Acentury ago, the immigrants from across the Atlantic included settlers and sojourners. Along with the many folks looking to make a permanent home in the United States came those who had no intention to stay, and who would make some money and then go home. Between 1908 and 1915, about 7 million people arrived while about 2 million departed. About a quarter of all Italian immigrants, for example, eventually returned to Italy for good. They even had an affectionate nickname, “uccelli di passaggio,” birds of passage.
Today, we are much more rigid about immigrants. We divide newcomers into two categories: legal or illegal, good or bad. We hail them as Americans in the making, or brand them as aliens fit for deportation. That framework has contributed mightily to our broken immigration system and the long political paralysis over how to fix it. We don’t need more categories, but we need to change the way we think about categories. We need to look beyond strict definitions of legal and illegal. To start, we can recognize the new birds of passage, those living and thriving in the gray areas. We might then begin to solve our immigration challenges.
Crop pickers, violinists, construction workers, entrepreneurs, engineers, home health-care aides and particle physicists are among today’s birds of passage. They are energetic participants in a global economy driven by the flow of work, money and ideas. They prefer to come and go as opportunity calls them. They can manage to have a job in one place and a family in another.
With or without permission, they straddle laws, jurisdictions and identities with ease. We need them to imagine the United States as a place where they can be productive for a while without committing themselves to staying forever. We need them to feel that home can be both here and there and that they can belong to two nations honorably.
Imagine life with a radically different immigration policy: The Jamaican woman who came as a visitor and was looking after your aunt until she died could try living in Canada for a while. You could eventually ask her to come back to care for your mother. The Indian software developer could take some of his Silicon Valley earnings home to join friends in a little start-up, knowing that he could always work in California again. Or the Mexican laborer who busts his back on a Wisconsin dairy farm for wages that keep milk cheap would come and go as needed because he could decide which dairy to work for and a bi-national bank program was helping him save money to build a better life for his kids in Mexico.
Accommodating this new world of people in motion will require new attitudes on both sides of the immigration battle. Looking beyond the culture war logic of right or wrong means opening up the middle ground and understanding that managing immigration today requires multiple paths and multiple outcomes, including some that are not easy to accomplish legally in the existing system.
A new system that encourages both sojourners and settlers would not only help ensure that our society receives the human resources it will need in the future, it also could have an added benefit: Changing the rigid framework might help us resolve the status of the estimated 11 million unauthorized migrants who are our shared legacy of policy failures.