Emigration Turns Hardship into Opportunity

Martha, Constantina and John Soukas in front of the White House.

This is the story of how my parents met. My mother immigrated to the United States with her family. The year was 1967, and my grandfather was looking for better job opportunities. My father came from Greece to attend university in 1977. He went to a Greek dance, where my mother won a raffle and my father handed her a prize.

What makes this story more interesting is that both my parents are originally from the same village in Greece, but they ended up meeting in their adopted country. Their ensuing relationship was not just formed out of chemistry, but also from their geopolitical landscape. Their story has the potential to be repeated by new waves of immigrants in today’s global financial crisis who are joining their Diaspora communities. The global financial crisis may have eliminated job opportunities and peoples’ sense of financial security, but it has opened the door for a cultural boom for many first- and second-generation nationals as more immigrants come to join them from their mother countries. 

According to the latest OECD report, in 2010 permanent migration reached 4.1 million, while temporary migration was 1.9 million. The rates had an annual decline of 3 percent and 6 percent respectively. The report notes that immigrants will go where the jobs are (obviously), but this decreases the places where immigrants can travel, as the global recession has swept across regions. For instance, in the European Union, free-circulation flows dropped by a third among citizens. Immigrants are going to have to look further for their new dream destinations. 

Many immigrants, young adults in particular, have left their homes behind in hopes of applying their degrees in careers abroad. They are part of the labor migration. Whether or not they are looking to settle permanently is still an open-ended question, depending on the economies of their home countries compared with their newly adopted ones. Given that these immigrants are young, and are at the start of their independent lives, if they find work they are more likely to stay and start a family.

The United States, Canada and Australia have been home to the largest ethnic Diasporas, and these groups have the potential to grow with people getting married and starting families. Diasporas can also grow in new places, such as in South America and Southeast Asia, where market economies are becoming attractive. According to the Department of Homeland Security’s 2011 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, the number of F1 Visas to nonimmigrant students increased by 11 percent from 2010 to 2011. These visa recipients are young students entering college and graduate school with the potential to receive employer sponsorship, settle down and gain citizenship.

States hardest hit by the recession are seeing more and more of their young people leave. Countries such as Ireland, Greece and Spain are experiencing 25-year-high emigration rates. Some believe that immigration provides a social safety valve for the home country, in that stress is lifted from social service programs as well as decreases the unemployment rate. Some governments have gone so far as to tell their young people to leave their home country. This was the case in Portugal, where the prime minister encouraged young people to immigrate, particularly to former colonies Brazil and Macau in order to escape language barriers. For many immigrants, particularly young adults, hearing your elected officials telling you to leave your country is very startling and disheartening.

Immigrants turn to Diaspora businesses and organizations for help in their transition. In a sense, these communities become an extended family, helping to alleviate the stress of the financial crisis through human interaction and reassurance. These organizations have especially felt the boom in immigration by the increased demand of their services. Immigration Advocacy Services in Astoria, a nonprofit organization that offers immigrants practical and legal advice, has experienced an increase from 200 to 300 clients per month.

The recession has led to the engagement of populations that may never have been in contact before. Preconceived notions of state identity and history can now be stirred through new dialogue. Marshall McLuhan predicted that the world would soon become a global village. Globalization’s most direct evidence is immigration. New waves of immigrants are coming into contact with the countrymen who left the motherland 10, 20 or over 50 years ago. The global financial crisis has somehow pulled Diaspora communities closer together in the literal and hopefully metaphorical sense.

Constantina Soukas is a graduate student studying political communication at New York University.