Monday, February 04, 2008

A Tiny Staff, Tracking People Across the Globe

February 4, 2008

WASHINGTON — It has an editorial staff of one and annual advertising revenues of less than $2,000. It charges its subscribers nothing and pays most contributors the same. Mapping the settlement of Latino poultry workers is its idea of a sexy piece.

But for a growing number of followers, it has become an important read.

Every moment has its magazine, and for the age of migration it is the Migration Information Source, a weekly (more or less) online journal followed worldwide by scholars, policy makers and the occasional migrant in distress. “My soul’s dying every moment,” an Iranian asylum seeker wrote last year in an e-mail message from Greece. “Give me an answer.”

Many readers discover the Source simply by googling the word “immigrant” and finding a link to among the millions of citations.

At the site’s helm is an American-born editor, Kirin Kalia, 32, who describes herself as “half Dutch, half Indian, 100 percent American and total migration geek.” Ms. Kalia thrives on hybridity — devouring Indian-American novels and Dutch-Moroccan films — and finds no migration topic too obscure. To know the fate of Latvian mushroom pickers in Ireland is, for her, to glimpse the world in a grain of sand.

“To move to a different country for whatever reason takes so much courage,” she said, interrupting an interview to play a song by a British-Indian rapper, Panjabi MC, stored on her hard drive. “The fact that so many people do it is just endlessly fascinating to me.”

With conflicts rising over immigration to the United States, interest in the Source has surged. Readership has doubled in the past three years, Ms. Kalia said, to about 140,000 unique visits each month. To stroll through the archives is to see the American debate freshly, as part of a global phenomenon.

If the Source has a unifying theme, it is that migration is a defining force nearly everywhere. There are about 200 million migrants in the world — probably a record, demographers say, in both relative and absolute terms — and more than 80 percent live outside the United States.

The Source has focused on Tajik construction workers in Russia, farmhands from Burkina Faso who pick Ghanaian crops and the Peruvians who take jobs left behind by Ecuadorean workers who have migrated to Spain.

Other themes of the coverage include the speed with which migration has grown (Spain’s immigrant population has risen nearly sixfold in 10 years) and the conflict it brings, within both nations and living rooms. Political parties rise and fall. Economic interests win and lose. Family relations change.

“None of this is easy,” Ms. Kalia said.

Nor is the process of tracking it, with migration studies a nascent field and data on many countries scarce. But the magazine has won praise from a roster of A-list scholars who read it, write for it and assign it to their students.

“It’s the best online source of information on migration that I have seen worldwide,” said Rubén G. Rumbaut, a sociologist at the University of California at Irvine and a leading authority on the children of immigrants to the United States.

The magazine is published by a Washington research group, the Migration Policy Institute, that was started six years ago (with assistance from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Ford Foundation and the J. M. Kaplan Fund) to help fill the knowledge gap.

Does migration drive down domestic wages? Do guest worker programs always bring permanent settlement? Does “brain drain” hurt developing countries, or have critics overlooked indirect benefits, like the money the migrants send home?

“Heck! I don’t believe we have a consensus on a single thing in migration,” said Demetrios G. Papademetriou, the Migration Policy Institute’s president. “You have to build a knowledge base if you’re going to make progress.”

With a staff of 20, the institute reflects the mobility it studies. In addition to Mr. Papademetriou, a Greek immigrant, it includes a Moldovan demographer (Jeanne Batalova), a British analyst (Will Somerville), a Filipino-American with dual citizenship in Iceland (Dovelyn R. Agunias), and a refugee expert (Kathleen Newland, a co-director) who is American-born and married to a British journalist.

Some critics see a loose-borders tilt to the work. “They do some useful research,” said Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that seeks lower immigration to the United States. “But their orientation is towards higher immigration and looser borders worldwide.”

But admirers said the work merely reflected the reality that migration is ubiquitous. “This is not something just going on inside the United States,” Mr. Rumbaut said.

One recent article charts the emergence of Tajikistan as a leading exporter of labor, with one in five Tajik adults leaving to work abroad each year. Another shows that at least 60 million migrants have left one poor country to live in another.

Yet another compares the incentives that draw Mexicans to the United States with those that lure Africans onto rickety boats bounds for Spain. American wages are about four times those in Mexico, a Norwegian scholar, Jorgen Carling, noted, while the wage differential between Spain and Senegal is “a staggering 15 to one.”

Even nonmigrants can be deeply affected by migration, at both ends of the stream. Studying a village in the Dominican Republic, Peggy Levitt of Wellesley College found that women prefer to marry men who have worked abroad “because they want husbands who will share in the housework and take care of the children the way men who have been to the United States do.”

Conflict is also a running theme, across cultures and time. The Dutch are so worried about assimilation they require migrants to pass a language test before they come. Aristede R. Zolberg of the New School, notes that Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin “considered the German language to be the bearer of a culture incompatible with republican democracy.”

Professor Zolberg resists the term “age of migration” (coined by the scholars Stephen Castles and Mark J. Miller) because people have been migrating since the beginning of time. Still, he sees migration growth as likely to continue, in an era of cheap travel and easy communication via cellphones and Web cams. And as incomes rise in the developing world, more people have the means to move.

“What’s new is it’s much easier now,” he said.

Financially, the Source may be a victim of its own success. Its initial supporters largely consider the site a core mission of the institute, to be financed from the broader institute’s $3.5 million budget. That leaves Ms. Kalia rattling the online cup for reader donations.

As for the difficulties that migration can bring, Ms. Kalia encountered them early when her uncle, who is Dutch and a Catholic priest, flew to California to baptize her baby brother. Her Hindu grandmother lived with the family, and locked herself in her bedroom, beside a Lord Krishna poster, until the uncle promised to desist.

Ms. Kalia has yet to write about the episode, but she does see a lesson. “It shows you just how difficult negotiating cultural differences can be,” she said.

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