Missing the Boat

By Sanjay Mongia on April 1, 1998

A Review of Forbidden Workers: Illegal Chinese Immigrants and American Labor, by Peter Kwong (New Press, May 1999)

pp. 13-15 in Immigration Review no. 31, Spring 1998

Until the Golden Venture tragedy, when a shipload of Chinese illegal aliens washed up in New York, few Americans were aware of the human smuggling trade, and even today most would be shocked by the scale, scope, and level of inhumanity that is occurring within America's borders. Hopefully, Peter Kwong's Forbidden Workers: Illegal Chinese Immigrants and American Labor will contribute to heightened public awareness of the tangled web that facilitates and profits from human smuggling and will help end this heinous practice.

No stone is left unturned in this exposé and narrative of the human smuggling trade. Kwong documents the economic and political history and current socio-economic climate in China; the motivations for the illegals who undertake the journey; and the complex and intricate network of "snakeheads" (smugglers), corrupt government officials, and abusive employers who facilitate and profit from the human smuggling trade. After chronicling the illegal immigrants’ agonizing journey to our shores, the author describes the hardships and injustices that they endure in the United States.

The book suffers, however, from Kwong's editorializing and forays into the realm of policy, which expose both his ideological bias and naiveté. Anyone alleging that "Asian and Latino immigrants are being used as a tactical weapon to restructure the American Economy...in the end, better serving capital's interests" has a responsibility to substantiate that claim of a capitalist conspiracy. Since Kwong fails to provide any factual evidence, such rhetoric undermines his credibility and does the book a great disservice by deflecting attention from its strength as a documentary and exposé of the atrocities of human smuggling.

While Kwong condemns the human smuggling trade, he urges Americans to be more tolerant of and compassionate for the illegal immigrants. But if one’s objective is to deter illegal immigration, shouldn't all participants in the human smuggling trade be held accountable and subject to punishment under the law? Kwong suggests severe penalties, aimed at thwarting the human smuggling trade, for the Chinese government, which feigns indignation at illegal immigration, but actually profits through bribery and then turns its back on the exodus that eases domestic overpopulation burdens; the snakeheads, who transport the illegals and force them into indentured servitude to pay the more than $30,000 smuggling fee; and the employers, who hire and profit from illegal workers. He neglects, however, to hold the illegal immigrants themselves — who knowingly and willfully violate the law — accountable to the same standards as other culprits in this egregious arrangement. An effective deterrent policy against illegal immigration must punish (prosecute and deport) everyone who violates U.S. immigration laws.

Kwong may wish to elicit sympathy for illegal immigrants from the reader, but his attempt to characterize illegals as "victims" is hampered by the fact that they undertook this journey of their own volition, and because they knowingly and willingly live and work in this country in violation of the law. Strikingly, Kwong makes several comparisons between the human smuggling of Chinese and the earlier slave trade in Africa. One obvious distinction is that the Chinese illegals are coming to America voluntarily, which inevitably affects our perception of them as "victims." The relative virtues ("fair, decent, hard-working people") and motives (economic opportunity) of the illegal immigrants do not immunize them from U.S. law. Indeed, an overwhelming number of the Earth’s inhabitants would like a chance to better their lives in America. Most are also decent, honest, hard-working people who may be as deserving of a chance at the American Dream as the illegals aboard the Golden Venture. But in reality we cannot accommodate all who may aspire to land at our shores. Sympathy alone is not cause to bypass the rule of law and confer a Green Card to illegal immigrants.

To his credit, Kwong does not disguise the book's objective: It is to "help end these abuses and build a better America for all Americans, including those who came here to seek democracy, equality, and economic opportunity." But integrating illegal immigrants with American society is a dubious proposition. By definition, illegal immigrants lack legal standing and are not entitled to the same rights, privileges, and protections as citizens or legal immigrants. Of course, that does not mean that America turns a blind eye to abuses against illegal immigrants; we do not tolerate 80-hour work weeks, sub-minimum wages, child labor, mandatory home work, or withholding of wages. Certainly, we must be more vigilant in enforcing existing U.S. labor laws, punishing those who engage in such practices and eliminating such abuses from all workplaces in our country. But Kwong should concede that we must also be vigilant in preserving American sovereignty and enforcing U.S. immigration laws.

Kwong’s simplistic analysis of American society is also apparent when he perplexingly asks: "How is it possible that at the close of the twentieth century...such conditions have re-emerged in a country that sees itself as the champion of human rights and democracy?" This question ignores the fact that American citizens and legal immigrants enjoy protections, rights, and privileges that are the envy of the world's people. It demeans citizenship and legal immigrant status for Kwong to suggest that equal protections and rights should be extended to illegal immigrants because it is precisely the fairness and justice of American society that serve as magnets for immigrants. Kwong’s application of a litmus test for these principles to the underground economy — operating in violation if the law — is absurd.

As an immigrant and a naturalized citizen, I am dismayed by Kwong's reference to an "anti-immigrant sentiment" in America and his pleas for tolerance of illegal immigrants. This blanket slur fails to dissect Americans’ views about immigration and neglects to distinguish legal immigration from illegal immigration. I may favor modest reforms to legal immigration policy and a slight reduction in the overall level of legal immigration, but that does not render me "anti-immigrant." Indeed, I celebrate diversity and the vast contributions that immigrants have made to our culture, economy, and society. Illegal immigration, however, violates the sanctity of America's borders, undermines America's sovereignty, amounts to a taxpayer burden, and must be unequivocally condemned. Ironically, Kwong criticizes political actions by the American government intended as gestures of goodwill and openness (e.g. granting asylum to Chinese students following the Tiananmen Square massacre and to those fleeing China's "one-child" policy). Since these acts fueled illegal immigration, he rightly notes that the United States fell victim to the law of unintended consequences. The spirit of these actions, however, certainly dispels Kwong's assertion of a pervasive anti-immigrant sentiment in America.

Reflecting his ideological bias, Kwong merely pays lip service to the overwhelming empirical evidence that immigrants (both legal and illegal) take jobs from Americans at the bottom of the labor market, and suppress wages for unskilled, low-wage native workers (who disproportionately tend to be black or Hispanic). Kwong cites the low unemployment rate in New York City's Chinatown and the closed, exclusionary labor market that operates in that community: in fact, the unemployment rate, even among illegal Chinese immigrants with few skills and no knowledge of English, is significantly lower than among other unskilled workers. Absent illegal Chinese immigrants, however, it seems only reasonable to conclude that more job opportunities would be available to less-skilled natives. Kwong declares that "American business has an unending thirst for cheap, docile, low-wage labor," but in a nation with an abundant supply of unskilled adults, why not satisfy the appetite of business with native workers? Admittedly, Americans would not accept the prevailing (sub-minimum) wages and dreadful working conditions in Chinatown, and we may not be as docile as illegal immigrants since we have legal recourse. The marketplace will reveal whether Americans are willing to collectively pay for the increased cost of doing business in exchange for basic human and labor rights.

Kwong should be lauded for his courage in exposing the cruel hoax of America as the "Golden Mountain." In reality, the illegals are destined for indentured servitude — working countless hours for meager pay and under harsh conditions. Incidentally, the snakeheads and Chinese employers who use ethnic solidarity as a tool to keep illegals compliant are the principal culprits and beneficiaries of this arrangement. Every reader will express outrage at the smugglers and exploitative employers who have knitted an isolationist enclave and self-reliant community that perpetuates the dependency of illegal immigrants on their masters. For the sake of future illegal Chinese immigrants who may be eager to make the journey to the Golden Mountain, Kwong reveals the truth about their lives of exploitation at the hands of Chinese expatriates in America.

The book remains tainted by the Kwong's inability to subdue his ideological impulses, however, and a skeptical reader is given just cause to challenge the objectivity and credibility of the author. In the end, he appears unsure of his primary task as he juggles the responsibilities of historian-investigative journalist with those of advocate-editorialist and, as a result, Forbidden Workers takes on a seemingly schizophrenic mission. Kwong's choice to stray from the book's strength as a narrative and an exposé of the human smuggling trade was ill-advised.

Sanjay Mongia is Assistant Director of The Jerome Levy Economics Institute of Bard College.