INTERVIEW BY SHANNON CLARKE
August 31, 2016
Donna Gabaccia, professor of history in the Department of Historical and Cultural Studies at the University of Toronto Scarborough has spent more than 30 years studying immigration history. Born and raised in the United States, Prof. Gabaccia’s career has taken her to Italy, Germany and now Canada. An award-winning immigration historian, she has written about food and migration (We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans), the movement of Italians around the world (Italy’s Many Diasporas), and gender and migration (Women, Gender and Transnational Lives: Italian Workers of the World, co-edited with fellow University of Toronto professor, Franca Iacovetta) among other topics.
Her most recent book, Gender and International Migration: From the Slavery Era to the Golden Age (co-authored with demographer Katherine Donato) received a honourable mention from the American Sociological Association. Before joining the history department at UTSC in 2014, Prof. Gabaccia served as the director of the Immigration History Research Centre at the University of Minnesota. A video of Prof. Gabaccia delivering the 2012 Ander Lecture on the freedom to move can be viewed here.
The Global Migration Research Institute spoke to Prof. Gabaccia about her career and what history can teach us about contemporary issues in immigration worldwide.
WHERE DID YOUR INTEREST IN IMMIGRATION HISTORY COME FROM?
As is often the case with people in this field, it came from a family history of migration. Both my mother’s side of the family, which is German and my father’s side of the family, which is Italian have long histories of migration behind them. In the case of the Italian side of my family a lot of the migration went back and forth for about fifty years before most of the siblings of my grandfather settled in the New York area. But before that, it was back and forth, back and forth: do I want to be in America? Do I want to be in Italy? And that went on from about 1890 to about 1930 or so. The Depression and fascism in Italy, I think, convinced most of my grandparents’ generation that they were better off in the U.S.
So that’s the story but it was a story that neither side of my family told. Both sides of my family were reluctant to talk about their migration experiences and even about their family histories in part because there was a lot of sadness. So I grew up knowing lots of people who didn’t speak English but feeling that there was something mysterious and secretive and hidden and that was what I wanted to know more about: those silences that I sensed but couldn’t say what they were as a kid.
DID YOU PRESS THOSE QUESTIONS?
Not until I went off to university. I’m the first person in my family to go to university and I started exploring those questions initially through scholarship and research as an undergraduate. I was a sociology major, as an undergraduate. I switched into history when I went into a PhD program. So I actually started in a scholarly way and it was as I gained an understanding of the historical and sociological analysis of migration that I got the courage to start asking questions in my family and those questions took me to some very sad stories. I never really felt angry with people being silent once I knew. There’s just a lot of pain and people wanted to move forward and look forward and not dwell on unhappiness from the past.
DO YOU FIND THAT’S A COMMON THEME WHEN YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT MIGRATION: A RELUCTANCE TO TALK ABOUT IT?
There’s often reluctance but the reason for that reluctance can be very different and that matters most if you’re interested, as historians are, in understanding the past. Of course we can do oral histories and we do; and often those involve talking to our own relatives if we’re studying our own group. There is a great deal of studying your own group in migration studies because of language capabilities that other people don’t have. But historians have to depend, to a considerable degree, on the documentary record, which makes research on non-literate peoples (even many Europeans even in the 19th century could not read or write) a complicated matter. But it’s not uncommon to have either silences or missing pieces in family stories.
THERE SEEMS TO BE A MISCONCEPTION THAT IT SHOULD BE PRETTY EASY, IF YOU MEET CERTAIN CRITERIA, TO SETTLE ALMOST ANYWHERE.
Right, if you’re in privileged positions – but even privileged people face barriers to movement. I think privileged people can easily live and work short term if they’re from one of the G9 or from the U.S. or from Canada. They can live or work short term almost anywhere but that doesn’t necessarily give them access to residency on a more permanent basis, and there they become more like other immigrants. Canada has a good reputation. Partially that’s deserved but in fact, for people who want to work, it can be very difficult to settle permanently in Canada. It helps if you relatives or are a sponsored refugee.
Obviously during this current election cycle in the U.S. and now in Britain following that country’s decision to leave the European Union people are saying, “Well we can always move to Canada” and I’m saying, “Ha, good luck!” It’s not so easy. I am still, after two years, working on a limited-term labour contract.
WITH THESE BARRIERS TO IMMIGRATION, TO STATUS, TO RESIDENCY, IT SEEMS LIKE THERE ARE MORE BARRIERS TO MOVEMENT.
We’ve had 20 years of scholarly study of globalization and emphasis on the opening of borders and the rising rates of mobility. But if you look at people who are semi-permanently living outside of the country of their birth today, it’s about three and half percent, which is pretty much what it was in 1960 and it may actually be a tiny little bit less than it was in 1910. So it’s true that short-term movement – tourism, business travel – has increased exponentially in the last 20 years and the free movement of goods and the communication revolution has facilitated the freer movement of images and ideas and the internet and all that. But in fact, in terms of human mobility I would argue that the barriers to movement have increased over the last 35 to 40 years. They were loosened in the 50s through the 70s (depending on which country we’re looking at) but since the mid-1970s, it’s been increasing barriers to movement that have most impressed me.
Of course there have been a few exceptions. The collapse of the Soviet Union allowed people to leave far more easily than they had in the past and of course the European Union allowed people within Europe to move more freely. But if you look at policy worldwide you see greater difficulties, especially for labour migrants, for people who are looking to work, and you also see increasing resistance across those 30 years to the people we call refugees or asylum seekers. And now of course there are actually growing barriers to citizens of say Canada who go abroad. They’ve lost their right to vote if they remain abroad for five years. That wasn’t the case 20 years ago.
WHAT IS THE REASON FOR THIS? THE LANGUAGE, AT LEAST FROM POLITICIANS IS VERY DIFFERENT: THAT WE’RE VERY WELCOMING AND WE WANT PEOPLE TO COME HERE, THIS IS A GLOBALIZED WORLD AND WE’RE ALL CONNECTED.
Right, and when I think about this as an historian I see a long history of globalization and nationalist reactions to globalization. World historians usually say there have been three major periods of globalization since 1500 and the previous one was between 1850 and World War I or so. And at that time, too in the years around World War I most of the immigrant receiving countries in the world began restricting immigration sharply. Then they opened up a bit in the 60s and 70s, 50s in the case of Canada and Australia. Nations have to try to build national unity and migration and the movement of people is always a challenge to that goal. And in a world of globalized images and goods that challenge to national solidarity seems that much greater. So I would say that fear of human movements always accompanies globalization and produces backlash. How powerful that backlash will be I think actually depends on what happens in the Middle East.
ARE WE SEEING A BACKLASH TO IMMIGRATION RIGHT NOW AND IS IT DIFFERENT FROM EARLIER REACTIONS?
In both Europe with most recently Brexit and in the United States with the candidacy of Donald Trump you’re seeing on both sides of the Atlantic a very harsh backlash against migration but in other ways you see it in other parts of the world. You see it in a place like Burma that doesn’t want refugees of that area. You can in fact view the religious fundamentalism in all the major religions – Christianity, Judaism and Islam – as reactions against a kind of circulation of the ideas of modernity that each and every one of them argues against – whether peacefully or in some cases violently. The details of the current backlash differ from past backlashes—the groups involved, the type of animosities expressed, whether racial, national, cultural or religious—but the goal of all backlashes has been a reduction in human mobility.
HOW HAS YOUR RESEARCH EVOLVED SINCE YOU STARTED? YOUR FOCUS WAS ITALY. IS IT STILL?
No, actually it’s not. My earliest work was transnational study of migrants from very specific places in Italy to mainly places in the U.S. but because I started doing my research in Sicily I was very aware that Sicilians were going everywhere. They were going to Africa – North Africa, Tunisia, in particular – they were going to South America, they were going to Brazil and Argentina, large numbers to Canada, small numbers to the Caribbean, to Mexico to Australia and the Middle East. So I was always aware there was a bigger story that my trans-Atlantic approach couldn’t cover.
I’ve been giving several talks and have articles I’m developing now that compare the United States to other nations of immigrants or nations with long histories of migration. Most recently in Australia, I gave a talk on what I called terminologies of migration in the United States and Switzerland, showing how if you call peoples on the move “immigrants”, then you will imagine your nation in a different way than if you start by calling them seasonal workers, or foreign workers. Switzerland still regards any foreigner living there as a temporary resident who’s going to go home eventually although many of them don’t. By contrast, the United States in the late 19th century began calling these movers, these migrant people “immigrants.” Initially that was a negative word but it came to be the foundation, the cornerstone for the imagination of the nation as a nation of immigrants—only around 1960 however!
There are relatively few countries in the world right now that have those terminological building blocks. They don’t call people on the move “immigrants” they call them “foreigners,” they call them “foreign workers,” they call them “expats,” they call them “illegals” or “clandestines.” Even for asylum seekers, the hope is “But of course they’ll want to go home again!” So it’s interesting to think about how we name people on the move and how those naming exercises facilitate policy and, ultimately, what Benedict Anderson called the imagination of the national community.
IS THERE A CONNECTION BETWEEN THE LANGUAGE USED AND A COUNTRY’S SENSE OF NATIONALISM?
Absolutely. I started thinking about this when I was studying how migrants from Italy came to be at home and become members of a wide variety on nation states. I started thinking about these issues in France, Argentina, Brazil, the United States, Canada, Australia – all of the countries that we today think of as having successfully integrated large numbers of foreigners – they all started calling them immigrants—either they had called them immigrants from the beginning or they started calling them immigrants in the 19th century. That word itself came to mean somebody who’s coming, who’s going to stay and who’s going to be permanently incorporated.
In the U.S., with the rising concerns about Mexican migration in particular you see a kind of a drop off of the use of the word immigrant for Mexicans and they’re usually called “aliens” or “illegal aliens.” The use of the term “alien” really spikes in the second half of the 20th century, and that’s used as a way of saying these people are never going to fit in and policies literally make that impossible.
WHAT TERM DO YOU PREFER?
In scholarly settings, I now usually refer to “mobile people” because people have so many reasons for moving around, sometimes across borders sometimes within borders. I’m trying to find a broad and neutral term that doesn’t assume any particular motivation. You can move for love, you can move for work, you can move for adventure, you name it. There’s hundreds of motivations for movement and our language tends to associate particular kinds of motivations with different words: migrant, immigrant, emigrant, foreign worker, alien, exile, refugee; we could go on and on.
YOU MENTIONED COUNTRIES THAT HAVE SUCCESSFUL INTEGRATION AND THAT IS SOMETHING THAT HAS COME UP A LOT RECENTLY WITH SYRIAN REFUGEES TO CANADA AND EUROPE. HOW WOULD YOU OR HOW DO NATIONS MEASURE SUCCESSFUL INTEGRATION? WHAT DOES THAT ENTAIL?
First of all, integration can happen only if a naturalization policy exists that allows foreigners to become members of the nation. It can occur if there’s an expectation that you can acquire more permanent kind of residence, whereas if you look at most of the rapidly growing and migrant-fuelled economies of the oil-exporting nations, for example, there is no concept of acquiring permanent residency. Even Moslem refugees from Somalia who live in the United Arab Emirates are on two-year contracts and they have to be sponsored every two years by a native Emirati if they’re going to stay so there’s large parts of the world that don’t have in place polices that allow for the quick or any acquisition of what we would call residency and then they don’t have in place procedures that allow for naturalization in one’s own lifetime. Furthermore most countries outside of the Americas – in Europe, in Asia and in Africa – base citizenship on blood so that the children of foreigners remain foreigners.
SO IF YOU’RE THE CHILD OF AN IMMIGRANT BORN IN THE COUNTRY YOUR PARENTS HAVE MIGRATED TO, YOU’RE STILL TECHNICALLY NOT A CITIZEN?
That’s correct. When I lived and worked in Berlin in the 1980s I had Iranian students who had never been in Iran, who spoke absolutely flawless native German and they were still Iranians.
Because we’re in Canada and because Canada compares itself to other English-speaking countries like the U.S. and Australia, or even maybe to France or Germany (The German Nationality Act came into effect in 2000, ending decades of restrictive citizenship policies), it tends to look for much finer measures of integration but all of these countries including Germany at this point have, if not birth-right citizenship, procedures for naturalization and they have procedures for permanent residency like Canada, like the United States. Most of the countries of the world simply do not.
IS IT A BIT OF A SELF-FULFILLING PROPHECY THEN? IF YOU SAY IMMIGRANTS DON’T INTEGRATE, SO YOU DON’T PUT POLICIES IN PLACE TO HELP THEM DO THAT THEN THEY WON’T, BY THAT DEFINITION.
Yes, to some degree. The sharp contrast here is not between Canada and the U.S.(Canada has more social programs to facilitate integration). It’s between countries that think of themselves (at least some of the time) as multicultural, culturally plural or as nations of immigrants, and the vast majority of the rest of the countries of the world that don’t and whose public policies make it almost impossible if not extremely unlikely for their foreign workers to become members of the national community.
WHAT HAS SURPRISED OR INTERESTED YOU MOST ABOUT CANADIAN IMMIGRATION SINCE MOVING HERE?
Of course I’ve been surprised that I don’t’ have sufficient points to apply for permanent residency! What also surprised me was the extremely rapid change in refugee policy that accompanied the shift in the prime minister and the new government. That doesn’t happen so easily in the U.S. because election of the presidency is separate and the result is often conflicts between President and legislature. The other thing that surprised me and that I’ve gotten interested in – although I’m never going to study since there are people here already studying it – is the phenomenon of these affinity groups of Canadians, these groups that get together to finance or to fund or to sponsor refugees.
There are organizations, many of them religiously based, in the United States that do that but the notion that a neighbourhood group of 15 or 20 families or a department at a university would do the fundraising and make the social and personal commitment to sponsor a refugee – I thought that was uniquely Canadian, really fascinating, and I’d love to know the history of that. There are rough parallels, historically in the U.S. in the 50s, 60s and 70s of a church group sponsoring Vietnamese or Estonian refugee family but the institution always preceded sponsorship whereas here it’s like the groups come together only in order to sponsor.
YOU MAKE A DISTINCTION BETWEEN A NATION OF IMMIGRANTS AND A NATION OF IMMIGRATION. CAN YOU TELL ME ABOUT THAT DISTINCTION AND WHY IT IS AN IMPORTANT ONE TO MAKE?
I’m still working on this but at least as I understand it, a nation of immigrants like Canada, the U.S., Australia, not only recognizes that people have roots outside of their nation but that they bring with them into their Canadian-ness or their American-ness, their ties and affiliations and cultural attachments to places outside. And I see that as different from a country like France or to some degree Brazil or Argentina. Those countries too know they have long histories of immigration. It would be stretching it to call the slave trade in the case of Brazil immigration but Brazilians know that’s part of their history, they know there was a massive influx into Brazil of people from Japan, Lebanon, Italy, Portugal, Spain etcetera. They know that and they don’t deny that but a Brazilian is nevertheless identified only with Brazil. A Frenchman’s affinities are to France. Many people say there are no ethnic identities in France and that as a result France has had a very difficult time dealing with issue of race because its notion that unitary loyalties are to the French republic make it impossible, literally, to talk about what we here or in the U.S. call race and ethnicity. There’s no room for that kind of pluralism. You can’t wear a headscarf in France because you’re bringing your religious attachments and loyalties into the public space and that public space has to be exclusively, homogeneously French and secular. The recent controversy over the “burkini” points to the same issue.
Whereas in Canada the headscarf can be a focus of xenophobia for xenophobes, but no one would think of telling a Jewish man in a yarmulke or a young Muslim in a headscarf, “No you can’t come to school like that because that’s not Canadian. That’s not American.” The notion of cultural pluralism emerges in nations of immigrants. But in nations of immigration, immigration occurs but then the migrant becomes Brazilian or Argentine or French and those other attachments don’t matter any more – or they’re not supposed to matter anymore.
YOU ADVOCATE FOR THE FREEDOM TO MOVE WHILE CAUTIONING AGAINST EMPIRE BUILDING. I WANTED TO ASK YOU A LITTLE BIT MORE ABOUT WHAT THAT MEANT AND HOW WE’RE SEEING THAT TODAY.
The relationship of mobility and empire building is really complicated and I think new research is just starting to come in on this issue but I do make a distinction between people who enjoy the freedom to move, and state-supported projects of colonialism. When I talk about the freedom of any individual person to move I’m not suggesting that any nation or any state should be able to say, “Let’s go invade and conquer.” Nevertheless, it’s very clear in the case of Canada and the U.S. and Australia and South Africa that the existence of those colonized territories did become home to people exercising, as white Europeans and British subjects, their freedom to move and both Canadians and Americans are still grappling with the consequences.
How long and for how long should we consider immigrants to a place like Canada or a place like the U.S., where there were existing cultures and there were existing if not territories homelands prior to the imperial project – how long should we call immigrants settler colonizers? And does it matter if they move with state support or without it? Does it matter and how does it matter that those states often make land available and fight wars and do those immigrants participate in those wars?
There’s a lot of work that needs to be done here. It’s a really contentious issue; it’s going to take a lot of good will on all sides to understand what the difference is between a person exercising the freedom to move and becoming involved intentionally, unintentionally or perhaps not at all in empire building. I don’t have an answer. But I think it’s an intriguing question that requires an answer.
HOW HAS NATION BUILDING CHANGED OVER THE TIME? IS IMMIGRATION STILL A WAY TO DO THAT?
I actually think that all of the traditional nations of immigrants but certainly Canada and the U.S. are at a very critical moment. I think we can identify when both of these countries began calling themselves nations of immigrants; it’s actually rather late in their histories. It’s in the 1960s in the case of the U.S. It’s around that time in the 70s for Canada. In both cases it’s associated with the rise of the celebrations of cultural pluralism, call it multiculturalism – and that word is also used in the U.S., albeit with a slightly different meaning.
I think both countries are showing in their immigration – especially labour migration policies but even in their refugee policies – ambivalence about their ability to continue to accept large numbers. Both of them did open their doors more widely in the 50s, 60s and 70s but both of them are today evermore precise about who can be admitted and there are growing concerns in both countries about the comings and goings of their own citizens. You see that in the case of the Canada’s recent decision to deny voting rights to Canadians living abroad for more than five years, you see that in growing levels of ambivalence about birthright citizenship dual citizenship in the case of the United States. For example, the U.S. now makes it very difficult to relinquish your citizenship.
DO YOU SEE BREXIT AS TURNING POINT AS FAR AS PEOPLE MOVING AROUND EUROPE?
We’re always at turning points. We’re always in the process of imagining the kind of nation we want but I think the resistance to the idea of culturally diverse nations is certainly getting a lot more play. I was just in Australia last month: Australia keeps its asylum seekers on an island, far away and they have to make their asylum applications without stepping foot in Australia. So what’s it going to be? Are we going to tolerate, accept and facilitate integration or are we going to begin to close off and make the boundaries around nations more rigid again? If you look at the history of the late 19th and early 20th century you will see these kinds of populist, nationalist movements: what did they produce in the history of the 20th century? It was a century marked by inter-national warfare.
Britain was always skeptical about the EU. It entered late, it never entered fully and it never used the euro. When it complains about immigrants, it’s largely complaining about other Europeans. Many more Brits live outside of Britain in other European countries than Europeans live in Britain. There are nationalist, populist nationalist movements in France, in the Scandinavian countries in almost all of the smaller new central European nations. This is not exactly the same as Trumpism in the U.S.; Marine Le Pen is not Trump. There are always national variations but things could become considerably more nationalist in the years ahead.
KNOWING HOW NATIONALISM WORKED OUT IN THE 20TH CENTURY IT SEEMS STRANGE THAT PEOPLE WOULD EMBRACE THIS RHETORIC OR SEE THAT IT WOULD BE ANY DIFFERENT.
But for many people the nation state is the only force that they can imagine protecting them from the forces of globalization. They don’t imagine the UN doing that. They don’t imagine an international labour movement doing that. They can’t imagine a human rights regime that actually guarantees the right to a decent level of life. There are lots of dimensions of the Declaration on Human Rights that the UN is unable and not prepared to try to implement or enforce. So it leaves the protection of human rights to individual nation states which are of course the units that are most likely to violate those rights. It’s an irony of international governance.
YOU MENTION THAT THE DECLARATION ON HUMAN RIGHTS GIVES PEOPLE THE RIGHT TO LEAVE BUT IT DOESN’T NECESSARILY GIVE THEM THE RIGHT TO STAY OR ENTER. SO WHOM DOES THIS SERVE? HOW DOES THIS SERVE PEOPLE AT ALL?
Every refugee in a camp somewhere and every asylum seeker feels that paradox. They die because of that paradox. It makes a certain kind of sense: that the asylum seeker, the politically persecuted and the religiously persecuted has the right to ask for asylum and ask to enter. And until recently they were usually allowed to enter but it could be hard to get rid of them again if asylum was denied. This is why Australia devised its system for keeping them on an island: it’s easier to remove them; the Australians don’t have to see the violence and suffering involved. Labour migrants don’t even have the right to ask to enter. The sovereignty of every country is premised (at least in the 20th century) on its ability to control its own borders. And another purpose of the human rights declaration was to recognize that sovereignty. Think of the context in which it was written, post-World War II. Whole peoples can die if sovereign states can exclude them.
Yet every nation in the world creates its own rules for accepting or rejecting. It creates its own detention camps or dormitories or islands or, the EU enters into an agreement with Turkey to try to keep people in Turkey or the U.S. negotiates with Mexico to try to keep Central Americans in Mexico. The record of living up to the ideal of that flawed human rights declaration is not very good right now.
HOW CAN BORDERS FUNCTION ETHICALLY TO RECOGNIZE HUMAN RIGHTS?
That is the hundred-dollar question. Sovereignty is based on the maintenance of borders. There are these declaration and sentiments about human rights but individual nations create the policies that implement how human rights are going to be treated at the border. There are a couple of things we can observe: one is that those human rights are attached mainly to refugees, people who are fleeing certain kinds of persecution or in some cases climate change or environmental catastrophe. Very few human rights adhere to the mobile worker, and that’s where restrictions have also increased, with temporary labour contracts becoming the norm.
YOU WRITE THAT MIGRATION IS SEEN AS EXCEPTIONAL AND THAT SEDENTISM, LIVING IN ONE PLACE FOR A LONG PERIOD OF TIME, IS THE NORM.
Well, it’s what many people long for.
WHY DOES THIS NARRATIVE PERSIST, DESPITE EVIDENCE THAT PEOPLE MOVE AND THAT PEOPLE HAVE BEEN MOVING?
I don’t have 100 per cent confidence in my answer to that question yet. So far it’s an observation that I’ve been trying to deepen by looking at specific times and places. And it’s part of the politics of the discussion of mobility as well that people legitimately say, “I just want to stay where I am; I feel like I have to move in order to live. I don’t want to. I just want to be where I am.” That’s helped me to see that for many people, “staying put” defines the good life. Why should that be? As a world historian, I recognize that the first 60,000 years or so of human history was all about movement. And then until 1500 the vast majority of human beings were still leading what we call mobile lifestyles. They were foragers, hunters and gatherers or shifting cultivators or they were nomadic pastoralists. So where does this idea come from that staying still is the norm or the ideal? I don’t have the answer but I have to think about it has an historian.
“Civilization” was historically defined by settled societies cultivating grains, the formation of what we would today call state structures and literacy. So everything that we actually know about early human life on earth is seen though the eyes of the “civilized” because they’re the ones who could read and write. And they always imagined their enemies as “barbarians” who were mobile.
The observation that, for example, modern scholarship assumes that its subject is a sedentary human being, is now – I wouldn’t say widely accepted – but it’s not an unusual observation and you see people in geography, sociology and history making observations like that. What if we imagine our subject not as a sedentary person but as a mobile person? And certainly the evidence from world history – both prehistory and written history forward – shows us that in every time and in every place a significant number of people had to be mobile for societies to function.
WHAT DO COUNTRIES LOSE BY STRONGLY ENCOURAGING SEDENTISM AND DISCOURAGING MIGRATION?
I would argue that what they lose is innovation, experimentation and they probably also lose out technologically. But maybe what they gain in a comforting sense of social solidarity is worth it. Personally I don’t think it is but that’s because I’ve moved around a lot.
Moving is not easy, but it does generate change, both at the individual level and the societal – and I would say also on the global level, as well. It’s hard for me to imagine living in a place where there’s no movement in and out and I do tend to imagine that it’s impoverished but it may also feel very comforting and good. I grew up in a very small town, about 90 miles north of New York City, but even then there was a lot of coming and going and almost everybody I knew were the children and grandchildren of immigrants so it didn’t seem fixed. I’ve never lived in a totally fixed place. But there are lots of advocates of small town life and fantasizers of small town life who clearly see advantages in a more closed, sedentary way of living.
HOW CAN GOVERNMENTS STRIKE A BALANCE BETWEEN ENCOURAGING MOBILITY FOR WHAT IT BRINGS – INNOVATION AND CHANGE – AND ALSO ENCOURAGING PEOPLE TO STAY TO BUILD FAMILIES, START ENTERPRISE?
I don’t know what the ideal would be but the observation that I made at the Naples Conference was that the United States and comparably the EU, have in the past century or so expanded opportunities for people to move about within the United States and within Europe. The U.S. ended slavery; it stopped restricting Native peoples to reservations. But as the nation changed polices so that more people could move about freely within the national territory, it raised restrictions for crossing the international border. And that’s what happened more recently in Europe. The elimination of barriers to the free movement of people within Europe was followed by the emergence of what quickly came to be called Fortress Europe.
The consequences of those changes are visible in the dead bodies washing up on the Mediterranean every year or in the case of the U.S., dying in the deserts along the Mexico-U.S. border.
I don’t think I can imagine what the ideal would be as a policy. The work of historians is not motivated by a desire to influence policy in the way some of the social sciences are but it’s pretty obvious to me, at least historically, that as countries change policies for internal mobility, they typically also change policies toward immigration. The shift has been from relatively open borders but with lots of constraints on movement within those borders towards a world where there are more restraints at the borders and greater freedom to move within the national territory.
YOU SAID THAT HISTORIANS AREN’T MOTIVATED TOO MUCH BY POLICY, SO WHAT IS THE MOTIVATION FOR YOU TO STUDY IMMIGRATION HISTORY?
The usual answer we give is: if you do not know where you come from in an historical sense you cannot know who you are, either as an individual, a society or a nation; that the present is a product of the past. The purpose of history is to explore those connections between the past and the present and to understand the past in such a way that it can help us to make sense of the present. That’s why historical writing changes over time; we study that change: it’s called historiography.
Historians are more likely to interpret the past than to predict the future. We read theory of course but we usually generalize about human behavior only in specific historical or geographical contexts. World historians are only partial exceptions to this point. Historians certainly played a very important role in imagining nations and giving them a purportedly shared past. How the nation emerges from language or past events, including immigration, has been an important focus for many historians but we don’t usually believe that even the higher level generalizations that we do make can help us to predict what’s going to happen next. It does seem to me that thinking you can predict what happens next is a necessary foundation for offering advice about policy.
This interview has been edited and condensed.