How do immigrant lives remain linked to their home countries? When are these ties problematic? How do the links differ from generation to generation and from one immigrant group to another? Immigrant leaders and immigration scholars at the University of Minnesota addressed these questions February 1 at the University of Minnesota. The conference, titled Linked Lives: When are Immigrant and Refugee Engagements Problemetized? was sponsored by the Institute for Global Studies, the Immigration History Research Center, the Department of Sociology, the European Studies Consortium, and the MN Department of Education‘s Refugee School Impact Grant.
Dr. Donna Gabaccia, Director of the Immigration History Research Center, delivered the keynote address, and gave some historical context through which contemporary diaspora populations in the United States could be understood. Challenging common assumptions that immigrants “lose” their ties to the homeland, Gabaccia gave examples of how immigrants and refugees, throughout the history of the United States, have stayed connected with their countries of origin, through letters, political activities, and return trips home.
According to Gabaccia, immigrants have used whatever resources they have to maintain relationships with their friends and family back home, and that “linkage” has persisted for a very long time, often over several generations. She said that while sometimes second and third generation immigrants have less passion for their home countries, it is also the case that younger generations can become more politically engaged than their first generation parents. The obvious example, she stated, was “the Israel lobby,” but other examples of politically active immigrant communities come from Cuba, Latvia, and other European countries. She said the African American community, while they came to the United States by force, have historically been active in shaping U.S. foreign policy toward the African continent even after many generations had passed.
Americans often ignore “linked lives”, Gabaccia stated, until an incident such as the 11 Somali men who returned to join the Al Shabab terrorist army occur. It is in such incidents that “linked lives,” become problematic for U.S. citizens, Gabaccia stated.
Gabaccia gave a few other examples of instances when the political engagement of immigrant populations became problematic for U.S. citizens. One example Gabaccia gave was the Fenians, Irish Immigrants who oppposed British oppresion of Ireland. Many Fenians served in the U.S. Civil War, and wanted to use the skills they learned to help those back home. They invaded Canada in order to distract the British Army from its war against Ireland.
Another example involved Italian American anarchist Gaetano Bresci who assassinated the Italian king Umberto I, and was afterward hailed as a hero among his community.
Gabaccia also described Chinese American merchants, upset with the discrimination they endured in the United States, influencing Chinese-U.S. relations through their connections back home, which resulted in the 1906 Chinese boycott of American goods. “That was a short, powerful expression of how immigrants could mobilize and influence policy,” Gabaccia stated.
Family and Community Relations
Following Gabaccia’s keynote address, a panel met to discuss “Transnational Family and Community Relations”. Moderator Awa Abdi, from the Department of Sociology, led the discussion with Imam Sharif Mohamed from Masjid Dar Al-Hira and Mariano Espinoza, the Executive Director of the Minnesota Immigrant Freedom Network.
Mohamed said he came to the United States from Somalia during the Somali civil war in 1996, and at the time knew no English. He said many Somalis want to travel back home when the political strife has settled. He also said that the trauma from the war in Somalia affects the community members in the United States, and that most Somalis living in the United States support family members or friends living back home. The financial support, he said, “is seen as an Islamic obligation.”
Mariano Espinoza, from the Minnesota Immigrant Freedom Network, said that the Latino community had pressing concerns about the challenges that immigrants, particularly undocumented immigrants, face in the United States. Many fear simply going to work each day, Espinoza said, for they might get deported and separated from their families. In addition, the poor economy has created job losses and struggles between Latino and non Latino workers. Espinoza also spoke of the difficulties that undocumented workers face when they can’t get health care or social security.
Another major concern, Espinoza said, was the lack of educational opportunities for Latino immigrants. According to Espinoza, there are 50,000 Latino students enrolled in the K-12 system in Minnesota, but only 17% of them enroll in college. Inability to obtain scholarships is a major barrier for non citizen Latinos going to college. Espinoza said that as the baby boomers retire, there is a greater need for highly educated Latinos to add to the revenue pool for social security.
Espinoza also said that many Mexican and Latino Immigrants were connected to their friends and family back home. “I have friends who talk to their Mexican family members one and a half hours to two hours a day,” Espinoza said. In addition, Mexican immigrants are concerned about the political situation back in Mexico, and some invest in hospitals, roads, etc that are much needed back home. Indeed Mexican politicians have campaigned in the United States, especially in Chicago, because they know how much financial and political influence Mexican Americans have on what goes on back home.
A third panel discussion focused on “Geopolitics and Homeland Connections” and featured panelists Ahmed K Sirleaf II, from the International Justice Program with the Advocates for Human Rights, Lee Pao Xiong, Director of the Center for Hmong Studies at Concordia University, and Walter Anastas, a member of the Ukrainian-American Community Center. In this panel, the panelists talked about points of contention that diaspora communities have had with U.S. policies toward their home countries.
“We were used by the United States and the let go,” Xiong said, referring to Hmong soldiers helping U.S. soldiers during the war in Vietnam and the recent grievances Hmong people have had with the U.S. government, such as the arrest of General Vang Pao in 2007 and its inaction regarding the recent forced repatriation of more than 4,500 Hmong from refugee camps in Thailand to Laos. “The U.S. is not on our side at all,” Xiong said.
Sirleaf, too, spoke of grievances that the Liberian community has against the United States. Liberia, which was founded by freed slaves in the 1820s, has its largest U.S. immigrant population in Minnesota. Liberia has suffered civil wars and coups for twenty years, between 1980 and 2003, according to Sirleaf.
Sirleaf said that Liberian Americans pleaded with the United States to intervene during the 20 year conflict, with little result. “The U.S. has not been there for us,” he said. Still, because of pressure and political lobbying from Liberian Americans, hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission brought to light the root causes of the conflict in Liberia, the human rights violations, and the impact on women, children, and the greater Liberian society. (See here for Anna Pratt’s article about the commission for the Minnesota Independent) Sirleaf currently is helping to organize a petition to defer enforced departure for Liberians, whose temporary status in the United States expires March 31.
Walter Anastas, from the Ukrainian-American Community Center, said there were four main waves of immigrants from Ukraine. The first wave, from the 1880s to World War I, consisted of mainly land-poor farmers traveling here for economic reasons. The second wave consisted of urban, well-educated Ukrainians immigrating for political, social and ideological reasons. These immigrants initiated organizations that influenced policy, some of which still exist. The third wave occurred after World War II through 1951, consisting of survivors of labor and concentration camps, and these refugees reinforced the existing organizations that influenced U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union. The fourth wave, which occurred beginning in the 1960s, consisted of immigrants coming to the United States for economic reasons. These immigrants, Anastas said, have maintained strong connections in the home land, often traveling back and forth.
Many Ukrainians, he said, will travel to Ukraine for the elections on February 7 between Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych. Ukrainian Americans will either vote in the election, if they have dual citizenship, or observe. According to Anastas, one candidate wants to maintain European relations and the other wants to join back with Russia. The latter candidate, according to Anastas, doesn’t like the diaspora population interfering with Ukrainian politics.
Also discussed in the panel was the way that diaspora populations disagree over U.S. policy toward countries of origin. For example, Hmong people disagree about whether to take military action back home or whether to assimilate here, Xiong said. Moderator Donna Gabaccia concluded that the actions of the U.S. government toward diaspora populations, and toward the countries from which immigrant populations originate, can change over time.