E.g., 06/30/2024
E.g., 06/30/2024
Transnational Migrants: When "Home" Means More Than One Country

Transnational Migrants: When "Home" Means More Than One Country

The assumption that people will live their lives in one place, according to one set of national and cultural norms, in countries with impermeable national borders, no longer holds. Rather, in the 21st century, more and more people will belong to two or more societies at the same time. This is what many researchers refer to as transnational migration.

Transnational migrants work, pray, and express their political interests in several contexts rather than in a single nation-state. Some will put down roots in a host country, maintain strong homeland ties, and belong to religious and political movements that span the globe. These allegiances are not antithetical to one another.

Take Shrewsbury, a Boston suburb with expensive homes and neatly trimmed lawns. It seems like any other well-to-do American community. But the mailboxes at the end of those long driveways reveal a twist: almost all are labeled "Patel" or "Bhagat."

Over the past 20 years, Indian immigrants from Gujarat State have moved from villages and small towns in western India, first to rental apartment complexes in northeastern Massachusetts, and then to their own homes in subdivisions outside Boston. Watching these suburban dwellers work, attend school, and build religious congregations here, casual observers might conclude that yet another wave of immigrants has successfully joined in the pursuit of the American dream.

A closer look, however, reveals they are pursuing Gujarati dreams as well. They send money back to India to open businesses or improve family homes and farms. They work closely with religious leaders to establish Hindu groups in the United States, to strengthen religious life in their homeland, and to build a global Hindu community transcending national borders.

Putting Transnational Migration in Perspective

Transnational migration is not new. In the early part of the 1900s, European immigrants also returned to live in their home countries or remained active in the political and economic affairs of their homelands from their posts in America.

Some things are new, however, including ease of transportation and communication, the mode in which migrants are inserted into the labor market, sending-states' increasing dependence on remittances, and the policies they put in place to encourage migrants' enduring long-distance nationalism.

Moreover, not all migrants are transnational migrants, and not all who take part in transnational practices do so all the time. Studies by sociologist Alejandro Portes and his colleagues reveal that only five to 10 percent of the Dominican, Salvadoran, and Colombian migrants surveyed in the U.S. regularly participated in transnational economic and political activities; even occasional involvement is not universal.

Most migrants are occasional transnational activists. At some stages in their lives they are more focused on their countries of origin while at others they are more involved in their countries of reception. Similarly, they climb two different social ladders, moving up, remaining steady, or experiencing downward mobility, in various combinations, with respect to both sites.

But if few migrants engage in transnational activities on a regular basis, do their activities really merit serious attention? The answer is "yes" for several reasons.

The regular activities of a few combined with those who participate periodically add up. Together, they can transform the economy, culture, and everyday life of whole source-country regions. They challenge notions about gender relations, democracy, and what states should and should not do.

For example, migration has completely transformed life in the Dominican village of Miraflores. Young women no longer want to marry men who have never migrated because they want husbands who will share in the housework and take care of the children the way men who have been to the United States do.

Transnational Migrants and Integration

Many people feel that pursuing American and home-country dreams at the same time is a recipe for disaster. In his recent book, Who Are We?, the American political scientist Samuel Huntington argued that the United States is headed toward its own internal "clash of civilizations" because Latinos remain behind linguistic and political walls and do not assimilate Anglo-Protestant values.

Huntington and others believe countries need newcomers to subscribe to a core set of shared values to continue to survive and thrive. If people stay active in their homelands, they say, how will these migrants contribute to the countries where they settle? In addition, dual loyalties can seem suspect, particularly after the September 11 attacks.

However, the experiences of Gujaratis and others like them in the U.S. suggest that transnational migration is not a long-term threat to assimilation, nor does it take away from migrants' ability to contribute to and be loyal to their host country. As increasing numbers of migrants live parts of their social and economic lives across national boundaries, the question is no longer whether this is good or bad, but rather, how to ensure they are protected, represented, and that they contribute something in return.

When migrants live their lives across national borders, they challenge many long-held assumptions about membership, development, and equity. Understanding this reality requires new methodological and conceptual tools. It also requires new policy responses.

Analytical and Conceptual Shifts

Using a transnational lens to understand migration requires letting go of methodological nationalism or the expectation that social life logically and automatically takes place within the nation-state framework. Instead, it means locating migrants within the transnational social fields in which they may or may not be embedded.

Within their various levels, social fields contain institutions, organizations, and experiences that generate categories of identity that are ascribed to or chosen by individuals or groups. Individuals can be embedded in a social field but not identify with any label or cultural politics associated with that field. Because they live within a social field, they have the potential to act or identify with it at any particular time, though not all choose to do so.

Conceptualizing the migration experience as taking place within social fields is important for several reasons. First, it moves the analysis beyond those who migrate to those who do not actually move but who are connected to migrants through the networks of social relations they sustain across borders.

One does not have to move to engage in transnational practices. Because people who stay behind are connected to migrants' social networks, they are exposed to a constant flow of economic and social remittances (or ideas, practices, and identities that migrants import) on a regular basis. Even individuals who have barely left their home villages adopt values and beliefs from afar and belong to organizations that operate transnationally.

Second, a social field perspective reveals the difference between ways of being in a social field and ways of belonging. Anthropologist Nina Glick Schiller defines ways of being as the actual social relations and practices that individuals engage in rather than the identities associated with their actions. In contrast, ways of belonging refers to practices that signal or enact identities which demonstrate a conscious connection to a particular group. For example, an individual may invest, vote, or belong to a religious community that links them to their country of origin, but he or she may not identify at all as belonging to a transnational group. The person is engaging in transnational ways of being but not transnational ways of belonging.

Individuals who engage in transnational ways of being and ways of belonging take part in transnational practices, but also actively identify with groups that span space. Ways of belonging combine action and an awareness of the kind of identity that action signifies.

Third, a social field perspective also emphasizes the multiple layers of transnational social fields, not only their multiple sites.

For example, a study of the religious experiences of Brazilian immigrants in Boston would map the connections between local congregations in Boston and Brazil and their ties to the national denominations operating between and across each context. This includes ties to the national Brazilian denomination, ties that the immigrant congregation develops with its U.S. denominational counterpart, and ties that emerge between the U.S. and Brazilian denominations at the regional and national level.

It is not enough, therefore, to look at the local-to-local connections. It is also critical to examine how these connections are integrated into vertical and horizontal systems of connection that cross borders. Rather than privileging one level over another, a transnational perspective holds these sites equally and simultaneously in conversation with each other and tries to grapple with the tension between them.

Finally, locating migrants within transnational social fields makes clear that incorporation in a new state and enduring transnational attachments are not binary opposites. Instead, it is more useful to think of the migrant experience as a kind of gauge that, while anchored, pivots between a new land and a transnational orientation.

Movement and attachment is not linear or sequential, but capable of rotating back and forth and changing direction over time. The median point on this gauge is not full incorporation but rather simultaneity of connection.

Persons change and swing one way or the other depending on the context. Rather than expecting full assimilation or full transnational connection as the ultimate goal, we expect some combination of the two. In fact, it is more likely that migrants will engage in selective transnational practices on a periodic basis. The analytical task is to explain why migrants manage the pivot in the way they do and to specify how host country incorporation and homeland ties mutually influence each other.

A transnational lens, then, is both a perspective and a variable. It departs from a different set of assumptions about social organization than those usually employed by social scientists and policymakers. It locates migrants within social fields that combine several national territories rather than expecting them to move back and forth between two impermeable nation-states, and exchange one national identity for another.

For instance, studies of the South Asian experience in the United States cannot look only at the immigrant experience in America. The American experience is also a product of what goes on in India, the United Kingdom, South Africa, and other countries where South Asian immigrants live.

The analyst begins by asking what kinds of home, host, and other-country factors are at play and then empirically studies their impact. In some cases, sending-country factors will not be important. The key, however, is that the analysis begins from a transnational, rather than a national, standpoint and then examines each case.

Challenges for Policymakers

What does a transnational perspective mean for policymakers? Transnational problems demand transnational solutions, but traditional institutions and policymaking tools are not up to the task. I have highlighted here nine challenges that transnational migration poses for immigration and development-related policy.

1. Social categories may not be what we think

Those who live transnationally define their class, race, and gender according to at least two cultural yardsticks. Where do people fall on the poverty line when they receive Section 8 housing vouchers in the United States while they are building a house in their home country? What about individuals who cannot afford their rent in the United States because they are too busy sending remittances? To what extent does wage labor "liberate" migrant women who are now responsible for maintaining two households at home and abroad?

These questions bring to light the need for broader frames of reference that can capture migrants' economic and social experiences in multiple places. Those seeking to solve problems facing individuals, households, and communities need to consider the transnational social field in which they are embedded.

2. Who is the target population?

Transnational migration creates at least three distinct categories of experience – those who actually migrate, those who stay behind but receive support from those who migrate, and those who do not migrate and have no sources of outside support.

Clearly, those who have no outside support are the most needy. Not only do they lack access to the resources generated by migration, but they live in a cultural context where goods beyond their reach have become the norm. Households and communities become accustomed to a lifestyle they cannot sustain on their own. There are fewer incentives for sending states to pursue economic reforms with the arrival of each remittance check.

The unequal distribution of migration's rewards also creates a disjuncture between the needs of the individual and the collective. Migration might endow individuals with more money to go to school or to get health care, but it does not always bring about related improvements to the educational or health care system. This disconnect between the better-off individual and the perpetually needy collective also creates a challenge for targeting programmatic resources.

3. Conflicts between migrant and non-migrant interests

Over time, migrants' and non-migrants' interests tend to diverge. Many migrants want their homeland to stay the way it was before they left. They want a place that is comfortable for visits or retirement. Who should speak for the village or the nation? How can migrant concerns be taken into account without discounting the priorities of those who remain behind? Should sending states devote resources to emigrants that could help those at home?

Another way of putting this is, whose voice should be heard? Since migrants pay for many development activities, their priorities often come first. Similarly, governments and political parties interested in courting migrants sometimes pander to their interests at the expense of those who stay behind.

4. Development, but at whose expense?

Migrants make major contributions to community development. Some argue, however, that despite improved living conditions and infrastructure, such projects disproportionately burden migrants and make them responsible for functions that states should rightfully assume.

One solution is to build capacity, strengthen organizations, and increase skills so that migrants can protect their interests more effectively. Another strategy is to foster collaboration between grassroots groups so that communities work cooperatively.

5. The possibility of simultaneity

A transnational perspective reveals that host-country and enduring homeland ties are not incompatible. All too often, these two loyalties are seen as opposed, if not as antagonistic to one another. The challenge is to use the resources and skills migrants acquire in one context to address issues in the other.

For example, transnational entrepreneurs in the U.S. are more likely to be U.S. citizens, which suggests that being a full member in their new land helps them run more successful businesses in their countries of origin. Similarly, some Latino activists use the same organizations to promote participation in American politics that they use to mobilize people around homeland issues.

Some of the associations created to promote Dominican businesses in New York, for instance, also played a major role in securing the government's approval of dual citizenship on the island. Exploring mutually reinforcing activities and the kinds of institutional arrangements that allow them to emerge is important.

6. Social remittances: a potential resource?

Social remittances are the ideas, behaviors, identities, and social capital that migrants export to their home communities. They include ideas about democracy, health, and community organization. They differ from global cultural flows in that it is possible to identify the channels through which they are disseminated and the determinants of their impact.

Social remittances are both positive and negative. While some see migrants as a force for greater democratization and accountability in the Dominican Republic, others hold them responsible for rising materialism and individualism.

Can social remittances be purposefully harnessed to improve socioeconomic indicators in both sending and receiving countries? Is there a way to disseminate certain types of information to particular target audiences? Similarly, could information about health practices be purposefully channeled to healthcare providers or educators serving migrants in the U.S.?

7. What are the rights and responsibilities of transnational membership?

Along with the benefits of dual membership come responsibilities. But the rights and responsibilities of dual belonging are not clear.

For one thing, it is not readily obvious which state takes responsibility for particular aspects of transnational migrants' lives. Where should those who live across borders get health care, pay taxes, or serve in the army? Which state assumes the primary responsibility for migrants' protection and representation? What happens when migrants are sentenced to the death penalty in their host country while such a sentence is forbidden in their country of origin? How can dual members' interests best be represented and protected? What should states expect in return?

8. The second generation

A transnational approach to migration still remains controversial. While some admit that transnational activism may be important for the first generation, they predict that these ties will disappear among transnationals' children. It is unlikely that the children of immigrants will be involved in their ancestral homes in the same ways and with the same intensity as their parents.

However, since many of these children have been raised in households saturated by homeland influences, even those who express little interest in their roots have the knowledge and skills to activate these values and identities if and when they decide to do so.

For instance, the children of Mexican immigrants who travel to Mexico and return better able to understand the meaning of being Mexican in New York are exercising their membership in a transnational social field. The children of Gujaratis who go back to India to find marriage partners, or the second-generation Pakistanis who begin to study Islam and Pakistani values when they have children, are doing so as well.

At critical stages in their lives, these individuals may activate the potential contacts and identities available to them and become transnational activists. Instead of discounting the role of the second generation, transnational strategies need to take this potential pool of participants into account.

9. The possibilities for pan-ethnicity

One reason why new immigrants' interests are seldom taken into account in their host country is that they do not naturalize, vote, or make campaign contributions at the same rates as the native born. Strong minority coalitions are difficult to come by.

The relationship between transnational involvements and pan-ethnic mobilization needs further attention. If immigrant political advancement sometimes competes with participation in homeland politics, then transnational loyalties are likely to pose an even greater challenge to creating viable pan-ethnic and/or minority coalitions.


Critics will say that if migrants earn their living in the U.S., their income, skills, and philanthropic efforts should remain in the U.S.. In India or other source countries, they may argue that emigrants have no right to a political voice because they have abandoned ship and lost touch with the day-to-day realities in their former homelands. These are valid concerns. We are entering new territory. There are no easy ways to balance transnational migrants' rights and responsibilities.

Grantmakers, policymakers, and those in the field cannot balk at these questions. The challenge is to figure out how individuals who live between two cultures can best be protected and represented and what we should expect from them in return. To meet it, we need to acknowledge the interdependence between the United States and sending countries and begin to solve problems by looking outside the nation-state box.

Rather than seeing remittance flows as a drain on the U.S. bank account, we can see them as a way to rectify years of uneven development. Rather than seeing Dominican and Colombian transnational political groups as suspect for their dual agendas, we can see them as strengthening democracy at home and fostering political integration into the United States. Instead of seeing Pakistani and Indian entrepreneurs as part of homeland brain drain, we can seek ways to turn their efforts into brain gain.

People in the 21st century will claim multiple political and religious identities, to both national and transnational groups. The critical task is to understand the way individuals and organizations actually operate across cultures, and the costs and benefits of these arrangements. It is to understand how ordinary individuals and organizations negotiate these challenges, who wins and who loses, and how they redefine the boundaries of belonging along the way.


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