Migration and city making: An Integrated process

by Nina Glick Schiller, Director of the Research Institute for Cosmopolitan Cultures.

Truthfully, I find the debates around migration unbearable. They all seem so far away from the realities of migration and settlement. Literally nothing I hear and almost nothing I read seems to connect with what I have learned from my migrant grandparents and my family’s subsequent experience in settling in the United States, what I know about the children of migrant background with whom I grew up, the migrants from all over the world among whom I have lived and worked for decades, and my own experience of migration. When trying to understand what happens when people migrate to a new place -whether to seek a new job, a new life, flee from intolerable violence, or some combination of circumstances – neither the common sense of ordinary speech nor the seeming precise terms of academic debate even begin to describe the contingencies within which migrants live their lives. Nor does simply turning to migrants’ ‘voices’ suffice since migrants learn to describe their experiences within the key words that dominate contemporary political rhetoric.

I first learned about the confusion wrought by the key words in migration debates several decades ago when studying Haitian migration to New York City. My co-researchers of Haitian origin stated categorically that that Haitian immigrants settling in New York City followed one of two opposing pathways. Either these newcomers assimilated and ‘forgot about Haiti’ or they did not integrate into a new life because they only focused on return. Yet the lives of my co-researchers as well as our data challenged this dichotomy between integration and maintaining an affinity with one’s homeland and its culture. Instead what actually happened was that most people, including my co-researchers, simultaneously settled into their new life and maintained some of their cultural practices, and home ties and identity. All of my four co-researchers were settling into New York City, where they were busy with their jobs, homes, family networks, and multi-ethnic networks of friends. Yet they also maintained multiple ties to Haiti and to Haitians settled in other countries and continued to identify as Haitian.

The data from that study and numerous research projects in which I have engaged since then also challenges the notion prevalent that migrants adopt or fail to adopt a new national culture. For example, the ways in which my Haitian co-researchers lived this simultaneous settlement and transnational connections was locally specific. That is to say, their way of life was not generically Haitian or American but was shaped by the changing identity politics, types of racism, housing possibilities, urban renewal and employment and educational opportunities they found in New York City in the 1960-80s. Forms of migrant settlement and transnational connection are shaped by the specificities of time and place. These specificities do of course reflect national immigration laws and policies but within economic, political, and social contingencies that are also local and global. Yet these basic contingencies, which affect whether, how, and why migrants are able to settle and transnationally connect, are often ignored in the migration debates. Often politicians and scholars talk as if there is a national if not global understanding of the key words of migration.

My research indicates that there distinct and varying local understandings and policies in relationship to migrants in cities within the same nation-state. Terms such as refugee, immigrant, ethnicity, diversity, multicultural, religious community, melting pot, integration, social cohesion, and race are deployed in various ways in different cities in the same country and by different types of functionaries within the same city. Local understandings may differ dramatically from national debates reflecting differences in local politics, regeneration strategies, opportunity structures and history, as well as the class background, position, neighborhood of residence, gender, and generation of the speaker. Moreover, in each city there may be differences between the ways in which local officials, social service providers, and citizens interact with migrants and people of migrant background. Exploring these variations allows us to understand why migrants experience such mixed messages about inclusion and exclusion as they settle in a place. Using a city as an entry point allows us to begin to move away from the sweeping generalities that politicians bandy when they speak of the ‘failure of multiculturalism’ and the ‘refusal of migrant to integrate’.

Cities and within cities different urban neighbourhoods around the world vary in the degree to which they are ‘migrant friendly’- that is providing possibilities of people to move to them from other places from within a country and internationally and find opportunities to work, begin businesses, acquire an education including the dominant language of the country, and live in safety and without significant discrimination or racialisation. Cities that are open to newcomers and people of migrant background and welcome them as part of the city, rather than casting them as an indigestible lump within the body politic, benefit from migration. These cities are in fact built by the creativity, energy, and transnational connections of migrants in a process that extends across generations. Migrant friendly cites attract flows of capital, businesses, tourists, creative industries and talented individuals.

If those interested in the outcomes of migrant settlement were to set aside their preconceived notions that all migrants of a certain national or religious background stick together and form tightly organized communities, then they would be able to see that migrants develop an array of different settlement strategies. In many of these pathways of settlement, migrants form networks of interaction between themselves and more established residents, including people who identify themselves as ‘natives’ of the city and the nation-state. That is to say research on migrant settlement and personal narratives tell a different story than the national imaginary of migrants huddled everywhere in segregated or self-segregated ‘communities’.

In a situation where a city needs newcomers to contribute to its economy and cultural energy, public discourses and policies tend to differ from the national anti-immigrant polemics by being more open to immigrants. Cities of global renown such as London and New York are such places. Educated young people from all over the globe including Europe have flocked to London, for example, even in cases in which they have to live or work without proper documentation. They go to these ‘global cities’ because they find a sense of freedom and cultural energy there that they don’t think they can find elsewhere.

Cities that aspire to a cosmopolitan reputation on the global stage such as Manchester (UK) may also prove welcoming because they need migrants’ talents, education, and energies to fuel their efforts to rebrand themselves as up and coming and to compete for investors and new industries as well as tourism. Other cities, which are less competitive in terms of economic, political, or cultural power may provide a different array of advantages to some migrants and may in turn welcome migrants that provide hi tech talent, businesses for regenerated urban areas, or transnational connections that assist in regeneration efforts. In these globally less desirable cities, it may be the migrants who connect local residents to opportunities for education, travel, or economic opportunity located elsewhere.

While these processes are readily apparent to those who look and can be found in British, European, and North American cities as well globally from Dubai to Sao Paulo, this fundamental aspect of urbanism is being ignored most politicians and policy makers. My own research in cities in Germany, the United States and the United Kingdom as well interviews with city leadership conducted as part of a comparative city research project in diverse European cities reveal that those engaged in urban regeneration may see past generations of migrants as city builders. However, urban policy makers tend to see contemporary migrants as poor and at most lending a bit of exotic culture to efforts to rebrand their city.

Misguided policies emerge when contemporary migrants are seen as organized self-segregated communities that represent a challenge to social cohesion rather than as part of the talent and energy necessary for urban regeneration. Through their calls for social cohesion and integration directed at immigrants and people of migrant background, urban administrators and planners may reinforce false images of migrants as outsiders to urban life rather than part and parcel of the every day vitality of successful cities. Even more disastrously, in the name of integration, rather than addressing general conditions of impoverishment for local populations they may by provide services only in neighbourhoods identified as migrant, bypassing majority poor neighbourhoods. Such policies foster anti-immigrant rhetoric and movements.

To try to lend both specificity and comparability to research on migration and debates about it, I suggest that we need to see the cities, towns, and villages in which we live as places that are constantly being built and rebuilt overtime by all people who live there. If we think of the places and our society as always in process and always constructed by people who live in a place, we have a different and I believe better vantage point into the relationship between the movement of migration and the cohesion of established places and their social life.

Arriving from the United States four years ago, I settled in Manchester, became engaged in life local life and maintained transnational ties to family and friends elsewhere. My way of settling is not generically American but is shaped by what I find in both my city and country of settlement. I become part of my new city as the city becomes part of me. However, these days migrants, including myself, face a strange irony. Whilst our new city may be welcoming, nation-states including the UK have changed immigration laws so as to impose drastic limitations and costs on permanent settlement and family reunion. We find that we are increasingly criticized for not trying to belong to our new home and only concerned about our old, despite the fact that it has become increasingly difficult if not impossible for us to permanently settle.

Friends, colleagues, and acquaintances in Manchester, after noting I am not from the UK, frequently ask me if I am planning to stay. Although British citizens, they know nothing of their own country’s immigration laws nor do they acknowledge the impact of constant anti-immigrant hostility on immigrants’ identities, incorporation, or dreams for the future. Influenced by the immigration debate and its key words, the people I meet who don’t have immigrant backgrounds continue to see immigrants as having a choice to settle permanently and abandon their transnational ties or to return ‘home’. They continue to define immigrants’ retention of home ties, language, culture and beliefs as self-segregation, neither acknowledging the possibility of transnational lives or the fact that both legally and socially the UK increasingly makes it difficult for immigrants to permanently settle. As I said, I find the immigration debates unbearable.

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