By Karen Yi
The Indypendent tracked down Rinku Sen, author of The Accidental American (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2008), to talk about her latest book and the current immigration debate within the Barack Obama administration.
Karen Yi: Since the book was published before the inauguration of President Obama, have you seen a shift in the immigration debate with the new administration? What are your hopes with Obama in the White House? What does the appointment of Janet Napolitano to head the U.S. Department of Homeland Security mean for immigration debate?
Rinku Sen: I definitely think that the shift in administration helps in the immigration debate and it helps to open up some space, but it might be more because of the shift in Congress rather than the shift in the White House, because George Bush was also in favor of legalization and generally immigrant friendly. It’s just that Bush’s party didn’t support him. Obama is in favor of immigration reform and in favor of things like the legalization of the undocumented people who are here now. … Even though there are openings, I don’t think we’re going to have a huge shift because the debate is still very, very polarized, and the anti-immigrant crowd, the restrictionist crowd, is not going to stop.In terms of Napolitano being head of the Homeland Security now, I do think that we are going to get some scrutiny of ICE practices that we didn’t get under the last administration and the last Congress and the last Homeland Security secretary. So I think her willingness to do an investigation into the raid in Bellingham, [Wash.] is an example of that … For her to fairly quickly after a raid respond to public pressure and agree to investigate is a positive thing.
KY: The Government Accountability Office released a report in early March that criticized a federal program [287(g)] in the Immigration and Nationality Act that deputized police officers as immigration enforcers. Do you see this a first step in overturning the framework of enforcement that has plagued the immigration debate? What is your reaction to this report?
RS: The questioning of the 287(g) program, the scrutiny of Joe Arpaio as a clear abuser of that program, those are all positive short-term things, and I think that will help build the case for comprehensive immigration reform which the White House and Congress seems willing to pursue in 2009 and 2010. But all of these things are very short-term and if we do win immigration reform, I think it will have some form of legalization in it. I think it will also have a lot of enforcement in it and I think it will be mostly enforcement. Because I don’t think that at this moment what Obama is pushing is a new immigration framework, he’s pushing top compassion in the old framework. So legalization is a way of fixing some of the shortcomings in the old framework. The fact is that we still have lots and lots of people coming without documents. But its not really a new look at how we can expand legal immigration for example, so that we don’t have future flows of undocumented immigrants, we have future flows of documented immigrants. I think that this administration will push some reforms of the current system that will help improve it, like getting rid of the tremendous backlog of people waiting for family unification, or other kinds of visas and green cards and so on. But I haven’t really heard anyone in the administration talking about expanding immigration.
KY: How can we break away from this framework of enforcement?
RS: I think that that is going to take a great deal of activity that isn’t really happening yet. And it’s both grassroots activity, organizing activity, but also changing public opinion so that people begin to understand that immigrants grow the pie generally, and can come out of their sort of scarcity framework to see the value that immigrants bring economically, politically and culturally. That’s a lot of public education and public opinion change-work that needs to happen before the government will then follow the will of the people … That work has to happen at all different levels of the society. It needs to happen in academia, among the intellectuals, it also needs to happen among journalists. People who live in the United States have to be willing to look for a new framework, and open to the idea that an expanding framework is the right one.
KY: One of the most compelling aspects of The Accidental American is that it incorporates a global and multi-racial component often excluded in the immigration debate. Looking beyond immigrant workers in the restaurant industry, how important is coalition-forming between ethnic groups to achieve significant reform to immigration policy? Does the issue go beyond just immigrants and extend to the larger group of people of color?
RS: I think its not just alliances between people of color that are important there, it’s not just the Black and Arab and Latino and Asian. That alliance also needs to be built with white people: working class and middle class white people. That’s important because they are a huge portion of the people in the country, a huge portion of the electorate in ways that immigrant communities still have some limitations around — partly because of our numbers of our voting eligible and voting people. I don’t believe any significant change in this country — even with the demographics leaning browner — can go around the white population, I think they have to feel a stake in it. I think it’ll be a stronger framework if we have to struggle with white anxiety as we’re building it. If we ignore that part and decide it’s not important, or its not worth speaking to. I think it will continually come back to haunt us.I think that the racial divide is significant, but everywhere I go I see people working through it. Often what we’re encouraged to do is consolidate our base and then fight it out with everybody, but the idea of expanding our base by reaching out to people that are not like us, is still scary and intimidating and not the way most people go. We need to reach out to our own people to prepare to be in these multi-racial co-alliances and we also need to be able to reach out to people who are not like us. It’s hard to say where we are on that. The process of social change is this back and forth dynamic, where you win some, you lose some. …We’re much closer, we have many more assets towards that goal than we tend to think about. We often focus too much on the conflict and not enough on the cooperation taking place.
To read The Indypendent’s review of The Accidental American, click here.