Features — 17 May 2013

pgs. 58-60, The End of Power, by Moisés Naím, Basic Books, New York, 2013)

Nowadays, remittances are more than five times larger than the world’s total foreign aid and larger than the annual total flow of foreign investment to poor countries. In short, workers who live outside their home country – and who are often very poor themselves – send more money to their country than foreign investors, and more than rich countries send as foreign aid.

Not only are there more people today, more of whom live fuller and healthier lives: they also move around a lot more. That makes them harder to control. It also changes the distribution of power within and among populations, whether through the rise of ethnic, religious, and professional diasporas or as individual vectors of ideas, capital, and faiths that can be either destabilizing or empowering. The United Nations estimates that there are 214 million migrants across the globe, an increase of 37 percent in the last two decades. In that same period, the number of migrants grew by 41 percent in Europe and by 80 percent in North America. We are experiencing a Mobility revolution, in which more people are moving than at any other time in world history.

Consider, for example, the effect that accelerated global mobility has had on the US labor movement. In 2005, a half-dozen unions defected from the AFL-CIO to form a competitor federation called Change to Win. The breakaway unions included the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the garment industry union UniteHere; both count among their ranks a higher proportion of low-wage immigrant workers, whose interests and priorities are different from those in the old-line manufacturing and industrial unions like the Teamsters. The impact of the split spilled over into national politics. As Jason DeParle, a reporter at the New York Times, put it: “Change to Win unions played an important (some have argued decisive) role in the early stages of Mr. Obama’s first presidential campaign.” And in his bid for reelection in 2012, Hispanic voters proved determinant. In this unexpected way, international mobility helped to shape political outcomes in the United States – as it is doing everywhere.

Under the terms of the 2009 Sudanese Referendum Act passed by Sudan’s legislature, voters from the Sudanese diaspora, including the 150,000 or so in the United States, were empowered to vote in the 2011 referendum concerning South Sudan’s decision to become an independent nation. Some members of Colombia’s senate are elected by Colombians living abroad. Political candidates for state governor or president from countries with large emigrant populations – for example, for state governorships in Mexico or for president of Senegal – often travel to Chicago or New York or London, or wherever their compatriots have put down roots, to raise votes and money.

By the same token, immigrants are changing the businesses, religions, and cultures of the countries they settle in. In the United States, the Hispanic population grew from 22 million in 1990 to 52 million in 2011, such that now one of every six Americans is Hispanic; they accounted for more than half of the growth in US population in the past decade. And in Dearborn, Michigan, the world headquarters for the Ford Motor Company, 40 percent of the population is Arab-American; its Muslim members have built the largest mosque in North America. Such enclaves are bound to transform coalitions and voting patterns as well as business strategies and even the competition for members of churches. Political parties, politicians, businesses, and other institutions increasingly face competitors that have deeper roots and a better understanding of this new population. The same is happening in Europe, as governments have proven unable to stem the tide of immigrants from Africa, Asia, and indeed other, less wealthy European countries. An interesting case in point: in 2007, a Nigerian-born man was elected in Portlaoise, Ireland, a commuter town west of Dublin, as that country’s first black mayor.

Even efforts to restrict this new mobility can have powerful unexpected consequences. Jorge G. Castañeda, a former Mexican secretary of foreign affairs, and Douglas S. Massey, a Princeton sociologist, explain that in response to the harsher treatment and unwelcoming environment for immigrants in some American states, “many Mexican permanent residents made an unexpected choice: Rather than leave the United States because they felt unwelcome, they became citizens – a practice known as ‘defensive naturalization.’ In the decade before 1996, an average of 29,000 Mexicans were naturalized each year; since 1996, the average has been 125,000 per year, yielding two million new citizens who could then bring in close relatives. At present, nearly two-thirds of legal permanent residents from Mexico enter as relatives of U.S. citizens.” These new citizens are, of course, also voters – a fact that is reshaping the election landscape.

Immigrants also send billions of dollars in remittances to their home countries, promoting economic growth and development. Worldwide, they wired, mailed, or carried home $449 billion in 2010. (In 1980 remittances totaled just 37 billion.) Nowadays, remittances are more than five times larger than the world’s total foreign aid and larger than the annual total flow of foreign investment to poor countries. In short, workers who live outside their home country – and who are often very poor themselves – send more money to their country than foreign investors, and more than rich countries send as financial aid. Indeed, for many countries, remittances have become the biggest source of hard currency and, in effect, the largest sector of the economy, thereby transforming traditional economic and social structures as well as the business landscape.

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