Migration, Asylum, Transnationalism ... and Baseball?

By Joel Wurl, Head of Research Collections and Associate Director of the Immigration History Research Centerat the University of Minnesota

The recently completed World Baseball Classic may seem an unlikely starting point for commentary on migration, but as this Miami Herald article illustrates, it actually furnishes an interesting window on a host of complex, inter-related issues.

It contains evidence of both the growing prevalence of transnational migratory patterns and the resilience of the nation in today’s world, and it reminds us of the often fracturing nature, on a personal level, of the decision to exit one’s homeland.

Professional sports, perhaps more visibly than any other area, constitute an environment where international boundaries are often blurred beyond distinction. Examine the roster of any North American major league baseball team and you will find a polyglot of talent from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Korea, Japan, and Canada, along with a shrinking number of U.S.-born (including an even more dramatically shrinking contingent of African Americans, but that is another essay). In decades past, the relatively small number of such non-U.S. players would tend to become permanent American residents or citizens, but today that decision is much less the norm. And as the self-directed redistribution of players to represent native countries during the WBC showed, national attachments and the desire to bring pride to the homeland are core sentiments.

The transnational existence of professional athletes also carries implications for the international movement of money and puts the long-persistent phenomenon of immigrant remittances in a dramatic new light. With some superstars earning the equivalent of a sizable portion of their nation’s gross national product, they have the power to affect matters beyond the improvement of their own families’ living conditions. But history includes some tragic cases of these individuals and their resources falling prey to corruption and violence at home, perhaps none as sad as that of basketball star Manute Bol whose attempts to use his millions to thwart civil war in Sudan in the 1990s resulted in his imprisonment and eventual return to the U.S. as a penniless refugee (http://chud.com/forums/showthread.php?t=89941).

Of course, not all foreign born professional athletes in the U.S. live a transnational life, a point this news feature underscores with the example of Cuba’s Eddie Oroposa. His story calls attention to the often forgotten category of migrants known legally as asylees. Like refugees, people who seek asylum status are unable to live where they have been owing to a “well founded fear of persecution. The difference, however, is that refugees establish their status before resettling in the U.S. (or elsewhere); asylees do so after arriving here by whatever means and expressing their claim to asylum. (See Migration Policy Institute site for further definitions and demographics.)

In typical years, many more people are admitted to the U.S. as refugees than are granted asylum status, but the number for the latter still often reaches between 15,000-20,000. The establishment of policy on asylum seekers, like that of refugees, is a quite recent development. And similar to refugee policy, it owes its emergence and initial character to foreign policy objectives as much as, or more so than, humanitarian ideals. The decision of the U.S. government to provide legal residency – sanctuary, if you will – to those fleeing persecution was shaped substantially by Cold War wrangling with the Soviet Union and its satellite nations, including to a very significant degree Castro’s Cuba. Accepting people from these lands was tool of “warfare,? a way to embarrass the enemy in the arena of world affairs.

While refugees and asylees of the latter half of the 20th Century were predominantly from Communist-controlled regions, this is far less true since the demise of the Soviet Union. Regardless of their origins, as Oroposa’s case illustrates, the athletes, musicians, writers, academics, and many others who have come here and chose to defect have faced an excruciating time of dislocation and uncertainty regarding those they left behind. And finally, this case also reminds us that migration in its many forms, be it through frequent transcontinental relocation in the free pursuit o f one’s profession or through the severing of ties to home, is first and foremost an individual experience, always with individual consequences.


Contributer: Joel Wurl
E-mail: wurlx001@umn.edu

Joel Wurl is the head of research collections and Associate Director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota. where he has worked since 1985. He is an advisor to public programs, exhibits, and historical preservation projects and has presented and published research on several topics related to immigration and the preservation of documentary resources. He has led seminars and workshops on both archival and immigration-related topics and has spoken to a diverse array of community audiences on the immigrant experience in America and, particularly, in the state of Minnesota. Wurl was elected in 2002 to the Society of American Archivists council and has served the Midwest Archives Conference as a council member and as editor of its journal Archival Issues. He has also served as series editor for “North American Immigrant Letters, Diaries, and Oral Histories,? an Internet-based publication effort produced by Alexander St. Press.

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This page contains a single entry by Immigration History Research Center published on May 30, 2006 12:11 PM.

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