What Happens when Expatriated Workers Return Home?

Over the past few decades, multicultural studies, diaspora studies, and cross-cultural and transnational studies have all provoked considerable scholarly interest and have become distinct disciplines, reflecting the dramatic increase in the mobility of the global population.

In the midst of these broader movements of people, corporations have placed considerable value on international studies, foreign-language studies, and study abroad. In an increasingly interconnected world, an employee who is “at home” outside of his or her nation of origin is generally a considerable great asset.

There has also been a massive increase in corporate outsourcing (which has received the lion’s share of public attention) and insourcing (which, with the exception of farm workers, has received much less attention, though it has apparently created all sorts of issues recently for the administration of my university because of irregularities in how visas have been processed and in how the imported workers have been employed).

And, very recently, Donald Trump’s base appeal to deeply rooted American xenophobia, in combination with the escalating refugee crisis caused by the conflict in Syria and the other ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, has created very heightened attention to the issues surrounding immigration, both documented and not.

In the mix of all of these realities, the commonplace public assumption seems to be that almost all of the people who immigrate to the U.S. remain here. We forget that during the heyday of European immigration to the U.S., a significant percentage of those immigrants decided ultimately to return to Europe. (I have seen estimates that range widely among the various nationalities–from about 5% of Russian Jews to 61% of southern Italians.) Likewise, we assume that Americans who work overseas, even for extended periods, simply return to the U.S. and rather seamlessly resume their lives here. (The one notable exception is, of course, military personnel who have served in combat, who have sometimes experienced very serious issues re-adapting to life outside a war zone, never mind civilian life.)

But, in a very provocative piece written for Dissident Voice, Mateo Pimental challenges all of these assumptions—asserting, in fact, that repatriation is generally a much more problematic process—economically, politically, and culturally–than expatriation.

Here are the first several paragraphs of Pimental’s very thoughtful analysis:

“For a number of decades, corporate entities have made financial investments in expatriating workers. Such investments are supposed to cover monetary compensation, skill development, and the toil that future assignments might entail. Due to overseas business interests, professional researchers have had to acknowledge ‘reentry’—the repatriation phase of international assignment—since at least the 1960s. Ultimately, though, it has been the expatriation phase of international assignment, and not reentry, that has received the lion’s share of scholarly attention. Moreover, available research suggests that international assignees (workers on international assignment) experience greater difficulty with the reentry phase of their work than with entering a foreign culture for the first time.

“The difficulties associated with, or related to, workers’ ‘reentry transition’ are documented and researched across distinct academic disciplines. But academic documentation remains largely unconnected as many issues have yet to be addressed with rigorous interdisciplinarity. What is more, there are many lacking elements, including such basic things as definitions for terms like ‘repatriate,’ ‘reverse migrant,’ and so on. Furthermore, researchers have yet to fully address the fact that (1) anthropological analyses of return migration, (2) psychological studies of expatriate readjustment, and (3) the inter-cultural literature other repatriated subjects endure as distinct phenomena—and with little-to-no overlap!

“In addition to a lack of interdisciplinary analysis, a lack of common theoretical frameworks, and a lack of standardized methods of research, numerous other factors contribute to a poor understanding of reentry as a thing in itself. Though a number of publications on expatriation refers to reentry as ‘the theme of cross-cultural reentry, its course, impact, and features,’ the general lack of standard measures for reentry yet impedes researchers from drawing conclusions and comparing studies. Ultimately, reentry remains both neglected and underestimated amongst corresponding academic circles. Despite this, researchers have begun questioning the role that communication technologies have played in the experience of returning expatriates.”

Pimental’s complete article is available at: http://dissidentvoice.org/2015/09/workers-abroad-the-repatriation-problem/.

As a final note, I’d like to add that if you don’t think that this is an issue with relevance to higher education, recall the map that Hank Reichman recently posted, showing the most commonplace occupation of the immigrants living in each state. College and university faculty was the most commonplace occupation in three states, and I assume that it also ranks highly in other states. And, of course, given the competition for academic positions in the U.S. over the last three to four decades, many U.S. citizens with Ph.D.’s have chosen to seek positions, at least for a while, at institutions in other countries.

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