On “criminality, nepotism and luck.”

By Rinku Sen May 30, 2007

Last week, David Brooks argued in the New York Times that the immigration reform bill that passed the Senate would reinforce middle class values among immigrants, encouraging them to think long term, work hard and enjoy competition. He likes this much better than the current system, by which he thinks people enter the U.S. through a combination of “criminality, nepotism and luck.” I don’t know which middle-class Brooks has been living in, but policies to expand it have been deeply racialized. For example, Blacks were initially left out of the post-World War II housing boom, the Social Security Act, and large portions of the GI Bill, all of which went a long way toward creating the current middle class. The white middle class I grew up with as a legal immigrant seems to have been built largely on the basis of exclusionary public policy and racist practice. Throughout much of the 1970s, my Indian immigrant family somehow kept moving into the town next to a Levittown, those early suburban communities built by Bill Levitt for returning GIs – oh sorry, that would be white GIs. Levittowns had restrictive covenants that prevented the sale of these affordable homes to Black people, and the Federal Housing Administration actively encouraged restrictive covenants for decades. Sounds more like criminality and nepotism than responsibility and competition. It was more than dumb luck that allowed my family to move in nearby, but that’s for another post. Conservatives like Brooks try to convince us that the punitive, anti-family immigration bill moving from the Senate to the House will reinforce American values, but these have been in scarce evidence throughout much of the nation’s history. Immigration policy itself blocked Africans, Latin Americans and Asians from entering the country except as slaves, guest workers and cheap laborers from 1885 to 1965, hence the whiteness of earlier generations of assimilated immigrants. Further, for a list of reasons that the immigration bill neither protects the current middle class nor helps to expand it, see the Drum Major Institute’s review of this bill based on their Principles for an Immigration Policy to Strengthen and Expand the American Middle Class. DMI gives the bill a D- on the basis of a key criterion, that immigration policy should strengthen immigrants’ workplace rights. If it doesn’t, their conditions will undermine those of all American workers. The guest worker plan is a disaster in this regard. As a guest worker, I’d be able to come work for two years, have to go home for a year, then could come back for two more years. If I’m unemployed for more than two months, I’ve got to go, and I can only work for “approved” employers. That set up does nothing for professional mobility, and gives employers great ability to punish workers for organizing. Guest workers will have no chance whatsoever to get on the path to citizenship, no matter how hard they work or how persistent they are. Just unlucky, I guess.