Migration and the Challenges of Global Belonging

My latest essay on immigration and belonging:

I began working with immigrant communities in 1995, focusing primary on new destinations.  New destinations are those communities that are experiencing significant immigration, but have had little or no prior history of being locations of migration and settlement.  I began my work  in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, the “Mushroom Capital of the World.”  Mexican men had been migrating seasonally to and from Kennett Square for years to pick mushrooms.  In the early 1990s, these Mexican men began settling permanently with their wives and children.  When the project began, I assumed that most of my time would be spent with the Mexican nationals who were the center of my study, as was typical of most students of immigrant communities.

Within a few months of starting my project, I realized that if I wanted to understand the lives of immigrants, I would have to study their American-born counterparts as well.  I did not realize that this simple act of inclusion would produce an innovative approach to the study of transnational migration.  I was simply following up on something that several Mexican families had mentioned: that the American residents in Kennett Square had a significant influence on the lives of their immigrant neighbors, even in a social context where the two groups rarely interacted.

Central to the workings of any new destination are the feelings of belonging that immigrants and native-born residents associate with the places they call home.  Although many migration scholars have worked to understand the lives and experiences of recent immigrants, few have seriously considered how immigration changes the lives of the citizen population.  As immigrants from around the globe settle in new and diverse places in the U.S., the question of belonging has become more central to the debate on how we live together.

Belonging is a basic human need (Baumeister & Leary 1995; Young et al 2004; Mulgan & Johnson 2007; Mulgan 2009); it is negotiated through interpersonal relations.  It is a process through which “people reflexively judge the suitability of a given site as appropriate given their social trajectory and their position in other fields” of experience (Savage, Bagnall & Longhurst 2005: 12). The majority of academic discussions about belonging focus on how immigration is transforming the nation.  Wider national debates on issues of multiculturalism, citizenship, and immigrant integration often dominate discussions on what it means to belong to a community or the nation.  Based on my work in new destinations, I believe that questions of belonging should be considered from the point of view of local citizens rather than from the top down.  From this perspective it is possible to examine local attitudes about community change and consider how migration affects local understandings of tradition, local history, and cultural norms.

In new destinations, issues of belonging often become a two-fold challenge.  Local social contexts shift with the introduction of the new population, making new destinations “new” for newcomers and longer-term residents alike.  Immigrant residents are understandably struggling to belong, but the same can be true for those who have lived their entire lives in what has become the new destination.  In many instances, longer-term residents experience a type of localized displacement, a feeling that their “home” is no longer a familiar and predictable place, thus making it difficult to embrace the changes taking place around them.1 Kennett Square’s longer-term residents reacted to the changes in their community with a sense of privilege.  Because they were “here first,” they frequently assumed that their residential longevity justified local divisions of power and the subordinate position of recent immigrant settlers.  As a group the longtime residents dominated social relations, controlled local resources and worked to control residents’  access to various places in town for recreation and socializing.  They also had the ability to control the circumstances of that access.

The events in Kennett Square were not atypical.  Indeed, I found a  similar (albeit much more extreme) situation  in Manassas, Virginia just three years ago.  The social contexts of new destinations like Kennett Square and Manassas are interesting and complex.  They are communities in transition where everyday life can be thrilling, but also often exasperating depending on a person’s tolerance for change.  The longer-term residents in new destinations often complain that their communities have been permanently transformed by immigration, and they can no longer reliably expect that their new immigrant neighbors will speak English or share the same cultural beliefs and community values.  When they feel displaced, native-born residents often find it difficult to embrace the changes taking place around them as their community transforms.  In the most extreme circumstances, some longer-term residents find their changing communities threatening and frightening.  This type of localized displacement is often expressed as through acts of intolerance and sometimes nativism.  In the most extreme instances, new destinations have become virtual battlegrounds where long-term residents insist the must “take back” their communities.

Activities that are designed to “take back” a community can take many forms. In Kennett Square it involved community dialogues where the nature of community was discussed and plans for incorporating Mexican families took shape.  In other locations, like Manassas, anti-immigrant citizens formed “Help Save Manassas,” and lobbied county supervisors to pass local ordinances that would apprehend and remove undocumented immigrants from the community.

In practice, these responses had very different effects.  The anxiety that was associated with migrant settlement in Kennett Square during the 1990s has waned significantly.  While there are still misunderstandings about migrants and occasional acts of intolerance toward Mexican residents, for the most part residents have come to terms with a new Kennett Square identity as a multi-ethnic community.  In Manassas the county ordinances effectively alienated the immigrant population.  While completing fieldwork there in 2008-2009, I found that many immigrant families decided to leave in response to the new laws, some abandoning their homes to foreclosure.  Others remained, but were less likely to participate openly in the community. In the most extreme cases immigrants told me that they were reluctant to leave their homes and were mistrustful of their American neighbors.

Many new destination communities have emerged in the U.S. in the last twenty years, but only a handful have had notably intolerant responses to immigrant settlement.  While it is possible that communities might eventually work through the disruptions and change without intervention, in circumstances where the transition has been antagonistic or hostile, there are ways to facilitate the transition in new destinations that are constructive and can foster community solidarity.  As a folklorist I have advocated the initiation of cultural documentation projects that can be used to help communities with this process.

The first step is to recognize that adaptation to new migrant settlements involves change from newcomers and longtime residents alike, and adapting to these changes can be difficult.  While this may seem obvious, when citizens speak out in opposition to immigration, they often complain that their fears about changes in their communities are not acknowledged and that they feel displaced.  Unfortunately, the concerns about migrant settlement and community change are often couched in strong anti-immigrant and sometimes nativist discourse.  The result is that when citizens express feelings of displacement they are disregarded because the broader message expresses intolerance and disregard for the needs of the immigrant community.

I do not advocate tolerance for the expression of racist or nativist sentiment, and I recognize that in every community there are individuals who oppose immigrant settlement because they abhor cultural difference.  However, the residents of new destinations are people whose lives have been dramatically and irrevocably changed by immigrant settlement.  The communities that they built, the world that was once familiar and predictable, is gone, and the anxiety that they feel about those changes is honest and understandable.  It is important to distinguish between legitimate concerns and racist tirades.  Racist statements and policies cannot be tolerated.  Having worked in new destination communities for many years, I also know that discounting the concerns of citizen residents out of hand only serves to heighten their fears and often has the effect of polarizing the community.

My second recommendation is to institute programs that shift the focus of the community from the past, which is often idealized and viewed nostalgically, and to encourage residents to envision a shared future.  I do not think it an accident that both Kennett Square and Manassas are communities that have storied pasts.  Long-term residents in both communities often lamented that immigration was disrupting their historic identity.  In these instances, any number of interventions might be employed, such as community dialogues to address local concerns.  Shared projects that are designed to bring newcomers and long-term residents together with a common goal can also be useful.  The strategies of cultural conservation, such as a community-wide oral history project, can help residents document and preserve the past that they once knew, but also chart a new direction for the future of the community.

Some communities will make the transition to becoming a new destination smoothly, while others will need assistance in order to process their transition in order to see their future differently.   New destinations pose particular challenges as immigrants and their longer-term neighbors adapt to one another and their new home.  Projects that work to foster a sense of belonging can help residents learn to accept and appreciate the community they have rather than pining for the one they have lost.

Debra Lattanzi Shutika is Associate Professor at the Department of English at George Mason University.

Baumeister, Roy F., and Mark R. Leary. 1995. The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. In Psychological Bulletin 117, no. 3 (May): 497-529.
Mulgan, Geoff. 2007. Belonging–local and national. In Britishness: towards a progressive citizenship, ed. Nick Johnson, 60-68. London: The Smith Institute.
———. 2009. Feedback and Belonging: Explaining the Dynamics of Diversity. Migration Information Source. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute. http://www.migrationinformation.org/Feature/print.cfm?ID=718.
Savage, Michael. 2005. Globalization and Belonging. London: Sage.
Young, Anne F., Anne Russell, and Jennifer R. Powers. 2004. The sense of belonging to a neighbourhood: can it be measured and is it related to health and well being in older women? In Social Science & Medicine 59, no. 12 (December): 2627-2637.

  1. Localized displacement is a term used to reference the nearby relocation of residents after a natural disaster has permanently altered the landscape (Levine, Esnard and Sapat 2007).   I use the term here to signify the perceptions of displacement and loss expressed by longer-term residents in Kennett Square. []

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