IDEAS: We’ve heard about countries losing talented people when they migrate here—what’s known as a “brain drain.” But can there be positive effects for those countries as well?
ECKSTEIN: Many Indians have come to the US to work in the high-tech sector in Silicon Valley. They were able to come to the United States because of special legislation for high skilled workers....So on the one hand, India has been losing its skilled labor force. But what happened in this case wasn’t just your classic brain drain, with Indians moving to the United States and the home country being depleted of their human capital. [Instead] many Indians returned home—and they did so in part because the H1B visas are only temporary visas, which work for three years and are renewable for another three years. So after six years, some of them...brought back the money they made in the United States, their contacts, the skills they developed, and used it all to start the software industry in India.
IDEAS: Are there countries where the official attitude toward immigration to the US is markedly positive?
ECKSTEIN: In Mexico there was this idea initially that you were being unpatriotic if you emigrated. But President Fox, starting in 2000, changed the public image of immigrants to heroes. Why were you a hero? Because you were sending money back home and helping the Mexican economy—you weren’t just rejecting your homeland, you were helping your homeland....In Ecuador there’s literally a special day called The Day of the Absent Ones—it is a way that the government, at the symbolic level, conveys the sense that immigrants are part of the home country, they haven’t been forgotten, and they are embraced.
IDEAS: You’ve written about the manicure industry in the US, which is dominated by Vietnamese immigrants.
ECKSTEIN: The case of the Vietnamese manicurists is really, really interesting. It’s a kind of labor activity that Vietnamese women immigrants started on the West Coast, and by now half of all manicurists nationwide are Vietnamese. So, they have become very associated with it in the US—but it is not a skill they initially brought with them from Vietnam. It was created here as they sought employment....Now the Vietnamese are so associated with manicuring that in Vietnam women who are considering immigration have started to learn the skill already there, so that when they come to the United States they can start working almost immediately....It’s also become more common for people to get manicures in Vietnam.
IDEAS: Immigrants have long mattered back in their home countries, but you argue that technology is now amplifying the effects.
ECKSTEIN: With modern communication and transportation becoming cheaper, immigrants can actually have stronger ties to their homeland. It’s no longer so much an either/or, where you immigrate or you remain in your homeland. It’s much easier now to do both.
IDEAS: Why do you think the effect of US immigration policy on the rest of the world is not a bigger part of the debate here?
ECKSTEIN: I think Americans have historically seen immigration as a one-way process. The [focus] has always been on assimilation, the melting pot—it’s as if immigrants’ lives started at the border when they came here.
IDEAS: What would you tell people who have followed the debate only in terms of its American implications?
ECKSTEIN: Americans need to be reminded that we are living in an increasingly globalized world, and the stance that we take on immigration does have ripple effects internationally, and I think they should really be thought through. For instance, those who want undocumented people deported—one has to think about what some of the consequences are, which the advocates of deportation I think are oblivious to.
Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.