Saying, Not Showing

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Like cardboard cutouts: That’s how author Tram Nguyen describes the portrayal of immigrants since 9/11–particularly when they’re from Islamic countries or if they’re here without papers. In this two-dimensional schema, xenophobes warn of a “Fifth Column.” Meanwhile, immigrants’ advocates counter with “flat images of flags pasted on storefronts and grateful families working for the American Dream.” It’s “criminal aliens” versus “good immigrants,” with little in the vast and human world between.

Nguyen, who edits the progressive political magazine ColorLines, painstakingly lists the many indignities heaped on immigrants by the U.S. government since the downing of the Twin Towers. It begins with the late-2001 roundup and secret detention of Muslim, Arab and South Asian men. She continues with the “special registration” and deportation of thousands more; the mass arrests of undocumented, mostly Latino airport workers; and the current, nationwide move to restrict driver’s licenses to citizens and legal residents. It’s a damning illustration of how 9/11 worsened an anti-immigrant climate that was gathering steam before Al Qaeda’s predations.

The events Nguyen reports are infuriating, but it’s doubtful that they are news to anyone following immigration policy. The New York Times and The Nation, to name two venues, have published many stories about draconian immigration policy post 9/11–and about its victims. We are All Suspects introduces us to more such people, and promises a new, nuanced perspective. Yet its portrayals still feel like cardboard.

There’s Muhammad Butt, for instance, a Pakistani who died in detention after 9/11. Nguyen mentions that Butt was in the U.S. illegally. Other than that, all we learn about him is that he came here to support his many children, and that he worked very hard in a candy shop. We also meet Abdullah Osman, who emigrated from Somalia to Minneapolis as a legal refugee in the 1990s. Osman toils “evenings, weekends and holidays.” His wife has “a gentle smile.” “We love Minnesota,” the Osmans gush. They’re “in pursuit of an American dream,” explains Nguyen.

It’s here that Nguyen falters. So why is Osman deportable? Because he was convicted of assault. Ever since the immigration reform laws of 1996, the feds have been deporting non-citizens judged guilty of crimes–though few civil libertarians noticed until after 9/11. Nguyen uses Osman’s case as an example, but it’s a bad one because he claims he was falsely convicted, giving him the cover of still being a “good immigrant.” Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands have been deported because they really were “bad”: guilty of everything from driving while intoxicated to attempted murder.

Though she theorizes in her introduction and conclusion about the complexity posed by defending the rights of gang members, drug dealers and visa violators, Nguyen’s actual “untold stories” fall short. Maybe the Al Qaeda panic targeted certain nationalities but once people get caught for being “bad,” progressives need to come up with arguments for why they should be allowed to stay. Nguyen knows this, and notes that “even immigrant rights advocates [are] less willing” to go to bat for non-citizens with rap sheets. She mentions the innovative New York group Families for Freedom, which opposes deportation because immigrants who get caught and convicted are disproportionately poor and dark skinned. When the group’s clients ran afoul of the law, many were not working straight jobs or fulminating about the American Dream. But we know little else about them. Their stories go mostly untold–by Nguyen or anyone else.

Chicken: The Dangerous Transformation of America’s Favorite Fast Food
By Steve Stiffler, Yale University Press, $25
In anthropologist Steve Stiffler’s book, the author, a professor at the University of Arkansas who hopes to be an Upton Sinclair for the modern age, exposes the changes in the poultry industry after World War II, mixing statistics about food processing and consumption with personal narratives of farmers, illegal immigrants and his own experiences in a poultry processing plant. He documents the transformation of a food once considered cheap and healthful to one that is overprocessed and cholesterol-ridden, and produced largely by illegal immigrants as sources of cheap, exploitable labor. In his final chapter, “Towards a Friendlier Chicken,” Stiffler calls for stronger enforcement of USDA rules, monitoring by state agencies of working conditions, strengthening the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts to prevent misuse of natural resources in production, and, finally, requiring more specific labeling about sanitation, nutrition and chemical contamination.

Learning to Govern: My Life in New York Politics from Hell Gate to City Hall
By Peter F. Vallone, Chaucer Press, $20
Local-government historians will find Vallone’s biographical soap opera of electoral conflicts, organized crime, and personal alliances engaging, as the author reminiscences about 30 years of New York City political drama. Vallone doesn’t avoid self-aggrandizement–he paints himself as the perfect Catholic, defender of the working man, and a crusader against crime and corruption. He airs grievances about his own unsuccessful campaigns for congress in 1970, governor in 1988 and mayor in 2001, giving examples of the vote miscounts and behind-the-scenes deals that kept him out of power. But the book focuses mainly on his commitment to his Queens roots and his role as the first speaker of the City Council, a position in which he tried to balance Koch’s flamboyant allegiance-building, Dinkins’s well-intentioned but unsuccessful efforts to control developing racial tensions, and Guiliani’s aggressive and often contentious style of governing.

Johnny Once
By Robert Gangi; iUniverse, $16.95
First there was Predatory Bender, the novel/investigative screed from scrappy local activist Matthew Lee’ about the underbelly of lending in the Bronx. Now Robert Gangi, the venerable head of the Correctional Association, hits the shelves. His novel, Johnny Once, chronicles the saga of a Bensonhurst family, from the 15-year-old protagonist’s reaction to his father’s 1960’s admission of involvement in the mafia to scathing liberal critiques of Giuliani’s election. But for a quick primer on the dominant theme, flip to page 26: “You can take the boy out of Bensonhurst, but you can’t take Bensonhurst out of the boy.”

War on the Family
By Renny Golden, Routledge, $22.95
An academic and obvious radical, Golden’s choice of topic–incarcerated mothers and their families–is a delicate one indeed. What’s more, Golden offers several thorough portraits of mothers and pulls no punches, laying bare all their flaws. There is much to explore, and a thoughtful writer with a keen eye for detail will find a goldmine. Unfortunately, Golden’s self-righteous rage at the substantial inequities visited upon her subjects, though justifiable, sometimes verges on an uncomfortable rant. It’s not that she doesn’t hit any good points, it’s just too difficult to ferret them out from all the dogma.

Censored 2006: The Top 25 Censored Stories
Peter Phillips and Project Censored, Seven Stories Press, $12.89 (paperback)
International affairs dominate this compendium of important stories the mainstream media missed in 2004 and 2005, but a fair number of domestic stories make the cut. Most notably, the Bush administration’s efforts to curtail freedom of information certainly could have used some more ink, as could the fact that the proposed guest-worker program codifies “illegal” migration, much to the benefit of business. The real fun comes in Chapter 5, when the editors compile a list of the most superficial–the Brad/Jennifer fiasco tops the list–and the most over-hyped stories of the year–Jacko’s trial, for instance. A useful resource.

America’s Mayor: The Hidden History of Rudy Giuliani’s New York
Edited By Robert Polner, Soft Skull Press, $15.95
In this collection of original essays and articles, Robert Polner–a long-time City Hall reporter for Newsday–brings together some of New York’s leading journalists for a critical look at Giuliani’s two terms as mayor. With the dust from 9/11 now settled and an entire mayoral term nearly passed, the Giuliani detractors revisit some of the former mayor’s biggest failures, from his false presumption of credit for the Gotti arrest to his damaging fallout with the African-American community. Less a scathing critique than an attempt to balance the history books, America’s Mayor will be useful reading as Giuliani ponders a bid for higher political office.

The Triangle Fire, The Protocols of Peace, and Industrial Democracy In Progressive Era New York
By Richard A. Greenwald, Temple University Press, 24.95
This academic chronicling of New York’s industrial democracy during the Progressive Era centers on analyzing its two landmark experiments: the Protocol of Peace and the Factory Investigating Committee. While the former had a lasting impact on industrial relations, the latter was created in reaction to the tragic Triangle Factory Fire of 1911. Through these two interrelated experiments, Greenwald chronicles the failures and successes of industrial democracy as the driving force behind the marriage of free-market capitalism to democratic ideals. In an age when labor union strength is at an all-time low, this book serves as a reminder of New York’s history of leading by example.

Street Science: Community Knowledge and Environmental Health Justice
By Jason Corburn, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, $24
When it comes to science, most people trust the expert’s opinion. That makes sense, argues Jason Corburn, until you realize how disconnected scientists often times are from a community. Enter “street science,” an approach seeking to draw on local residents’ knowledge, combining it with professional techniques to reach the best solution for environmental health problems. A former New York City Department of Environmental Protection policy maker turned postdoctoral scholar at Columbia University, Corburn makes a compelling case that residents have much to offer science. Using Greenpoint/Williamsburg, Brooklyn as a crucible, Street Science highlights both the accomplishments and limitations of street science in solving problems such as asthma epidemics in the Latino community and childhood lead poisoning. Despite its dry academic tone, the book offers a rare glimpse into what community plans could be: Driven by residents as much as by the experts and politicians charged with representing their interests.

Compiled by Rachel Breitman, Bryan Farrell and Tracie McMillan.

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