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Why Do People Migrate?

What IF?  A Discussion Summary of the 1st of a series of 4 Online Community Conversations About Migration and Coming to America

This is a summary of the main ideas discussed during our Zoom event on September 17, 2020. It was the first event in our Coming to America discussion series. IF partnered with the Friends of India Association and the Diversity Relations Council at Leisure World in Maryland to organize a series of online community conversations focusing on stories and conversations across generations about immigration. The topic for September was “Why do people migrate?” Five volunteer storytellers from the Friends of India told their stories. Then we broke out into small groups to explore the topic further. These conversations were facilitated by IF facilitators.

Below I share some of the main themes from these conversations. We do not share any specific stories here, partly out of privacy concerns and partly because IF’s focus is on sharing a wide range of ideas. But I have to say that the stories were the beating heart of the whole event.

Below I grouped the main ideas under various headings for ease of reading.

Why Do People Migrate?

America was and still is a Great Place

  • America as destination: like a dream, so proud of it, only small population of the world, but everyone has heard of it
  • America was the place where I wanted to live
  • We [immigrants] all have similar aspirations about the US before coming—it was a dream destination then
  • To live a dream: “I’d love to be there [NYC]!”
  • Came for freedom
  • As an immigrant you could make yourself anew. You were a blank slate. In your home country you were hemmed in and predetermined by your family, etc.
  • US as promoting values of equality and fair play
  • US as forward-looking country that valued expertise (50 years later it is weakened)—a place where to succeed you just need to be/become an expert; it’s not about your family status
  • US as land of opportunity, to make yourself: “you’re a nobody here—but somebody back home”—but this means you are free to make whatever you want of yourself, where at home you were bound by limits of family status
  • Feeling lucky to come to US
  • America’s great opportunity, governance, space, and openness. But things have changed since the 1960s and 70s and prospective new immigrants now might want to think twice and consider alternative countries
  • US was at the cutting edge of innovation, open to the new (Europe seemed stuffy, stuck in old ways)
  • Back then the US seemed like the land of creativity, a place for innovation
  • US was like the big brother to the world [not in Orwell’s sense]—looking out for the rest of the world
  • Felt like an astronaut (moving here in 1970s)—making a bold step because America was a very cruel country, in that it has no real safety net and in that it treats outsiders with suspicion (contrast with home country where an outsider is treated like a welcome guest)
  • Motivation of self-improvement, to follow opportunity
  • An opportunity to have new ideas
  • Domestic migration, i.e., migration does not end when you get to this country (e.g. CA to MN)
  • “I came, but I always thought I would go back.”

For Love/Marriage/Family

  • Having anchors in the US made immigration less daunting: every family knew someone in the US
  • Brother said: you will die [figuratively] if you don’t get to the US to live
  • Need a circle of people to look out for you, you need love
  • For love
  • Emigrating from America to a place where my ancestors came from
  • Family networks of support
  • To shed the burdens of family
  • Many leave for marriage, including arranged marriage
  • Sometimes people want to stay in India—and not emigrate to America—but still do so because of (an arranged) marriage.
  • To join a spouse
  • To be with my children
  • To help raise my grandchildren
  • Taking care of each other, the role of a community

For Education

  • For my education. Coming as a student—you didn’t need as much, didn’t need to feel like you were making such a leap, didn’t feel like you had to bring everything to keep a connection to home country
  • To enable future generations to have a better education—all my grandchildren have graduate degrees
  • To follow my husband who pursued his education
  • To teach

Wanting to Change Economic Circumstances

  • To get a better job—there were opportunities if you had skills
  • To get a chance at a better life (meritocracy in the U.S)
  • Came for a business opportunity/entrepreneurship
  • ‘Chain migration’ and the development of restaurants, groceries, and other businesses that could cater to a growing Indian population in the US

Shifting US Immigration Policy

  • It seems that immigration policies in 1965 – 75 prioritized immigration for higher education and for people with advanced education and/or work skills
  • The US was more welcoming of immigrants in the 1970s; you could manage the legal application without a lawyer

Challenges Were/Are Real

  • Concerns about coming to the U.S. legally
  • There are so many troubles in coming here
  • The stress of leaving a homogenous group for a new society that is heterogeneous, where you’ll be a minority
  • Spirit of mobility—not accumulating things, just always moving
  • Immigrants carry everything [literally—so much baggage] because they don’t know when they might go back—keeping a connection to the homeland
  • Big shift for the worse in attitudes about immigrants—used to just say I was from somewhere, but I’m American—now you say you are an “immigrant” and that makes you suspect
  • Learning to live with negative perceptions
  • Means of communication with the homeland makes a big difference on how daunting immigration might be (back then it was only letters, now there’s email and social media)
  • Nostalgia—Heart is still back in India; being separated from family/kin/culture; coming to America had a price
  • The role of language and challenges of adapting to it—even if you know English
  • Need to be resilient—crises will happen.


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