“It was almost six thirty; the day nurses filed in. Rosalie… gave the delusional kidney patient his meds..….She went out into the sun-scrubbed morning with a satisfied yawn.
“In describing their search for the sublime, Celtic pilgrims talk of “thin places” where the distance between heaven and earth narrows and the presence of God is more readily felt. Rosalie, the almost nun, worked in a thin place.”
- from Jason DeParle’s book “A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves: One Family and Migration in the 21st Century,” Viking, August 2019.
DeParle’s book, launched last week, marks a milestone in the literature on migration and global development. It is an intelligent, informative, and compassionate chronicle of migration and global development. For scholars, the book provides a wealth of data and research complemented by an in-depth, nuanced case study that reads like a novel, with drama and humor. The case study provides an insider’s view of a family, mapping the journeys of its protagonist (Rosalie) and her relatives from a Manila slum to many parts of the world over three decades. For other readers interested in migration stories, the book provides surprising facts behind the stories, facts that may not fit the ubiquitous current narrative.
DeParle shows that migrants benefit their destination countries; they provide essential skills that may be missing and fill jobs that native-born people may not want to perform. Migrants pay taxes and are statistically less prone to commit crimes than native-born people. They also often learn the language of the destination community (English in the case of Rosalie). Migration benefits the migrant and their extended family and offers the potential to break the cycle of poverty. For women, migration elevates their standing in the family and the society. For children, it provides access to healthcare, education and a higher standard of living. And for many countries of origin, remittances provide a lifeline in terms of external, counter-cyclical financing.
DeParle calls it a “light-bulb moment” when he first became aware that remittance flows were three times the total of development aid. This year, 2019, remittances are on track to overtake foreign direct investment flows to LMICs. In five years, they may overtake the sum of FDI and ODA.
Yet, there are challenges associated with migration. In destination countries, native-born workers could face actual or perceived competition for work even as they may not have the skills required for many jobs or may not be interested in many dirty and dangerous jobs. Migration often requires migrant workers to take up jobs below their skill levels.
However, the real worry in destination countries is about national and cultural identity. Such worries often reflect concerns about differences in race and language. The book goes deep into a discussion of assimilation and integration issues. It has poignant, though often humorous, anecdotes involving the protagonist, Rosalie, and her family members trying to catch up with American English. For example, in a hospital in Texas where Rosalie works as a nurse, when a patient shouts for chicken at 1:30 in the morning, she asks if he wants children! In the end, the book shows how these migrants end up as Americans, though traveling a bumpy (and not-straight-line) path to integration.
Migration brings challenges to families left behind. The most important challenge is the emotional cost of separation of family members. Migration can split families. It can introduce intractable dilemmas in bringing up children, as when Rosalie’s children join her in Texas, and she fears that they’d lose Filipino values.
The book points out that migration is not all about money. It can also be about finding one’s calling, as is evident in Rosalie’s desire to help others as a nurse. In the words of DeParle (p186), cited above, Rosalie worked in a “thin place.”
Not all migrants may appear to work in “thin places.” But perhaps many of them do in the eyes of their families and communities back home. And in the eyes of many mothers and small business owners who employ them.
Considering large income differences among countries, rising working age populations in lower-income countries, and climate change, migration is expected to increase in the coming years. It is an economic and moral necessity to address these challenges so that people should not have to leave to provide for their families. And, if they cannot provide for the family at home, it is necessary that they have an option to leave.
(Here is a link to the video recording of an interesting launch event organized by MPI.)