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Keeping Ties to Old Country Is Elementary

Technological and economic changes is spurring transnationalism -- and complicating the notion of what is home.

April 09, 2006|Deepti Hajela | Associated Press Writer

NEW YORK — Migrating to another country has always been a life-altering act.

But in the past, when there was no easy air travel to get you across the planet in a few hours, no Internet to give you daily updates on your home country, no e-mail to keep in touch with far-flung relatives, it was also a fairly permanent one.

If you got here, you usually stayed here. You may have held onto your cultural traditions, but the day-to-day ties got stretched and often cut over time.

But technological and economic changes have made it easier for some immigrants and their progeny to maintain connections, to keep one foot in both the old country and the new. For these, there's a new reality -- transnationalism -- that can complicate the concept of home.

Just ask Natalia Wilson.

She came to the United States as a teenager, maintained citizenship in her native Trinidad, and only recently decided that she wants to become an U.S. citizen. And while the 27-year-old has come to view New York as "home away from home," she hopes she might one day move back to Trinidad.

Dom Serafini has been an American citizen for three decades, after coming from Italy as a young man almost 40 years ago. But now he's running for elected office -- in Italy.

The New Yorker hopes to win a seat in Italy's parliament this month, as the first representative of Italian expatriates in North and Central America. If he wins, he assumes he'll just travel back and forth.

"If you want to be a good American you have to be an ambassador to the world," he said.

His travels in the last year have taken him to Canada, Mexico and all over the United States, visiting Italian communities. The 56-year-old, among a group of about three dozen candidates, wants the job precisely because it is transnational -- it's about bringing the perspective of Italian expatriates to the government of Italy.

"Our needs are different from those in Italy," he said, citing the necessity for programs to help expatriates keep their language skills sharp.

Some see transnationalism helping to cement ties between the countries sending and receiving immigrants.

"The biggest problem in the 20th and 21st century is nationalism. If you have people who are increasingly more transnational, that could actually ameliorate conflict in the world," said Vincent Gawronski, assistant professor of political science at Birmingham-Southern College in Alabama.

Not everyone is so optimistic.

It harder for immigrants to really put down roots, some experts contend, as more countries accept dual citizenship, travel becomes easier, and technology allows people to send money home without a hassle.

"Assimilation is really a psychological process where you come to identify with a new country as yours," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports tighter immigration control.

The number of countries that allow people to hold more than one citizenship has risen to 151, from under 100 just five years ago, said Stanley Renshon, a psychoanalyst and a political science professor at the City University of New York.

The United States doesn't officially recognize dual citizenship, said Chris Bentley, a spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, meaning that any person holding American citizenship is considered an American first, foremost and overall.

The oath of U.S. citizenship includes the line, "I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen."

Nonetheless, Bentley said, "if other countries wish to confer citizenship upon a U.S. citizen, that's between that country and the U.S. citizen."

Transnationalism manifests itself in many ways -- political, economic, and cultural:

* The government of Mexico is spending $26 million to get the estimated 4 million Mexican citizens living abroad, mostly in the United States, to request absentee ballots for the presidential elections in July.

* Immigrants send $240 billion back home each year, according to the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Organization of Migration. Mexico, India, and the Philippines are the top recipients of money. The top senders are the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland, according to the latest available figures.

* During last month's World Baseball Classic, New York Yankees superstar Alex Rodriguez came under scrutiny as he tried to figure out whether he'd play for the United States (where he's a citizen) or the Dominican Republic (his parents' home). Rodriguez ultimately decided to play for the U.S. team, but not without some griping from folks -- even in the U.S. -- who wanted him to go the other way.

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