Transnationalism not Assimilation

By Arturo Sanchez

The contemporary urban landscape is rapidly being transformed by massive waves of non-European immigration. This movement of Third World peoples to the “American City” is viewed by many influential decisionmakers as problematic. In the popular mind, large-scale immigrant clusters are seen as sites of disorder and are associated with the breakup of the national social fabric. Policies of “containment and control” like the recent attacks on immigration, bilingual education, affirmative action, and welfare are presented as a re-imaging of what “America” could and should be.

This dubious linkage between urban disorder and immigration is not a new theme in US political history. For example, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, urban immigration was seen as a threat to the established socio-political order by elites and the emerging middle class. As the United States made the transition from an agricultural to an industrial society, reformers crafted a project to address the contradictions of the Industrial-immigrant City. The rise of urban planning was a central element in this reformist political project. In this context, urban planning and municipal reform were presented as instruments for taming and assimilating the disorderly immigrant masses. These ideological and political assumptions led to a form of community planning that stressed dominant “American” values as a way of homogenizing and assimilating the newly arrived immigrants into the “American way of life.” Clearly, this strain of “American Exceptionalism” looked to obliterate the “subversive” immigrant baggage of unionism, ethnic solidarity, and their linkages to progressive political movements. In this context, urban planning was a clear and explicit political project.

Today international economic restructuring and globalization are transforming the U.S. political economy. Moreover, as the US shifts from an industrial to a service economy it has become increasingly clear that large-scale immigration is not a temporary phenomenon. Immigration is a central component of globalization. Because immigration is a structural element of globalization, progressive planners are faced with an important challenge: How do we address the massive transformations in the political economy and the emerging role of immigration without falling into the anti-immigrant trap of earlier urban planning?

Problems with the Assimilationist Model

New forms of analysis are needed to address the issue of immigration. The mainstream conceptual framework used by most planners to analyze immigration was originally formulated during the early 20th century. This dominant framework, used by social scientists and planners, assumed that individuals made the decision to migrate based on rationally calculating costs and benefits. Moreover, it is argued that the long-term outcome of immigration is the social, economic, and political assimilation of newcomers. This “crisis-driven” assimilationist model clearly stresses the individual migrant’s incorporation into the larger political economy. In a word, the process of “Americanization” is the linchpin that traditionally defines immigrant incorporation. Thus, the fundamental “problem” for the government and planners is supposedly to develop a set of strategies and policies to successfully incorporate immigrants into the national social fabric and the larger political economy.

Contemporary globalization undermines the traditional assumptions used to analyze and address the “immigrant “problem.” New communication and transportation technologies compress time and space and facilitate the easy movement of people worldwide. This spatial integration has been complimented by a set of neo-liberal economic reforms, at the international level, that lubricate the flow of capital, technology, and commodities across national borders. Moreover, as the international economy shifts from a nation-centered system based on barriers and borders to one based on permeability and fluidity, many immigrant workers develop the ability to move back and forth between their respective sending and receiving societies. For many people immigration is not a static place-specific phenomenon. Therefore, a significant number of today’s immigrants are able to maintain strong economic, cultural, political, and physical ties to their place of birth.

In short, large numbers of immigrants are simultaneously carrying out their everyday lives in more than one nation at a time. This new phenomenon has clearly brought in to question the traditional notions associated with place-specific immigration. Traditional immigrant issues such as citizenship, political incorporation, and cultural assimilation are being rapidly transformed.

Globalization has brought to the foreground the limits of the immigrant assimilation model. The qualitative and quantitative changes in international migration require us to develop a new conceptual framework and language that will adequately capture the new phenomena. Recently, a small group of academics and activists have begun to think through and develop a new way of looking at immigration. This emerging approach views immigration as a transnational process that goes beyond the traditional geographical confines of the nation. In other words, traditional notions like citizenship, political activity, entrepreneurship, and culture are de-linked from specific places and spaces.

The New Perspective of Transnationalism

As the international economy becomes increasingly globalized, transnationalism is emerging as a perspective necessary for understanding the new and dynamic realities of immigration. Traditional notions of assimilation and citizenship must be fundamentally re-thought. Many sending nations, such as the Dominican Republic and Colombia, have instituted dual nationality provisions for their respective diasporic populations. These dual citizens now have the option of engaging in political activities in more than one nation. This new development undermines standard notions of political assimilation and what it means to be an “American” citizen. As Laura Liu argues in this issue of Planners Network, many community-based organizations working with immigrants are often forced to straddle the contradictions between naturalization projects and a wide-range of immigrant rights. These tensions will more than likely be refashioned in interesting and dynamic ways as dual nationality provisions are implemented in an increasing number of labor-exporting countries. For example, among Colombians and Dominicans the dual nationality provisions have resulted in increased rates of US naturalization. These supposedly contradictory processes are having interesting consequences. Currently, Colombian and Dominican consular officials are encouraging their respective nationals to apply for US citizenship. The fundamental idea is that via dual citizenship, immigrants will be better positioned to ensure that their political, civic, and economic interests are addressed in both countries.

Transnationalism is undermining traditional notions regarding immigrant enterprises. Historically, immigrant entrepreneurial activity has been viewed as a stepping stone towards economic incorporation and assimilation into the “American” mainstream. These notions are no longer valid (if they ever were). Today, many immigrant enterprises are deeply embedded in a web of transnational networks that condition the “inevitable” process of assimilation. For example, many Dominican, Colombian, and Mexican entrepreneurs in New York City invest their profits in small-scale enterprises and real estate in their countries of origin. In the short term, these investment strategies allow entrepreneurs to strengthen their economic solvency, solidify their social networks, and augment their social status back home. These emerging processes are undermining the place-bound notion of local economic activity. The transnationalization of petty commerce, investments, and family-remittances, is reconstituting and linking business activities, labor markets, and consumption patterns in both receiving and sending societies.

Immigrant Networks

The dense social networks that immigrants maintain and cultivate have also reconstituted everyday cultural practices. As stated earlier, mainstream immigration theory views individual rational-economic calculations as the driving force behind migration. The transnationalism perspective rejects the randomness behind this highly individualistic orientation. Instead we argue that, to a significant degree, migration patterns are socially embedded. In other words, individuals don’t migrate; networks migrate.

The emphasis on immigrant networks as the point of departure brings to the foreground the notions of culture and ethnic maintenance. This is a clear departure from the assimilationist perspective which downplays the dynamics and processes associated with cultural maintenance. For example, in this issue of Planners Network Robert Smith cogently argues that many Mexican immigrants send their children home for extended visits as a strategy of cultural maintenance. Smith goes on to argue that there is a dark side to transnationalism. His fieldwork indicates that the cultural and social dislocations that accompany transmigration are experienced in both sending and receiving societies. In both countries, population movements across borders have increased the levels of street crime and youth gangs, and have diminished traditional notions of social hierarchy and parental respect.

In sum, globalization and its offshoot, transnationalism, have fundamentally transformed the contours of immigration. In light of the resurgence of “American” nativism and conservative social movements, it would behoove progressive planners, activists, and academics to systematically address these new realities. By understanding the underlying political, economic, and social dimensions of transnational migration, progressives will be able to develop viable strategies for resisting the conservative onslaught against newcomers. Progressive planners and political activists must creatively engage immigrants on their own terrain and work collaboratively in developing the knowledge base and tools that will facilitate the implementation of social justice and a respect for ethnic and cultural differences.

Arturo Sanchez is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of City and Regional Planning at Columbia University and a member of the Planners Network Steering Committee.

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