Transnational Perspectives to Immigration Law

Sam Lam
J.D. Candidate 2012, UCI Law
For Immigration and International 
Migration Law Society

This past year, three second-year and a fellow third-year law student and I co-founded the Immigration and International Migration Law Society (IIMLS). I have been asked to explain a bit about the “International Migration” part of our organization’s name. Immigration law and advocacy is often myopically domestic, focused at and within our borders. The fact is that problems with immigration cannot properly be understood without a deeper and broader appreciation for the transnational migrations and flows that are inextricably interrelated with the presence of immigrants, both documented and undocumented, and both in the United States and other so-called “immigrant-receiving” countries. This lack of understanding breeds not just abstract ignorance, but also skews the truth.

For instance, it seems axiomatic to many Americans that Latin American migrants arrive at U.S. borders because the United States is superior economically. As a general matter, this is true. However, there is an additional and false assumption that those migrants are leaving countries which, although economically inferior to the United States, are still adequate to economically protect and provide for their emigrants. Clearly, that must be the case, we say. After all, I as an American am well off, and I sort of abstractly understand that life elsewhere is difficult, but not so difficult that you couldn’t figure out how to live there. Right?

This is anything but reality, and anyone who would spend even one minute  looking outside of the United States to the economic and cultural plight of Latin American migrants would understand that by virtually all measures, these migrants leave their countries of origin not out of some sense of agency or freedom, but out of practical and moral necessity to provide for themselves and their families. And yet, this implied assumption feeds much rhetoric both for and against immigrants’ rights in the United States. To immigration restrictionists, the desire to choose the United States over a country that – they  mistakenly believe – is otherwise capable of protecting its own citizens bespeaks a sort of “country shopping,” of choosing the best buy out of one nation’s economy over another. It bespeaks, in other words, unscrupulousness and greediness on the part of Latin American migrants. In  contrast, a broader understanding of transnational migration might instead paint these migrants as heroes, or at least as victims of circumstance who are not choosing one type of life over another, but rather are trying to live at all.

At least from the perspective of young law students, there is a scarcity of discussion on why people migrate away from their homes and to other countries, as if it is ever an “easy” decision to leave the only home one knows. Lest we forget, our very nation was founded on the migration of non-mainstream devotees whose desire to leave Europe was both religiously and economically driven. Indeed, those European migrants might have seen in themselves something akin to those emigrants fleeing from political persecution and economic distress in Latin America to make better lives for themselves and their families in the United States – at least if they properly understood the two situations. The IIMLS has been created in part to help fill this void for UCI Law students, especially in light of the fact that both UCI Law and UCI in general house some of the leading scholars in immigration and transnational migration issues. We hope that a more global understanding of transnational migration will not only improve our understanding of immigration issues, but will also provide us with the moral, cultural, and historical context for re-humanizing people who, for reasons we as students may not yet understand, leave their homes for other lands.