Book Review: “The Cross-Border Connection” by Roger Waldinger

Gabriella Mikiewicz
Monday, 16th January 2018
Book Review for MM13

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Waldinger, Roger, “The Cross-Border Connection: Immigrants, Emigrants, and Their Homelands”, Harvard University Press (2015) Kindle Edition

This book takes a critical look at the contemporary transnational perspective on migration, arguing that this framework limits scholars and researchers by not seeing fully the extent of cross-border connections. Roger Waldinger’s The Cross Border-Connection: Immigrants, Emigrants, and Their Homelands adds valuable theoretical contributions to a scholarship that has been widely evaluated, supported, and critiqued by academics. Waldinger is critical of the transnational framework for migration research that has been developing over the past 25 years and in its place proposes a new “cross-border” framework to analyze the connections that migrants create, maintain, and lose.

Overall, the book is well-written and provides an interesting critique of transnationalism that can potentially increase the critical discussion surrounding transnational theory. Waldinger’s alternative framework also explores other important aspects of migration that he believes transnationalism fails to take into account, such as the fact that while migrants are immigrants in one place, they are also, at the exact same time, emigrants in another. For scholars and students of migration alike, this text can remind readers of the multifaceted existence of migrants, and to reframe our perspective from the dichotomies of “us” and “them,” from “before” to “after,” to then looking at migrants as people who are “here” while also “from there.”

The author, Roger Waldinger, Ph.D., is an historian and sociologist, and has authored many articles and books covering migration and specifically transnationalism. He is a Professor and Chair in the Department of Sociology at University of California, Los Angeles and his educational accomplishments include receiving his doctoral degree in Sociology at Harvard University. Waldinger has received several notable awards, including the Distinguished Career Award in the International Migration Section from the American Sociological Association in 2012, and his books have won several other scholarly awards.

The author argues that this new framework can help us to answer some questions: “Why might these linkages persist, attenuate, or simply fade away? What different patterns characterize the many forms of cross-border involvement…? And what happens as the experiences and resources acquired through migration filter back to the home country?” (5-6). While these questions are raised in Chapter 1, the rest of the book attempts to use existing research to answer them, using the “cross-border” framework.

With the chapters divided into main concepts, the organization of the book allows for readers to follow the author’s arguments for using a cross-border framework. The book starts with a critique of transnationalism on an intellectual level, then Waldinger proceeds to develop a new theoretical framework for analyzing migratory processes, which he then applies to several examples.

The book is divided into nine chapters, starting with a summary and comparison of the migration processes in the United States from the last hundred-or-so years and current themes and practices in the field of migration. The first chapter is dense; packed with a flurry of ideas, terms, theories, facts, and more. Waldinger juxtaposes 20th century migration processes to current practices and themes: “Regardless of origins, the immigrants of the current era of mass migration are maintaining home country connections, doing so in ways that remind one of the past but also look quite different,” says Waldinger, using examples of technological advances and changes in society (2). The main point of this chapter is to slowly introduce the reader to the theory of transnationalism, which first emerged as a term in the 1900s but was applied to migration studies in the 1990s by Glick Schiller et al., which they defined as “the processes by which immigrants forge and sustain multi-stranded social relations that link together their societies of origin and settlement” (17).

The second chapter, titled “Beyond Transnationalism” continues with a theoretical framework that Waldinger bases his critique of transnational theory on. The author argues that transnationalism produced a new way of looking at the processes accompanying migration, but it doesn’t go far enough in realizing the several dimensions of migration. When transnationalism first became prominent in the migration field, it was a new theory that reflected the changing times: technological advances, “a more inhospitable reception context [in receiving countries that] encouraged the newcomers to keep up their home society ties” (16), and the increasing influence that sending states tried to extend onto their emigrants. These are all themes that the author bases the next few chapters on.

Chapters 3 to 8 give examples of several key, but often underdeveloped, migratory and cross-border processes that, in this reader’s opinion, that have the potential to greatly add to the overall migration scholarship, such as the focus on the political influence that migrants have after leaving their home countries. The examples of different political engagements across borders, as well as examples of other cross-border processes, support the previous critique and commentary on transnationalism — elaborating on the cross-border connections that migrants engage in, while substantiating his arguments with existing transnational literature.

Chapter 6 is an important one in the book, in which the author attempts to develop a new framework for “understanding the interaction between emigrants and the states and societies they have left behind” (106). This new position, alternate from transnationalism, aims to answer the questions of what creates or reduces the cross-border connections and processes that link migrants to their places of origins, something that transnationalism fails to do according to the author. One of the main arguments of this chapter, along with the following two chapters, is that previous migration literature has often left out the political implications of migration while it mostly focuses on the social and economic. The following two chapters take this new framework and apply it to several existing examples of cross-border connections: political activism across the Mexican-American border, and what happens when diaspora communities come together to improve their places of origin.

The main criticisms against transnationalism can make sense to even students of contemporary migration and point to major pitfalls that transnational theory has faced over the years. While the author argues that the onset of transnationalism produced a new way of looking at the processes accompanying migration, the theory doesn’t go far enough in realizing the several dimensions of migration and of migranthood. A shortcoming of early transnational theory was that it seemed to almost encompass everything — you could probably find some kind of back-and-forth process everywhere you looked. As shown throughout several pages of the second chapter, different scholars of migration, such as Portes, Faist, and Glick-Schiller debated the extent to which these processes can be considered transnationalism. Drawing a conclusion from that fact, Waldinger argues that “as a singular noun, transnationalism was ill-suited to describe the multiple, often conflicting goals, plans, ideas, and beliefs entertained by the so-called transmigrants regarding the uses to which their here–there connections should be put” (19). It is from this point that he reasons it is necessary for a new framework with which to analyze cross-border processes and connections.

Another one of the major flaws of transnationalism is that it fails to account for the inconsistencies inherent within a migrant’s state of being: “transnationalism was ill-suited to describe the multiple, often conflicting goals, plans, ideas, and beliefs entertained by the so-called transmigrants regarding the uses to which their here–there connections should be put” (19). Another one of the major strengths of this work is how it sheds light upon the constantly conflicted state of being a migrant. Several times throughout the book, Waldinger alludes to this conflict: being ‘here’ and ‘there,’ being an ‘alien’ and being a ‘citizen’ all at the same time. This motif of conflicting situations is a common theme in the book:

“The people opting for life in another state are not just immigrants, but also emigrants, retaining ties to the people and places left behind. Using connections to make their way to the new country, the migrants find themselves among their fellow foreigners. As we have seen, that co-presence produces a familiar rather than alien environment and also facilitates the maintenance of cross-border activities” (82).

This illumination of this multifaceted existence for migrants by Waldinger is a valuable commentary about the conditions under which migrants come from developing nations to developed nations and the significance of their cross-border connections, expanding beyond the capacities of transnationalism.

Another strength of this book is the emphasis on political cross-border connections, which the author argues is often left out of migration studies, which usually focus mainly on the social and often on economic influences of migrants. Specifically, Waldinger describes a paradox that occurs when migrants arrive in a new country: arriving in a developed nation gives the emigrants more political leverage in their countries of origin that they didn’t have before, the immigrants usually end up losing political interest and attention while focusing more on their new host society. In other words, population movement across borders produces the opportunity for political activism in the homeland, it eventually weakens the desire to do so, for several reasons: migrants may fear reminding host societies of a “foreign, often unwanted, often suspected alien presence in their midst” (83). This paradox, of course, only can occur with a migration from an underdeveloped (or developing) country to a developed one (108), which is one of the main characteristics of the new cross-border framework that Waldinger proposes.

With the new cross-border framework come the major weaknesses with this book. Despite the criticisms of transnationalism holding true, Waldinger is not the first person to comment on these flaws. According to David Ley, these arguments against transnationalism are familiar” and “oft-repeated” (Ley, e3-e4). Of course, this critical discussion about transnationalism adds valuable insight to theories that could potentially help improve transnational theory in the future, but it does not necessarily mean that there is a necessity to create a whole new framework in its place.

Another limitation of the book has to do with the methodology and examples where Waldinger applies his new theoretical framework. Because most of the book is centered around America, there is a large emphasis on the Latin American region. This may lead readers to wonder if this same framework is at all useful if it’s not pertaining specifically to developing-developed migration or from Latin America to the United States. Should this really be considered a framework or rather a proposed adjustment and addition to transnational literature and theory if it only applies to very small, specific cases? Do the same criticisms of transnationalism apply to other instances of different types of migration in different regions? With the large emphasis on politics, the readers may be left curious: “do countries’ political systems matter for the maintenance, decrease, or dissolution of cross-border connections?” (Orces, 2).

In the first chapter, Waldinger stated his aim of the book: “I hope to provide both an innovative intellectual perspective and a guide to the immigrant reality unfolding before our eyes… I will show that the immigrants are [ ] between here and there, keeping in touch with and trying to remain true to the people and places that they have left behind while simultaneously shifting loyalties and allegiances to the people and places where they have settled” (10). In this case, one can see that Waldinger achieved his overall goal of the book and truly revealed these contradictions at the heart of migration while also giving insight into facets of migratory processes that don’t often receive much scholarly attention. However, beyond that purpose of the book, it may have been unnecessary to completely transform transnational theory into a brand new framework.

In my opinion, Waldinger delivers a very interesting critique of the transnational framework, which can give students a great historical overview of the transnational theoretical framework, in terms of breadth and depth. His new model, however, does not seem to differ much from the transnational paradigm that a student of migration is exposed to, so it could be seen as a correction, rather than as a new theoretical framework. His new approach does not take into account other forms of governments in sending countries, and his focus on Latin America may neglect some other perspectives. For example, the diaspora of many African countries such as Gambia and Senegal is quite active politically, and they economically support movements for change. The same could be said of the people of the Rif region (from North Morocco) diaspora’s involvement in the Hirak movement, or emigrant political associations such as Marea Granate in Spain. Also, my personal interest in Eritrea leads me to question whether the political aspect of this framework can be relevant at all to a dictatorship that seems unimpeded by foreign influence. However, in most instances, migrant networks are influencing the debates and ideas in their countries of origin, and thanks to the Internet they can criticize their governments and reach their fellow countrymen effectively, without risking detention or death.

Despite the limitations, this book offers a valuable commentary on the processes that characterize modern migration and leaves readers with much to think about. Though the book is not accessible to everyone, it’s exceptionally valuable to migration students who are familiar with prominent scholars in the field and can engage with the theories. It would be a great contribution to any library.

2,183 words


Works Cited

Ley, David, “The Cross-Border Connection: Immigrants, Emigrants, and Their Homelands. By Roger Waldinger (book review)”, International Migration Review volume 50, issue 1 (2006)

Orces, Diana M., “The Cross-Border Connection: Immigrants, Emigrants, and Their Homelands. By Roger Waldinger (book review)”, Social Forces volume 95, issue 4 (2017)

Waldinger, Roger, “The Cross-Border Connection: Immigrants, Emigrants, and Their Homelands”, Harvard University Press (2015) Kindle Edition

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