Global Citizens and Local Aliens: the Rise of New Migrant Identities in the Age of Mobility
International migration is an issue that is at the very heart of the contemporary condition. It is no longer an isolated act carried out by a small group of individuals, but a central part of life for an increasing number of people globally. Alongside quantitative changes, international migration is also becoming qualitatively more diverse, involving a wider range of nationalities, ethnicities and socio-economic classes than ever before. In recent decades, these changes have led to the mobility of highly-skilled individuals emerging as an important new form of international migration and an issue of increased relevance in many countries.
While previous academic research has addressed issues impacting less-skilled, low-income and undocumented migrant communities, highly-skilled and human capital rich migrants have received much less attention. My research sought to fill the gap by looking at identity-formation and community-making practices among highly-skilled Chinese migrants in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The recurring themes throughout my research were the growing importance of work, professionalism, communities of practice and economic parameters in migrants’ lives. The initial focus on ethnic and migrant identities and socio-political integration revealed itself to be misguiding when studying skilled migrants. Instead, the position of newcomers in the region was intertwined with their professional identities and mobility, challenging the conventional approaches in migration research.
The rise of professional identities and work-related communities, together with the prevalent governmental attitudes towards newcomers, however, have shifted the focus away from full socio-political integration in favour of partial economic integration and transformed the ways in which Chinese highly-skilled newcomers seek to position themselves in relation to the United States. Newcomers are conditioned to cultivate the image of homo viator economicus – economic pilgrim. These individuals convey the image of being a desirable world citizen: careless, weightless and seamless, bringing opportunities to wherever they go and not expecting anything back. Yet this is not an option for most migrants. My research argues that newcomers are divided into two groups: those regarded as ‘good’ global citizens, who embody the characteristics of the ideal neoliberal subject of homo viator economicus, and ‘bad’ local aliens, who are migrants seeking to settle and thus go against the expectation of mobility, which brings to the fore their exclusion from the national body.
Author of text is Ave Lauren, Coordinator of the Estonian European Migration Network National Contact Point at Tallinn University, School of Governance, Law and Society