David FitzGerald, University of California – Los Angeles
Abstract: The controversial notion of ‘transnationalism’ has generated new insights into international migrants’ ongoing ties with their communities of origin that are unexplained by crude versions of the assimilation paradigm. However, the problematic conceptualization of ‘transnationalism’ and its vague usage in empirical studies needlessly inhibit the transnational perspective’s utility. Understanding the political and economic incorporation of migrants in both their communities of origin and destination is facilitated by disaggregating the types of political borders, types of nationalism, and levels of identification that have been conflated in the framework of ‘transnationalism’. I demonstrate the analytic value of these distinctions by using them to interpret evidence from a six-month ethnographic case study of an immigrant labor union in Southern California. A theoretically coherent typology applicable to both the case study and other migration settings provides a framework for explaining how institutions incorporate migrants into U.S. and local politics while simultaneously promoting cross-border ties. I argue labor migrants engage in cross-border activities as a defensive reaction against the discrimination to which they are subjected qua ‘foreigners’ and because cross-border networks are a strategic resource for attaining status and material benefits both ‘here’ and ‘there’.