Immigration and migration is never , ever far from my mind. And while I focus on Italy, Sicily in particular in this blog, I think of immigration and migration in just about every setting imaginable. It is a subject I am passionate about. For me, the issue of migration is not exclusively a men’s issue or a women’s issue. It is a human issue.
I have written about my own experiences with my own family’s immigration and the immigrants who I attended school with, side by side. I saw their struggles, their pain. I saw how being treated like a stranger in a new country can make you defend the place you left, because , even if conditions were bad (or you just wanted better), it was , for lack of a better term the evil that you knew. I understand this on such a deep level and as I am getting ready to conduct more ethnography in Sicily, I am reminded of what a friend of mine, an immigrant himself told me recently: people leave their country of origin for another country because they want something. I wasn’t sure I heard him right and so I repeated “Because they want something.” I said it like a statement, in monotone, thinking hard. It was not a clarifying question. I was dumbfounded. “Certo,” he said, rather smugly, I thought. “But,” I continued. “No but,” he said, his finger poised in the air, “there is no but.”
This is something I had to think about. I had to wrap my mind around the word “want.” Want seems like a word that I associate with frivolous things. Wants versus needs was a concept my parents taught me very early on and so I and my siblings have always known the difference. When I “wanted” something it was an extra—-I could live without it. When I “needed” something it was essential to my survival or my well-being. This is where things began to get murky with regards to my understanding of the needs of immigrants and migrants—refugees and asylum-seekers are clear cut cases. Or are they? But maybe I was little mixed up.
While I research immigration and migration and as I conduct my ethnography, a very personal ethnography ( I am not a totally objective observer—not only can I not escape my own point of view—impossible— I do not want to be emotionally distant from my the situations and people I choose to interact with. My friend Carolyn, an anthropologist, has given me so much encouragement with this form of ethnography—-not distancing and drawing on my own experiences. But with that said, clearly, I needed to recalibrate a bit.
And then I realized that the issue of immigration really is not very clear cut at all. In many cases, it is so true: immigrants often want something. They want a better job, better education for themselves or their children, they want experiences, they want to be close to family member who have gone before, and on and on and on. But sometimes, in fact, they immigrate because of need—because they can’t make it where they are. Tough economic times and soaring unemployment was rampant in southern Italy in the early ’70’s and as a result my hometown saw the proliferation of immigrants from Maida, Calabria, where half of my family originated. I saw their struggles, their humiliations and their resentments. I saw how we Italian-Americans (we were born here!) often felt superior to those right “off the boat”. In fact, of course, no one came by boat. But that didn’t matter to us. Immigration , contrary to what many people believe, does not follow political laws, but rather economic ones , so for the most part, if the economy is going well, there will be an increase in immigrant workers. Of the economy sputters, immigrant workers decrease. Immigration patterns tend to develop wherever there are opportunities for employment.
The other reasons for refugee immigration is different—for the most part. While there are some who may try to claim refugee status in a country under false pretenses (because, indeed, they want a different life), the usual reasons are corruption, inequality, unfair and/or unjust resource distribution , class differences, etc. Poverty, surprisingly, is not the main reason.
And so my friend is quite satisfied that I’ve come around to his way of thinking. My process of knowing is just that—a process. And immigration in an increasingly globalized world is increasingly complex. But what is not a complex idea , what is actually very easy for me to understand and the premise by which I operate is that immigration , in fact, in all instances the crossing of borders is a human issue. Immigrants , though they are treated like political pawns, are often dehumanized , are scapegoated with sickening regularity and are all too often treated like an unwelcome “guest,” they are people, often vulnerable and both need and deserve our protection in many ways, including legally. Of this I have never ever been in doubt. And, like I knew he would, my friend agrees with me.