The Nature of the Other: “Chain” Migration and Migrant Ecologies

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By Teja Dusanapudi

A tree does not move. It remains rooted firmly in the ground, fruiting and flowering until storm or fire brings the trunk crashing down to the soil. Human communities, however, are more frequently uprooted. All over the world, SWANASA peoples experience mass displacement as a result of violence, poverty, politics, famine, and drought. Whether Palestinians forced to leave their homeland, Syrians fleeing a brutal, exploitative proxy war, or people of any land attempting to seek a safer place to bloom, immigrants are never viewed through the incredible, heroic willpower required of their diasporas; rather, their journeys are seen as at best, careless, or at worst, malicious, as a petal floating along the breeze rather than seedlings struggling for every inch of existence. Regardless of the causes of these diasporas, SWANASA immigrants prevail against the odds and seed themselves in new soil, laying down the roots of new communities often within the urban jungles of the West. Whether Chinatown or Little India, Koreatown or New Dhaka, the cultures across Asia have flourished here in the Western hemisphere, adapting and evolving to a country whose branches of culture seem to expand beautifully every day.

Such growth would seem like a good thing for all involved–the vibrant faces, foods, and songs of diaspora showcased in Chicago during the African Festival of the Arts; the spread of Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines blooming amidst crowded New York street stalls; the many entrancing, poignant narratives of the foreign world only now becoming known to the West, the world’s most cinema-obsessed populace. An economy teeming with new life and fresh reefs of labor, lives, and skills, growing more valuable by the second.

But for the current United States administration, the resilience of SWANASA communities in successfully replanting their memories, cultures, and existences has become a threat, not something to share and appreciate beyond race and ethnicity. President Trump calls the modern migration model a “horrible system,” and breathlessly warns the American people about the clinking fetters of “chain migration,” the process by which, as John Burnett explains, “immigrants already residing here can bring over their families” after petitioning the Immigration Service. Language is loaded and those very “chains” refer to the branches each person has, extending outwards and slowly pulling loved ones together across seas. But the opponents of chain migration see this opportunity for transculturation as cuffs to be slapped across the hands of poor, honest Americans attempting to find a living in the new tide of colors and faces.

It’s true that prominent businesses in America salivate over each new wave of migrants to America; in fact, as Burnett says, the “pro-business types say we need more immigrants, not less, especially in those fields which depend on them.” And those fields which depend on immigrants are often the same ones they have planted their roots in the farthest. Take Little Punjab, centered in Southall, London, which is now considered “[Britain’s] premier Asian town.” In its bloom, this cultural hub was described as fomenting a “consumer revolution,” attracting “leading actors,” in addition to over “8,000 cinemagoers each week” and made up “almost 70% of Southall’s population.” Incredibly, all of this started with one man, Pritam Sangha Singh, who opened up the only Indian shop in Southall in 1951. And while Singh’s corner store was surely a welcome sight for Punjabi immigrants, it was the local factories that attracted them to Southall. Per The Guardian, local factories were “only too happy to recruit” Punjabi immigrants. And yet, despite the historical demand for immigration and, more specifically, chain immigration, immigrants are indicted as the “chief culprits in….the attendant sprawl, congestion, and school overcrowding that damage America’s quality of life.” 

These roots have become cloying to some, as much as they have become fundamentals for others. But to judge immigrant workforces for their labor while lauding corporations for their successes is utterly paradoxical. t is these selfsame corporations causing the very issues which drive immigrants to Western countries, in addition to exacerbating the problems for which many cite immigrants. These corporate interests champ at the bit to get at new, young, productive workforces, these same corporations causing the plethora of ecological issues which include, among others, massive population crowding, severe urban congestion, and a slow decline in education and overall quality of life. These chains belong neither solely to the immigrant or to the resident; they are the links which connect us to our damaged ecology, and as they cut into the skin of the latter, signaling the need for sustainable change, the blame is instead thrown onto those who have already bled.

For though these gestations of the ecological crisis have thrown this administration in a rabid, fear-mongering tirade across the country, it is the other continents which have long suffered from their environs. A recent paper in Nature Climate Change predicts that in radically barring lower emissions immediately, parts of the Middle East will “experience temperature levels intolerable to humans.” Such forewarnings of apocalypse seem impossible to ignore, but we have done just that. As Naomi Klein explains, the “otherism” Edward Said describes of ME/SA places and peoples at the hands of the West  expands into indigenous ecologies. What was the Iraq War, after all, but an international traipse for fossil fuels; a hunt for oil that ended up igniting the flames of war the world over? What Said describes as the fundamentals of “othering,” the “disregarding, essentializing, denuding the humanity of another culture, or people,” must extend to the soil as it does to the skin, to fruits as much as freedom, to bark and branches and orchards as much as the bare, brown bodies exposed by imperialist violence. 

These histories of abuse against the land and its people have grown ever more perverse as time has passed. Now, even ecologies are weaponized against SWANASA communities. Israel’s Jewish National Fund, or JNF, funds the planting of “settlements, Israeli-only roads…non-native trees,” over bulldozed olive and pistachio orchards carefully tended to by the Palestinian people for centuries. Over 250 million of these invasive arbors have been planted since 1901. In the face of the land itself turning over to colonize their indigenous communities, what could immigrants do but migrate to the welcoming branches of their families?

And so “chain” migration, or, to put it in less loaded terms, family reunification, is itself but a symptom of a much larger issue. It is not a chain but a crushing weight, the bloat of systems of capital that underpay the worker and feed their labor into the maw of America, where it joins the discarded remains of nature struggling to regrow all the things which have been so violently ripped from its soil. The new, urgent question most central to America and the Western hemisphere as a whole is not one of migration, nor one necessarily of the environment. It is about the politics of growth. Who should be allowed to grow? The callous, insatiable system, or the people who work for it? Who should be blamed for that growth, for the emissions spreading across the globe? Apparently, those most affected by it. These chains are chains of the land, the embrace of the land which we have run from in hopes of escape, and the blame of the land to which we have run.