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Migrants R Us

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This is the inaugural post of a new blog, which is inevitably a step into a fast-flowing and unpredictable stream. We hope that this will broaden into a forum where Inter Press Service correspondents who cover migration and interested readers can share insights about international movements of people and the economic, social and political issues surrounding them. Given the nature of IPS, many posts will likely reflect points of view and concerns of those swept away in the human riptides.

IPS is a global non-profit news agency headquartered in Rome, with seventy percent of its correspondents coming from countries of the global South. Founded in 1964 to redress the shortage of news of, for and by people in the developing world, today it reaches thousands of print and broadcast news outlets in 27 languages.

Crossover Dreams will be anchored by Peter Costantini, IPS Seattle correspondent, who kicks it off with the following contribution.

The contents and comments are the personal views of the writers and do not represent the views of IPS news agency.


Migrants R Us


by Peter Costantini

We have always migrated: out of Africa, up and down Europe after the herds and away from the ice, back and forth across the expanses of Asia, over the land bridge. Restless legs syndrome has been pandemic throughout the history of our species.

Today most of us are no longer hunter-gatherers, but we all still have to shelter and feed our families, protect them from harm and provide them with hope. For a lot of us, at one time or another, that means moving to somewhere else. Sometimes we bring the family along; other times we come back periodically or send back support.

My family is no exception. My grandfather, Giuseppe Costantini, first came to New York City in 1901 from the village of Rapino in Abruzzo, central Italy. He worked as a pattern maker, a skilled trade, in the ladies garment industry. After moving back and forth several times and getting drafted into the Italian Army in World War I, he finally brought his family over in 1928. Around the same time, other members of his family emigrated to Argentina.

My father, Raffaele, was only 12 when he, my aunt and my grandmother left the port of Napoli for New York. I had always pictured a crossing in steerage and a tense wait in line on Ellis Island. But when I got around to asking him about it, I learned that they booked a cabin on a steamer called the Conte Biancamano, thanks to those good New York wages.

As Dad tells it, he was excited to leave Italy behind and come to America. But once they passed Gibraltar, the Atlantic swells made him seasick and miserable. When they arrived in New York Harbor, though, the family didn't have to go through Ellis Island because my grandfather already had citizenship. The ship docked at a pier in Manhattan, they took the subway to the Castle Hill station in the Bronx, and my grandfather and a friend picked them up in the friend's Packard and drove them to their nearby house.

Dad recounts that once he learned to play baseball the Irish kids stopped beating him up. Changing his name to Ralph and learning to speak English quickly completed the makeover. He and my mother Alice, a native New Yorker, both got an excellent free education all the way through four years of university in the New York public system. He became an engineer and Mom became an artist. Like so many others, my family bet their lives; in return, the city and the country invested in them. I'm one of the fortunate beneficiaries of that deal.

That's how migration was supposed to work. For a lot of people who came to this hemisphere, though, the transition was not so uplifting. For starters, the first immigrants subjected the original inhabitants to rolling genocide and ethnic cleansing. And, of course, many of the early immigrants were involuntary: the multitudes of Africans who were kidnapped and made the crossing chained in hellish holds.

For some of the earlier waves of Europeans as well, particularly the Irish and the Southern and Eastern Europeans, the welcome in the white, Protestant, Anglo-Saxon U.S. was often hostile and repressive. For those from other continents, the picture was usually much worse. From the anti-Chinese riots of the 1880s to the Bracero program of the 1960s, racism and xenophobia tinctured the dominant view of them as nothing more than cheap, disposable labor.

That commodification of human beings continues today in the ranks of the anti-immigrant movement and as a subtext of those who stoke it, from Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona, to Lou Dobbs of CNN. It still finds a niche in the official guest worker program, H-2 visas, as the Southern Poverty Law Center and others have exposed. And it lives on in discrimination against farmworkers, who are mainly Latin American and, not by coincidence, are excluded from many labor laws that apply to other workers.

Economically, mass migration is usually a symptom of other forces that drive people to leave their homes. When rich and poor countries border each other, the demand for workers in the former and lack of work that can support a family in the latter can exert a gravity-like pull. The North and Central American Free Trade Agreements have contributed to driving small farmers off the land in Mesoamerica, and other forms of economic liberalization have made it harder for most people there to make ends meet. "Financial flows can cross borders. Corporations can cross borders. Goods can cross borders. Only workers can't cross borders under current rules", as Chris Newman of the National Day Laborers Organizing Network put it.

But cross they have, in the millions. And then many of them have returned home and crossed back again repeatedly - a pattern my grandfather would recognize - in a huge mandala of circular migration spanning many decades. The Mexican Migration Project, a joint effort of researchers at the Universidad de Guadalajara, Mexico, and Princeton University in the U.S., has documented this pattern in an exhaustive longitudinal study of thousands of migrants.

Many of the immigrants coming to the States now are as "American" as those of us who were born here, in two senses.

Geographically, those from Latin America were already Americans before they came. As many will remind you, all the people of our hemisphere, North, Central and South, are Americans. They call it "nuestra America," our America. I doubt Amerigo Vespucci would naysay them.

Temperamentally, many of them are entrepreneurs and risk-takers, a key element of our national mythology. Like my father's family, they are wagering their future on an arduous journey to a new place. This makes them the latest protagonists of an archetypical American story, the one the inscription on the Statue of Liberty is talking about.

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

- Emma Lazarus, 1883


P.S.

I've been writing for IPS for 15 years. Over the past three years, most of my stories have been about immigration. Most recently, I've written two pieces about jornaleros, the day laborers who wait for work on sidewalks outside many building supply and garden stores across the country.

LABOUR-US: Demand Dries Up For On-Demand Workers * Dec. 23, 2008
http://www.ipsnews.org/news.asp?idnews=45205

MIGRATION-US: Building a House for Day Labourers * Feb. 2, 2009
http://www.ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=45642

The IPS "Migrants and Refugees" page, http://www.ipsnews.org/indepth/migration, links to stories from around the globe.

Although I will publish my posts in English, I hope other IPS correspondents will contribute to this blog, including those who write in Spanish and French. I'll do my best to translate their posts into English, along with the comments of readers who prefer to write in either language.

La pagina IPS "Migraciones: Puentes y Muros" aparece en español a http://www.ipsnoticias.net/_focus/migracion.

Aunque este aporte se publique en inglés, espero que contribuyan a este blog otros corresponsales de IPS, incluso los que escriben en español y francés. Haré como mejor puedo para traducir en inglés sus palabras, así como las de los lectores que prefieran comentar en castellano.

La page IPS "Population" apparait en français à http://www.ipsinternational.org/fr/population.asp.

Bien que cet apport se publie en anglais, j'éspère que d'autres journalistes de IPS contribuent à ce blog, y inclus ceux qui écrivent en français et espagnol. Je ferai mon mieux à traduire leur mots en anglais, aussi bien que ceux des lecteurs qui préfèrent commenter en français.