Immigration is always a hot issue when an economy is weak and jobs are scarce, so it should be no surprise that it has jumped to the top of the political agenda in Europe and the United States. But much of the debate around these centuries-old themes of us versus them is missing an essential point: In the age of the Internet, the jet plane and the multinational company, the concepts of immigration, citizenship and even statehood are changing.
"This is the new wave, the new trend," Wang Huiyao, founder and president of the Beijing-based Center for China and Globalization, told me. "We had the globalization of trade, we had the globalization of capital, and now we have the globalization of talent."
Mr. Wang recalled that three decades ago, when he first came to North America as a student, there was only one flight a day to China. Today, he said, "there are two or three dozen, if not more."
Instead of immigration being a single journey with a fixed starting point and end point, he said many Chinese have become what he calls "seagulls," going back and forth between San Francisco or Vancouver, and Beijing or Shanghai. He is a seagull himself: he is spending the academic year at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in Massachusetts; his institute is in Beijing; and he owns an apartment in Vancouver, where he once lived.
Airplanes and the continent-hopping professional lives they have encouraged are only part of the story. The cheap, instant and often nearly constant communication made possible by the technology revolution has fundamentally altered the experience of moving away from home.
"Because telecommunications is everywhere and is so cheap, people never really leave their communities," Mark Podlasly, founder of the Brookmere Management Group, a Vancouver consulting firm, told me. "You can leave but still have a 24/7 connection with your home community. People are never really gone. You can be a citizen anywhere."
I met Mr. Podlasly at the Banff Forum, an annual gathering of Canadian business people, politicians and scholars, at which he presented research on global expatriate networks as part of a panel discussion of citizenship and immigration. One of his conclusions is that governments and government policy need to catch up with the new reality of immigration.
That is very much the view of Professor Mark Boyle, a migration expert at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth. "Citizenship law is struggling to catch up with the new realities of global work," he told me. "It is still based on the notion of a sedentary population, rather than the nomadic population that many of us have become."
One of the biggest shifts is in the thinking about what we used to call brain drain. "Increasingly, immigrants who live elsewhere are being viewed as assets," Prof. Boyle said. "This is a paradigm shift; this is a seismic shift. The notion of brain drain is ridiculed – instead, it is 'brain circulation.' The notion is that people can return as tourists, that people can be ambassadors for their home countries, that people can serve as business agents."
One of the countries that uses its diaspora most effectively, Prof. Boyle says, is India. "India is increasingly looking to its diaspora as an asset," he said. "Many people argue that India's technology development would not have happened without the overseas population, particularly in Silicon Valley. So the government has had to rethink its attitudes to its citizens. India has set up a whole government ministry solely to look after the expat Indians."
Attitudes toward these global citizens can get more complicated in the countries they live and work in, even as they retain their ties and emotional connections to their homeland. The cherished American idea of the melting pot, after all, is largely about cutting ties with the old country.
Some are predicting our concept of citizenship will soon be stretched even further – that we will think of countries as virtual, rather than physical, communities. Prof. Boyle said New Zealand, with its geographical isolation, small population and large number of expatriates, has taken this idea the furthest: "New Zealand is saying that it is at once a small island tucked away from the rest of the world, and at the same time a globally networked nation with populations sprinkled across the globe."
Living as we do in the age of Facebook, we shouldn't be surprised that some countries are starting to imagine themselves more as social networks than as a physical place.