An Immigrant Makes Migration a Subject for Life
Reprinted with permission from Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive Company and The Washington Post
The Washington Post
Demetrios G. Papademetriou likes to call it "the super specialist's revenge."
Bridging the worlds of academia and think tanks, he took the topic of migration and borders, mastered it and turned it into a personal and professional passion. The issue is the soft underbelly of globalization, touching the most sensitive nerves about living space, jobs, identity and culture.
This week Papademetriou, 55, leaves the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he has been a senior associate and co-director of the International Migration Policy Program, to start the Migration Policy Institute, an independently funded spinoff. In that unique Washington space between knowledge and policy, the Greek-born American scholar has made it his business to translate the wordy world of academic papers into options.
In the Greek coastal city of Patras, his father urged the 18-year-old Demetrios, a young man with good grades who was constantly criticizing the system he lived in, to compete for a Marshall Plan scholarship to an American university. In 1964, he won and headed off to Wilkes College in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., where he received his BA in political science and history in 1970.
"At first, I was completely lost. I spoke little English." But "the rest is history," said a smiling Papademetriou, with soft blue eyes and white beard. His office is stacked with cardboard boxes and the neat clutter of a man who knows his mind.
He washed dishes and waited on tables until the month he defended his PhD dissertation on "The Social and Political Implications of European Labor" at the University of Maryland in 1976. His father's remittances from Greece were limited to $150 a month, $60 of which went for rent. His daily dinner consisted of two eggs, over easy, and three slices of bread, which cost 40 cents.
He ended up teaching in the area of immigration for seven years until he was named executive editor of the International Migration Review in New York. "I became attached to the topic because it was what I knew," he said. "Running a professional journal kept me imbued. For the first time, the subject became my life and my life became the subject. Before, it was just a job. After that I drew no distinction between what I did for a living and the rest of my life."
That experience was also his springboard into more direct involvement in policymaking. When President Jimmy Carter formed a commission on immigration and refugee policy, Papademetriou said he knew his topic "had legs."
He worked at the Labor Department in 1988 as director of immigration policy and joined Carnegie in 1992 with the encouragement of Doris Meissner. At Carnegie, he turned the program he ran into a financially independent unit with governments around the world consulting him before formulating immigration policy. He claims vast experience in countries as varied as those of the former Soviet Union, as well as Italy, Portugal, France, South Africa and Canada.
"He is a larger-than-life figure," said Meissner, who headed the Immigration and Naturalization Service in the Clinton administration. "He lives and breathes his work."
One morning, on his way to work -- which is usually at 4:30 a.m. -- he pulled over to the side of Interstate 395 to jot down a thought. When the police came up to his window, Papademetriou was stooped over a yellow pad, pen in hand. "He became director of a project I created and took it to an entirely new level," Meissner said.
"He understands the practical realities of the policymaking process," she added. He played an important role during the first Bush administration in work leading to the 1990 changes in immigration law, and at negotiations that led to the North American Free Trade Agreement, Meissner noted.
Now he gets to start his own think tank with a global role. "One of the most influential institutions will be born next month voicing its opinion around the world, not just to Capitol Hill," said Moises Naim, editor of Foreign Policy, the bimonthly review published by Carnegie.
Papademetriou said his success comes from his "bullishness, being an immigrant and believing in the value of what I do, never to take anything for granted, never to take no for an answer." He has never been paid by a foreign government and is often at odds with some who come seeking his counsel. "We are just advocates for good public policy, not pro-immigrant this or anti-that," he said.
One of his favorite recent successes is a paper on U.S.-Mexico migration issues that took four years of biannual secret meetings to develop. Three of the Mexican participants ended up as key figures in the new administration of President Vicente Fox. "I just wanted a consensus document. Then Fox gets elected. This was serendipity," he said.
"We sent a letter to both him and President Bush on Feb. 14. They met on Feb. 16. There were ideas on the table coming out of our report."
"I will only see myself as being as good as the next product I produced or the next argument I won. This is not about hard work. This is about identity," the burly scholar emphasized.
He had a touch of "cultural wistfulness" while visiting Patras last year during its fabled carnival. He had missed the familiarity of the tastes, odors and sounds. But he sees himself through the lens of the United States. "This is my point of reference, this is my frame of comparison," he said. "I was shaped here, not there."
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