, some values of solidarity
or hard work are no longer respected."
Loss of a way of life can be especially devastating if the
immigrant experience doesn't work out as well as expected."
Some people are totally displaced by this, and they are
not making it anywhere, in this country or the other one,"
What's the solution? Dual citizenship is one way to ensure
that people contributing to two economies are taken care
of no matter which country they reside in. "A lot of people
are up in arms about this, saying it's like polygamy: How
can you be married to two countries?" Levitt says. "You
could try to stop it but I believe this is the way of the
world now. So let's give people the tools to live and progress
wherever they want to be."
Levitt points out many contributions made by immigrants,
who form a much-needed work force in this country.
"They also bring a lot of resourcefulness and culturally
enriching elements to society," she says. "This is what
our country was founded on--and this is how we should continue
to think of ourselves." For more information, go to Levitt's
Web site at peggylevitt.org
or contact Wellesley College at 781-283-2373.