Not all immigrants leave the South for the North

A common misperception among the public opinion is that immigration flows come from southern poor countries to rich industrialized nations in the Northern Hemisphere. But immigration patterns are more complex than the outdated notion of a man leaving his family and heading north in his quest for a job.

Covering Migration in the Americas” was the topic of this year’s Austin Forum, an annual event hosted by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, where Latin American journalists gather at The University of Texas to discuss the challenges of covering current issues. From that conference, I learned that immigration patterns resembles more like a circle than a straight line, since most countries are both senders and receivers of people.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the United States is a country of over 38 million immigrants. While America attracts many foreigners, only 2.4 million Americans venture to live overseas, according to World Bank data. Half a million of them live in Mexico, the most of any destination abroad; at the same time, Mexicans are the largest foreign-born population in this country.

Like migration between these two countries, immigration flows occur mostly within the same region. Paraguayans, Bolivians, and Peruvians migrate to Argentina. Argentines seek jobs in Chile or Brazil. Nicaraguans go to Costa Rica, and Salvadorans to Belize. The Economist explains the same phenomenon happens across continents; 7.5 million Africans emigrate to Europe, while more than 13 million cross borders within Africa.

Regardless of where immigrants move, they face discrimination in their adoptive countries. Argentinian fans use “Bolivian” as an offensive word for unskilled soccer players; Chilean press remains silent about exploitation and wage theft of low-skilled workers from Paraguay; and many Dominican women are stereotyped as hookers in Spain. Media, politicians, and nationalist groups portray immigrants in the receiving country as law breakers and a burden for social services.

At the same time, retired Americans move to countries like Mexico or Ecuador where they can afford a better standard of living and access to high-quality and low-cost healthcare services. They are generally well-received in those countries because they inject money to local economies, but some locals complain that house market prices increase sharply and that elder immigrants can potentially become a burden to their healthcare system.

Government officials approach immigration issues from a security perspective, and forget that every country is a nation of emigrants as much as immigrants. As an example, Mexican press widely covers immigration issues regarding the struggles of fellow countrymen in the United States, but ignore discrimination attitudes towards Central American immigrants in that country. Argentinian citizens are generally proud of their history of immigrants from Italy and East Europe during the first half of the 20th century, but mass media fails to recognize Argentina as a country integrated by new immigrants from Bolivia and Paraguay.

Media and politicians should recognize that migration patterns are about people who bring their desire to work and prosper in their destinatination countries. Nationalist groups seek to protect their country’s cultural identity and ignite people’s fear to the Other. Media can balance this perception with a coverage that highlights immigrants’ contributions to the cultural, economic, and social diversity of the country. Human stories about immigrants as businessowners, scientists, volunteers, doctors, intermarriage couples, and community leaders can offset stereotypes and contribute to the social understanding between foreigners and local people. Media plays an important role to portray diasporas as a valuable addition to the cultural, economic, and social diversity of each country. 



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