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Transnationalism: What it Means to Local Communities


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The importance of transnationalism for local communities and local community development

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Transnationalism: What it Means to Local Communities

  1. 1. Illustration: Kevin Ghiglione/ Transnationalism: What It Means to Local Communities by Alvaro Lima, Boston Redevelopment Authority Much has been written about Some migration scholars have explained patterns learned in the new environment how easier and cheaper air travel, better are transmitted to the folks back home. transnational immigrants— telephone access, personal computers, and Political scientists, in turn, have focused on people who move to a new country other communication innovations have the influence of transnational immigrants but keep strong economic, social, enabled sustained interpersonal contacts when elections are held in their cities and 1 between immigrants and the people in villages of origin. and political connections with their their homelands, increasing transnational- But what is the economic, social, countries of origin. Not enough has ism. Others have focused their studies on and political impact of these immigrants been understood, however, about the importance of remittance flows—$300 on their host communities and how billion sent to home countries annually. does it differ from that of “traditional” transnationals’ contribution to their Sociologists, for their part, have explored immigrants? local communities. social remittances, or the ways that ideas, Unfortunately, a persistent perception customs, social norms, and consumption among many scholars is that transnational26 Winter 2010
  2. 2. ties are antithetical to immigrant incorpo- Brazilian entrepreneurs also main- Brazilians in Boston. Eighty-six pecent ration in new nations. This perception is tain contact by phone or e-mail. Sixty-nine contribute to their retirement accounts strong even among researchers and activists percent call home two or more times a week in Brazil (versus 15 percent of the gen- who believe the contributions of immigrants (versus about 61 percent for the Brazilian eral Brazilian immigrant popula- 2 are net positive to their host communities. population in Boston); 17 percent call once tion in Boston). Twenty-nine percent Abundant data and research, including a week (versus 17 percent for the Brazilian of them pay for student loans in their research by this author, show that transna- population). Eighty-three percent of Bra- home country, compared with roughly tional immigrants actually tend to be more zilian entrepreneurs use e-mail, compared 6 percent of the Brazilian immigrants in integrated than traditional immigrants and do better for themselves, while contributing more to their host communities. Abundant data and research Research that I conducted in 2008 show that transnational immigrants among Brazilian immigrant entrepre- neurs in Boston shows that entrepreneurs actually tend to be more integrated in particular are more likely than the gen- than traditional immigrants and eral Brazilian immigrant population to have ties with their home country, obtain do better for themselves, U.S. citizenship, participate in U.S. elec- while contributing more to their tions, and contribute economically to the United States. 3 host communities. These transnational entrepreneurs maintain close business, civic, and social with 72 percent for the Brazilian immi- Boston. And they maintain other eco- relationships with host communities and grant population overall. They are slightly nomic activity in Brazil, financing their communities of origin in Brazil. They less tuned to radio and TV broadcasts from properties (14 percent), capitalizing micro- live intense transnational lives. Although Brazil. About 81 percent listen or watch enterprises (11 percent), and lending overall only 10 percent of Brazilian immi- such broadcasts, compared with 88 percent money to their families there (25 percent). grants travel to Brazil once or more every of Brazilians in Boston overall. Possibly because of their civic engage- year, 53 percent of Brazilian entrepreneurs Fifty-eight percent of Brazilian ment in Brazil, they also are more engaged visit Brazil that often. Thirty-seven percent immigrant entrepreneurs provide help in the civic life of Boston than the stay for a month or more, compared with other than remittances to their families in about 7 percent for the general population. Brazil, compared with 37 percent for The author in his U.S. office and back in his home country, Brazil.Photographs: Courtesy of Marie McGinley and the author. Communities & Banking 27
  3. 3. majority of the local Brazilian immigrants. whereas none of those with lower degrees lower transnational group does. Differ- Thirty-three percent are involved in some of transnational activities earn as much ences in the number of financial obliga- form of philanthropic endeavor, com- as $35,000. For the host community, the tions the two groups have in the United pared with about 12 percent for Bra- higher incomes produce numerous direct States—credit card loans, home mortgag- zilians in Boston. They also contribute and indirect benefits, including increased es, and the like—follow a similar pattern. financially to charities in larger propor- local productivity and more tax revenue. Civic participation profiles of the two tions (38 percent compared with about The group with a higher degree of Dominican groups go against the expecta- 11 percent for the overall Brazilian com- transnationalism has a greater proportion tions of observers who emphasize assimi- munity in Boston). Their greater civic of children born in the United States but a lation. The group with a higher degree of engagement is expressed at the political smaller household size (2.5 persons against transnationalism has a greater proportion level, too. Whereas only 24 percent of 4.25 in the group with a lower degree of members who vote in U.S. elections (86 Brazilians vote in Brazilian elections, of transnationalism). The group also has percent, compared with 63 percent for the 56 percent of Brazilian entrepreneurs been in the country longer (about 34 years lower transnational group), are members of do so. Those who vote in Brazilian elec- against 17 years). Fifty percent of the group U.S. political parties, and report that they tions tend to have greater political par- own their homes and pay local property write letters to Congress (71 percent com- ticipation in Boston’s political process. taxes, whereas the Dominicans with a lower pared with 50 percent). Additionally, on a My ongoing research on transnation- degree of transnationalism do not. Eighty self-rating scale, the higher transnational alism and integration using a sample of percent of the immigrants in the higher group were more likely to express the belief Dominican immigrants from New York transnational group have become American that they belong to the United States than points to the mutually reinforcing process citizens; only about 63 percent of those in the lower transnational group. in which ties to the home country actu- the lower transnational group have Ameri- Most migration has a positive impact on ally improve ties to the host country. For can citizenship. communities in both the sending and host example, among New York Domini- The financial profiles of the groups countries and on the migrants themselves. can immigrants, 86 percent of those with also diverge: the higher transnational group Transnational migration is especially desirable higher degrees of transnational activity have has average annual savings of more than in that it expands the benefits of migration annual incomes greater than $35,000, four times the average of the lower trans- exponentially. national group ($17,500 compared with $3,750) and is more likely to use U.S. Alvaro Lima is director of research for the banks. Only immigrants in the higher Boston Redevelopment Authority. He also is transnational group have certificates of director of Innovation Network for Com- deposit held in U.S. banks. Moreover, 57 munities, where he develops the network’s percent of that group has investments in transnational practice. the United States; only 13 percent of the Endnotes 1  The term “social remittances” was coined by Wellesley College Professor Peggy Levitt in her book The Transnational Villagers (Berkeley: University of California Press; 2001). 2  A 1997 study on the economic, demographic, and fiscal effects of immigration by the National Research Council (NRC) concluded that “immigration produces net economic gains for domestic residents.” See The New Americans: Economic, Demographic, and Fiscal Effects of Immigration (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1997), p. 3. NRC estimates that the immigration-related domestic gain “may run on the order of $1 billion to $10 billion a year.” 3  My methodology involves a scale relating the degree of transborder activity to transnationalism. The scale shows high levels of such activity at one end and low levels at the other.28 Winter 2010