Immigration

Men at Work

A look into the life of Latino construction workers in New York City, the second in a three-part series.

Sujatha Fernandes
This is the second story in a three-part series on the life of immigrant workers in New York CIty. Here is Part One , on Chinese delivery workers. F or ten months between October 2010 and August 2011, a Korean contractor named Bong Jun Park** hired a group of eight Latino construction workers to excavate the basement of a building in upper Manhattan. The workers were required to break the existing cement floor, excavate eight to ten feet of earth beneath it, and then pour cement for the new foundation. Many of the workers were undocumented, and none were unionized. According to the workers, they were not given the proper equipment required to carry out the work, as they say often happens on such sites. While the initial concrete floor was broken up with a jackhammer, the workers were required to use pickaxes and shovels to ply it out. The task of digging up the earth was done by hand.* There was not even a conveyor belt to carry out the buckets of excavated dirt. Instead, workers...

The Motorbike Diaries

Tom D. Wu
I t’s 11 a.m. on a brisk Friday morning. In the middle of a short block of 40 th Road, just off Main Street in Queens, where colorful signs stand out against the densely packed four-story buildings, a handful of Chinese delivery workers dismount from their motorbikes. The dry pavement here is a welcome sight; much of the downtown area was buried under a foot of snow earlier in the week. The men, dressed in sneakers, blue jeans and puffy jackets, gather in a circle at one of the few empty parking spots. At the center of this congregation is Peter, a 25-year-old food delivery worker from Tianjin, China. Just ten minutes ago, Peter was pulled over by a traffic cop and fined $90 for not flipping down the eye shield on his motorcycle helmet. Peter vents to his impromptu support group in Mandarin: “I had it down, he was just out to get me. Nothing I could’ve done.” One of the workers asks Peter, “Is he bald and slow?” Without directly answering the question, Peter points to the southwest...

The Fundamentals of Immigration Reform

T he United States, with more than 40 million foreign-born, a number that includes the estimated 11 million illegal residents, is not just the largest immigration player in the world; it’s larger than the next four largest players combined. Because immigration amounts to social engineering, how well we do it has profound consequences for huge swaths of our society, from education to health care to economic growth to foreign relations. Most important, how a country treats its immigrants is a powerful statement to the world about its values and the principles by which it stands. Related Content Spotlight: The Fundamentals of Immigration Reform Demetrios Papademetriou talks about what's next for reforming our broken immigration system. On all these counts, recent U.S. immigration policy has been more notable for its failures than its successes. Almost half a century ago, in 1965, we reversed the discriminatory policies that over the course of the previous 80 years had either barred or...

The Once and Future Gov

AP Photo/Eric Risberg
AP Photo/Eric Risberg A merica’s most futuristic governor seems borne back ceaselessly into the past these days. As he shows me around his office on a crisp winter morning, California Governor Jerry Brown points out not just the desk that his father, Edmund “Pat” Brown, used during his own term as governor from 1959 to 1967 but also photos of his grandparents and his great-grandfather, who came to California in the gold rush years. “He knew John Sutter,” Brown says. The only two governors in the past half-century who were native Californians, he points out, were he and his father. At 74, Brown has lost little of the intensity that impressed and occasionally discomfited voters during his first tenure as governor nearly 40 years ago. His outfit—an open-collar shirt under a white pullover sweater, blue jeans—may be West Coast casual, his shaved head may call to mind the Zen monks with whom he’s studied, but Brown’s emotional repertoire does not include laid-back, except when he’s talking...

Be Like Janet, Dammit

AP Photo/Susan Walsh
AP Photo/Susan Walsh Homeland Secretary Janet Napolitano testifying on comprehensive immigration reform before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing yesterday. S peaking about the U.S.-Mexico border in San Diego, California, on Monday, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano assured the audience that "the border is secure ... I believe it is a safe border," an assessment she reprised yesterday in a Senate hearing on immigration reform. "I often hear the argument that before reform can move forward we must first secure our borders, but too often the ‘border security first’ refrain simply serves as an excuse for failing to address the underlying problems," Napolitano said. "Our borders have, in fact, never been stronger." In advance of the administration's push for immigration reform, the secretary has quietly been making the case that after a decade-long ramp-up in investment, the wave of unchecked immigration that began in the 1990s has come to an end. Indeed, in the last...

If He's For It, I'm Against It

(AP Photo/Tim Sloan, Pool)
Over the past few years, folks like me have pointed out many times that Republicans have, almost as one, changed their minds on the wisdom of a number of important policies, for no apparent reason other than the fact that Barack Obama embraced them. The most notable ones are "cap and trade," which used to be a conservative way to harness the power of markets to address climate change, but then became a sinister government power grab to force everyone to huddle in the cold as the useless solar panels on their roofs provided only enough power to run a tiny hotplate; and the individual health insurance mandate, which used to be a Heritage Foundation-crafted idea to use the power of markets to achieve universal private insurance coverage and avoid single-payer health care, then became the greatest threat to freedom the world has seen since Joseph Stalin was laid to rest. Yet for all the (deserved) ridicule, there's something almost rational lying underneath these changes in position...

Darrell Issa's Tight Spot

AP Photo/Nelvin Cepeda, Pool
Tuesday’s House Judiciary Committee hearing on the status of the undocumented produced a united front of Republican support for legalizing those immigrants, but not allowing them to become citizens. Well, an almost united front. As Kitty Felde of Los Angeles public radio staton KPCC reported , one GOP Committee member dissented from his peers’ halfway-house stance. Darrell Issa, the sole Republican committee member from California, told Felde that he believes the undocumented should be allowed to become citizens. “I believe that that’s the inherently American thing to do,” he said. Issa is nobody’s idea of a Republican moderate—to the contrary, he’s a doctrinaire right-winger. As chair of the House Oversight Committee, moreover, Issa has consistently endeavored to inflate various Obama administration contretemps into full-blown scandals (Fast and Furious, Benghazi) despite the absence of supporting facts. But Issa also represents a district that, according to the 2010 Census, is 26...

The Real Debate over Citizenship

Flickr/Aaron Webb
Flickr/Aaron Webb Voters lining the Courthouse Plaza in Arlington, VA. S ometimes we have a national conversation without realizing it. We talk about different aspects of the same larger issue without connecting the dots. That’s what’s happening now with regard to the meaning of American citizenship and the basic rights that come with it. On one side are those who think of citizenship as a matter of exclusion and privilege—of protecting the nation by keeping out those who are undesirable, and putting strict limits on who is allowed to exercise the full rights of citizenship. On the other are those who think of citizenship inclusively—as an ongoing process of helping people become full participants in America. One part of this conversation involves immigration. I’m not just referring the question of whether or how people living in the United States illegally can become citizens. (Courtesy of our fast-growing Latino population, 70 percent of whom voted for President Obama last November...

Citizens? They Want to Be Citizens?

Flickr/willpix
House Republicans convened their first hearing on immigration reform on Tuesday and made clear that they were scared to death of immigrants actually getting the vote. Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia set the tone when he made clear he was looking for a mid-range position somewhere between deporting and granting citizenship to the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. A nice, safe legal “resident” status, he suggested, never to be upgraded to that of citizen and voter. San Antonio’s Democratic Mayor Julian Castro took understandable exception to this idea in his testimony before the committee. “I just cannot imagine an America where we assign these folks to an underclass status,” he told the congressmen. Then again, Southern whites—the core of the modern Republican Party—have had historically high comfort levels with just such arrangements. Perhaps they should propose counting these non-citizen residents as three-fifths of a person in the next...

Can Conservatives Change How They Talk about Immigrants?

For many years, it's been obvious conservatives do a better job of manipulating language than liberals, not only because they seem good at coming up with new terms to describe things, but more importantly because once they decide on a new term, they very quickly get everyone on their side to use it. One of the classic examples is how they took the "estate tax," with its evocation of a white-haired gentleman named something like Winthrop Flipperbottom III sipping brandy from a gigantic snifter while petting his afghan hound as he looks over the vast gardens of his estate, and renamed it the "death tax," which evokes a cruel IRS agent bursting in on your family mourning the death of your beloved uncle and making off with his lovingly amassed collection of vintage baseball cards. You will never, ever hear a conservative call the tax anything but the "death tax," because they all understand the utility of language. How much these kind of linguistic efforts really affect the outcome of...

The Wrong Kind of Immigration Spending

AP Photo/Tuscaloosa News, Robert Sutton
The Republican party's abysmal performance among Latino voters in the 2012 election, and the ensuing realization among many in the GOP that they need to change their stance on immigration or risk more defeats, have made it a real possibility that passage of the first comprehensive immigration reform bill in over a quarter-century could happen soon. The debate will no doubt be intense, so as it begins, some facts about the recent and not-so-recent history of immigration in America will be important to keep in mind. Immigration had its first peak in the first decade of the 20th century, when over 8 million people from other countries became legal permanent residents of the United States, a number that wasn't exceeded again until the 1990s. By the 1960s, however, immigrants from North America (mostly Mexico) exceeded those from Europe; Asian immigrants exceeded Europeans in the 1970s. (These data, and many more, can be found in the Department of Homeland Security's annual yearbook of...

Why "Make Them Learn English" Is the Key to Immigration Reform

New Americans taking the oath of citizenship. (Flickr/Grand Canyon NPS)
Among the provisions in the immigration-reform proposal released by a bipartisan group of senators yesterday was a requirement that in order to get on that path to citizenship, undocumented immigrants would have to "learn English and civics." They don't detail exactly how it would happen, but presumably there'd be a test of English proficiency immigrants would have to pass, and perhaps some money appropriated for English classes. There are two things to know about this idea. First, in practical terms it's completely unnecessary. And second, in political terms it's an excellent idea. In fact, it could be the key to passing immigration reform. The reason it's unnecessary is that every wave of immigrants follows basically the same pattern when it comes to English. People who immigrate as adults tend not to learn much beyond the most basic words and phrases, and continue to speak their native language at home. Their children grow up bilingual, speaking one language at home and another at...

Invisible Workers, Global Struggles

Flickr/Janinsanfran
Flickr/Janansanfran L ike countless other migrant girls toiling far from home, her life was invisible—except for the chilling way it ended. Earlier this month, Rizana Nafeek, a young Sri Lankan migrant in Saudi Arabia, was executed after being convicted of killing a baby in her care. The case drew international condemnation not only because of the severe punishment and opacity of the legal proceedings—she was reportedly just 17 at the time, not 23 as her falsified passport indicated, and advocates said her confession had been coerced—but also because the girl’s brief life exposed the consequences of the invisible struggles facing domestic workers in the Middle East and beyond. Nafeek's case symbolized the severe treatment of migrants in Saudi Arabia (human-rights watchdogs report that numerous other domestic workers have faced the death penalty after unfair accusations—sometimes stemming from cases of self-defense against abusers—pushed them into a biased and abuse-ridden legal system...

No, We Don't Need More Immigration Enforcement

AP Photo/Tuscaloosa News, Robert Sutton
AP Photo/Cliff Owen Members of immigration rights organizations, including Casa in Action and Maryland Dream Act, demonstrate in front of the White House in Washington, Thursday, November 8, 2012, calling on President Barack Obama to fulfill his promise of passing comprehensive immigration reform. I f you need proof that nothing short of a Soviet-style blockade along our Southern border will satisfy immigration hardliners, look no further than Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies—a think tank that, as the Southern Poverty Law Center points out, "has never found any aspect of immigration it liked." Krikorian has previously used his space at the National Review Online to grouse about the "unnatural" pronunciation of Sonia Sotomayor's name and to suggest that the United States slough off Puerto Rico to end the "gravy train." Last week, he used it to denounce a recent Migration Policy Institute report showing the United States spends approximately $18...

Obama's Second-Term BFD Agenda

Victor Juhasz
J ust after Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law on March 23, 2010, Joe Biden came up to him and, thinking they were out of range of the microphone, said to the president, “This is a big fucking deal.” If I understand the concept of a BFD in the technical sense that Biden must have had in mind, it’s a historic reform that changes America in a fundamental way. Presidents have other imperative responsibilities, such as upholding the Constitution, keeping the nation safe from foreign threats, and promoting a strong economy. As critical as those are, they are not BFDs; a president who does all those things will probably get re-elected yet receive only brief mention in the history books. To be celebrated by future generations requires the accomplishment of substantial change with enduring benefit. In the language of the political scientist James MacGregor Burns, that is the work of a transformational leader, not merely a transactional one. Illustration by Victor Juhasz This...

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