Suppressing transnationalism: bringing constraints into the study of transnational political action
Comparative Migration Studies volume 7, Article number: 9 (2019)
Studies of transnationalism typically account for homeland-oriented transnational political action (TPA) as the product of varying political opportunities. Yet, the opportunity-driven perspective overlooks why some immigrant and diaspora communities refrain from engaging in homeland politics or are forestalled in their attempts to do so. We address this shortcoming by theorizing how sociopolitical conditions can constrain TPA. Drawing inductively from primary data on Pakistani, Syrian, Libyan, and Yemeni diasporas as well as secondary sources, we identify four sources of constraint: 1) geopolitics and interstate relations; 2) origin-country authoritarianism; 3) weak origin-country governance; and 4) exclusionary receiving-country contexts. By demonstrating how these socio-political forces suppress TPA, we contribute a new theoretical approach that emphasizes the conditions and relations that hinder cross-border political action. In sum, the article illustrates the theoretical importance of understanding variation in TPA and the utility of examining negative cases in the study of immigrant and diaspora transnational politics.
Transnationalism has grown into an expansive paradigm that has reshaped the study of immigrant and diaspora populations. Scholars now widely recognize that immigrants and diaspora groups engage in several types of cross-border transnational political action (TPA), including participation in homeland electoral politics (Ahmadov & Sasse, 2015, 2016; Chaudhary, 2018b), advocacy and development projects facilitated by diaspora organizations (Castañeda, Morales, & Ochoa, 2014; Chaudhary, 2018a; Morales & Pilati, 2014), and long-distance nationalist efforts to influence conflicts and political developments from afar (Anderson, 1998; see also Baser, 2015, 2017; Baser & Swain, 2009, 2010; Fair, 2005; Hockenos, 2003; Koinova, 2010; Smith & Stares, 2007; Tölölyan, 2000, 2010). Nevertheless, despite the notable contributions of this literature, we know surprisingly little about the exogenous sociopolitical forces that constrain the TPA of immigrant and diaspora communities. This is a curious oversight in light of research suggesting that even mundane forms of cross-border engagement are not automatic or ubiquitous across these populations (Guarnizo, Portes, & Haller, 2003; Mouw, Chavez, Edelblute, & Verdery, 2014; Waldinger, 2015; Waldinger & Fitzgerald, 2004). And while scholars have pointed out that political mobilization is mediated by both external opportunities and constraints alike (Smith & Guarnizo, 1998), our understanding of why some groups with political opportunities for transnational action choose to abstain from, or remain under-engaged in, origin-country politics remains significantly underdeveloped. In order to address this shortcoming, this theoretical article presents a framework to account for the conditions and factors that constrain immigrant and diaspora TPA.Footnote 1
In this article, we use the term constraints to mean the relational mechanisms and structural conditions that limit, hinder, and otherwise impinge upon immigrants’ and diasporas’ political engagement in the origin country or homeland. In so doing, this article makes two contributions. First, we present a typology of TPA, bringing together different literatures to illustrate and differentiate how cross-border engagement varies by degree of institutionalization and politicization. Second, we demonstrate how the demobilization of certain groups is not simply due to the absence of opportunities, such as the lack of origin-country voting rights or the choice of “opting out” due to political apathy. Rather, we illustrate how demobilization and refraining from TPA are produced by hostile sociopolitical forces that circumscribe transnational action. These forces include the policies and practices of origin and receiving-country governments, as well as the broader sociopolitical contexts of reception in which immigrants are embedded. In so doing, we advance a comparative theoretical perspective that sheds light on how cross-border political action is “simultaneously” embedded in origin and receiving society contexts (Levitt & Schiller, 2004; Portes, Guarnizo, & Landolt, 2017; Waldinger, 2015), which causes TPA to vary by case, place, and time.
The article proceeds as follows. Drawing on the extant literature on immigrants and diasporas, we begin by presenting a typology of different types of TPA and discuss the opportunity-driven approaches in existing scholarship. The next section explains our primary and secondary data sources and analytic approaches. We then elaborate a new framework of constraints that illustrate four major causal conditions and mechanisms. The article concludes by explaining how analytical attention to political constraints and opportunities alike will advance the study of transnationalism, immigrants, diasporas, and collective action more generally.
Variation in transnational political action
An abundance of scholarship shows that immigrants and diaspora groups engage in homeland politics and civic engagement in a variety of ways, from supporting home-country political parties to fueling insurgencies and separatist movements (e.g., Adamson, 2012; Bada, 2014; Escobar, Arana, & McCann, 2015; Koinova, 2018; Martiniello & Lafleur, 2008; Portes, Escobar, & Arana, 2008; Portes & Fernández-Kelly, 2015; Smith, 2005). Yet, varied forms of TPA are often separated in the literature as if different actors and actions represent empirically delimited and distinct phenomena. Studies of immigrants’ hometown associations rarely come into dialogue with studies of diaspora social movements, for example, which has divided the study of TPA into the subfields of migration studies and diaspora studies. However, the distinctions between the two fields are scholarly, rather than empirical. In both cases, immigrant and diaspora communities can be comprised of foreign-born immigrants, as well as second- or later-generation individuals with shared ethnonational or religious backgrounds. In other words, both immigrant and diaspora communities can be comprised of multiple generations depending on the recentness of the migration to their place of residence. Below, we integrate and draw on both of these literatures to discuss how immigrant and diaspora TPA takes on relatively predictable forms and repertoires (Tarrow, 2011). Taken together, TPA typically varies along two dimensions: (1) the degree of actors’ institutionalization, and (2) how overtly political immigrants’ claims and goals are (see Table 1). While we identify four ideal types in Table 1 below, in reality immigrant TPA is likely to straddle more than one type, and a group’s TPA may also become more or less institutionalized and overtly political over time. Thus, our typology is intended as a heuristic device to account for the different types of TPA of interest to scholars across related subfields.
First, quadrant I of Table 1 refers to institutionalized TPA. Immigrants engage in this type of action by voting and running as candidates in homeland elections, funding political parties, and establishing overseas chapters of home-country parties (Ahmadov & Sasse, 2016; Collyer, 2014; Gamlen, 2008; Itzigsohn & Villacrés, 2008; Lafleur, 2015). Immigrants also form social movement organizations dedicated to advocacy, petitioning, and protest activities on matters of the origin country (Koinova, 2013; Morales & Pilati, 2014; Østergaard-Nielsen, 2003; Van Hear, 2005). Immigrant organizations may also establish formal organizations dedicated to supporting guerilla and separatist movements that are anti-state actors, as in the case of Kurdish diaspora organizations (Baser, 2015; Lyon & Uçarer, 2001; Østergaard-Nielsen, 2003). These organizations take the form of lobbies that may advocate on behalf of or against homeland governments, as in the case of Cuban and Iraqi groups opposed to dictatorships at home (DeWind & Segura, 2014; Haney & Vanderbush, 1999; Pedraza, 2007). They may also contribute to nation-building projects and insurgent action (Lainer-Vos, 2013). In other cases, the diaspora elites may use institutionalized TPA to enact a long-distance nationalism (Anderson, 1998) that exacerbates contention within the homeland, as in the case of the Armenian diaspora (Tölölyan, 2000, 2010) and the recent mobilization of Hindu nationalists in the Indian-American diaspora who risk speaking for and over their origin-country counterparts (Kurien, 2004). Quite often, such forms of institutionalized political action are the most visible examples of TPA within immigrant and diaspora communities.
Proceeding clockwise, quadrant II refers to formal organizations that do not make explicitly political claims or treat politics as the primary focus of their work, such as professional and development-oriented hometown associations (Duquette-Rury, 2016). Even when these organizations claim political neutrality, participants’ efforts nevertheless have political implications and effects (Godin, Herman, Rea, & Thys, 2015; Lacroix, 2015). In weak and impoverished origin countries, organizations supplement weak governance and challenge authorities’ corruption and neglect by funding social service provisions, infrastructure, and cultural institutions (Fox & Bada, 2008; Portes, 2006; Wise & Ramírez, 2001). Others collaborate with local governments to implement development projects, as in the case of Mexico’s Tres-Por-Uno program (Bada, 2014; Goldring, 2002), which “co-produces” democracy under certain conditions (Duquette-Rury, 2016). Accordingly, in line with scholars of migration and development, these institutionalized collective actions constitute a meaningful form of cross-border politics.
Immigrants also mobilize in ways that have implicit political claims and goals through non-institutionalized social groups, as captured in quadrant III. Efforts to do so may occur on a regular basis, as in the case of annual fundraisers for home-country causes, or episodically in response to acute crises and disruptions, as in the case of Pakistani and Haitian immigrants who mobilized to assist relief efforts after earthquakes hit their home-countries in the 2000s (Lundy, 2011; Rehman & Kalra, 2006). In addition to sending remittances, immigrants also travel back home to lend their skills and labor to relief and post-war reconstruction (Brinkerhoff, 2004; Smith & Stares, 2007; Suleri & Savage, 2006). We consider this as a form of TPA because, as in the case of the hometown associations discussed above, these efforts implicate the origin-country government as corrupt, inadequate, or repressive. Additionally, decisions as to where and to whom aid should be channeled has political implications in resource-strapped origin societies divided by region, ethnicity, caste, religion, and political orientation (Williams, 2011).
Lastly, quadrant IV refers to overtly politicized but non-institutionalized forms of collective action, such as groups that support radical armed struggle (i.e., insurgency and guerilla warfare) in the home country, as well as peaceful, informal social movements and activist networks that petition, protest, launch social media campaigns, sponsor community events, and advocate on behalf of home-country grievances without formal certification from either origin- or receiving-country governments (Amarasingam, 2015; Betts & Jones, 2016; Brun & Van Hear, 2012; Strijbis, 2015). Like their institutionalized counterparts, these actors pressure receiving countries to influence foreign policy and mobilize to either support or condemn origin-country authorities. They also work to channel resources to their political allies at home, from cash to medicine, equipment, and weapons for insurgencies (Anderson, 1998; Hockenos, 2003; Lyons, 2007). These forms of immigrant and diaspora activism, while often episodic, may fuel violent conflicts as well as social movements for human and political rights at home (Bernal, 2004; Collier & Hoeffler, 2004; Finn & Momani, 2017).
Opportunity-driven accounts of immigrant TPA
In order to explain one or more of the varieties of TPA described above, scholars frequently rely on opportunity-driven explanations of political action. This perspective is a foundational concept in social movement studies (McAdam, 1982; McAdam, Tarrow, & Tilly, 2001; Meyer, 2004; Tarrow, 2011) and is complimentary to contexts-of-reception and incorporation arguments in migration studies (Bloemraad, 2006). In brief, the framework of political opportunities suggests that changes within a group’s broader political and institutional environment fosters collective empowerment and the emergence of collective action (Koopmans, 2004; Quinsaat, 2013; Sökefeld, 2006). Before turning to our conceptual framework of constraints, we describe below the three general opportunity-driven approaches that underlie explanations of immigrant TPA.
First, studies on transnational social movements and immigrant TPA have demonstrated the importance of supra-national institutions and human rights norms promoted by international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in fostering transnational action (Smith, 2005; Soysal, 1994). These entities and norms do so by granting marginalized populations and movements leverage in pursuing claims against abusive authorities (Keck & Sikkink, 1998; Tarrow, 2005). Just as immigrants use global norms and legal regimes to advocate for their rights in their countries of settlement (Tsutsui, 2017; Tsutsui & Shin, 2008), so too do they leverage these opportunities to pursue cross-border change and shame state actors and international institutions for failing to support human rights (Betts & Jones, 2016; Tarrow, 2005). Accordingly, lobbying the United Nations and its attendant agencies, committees, and councils, the European Human Rights Commission, the International Criminal Court, and organizations such as Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International can provide the means for immigrants to pursue recognition and justice at home. As Bernal’s (2004) research on diaspora activism demonstrates, immigrants capitalize on opportunities to lobby the UN and hold protests against its perceived neglect of rights abuses at home in Eritrea. Ayoub’s (2016) study of Polish émigrés in Germany also demonstrates that immigrant activists draw upon supra-national opportunities by translating human rights documents into origin-country languages, providing trainings on international laws and norms to their home-country compatriots, and framing homeland problems in the language of international principles and laws.
Origin-country liberalization presents further political opportunities for immigrant TPA, as when states undergo transitions to democracy and extend political rights to the diaspora (Bauböck, 2003; Brand, 2014; Collyer, 2014). Origin-country governments cultivate long-distance ties to project their presence internationally and encourage financial remittances from their diasporas (Gamlen, 2008; Gamlen, Cummings, & Vaaler, 2017), which has led to the recent growth of policies promoting dual citizenship and out-of-country voting (Arrighi & Bauböck, 2016). After decades of autocratic rule in the Dominican Republic, for instance, democratization led to the expansion of political membership to the diaspora and to high rates of electoral participation by emigrants (Itzigsohn & Villacrés, 2008; Lafleur, 2013; Levitt, 2001). Democratization also brings opportunities for immigrants to influence party politics and collaborate with origin-country governments, as in the case of Mexico; there, politicians frequently campaign among immigrant communities in the United States to bolster their coffers and legitimacy (FitzGerald, 2009). Some origin countries also create political offices for emigrants and government branches dedicated to diaspora cultivation and integration (Gamlen et al., 2017; Itzigsohn, 2000; Lafleur, 2015). Even countries that do not extend extra-territorial voting rights can foster immigrant TPA simply by holding elections. The 2013 Pakistani parliamentary elections, for instance, motivated immigrants to create large fundraising rallies in support of the charismatic oppositional candidate Imran Khan (Author 1).
A third source of political opportunity for immigrant TPA are open and inclusive contexts of reception (Goldring, 2002; Guarnizo et al., 2003; Portes & Fernández-Kelly, 2015). Those who resettle in democratic states gain rights and liberties to engage in lawful forms of TPA, and inclusive contexts of reception can further enable TPA by supporting multi-culturalism (Guarnizo, Chaudhary, & Sørensen, 2017).Footnote 2 Relatedly, opportunities arise when immigrants find that receiving-country institutions and elites share their views of their respective origin-country governments. This “convergence” (DeWind & Segura, 2014) enables immigrants to leverage support for or condemnation of home-country authorities. Receptive receiving countries also provide opportunities for immigrant movements to survive by hosting activists who face persecution at home and who have been exiled (Betts & Jones, 2016). Furthermore, receiving countries with historical colonial ties to immigrants’ origin countries foster many forms of TPA. Such post-colonial relations may involve sustained engagement where the host government maintains economic and political interests in the former colonial territory. TPA may also come from the ground up in cases where diaspora communities seek to foster development and social change in their home countries from afar. Indeed, research on programs of “co-development” find that receiving and origin country governments can often work together to foster TPA, social remittances, and other forms of transnational engagement (Chaudhary, 2018a; Godin et al., 2015; Lacroix, Levitt, & Vari-Lavoisier, 2016; Levitt, 1998).
In sum, while the literature has made significant advances in showing how immigrants become transnational political actors, the emphasis on opportunities is only one side of a more complex story. Due to the analytical neglect of failed, blocked, and less-successful cases of immigrant TPA, we know surprisingly little about the conditions that suppress TPA. This gap begs the following questions: (1) Why do some immigrant populations appear to opt out of opportunities for TPA gained after emigration? and (2) Why are some immigrant groups frustrated or prohibited in their desires and efforts to work collectively on behalf of home-country politics and development? This study addresses these queries using the data and analytical procedures elaborated on below.
The proposed framework and theorizing presented in this article emerge from the authors’ independent research on TPA. The evidence gathered by the first author comes from a 2013 comparative study investigating how Pakistani immigrant-serving nonprofit organizations experience and respond to organizational stigma as they facilitate immigrant integration and transnational engagement for Pakistani communities residing in London, Toronto, and New York City (Chaudhary, 2015, 2018a, 2018b). Evidence gathered by the second author comes from a separate comparative study conducted between 2011 and 2014 on how Libyan, Syrian, and Yemeni diaspora movements mobilized to support the Arab Spring uprisings in their home countries (Moss, 2016a, 2016b, manuscript submitted for publication). These comparative case studies are ideally suited to investigating constraints for several reasons. Together, they address a range of sustained and episodic collective actions for home-country change; they account for both overtly political and non-overtly political actions ranging from lobbying for regime change to facilitating humanitarian aid; and they address cases of transnational collective action that remain neglected in the literature to date.
After data collections for these two studies were completed, we jointly examined our findings and found that in both sets of data and analyses, immigrant and diaspora leaders and activists faced significant forms of suppression and restriction in their TPAs. This convergence generated discussions between the two authors through which it became clear the need for explicit theorization of the factors and conditions that constrain TPA. After comparing and contrasting our independently-conducted studies to identify the constraints at play, we developed a conceptual framework to identify and conceptualize constraints. We then cased the literature for original works published by other scholars that make mention of constraints or the absence of TPA. Bringing these primary and secondary sources together, we refined our original categorizations in line with grounded theory methods (Charmaz, 2006; Strauss & Corbin, 1990). This technique is appropriate for investigating case studies and under-studied phenomena for which little theorization and hypotheses exist (see Snow & Moss, 2014, p. 1126). Dedicated to theoretical sampling, this technique also precludes researchers from covering all possible empirical cases in favor of methodological pragmatism (Katz, 2001; Small, 2009). Accordingly, we do not claim that our inductively-derived framework and related theorizing generalize to all populations across time and space. Instead, we present our framework as laying a foundation that can be refined, challenged, and expanded as scholars bring constraints into what they “see” empirically (Snow, Morrill, & Anderson, 2003).
Data collection and analysis for Chaudhary’s (2013–2014) study were divided into two phases. The first involved conducting a census of all registered Pakistani immigrant NGOs across London, Toronto, and New York City. Using local and national databases of charitable organizations and NGOs, Chaudhary enumerated and coded organizations by their programmatic domain, geographic scope of action, year of founding, and organizational identity, thus constructing an original database of all registered NGOs. The second phase involved the in-depth interviewing of organization leaders, government officials, and key informants knowledgeable of the Pakistani nonprofit sector in each city. Organizations were then randomly sampled in order to recruit respondents for in-depth interviews, and key informants (such as Pakistani government officials in local consulates, city officials, and law enforcement and counterterrorism officials) were identified through informal conversations with academics and community leaders and by snowball sampling. Of the total 131 in-depth interviews conducted, 86 were with leaders or executive board members of NGOs working on behalf of home-country issues. Interviews were semi-structured and ranged from one to three hours; recordings were transcribed verbatim and analyzed using NVivo, a qualitative software package that allows users to attach coding categories to text. This enabled the author to identify patterns and differences across the interviews. Due to the sensitivity of the counterterrorism investigations of Muslim charities and ongoing investigations of some of the sampled organizations, confidentiality and anonymity were maintained in accordance with IRB procedures.
Moss’ data are comprised of 233 interviews with Libyan, Syrian, and Yemeni immigrant activists residing across the United States and Great Britain. The sample represents 61 immigrant-initiated movements, informal and formal, dedicated to supporting antiauthoritarian mobilization and relief efforts in their home countries during the Arab Spring revolutions that began in early 2011. Selective sampling procedures targeted major movements and prominent activists, including women, exiles and non-exiles, different immigrant generations (though the sample is primarily first- and second-generation), and ethnic, religious, and regional minorities. The author initiated the study by (1) participating in pro-revolution events in 2011 and beyond; (2) using snowball sampling to gain referrals; and (3) using pro-revolution movement websites, public Facebook pages, and media reports to locate respondents and request interviews. In-person interviews took place in the greater Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. regions, New York, London, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Birmingham, Sheffield, and Bristol, as well as in Tripoli, Libya to reach repatriated activists in the revolution’s aftermath. Interviewees in other locations were interviewed by phone and Skype. Data collection occurred in 2012 for the Yemeni case, 2013 for the Libyan case, and 2014 for the Syrian case, and the open-ended interviews produced accounts of respondents’ mobilization strategies, perceived successes, and challenges over time. Coding categories were developed using NVivo software to identify patterns in the data. Due to ever-changing political conditions in their home and host countries, all respondents and organizations remain anonymous.
Bringing constraints into theories of TPA
The findings, elaborated on below, demonstrate that the restriction or lack of TPA is not simply due to the absence of opportunities, as in the case of migrants who do not vote at home simply because they lack the right to do so, or is satisfactorily explained by political apathy. Instead, we find that sociopolitical conditions and relations can actively impinge upon TPA. To this end, the analysis identifies four major sources of constraint: (1) geopolitics and interstate relations; (2) origin-country authoritarianism; (3) weak origin-country governance; and (4) exclusionary contexts of reception.
Geopolitics and interstate relations
Political opportunities at the supranational level facilitate immigrant TPA by granting immigrants leverage to pursue rights and recognition. However, immigrant communities are also embedded in geopolitical conditions and interstate relations that can exert negative effects on their transnational practices across different receiving-country contexts (Adamson & Demetriou, 2007; Koinova, 2013; Mitchell, 1989; Nagel, 2002). By geopolitics and interstate relations, we refer to political, economic, and military conditions that shape relations between two or more nation-states. Examples include the Cold War, the ongoing U.S.-led War on Terror, Russian aggression in Europe and the Middle East, and competition between Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey for regional dominance. We argue that geopolitical and interstate conflicts are likely to negatively affect immigrant communities associated with conflict-ridden states and regions of import to competing powers. This means that immigrants who seek to engage transnationally in an origin country deemed “suspect” or antagonistic to the political or military interests of allied states are likely to face internationalized constraints when attempting to mobilize on behalf of their homelands.
The internationalized War on Terror, for instance, has given rise to a transnational system of oversight and repression that criminalizes Muslim communities and immigrants across the globe, particularly in non-Muslim majority countries (Rana, 2016; Tarrow, 2016). Widespread profiling and surveillance constrains their transnational engagement by actively hindering activists’ abilities to mobilize on behalf of and transfer resources to their origin countries (Chaudhary, 2015; Chaudhary & Guarnizo, in press; Moss, manuscript submitted for publication). Chaudhary (2015), for example, finds that immigrant NGOs engaged in development or advocacy for Pakistan are constrained by an internationalized security regime operating across the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. As state officials target these organizations to ensure compliance with counterterrorism policies and regulations, immigrant organizations must demonstrate an excessively high standard of transparency and professionalization, leading to inflated operation costs and mission drift (Chaudhary, 2015). The sense of heightened scrutiny among Pakistani transnational organizations is captured below in the comments of an organization leader interviewed in New York:
Because we have tax-exemption status, the government is always watching 501(c)(3)s closely. So a certain level of transparency is to be expected. But in our case, the situation is worse because we are Muslim and our charity does work in Pakistan. We submit all of our financial records to federal officials and always have a sense of worry. I mean, we are just as concerned as the government that our funding for projects does not get in the hands of terrorist groups […]. I have been working in nonprofits for over 20 years and I can tell you the level of transparency we have is above and beyond most medium to small nonprofits. But more to the point, the level of stress we have is much higher because if we were a homeless shelter or the Humane Society, we would not have to worry about being investigated by the FBI or Homeland Security.
This dynamic is not unique to the Pakistani case. As Moss’ (manuscript submitted for publication) study of Syrian diaspora mobilization for relief shows, the infiltration of the so-called Islamic State extremist movement into Syria constrained organizers’ abilities to channel humanitarian aid to civilians due to security concerns. As an organizer of a registered charity for relief in Syria from Manchester, England, remarked,
In the beginning, the Charity Commission was a little bit more lenient with us. [Before], I really couldn’t tell you the name of the person who received the food parcel. They wanted details, but when we said we gave it to this group of workers we have and they distributed it in that village, that was fine, they were happy with that. They would even allow cash transactions, which are even more difficult to trace. Now the instructions are if you cannot give us the name of the very final destination of your donation, don’t do it… because they’re so worried about money, going into the wrong hands, going into aiding terrorism, going into buying arms. We have to be absolutely to the nth-degree clear as to where the money had gone. Otherwise, we’ll just be closed down, and we can’t afford to have that happen because lots of people rely on us. We have schools that need to be funded, salaries of teachers that need to be paid, books and school equipment that have to be bought, et cetera—and that’s only for the schools.
As this testimonial illustrates, the geopolitical context within which identities and actions are embedded can significantly impede activists’ efforts to address home-country crises.
Bilateral relations and agreements between origin and receiving countries also work together to repress immigrant collective political action. In the case of Pakistani immigrants in the United States, the U.S.-Pakistan bilateral relationship reached a new low following the 2011 discovery and subsequent execution of Al-Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. The increasing mistrust between the two governments was additionally exacerbated during the 2013 Pakistani elections when a politician critical of U.S. policy became the preferred candidate among Pakistani immigrants residing in the United States. The sentiment expressed below by a Pakistani immigrant who ran an opposition transnational Pakistani political organization in New York City captures the diaspora support for the charismatic professional Pakistani cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan.
We want him to win so that he can change the course of Pakistan. The terrorism has to stop but how can we have peace with the Taliban when our Army is fighting them to make America happy. Imran [PTI political candidate] is the only one who is willing to stand up to Obama and the Americans and say “No, you cannot kill Pakistanis with your drones in Pakistan anymore.” […] But as much as I want him to win, I don’t think he can be elected because America will not let that happen.
The respondent’s frustration around the assumption that the outcome of the election would be influenced by the needs and desires of the United States speaks to the ways in which bilateral relations between origin and receiving country governments can play significant roles in how migrant and diaspora groups perceive the potential effectiveness of their TPA. In this case, the mutually dependent nature of the U.S.-Pakistan military alliance signals to many Pakistani migrants that their TPA is indirectly constrained because they perceive the U.S. government will interfere in the Pakistani homeland politics in order to ensure U.S. objectives and interests are upheld.
Other instances in which bilateral and geopolitical contexts constrain TPA include research findings that France and Morocco worked in tandem to repress protests by migrants due to shared interests in undermining organized labor (Brand, 2006). Similarly, Chinese migrants who came to the United States during the Cold War describe how the United States permitted secret police from Taiwan’s KMT regime “to extend their reach into Chinese American communities, which were forced to uphold even stricter standards of orthodoxy by supporting the KMT’s claim to represent China’s legitimate government” due to their “common war against communism” (Lai, 2010, p. 5). Thus, while supranational structures can generate opportunities for collective action, so too can international-level forces impede immigrant TPA. State surveillance, targeted and discriminatory regulations, and reactive repression can make a law-abiding TPA a high-risk endeavor and deter community members from donating to or supporting efforts to aid their home country due to fears of incrimination (Chaudhary, 2015; Chaudhary & Guarnizo, in press; Moss, manuscript submitted for publication). As a Yemeni activist from New York City attested, Yemenis abroad were hamstrung from sending remittances to peaceful activists during the 2011 Arab Spring uprising due to fears stemming from the global War on Terror:
When a lot of people were being murdered in the Squares, we wanted to provide medicine and food. But we can’t do it because we have concerns about the U.S. policies when it comes to sending that kind of aid. They can prosecute anyone, saying that the food fell in the wrong hands…. And the government did not provide us with guidelines or ways to send medicine and food. There is no designated list of organizations that we can work with on the ground, and no U.S. organization that is willing to do that. So we had great difficulties trying to do that. […] [T]he Yemeni community can contribute a lot in supporting the needy. I would say that the Yemeni community, especially in New York, is so wealthy. But our hands are very tied. Yemen needs food and medicine, and as Yemeni Americans—and even as Americans—we are very cut off in trying to send support or do fundraising for Yemen.
As a result, communities embedded in acute geopolitical conflicts and targeted in security measures are unlikely to benefit from political opportunities to the same extent as other groups that are not viewed as “problem” populations in their receiving societies.
It has been assumed that immigrants who exit from authoritarian origin countries capitalize on newfound opportunities to engage in TPA after resettling in democratic states (Anderson, 1998). Yet, the notion that exit readily translates into political opportunity neglects to account for the ways in which authoritarian regimes actively work to repress and control their diasporas. Thus, origin-country regimes that are intolerant of protest within their borders are also likely to be intolerant of oppositional mobilization by their nationals abroad (Brand, 2006; Chaudhary, 2018b; Lacroix, 2015). Because such authorities often view immigrant mobilization as a threat, they constrain TPA by targeting diaspora activists and organizations with slander, threats, and even violence (Moss & Michaelsen, 2018). Moreover, the political culture in authoritarian origin societies may encourage citizens to refrain from any form of political opposition out of fear of repercussions. This fear can extend to the diaspora when the authoritarian political culture of the home country is transplanted to populations through the act of migration (Pearlman, 2016).
Moss’ (2016a, 2016b) research, for example, finds that Libyan and Syrian emigrants did not easily escape regime oversight after migrating abroad. Instead, origin-country governments engaged in “transnational repression” by deploying agents and loyalists to surveil, harass, and threaten the diaspora informally and through origin-country institutions abroad. Such repression occurred indirectly, face to face, and online, as when origin-country agents physically threatened their family members, acted to harm and harass activists abroad, and threatened to banish those who were not already in exile. The Gaddafi regime of Libya infamously ordered the execution of dissidents abroad and declared an open hunt on Libya’s “stray dogs,” resulting in a steady stream of murders and renditions through the 1990s (Dahan, 2018; Moss, 2016a, 2016b). Syrian activists also attested to being subjected to regime surveillance and harassment, with some dissidents abroad assassinated in Europe (Paul, 1990). Fear that regimes would punish their relatives at home for dissenting aboard also constrained TPA. As one Syrian American speaking at a humanitarian fundraising event in California in 2011 explained, “You would think that America’s this free society, with freedom of speech, and that we’re comfortable speaking on things, but it has real ramifications back home.” As a result, transnational repression constrained immigrant TPA in Libyan and Syrian communities before the Arab Spring by keeping the majority of regime opponents fearful of speaking out.
Other studies suggest that transnational repression is a relatively common but under-studied problem for immigrant populations seeking to engage in anti-dictatorship mobilization (Glasius, 2018; Michaelsen, 2018; Østergaard-Nielsen, 2003); countries such as Belarus, China, Eritrea, Iran, Mexico, North Korea, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the former Soviet Republics have worked to eliminate and deter extra-national dissent in the past and present (see Moss, 2016a, 2016b). The 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudi Arabian regime in Istanbul is just one example, and reminiscent of other regimes’ targeted killings of dissidents abroad (Dahan, 2018). In cases such as these, it is precisely those first- and second-generation immigrants with the motivations and ties needed to engage transnationally who are likely to be deterred from engaging in origin-country politics. Accordingly, we expect that immigrants with transnational ties to severely repressive states are more likely to keep their political views closeted after exiting the home country than are those immigrants with ties to democratic or semi-democratic sending states.
Authoritarian origin countries also constrain immigrant TPA by inciting pro-regime political participation and mobilization abroad. By extending voting rights to their diasporas, some origin-country governments use external voting to bolster their rule and force their nationals to demonstrate loyalty (Brand, 2014). They also exert control through patronage and the co-optation of civic and association life in immigrant communities. Moss (2016a, 2016b), for instance, finds that Syrian American and British professional associations were used as vehicles to promote the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad before the Arab Spring. As a Syrian American activist based in New York explained, “Most of the Syrian-associated organizations or entities had some sort of close connection with the embassy.” For this reason, as an activist from Chicago reported, no organization “could operate independently of the Syrian government.” As a result, a Syrian-British doctor who later organized relief during the Syrian revolution and war attested, regime-affiliated community members “would take part in our community affairs…but we would never have the confidence or relaxation to speak in front of them openly about anything to do with the regime. For fear for ourselves, because we were going regularly back home, or for our family back home.”
Furthermore, the corporatist incorporation of immigrant mobilization has been observed in the case of China, in which immigrants who engage in homeland politics must collaborate with state agencies and branches of the Communist Party to enact their missions (Lai, 2010; Zhou & Lee, 2015). While far more research is needed to investigate the ways in which authoritarian regimes exert power in an extra-territorial fashion, TPA is likely to be significantly constrained in immigrant communities when authoritarian regimes view their emigrants as potentially troublesome subjects and actively work to monitor and silence dissenters among them.
Third, we submit that weak governance stemming from conflict and corruption constrains TPA, including the channeling of economic and social remittances to development and social change efforts in immigrants’ origin societies. Guarnizo et al. (2017), for example, find that Colombian immigrants in Europe are less likely than Dominicans to engage in TPA in part because of political instability and collective mistrust of the Colombian electoral system. Similarly, Moss (manuscript submitted for publication) finds that immigrants in Britain perceived some Yemeni community associations as regime-affiliated, sectarian, and corrupt. As a Liverpudlian youth in Britain who later became active during the Arab Spring explained, his local YCA had “been a corrupt and incompetent body for a long time…. They never actually did anything. They never hosted any organizations, any dialogues, any parties whatsoever… They host elections once every 10 years. A 10-year term!… [M]ost of them supported [dictator] ‘Ali [Abdullah Saleh].” Accordingly, widespread mistrust and avoidance within Yemeni communities kept some of these associations dormant and ineffectual until the Arab Spring motivated constituents to demand a change in their leadership.
Weak governance also indirectly affects TPA by hindering diaspora-led development and remittance flows facilitated through diaspora organizations. Chaudhary (2018a) finds that Pakistani immigrants in London and New York held reservations about donating to development or political organizations due to widespread perceptions of rampant corruption in Pakistan. Many immigrants blamed corrupt politicians for the crises plaguing Pakistan and therefore worried their financial support for development or homeland politics could end up in the hands of corrupt officials. This perception among Pakistani immigrants in New York is expressed in the comments below, provided by a Pakistani organization leader:
The main challenge for raising funds is to build trust between us and Pakistanis living here in this country. Because of the corruption and bad reputation of NGOs in Pakistan, we have to show Pakistanis here how we are using their donations only for the intended purposes. Our organization is not supporting children of generals or corrupt politicians so they can drive fancy cars or live in nice apartments. The corruption creates a bad image of everything.
These comments describe the urgency within Pakistani diaspora organizations to demonstrate the legitimacy of their work despite widespread corruption in Pakistan.
Paradoxically, origin countries characterized by weak governance are often precisely the places where TPA may be most needed. Yet, a lack of infrastructure and trust in institutions can stymie origin countries’ abilities to receive economic and social remittances from abroad. Remittances are dependent on the reliable functioning of financial transfer services, ports, airports, banks, and so on, which many of the world’s most impoverished places lack. Without them, diasporas are likely to be dependent on informal personal networks based on kinship ties to transfer resources, which are selective and place-bound. Indeed, Moss (manuscript submitted for publication) finds that those Yemeni activists in the United States and Britain who lacked personal contacts in city centers during the 2011 revolution were cut off from sending aid to their compatriots and field hospitals in protest encampments. Some respondents also expressed a refusal to remit through the few international NGOs operating on the ground because these organizations operated with the permission of the Yemeni regime and were not active in protester-occupied areas. As a Washington, D.C,-based activist explained,
So we tried to [remit] through [NGOs], whether it was Islamic Relief or other aid organizations that were already in Yemen—but there was an issue of actually distributing the supplies out to the people there…. You have global NGOs that have been established for decades and the branches that were present in Yemen were being run by pro-Saleh officials. So […] even well-noted NGOs were not able to distribute the funds that were allocated and for the people on the field, because of the fact that those people were anti-Saleh.
Social remittances (Levitt, 1998) such as the transnational transmission of ideas, mobilization strategies, and other resources are also heavily dependent on communications and information infrastructures. Chaudhary (2015) finds that the ongoing electricity crises in Pakistan, which limit many residents to only two hours of electricity per day, directly hinders TPA-related communications through the internet. In addition, various Pakistani governments’ censorship of websites such as Facebook and YouTube further suppresses the abilities for social remittances and knowledge transfers to circulate freely across borders. In this sense, weak governance not only constrains TPA because of perceptions of corruption in the origin society, but because it also impedes the circulation of ideas, strategies, tactics, and experiences between the diaspora and the homeland.
Lastly, weak governance can also contribute to collective feelings of frustration within immigrant and diaspora communities seeking to engage in TPA. As a London-based Yemeni activist who worked to ship a container of aid to the southern Yemeni city of Aden attested, the process of doing so was “a fucking nightmare [because] in Yemen they tried every trick to block it, saying that the papers are all wrong…. We had so many people trying to sabotage it.” In all, home-country corruption, incompetence, and meddling by regime officials can make channeling basic humanitarian aid extraordinarily difficult and emotionally draining. In other instances, Chaudhary (2015) finds similar cases of hopelessness among Pakistani immigrants in the United States, many of who share a sense that the political system of Pakistan is ultimately organized around the powerful Pakistani military and U.S. interests. While feelings of despair are likely to be common among those who are unable to emigrate, collective feelings of hopeless in the diaspora are also likely to be pervasive and detrimental to those activists seeking to harness community resources and mobilize for home-country change and relief.
Exclusionary contexts of reception
Just as inclusive contexts of reception can facilitate immigrant TPA, exclusionary contexts of reception can constrain immigrant TPA in significant ways. As we suggest above in the discussion of geopolitics, immigrants associated with particular nationalities, ethnicities, religions, and inimical political movements can encounter marginalization in receiving societies that hinder collective action. For instance, Pakistani immigrants residing in the United States occupy an especially tenuous position given the tumultuous relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan with respect to the War on Terror (Rana, 2011). While Pakistan is officially aligned with U.S.-led counterterrorism efforts, their bilateral relations are fraught due to the U.S. government’s mistrust of the Pakistani intelligence services and Pakistan’s hosting of Taliban agents (Jaffrelot, 2015). This is coupled with widespread Islamophobia in the United States that creates fear and stigma of Pakistani immigrants (Ameeriar, 2017; Rana, 2016). As we reference above, this stigma constrains their TPA because NGOs dedicated to channeling remittances to development and humanitarianism in Pakistan are routinely subjected to discriminatory policies and practices associated with the counterterror regulatory regime (Chaudhary, 2015; Chaudhary & Guarnizo, in press). Accordingly, the stigmatization of immigrant groups leads to apprehension and isolation at the community level (Beydoun, 2018; Naber, 2012) and constrains individual and collective efforts to engage transnationally with the homeland. An example of how such policies constrain TPA is captured in the comments below, in which a Pakistani organization leader recounts her experience with a counterterrorism investigation.
This is a four-person operation. It is just me, my sister and two colleagues.… On two occasions our wire transfers were intercepted and held for weeks. This meant that we could not send money to buy food for the girls for 2 weeks. I had to use my own personal savings. We talked to a lawyer and he told me that we needed to become more professional and more transparent. Get audits from accounting firms, make a better website […] but all of those things cost a lot of money … money that is supposed to go to the orphanage. I think at this rate, my dream of opening more orphanages will have to wait because with all of the costs of making the organization more professional there just isn’t enough money.
Syrian activists interviewed by Moss also reported facing targeted discrimination when attempting to register their organizations and wire funds from Great Britain as the war at home escalated in 2013 and 2014. One activist in Manchester recalled that their group had difficulties opening a bank account despite being a registered organization because of their Syria-specific designation. This was not paranoia, as the British bank HSBC was discovered to be closing down Syrians’ personal bank accounts at this time (Bachelor, 2014).
Immigrant TPA is also likely to vary according to whether immigrants are incorporated into highly stratified ethno-racial and religious groups within receiving societies, such those African or Latin American emigrants who become Black after settling in the United States (Omi & Winant, 2014), and Muslims who emigrate to predominantly White, Christian states (Beydoun, 2018; Bozorgmehr, Ong, & Tosh, 2016). This dynamic is also intersectional, compounding disadvantage; African immigrants in the U.S., for example, are embedded in multiple stigmatized identity groups, such as Somali, Muslim, and Black (Ajrouch & Kusow, 2007; Selod & Embrick, 2013). While more empirical research is needed on this topic, an immigrant group’s incorporation into multiple marginalized and criminalized identity groups is likely to subject their transnational practices to additional layers of security-driven discrimination and deterrence by host-country governments. In this sense, the contexts of reception that migrants confront in host societies may ultimately play a decisive role in their overall level of TPA (Chaudhary, 2018b).
In another related example, though Chinese immigrants experienced a new degree of incorporation into the United States during the Cold War period, anti-Asian prejudice and discrimination in combination with transnational repression from their home-country governments (Lai, 2010, pp. 5–7) culminated in a “dual domination” of immigrant communities that suppressed their mobilization efforts for political change at home (Lai, 2010, pp. 5–7). In sum, we therefore expect that the hostile conditions we identify above at the international, origin-country, and host-country levels can and do impede immigrant TPA, thus delimiting transnationalism as a practice and depriving communities of the ability to capitalize upon opportunities for voice after exit (Hirschman, 1978).
Discussion and conclusion
Over the past four decades, increasing global mobility coupled with technological advances have fueled international migration and cross-national connectivity between immigrants’ places of origin and settlement (Boccagni, Lafleur, & Levitt, 2015; Chaudhary, 2018b; Engbersen, Bakker, Erdal, & Bilgili, 2014; Lacroix et al., 2016). This “simultaneity” (Levitt & Schiller, 2004) has enabled immigrants to maintain a variety of economic, social, and political ties with their origin societies. With respect to political transnationalism, immigrants engage with their origin societies in more- and less-institutionalized ways through explicitly and implicitly political action. As we illustrate in Table 1, these actions range from voting and lobbying to fundraising and holding protests. But while the literature has made important strides in demonstrating how immigrants capitalize on opportunities to engage in TPA, few studies (e.g., Huynh & Yiu, 2015; Vickstrom & Beauchemin, 2016) illuminate the factors that suppress their TPA. Accordingly, researchers lack a framework for explaining why only some immigrant groups benefit from political opportunities, while others exhibit a limited repertoire or the near absence of cross-border political engagement.
This article makes an important first step in remedying this shortcoming by identifying four structural and relational constraints that impinge upon, limit, or block immigrant TPA: (1) geopolitics and interstate relations; (2) origin-society authoritarianism; (3) weak governance; and (4) exclusionary contexts of reception, which are listed in Table 2. In so doing, this study answers calls in the migration and collective action literatures to move beyond opportunity perspectives that disproportionately focus on positive cases (McAdam & Boudet, 2012; Waldinger, 2015). We accordingly demonstrate that cases of limited or absent TPA are not non-cases. Rather, they reflect the consequences of structural and relational forces that merit analytical attention. The theorization of constraints also calls into question the assumed complementarity between home-state institutional structures and immigrant TPA (e.g., Gamlen et al., 2017). We show that this relationship can be negative, embedding immigrants within multiple layers of constraint, repression, and state-driven conflicts for extra-territorial control. It is our hope that by attending to both opportunities and constraints arising from receiving, origin, and international contexts, scholars will better understand how and why TPA varies widely within and across immigrant groups.
At the same time, we are not arguing that all constraints will necessarily preclude political action. On the contrary, studies of collective resistance demonstrate that even the most coercive systems imaginable can stoke resistance (e.g., Einwohner, 2003). What we call attention to is the fact that many immigrant communities face constraints when we would otherwise assume they benefit from opportunities. Immigrants who are therefore perceived as “opting out” of, or being apathetic toward, home-country politics may actually be suppressed in their attempts to engage. In some cases, these constraints may have effects beyond TPA, subjecting the broader diaspora to deterrents, fear, and the trauma of being cut off from the people and places they care deeply about (Pearlman, 2016). Constraints can also strip immigrants of their otherwise guaranteed rights and civil liberties to mobilize peacefully in receiving countries. As a result, we do not suggest that immigrants facing constraints have no agency to contest these conditions, but that the obstacles facing some communities are far greater and more formidable than for others. We therefore suggest that future research extend this line of inquiry to investigate how constraints on political action can change over time.
Examining the constraints facing South Asian and Middle Eastern immigrant communities is also pressing in light of recent global political developments concerning terrorism and geopolitical realignments in South Asia and the Middle East. The transnational perspective is now juxtaposed with a twenty-first century resurgence of nationalist populism, border walls, xenophobia, and Cold-War style geopolitical alignments across the globe. As states continue to mobilize in tandem against Islamic terrorist groups, Muslim immigrants are routinely subjected to a terror-industrial complex (Rana, 2016) that stigmatizes them as potential threats to state security and national culture (Nail, 2016). Such geopolitical conditions, coupled with increasingly exclusionary receiving-country contexts, have notable impacts on the political agency of immigrant communities, but more research on how these policies impact immigrant and diaspora transnationalism is needed. Additionally, by expanding analyses beyond often-studied Latin American immigrant groups, we may better show how constraints differently impact immigrant communities occupying divergent “positionalities” in global politics and in their receiving countries (Koinova, 2012), such as variation between Syrians and Saudis, or Serbs and Bosnians.
We do, of course, acknowledge that certain constraints on transnational political action may be desirable. Surely, the need to contain the transnational networks and mobilizations of violent non-state actors (i.e., the so-called “Islamic State” organization, or ISIS) intent on committing atrocities is necessary. However, we also emphasize the importance of investigating the effects of constraining measures that criminalize entire nationalities and religions (Chaudhary & Guarnizo, in press; Nagel, 2002). Security-focused policies and practices have consequences that hinder immigrants’ transnational capacities to promote development and positive social change in their homelands, including in places in dire need of aid.. They also constrain the work of activists and organizations who operate in strict compliance with regulations governing transnational activities (Chaudhary, 2015; Chaudhary & Guarnizo, in press; Moss, manuscript submitted for publication). For these reasons, the onus is on scholars to present a holistic picture of the conditions shaping transnationalism, to compare and contrast the varied scope of their activities, and to understand how immigrants adapt to and contest these socio-political forces.
Research on transnational politics often examines the cross-border political engagement of immigrant and diaspora communities. The theorizing and framework presented here are intended to be applicable to both immigrant and diaspora communities. While we recognize that immigrant communities are by definition comprised of only foreign-born individuals and diaspora can be multi-generational, we understand the opportunities and constraints shaping TPA to be similar regardless of generational status differences between immigrant and diaspora communities. Furthermore, as the concept of diaspora is increasingly used to describe immigrant groups outside of traditional or historical diasporas (i.e., Jews, Roma, Indo-Caribbean, etc.), there is a degree of scholarly convergence between diaspora and migration studies. For the sake of concision and clarity, we use TPA without the immigrant and diaspora qualifiers for the rest of the paper while fully acknowledging the scholarly and empirical differences between immigrant and diaspora as scholarly categories.
Transnational Political Action
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The authors would like to thank anonymous reviewers for their useful suggestions and comments. We also thank the Luis Eduardo Guarnizo, Sidney Tarrow, Marie Godin, and Mathias Czaika for providing useful comments on an earlier version of this paper. This research has been funded and supported by a Marie Curie Early Career Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Oxford-International Migration Institute held by Dr. Ali R. Chaudhary in association with the European Commission’s Seventh Framework Programmeme Marie Curie Action Initial Training Networks (ITN) ‘Transnational Migration, Citizenship and the Circulation of Rights and Responsibilities TRANSMIC’. The original empirical data presented in this paper were previously supported and funded by the University of California Center for New Racial Studies, the University of California Office of the President, the US National Science Foundation, the U.C. Irvine Center for Global Peace and Conflict Studies, the American Institute of Yemeni Studies, the Departments of Sociology and Human Ecology at UC Davis and the Department of Sociology at UC Irvine.
This paper was written in conjunction with a Marie Curie ITN early career fellowship awarded to AC for 2015–2017. The data we draw from were collected in two separate studies. AC data collection was funded by a UC Office of the President Dissertation-Year Fellowship (2014–15) and a Graduate Research Award from the UC Center for New Racial Studies. DM data collection was funded by a dissertation improvement grant from the US National Science Foundation and a per-dissertation grant from the American Institute of Yemeni Studies.
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Chaudhary, A.R., Moss, D.M. Suppressing transnationalism: bringing constraints into the study of transnational political action. CMS 7, 9 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40878-019-0112-z