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The best books on America’s Undocumented Workers

recommended by Ruth Gomberg-Muñoz

The anthropologist tells us about books that give voice to low-wage migrant labourers and explains the mutual dependence of slums and “urban glamour zones”

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How was your first book choice, Saskia Sassen’s The Mobility of Labor and Capital, formative for you in your research into immigrant labour networks?

This is the first book that approached undocumented migration from the perspective of the agency of the state as opposed to something that happens because people make the decision to cross the border illegally. So she’s the first that I’m aware of to bring up the question, who benefits from large-scale undocumented migration? And she looks at it from the perspective of the capitalist state. That really opened my eyes. That changed my way of thinking about migration, and unauthorised migration in particular.

In a 2006 Guardian interview Sassen says, “We are becoming a planet of urban glamour zones and urban slums.” How does immigration influence this picture of the global city?

I’d never heard that before. Immediately it makes me think of linkages between so-called glamour zones and urban slums. You have people who make the glamour zones possible – the people who change the sheets in hotels or serve fancy wine or stock bars – living in the slums. So it seems like you can’t have one without the other.

I was talking with a student of mine yesterday about the ways in which low-wage migrant labour has made wealth possible, particularly for middle-class women. I have just had a baby, and it brings home for me the idea that you can’t work and have a family if you’re a woman, in a lot of cases. So having female immigrant workers available to help you raise your kids becomes a really important part of being able to move into the middle classes and upper classes for a lot of urban workers in developed regions.

The last significant change in immigration policy in the United States came in 1986. Is US immigration policy keeping pace with Sassen’s observations on the international movement of labour and capital?

The answer depends on the way that you look at it. You can make the argument – and a lot of people have made the argument – that US immigration policy is not keeping pace, that it has stagnated, that it’s preventing the development of an international labour force to keep pace with the internationalisation of the rest of production. On the other hand, some people argue, that’s not the best way to read it. Actually, US immigration policy, by not doing anything, reproduces this illegal labour force, which has a specific role in capitalist relations.

Even Sassen makes this argument later. She says illegal labour is a particular kind of labour. It’s not a coincidence, it’s not an unhappy accident. It performs a certain function in developed nations. Then, by not having an immigration overhaul that has a path to legalisation for undocumented workers, that actually reproduces a labour force, an undocumented labour force.

In your second choice, For We Are Sold, I and My People, and the others you select, which are reports by anthropologists and journalists, we hear the voices of low-wage and undocumented workers usually presumed to be invisible or silent. Does the work of the anthropologist in this case take on a political dimension?

It’s something that anthropologists really struggle with. We have this legacy of thinking of ourselves as objective scientists. But, of course, when you work in a real world with rampant inequality it brings up lots of questions about what the anthropologist’s role is in exposing these inequalities.

I think any time that you are working with human beings who are embedded in political situations then your work is inherently political. I think that anthropologists are starting to embrace that, as opposed to trying to pretend that it doesn’t exist and that we’re doing some kind of neutral work. It’s very hard to be neutral when you’re looking at exploitation and persistent inequality.

Are there hints in Fernández-Kelly’s research in maquiladoras [factories] along the US-Mexico border that anticipate the shocking violence toward women that has occurred in Ciudad Juárez over past years?

One of the things I was struck with when I was reading her book is the dehumanisation of the women workers at the maquiladoras and how they’re not allowed to talk with one another. They’re often forced to take birth control. There’s a real argument to be made that this kind of large-scale dehumanisation sanctions in some way violence against these women. Unfortunately, maybe it’s not that shocking that people find these particular workers easy prey.

One of the things I notice in Fernández-Kelly’s and in some of these other works is the emotional register. Sometimes the women’s words seem to have come from a novel.

I think that one of the jobs of anthropologists and journalists is to help humanise segments of the population that popularly are often dehumanised. Immigrants, and undocumented immigrants in particular, are a really good example of this. So ethnography, by allowing people’s voice to be heard, humanises them. You figure out people have problems raising their kids, and we can relate to that. They get mad at their roommates – we can relate to that. Allowing the everyday problems, the everyday challenges and the everyday successes of these marginalised people to be heard is humanising.

The title of Ted Conover’s book, Coyotes, alludes to the so-called secret lives of immigrants. Conover is not an anthropologist, but a writer. How does he succeed at showing us these hidden lives?

He’s not an anthropologist only because he lacks the degree. In every other respect, I think, he’s a model of anthropological research. His work is widely used in anthropology courses, not only this book but also the work that he did in Sing Sing. I think of Ted Conover as what an anthropologist would be like if we didn’t have the IRB [Institutional Review Board]. He gets to do all of this crazy, cool stuff that if you’re working at a university they would never let you get away with. They would never let you sneak across the border and go on a plane with people and take them from place to place. But he can do that stuff because he has this freedom.

What’s really appealing to me about Conover’s work is that he has this access that’s just unparalleled. But also he has the freedom to write about it in this totally engaging way. He doesn’t have to go through the motions of framing his work in some theoretical body of literature. He just gets to the nitty-gritty. His work is so accessible and so interesting. This is a work that you’ll read and 10 years later you’ll remember these scenes of being in the airport and these guys trying to get on the escalator and they’re not really sure what’s going on. It’s really incredibly written.

What questions is Conover asking of undocumented immigrants in the 1980s and how have those questions changed over the past 25 years?

In terms of how the questions have changed or not changed, one of the things that’s so interesting about this work – this was published in 1987, so probably he did this fieldwork in the early 80s – is that things are so much the same. You still have workers struggling to get from place to place, from job to job, working really hard in these degraded jobs, living as adult men in households with lots of other adult men – just trying to get by.

There have been some changes, though, of course. One of the things is that the workers in Conover’s book, in spite of the struggles they had getting from place to place – driving an old beat-up car from California to Florida, and flying on a plane – the movement of undocumented immigrants is even more restricted now. There’s no way you could get on a plane. It didn’t used to be the case that you had to have all this identification to board a plane, and now, of course, you do. It also used to be the case that a lot of states would issue drivers’ licences to people who didn’t have social security numbers. And that’s getting more and more rare. There are very few states that allow you to do that now.

As to Conover’s reporting, I remember reading about Truman Capote and his having to find a different style of interacting with people when he was in Kansas writing




. Presumably, when you work you have recording equipment, and that changes the connection you have with people.

I think that probably is a difference between an anthropological approach and the approach of a journalist. [Conover] probably took more liberties in quoting people. I wondered that about his work when I read it, because he has all these quotes in there. If he wasn’t taking exact notes, he was probably quoting somewhat liberally. In our work I would never quote somebody liberally. I have to take them word for word. There’s a balance there. On the other hand, what emerges is this beautifully written work that’s also very humanising. He opens the book with a discussion of how people tend to quote Mexican immigrants. They tend to get quoted in a way that makes them sound weird or provincial, like, “My donkey is good, yes?” He says, I’m not going to do that here. I’m going to quote them in a way that makes them sound natural, because, in their language, they sound natural. So why would I quote them in English in a way that makes them sound stilted or odd? I get that, I think that’s good.

Leo Chavez, the author of your next book, Shadowed Lives, works around San Diego, which he calls “America’s gateway to the Third World”. One thing I notice is Chavez’s sensitivity toward language. What has been the influence of Chavez’s work and others in seeing immigrants in a wider frame than that of legal versus illegal?

One of the strengths of Chavez’s work here is that he takes one of anthropology’s guiding principles – which is cultural relativism – and he applies it by avoiding characterisations of undocumented people that are dehumanising or criminalising. The whole conversation about whether or not to use words like “undocumented” or “illegal” or “unauthorised” gets really complex. But Chavez clearly is careful about presenting these workers whose lives are embedded in these broader contexts.

The thing about “illegal” is that it takes a law that’s been implemented by the state and applies it to a person. It characterises someone’s personhood by that law. When Chavez chooses to use the word “undocumented”, that reflects a broader approach to this question that looks at the lives of people and how they’re embedded in these broader political-economic processes that encourage undocumented migration.

It’s a good example of how language is political.

I can’t imagine doing this work and having it not be political. I don’t know what that would look like. How could it not be political?

Do you think of the social networks the immigrants create and that Chavez studies as modes of survival, or is there an inherent cultural capacity and resourcefulness in newcomers from Mexico that enables them to live together?

I think it’s survival-based in that humans are a social species. We don’t survive on our own – ever. I would hesitate to say there is something about Mexican culture or American culture that makes people particularly social or particularly apt to create networks. I think we all create and live embedded in social networks. We all tap into these networks to get the resources that we need. That’s true whether you live in sub-Saharan Africa or Norway or China or Mexico.

However, having said that, the structure of employment does tend to be different for a lot of these low-wage jobs. So these networks might have an importance for, for example, agricultural workers that they wouldn’t have for a lawyer. If you’re a lawyer and you work in a law firm, your partners are not likely to ask you to recruit your friends to come and work with you. But in these lower-wage jobs that are deskilled, in which workers [have to] be tolerant of poor working conditions, often employers do recruit workers that way. They use employees’ networks to get employees.

Christian Zlolniski, in his book Janitors, Street Vendors, and Activists, makes a structural connection between modes of capitalism – specifically a desire to control labour costs – and the immigrant labour itself. Is this the world we live in, and how aware are politicians and others of the connection?

I can’t speak for politicians. This is something, of course, that we have an ongoing discussion about in anthropology – the degree to which these policies that produce these massive labour forces, these really vulnerable and flexible labour forces, are intentional. It’s not clear to me. I don’t know.

But I do think that Zlolniski and Saskia Sassen are on to something when they talk about the ways in which this move away from a productive workforce and toward a service-oriented workforce changes, to some degree, not only the way that people work but also the potential for organisation. There’s been this broader shift toward a workforce that’s characterised by flexibility, that can be outsourced, that can be temporary, that does not get and can’t demand health insurance and maternity leave and a 401(k) [retirement plan]. Zlolniski’s work does a really good job showing the everyday processes that make that happen, that produce those kinds of lives for workers.

Zlolniski pays particular attention to grassroots community organising and labour activism among undocumented workers in San Jose, California. Can this political consciousness be sustained and developed around the country?

One of the great myths about undocumented workers is that they’re not organisable. A lot of anti-immigrant rhetoric, or restrictionist rhetoric, invokes the vulnerability of immigrant workers to make the argument that, because they’re unorganisable, they permanently suppress wages. What Zlolniski’s work shows, and other works have shown as well, is that it’s just not true. In fact the history of immigrant labour in the United States is a history of worker struggle. That is something that was not apparent in my work – and that has a lot to do with the place where I did my fieldwork.

I do think it’s really important to show how immigrant workers are also involved in struggles. Even undocumented workers are involved in labour struggles and not only can be organised but often emerge as leaders in these labour struggles.

Is there a contrast between immigrant and native attitudes toward work? What conclusions have you drawn from your own research and this literature?

There are probably differences, but what’s most striking is that there are a lot of similarities. There’s broad agreement that the work that immigrants do is socially degraded, it’s difficult, it’s dangerous. Everybody pretty much agrees on that, including, and especially, immigrant workers. But there is also broad agreement that people will do, they’re willing to do, whatever it takes to get by – and that includes native workers.

I was listening to a radio interview with a politician who was in favour of some restrictionist immigration policy, and he said, “I don’t buy this argument that citizens won’t do the jobs that immigrants do. Citizens work in coal mines. Could there be any worse job?” That really affected the way that I was thinking about this debate, because it’s true. Citizens work in all kinds of socially degraded and dangerous jobs. The difference can be exaggerated. It isn’t necessarily true that there’s work that immigrants do and work that citizens do, and that they don’t overlap in significant ways. I think that they do overlap.

October 23, 2011

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Ruth Gomberg-Muñoz

Ruth Gomberg-Muñoz

Ruth Gomberg-Muñoz is Adjunct Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois at Chicago and author of Labor and Legality: An Ethnography of a Mexican Immigrant Network, covering her research among undocumented busboys at a Chicago restaurant. Her work has also been published in American Anthropologist and the Journal for Latino-Latin American Studies

Ruth Gomberg-Muñoz

Ruth Gomberg-Muñoz

Ruth Gomberg-Muñoz is Adjunct Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois at Chicago and author of Labor and Legality: An Ethnography of a Mexican Immigrant Network, covering her research among undocumented busboys at a Chicago restaurant. Her work has also been published in American Anthropologist and the Journal for Latino-Latin American Studies