News and Features
As a Russian studies major at Yale in the 1970s, I observed Soviet
"elections" that were conducted more fairly than the 2002 Yale
Corporation's board of trustees election. Why is the Yale Corporation so
threatened by the candidacy of a prominent New Haven pastor who cares
about Yale and its workers?
The last time a prospective trustee was nominated by petition was almost
forty years ago, when William Horowitz became Yale's first elected
Jewish trustee. Back then 250 signatures were required for ballot
qualification; that has since been raised to 3 percent of eligible
alumni--some 3,200 signatures today. The Rev. Dr. W. David Lee, an
African-American pastor of one of New Haven's largest churches and a
graduate of the Yale Divinity School, gathered 4,870 signatures. If
elected, he would be the only New Haven resident other than Yale's
president to sit on the corporation's board.
But he is also supported by Yale's employee unions, and the
university--one of America's great institutions of higher learning--does
not like that. Normally, the Standing Committee for the Nomination of
Alumni Fellows of the Association of Yale Alumni nominates two or three
alumni to stand for election. This year, apparently threatened by Lee's
grassroots efforts, the committee nominated only one, Maya Lin, creator
of the Vietnam War memorial, around whom the Yale Corporation and its
allies could rally.
As an alumnus, I received no fewer than six mailings--from the alumni
organization, from wealthy Yale alumni, from former corporation board
members--all criticizing Lee for failing to identify who paid for his
mailing, for his "aggressive campaign" and for his "ties to special
interests, labor unions."
In a campaign flier (containing no disclosure of who paid for it), the
Association of Yale Alumni quoted comments from Lee critical of the
university. It is not surprising that a minister of a large church at
which many Yale employees worship might at times express substantial
differences with a university that pays many of those workers less than
a living wage.
As if the Yale Corporation had not already made its interests known,
even the ballot package--paid for by the university and sent to all
voters--was slanted in favor of the corporation's candidate. The
official publication intimates support for its favored candidate from
"over 700 alumni," including the Association of Yale Alumni, the
officers of Yale college classes and Yale clubs and other alumni
associations. The other candidate, the Yale Corporation stated in the
ballot package, was "nominated by petition"--(as though Lee's 4,870
signatures did not indicate the support of those alumni).
Reminiscent of elections conducted in one-party states, the corporation
refused to allow an observer to be present when the ballots are counted.
It is not in the Yale bylaws, he was told.
It is unfortunate that Yale, which has produced so many national
leaders, has earned a widespread reputation for its antiunion activities
[see Kim Phillips-Fein, "Yale Bites Unions," July 2, 2001]. To all but
declare war on Yale's workers and its union, and on an outstanding young
New Haven leader, can only exacerbate city-university tensions and roil
Yale's already troubled labor-management waters.
How could one pro-worker candidate who aspires to a lone seat on a board
of nineteen of America's most influential people unleash the fury of an
entire university hierarchy? Why do powerful people--the kind who sit on
Yale's board--feel so threatened by a local minister? Why can't one of
the world's most prestigious universities--with a multibillion-dollar
endowment--pay its workers a living wage?
For God. For Country. For Yale.
Right in the wake of House majority leader Dick Armey's explicit call
for several million Palestinians to be booted out of the West Bank, and
East Jerusalem and Gaza as well, came yet one more of those earnest
articles accusing a vague entity called "the left" of anti-Semitism.
This one was in Salon, by a man called Dennis Fox, identified as
an associate professor of legal studies and psychology at the University
of Illinois. Leaving nothing to chance, Salon titled Fox's
contribution "The shame of the pro-Palestinian left: Ignorance and
anti-Semitism are undercutting the moral legitimacy of Israel's
Over the past twenty years I've learned there's a quick way of figuring
just how badly Israel is behaving. There's a brisk uptick in the number
of articles accusing "the left" of anti-Semitism. These articles adopt
varying strategies. Particularly intricate, though I think
well-intentioned, was a recent column by Naomi Klein, who wrote that "it
is precisely because anti-Semitism is used by the likes of Mr. Sharon
that the fight against it must be reclaimed." Is Klein saying the global
justice movement has forgotten how to be anti-anti-Semitic? I don't
think it has. Are all denunciations of the government of Israel to be
prefaced by strident assertions of pro-Semitism?
If this is the case, can we not ask that those concerned about the
supposed silence of the left about anti-Semitism demonstrate their own
good faith by denouncing Israel's behavior toward Palestinians? Klein
did, but most don't. In a recent column in the New York Times
Frank Rich managed to write an entire column purportedly about Jewish
overreaction here to news reporting from Israel without even fleeting
reference to the fact that there might be some factual basis to reports
presenting Israel and its leaders in a bad light, even though he found
time for abuse of the "inexcusable" Arafat. Isn't Sharon "inexcusable"
in Rich's book?
So the left gets the rotten eggs, and those tossing the eggs mostly
don't feel it necessary to concede that Israel is a racist state whose
obvious and provable intent is to continue to steal Palestinian land,
oppress Palestinians, herd them into smaller and smaller enclaves, and
in all likelihood ultimately drive them into the sea or Lebanon or
Jordan or Dearborn or the space in Dallas-Fort Worth airport between the
third and fourth runways (the bold Armey plan).
Here's how Fox begins his article for Salon: "'Let's move back,'
my wife insisted when she saw the nearby banner: 'Israel Is a Terrorist
State!' We were at the April 20 Boston march opposing Israel's incursion
into the West Bank. So drop back we did, dragging our friends with us to
wait for an empty space we could put between us and the anti-Israel
sign." Inference by Fox: The banner is grotesque, presumptively
anti-Semitic. But there are plenty of sound arguments that from the
Palestinian point of view Israel is indeed a terrorist state, and
anyway, even if it wasn't, the description would not per se be evidence
of anti-Semitism. Only if the banner had read "All Jews Are Terrorists"
would Fox have a point.
Of course, the rhetorical trick is to conflate "Israel" or "the State of
Israel" with "Jews" and argue that they are synonymous. Ergo, to
criticize Israel is to be anti-Semitic. Leave aside the fact that many
of Israel's most articulate critics are Jews, honorably committed to the
cause of justice for all in the Middle East. Many Jews just don't like
hearing bad things said about Israel, same way they don't like reading
articles about the Jewish lobby here. Mention the lobby and someone like
Fox will rush into print denouncing those who "toy with the old
anti-Semitic canard that the Jews control the press." These days you
can't even say that the New York Times is owned by a Jewish
family without risking charges that you stand in Goebbels's shoes. I
even got accused of anti-Semitism the other day for mentioning that the
Jews founded Hollywood, which they most certainly did, as recounted in a
funny and informative book published in 1988, An Empire of Their Own:
How the Jews Invented Hollywood, by Neal Gabler.
So cowed are commentators (which is of course the prime motive of those
charges of anti-Semitism) that even after Congress recently voted
full-throated endorsement of Sharon and Israel, with only two senators
and twenty-one reps voting against (I don't count the chickenshit
twenty-nine who voted "present"), you could scarcely find a mainstream
paper prepared to analyze this astounding demonstration of the power of
AIPAC and other Jewish organizations, plus the Christian right and the
military industry, which profits enormously from military aid to Israel,
since Congress has stipulated that 75 percent of such supplies must be
bought from US firms like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin.
The encouraging fact is that despite the efforts of the Southern Poverty
Law Center to drum up funds by hollering that the Nazis are about to
march down Main Street, there's remarkably little anti-Semitism in the
United States, and almost none that I've ever been able to detect on the
American left, which is of course amply stocked with non-self-hating
Jews. It's comical to find the left's assailants trudging all the way
back to LeRoi Jones and the 1960s to dig up the necessary anti-Semitic
gibes. The less encouraging fact is that there's not nearly enough
criticism of Israel's ghastly conduct toward Palestinians, which in its
present phase is testing the waters for reaction here to a major ethnic
cleansing of Palestinians, just as Armey called for.
So why don't people like Fox write about Armey's appalling remarks
(which the White House declared he hadn't made) instead of trying to
change the subject with nonsense about anti-Semitism? It's not
anti-Semitic to denounce ethnic cleansing, a strategy that, according to
recent polls, almost half of Israelis now heartily endorse. In this
instance the left really has nothing to apologize for, but those who
accuse it of anti-Semitism certainly do. They're apologists for policies
put into practice by racists, ethnic cleansers and, in Sharon's case, an
unquestioned war criminal who should be in the dock for his conduct.
As the shock of September 11 fades, courts are standing up for civil
Fear still haunts the Arab and Muslim communities of Southern
September 11 is being used as a reason to build up police intelligence
Osmín, a Cuban trucker, is living in Florida legally--but that
didn't matter to the department of motor vehicles. When he was stopped
on May 2 by a policeman who wanted to see the permit for a job he was
working on, as well as his license, he handed over all the necessary
papers. Although they were in order, he was sent to the driver's-license
office because the document granting his temporary stay will expire
later this month. When dutifully checking in at the DMV the next day, he
explained that his application for permanent residency is pending,
allowing him legal stay until it is resolved. But the clerk, guided by
the governor's new antiterror restrictions, didn't understand the
intricacies of his immigration status. He confiscated Osmín's
license--good until 2007--and sent him home, unable to drive and unable
to work. "I feel very bad," said Osmín (who didn't want to have
his last name used out of fear it might harm his residency application)
the following workday, stuck inside. "I have to pay my bills, I've lost
a complete day of work and I don't know when I'll get my license back."
Spurred on by post-September 11 fears, more than a dozen states, from
Colorado to Delaware, have passed or are considering restrictions on
issuing driver's licenses to noncitizens. Some, like Georgia, Minnesota
and New York, may tie license expiration dates to the expiration of
immigration papers, as Florida, New Jersey and Kentucky do now.
Florida's Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles now sends
records of all its transactions to the FBI every night. A Michigan bill
would authorize DMV staff to contact federal authorities if there is
"reasonable cause" to believe an applicant is an illegal alien. Even
legal refugees from Bosnia or El Salvador can get tripped up in the new
red tape. "If you make it difficult for people to get a driver's
license, you're going to get a lot more people driving without a
license, and we might have more uninsured drivers on the road," says Ben
Johnson, associate director of the American Immigration Lawyers
Association. "Getting tough on driver's-license law isn't going to make
the country any safer."
Declaring his state's enlistment in a "war against illegal immigration,"
South Carolina Attorney General Charlie Condon introduced legislation to
have local cops enforce federal immigration laws. Florida is working
with the Immigration and Naturalization Service on a groundbreaking plan
to deputize police officers as INS agents. "This gives police another
legal hook to justify their profiling and will prevent illegal
immigrants from reporting crimes against them," says Dan Kesselbrenner,
director of the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers
Heightening surveillance of foreign students, bills pending in
California, Minnesota and Georgia, and a new Virginia law, would require
colleges to report noncitizens to the INS if they repeatedly miss class
or withdraw. An Oklahoma measure would prevent noncitizens from
enrolling in flight school. "While everybody's in the patriotic mood,
people's tolerance level is a little bit lower," says Lena Lee, a
research assistant for South Carolina's House of Representatives,
describing a bill to restrict university enrollment of students who come
from a "state sponsor of international terrorism" as determined by the
US Secretary of State. "The rush is on to get the legislation out.
People are kind of blindly doing it--with good intent."
Oklahoma's Joint Homeland Security Task Force even brought up blocking
foreign students from certain courses. Representative Bill Paulk, a task
force member, said legislators are particularly worried about nuclear
design and computer classes. "Obviously," he said, "there are some
courses you would not want foreigners to take."
For more than a century, a recognizable pattern existed among those
migrating to New York City: They came first either through Ellis Island
or up from the American South, and more recently via JFK. As the
newcomers quickly helped build larger communities, they began to occupy
distinct places in the mental and physical geography of the city.
Yet the fastest-growing migration of the past few decades into the city
severely complicates the demographic pattern to which most New Yorkers
are accustomed. Mexican migrants, whose (counted) ranks nearly tripled
to 275,000 between 1990 and 2000, are indeed coming in significant
numbers, but they are staying for quite varying amounts of time and
inhabiting quite varying parts of the city. Spatially, there is no
Mexican equivalent of the Puerto Rican neighborhoods of the Bronx, or
the Dominican enclave in Washington Heights. That the vast majority of
those who come across the Rio Grande are undocumented also suggests that
it may be a while before the Mexican community will have a direct voice,
either politically or via organized labor, in city affairs.
Enter Jimmy Breslin. Yes, the same pugnacious figure familiar to New
Yorkers for his four decades as a muckraking columnist, and to national
audiences most recently for his intro to Spike Lee's Summer of
Sam. Could there be a better guide to the new pattern of immigration
than Breslin? From a scholarly standpoint, the answer would obviously be
yes--the recent work of Arlene Dávila and Agustín
Laó-Montes, Nancy Foner and others is a good place to start. Such
scholarship shows that the current wave of immigration fits no one mold,
with some groups, particularly Mexicans, establishing a transnational
pattern of going back and forth to their home countries, thus making it
impossible even to identify a single unified process of Latino
immigration. But from the perspective of gritty, everyday, street-level
New York, or at least that fast-disappearing world of tough talk and
no-nonsense reporting, Breslin has no match as a firsthand observer of
the newcomers' place in the city's social hierarchy. Ultimately, the way
Breslin, an older, working-class Irish-American, grapples with the new
migration tells us more than a little bit about the changing meaning of
the American dream.
Breslin's new book, his eighth nonfiction work, tells of The Short
Sweet Dream of Eduardo Gutiérrez. Gutiérrez, an undocumented Mexican
laborer, died in a 1999 construction accident in the Hasidic
neighborhood of the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. For Breslin,
Gutiérrez's story not only typifies the hardships that Mexican
migrants face in coming north but shows how harsh the working conditions
are when they arrive. Gutiérrez, in other words, hardly lived the
life of a latter-day Horatio Alger. Instead of fortune, the city
provided only loneliness and a gruesome but entirely preventable death
in a cement foundation.
Gutiérrez's tragic demise sets Breslin on course to discover the
origins of what would otherwise have been yet another mostly forgotten
existence. Breslin goes to central Mexico, to the small town of San
Matias (near Puebla), to recapture Eduardo's life and surroundings
there, and then follows his tortuous journey north across the border,
before arriving in Brooklyn. In the process, Breslin accomplishes twin
goals: to show how Mexican migrants are increasingly making their way
well beyond the Southwest, steadily transforming the demographics of
Midwestern and Northeastern cities; and, more dramatically, he
illustrates how that migration probably has more in common with the
Middle Passage than with any of the heroism now accorded to the
immigrant journey through Ellis Island.
Breslin opens with a series of outsider's observations of life in
impoverished San Matias. Ninety percent of Mexican children will never
go to school beyond the sixth grade, and instead go to work, which in
places like San Matias is sporadic and pays almost nothing. Thus, as a
result of stories told by relatives and others within their community,
the young of San Matias live their lives with pictures of American money
in their heads. And "such poor, dark-skinned children," Breslin
observes, soon become the young adults who are migrating along with
counterparts from India, China and elsewhere to become New York City's
new majority, by which he essentially means people of color.
Getting here from San Matias is no mean feat. After hearing from his
girlfriend Silvia's brother-in-law of construction work in Brooklyn that
paid $6 or $7 an hour (to undocumented Mexicans), less than one-third of
what unionized American workers receive, Eduardo was tempted to go
north. After Silvia, only 15, told him that she was headed for Texas,
Eduardo, four years older, had even less reason to stay home. Breslin
then vividly re-creates both journeys, supplementing the two stories
with documentation of parallel dangers that Mexican migrants experience
every day: dangerous coyotes (smugglers), rattlesnakes, heat exhaustion,
drowning in the Rio Grande, suffocation in a tunnel leading to Tijuana,
getting hit by a train in Texas or a car in San Diego, local police,
airport security and, above all, the Border Patrol. Thus harrowed, both
Silvia and Eduardo nevertheless do land safely: the former in Bryan-College Station, Texas, where she works at both the Olive Garden and a
barbecue joint; and the latter initially at JFK, only after being
delivered COD by a coyote on a flight from Los Angeles.
Sympathetic as the author is to the courage and struggles of those who
endure such hardship in coming north, there are still some troubling
dimensions to Breslin's account, particularly in his somewhat simplistic
choice of terms to describe the process. He so often uses "the Mexicans"
as the subject of his sentences that one begins to fear Buchananesque
calls for big walls along the border (fortunately, they are not there).
Breslin also far too simplistically refers on many occasions to how
Mexican migrants are lured by The Job, and at one point riffs: "They
come across the riverbanks and the dry border, those people who want to
work, who want to scrub floors and clean pots, or mow lawns." Yet as his
own telling of Silvia's double shifts in El Paso and of Eduardo's later
job-hopping in New York suggests, the specific work matters much less
than the simple fact of a paycheck. Migrants seeking wages who will
accept the least-desirable work is surely more accurate than talk of
Mexicans who want "The Job," but then again, drama is Breslin's primary
Once away from the airport, Eduardo enters a frighteningly impersonal
city, and here Breslin emphasizes the changing meaning of the
contemporary immigrant experience: "Once, they came in dreadful old
ships, from Magilligan in Northern Ireland, from Cobh in southern
Ireland, from Liverpool and Naples and Palermo and Odessa.... Those able
to stand always scoured the horizon for the first look at a city where
the streets were decorated, if not paved, with gold." The numbers of
subsequent nonwhite migrations, particularly those of Puerto Ricans and
Dominicans, are missing from Breslin's litany, which illustrates the
degree to which the traditional mythology of immigration into New York
City needs to be rewritten continually. But here as elsewhere, Breslin
should be indulged, for the experience of Mexican immigrants in New York
is skewing more than a few familiar demographic patterns.
Eduardo's experiences in Brooklyn illustrate some of the unique features
of contemporary Mexican migration. He settles with a handful of others
from San Matias in Brighton Beach, an area whose Eastern European Jewish
identity grew rapidly with the influx of Russian and Ukrainian
immigrants in the early 1990s. On a few occasions, he and a friend would
go to Sunset Park, an increasingly Latino neighborhood and one of the
few areas of the city with a visible Mexican presence. Indeed, as the
ongoing research of John Mollenkopf and others demonstrates, even though
their ranks are growing rapidly, Mexican migrants are tending to favor
heterogeneous ethnic neighborhoods rather than grouping together.
Breslin's re-creation of Eduardo's life in the city may help explain one
of the reasons this is so. As Eduardo and his roommates drink a few
beers after a long day's work, they reminisce of home and discuss plans
to go back. That so many do go back and forth, perhaps, diminishes the
necessity for those who stay to form distinct neighborhoods of their
Those working here as undocumented laborers also face conditions hardly
conducive to sticking around. Despite repeated building-code violations
elsewhere in the neighborhood, a slumlord named Eugene Ostreicher was
able to continue building in South Williamsburg, using undocumented
Mexican laborers like Eduardo. While working for Ostreicher in November
of 1999, Eduardo poured cement on the third and top floor, which was
supported by only three flimsy, improperly fastened beams; the structure
soon collapsed, and Eduardo drowned in cement three floors below.
Breslin thus takes aim at a variety of targets: Ostreicher, who was slow
to face punishment, and whose cozy relationship to City Hall (via Bruce
Teitelbaum, ex-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's liaison to the Hasidic
community) had allowed him to keep building despite past violations; the
city's Department of Buildings, a bastion of frightening corruption and
inefficiency; and, to a lesser extent, the construction unions, which
allow the use of nonunion labor. Some of Breslin's examples do seem
tangential, like his discussion of a phony Pell Grant scheme run by
Ostreicher's Hasidic neighbors, or of Mayor Giuliani's war on sex shops.
But there is no doubting Breslin's crusading spirit, and he's always
good for a memorable barb or two--as when he reminds us that pre-9/11,
Giuliani did "virtually nothing each day except get into the papers or
to meet girlfriends."
As the book closes, with Eduardo dead and Ostreicher facing minimal
punishment at best, the meaning of the former's sweet dream is
uncertain. He came to New York with a desire only to make enough money
to go home, perhaps with Silvia. But now he is sent home in a casket
paid for by the Red Cross and the Central Labor Trades Council, the
latter doing so to "get into the newspapers." Though by no means the
first group to come to America with the primary goal of making money in
order to take it back home, Mexican migrants find a labor market that is
increasingly transient, unregulated and brutal. Still, despite the
hardships, they are helping to create a new, transnational version of
the American dream. It is a story that we all need to consider, and
Jimmy Breslin has successfully helped open the door.
A camera system in the nation's capital is making civil libertarians
State officials rush to declare their own versions of the "war on
In anticipation of the Second Coming, evangelicals leap to Israel's