The Accidental American: Immigration and Citizenship in the Age of Globalization

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In this no-holds-barred nonfiction narrative, activist, organizer, and immigration expert Rinku Sen reveals the racial and cultural conflicts embedded in the current immigration debate and explodes the myth that those living in both sending and receiving countries can enjoy the economic benefits of immigration while keeping their cultures static.

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1. Leaving Home

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Mamdouh’s own migration history was typical for his generation in many ways, from the conditions in which he grew up to the family relations that propelled his moves. Even before he left Morocco, Mamdouh’s life took shape in a global context, politically, economically, and culturally. He was born poor in a country that had achieved independence just before his birth. Those were heady times for Moroccans, but a good portion of their optimism turned out to be misplaced. Although independence freed them from French colonial control, it didn’t transform Morocco’s monarchy and political system, nor did it improve life for most Moroccans.

Mamdouh’s circumstances and decisions were closely tied to those of his family. He was actually part of a second generation of migrants; both parents had made the universal trek from the countryside to the city within Morocco. He himself followed his brother, who was the first to leave the country altogether. In each generation, the decision to move was motivated primarily by the need to survive, but also reflected a healthy anticipation of adventure and change, of breaking out from old patterns and expectations.

 

2. Us and Them After 9/11

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On September 12, 2001, Mamdouh went to the headquarters of Local 100 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees at 10 a.m. for an emergency meeting attended by more than 200 people. Family members held photos of their loved ones. The morning before, Windows catering employees had prepared and served breakfast for the Risk Management Company in the banquet space on the 106th floor. Seventy-three of them were lost in the end, a number that would forever stick in Mamdouh’s head. The “falling man,” reportedly seen jumping from the top floors of the North Tower, was thought to have been from Windows.

The union was in a state of pandemonium, needing three full-time secretaries for a solid week just to handle the phones. Mamdouh spent that first week searching for his co-workers. He felt all their losses keenly. He felt particularly terrible about Telmo, the very young Mexican busser who had made a tight and optimistic unit with his even younger wife and tiny baby. Mamdouh’s days were dotted with funerals.

 

3. Crimmigration

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On September 10, 2001, Cecilia Muñoz walked into the White House with a half-dozen other immigration advocates. Known for having good relations with Latinos, President Bush had recently directed his domestic policy staff to meet with the advocates and begin hammering out a new immigration policy. Throughout his tenure as governor of Texas, Bush resisted English-only bills and recruited a good portion of the Latino electorate to the Republican Party. A friendlier, more respectful Immigration and Naturalization Service was among his presidential campaign promises. In 2000, he expressed the benign view of immigration that most Americans have taken when he told the League of United Latin American Citizens that “Latinos come to the U.S. to seek the same dreams that have inspired millions of others: they want a better life for their children. . . . Immigration is not a problem to be solved, it is the sign of a successful nation. New Americans are to be welcomed as neighbors and not to be feared as strangers.”

 

4. Learning to Organize

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By the time Mamdouh was wrapping up his work at the Immigrant Workers’ Assistance Alliance, he was beginning to see that restaurant workers needed political power far more than temporary relief. Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 100 decided to help start a new organization to support the thousands of restaurant workers who faced daily exploitation. Local 100 couldn’t invest any money, but it could offer advice and office space for a few months. It was clear that the Windows workers, especially Mamdouh, had the leadership instincts, networks, and industry knowledge necessary to build a permanent organization, but they would need an experienced organizer to facilitate the process. The union had heard of the work of a promising young Indian American woman, and one of the organizers left her a voicemail message in early October.

Saru Jayaraman, then twenty-six, was a first-generation Indian American who had grown up in a working-class suburb outside Los Angeles. Her computer technician father, unable to find work that matched his skills in India, had emigrated to Rochester, New York, in 1973. Saru’s mother and elder sister had followed a year later, and Saru was born soon after the family’s reunion. When she was in sixth grade, the family moved to Whittier, a small city southeast of Los Angeles. During most of her childhood, Saru’s father earned a good salary working as contractor for Honda, but the job had no security. He was laid off when she started college and had been mostly underemployed ever since. Saru’s mother worked as a part-time school aide and was the couple’s chief source of income. Saru’s most dramatic feature was a pair of large, perfectly almond-shaped light brown eyes. Her otherwise delicate jawline thrust out slightly, hinting at her strong will. She was the family rebel, but was also a family leader, regularly gathering everyone up to teach them something, usually a handicraft she herself had just learned.

 

5. Building a Cooperative Restaurant

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Mamdouh’s idea of building a cooperatively owned restaurant started out as an innovative project with great emotional appeal, looking both to the past and to the future for inspiration. Looking back, it would provide a memorial tribute to the fallen Windows workers, many of whom had dreamed of owning their own restaurants. It would provide employment with an ownership stake for former Windows workers and others who had become unemployed after September 11. Looking ahead, the cooperative would prove that a high-end restaurant could operate without a racial hierarchy; it would allow invisible restaurant workers to shift into the owner’s role, thereby giving them equal standing with other employers when the time came to comment on labor issues. A portion of the restaurant’s profits would be used to fund more co-ops over time.

Many people invested huge amounts of time, money, and energy in pursuing this agenda, not least of all Mamdouh and Saru. More than fifty members worked for several years to raise money and organize themselves. A group of Italian cooperatives invested hundreds of thousands of dollars. Attorneys, chefs, and students donated their time to work out an unending series of details. However, although the effort attracted lots of support, it got too little of the conventional kind—it was never fully financed and executive chefs were hard to recruit.

 

6. Scaling up Throughout the Industry

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While Mamdouh was busy trying to create a new restaurant model, ROCNY’s other campaigns and projects focused on expanding the organization’s reach upward. ROC wanted to have a larger effect on the industry by taking on bigger targets among restaurant employers and by recruiting allies among restaurant employers. By 2004 and early 2005, the group had two major projects to accomplish these things: its first campaign against an industry leader, and the Restaurant Industry Summit, where ROC released its citywide study of restaurant workers and employers to a packed house of industry players. Organizing throughout the restaurant field required speaking to the self-interest of other people who had a stake in it without abandoning those of ROC-NY’s existing base.

The first project was a campaign to address conditions at the high-end steakhouse Cité, owned by Alan Stillman, the founder and CEO of a national chain, the Smith and Wollensky Restaurant Group. As usual, the Mexican kitchen workers sparked the campaign, the organization’s largest and most ambitious to date. These kitchen workers represented the bottom of the industry. Many had been small farmers who were forced to migrate by economic crisis, including rising prices and falling wages after the Mexican government adopted the neoliberal policies that mark economic globalization. This trend had only worsened after the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, followed by the devaluation of the peso in 1994. Less than ten years later, there were over 275,000 people of Mexican descent living in New York, a great number of them undocumented and working in restaurant kitchens.1

 

7. Framing the Immigration Debate

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The scope of public policy debates is determined by two things: how they are framed and who does the framing. Frames create a boundary around the discussion, defining the problem, locating responsibility, and influencing which technical proposals get a hearing and which are pushed to the margins. Frames rely on images, myths, and stories that signal a society’s moral aspirations and standards. Frames consist of both images and ideas; using the two, framers stake out their positions. Who does the framing matters because framers can cut certain ideas and people out of the debate.

Photography provides a useful metaphor. The photographer decides what deserves to be seen, then sets the lens to a wide angle or zooms in to take the photo. Depending on how the photographer uses light, he or she can make a figure appear to be menacing or innocent or lonely. Public policy discourse works in the same way—if we take a broad view of a particular problem, the solutions we create will likely be larger and more ambitious. As the frame narrows, proposed solutions are limited as well. Some people are considered legitimate participants in the debate, while others are left out of the picture entirely.

 

8. Growing a Movement

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While restrictionists were shutting immigrants out of American communities, Saru and Mamdouh were expanding the ROC-NY community to include native-born Americans. The organization’s identity was growing: what had been primarily an immigrant workers center was on its way to becoming a place for all restaurant workers. The opportunity to grow came in two forms. Their latest campaign had involved 250 workers from a prominent restaurant chain; unlike the others, this one was initiated by white front-of-the-house workers, who comprised the majority of campaign participants. Second, by the middle of 2007 Saru and Mamdouh were preparing for a major transition in their own lives. They were leaving ROC-NY to a new team of leaders so that they themselves could build a national association of restaurant workers. Both the campaign and the expansion were fitting developments in the organization’s strategy.

ROC-NY’s largest campaign fulfilled the organization’s goal of engaging workers at all levels of the restaurant hierarchy. Early campaigns focused on immigrants of color stuck in dangerous, poorly paid back-of-the-house jobs; the Cité campaign had given them a chance to reach out to the few waiters of color who had managed to get to the front of the house. In October 2005, when a group of white waiters at one of the city’s most prominent chains approached them for help, there was no question that ROC would provide it, on the condition that the white waiters would reach out to the back-of-the-house immigrant workers. Until that campaign, front-and back-of-the-house workers thought they had nothing in common. After the campaign, it became clear that abuse in one part of a restaurant indicates that there is abuse throughout. The campaign proved to be their toughest fight to date, nearly three years of hard work. It would also produce their biggest victory.

 

9. Dreaming Globally

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In the summer of 2007 Mamdouh took his family for a three-week vacation to Morocco. Many things had changed there since he’d emigrated twenty years before. A new king, Mohammed VI, had been crowned in 1999, and he had ended the “period of fire and steel,” established a more liberal political atmosphere, and passed some progressive laws. He had pardoned thousands of political prisoners, adopted a new law expanding women’s rights, and announced that protecting human rights and ending poverty were priorities.

Many of the conditions that had pushed Mamdouh out still existed, however. Human rights groups continued to document government abuses in the form of arrests, beatings, and prison sentences. Mohammed VI continued a neoliberal economic program, privatizing large sectors of the economy in order to attract foreign investors. Emigration had become a major influence on Morocco’s economy, since Moroccans abroad sent large amounts home in remittances. School attendance was up, but unemployment rates remained extremely high, especially among Morocco’s young people. Moroccans were still leaving, with nearly 3 million, about 10 percent of the population, living outside the country. Most, like other branches of Mamdouh’s own family, went to European Union (EU) countries, which have a far shorter history as immigration destinations than does the United States.

 

10. Everybody Means Everybody

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To Mamdouh, immigrants were no different from anyone else. Migration was a core human urge. As long as people have occupied the earth, they have traveled to escape enslavement and repression, poverty and hunger. They have moved from the country to the city or from one nation to another and back again. They usually aren’t the laziest or least enterprising people in their home countries, but otherwise they were no different from any of the Americans he had met—no better and no worse. Some were religious, others not. Some were parents, others single. Some were kind, others mean-spirited. Most were willing to do whatever they had to do, within the bounds of reason and morality, to earn a living and create a better life. Immigrants were thus more than just a pair of arms available for picking and hauling and cleaning. As a worker, and as an organizer, he could see that immigrants had made some people in some places really wealthy, and that neither immigrants nor ordinary Americans got their fair share of that wealth.

 

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