Immigrants do more than work

Yi Zhong/Staff

An opinion article recently published in The Daily Californian, “Valuing immigrants as entrepreneurs,” illustrates a popular argument in favor of immigration reform and the provision of robust amnesty as a form of economic stimulus. Underlying this perspective is the association of immigrant assimilation with financial participation. Jose Antonio Flores’ article championed the entrepreneurial ambitions of immigrants who set off to found successful businesses, but equally widespread is a framing of immigrants (documented and undocumented) as microentrepreneurs. Such a perspective is both ahistoric and dangerous.

When the immigration debate heated up over the summer, progressive organizations like the Center for American Progress were quick to advocate for immigration reform as a fix for the ailing housing market. “Immigrants make up just 16 percent of the United States population, but they are expected to make up 35.7 percent of homeowners by the year 2020,” reassured, adding that the “the financial stability and purchasing power that comes with immigration reform would allow foreign-born homeowners to fully assimilate into American society.”

The proponents of this argument presuppose immigration and ignore important dynamics that led to the Great Recession. Specifically, they fail to recognize that it is often the celebrated “entrepreneurial” actions of those in the global North (the search for cheap labor, ensuring favorable business environments abroad, pricing out local producers, etc.) that produce the conditions that elicit migration from the global South in the first place. Likewise, those who posit the benefits of immigrant integration into mortgage markets as assimilation ignore the predatory, and racialized, lending practices that made minority borrowers particularly vulnerable to the 2008 financial crisis. In other words, it was partially the predatory integration of the socioeconomically disadvantaged (immigrants and native-born) that fueled the housing bubble.

Edward Roberts, who founded MIT’s Entrepreneurship Center, famously said that “to immigrate is an entrepreneurial act.” The high proportion of migrant wages that are sent back to home countries as remittances and the many ethnographic accounts chronicling the harsh experience of migration make it evident that a desire for subsistence, and not profit, is what motivates migrants to embark on the treacherous journey across the southern border, almost always leaving a family and communities behind. Even when in the United States, most undocumented immigrants live close to or below the poverty line. Any desire for profit is founded on abstract and fetishized ideas of American equal opportunity and not the necessarily oppressive labor structures they are most likely to enter (see UC Berkeley professor Seth Holmes’ “Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies” for one example).

To frame immigrants as entrepreneurs is to promote in them the individualism and motivations that produced their condition. Under this logic, poverty becomes the result of unmotivated individuals and not structural injustice. Instead, both U.S. residents and immigrants must work together to rethink assimilation — beginning with critical understanding of the economics and geopolitics of immigration. Rather that strict financial participation, political contestation and social engagement should form the basis of immigrant assimilation. As the diasporic laborers produced by U.S. financial and geopolitical interests, immigrants should critique rather than join American economic practices and habits.

With my yearlong project “Discovering the IRCA Generation,” I hope to take a step in this critical direction. By compiling a collective history and political economy of the last significant population of amnesty recipients, the 3 million formerly undocumented workers granted legal residency in 1986, I hope to illustrate the dangers of unregulated financial integration. As immigration reform is being debated, and promoted as economic stimulus, the nature of the financial integration of immigrants must be closely scrutinized (I encourage students with parents and relatives who belong to this generation of immigrants to contact me).

There is broader usefulness of questioning the nature of American assimilation because it shines a light on our conception of American society. In questioning what we expect from immigrants, we are compelled to ask larger questions about the relationship between credit and citizenship in our current economy (characterized by low wages, high consumption, over production and severe inequality). These questions are both economic and social, structural and meaningful — and necessary for understanding both migration patterns and the housing bubble.

Because this is a task that involves decoupling assimilation from financial integration, U.S. residents are necessary allies. There will be immigrants who go on to start successful businesses, and this is great, but these individuals should not be separated from the historically specific community of displaced labor to which they belong. Engaging both this initial displacement and the predatory assimilation of most immigrants involves challenging the individualism and profit fixation of entrepreneurialism.

 Luis Flores is a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley.

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