Friday, November 23, 2007

Complexity of Immigrants' National Ties Explored

Interesting discussion on the meaning, and extent of, transnationalism. -Angela

Complexity of Immigrants' National Ties Explored
By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 26, 2007; Page A11

The majority of Hispanic immigrants maintain ties to their native countries by sending money, calling or traveling to their homelands, but most see their future in the United States despite these long-distance links, a new study has found.

Just 9 percent of Latino immigrants are "highly attached" to their birth countries -- defined by researchers as doing all three "transnational activities": dispatching funds, phoning weekly or going home in the past two years. Most sustain moderate bonds by doing one or two. But those attachments fade with time, according to a Pew Hispanic Center report based on a nationwide survey of Latinos.

"What's striking is that although the long-term trend is toward disengagement . . . most immigrants are involved in some form of contact with the place which they're from," said Roger Waldinger, a sociology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of the report. "What we have is a population that, as we tried to describe, is between here and there."

Although research on transnationalism -- having a life that straddles two countries -- is fairly recent, scholars debate how new the phenomenon is. Some say Latino immigrants are in the vanguard of a phenomenon fueled by advances in communications and transportation. Many others, including Waldinger, say this behavior is similar to that of 19th- and 20th-century European immigrants, who often sent letters and money across the Atlantic and later returned home to live. But no one collected the data back then, so direct comparisons are impossible, he said.

There are also disagreements over how transnationalism affects newcomers' commitment to their adopted lands. In the case of Latino immigrants, the Pew study found, transnational activities do not hinder bonds to the United States. More than 60 percent -- recent and long-term immigrants, U.S. citizens and noncitizens -- say they plan to stay and are more concerned about politics and government in the United States than in their native countries.

But the report makes clear that immigrants' interactions with and feelings about their homelands are complicated and varied. The longer Latino immigrants live in the United States, the more their transnational activities drop off and they see this nation as their "real homeland," the survey found. Still, nearly all consider themselves first Peruvians or Mexicans, say, rather than Americans. Although recent arrivals are more likely to send money home, they are less likely to travel home than are established Hispanic immigrants.

As the report puts it: "Home country and host country options coexist among many immigrants and may indeed be mutually compatible."

Just ask Mabelon Obregon, a Peru native who owns a Fairfax City bagel shop. After 15 years in the United States, he said, he rarely sends money to, calls or travels to Peru. Most of his relatives have died or moved, he said. Obregon, 38, is certain his children will always call the United States home. But he said that once he and his wife retire, they might spend time in Peru. "Half year there, half here," he said.

The complexity is further illustrated by variations among different national groups, whose paths are often dictated by country-specific situations, the report says. For example, Cubans, who are mostly exiles, engage in few cross-border activities, because U.S. policies limit travel and money transfers to Cuba. But their identity as Cubans remains very strong, Waldinger said.

Although 70 percent of Salvadorans send money home, only a small percentage travel and call home regularly. That is probably because they are often poor and in the United States illegally or on temporary permits that do not allow most international travel, Waldinger said.

Then there are the Colombians, who maintain the deepest ties, Waldinger said, and who are more likely to be affiliated with ethnic organizations in this country and to own property in their homeland than are most other immigrants. They are also likely to have legal status and greater wealth, he said.

Among them is Fidel Hurtado, 44, who moved to Reston eight years ago from Pereira, Colombia. Hurtado, a bank employee and permanent U.S. resident, said he phones home several times a week, sends relatives money every two weeks and travels to Colombia often, most recently to deliver to Colombian children scholarship money raised by a Northern Virginia nonprofit group.

Hurtado said he will consider himself both American and Colombian once he becomes a U.S. citizen. And he will stay.

"My heart is there, but my strength and my energy are here," Hurtado said.

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