More than ever before, migration is a global phenomenon. In search of employment, higher wages, educational opportunities for themselves and their children, and escape from persecution and violence, millions of people cross international borders each year. Countries that had few immigrants in the past now have growing immigrant populations. Nearly every major city in the world has a sizable immigrant community. Frankfurt has its Turks, Vancouver its Chinese, Marseilles and Paris their Algerians, London its West Indians, Kuwait, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi their Indians, New York its Russian Jews, Dacca its Biharis, Bangkok its Burmese, and Tokyo its Iranians. Over a hundred million people are now living outside the country of their birth, and millions more latter-generation immigrants maintain their ethnic identities. In industrialized societies, noncitizens now typically constitute more than 5 percent of the population. That figure is 8.5 percent in the United States and Germany, and as high as 15 percent in Canada, 18 percent in Switzerland, and 24 percent in Australia. In a few oil-producing countries like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Kuwait, noncitizens outnumber natives.

These large and visible immigrant populations have given pause to governments and their citizens. Do immigrants benefit the economy, taking unwanted jobs and providing needed skills, or do they displace workers and burden public resources? Do immigrants add cultural diversity and artistic creativity, or do they erode national identities and fragment societies? Are immigrants fully incorporated into citizenship, or are they marginalized with limited rights and benefits? Are countries losing skilled workers, or do they benefit by having many of their citizens abroad sending remittances home, making investments, and transferring technologies? Do immigrants facilitate international cooperation, or do they exacerbate conflict and contribute to global terrorism and drug trafficking?

In country after country, these questions are the subject of political debate and the impetus for new policies. In the United States, California passed Proposition 187 in 1994, denying many benefits to illegal immigrants. Presidential candidate Pat Buchanan has called for a halt to immigration, and congressional legislation to restrict and cut benefits to legal immigrants and their children is pending. Almost every European country has introduced further restrictions on the number of immigrants and asylum-seekers. Even developing countries, the sources of most world migration, have turned refugees away and introduced measures to prevent illegal entry.

Once principally the concern of American sociologists, historians, and demographers, migration now attracts the attention of economists, political scientists, and specialists in international relations around the world. For those who work in the field it has become increasingly difficult to keep up with the flow of articles and books. International migration and its causes, consequences, benefits, and costs have taken on the centrality and sharpness that once belonged to the study of multinational corporations.

Thomas Sowell, an economist and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and author of numerous books on the links between economics and culture, has added to the debate with his new book, Migrations and Cultures. Sowell's principal interest is what makes immigrants prosperous. Many immigrant communities, he points out, have done well for themselves and contributed to the economic development of the countries in which they settled. Moreover, their success is often independent of local conditions. Some migrant communities have prospered wherever they moved--to colonies or independent countries, democratic or authoritarian countries, developed or developing countries. Often they have had to overcome discrimination and hostility.


Sowell looks at six high-achieving migrant communities. He starts with German migrants to the Baltic States, Poland, Russia, South America, and the United States and describes their contributions to brewing, optics, industrial manufacturing, and educational institutions from kindergartens to research-oriented universities. By contrast, the Japanese first settled in the United States, Brazil, Peru, and Canada as migrant laborers with few technical skills, but their culture enabled them to overcome discrimination, become independent farmers, and join the middle class. The Italian migrants to Argentina, Brazil, the United States, and Australia were industrial workers, masons, winemakers, fishermen, and vegetable growers. The Chinese migrants, numbering 36 million, settled mainly in Southeast Asia, where they started out in difficult, dangerous work and eventually became financiers of rice production in Thailand, merchants and industrialists in Malaysia and Indonesia, and retailers in the Philippines. In medieval Europe, Jews were peddlers, artisans, moneylenders, and rent and tax collectors. In Eastern Europe they were craftsmen, cobblers, bakers, and tailors. In societies as different as the Soviet Union, Australia, and Argentina, they contributed their skills to universities, commerce, industry, and the professions. In the nineteenth century millions of unskilled Indians settled overseas as indentured laborers in eastern and southern Africa, Ceylon, Malaya, Fiji, Trinidad, British Guiana, and Mauritius. In the middle of the twentieth century educated Indians settled in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Today a large proportion of the overseas Indians are professionals such as electronics engineers, doctors, bankers, and merchants.

In the United States, these migrants created some of the most prominent industrial, financial, and commercial establishments. Germans built Bausch and Lomb, Hershey, Heinz, Berlitz, Anheuser-Busch, Miller, Coors, Pabst, Schlitz, Steinway pianos, and Wurlitzer organs. Italian migrants established Del Monte canned fruits and vegetables, many Napa Valley vineyards, and the Bank of America. Jews built some of the largest retail businesses in the country: Macy's, Gimbels, Abraham and Strauss, Bloomingdale's, B. Altman, Saks in New York, Bamberger's in New Jersey, Filene's in Boston, and Sears.

According to Sowell, the key elements in the global success of these six migrant communities were human capital--education and skills--and cultural capital--risk-taking, self-reliance, thrift, cohesion, work habits, and concern for their children's future. The migrants took with them the cultures of their native countries. "Sometimes," he writes, "it is highly specific skills which are salient, such as skills in clock-making among the Huguenots who settled in Geneva in the sixteenth century and London in the seventeenth, making both cities leading clock-making centers of the world for the first time. Sometimes it is not so much specific skills as a set of attitudes toward work and toward risk-taking, which may lead the immigrants to excel in some fields in which they had no experience before immigration, as the Chinese and Japanese have done in many countries where they began as plantation laborers, moved on to become small businessmen and--in later generations--rose to prominence in engineering, medicine, and other unrelated fields. . . . Nothing is more common than to have poverty-stricken immigrants become prosperous in a new country and to make that country more prosperous as well."

Sowell is no cultural relativist. He is dismissive of those who believe that cultures are merely different, not better or worse. In a politically incorrect assertion, Sowell writes that some cultures are better than others, "doers and do-nots." In most societies, he says, the internal resources of the migrant communities have made the difference in whether they succeed or not. Political action rarely mattered. Protest politics was of little importance. Successful migrants and their descendants remained nonpolitical even in the face of discrimination and hostility from the native population. When they did stand for office, it was not as ethnic leaders. Nor did they try to improve their circumstances through government employment. Instead, migrants and their children turned their energies toward education and accumulating wealth in whatever part of the private sector their cultural and human capital would be most profitable, becoming merchants, industrialists, farmers, skilled craftsmen, and professionals.

In his extensive writings, Sowell has argued that international experience overwhelmingly demonstrates that differences in skills and cultural values among communities are the principal determinants of advancement, not affirmative action programs or political protest movements. His views have been unpopular among African-Americans, but in recent years it has become more acceptable to point to the need for addressing the issue of values and skills.

There is nonetheless much to criticize in Sowell's analysis. The cultures that gave rise to successful entrepreneurs often fail to produce entrepreneurship at home. Indians and Chinese, for example, have been far more entrepreneurial abroad than at home, at least until recently. Clearly, the structure of the economy mattered, in addition to the culture of the immigrants. Self-selection is also important; the success of migrant communities may reflect the talent of those enterprising few who chose to migrate more than some quality of their culture. Then too, migrant communities that do well in one country do not necessarily do as well in another. Second-generation Arabs and Turks appear to be doing better in the United States than they are in France and Germany. Culture in these cases is presumably the same, yet the outcomes differ. The ease with which citizenship is acquired, the acceptance of cultural and religious diversity by the host population, and educational opportunities may be factors in explaining the differences. One wishes too that Sowell had taken a look at some of the newer migrations--the Turks, Algerians, Vietnamese, Croats, and Serbs in Western Europe, the Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and Central Americans in the United States, the Sephardim, Ethiopians, and Russians in Israel, and the Asians in Australia--to explain whether human or cultural capital determines how well they do.


Those criticisms aside, one still has to recognize the persuasiveness of Sowell's central thesis: in the recent past, the flow of migrants has been enormously beneficial to the economic development of destination countries, and the internal resources of immigrant communities have been important determinants of their success, even under adverse circumstances. Is this an argument for making international migration easier? Sowell is not sure. In a much-too-brief conclusion, he suggests that government benefits in industrial societies may be making the absorption of immigrants more costly. He also notes that the historical role immigrants played in transferring technology and spreading skills and manpower from areas of abundance to areas of scarcity may have come to an end. "Those countries with the most human capital to contribute to the rest of the world have tended to send fewer and fewer emigrants abroad. . . . Many refugees have no such human capital, and refugees to the United States in the late twentieth century tended to stay on welfare longer than either American citizens or other kinds of immigrants." International migrations have become a less effective way of transferring human capital and a more effective way of exporting social problems.

If Sowell is correct, a fundamental change in the function of immigration has taken place. Migrants now benefit their native country by garnering human and economic capital abroad, often with the forthright encouragement of their native governments. The principal gainers from migration may no longer be the destination countries, but the countries of origin. Once escapees of their native countries, immigrants have now become expatriate members of their nations.

Many countries of origin clearly see the benefits of migration and actively export their citizens. Several governments of South and Southeast Asia, for example, have created training programs to help their citizens compete for jobs in the Persian Gulf states. Korea provides classes in English for would-be emigrants and offers loans to help them start businesses abroad. The Philippine government expanded its medical schools to increase the supply of doctors who could seek employment in the United States. In an odd example, the government of El Salvador is helping its citizens in the United States apply for political asylum to avoid losing the remittances sent back to their families. Poland enables its citizens to become guest workers on construction sites in Germany. Until recently the Cuban government made it easy for its citizens to leave, seeing clearly the benefits of losing middle-class opponents while gaining the hard currency they sent home. Mexico restricts admission on its southern borders but has been critical of measures proposed by the U.S. government to make border crossings by illegal migrants more difficult and to impose penalties on employers who hire them. Some Arab and Asian governments are so eager to export their citizens to the oil-producing countries of the Middle East that they are reluctant to assume the traditional commitment of states to protect their citizens abroad. Labor-exporting governments often rush to the defense of their overseas nationals only when there is a public outcry.

Governments have turned to their nationals abroad for remittances, foreign investment, and assistance in the transfer of technology. In some cases countries earn more foreign exchange through remittances and direct investment by emigrants than through foreign aid or trade. Much of the foreign investment in China, for example, comes from Chinese in Taiwan, Southeast Asia, and the United States. They may be revitalizing Vancouver, but they are also revitalizing the economy of southeast China. Similarly, the reconstruction of Beirut is taking place with financial investment from overseas Lebanese, and the reconstruction of El Salvador and Nicaragua with remittances sent from the United States. The emergence of a worldwide computer software industry has enabled electronically skilled emigrants to disseminate their skills back home. The expansion of the software industry in Bangalore is made possible by Indians educated in the United States, often holders of green cards who prefer to start their own firms in India rather than take lesser positions in Silicon Valley. Governments no longer complain of a brain drain. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi captured the mood some years ago when he said he regarded Indians abroad as a bank "from which one could make withdrawals from time to time."

Motivated as much by economic as nationalist considerations, many governments nurture the ethnic identities of their nationals abroad. Governments and religious bodies often provide financial support for the religious and educational institutions of their overseas ethnic kinfolk. The government of Korea, for example, supports educational programs in Seoul for the children of overseas Koreans in an effort to keep the Korean language and culture alive. These efforts to sustain cultural ties are facilitated by the ease and low cost of international communication and transportation.

Suppressed political and ethnic groups also turn to their ethnic kinfolk abroad for financial, military, and political support. Religious radical groups, like the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria and Hamas among the Palestinians, and secessionist groups, including supporters of an independent Khalistan and Kashmir in India, Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka, East Timor in Indonesia, and an independent Kurdistan in Iraq and Turkey, are active in countries where their emigrants reside. Turks and Croats in Germany, Algerians in France, Indians in the United Kingdom, Chinese in the United States, and Ukrainians in Canada are very much involved in homeland politics. Ambassadors no longer deal solely with the governments to whom they are officially accountable, but must woo the support of their nationals abroad. A small number of terrorist attacks (the Paris Metro and the World Trade Center) also remind citizens of host countries that the political struggles within the migrants' countries can easily spill over and disrupt their own societies.


Destination countries are in a state of confusion over how they ought to treat their immigrant communities. They are not sure whether they want their immigrants to stay or go home, assimilate or retain their cultural identity, nor whether the migrants and their children should be encouraged to feel patriotic toward their new country or maintain loyalty to their country of origin. This confusion is making it more difficult for their immigrant communities to shed their ties by denying them opportunities afforded their own citizens. Germany, for example, continues to treat the native-born children of migrants as foreigners. Naturalization rates are very low (only one-half of one percent a year) so that even the children and grandchildren of immigrants remain citizens of the countries from which their ancestors came. The result is that the foreign population of Germany is increasing by the year, independent of whether new immigrants are admitted.

Other countries have their own restrictions. The Japanese discriminate against Koreans who have resided in Japan for several generations. French educational authorities prevent children of North African origin from displaying their Islamic identity. The U.S. Congress has considered legislation to deny educational loans to the children of legal immigrants. By limiting the rights of and benefits to immigrants and their children, governments risk creating aggrieved and disaffected minorities. In an age of terrorism, even a small number of disaffected youth, hostile to the countries in which they live and were born, can become dangerous tools of the regimes and radical groups of the country of their forefathers. Moreover, the stronger the ties between migrant communities and their country of origin, the greater the effect on receiving countries' foreign policy. U.S. relations with Cuba, German policy toward Croatia and Turkey, and French policy toward Algeria are each a case in point.

Are we now witnessing the emergence of transnational populations, much as we have already witnessed the rise of transnational corporations? The answer is clearly yes, but the links between diasporas and their homelands are as complex and diverse as those between transnational corporations and their governments. Many of the new migrants will be as assimilated into their environments as were German immigrants in the United States. Eisenhower and Pershing were of German descent, but their ancestry played no role in their public careers. But in a multicultural age, when many governments are unsure whether they ought to promote assimilation and when governments of home countries attempt to maintain ties with their overseas populations, the identity of the migrants and their locally born children is problematic. In some migrant communities, individuals will regard their homeland as central to their political identity and will seek ways to support or undermine the regime of their country of origin. Clearly, a major new global force has emerged with an enormous influence on the economics and politics of countries of origin and of destination and on relations between them.

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  • Myron Weiner, Ford International Professor of Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Director of its Center for International Studies, is author of The Global Migration Crisis: Challenge to States and to Human Rights.
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