Migration & Culture


Matthew Dunn

Migration and Culture, Spring 2003

Sociology 331

Productivity or Dependency

As the years pass, America becomes an increasingly diverse civilization. Millions of people are enticed to leave their homeland and cross national borders to enhance their quality of life. America represents grand possibilities of better jobs, improved familial economic conditions and an education, whether it be learning a trade or receiving formal academic guidance. Immigrants are stereotypically viewed upon as those who accept the lowest paying jobs that most native-born Americans will not take, which is considered to be productive in nature for the benefit of the American economy. Yet, to the natives of the host country, immigrants are seen as a threat by competing for those scarce jobs that do not require any education or training, especially during an era where unemployment is on the rise. However, isnít it better for the economy if the immigrants entering the country are productive, even in the lower paying jobs, rather than dependent on financial aide from the government? This question will be addressed, while comparing two different groups of migrants, the Tongans and the Hmong people, in their experiences of productivity versus dependency as they assimilate in America.

Historically, the western culture reigns superior in America, and still stands true today. Immigrants and refugees are compelled to assimilate to the western culture, especially acquiring the language skills needed to communicate with the majority. Learning English is a very difficult task according to the majority of immigrants, including the Hmong and the Tongans. The Hmong originated from China, but had moved around to Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. Their journey to the United States was a long, distressful one, and for many of the Hmong it consisted of many years in a refugee camp prior to attaining asylum or refugee status in America. The Tongans came from the island of Tonga in the South Pacific, and unlike the Hmong, their voyage to the United States was one of their own choice, and they had the privilege of returning home whenever they felt like returning. However, once in the United States, both groups were faced with discrimination, difficulty with communication, an intimidating culture, technology and an overall change of lifestyle than they were used to in their homelands.

Both the Hmong and the Tongans, however, migrated to particular areas within the United States where there were many other people from their homeland. This provided somewhat of a safety net to assimilate to the new culture, yet maintain many of their own traditions. For instance, to many Americans, the Hmong tradition of hiring a shaman and sacrificing a pig or chickens in order to heal oneís ailment or disease would seem very peculiar. It is more comfortable for this type of occurrence to take place within a Hmong community, especially to evade any ridicule. Aside from safeguarding homeland cultures, both groups also take care of their own in an effort to succeed in obtaining part of the American dream. The Tongans who arrived in the United States would work hard and save money to send home for necessities on the island, as well as for a plane ticket for another Tongan to migrate. The new immigrant would stay with the oneís who sent the ticket until they were able to support themselves. Interestingly, repayment to those that brought the Tongan over was not necessary, only the new immigrant would be expected to provide the same gesture to another Tongan back on the island.

The reasons for migration are somewhat different for the Tongans in comparison to the Hmong. Within the realm of improving their financial status, the Tongans were migrating to improve their Tongan way of living. Manufacturing tapa cloths and farming did not provide the resources to pay for education, technology and goods of the western culture that they wanted to obtain for their island homes. Therefore, certain members of the Tongan family would migrate to earn better wages than they could on the island, and send remittance back home. Most Tongans did not necessarily plan to remain in the United States, and had hopes of returning to Tonga to retire and enjoy their earnings in America, yet in their homeland of Tonga. The Hmong, however, had no choice but to leave their country due to economic constraints brought on by their government, leaving Hmong families with insufficient amounts of food to feed their families.

As stated before, certain family members of a Tongan family would migrate first to get settled, often leaving children with grandparents or other family members until finances were in order. The story of two Tongans in particular is very inspirational. Eseta and Manu hardly saw each other when they migrated to America, as they had very conflicting schedules working long hours at their minimum wage jobs. Even when they had an American born baby, they would meet on the freeway after Manu got off from work, have dinner in their car, then Manu would take the baby home while Eseta went on to work. They made no mention of accepting financial support from the American government, even though had they needed it, they could have applied for assistance. The Hmong on the other hand, would arrive somewhat abruptly. One minute in a refugee camp, the next, they are aliens in a new country, the adults often responsible for a large family. They did not have the luxury of leaving the family back home until they could afford to bring them over. As refugees, they are automatically given financial assistance by the American government and usually are assigned sponsors to help them adjust to their new environment. This is a humanitarian act to make things easier for most refugees who have escaped persecution, lost family members and are faced with adjusting to learning a new language and hoping to learn skills necessary to obtain employment.

Many Americans feel resentment towards legal and illegal immigrants, and refugees for a couple of reasons. First, those who migrate to America with little skills increase the level of competition for the lower paying jobs. And second, if the immigrants or refugees do not acquire employment, then they are living off of welfare assistance that is funded by the taxation of working Americans. Poverty stricken native- born Americans who live by accepting welfare are viewed upon the same way.

America is the land of hope and fulfilling dreams and these ideals should not be denied to anyone, whether they are a native-born American, a refugee, or legal immigrant. However, for immigrants and refugees, the problem often lies in the inability to communicate in the English language and lack of skills required to obtain a decent paying job. Sadly, some capitalistic Americans take advantage of these people and offer them very poor wages, knowing that the desperation for earning a living is abundant within the groups who lack any skills. For some immigrants, it is almost more beneficial to live off of government assistance, than to work for these low wages.

Of course, the best alternative would be that everyone in America be productive towards the economy. The welfare system for native-born Americans in itself needs to be reformed in some way as to increase productivity rather than dependency on the government. One of the problems is that some poverty stricken Americans know the current welfare system and often take advantage of it. However, immigrants and refugees enter our country hoping for a better future and would prefer to earn an honest living. They donít come here expecting to freeload on the American government. But, sometimes, they end up in an unforgiving cycle that constantly berates them into having no choice but to turn towards the government for help. Again, their downfall is a lack of education and a lack of communication skills because they do not know the English language. Not having these two things in addition to learning about the customs and technology of a new culture make assimilating to the host country very difficult. For instance, one Hmong man tells a story about how his familyís sponsor just dropped them off at their apartment and left. Someone accidentally hit the thermostat and they ended up battling the heat all night because they had no idea that it was a heater causing the elevated temperature until the sponsor returned the next day to explain what had happened (Koltyk, 1998, p. 32). To the average American, this situation would seem ridiculous, but it is very real for someone who was not brought up in this type of society. With the confusion of the thermostat, imagine how confusing making it in the real world of America would be, especially in the area of finding employment.

Therefore, one suggestion would be to reform the process of assimilating refugees and immigrants to improve their chances for success in this country. It would be nice to have designated programs and classes for that benefit and trained sponsors. With the Hmong, more Hmong started to sponsor their own family members. However, in terms of employment opportunities, it has been argued that "sponsorship by a member or organization representing the host society might be able to provide refugees more opportunities to make a better integration than sponsorship by their own ethnic group (Koltyk, 1998, p. 84). The ethnic sponsors who knew the welfare system felt that receiving welfare was expected in order for them to obtain an education and go to their ESL classes and encouraged new immigrants to take advantage of this financial support. In social terms, many Tongans also experienced downward mobility, a phenomenon that other migrants reported as well (Small, 1997, p. 189). However, if there was a program to subsist the low wages of a productive refugee or immigrant, allowing time for ESL classes and possible schooling for a trade or eventually a degree, then maybe there would be less people depending on welfare and more being productive towards the economy.

Americans have lost confidence in the current immigration system. Stemming from this loss of faith is a society with two separate groups standing on opposing sides, with one thing in common, the need for reform of the current welfare and immigration system. Without this, tension between the two groups could escalate, instilling resentment towards immigrants and refugees by the native-born Americans, and fear of being discriminated against for the immigrants. There has been talk of closing Americaís doors, especially after September 11th, or only allowing educated immigrants in who will produce for the economy rather than strain our financial resources. These are extremist ideas and would only create global resentment towards America. Thus, there needs to be some form of meeting in the middle and it is up to our government to appease both sides, in order to maintain Americaís tradition of opportunity for all.


Koltyk, J., New Pioneers in the Heartland, 1998, Allyn & Bacon, Needham Heights, MA.

Small, C., From Tongan Villages to American Suburbs, 1997, Cornell University Press, United States of America.

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