Symposium tracks changing trends, forces driving migration

Migrants and asylum seekers are increasingly crossing a treacherous part of the Atlantic Ocean to reach the Canary Islands, a Spanish archipelago near West Africa, in what has become one of the most dangerous migration routes to European territory. Photo: Associated Press
By News@TheU

Migrants and asylum seekers are increasingly crossing a treacherous part of the Atlantic Ocean to reach the Canary Islands, a Spanish archipelago near West Africa, in what has become one of the most dangerous migration routes to European territory. Photo: Associated Press

Symposium tracks changing trends, forces driving migration

By News@TheU
Sociology scholars from around the world convened for a virtual conference hosted by the University of Miami on Thursday to explore shifting tendencies in international relocation and the implications for global social change.

The first of four sessions of “International Migration and Social Change at a Global Turning Point,” hosted by the University of Miami Institute for Advanced Study of the Americas, School of Law, and Department of Sociology, examined the effect on migration of U.S.-China competition for hegemony, the forces driving the movement of peoples, and new elements of violence—land grabs, climate change, the expansion of cities, among others—that are prompting mass relocations.

Felicia Knaul, professor at the Miller School of Medicine and institute director, launched the session by acknowledging that she is the proud daughter of a migrant and of a migrant refugee who lived through a genocide. She thanked the panelists for their timely scholarly contributions that seek to make the “world a better place in the future.”  

Scarlet Biedron, a sophomore studying criminal justice, introduced the panelists and moderated the opening session.

In “Dreams of Hegemony: Global Competition and Its Consequences for the International Migration Regime,” Min Zhou, director of the Asia Pacific Center at the University of California in Los Angeles, highlighted China’s “aggressive pursuit of global power” that challenges U.S. hegemony and also the escalating tensions between the two countries in past years.

Chinese migration to the U.S. has shifted from low-skilled to high-skilled workers—approximately 60,000 since 2000 with no signs of a decline, according to Zhou.

While the potential exists for the two countries to view the transnational scenario as a “triple-win”—both countries and the immigrants themselves benefitting from the exchange—Zhou noted that worsening relations and restrictive policies portend new hardships and complicate integration for the migrants.

Zhou added that the pursuit of these “dreams of hegemony” between the two countries would lead to unintended consequences and instead urged “new and innovative developments in theory, methodologies, and empirical research at this historical juncture.” 

Douglas Massey, a professor at Princeton University, identified four driving forces—demography, economy, climate, and governability—that will continue to shape global migration.

He noted that only 3.4 percent of the world’s population live outside their country of origin, and that in North America that percentage is 16.4 percent.

According to Massey, migration patterns of the past few decades have been essentially tied to globalization—migrants seeking better economic opportunities elsewhere—yet in the future, patterns will be increasingly “spasmodic” and tied to external shocks. He noted that Europe, in particular, will be a target for international migration because it “sits in the crosshairs” of a number of trends that produce large migration flows.

“We’re moving into a very different kind of world, one dominated by refugees escaping threats rather than pursuing opportunities—these different kinds of flows will produce even more challenge,” Massey said.

Saskia Sassen, professor of sociology, co-chair of The Committee on Global Thought at Columbia University, and author of many books, suggested that an “emergent third subject”—nameless and invisible to the eyes of the law—will be a major agent in the new migration narrative.

These new migrants are the victims of land grabs, climate change, and the expansion of cities perpetrated by foreign firms, governments, and investors operating globally. These acts, Sassen said, are producing a massive expulsion of small farmers around the world.

“We, especially the powerful countries in the world that are producing all kinds of new machines, are actually pushing people out, restricting the space of the migrants, and hence they have to become migrants,” Sassen said.

“These are not migrants pursuing opportunity, but instead a kind of migrant who is escaping desperate situations,” she said. “We have to start bringing them into the conversation about migration.”

David Abraham, Miami School of Law professor emeritus, wrapped up the first session by summarizing the main points and broaching alternative perspectives.

—Michael R. Malone

Immigrants help their new nations thrive

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted many countries to close their borders and adopt a nationalist perspective, this view will not help nations build rich, robust economies, experts said during the second panel, “International Migration and Development in the Midst of Global Crises,” of the International Migration and Social Change webinar.

In fact, the tightening of borders, which seemed to be happening before the pandemic amid a rise of populist leaders, will only exacerbate the inequality between rich and poor across the world, the experts remarked.

What’s especially unsettling is that immigration policy is now shaped solely around migrants’ economic contributions, but neglects to consider these people humanely, said Natasha Iskander, an associate professor of urban planning and public service at New York University, who studies migration and economic development.

“Immigration policy is becoming a hardening of labor market stratification, where some people have access to full rights, and others have access to fewer or no rights,” she said. “This has emerged in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, where now we have classes of essential workers whose labor is valuable but whose life is not.”

Meanwhile, Iskander noted that there are some examples of how nations could work together on immigration and public health. After World War II, the Bretton Institutions were founded to oppose economic nationalism and the policy helped unite the economic futures of countries as a strategy for peace, Iskander explained. “There are ways to work across borders to protect solidarity and equity as a means to protect health,” she added.

Raúl Delgado Wise, a professor at the Autonomous Universidad de Zacatecas in Mexico, and Alejandro Portes, a sociology professor at the University of Miami and Princeton University, also touted the many contributions—economic, social, and cultural—that immigrants add to their new home nations. They pointed out that making it more difficult for immigrants to gain citizenship in places like the United States is a missed opportunity for national growth.

In particular, Delgado Wise has studied how Silicon Valley has profited from the influx of immigrants, which has benefited the United States’ entire economy. He said that immigrants are often a source of innovation, and this is demonstrated by the number of patents registered in the past 20 years—which has increased more than in the past two centuries.

Portes agreed, noting that although economic opportunity is often the reason people immigrate, there have also been many instances where refugees have left their countries to escape violence and unrest. And they end up helping their new nations thrive.

“Look at the German Jewish migrants, who escaped the Nazis and made immense cultural and economic contributions to their receiving countries,” he said, adding that Iranian refugees have helped boost the economy in California.

Miami, in particular, has benefited from the knowledge and business sense of Cuban and Venezuelan refugees, Portes added. “As a mayor recently told me, Miami is a product of the political crisis in our backyard, and we have become the beneficiaries of that human and economic capital,” he said.  

Although climate change is now prompting even more people to migrate, according to Portes,  nations should not see this as a threat. Albeit the benefits of immigrants to a nation are long term and difficult to measure, he added. This is why populist leaders often try to reduce the number of immigrants flowing into their countries, he noted. But in doing this, they are undermining their own nation’s development.

“The principal contributions and profits of migration and development have taken place in the countries receiving immigrants,” Portes indicated. “Not everyone in the receiving countries recognizes this; and instead, they often accuse foreigners of horrible things.”

—Janette Neuwahl Tannen

Climate change increases mobility

Thomas Faist has never had any doubts that climate migration—the forced movement of people from their homelands because of changes in their environment such as heavy flooding and sea level rise—is a considerable societal challenge. The bigger issue, he said, is how to conceptualize the politics of migration in the context of climate change. 

“Research on climate change and migration needs to move beyond narrow concepts such as climate migration or climate refugees and look at migration and mobility as part of the transnationalized social question,” Faist, a professor of sociology of transnationalization, migration, and development at Bielefeld University in Germany, said in opening the third session, "International Migration and Transnationalism Responses from Below” at Thursday’s symposium. 

If there was any doubt that climate migration exists, Faist quickly erased those disbeliefs with a few harsh statistics, noting a 2018 World Bank Report that said climate change could force more than 140 million people to migrate within countries by 2050. And when current data from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre in Geneva are factored in, about 25 million people were internally displaced in 2019 alone—more than three times the number displaced by violence and conflict. “We can find similar numbers when we look at international migration,” Faist said. 

While terms such as “environmental migrants” and “climate refugees” are well known, such categorizations are not helpful when it comes to understanding environmental destruction and social inequalities, said the Bielefeld University scholar. 

“It’s well known that migration is multi-causal,” he explained. “When we look at the research over the past 20 years, most of it found that climate change did play a role—but together with other political and economic factors.” Displacement, he said, can also be driven by other factors such as land grabbing, which occurs when local communities and individuals lose access to land they previously used. 

Faist, one of three presenters during the session, also pointed out that environmental destruction not only increases the mobility of people but also decreases their mobility. He  noted populations that are trapped by climate stressors.  

In her presentation on “Transnational Connections and Dispossessions: Pandemic Visons and Conjunctural Insights,” Nina Glick Schiller, a senior research partner at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, discussed how the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is intensifying the use of migration industries. “Many corporations make profits not from the value produced by workers but from collecting and charging for migrant bodies, including children who are captured and held,” she said. 

While national borders in many countries are closed to refugees fleeing for their lives as well as to migrant families struggling to reunite, North America and Europe, Schiller said, have continued to allow entry to temporary farm workers who labor with little or no virus protection. “Meanwhile, this summer, vacationers in Europe often moved freely across national borders,” she said. And as the virus has intensified this fall, politicians, Schiller explained, have continued to channel popular anger into racialized anti-immigrant nationalism. 

Other session 3 speakers included Johan Sandberg, an associate senior lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Lund University in Sweden, who presented “Immigrant Transnational Organizations and Development: The Case of Sweden,” and Margarita Rodriguez, a lecturer at the Department of Sociology and research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study of the Americas, who summarized the presentations of the speakers and led a panel discussion. 

—Robert C. Jones Jr.

Pandemic intensifies prejudice

During the session “Migration and Health in a Pandemic Era and Beyond,” three panelists presented their work focusing on how the novel coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated already fractured systems in health care and immigration.

Ruben G. Rumbaut, of the University of California at Irvine opened his presentation, “Portents of a Time of Plague and Populists,” by saying that he had two plagues in mind, both severely affecting migration and health.

“One is a pandemic of the coronavirus—a tiny entity that is highly contagious, transmittable, and lethal—from which humanity has no immunity,” he said. “The other is a plague of a populist politics of exclusion fueled by fear, racist nationalism, and xenophobia for which there is also no vaccine.”

Rumbaut gave a sobering overview of how the United States has increasingly limited the number of immigrants entering its borders at a time in which there are 80 million people who are displaced internationally.

The Trump administration, which had already established anti-immigrant actions—such as the ban on people entering from Muslim countries, building a wall on the Mexican border, deporting thousands of immigrants from Latin America and separating them from their children, who remained detained in U.S. facilities—halted all immigration in April because of COVID-19, Rumbaut noted.

In May, when the United Nations asked countries to halt deportations for fear of spreading the virus, the U.S. was suspected of continuing to deport thousands of immigrants (many infected with the virus) to countries poorly equipped to deal with the disease, said Rumbaut.       

“Thousands of immigrants continue to be held in detention centers by ICE despite the high risk of COVID-19 transmission,” he said. “The pandemic has exposed and exacerbated a wide range of social inequalities.”

In effect, preexisting conditions of these immigrants made them especially vulnerable to contracting COVID-19, and yet they are less likely to receive medical care, Rumbaut explained.   

The number of Hispanics who have died during the pandemic has been disproportionate to their numbers in the population, said Patricia Fernandez-Kelly, a professor of sociology from Princeton University, and this shows the weaknesses of both immigration and public health in the U.S. In Virginia, she added, Hispanics make up 10 percent of the population but account for almost half of the COVID-19 cases.

“More Hispanics overall view COVID-19 as a threat to health and personal illness,” she explained. “The effects of the pandemic have not been distributed evenly across class lines and racial or ethnic demarcations.” 

Vulnerable populations such as low-income people, the elderly, and immigrants have been greatly affected by the pandemic because of social, racial, and ethnic inequalities, according to Fernandez-Kelly. People with higher education and greater access to health care have a higher chance to survive the pandemic, she noted. 

Dr. Iftikher Mahmood, founder of Hope Foundation for Women and Children of Bangladesh, talked about the organizations’ work in the largest refugee camp in the world where 900,000 Rohingyas live in southeast Bangladesh after they fled violence against them in Myanmar.

Although the refugees live in crowded quarters and have a host of physical ailments, members of Hope, along with other health organizations, were able to maintain a low level of COVID-19 cases and deaths in the camps by using strong measures.

These included strict lockdowns, the building of isolation facilities, conducting considerable testing and contact tracing, and setting up more than 13,000 handwashing stations and mask distribution stations.  

Felicia Knaul, director of the University of Miami Institute for Advanced Study of the Americas  and a health economist, said that the lessons that may come from the pandemic is that government and political leaders could be urged to invest more into public health systems.

She also pointed out that the pandemic has shown how new technology and telemedicine can  result in revolutionized medical care throughout the world.  

—Barbara Gutierrez