Immigration and labor.
Last night, a small group of maintenance and repair technicians at an Amazon warehouse in Middleton, Delaware, held a vote on whether to join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. It was the first union vote held at an Amazon fulfillment center since the company was founded twenty years ago.
The majority of the workers, by a margin of twenty-one to six, voted against unionization. John Carr, a spokesman for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which helped organize the workers, said in a statement that the workers faced intense pressure from the company not to unionize, being pulled into what unions call “captive audience meetings.” Amazon hired the law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius to assist with negotiations, the same firm that opposed the National Labor Relations Board’s attempt in 2011 to streamline the workplace organization process as well as the NLRB’s 2012 “Notice Rule” that would require employers to post a notice informing employees of their rights under the National Labor Relations Act.
“The workers at Amazon faced intense pressure from managers and anti-union consultants hired to suppress this organizing drive,” Carr said in a statement. “We responded when these workers initially reached out to us, and we’ll continue to work with them to pursue the collective bargaining rights they’re entitled to under federal labor law.” In its statement, Amazon said, “With today’s vote against third-party representation, our employees have made it clear that they prefer a direct connection with Amazon.” The company also said that it already provides competitive wages and comprehensive benefits.
In a recent BBC investigation, reporter Adam Littler went undercover as an Amazon “picker.” He walked eleven miles over the course of a ten-and-half hour night shift, all while hooked to a handset that allotted him a set number of seconds to find a desired product.
In the newest issue of Dissent, labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein writes that the AFL-CIO’s newest strategy is to devote less energy toward securing contracts and more energy to what the union calls a “democracy initiative,” which means, as Lichtenstein writes, “to ally with progressive partners and devote more energy to make the kind of changes in social policy that can benefit millions of poorly paid and insecure workers.” Lichtenstein mentions recent protests by fast-food and Walmart workers as examples of this new strategy. Those workers weren’t protesting for union contracts but for better wages and working conditions. In the case of the fast-food workers, the goal wasn’t just a contract for particular workplace or company but calling attention to industry-wide issues.
“This has proven a brilliant stratagem: it unites rather than divides a workforce that in any event cycles from one low-paid service job to another; it keeps the attention of workers and the public focused upon the problems common to all employers in one huge industry,” writes Lichtenstein, who then goes on to discuss critiques of this strategy. But perhaps, given last night’s vote, and the fact that Amazon workers in Germany have also expressed concerns about unionization, this coalition-building strategy will be the road forward for Amazon workers.
Read Next: Gabe Thompson goes undercover as a temp worker in one of Amazon’s vast warehouses.
CuidadoDeSalud.gov, the Spanish-language version of Healthcare.gov, has launched at last, two months late. According to the Associated Press, the Spanish-language website is so confounding that it was either translated by a computer or former Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
“It’s written in Spanglish,” Adrian Madriz, a healthcare navigator who helps with enrollment in Miami, told the AP. Another navigator alleges that the Spanish-language website works less smoothly and takes a longer time to load.
Julio Varela, of the website Latino Rebels says that the site isn’t as bad as the AP lets on. “I think the website translation is mediocre, but it is readable, just like every other Spanish version of US government pages. I have read much worse and I have read much better.” I also looked through the website and found it awkward, but not incomprehensible. Translating “premium” as “prima” (which means “cousin” in most contexts) isn’t wrong, just odd.
The White House has denied that the website was automatically translated and said that it was “committed to ongoing improvements.” An official also said that the translation “does not affect your average Latino enrollee” because the average Latino reads at least some English.
This is not accurate, according to Dr. Jane Delgado, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Hispanic Health, which runs a national hotline aimed at helping Latinos register for healthcare. “The language of insurance is new for people who are uninsured so it might be easier to for them to learn about it in a language they’re comfortable with,” she told BuzzFeed.
One-third of all uninsured people are Latino, according to the National Council of La Raza, and Latino children are two times more likely than white children to be uninsured. Yet few Latinos have enrolled in healthcare plans created by the Affordable Care Act. Bad translations aren’t the only cause: some uninsured legal immigrants are hesitant to apply for healthcare for fear that their undocumented family members might be deported as a result, even after Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued a memo assuring that it wouldn’t use healthcare data for those purposes.
As reported in Think Progress, this wouldn’t be the first time Latinos missed out on government benefits because of poor translations. In 2013, a state website that offered grants to rebuild New Jersey homes damaged in Hurricane Sandy provided inaccurate deadlines and hours of operations for Spanish-speaking applicants, prompting a lawsuit by the Latino Action Network. In Maricopa County, Arizona—home to Sheriff Arpaio—Spanish-language voter registration cards listed the wrong election date in 2012.
Last year, Arizona tried to pass a bill that would prohibit mailing government documents in languages other than English (except for those related to voting). Arizona and twenty-six other states have declared English their state’s official language, but the United States does not have an official language, yet its resources for Spanish-speakers are consistently inadequate, Varela says.
As he writes, “The opinions of just two or three people in one AP article really don’t speak to the bigger issue about all this: stop treating Spanish as a second-class language.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to the National Council of La Raza as “La Raza.” The editors regret the error.
Read Next: William Greider on the millions of Americans left uncovered by the ACA.
Facebook has 1.3 billion users. If it were a country, it would be the second-largest in the world. Every twenty minutes, its users share 1 million links, write 3 million messages, and attempt to make 2 million new friends.
“Content” is the Internet’s anesthetizing term for everything it publishes, from articles to listicles, videos to slideshows. In the digital economy, form (or infrastructure) is valued more than content—we pay engineers, not oversharers. Facebook is worth more than $140 billion (though many argue that it’s far overvalued), and while the company pays its designers and marketing specialists, the 1.3 billion writers, photographers, link-bait generators and filmmakers who spend, on average, more than fifteen hours per month on the site are seen as “users,” not contributors.
Laurel Ptak, a curator and professor at the New School, recently published a manifesto, “Wages for Facebook.” Written in all-caps and with theatrical swagger (“OUR FINGERTIPS HAVE BECOME DISTORTED FROM SO MUCH LIKING, OUR FEELINGS HAVE GOTTEN LOST FROM SO MANY FRIENDSHIPS”), Ptak insists that Facebook’s “content generators” ought—MUST!—be paid for what they bring to the site. The text of the manifesto scrolls automatically so it can be read on a mobile device with both hands at ease. Ptak appears to want clearer lines between participation and consumption, and scrolling—one of many gestures that have been patented by technology companies—turns the reader’s body into a kind of “on” switch.
Ptak’s manifesto seems a bit ludicrous at first. If it paid its users, Facebook wouldn’t be able to offer its services for free. Say you have a couch to sell, or an apartment to rent, or a part-time position to fill, you would probably see if any of your Facebook friends were interested before purchasing an ad on Craigslist. (I say “you” because I’m not on Facebook anymore.) Facebook may taketh, but it giveth too. (Though earlier this month, two users sued Facebook for violating their privacy and intercepting private messages. Free often has hidden costs.)
But Ptak believes that this moneyless arrangement is distorting, along with our fingers, our understanding of what work is. If the content on Facebook contributes to the company’s value, then the people who produce that content deserve a dividend, she says. She’s worried less about the doling out of actual cents (or maybe bitcoins) than political empowerment. “IF WE TAKE WAGES FOR FACEBOOK AS A POLITICAL PERSPECTIVE WE CAN SEE THAT STRUGGLING FOR IT IS GOING TO PRODUCE A REVOLUTION IN OUR LIVES AND IN OUR SOCIAL POWER.” Social media has become obligatory and by categorizing Facebook as work, Ptak says, we’ll be better poised to opt out of it. “CAPITAL HAD TO CONVINCE US THAT IT IS A NATURAL, UNAVOIDABLE AND EVEN FULFILLING ACTIVITY,” she writes, of Facebook. “TO SAY WE WANT MONEY FOR FACEBOOK IS THE FIRST STEP TOWARDS REFUSING TO DO IT.”
Ptak styled her manifesto on the demands and aesthetics of the Wages for Housework movement from the 1970s, which called for recognizing cleaning and cooking as a kind of work, regardless of whether it was paid (one of the movement’s key theorists, Silvia Federici, called for Wages Against Housework in that spirit), so that women might be able to refuse to do it. Ptak’s manifesto echoes Stephanie Coontz’ New York Times op-ed this weekend about the feminization of working conditions. Forty or fifty years ago, Coontz writes, employers hired women when they needed cheaper, more agreeable workers. “They turned to companies like Kelly Girl, whose ads bragged that unlike the gimme-gimme male worker, the Kelly Girl was a ‘Never-Never’ employee: ‘Never costs you a dime for slack time. (When the workload drops, you drop her.) Never has a cold, slipped disk or loose tooth. (Not on your time anyway!)’” Coontz argues that the current economy has turned us all into Kelly Girls, settling for lower wages and minimal benefits, asking little of our employers. Coontz alludes to the benefits of universal income, a policy soon to go to vote in Switzerland that would guarantee a small salary for every citizen. The idea has earned support from feminist Marxists, like Kathi Weeks, and conservative pundits, like Charles Murray—universal income is one of those seemingly liberal things, like open borders or Star Trek, that is more libertarian the more you think about it. Murray supports basic income because it would cut government programs and give money directly to people—helping the poor and starving the beast. Weeks supports it because, as she writes, “It would enhance the bargaining position of all workers vis-à-vis employers and enable some people to opt out of waged work without the stigma and precariousness of means-tested welfare programs.” In other words, it would reorient work as a choice. Weeks writes, “These demands do not affirm our right to work so much as help us to secure some measure of freedom from it.”
Ptak’s manifesto is meant to call attention to the “feminization” of digital labor by encouraging users to demand more from social media sites and to question what prompts them to engage in these sites at all. When I quit Facebook, I was shown a series of photos of all the friends who would “miss” me and then I had to fill out a survey to explain why I was shutting my account. One possible answer was “I’m spending too much time on Facebook,” but my real reason for leaving was just the opposite—the site made me too voyeuristic and it felt selfish, looking through other people’s albums without posting my own. (I eventually selected “This is just temporary. I’ll be back,” which, I think, will turn out to be accurate.) I’m more active on Twitter, but I still can’t quite get into the rhythm of it—I prefer conversations to feel like a volley and Twitter is more like a series of serves. But the people I follow are good to me, they make me laugh, keep me informed, and I certainly wouldn’t have joined Twitter if they hadn’t first. I’d like to see them get paid for all the time they pour into their feeds, even if it is pleasant enough to count as a hobby. Or as Ptak writes, “WE WANT TO CALL WORK WHAT IS WORK SO THAT EVENUTALLY WE MIGHT REDISCOVER WHAT FRIENDSHIP IS.”
Read Next: Theresa Amato on the problems with boilerplate contracts.
The Correction Corporation of America, or the CCA, is trying to revamp its brand. Its main business is detention; the company, the largest private corrections company in the United States, owns and manages fifty-two facilities, fourteen of which house immigrants. But the company has developed a bad reputation in the field and has been the subject of multiple lawsuits alleging excessive use of violence by wardens, understaffing, and Medicaid fraud. According to Detention Watch, several CCA-run immigration facilities are among the worst in the country and ought to be shuttered immediately. As a result, Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter of Idaho announced last week that the state would take over the CCA detention center in Orofino, perhaps the company’s most notorious facility.
So CCA is diversifying. The company has lobbied for enforcement-heavy immigration reform in order to ensure that its detention services will remain a necessary, and lucrative, enterprise. But it is also investing in alternative detention. In August, CCA acquired Correctional Alternatives, Inc, a private company that coordinates parole services for both federal and state enforcment agencies. CAI offers rehabilitation classes, supervision and even aural acupuncture to those recently released from custody, known in the industry as a “community corrections” firm. “This acquisition enables us to provide a range of solutions from incarceration through release, supporting our belief in helping inmates successfully transition to society, which is important to both our business and our communities,” Damon Hininger, president of CCA, said in a statement following the acquisition. If DHS decides to decriminalize immigration, tracking violators through non-custodial programs, CCA will benefit, too.
On its website, CCA bills itself as a service organization, referring to its employees as “life changers” (“Become a life changer!”) and featuring blogs with messages about perseverance, redemption and work-life balance—“Have you ever felt stressed because you felt there was just not enough of you to go around?” One author recommends that readers “schedule activities that help you unwind, even if it’s for just an hour each week.” The tone of the CCA blogs is as falsely optimistic as the machinated voice on the subway who says to look out for mysterious packages and “have a nice day.” The company even has a new motto, a “revised vision” as it says on the website: “PRIDE: Professionalism, Respect, Integrity, Duty and Excellence.” What they mean to say is that CCA might be kicked out of Orofino, but they’re not going anywhere.
During the last three months of 2013, fifteen miners died on the job. Most were killed in electrical or powered haulage accidents; others fell from ladders or drowned in a dredge. The number of miner deaths has been steadily declining in recent years, a trend that continued throughout the first nine months of 2013, until the most recent uptick.
This can’t just be blamed on bad luck or bad weather, though ice can be dangerous. (By comparison, six miners died in the last quarter of 2012.) A recent audit of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OHSA) found that the agency can “only reach a fraction of the entities it regulates” and that it failed to target high-risk industries. OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program is designed for “worksites that show excellence in occupational safety and health,” but the audit found that 13 percent of participating companies had been cited for safety and health violations but were allowed to stay in the program.
Miners aren’t the only workers affected by these oversights. Three million people were injured on the job in 2012. There were a string of workplace accidents last year—two chemical plant explosions in Louisiana, a grain bin explosion in Indiana, a gas tank explosion in Florida. Last spring, fifteen people were killed in the West Chemical and Fertilizer Plant explosion in West, Texas. Seven different agencies were tasked with inspecting the plant and two agencies were tasked with inspecting the plant for risks of explosion—the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and OSHA. It turned out that OSHA had not inspected the plant since 1985 and DHS had never inspected it. (The plant was inspected in 2010 by the Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which issued a fine of $10,100 for missing placards and “not having a security plan.”) The need for inspections might be less urgent if employees were able to report safety violations, but according to the Center for Effective Government, OSHA does not respond to worker complaints or protect them against retaliation from their employers.
Part of the problem is that President Obama has slashed the budget of both OSHA and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). OSHA’s ratio of inspectors to facilities fell from one inspector for every 1,900 workplaces in 1981 to one for every 4,300 facilities in 2012. OSHA can afford to visit a workplace only every ninety-nine years, on average.
Several bills targeting the regulatory process were reintroduced in 2013, although none were passed. The Regulatory Accountability Act, the Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny Act, and the Sunshine for Regulatory Decrees and Settlements Act would have required federal agencies to succumb to new procedures before they are able to implement regulatory rules, delaying the protection of public and worker safety.
Relatedly, last year the Department of Labor cut the staff of the Office of Administrative Law Judges by 5 percent, decreasing the number of judges who hear wage disputes and benefits cases. The result of these cuts, according to one retired administrative judge, is long waits for sick or injured claimants and subpar settlements.
The death of miners at the end of 2013 isn’t just an unfortunate anomaly but an example of broader problems in workplace safety regulations.
Read Next: Welcome to America, the new low-wage nation.
In the first week of 2014, thirteen states increased their minimum wage, Colorado legalized recreational marijuana use and California restricted gun registration and granted more rights to transgender students. There are always new laws each January: Illinois banned anyone under 18 from using a tanning salon, Oregon now permits new mothers to keep their placentas, and Wisconsin has legitimized “pedal pubs”—which, for the uninitiated, refers to a dozen or so bicycles hitched together with a keg mounted on top. But the ideological aggressiveness of some of the 2014 laws have inspired many to proclaim 2014 as a “liberal moment.” Another example supporting the liberal moment thesis: the California Supreme Court ruled last week that an undocumented immigrant who passed the state bar should be able to practice law.
In October, California governor Jerry Brown signed a series of immigrant-friendly laws, including one that allows the state bar to admit “an applicant who is not lawfully present in the United States [who] has fulfilled the requirements for admission to practice law.” That law, AB1024, did not take effect until this year. Sergio Garcia, a Mexican citizen who has lived in California since 1994, graduated from Cal Northern School of Law in 2009, and passed the bar shortly after, waited to appeal his case until AB1024 was implemented.
The California Supreme Court (which, in a rhetorical break from legal tradition, used the phrase “undocumented immigrant” rather than “unauthorized” or “illegal alien” in its opinion) ruled that the passage of AB1024 supersedes the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, which prohibits undocumented immigrants from receiving federal benefits but allows states to adjust these restrictions with their own laws. The opinion also stated that Garcia’s presence in California “does not itself involve moral turpitude or demonstrate moral unfitness so as to justify exclusion from the State Bar.” The opinion mentioned that Garcia had tried to immigrate legally—he applied for a visa in 1995. He is still waiting for it to come though.
Now Garcia is an authorized lawyer under California state law. But under federal law, no law firms are able to hire him.
Immigration has increasingly become a state issue. Some state programs are federally sanctioned—after 9/11, for example, the Justice Department deputized police officers with the powers of immigration officials. Sometimes, as with Garcia’s case, state immigration laws are more symbolic than they are functional, meant to call attention to federal inaction on immigration reform: Cities have declared themselves sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants, even if they have little recourse if ICE chooses to make an arrest. Many states gave college-aged undocumented immigrants access to in-state tuition even if those students wouldn’t be able to work in the United States after they graduated. These tuition laws helped pressure President Obama in 2012 to approve the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which gave young immigrants access to working papers. Garcia, similarly, might set a precedent that allows young, undocumented immigrants who are eligible to work in the United States (Garcia is too old to qualify for deferred action) to be able to practice law one day.
Such laws have made the quality of life for undocumented immigrants vastly different from state to state: immigrants can get a driver’s license in New Mexico, and they pay the same tuition as their high-school classmates at any state university, but next door, in Arizona, they’ll never be eligible for a license and will pay three times as much for college as their peers. California has become, arguably, the most immigrant-friendly state in the country, having just implemented the Trust Act, a law that limits ICE’s power to hold and deport nonviolent immigrants.
Minimum-wage increases at the state level have inspired the federal government to do the same—President Obama and House Democrats are pushing a bill that would increase the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. But more immediately, these laws will lift many thousands of people out of poverty. Washington, where the minimum wage is the highest in the country, at $9.32 an hour, has become a preferable place to live for anyone working in a low-paid industry.
States doing as they please sets up a kind of political experiment, a competition between not just two Americas but as many as fifty. “One question I’m curious about is whether we’ll see an increase in people picking up and moving to places where public policy either accords better with their values or offers them important benefits they need to live their lives (or both),” Paul Waldman recently wrote in The American Prospect. This has already taken place among the undocumented community, and perhaps other groups will do the same in 2014. Maybe these laws will incite federal action. And maybe it will shift the political discourse from red vs. blue to what actually works.
Read Next: Leticia Miranda on hacking for immigrant justice.
Dana Wilson, a back-up dancer on Justin Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience World Tour, moved to Los Angeles from Aurora, Colorado, when she was 18. She’s in her mid-20s now and has started to think about her pension. Tours like Timberlake’s can go on for months, even years, and backup dancers typically lose their SAAG-AFTRA union benefits while on the road.
Before the tour started, in November, Wilson and the other dancers decide to demand a union contract—a touring contract has existed since 2006, but no dancer has ever been covered by it (though back-up singers for James Taylor, Reba McEntire, Martina McBride, Blues Traveler, Josh Groban and Jefferson Starship have). “A few of us have healthcare and pension plans through a spouse, but we thought it was important for not just us but for dancers in the future,” said Wilson, whom I spoke to from the lobby of her hotel in Indianapolis. She had just checked out of her room and had an hour until she had to be at that evening’s venue, the name of which she could not remember. She performs four times a week, dancing on wood, metal and Plexiglas. “It’s virtually the same as dancing on concrete,” Wilson said. “It could take its toll.” There’s a moment in the show—she didn’t want to give away too many details—where the stage expands into the audience while the dancers are not secured. “I still get nervous,” Wilson said. “It’s not a situation that a normal worker would be put in.”
The negotiation took months and was nerve-wrecking at times. “Tours are very sought after jobs for dancers,” Wilson said. “But ultimately, what’s more important than having a cool job is being able to work for a long, long time.” She had also performed in Timberlake’s Future Sex/Love Show tour, in 2007, and was worried that her activism might create friction with her old boss. “On tour, you’re a close family, you don’t ever want to be a thorn in anyone’s side or be ruffling feathers,” Wilson said, “but at a certain point it is really worth it to ruffle a few feathers.” The six back-up dancers had support from the wider community; at the peak of their negotiations, they hosted an event at the Avalon club in LA that more than 1,000 people attended. “I heard the applause that night and I knew we weren’t in trouble and we were in the right place at the right time to make a change,” Wilson said.
Timberlake’s management eventually agreed (“They were all decorum and business,” Wilson said.) Timberlake, she says, “has become such a hero in the dance world.” Randy Himes, who works for the union and helped organize the dancers, is hoping to make the 20/20 Experience World Tour contract an industry standard. In 2012, Wilson and Himes, along with other members of the Dancer’s Alliance, successfully negotiated a union contract for dancers in music videos; it was the Alliance’s first campaign, though the organization has been around for more than twenty years, and culminated in a flash-mob outside Sony’s office to Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” and two long days of heated discussion with record executives until an agreement was reached at 1:30 am.
There are some basic challenges to organizing dancers. They are a motley crew—some are classically trained, others learn on the street—and convincing professional dancers that they are all in the same field has been a challenge for the Dancer’s Alliance. They’re also young and driven, and not necessarily thinking about retirement, or even life after 30. “The average age of a dancer has to be early 20s, at that age you really feel invincible,” Wilson said. “It’s a passion so we don’t care if our knees hurt or our feet are bleeding.”
“We’re trying to get young people taking responsibility for being business professionals,” said Himes. “Helping artists step up and get respect for what they do.”
Read Next: NYU grad students voted to unionize, becoming the only private university student body to do so.
At 11 o’clock last night, Hadi Gharabaghi, a PhD student in cinema studies, learned over email that his colleagues at NYU had voted to unionize. The vote was a landslide—620 to 10—and makes NYU the only private university with unionized teaching assistants. The results carry a twinge of déjà vu: This is a designation that NYU has had before, from 2002 until 2005, when NYU president John Sexton decided to stop acknowledging the union. Strikes and many rounds of negotiations later, the university and the union—a branch of the United Auto Workers, which represents more than 45,000 academic workers across the U.S—agreed late last month that the university would again bargain with the UAW if a majority of graduate assistants voted in favor of representation. The school also promised to remain neutral over the course of the election.
“We should be a major investment for the school,” said Gharabaghi, whose son will soon be turning one. According to the agreement, NYU and union are supposed to immediately begin negotiating—they hope to have a completed contract by the end of the academic year—and one major priority for Gharabaghi is family healthcare benefits. He’s currently on a state-subsidized plan because NYU charges graduate students a 33 percent increase in dependent premiums. “I shouldn’t have to choose between my son and my PhD,” Gharabaghi said.
Read Next:Tom Hayden dismantles the myth of Bill Bratton’s LAPD.
If you don’t live or work in Washington, a chronicle of staffing changes on the Beltway is about as interesting as faraway mild weather or a stranger’s dreams. In other words: not very. But Representative John Boehner announced a new hire last week whose presence in the Speaker’s office implies that immigration reform is still a viable possibility, or at least that Boehner would like it to be. That hire’s name is Becky Tallent and until last week she was the director of immigration policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center. Before that, she was an aide to two Arizonan Republicans who advocated for immigration reform—Senator John McCain and Representative Jim Kolbe. Immigration reform is a notoriously stagnant area of policy—Congress has been trying to get a bill passed since 1996 —and Tallent seems to have a reputation for getting things done. “You don’t hire Becky Tallent if what you want is someone to twiddle her thumbs and just buy you time. You hire Becky to help craft solutions and turn them into law,” Anna Navarro, a former aide to McCain, told MSNBC.
Tallent’s approach, based on an op-ed she published in The Christian Science Monitor last month, will likely be piecemeal; she’ll separately tackle border security, new visa requirements, and the status of undocumented residents already living here. “For the House to pass immigration reform, it needs an opportunity to work through its own process, moving smaller, piecemeal bills that members feel they have the opportunity to review and allow their constituents to vet,” Tallent wrote. What she does not say, of course, is that a comprehensive bill would be a political coup for Obama and that is a legacy Republican congressmen do not want to grant him. The Bipartisan Policy Center published a report in August that called for increased border security, a “rigorous” path to citizenship accessible to all undocumented immigrants, more employment-based immigration, and a regulated temporary worker program. But to advocate for these reforms separately is to risk that one or more of them not be passed at all.
A multi-step approach to immigration reform has become more widely accepted in Washington. President Obama has said that he would gladly approve of a series of smaller bills rather than a single comprehensive one. “If they want to chop that thing up into five pieces, as long as all five pieces get done, I don’t care what it looks like, as long as it’s actually delivering on those core values that we talk about,” the President has said.
A piecemeal approach will invite a dozen different proposals on who can stay and who must go, dictating which families can be spliced across international borders and how. Currently, Representative Eric Cantor and Representative Bob Goodlatte, both Republicans from Virginia, would like to only offer a path to citizenship to young, undocumented immigrants—so-called “Dreamers.” Representative Mike Coffman, a Republican from Colorado, would only offer it to those who enlist in the military. Late last month, President Obama quietly issued a memo allowing for undocumented family members of some military personnel to remain in the country. The President appears to be more frequently exercising his right to make relatively minor administrative adjustments to immigration laws, approaching reform in bits.
Yesterday, a group of protesters from the organization We Belong Together gathered on the Hill. Many of the protesters were children who had been separated from parents because of immigration issues. In 2012 alone, the group says, 152,000 children in the US had a parent deported. Two of the protesters, Javier and Angel, are 16-year-old twins and US citizens. They live in Oakland with their father and 9-year-old brother, who are also citizens, while their mother lives in Oaxaca because she’s unable to get a visa. She was detained at the border in 2011 when their family returned to California after a visit to Mexico and she’s had to stay there since. “It’s been hard on my dad,” Angel told me. He and Javier take care of their younger brother; they drop him off and pick him up from school. “He looks at us like parents,” Angel said.
There’s also Fast for Families, a coordinated hunger strike to demand a path to citizenship for all undocumented residents. (The Obamas paid hunger strikers a visit over Thanksgiving.) This morning, eight New Jersey activists lay in the snow outside the ICE detention center in Elizabeth blocking all outgoing traffic. “Don’t deport my mama,” they yelled. “Not one more.” (By 9 this morning, all protesters appear to have been arrested.) The surge of activism comes just after the release of new data from the Justice Department showing that immigration prosecutions reached an all-time high in 2013, with new cases being filed against 97,384 defendants.
Polls show that a majority of Americans want a comprehensive immigration reform bill that includes all the tenets outlined by Tallent’s former employer, more border security and a path to citizenship. Advocates include business leaders (see Mark Zuckerberg’s recent immigration hackathon), who believe such a bill would be economically advantageous, and religious organizations. Perhaps a piecemeal approach will appeal to Republicans in the House, but can Tallent make it appeal to voters?
Read Next: David Mizner on why hunger strikes are erupting around the world.
Last week, five days after Black Friday’s Walmart strike and the day before a nationwide fast-food workers strike, President Obama delivered a speech at the Center for American Progress about economic disparity and low wages. The president didn’t mention the strikers, but his talking points weren’t so different from their rallying cries—he called for a higher minimum wage and supported the right to organize. His speech was too sweeping, too ambitious to focus on the week’s news. He spoke about Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, education and the tax code; he provided statistic after statistic about the severity of inequality in the United States. The thread that tied all these points together was “economic mobility.” (“President Speaks on Economic Mobility,” the banner of the White House website read.) The president may have been speaking to a room full of liberals, but his focus on mobility rather than inequality seemed especially marketed to conservatives. It was Obama at his campaign finest, recasting himself as the great uniter between the two parties. “The idea that so many children are born into poverty in the wealthiest nation on Earth is heartbreaking enough,” the president said, “But the idea that a child may never be able to escape that poverty because she lacks a decent education or healt care, or a community that views her future as their own, that should offend all of us and it should compel us to action.” Poverty, in other words, is a sad but inevitable consequence of a competitive economy—it’s “heartbreaking,” but so it goes—while mobility is essential to the American mission. Children, we can all agree, should at least be given the bootstraps by which they can pull themselves up.
The word “inequality” makes conservatives uncomfortable, as if it invokes class struggle, the 99 percent versus the 1. They much prefer “mobility,” which connotes a purely aspirational relationship to wealth and the wealthy. As Representative Paul Ryan writes on the Budget Committee’s website, “The question for policymakers is not how best to redistribute a shrinking economic pie. The focus ought to be on increasing living standards, expanding the pie of economic opportunity, and promoting upward mobility for all.” (Italics his) “Our job here is not to divide the American people,” Speaker John Boehner has said. “It’s to help every American have a fair shot at the American dream.”
The day of the president’s speech, Pew released a study, “Mobility and the Metropolis,” comparing rates of social mobility in different cities. New York City fared terribly, with a social mobility rate below that of Chicago, Los Angeles and even Newark. New York was also found to be the most economically segregated of the thirty-four cities studied (a dynamic illustrated by this map). The authors of the study argue that geographically concentrated poverty is more likely to reproduce itself and that heightened segregation is preventing upward mobility for most urban residents.
Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio has promised to reverse economic segregation by requiring developers to create below-market housing. When de Blasio talks about mandatory inclusionary zoning, or any of the tenets of his “tale of two cities” campaign, he talks about poverty reduction rather than “mobility” and it’s this minor rhetorical difference that renders Obama a friend and de Blasio a foe in the eyes of some conservatives. In his speech last week, President Obama expressed his support for early childhood education. “I’ve also embraced an idea that I know all of you at the Center for American Progress have championed—and, by the way, Republican governors in a couple of states have championed—and that’s making high-quality preschool available to every child in America,” he said. De Blasio has promised to create an early childhood education program and to fund it by raising the income tax on families making more than $500,000 by one half of one percent. In President Obama’s telling, such programs have bipartisan appeal, but de Blasio is said to be driving wealthy New Yorkers to leave the city. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie recently invited the wealthiest New Yorkers to move south and evade de Blasio’s tax hikes; Tom Foley, the Republican gubernatorial candidate in Connecticut, invited them north.
This is silly. Wealthy New Yorkers are not going anywhere. Stanford sociologist Cristobal Young and Princeton sociology student Charles Varner have shown that there was not a millionaire migration out of New Jersey or California after higher taxes were implemented; in both cases, taxes were higher than what de Blasio has proposed, as The Atlantic Cities recently reported.
The American narrative of immigration, hard work, and achievement is perhaps more quintessential to New York than anywhere else in the country. It’s this story that attracts strivers to “the city” even if the rents are too high. It’s this story that allows the wealthiest New Yorkers to hire ballerinas, opera singers, and professional artists as babysitters. And it’s this story that may have gotten the wealthiest New Yorkers where they are.
But the story pervading New York, as well as the rest of the country, is that of inequality. It might not be as politically expedient, but it deserves telling, too.