Migration for Labor or Love?

By Johanna Leinonen, PhD candidate in History at the University of Minnesota.

In scholarly and public discussions on immigration issues, as well as in immigration legislation, a distinction is usually made between work-related and family-related migration.

However, in the lives of real human beings, the need to work and the decision to marry and form families are not so easily separated. Moreover, an increasing number of migrants experience multiple migrations in their lives. Thus, the traditional idea of migration as a unidirectional movement from one place to another based on a single motive – work or family – is outdated. In reality, multiple motives and multidirectional movements are involved.

A case in point is my own research, which focuses on transatlantic marriage migration. But can we really talk about ‘marriage migration’? Can it be distinguished from other forms of migration? In my view, in most cases it cannot. There are migrants who first move to a country to study or pursue a career on a temporary basis and who meet their future life-companion during that stay. As a result, the temporary stay evolves into a permanent one. Should this migration be categorized as work or family-related? An ever-increasing number of people move from one country to another because of work, study, or travel. Consequently, unions between people from different cultures are becoming all the more common. In many cases, the result is not sedentary family life in one location but a transnational life that, especially in the case of professional migrants, often involves several migrations from one location to another. Therefore, rather than viewing migration as a one-way and one-time movement, it should be seen as a process that often has no definite end.

Even in cases in which the migrant is categorized as a ‘marriage migrant’ by the state, the separation or ranking of motives on an individual level may prove impossible. Take the case of brokered marriages, for example unions formed through Internet-based marriage brokers or matchmaking sites. As an interview with a Russian ‘mail-order-bride’ Nataliya Robertovna Yamayeva reveals, in the decision to look for a foreign partner, multiple motives are at play (http://www.star-telegram.com/600/story/297522.html). In Yamayeva’s case, her disappointment with Russian men, feelings of marginalization, and the dream of having a financially stable life all contributed to her decision to submit a profile on match-making agencies’ websites and finally to migrate and marry an American man. Is this decision to migrate motivated more by economic or other considerations? Even Yamayeva herself could probably not decipher.

Migrants moving because of family or economic reasons are not easily separated in public discussions on immigration either. It is not uncommon to label marriage migrants as opportunists looking for economic advancement. In my native Finland, for example, Russian women marrying Finnish men are often stigmatized as fortune-hunters who want to exploit Finnish welfare services. The possibility that the union between the Finnish man and the Russian woman could be based on reciprocity and equality is dismissed, and the complexity behind every human decision is ignored. In a Western society that idealizes marriage based on romantic love, marrying for economic reasons is condemned. This viewpoint, however, shows a remarkable historical amnesia as throughout most of the history of the Western world, ‘marriages of reason’ have been the norm rather than the exception.

States passing immigration legislation are not prepared to deal with these complexities in migrants’ lives. Most countries make a clear distinction between family and labor migration, often preferring the former to the latter. Sometimes states do realize that people’s motives are not that easily separated. However, this realization often emerges as a concern stemming from the potential misuse of the family reunification law; the use of family ties as a strategy for bringing economic migrants. An extreme example of this concern is, I would say, France’s decision to use DNA tests to ensure that family ties are authentic (http://www.star-telegram.com/468/story/304782.html). This case also raises the question what constitutes a family? Is it merely a biological unit as this decision suggests? The decision is based on a narrow biological construction of the family that does not correspond with the reality of transnational family lives and different cultural constructions of the family.

Restrictive laws that distinguish between types of migration, as if they were completely different, encourage scholars and the public to do the same. But how different are they really?

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Dan Ott published on November 19, 2007 4:21 PM.

The Media's Unbalanced Portrayal was the previous entry in this blog.

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