EssaysFeature

From Here and There: Diaspora Policies, Integration and Social Rights Beyond Borders

An excerpt and interview from Alexandra Délano Alonso and her latest book

In From Here and There, Délano Alonso, Associate Professor and Chair of Global Studies at The New School, offers an exclusive insight into and a critical evaluation of an area of migration governance that is rarely discussed: the processes through which Mexico and other Latin American countries are establishing programs to give their emigrant populations better access to education, health, banking, labor rights, language acquisition and civic participation in the United States. Put in the larger context of diaspora policies, she argues, practices focused on establishing closer ties between the origin country and the emigrant population and protecting their rights through the provision of social services are one of the clearest manifestations of the reconceptualization of the boundaries of citizenship and the rights and obligations that come with it, beyond the territorial limits of the state.

Q&A With The Author

Public Seminar (PS): What made you decide to write this book? Why were you interested in studying the processes through which Mexico and other Latin American countries are establishing programs to give their emigrant populations better access to education, health, banking, labor rights, language acquisition and civic participation in the United States?

Alexandra Délano Alonso (ADA): While I was a student I did internships at the Institute of Mexicans Abroad in Mexico City and at the Mexican Consulate in New York — which later turned into a job there. This book is the direct result of this experience working closely with Mexican government officials, community organizations and public and private institutions in the U.S. that collaborate with the consulates on issues related to documentation (passports and consular IDs), legal protection, and access to programs such as the ones you mention above. Throughout my work there, and later through the research I conducted at 34 Mexican and Latin American consulates and embassies in the U.S. and Canada, I observed different spaces and programs as well as interactions between migrants and consular offices. I was made aware of the many tensions and mutual mistrust between the various actors, and at the same time there was so much creativity and innovation in developing programs to respond to the needs and demands of migrants by bringing together resources, knowledge and infrastructure in both countries. This reality pushed against traditional concepts of integration, citizenship and sovereignty that are central to dominant migration discourses and policies. I found that every time I shared the examples of the work being done to extend social rights to migrants in the U.S. or Canada from the perspective of origin countries led to generative discussions and a possibility to rethink concepts and questions around migrants’ rights. These programs also show that despite the prevalence of nationalist discourse and security-based approaches, collaborations across borders between states as well as other actors do exist at the local level, focused on everyday realities and the need to ensure equal opportunities for migrants, particularly those with precarious status, and their families.

PS: What were the major challenges you were facing while conducting the research for/writing this book?

ADA: The research was multi-sited and based on participant observation so it required extended stays in different cities and conversations with different actors, from government officials to the partner institutions administering some of the programs, to the migrants participating in them. So this meant I had quickly adapt and use different approaches in order to establish trust with each of them and document these various perspectives as objectively as possible while trying to understand and navigate the complex relationships and dynamics that exist between them. At a personal level, in the nine years between the first research visits to the publication of the book, I had two children, so it was challenging to balance the fieldwork, the research and the writing process with the time I need and want to spend with them. I had to learn to work in brief but intense bursts — during their naps, very early in the morning or late at night — and to value the time available for research and writing in a different way. At the same time, being a mother changed my perspective and I think that growth is present in the evolution of the project itself.

PS: While you mainly explore the role of the above-mentioned programs as a tool to support the needs of vulnerable migrant populations and as a channel to open up the debate about integration, conceptually and politically, you also examine the contradictions and limitations of such policies. Could you tell us a little more about those contradictions and limitations?

ADA: The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program of 2012 was a turning point for the project. DACA included a provision of advance parole that allowed eligible youth to travel outside of the country without compromising their status. This meant that many of them could return for the first time to the places they left as children. The Mexican government saw this as an opportunity to connect with immigrant youth activists (so-called “Dreamers”) that have been pushing for legislative changes such as the DREAM Act, DACA, and immigration reform, and it sponsored a number of events, visits and educational opportunities for them in Mexico. I participated in various of those experiences and saw how many of these youth — whose travel expenses had been covered by the Mexican government — challenged the government’s attempts to offer a positive image of their country of birth and give them a warm welcome, while at the same time they knew the Mexican government as one that did not express the same concern for their parents and, moreover, was not giving a warm welcome to other “Dreamers” who were being deported or forced to return to Mexico in large numbers at least since 2008. These youth made it very clear that the resources, efforts and openness to collaboration in order to expand rights and services that Mexico and other countries like Ecuador demonstrate abroad, is not matched by their policies to address the causes of migration or the needs of returned migrants. Moreover, as much as I see the programs developed through consulates as sites of policy innovation and diffusion, their reach is still quite limited relative to the size of the total migrant population and, in some cases, they reproduce some of the exclusions based on gender, race, class or ability that limit access to rights in the origin countries. It was through conversations with migrant youth here in the U.S. and in Mexico that the project was really pushed to examine these limitations and to challenge dominant narratives. The book is dedicated to them.

PS: After having written and published this book, what are you currently working on/what would you like to work on in the future?

ADA: I finished writing the conclusions during the 2016 U.S. election so it became increasingly important to make my argument even clearer in response to pervasive assimilationist views that present migrants — particularly Mexicans or those of Latino origin — as a threat to U.S. identity, as well as the now infamous depiction of Mexico as a country that sends its “bad hombres” to the U.S. and also prevents their ability to develop a loyalty to the U.S. because it fosters their continuing connection with Mexico through the consular network. Now the book has come out at the height of the campaigns for the July 2018 presidential election in Mexico, where the candidates continue to repeat a discourse full of catchphrases around the protection of the rights of Mexicans abroad while neglecting to respond with the same forcefulness to the needs of returned or deported migrants, or assuming responsibility to address the causes of migration – which for the past 10 years also include forced migration as a result of the violence and insecurity in the country. I have already been working on another project with my colleague and co-author – and New School alum — Benjamin Nienass around the violence in Mexico and responses to it through memorials and countermemorials for the dead and disappeared – which include hundreds if not thousands of migrants. But my priority right now is to make sure the information provided in this book doesn’t just stay in academic libraries but can be part of the public debate and support the work of activists, advocates and migrants whose voices and perspectives shaped the arguments I make. So I have been working on op-eds in English and Spanish, and doing interviews with journalists covering these issues in printed media (e.g. NY TimesReforma) and radio, in both countries.

Looking further into the future, towards the last stages of the book I started thinking more deeply about the concept of solidarity, as this is a frame that is actively used by Mexico and Latin American consulates to justify their collaborations to expand education, health, labor rights and financial literacy programs for migrants, and it is also central in migrant youth’s discourse around accountability, responsibility and the importance of building transnational networks to support each others’ struggles across borders — here and there. At the same time solidarity has been central in the work we’ve been doing to make The New School a sanctuary campus through the Sanctuary Working Group. I am not sure what the next project will look like but I am certain it will be strongly connected to sanctuary, which in a way is not a huge departure from the book. Just as the consular offices are revealed in this work as unexpected spaces where migrants are able to claim rights in the place where they live but in relation to a state that does not recognize them as members or citizens deserving of rights, sanctuary is precisely a frame and a practice through which to explore what constitutes a safe or trusted space; the ways in which the limits of sovereignty can be pushed; who deserves protection — the material and social conditions to live — and who does not on the basis of their migratory status, the color of their skin or their gender; and the possibility of imagining other forms of relating to and supporting each other.

From Here and There: Diaspora Policies, Integration and Social Rights Beyond Borders

Porque la salud es un derecho,

tu gobierno te atiende en el lugar donde te encuentres.

Casa Ecuatoriana, New York, February 28, 2014

“Because health is a right, your government assists you wherever you may be.” Printed on the wall of the main room of the Casa Ecuatoriana, the community affairs section of the Ecuadorian consulate in Queens, New York, next to an image of a house in the colors of the Ecuadorian flag and a stethoscope attached to it, this is the main message broadcast by the Ecuadorian government to the Ecuadorian community in New York. Every day, dozens of people from Ecuador and other Spanish-speaking countries gather in this room to get free vaccines or glucose tests, as well as referrals to low-cost clinics or hospitals in New York. In the afternoons, they come to the Casa Ecuatoriana to participate in OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) training sessions, ESL (English as a Second Language) classes, computer and citizenship courses, or plumbing and electrics certification programs.

On this particular day, February 28, 2014, the Casa Ecuatoriana was holding a ceremony to celebrate a group of women who had just completed a health educators training program on HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. The women, from Ecuador, Colombia, and Mexico, were dressed up for the occasion and had brought food to share and celebrate with their teachers and the consular representatives. They were all beaming with excitement, and some of them said a few words when they were called up to receive their diploma: “I want to express my gratitude to the Casa Ecuatoriana and the Consul for organizing these courses for us, and to our teacher, Doña Emita [from the Aids Center of Queens County], for teaching us things we did not know. But I would like to ask your help to go further. Our people need information. I would like to ask you to work together with us to serve the community. The greatest support we can have is from the Casa Ecuatoriana and Mr. Consul” (speech at Casa Ecuatoriana, February 28, 2014). (Figure I.2)

A small stereo was set on a plastic chair. The women plugged it in, and festive music started playing in Spanish. I was invited to attend the event by one of the representatives of the Casa Ecuatoriana — whom I had previously interviewed as part of my research — so once the formal part of the award ceremony ended, I started to leave, but the women insisted that I join in the celebration. As we ate empanadas, beans, rice, and cake, one of the women from Ecuador, who had lived in the United States for eleven years, shared her experience in this health educators program: “I have learned so much. I have shared with women from other countries. We are learning to inform people about these issues. It has changed my life. It has helped me to educate my children, to talk to my husband. We are informed now. [. . .] I am grateful to the Consul, for the help he is giving us as Ecuadorians but also to Latinos in general.” Another woman from Mexico who had lived in the United States for fifteen years added: “We want to study and learn but we don’t have the economic capacity to do so. These programs are free. The Ecuadorian consulate has given us an opportunity to educate ourselves” (February 28, 2014).

Gustavo Lima, the director of the Casa Ecuatoriana, also joined in the celebration. Lima, a government official always dressed in plain clothes instead of a suit, hugged the women and their families, and embodied ideas expressed in an earlier interview: “The goal is to be closer to our community living abroad. The consulates can no longer be spaces where one only comes to process cold paperwork” (February 17, 2014). At his office in the consulate of Ecuador, Consul General Jorge López explained that this is a new approach to relations with the Ecuadorian community, which the government refers to as citizen diplomacy: “It is not the same diplomacy as twenty or thirty years ago. We are more open now. These are new times, new moments. There are more migrants, more necessities. It is a very vulnerable population. Many of them do not speak the language; they have limited resources. There are needs that are not met by the U.S. government and those who suffer the most are the undocumented migrants. So it becomes the consulate’s task to protect their rights” (February 11, 2014).

Assistance for migrants to learn English, receive health services, open a bank account, apply for naturalization, or get a work certification has generally been considered solely the responsibility of the government and society of the country of residence, as part of the process of supporting migrants’ integration and ultimately their formal acquisition of citizenship. But in the past two decades, Ecuador, Mexico, and — to a lesser extent — other countries of origin of migrants to the United States have been increasingly taking part in these activities through their consular representations, with the goal of addressing the needs of migrants that have limited access to such services due to precarious legal status. Put in the larger context of diaspora policies, which have gained more attention globally in the past two decades, these practices — focused on the provision of social services for emigrants in their country of destination as a way to support their well-being and access to opportunities to participate as members of their communities — are one of the clearest manifestations of the reconceptualization of the boundaries of citizenship (Baubock 1994) and the rights and obligations that come with it, beyond the territorial limits of the state.

In this book I argue that these policies reflect the changes in traditional conceptions and practices of migrant membership, in relation to both countries of origin and countries of residence. This research examines the processes through which Latin American countries of origin are establishing programs that go beyond traditional consular protection activities and focus on giving their emigrant populations tools to have better access to institutions and programs related to education, health, banking, labor rights, language acquisition, and civic participation in the United States. The expansion of such rights and responsibilities is part of a trend in development of diaspora policies since the late 1990s, but until recently this was mostly limited to political and economic rights (absentee voting rights, the right to run for office, tax benefits, and incentives for investment, among others) and generally associated with actions related to the country of origin. In this case, the extension of social rights concerns institutions and communities in the country of destination, a trend that has been identified in the literature on transnational social protection (Sabates-Wheeler and Feldman 2011; Bocaggni 2011; Faist 2013; Levitt, Lloyd, Mueller, and Vitterna 2016). Moreover, the majority of the population that benefits from the services offered by the origin countries examined here are not citizens of the United States. Thus, I argue that these policies respond to a particular context determined by the precarious legal status of migrants — defined as either undocumented individuals or permanent residents without citizenship whose migration status limits their access to public benefits or puts them at risk of deportation (Goldring and Landolt 2013). Spatial and temporal variations in such policies are also explained by the organizational capacity of migrants who demand such services from their origin country, the political and institutional context within the country of destination (at the national and local level), and the relevance of this type of diaspora policies as a diplomatic tool, both bilaterally and regionally.

While in this book I explore the role of such policies as a tool to support the needs of vulnerable migrant populations and as a channel to open up the debate about integration, conceptually and politically, I also examine the contradictions and limitations of such policies. On the one hand, while origin countries promote integration into migrants’ countries of residence, many of the services they offer abroad are precisely the support systems that are lacking in the origin country. At the same time, promoting integration, even when presented as a policy that is not in contradiction with migrants’ ability to maintain ties with the origin country, implies a policy of “no return,” whether because the conditions are not available for migrants to return and therefore efforts are put toward their settlement in another country, or because the origin country is actively cultivating the presence of citizens abroad as a political or economic asset (see Sherman 1999). As others have noted (Tejada 2015; Rodriguez 2005), such policies present migration as a viable political or economic strategy while failing to address its root causes.

This material was originally published in From Here and There: Diaspora Policies, Integration, and Social Rights Beyond Borders, by Alexandra Délano Alonso, and has been reproduced by permission of Oxford University Press. For permission to reuse this material, please click here.

Alexandra Délano Alonso is Associate Professor and Chair of Global Studies at The New School.

Also for you:

Alexandra Délano Alonso

Previous post

The Tale

Next post

On Recovering Memories and Truths