Tuesday, December 02, 2008

David Fitzgerald's A Nation of Emigrants

I read David Fitzgerald's A Nation of Emigrants: How Mexico Manages its Migration. Fitzgerald uses an in-depth study of the municipality of Arandas (in Jalisco) to make a broader argument about Mexico and its emigrants. It has several interrelated goals:

First, demonstrate that for many years the Mexican government has attempted, albeit often unsuccessfully, to influence migration patterns. Those efforts have evolved over time. In fact, in recent years they have followed the Catholic Church's strategies to maintain contacts with Mexican Catholics abroad. The church and the state have very similar interests, especially in terms of encouraging continued economic participation in Mexico.

The key here is policy evolution. Both the state and the church changed their views of emigrants, who for years were viewed with suspicion (even open dislike) by both sides. But over time they acceded to the inevitable and started to make a virtue out of necessity.

Second, challenge the common argument that immigration weakens sovereignty. Many have argued that nation-states, particularly in the developing world, lose control when large numbers of citizens emigrate and/or take on dual nationality. Fitzgerald notes that a deterritorialized world is really nothing new (just as dual citizenship is not new, though it has accelerated in recent years). States simply have become more creative in staying connected to citizens abroad, often in ways that can be beneficial to the state.

Individuals do, however, have greater leverage in what Fitzgerald calls "citizenship a la carte." They have more leeway to pick and choose: "Emigrants can enjoy the substance of their homeland citizenship a la carte from a menu of rights and obligations, whereas residents must take the rights and obligations together at a relatively fixed price" (p. 176).

Third, while the immigration debate in the United States often centers on assimilation, in Mexico there is much greater concern (especially, but certainly not exclusively, from the church) about dissimilation, i.e. Mexicans abroad becoming less "Mexican." The most prominent example is losing Spanish, but it can also refer to choice of clothing, music, greater use of drugs and alcohol, or in some cases mythical ideas that to obtain U.S. citizenship you are required to stomp on the Mexican flag.

The book offers a very fresh perspective on immigration--namely a close look at sending country policies--and is worthwhile for that alone. My only criticism is that I didn't come away feeling that there was any sort of general argument, hypothesis, or model that could be applied to other Latin American countries. To be fair, that was not a stated aim of the book. Perhaps, however, it can become something of a springboard for similar studies of other countries.


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