The Nexus of Migrants’ Rights and Diaspora Activism

Since the late twentieth century, the debate on transnationalism and assimilation has animated the field of migration studies. Empirical studies of first-generation Cubans, Dominicans, Mexicans, Salvadorans, and Vietnamese in the United States, among others, show that the politics of migrants are homeward looking and that the shift in modes of incorporation does not necessarily accompany a shift in concerns (Itzigsohn and Villacrés 2008Ong and Meyer 2008Smith 2006). On the other hand, the children of migrants may consider transnational political membership through the acquisition of dual nationality, but this may eventually fade away over subsequent generations (Bauböck 2003). Although participation in homeland politics is the exception rather than the rule, even among the migrant cohort, competing evidence has encouraged social scientists to develop theories that elaborate on the interactive relationship between transnationalism and assimilation and thus move the discourse from dichotomies to synergy (see Levitt 2001Waldinger 2015).

The political activities that migrants or refugees undertake to improve their situation in the receiving country—such as obtaining more political, social, and economic rights—are no longer seen as diametrically opposed to their actions pertaining to the domestic or foreign policies of the governments in their homeland. In fact, as the proliferation of social movement organizations among Asian Americans show, migrants’ rights and diaspora activism are linked inextricably. The U.S. chapter of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (New Patriotic Alliance), an anti-imperialist, national democratic Filipino organization, undertakes campaigns on the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, the Visiting Forces Agreement between the Philippines and the United States, and the trafficking of Filipino migrant workers. Nodutdol for Korean Community Development, a

Korean Americans protest in front of the Korean Consulate in New York to oppose the construction of a U.S. naval base on Jeju Island. Photo credit: Sukjong Hong

progressive group established by first- through fourth-generation Koreans living in the U.S., has mobilized to stop U.S. naval base expansion in Jeju Island, to advance the Korean Peace Treaty, and to seek justice for victims of police violence in New York City, where Nodutdol is based. Inspired by the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong in 2014, Chinese Americans in Seattle founded the Pacific Rim Solidarity Network, which deals with issues confronting the Chinese diaspora such as the deplorable conditions of newly-arrived migrants employed in the U.S. restaurant industry as well as the exploitation of China’s tech-factory workers.

The unavoidable connectedness of migrants’ rights and diaspora activism stems from the fluid composition of ethnic communities, dynamic movement processes and outcomes, and migrant’s locus of belonging. First, the constantly shifting demographic characteristics of the migrant population determine the sort of repertoires, discourses, and identities for mobilization, and social movement organizations often adapt their priorities and strategies to account for these changes. Different migrant cohorts bring with them variegated resources. In general, age, education, gender, income, political socialization, length of stay, migrant status, and reason for migration influence involvement in contentious collective action. Waves of migration and parallel processes of assimilation and return continuously transform the type and density of ties and social relations that lay the foundation for mobilization. This raises the question: Does the physical relocation of migrants also entail the transplanting, en masse, of cultural, political, and social resources?

In my research on the U.S. movement against the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos in the 1970s, radical organizations such as the Kalayaan (Freedom) Collective and the Katipunan ng Demokratikong Pilipino (Union of Democratic Filipinos) adopted a dual strategy not only because of their ideological underpinnings, but also in recognition of the anatomy of Filipino communities in the U.S. that shape the resources available for mobilization. KDP was the only anti-martial law organization that fought transnationally on two fronts: against the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines and against capitalism in the U.S. At that time, permanent immigrants and a growing second generation, keen on settling or maintaining a home in the U.S., comprised a huge proportion of the total population of Filipinos in American society. In addition, the membership of KDP was disproportionately composed of U.S.-born Filipinos, who tended to be more interested in domestic issues rather than Philippine affairs. Although the connection between authoritarian rule in the Philippines and monopoly-capitalism in the U.S. was a recurring trope that KDP deployed in justifying its dual approach, resources in the community played a central role in defining its structure.

Filipinos in the UK join march against austerity measures. Photo Credit: BAYAN-Europe

Second, through their involvement in diaspora politics, migrants develop associational life, acquire knowledge of the diverse problems of the communities where they are embedded, and learn the ropes of American public policymaking. In his study of Salvadoran cross-border activism in the 1980s, Miller (2011) discovered that participation in the transnational activities of diaspora and solidarity groups led migrants to develop a network of elite allies and conscience adherents in the U.S. that were crucial in their campaigns for comprehensive rights in the 1990s. Through diaspora activism, migrants became rooted in the civic and political life in their country of settlement and generated organizational infrastructures for succeeding mobilizations, usually centered on issues associated with migrants’ integration into the host society.

Often, organizing on migrant issues serve as abeyance structures for diaspora organizations. In times of ebb in homeland conflict, activists turn to the local concerns of the ethnic community to sustain oppositional consciousness. An organizer for the U.S. movement against Marcos claimed, “while we wait for an upsurge in protest in Manila, we undertake organizing of Filipinos on the basis of their democratic rights in our day-to-day work. These were the things we did to keep the contention alive.” To ensure commitment and promote a sense of purpose in cycles of decline, diaspora activists find a niche for themselves in spaces where they organize and on issues that affect their constituents daily—language proficiency, workers’ rights, access to education, housing discrimination etc.

Lastly, the activities of migrants in their country of origin matter only to the extent that they have acquired the necessary economic, political, and social capital to do so. These rest on their incorporation into the national economy and political processes of their host country. Some migrants participate in struggles for immigration reform, higher wages, and better employment conditions to obtain the status needed to influence the polity in their homeland. Their ability to exercise power over institutions in the sending states rests on their class and social positions in the receiving societies. Thus, mobilization for migrants’ rights combined with diaspora activism act as vehicles for public approval and recognition both within their home and host societies.

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