Immigration Panel Reframes Policy Debate
October 17, 2008 — With their attention riveted on the events of 9/11, Americans have been distracted from longstanding economic forces that hamper their dreams and give them common cause with immigrants and those who live abroad.
So said Rinku Sen and Fekkak Mamdouh during a discussion on Sept. 17 at Earle Mack School of Law, the first law school the authors visited to promote their book, “The Accidental American.”
The book tackles immigration policy by focusing on the story of Mamdouh, who waited tables at the Windows on the World restaurant atop the World Trade Center. After the towers went down, Mamdouh and 350 other restaurant workers who lost their jobs struggled to regain their livelihoods. Mamdouh helped organize the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, unionizing “front of the house” waiters who initially resisted joining their efforts with the “back of the house” dishwashers, who are predominantly recent immigrants. By dint of determination, Mamdouh and others at the center gained better working conditions for many restaurant workers and managed to launch a cooking school and Colors, a successful high-end restaurant in Greenwich Village.
By working together, the two groups of workers discovered that they could force restaurant owners to treat them fairly, Mamdouh said.
That story highlights several “blind spots” that have overtaken the debate about immigration policy, said Sen, the executive director of the Applied Research Center in Oakland, Calif. and editor of ColorLines magazine.
Those blind spots, Sen said, include the illusion that U.S. citizens have little in common with recent immigrants a the gap in globalization policies that permit corporations to move freely around the world while individuals face border fences and legal barriers.
“The events of 9/11 gave the immigration debate a visceral quality that certainly in the 1980s, the immigration debate did not have,” Sen said. “It created a level of instability that Americans were already feeling because of globalization.”
Students in the Immigration Law class taught by Professor Anil Kalhan were recently assigned to read the book.
“It’s a great book and not the kind of thing law students usually read,” student Lauren Katz said. “It was very refreshing.”
Katz said the book makes a compelling argument that debate about immigration should be informed an understanding of globalization.
“People don’t remember that their own families immigrated,” she said.
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