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How American immigrants change the rest of the world

What we’re ignoring in the great debate over our borders

A woman in front of her home in a Mexican village, built with money her 18-year-old son sent home from the United States.For The New York Times

America’s long-running argument about immigration has reached a boil this summer, and as usual the political discussion has focused on domestic issues, including border security, the impact of immigrants on American jobs, and the proper way to deal with people who have come to the United States illegally. Proposals for reform are weighed with one question in mind: How will they help or harm our country and the people who live here?

But the American immigration system, which at last count had led to around 40 million foreign-born individuals living inside our borders, also has a huge effect on the rest of the world—something most of us don’t tend to think about at all. Part of it is driven by remittances, the billions of dollars sent back to friends and relatives every year; part of it is more personal, with families abroad split by restrictions on who can work in the United States, and for how long. Returning immigrants can also change their home cultures by carrying back American habits, values, and ideas.


For over a decade, Boston University sociologist and international relations expert Susan Eckstein has made a specialty of studying this often overlooked flipside of American immigration. Her own focus is on Cuba, where the communist government’s efforts to maintain class equality have been challenged in recent years by Cuban-Americans sending home money and presents to their families.

In a new book, “How Immigrants Impact Their Homelands,” co-edited by Eckstein and Boston University professor Adil Najam, himself a Pakistani transplant, a group of international scholars surveys the marks that the movement of immigrants around the globe can leave on the places they once called home. The examples range from families in the Philippines being reshaped by the flow of nurses and caretakers into the United States, to wealthy bankers from China boosting the economy back home with financial expertise and capital newly acquired in the United States.


Most Americans, Eckstein said, “are definitely not thinking about the impact that immigration has on other countries. In the globalized world in which we’re living, it’s a shame that we’re only focusing on one side of the equation.”

What emerges through the research in the book is a remarkable portrait of American influence abroad—a force that the United States exerts not through diplomacy or economic policy but through millions of individuals building their lives around American opportunity. It is a reminder that immigration law, though we often neglect to see it this way, is its own form of foreign policy.

Eckstein spoke to Ideas by phone from Martha’s Vineyard. This interview has been edited from two conversations.

IDEAS: Your personal research is on Cuban immigration. How are the lives of Cubans who have family in the US different from those who don’t?

ECKSTEIN: An incredible new inequality has emerged in Cuba. The families who have access to remittances have televisions, have Nikes, have
iPhones. And things like that have become status symbols in Cuba, including among youth. So the youth in Cuba are very much attuned to the values of their peers in Miami, because their peers in Miami come home to visit and bring them these goods and tell them all about it....In many respects, it’s contributing to a “Miamization” of Cuba, since that’s where so many of the immigrants have settled in the United States.


IDEAS: Beyond money, what’s an example of how American immigration policy can have effects overseas?

ECKSTEIN: The US has immigration laws for bringing nurses to this country, in order to offset a demand for nursing in the US. And the government in the Philippines is in essence training nurses with the idea that they’re going to work abroad. When the moms go away, they do it as part of a family strategy—they’re not just doing it for themselves, they’re going to earn money that can be used for their children’s education, health care, and so on. But what this has done is many children are growing up without their mothers. And the men resist caretaking—so the work falls on other female family members, such as grandparents and aunts, and that’s contributing to a restructuring of the Filipino family. Children sometimes even call their grandparents and their aunts “mom.”

IDEAS: The book suggests we can also affect countries through decisions about whom we deport.

ECKSTEIN: Under the Obama administration, there has been an increase in the deportation of undocumented immigrants, including youth. And the deportation of Salvadoran undocumented workers, particularly from the Los Angeles area....what has happened, and what certainly wasn’t intended by American [policy makers], was that it brought US gangs to El Salvador, because the Salvadoran youth had become affiliated with the gangs in the inner cities of Los Angeles. So when they were deported, they took the gangs with them. Now they have trans-nationalized the Los Angeles gangs—they’ve strengthened them.


IDEAS: We’ve heard about countries losing talented people when they migrate here—what’s known as a “brain drain.” But can there be positive effects for those countries as well?

ECKSTEIN: Many Indians have come to the US to work in the high-tech sector in Silicon Valley. They were able to come to the United States because of special legislation for high skilled workers....So on the one hand, India has been losing its skilled labor force. But what happened in this case wasn’t just your classic brain drain, with Indians moving to the United States and the home country being depleted of their human capital. [Instead] many Indians returned home—and they did so in part because the H1B visas are only temporary visas, which work for three years and are renewable for another three years. So after six years, some of them...brought back the money they made in the United States, their contacts, the skills they developed, and used it all to start the software industry in India.

IDEAS: Are there countries where the official attitude toward immigration to the US is markedly positive?

ECKSTEIN: In Mexico there was this idea initially that you were being unpatriotic if you emigrated. But President Fox, starting in 2000, changed the public image of immigrants to heroes. Why were you a hero? Because you were sending money back home and helping the Mexican economy—you weren’t just rejecting your homeland, you were helping your homeland....In Ecuador there’s literally a special day called The Day of the Absent Ones—it is a way that the government, at the symbolic level, conveys the sense that immigrants are part of the home country, they haven’t been forgotten, and they are embraced.


IDEAS: You’ve written about the manicure industry in the US, which is dominated by Vietnamese immigrants.

ECKSTEIN: The case of the Vietnamese manicurists is really, really interesting. It’s a kind of labor activity that Vietnamese women immigrants started on the West Coast, and by now half of all manicurists nationwide are Vietnamese. So, they have become very associated with it in the US—but it is not a skill they initially brought with them from Vietnam. It was created here as they sought employment....Now the Vietnamese are so associated with manicuring that in Vietnam women who are considering immigration have started to learn the skill already there, so that when they come to the United States they can start working almost immediately....It’s also become more common for people to get manicures in Vietnam.

IDEAS: Immigrants have long mattered back in their home countries, but you argue that technology is now amplifying the effects.

ECKSTEIN: With modern communication and transportation becoming cheaper, immigrants can actually have stronger ties to their homeland. It’s no longer so much an either/or, where you immigrate or you remain in your homeland. It’s much easier now to do both.

IDEAS: Why do you think the effect of US immigration policy on the rest of the world is not a bigger part of the debate here?

ECKSTEIN: I think Americans have historically seen immigration as a one-way process. The [focus] has always been on assimilation, the melting pot—it’s as if immigrants’ lives started at the border when they came here.

IDEAS: What would you tell people who have followed the debate only in terms of its American implications?

ECKSTEIN: Americans need to be reminded that we are living in an increasingly globalized world, and the stance that we take on immigration does have ripple effects internationally, and I think they should really be thought through. For instance, those who want undocumented people deported—one has to think about what some of the consequences are, which the advocates of deportation I think are oblivious to.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail lneyfakh@globe.com.