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What world migration means for business

Harvard University's Marcelo M. Suarez-Orozco says business leaders should be aware of the opportunities and challenges resulting from unprecedented world immigration transformations.

6 min read
Immigration is changing the world more than at any other time in history, opening up business opportunities and introducing new challenges, according to Harvard University professor Marcelo M. Suarez-Orozco.

In a wide-ranging, globe-spanning talk on "Rethinking Immigration" that he offered to Harvard Business School faculty as part of the International Seminar Series earlier this month, Suarez-Orozco sketched a picture of interlocking dynamics that hold tremendous sway in the world today.

Suarez-Orozco, a native of Argentina who left his birth country during the early 1970s at the age of 17, is the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Education at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education and the co-director of the Harvard Immigration Project.

"The question for you," he said to faculty, "is, 'Are there business opportunities and issues that may be related to these new ways of adaptation, new ways of belonging?'"

There are 175 million people worldwide who are transnational migrants, he said. They are the people born in India who move to Canada, or who are born in China and move to New York. The transnational migrant figure does not include the huge numbers of internal immigrants, as in China. In the United States, he said, there is apparently a structural demand for foreign workers in the U.S. economy that seems to be recession-proof, even after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

In fact, the latest immigration flow data from the U.S. Bureau of the Census indicates that the percentage change even after 9/11 has been precisely zero, Suarez-Orozco said.

"Immigration generates a momentum. People get on the move. Some are going to have papers, some are not going to have papers. All nation-states are struggling with how to manage that piece--the piece where certain sectors of the economy seem to thrive with immigrant workers. Yet there are huge political, economic and national security issues that are also at stake when you have an unregulated population of maybe 6, maybe 8, maybe 10 million people" in the United States without documents, he said.

"Immigration in the United States is both our history and our destiny," he said.

As a specialist, he is seeing new forms of immigration and new styles of adaptation and belonging. Some theories describe an "either-or" or a "both-and" pattern of assimilation, he said, whereby immigrants are increasingly unwilling to give up their native peculiarities.

Immigration in the United States is both our history and our destiny.
"They are increasingly interested in pursuing their options more than before, whether political, economic, cultural or identitywise," he said. New opportunities for basic research--or business--opportunities may lie within, he suggested.

The fact that many demographers and political economists overlook the children growing up in immigrant households--and concentrate instead on the adult population--may lead them to miss the most accurate picture of transformation, he added.

Love and work equals happiness
In its simplest terms, immigration is driven by love and work--Freud's formula for happiness, noted Suarez-Orozco. If you have love and work, you will be a happy person, according to Freud. But people also migrate to escape war, said Suarez-Orozco. There are a million Southeast Asians in the United States today as a "direct consequence" of U.S. intervention in that region of the world, he observed.

He also knocked down common assumptions.

"The first thing to put to rest is this general kind of "folk idea" that immigrants originate in broken countries with very low levels of economic development," he said. "In fact, the opposite is true. Immigration is very much tied in with economic development." The United States is experiencing the largest migratory wave in its history because of the structure of the migratory flow, including the fact that the gross domestic product of Mexico has grown. But there is increasing inequality in Mexico, which has led to a growing, "uncontainable" wave of Mexican immigrants entering the United States.

"So immigration is a function of development, not a function of the lack of development," he said. And, he added, the first person to migrate from Guanajuato, Mexico, to Chicago, Illinois, had to invest great sums of social and cultural capital in making that journey; his or her successors invested much less.

Second, he said, people usually assume that an immigrant moves from one country to another. But transnational immigrants are just "the tip of the iceberg," he said. China probably has more than 100 million internal immigrants moving from rural areas into the cities. The greatest dynamics today are often within nation-states like China or within regions of the world, he said. The largest flow of refugees today is within Africa.

Whether they are moving from one continent to another or from a village to a city, immigrants may experience the same sorts of upheaval: political, legal, cultural and linguistic.

The big story in the United States is how quickly and how deeply Latinos have become the nation's largest ethnic group.
"These are not unlike the processes of moving from (Jamaica's) Montego Bay to Boston, because (often) they're coming from completely different linguistic and cultural groups," he said.

"The right to move, the right of immigration, is a relatively recent phenomenon in history. The right to move from country A to country B is not a given right...and in many regions of the world, internal migration is likewise heavily restricted" as in China, he said.

"One of the issues to think about is how globalization and immigration are pushing nation-states in ways the nation-states don't like to be pushed. And the nation-states are pushing back," he said.

The guest-worker programs in Europe and the United States launched a momentum that has led to permanent immigrant settlements in these countries, according to Suarez-Orozco. "Nothing has proven more permanent than temporary guest workers." The belief on the part of various countries that people with Ph.D.s can be imported and then later exported is naive at best, he suggested. People get married and have children, for instance. The latest data from the past five decades in Europe and the United States show that guest workers tend to become "regularized" and part of a more or less permanent migration inflow, he said.

Two words: Latin America
The big story in the United States is how quickly and how deeply Latinos have become the nation's largest ethnic group, according to Suarez-Orozco. If we include Puerto Rico, an American protectorate, and estimate the number of undocumented immigrants in the states from Latin America, the United States probably has 43 million people of Latino origin. That number is higher than the Latino populations of Spain, Colombia, Argentina or any other Spanish-speaking country except Mexico, he observed. Conservative projections had not expected to see the figure of 43 million until the year 2040, he added. Today, one in six babies born in the United States today--and half of babies born in California--are born to a Latina mother.

"Every day, Latino immigrants remit $40 million to Latin America," said Suarez-Orozco. "In general, the formula is, a million people in the diaspora translates to $1 billion per annum going to the country of origin...In general, that's true for Tunisians or Algerians in France or Turks in Germany."

The salient point for him is that the largest new-generation immigrant group in the United States is composed largely of young people: About one-third are under the age of 18. In the future, the growing number of young Hispanic people will become a key component of the structure of the American population. Learning about children is critically important for understanding the future, he asserted, because immigrant children are now the fastest-growing sector of the U.S. child population.

The growing number of young people also brings education to the forefront. Only 11.2 percent of Latino immigrants have a bachelor's degree or higher, versus 25.8 percent of the overall foreign-born group. Almost 35 percent have less than a ninth-grade education, compared with 22 percent of the overall foreign-born group--but that's just counting the legal, documented people.

"Education is a predictor of economic well-being," added Suarez-Orozco. "School is more important than ever before."

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