James Lee

Let me make a confession first. After more than 10 years covering the Chinese community and conducting numerous tough interviews, I still have a weak spot as a community reporter. I still get butterflies in my stomach when I have to walk into a mom-and-pop shop and interview its owner.

Small-business owners in the Chinese community can be very nice people. But when you try to take a few seconds out of their day when they are doing their business, they can be rude. Very rude. Push-you-out-with-force-and-curses kind of rude. And that can be painful to even a reporter with a thick skin like mine.

It is not surprising. These are people who consider doing business to be the first priority in their lives and who don’t like to share their opinions with the public.

So when some Asian small-business owners in New York City walk out of their shops and rally on the streets, you can bet they are really serious. And when the protests become a long-lasting effort and the protesters even travel outside of the city to make their point, you can bet something needs to be fixed. But just what?

That’s indeed what the Chinese and Korean nail-salon owners in New York have been doing since the New York Times published its two-part investigative blockbuster on alleged exploitation in the nail salon industry last May. The stories prompted Gov. Andrew Cuomo to launch immediate inspections and policies aimed at regulating the industry, forcing some nail salons to shut their doors.

After a one-day shutdown by the nail-salon owners and protests in front of City Hall, the governor’s office and the Times headquarters in Manhattan last year, close to 1,000 nail-salon owners went to Albany with Assemblyman Ron Kim at the end of last month to tell their stories to state lawmakers.

In a recent op-ed piece for the Huffington Post, Kim, who has proposed legislation that would compel the state to track the race of businesses owners that it inspects and punishes, blamed the authorities for selective enforcement.

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No Backspace is City Limits' new blog featuring a recurring cast of opinion writers passionate about New York people, policies and politics. Click here to read more..

“Under the guise of protecting workers, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo used his unilateral emergency powers to target, punish and make examples out of predominantly Asian-owned nail-salon industry, even as no data exists to support [the notion that there’s] a higher level of misconduct or mistreatment of employees in these businesses compared to others,” Kim writes.

Although this doesn’t mean problems in the nail-salon industry should be ignored, Kim made a good point that we need to look at the industry from a wider perspective.

What happened in the nail-salon industry is not new to anyone from an immigrant community. The investigative stories and the government inspections could have targeted restaurants, tour agencies, long-distance buses and any other immigrant-concentrated industries and have drawn the same conclusions: Undocumented immigrants are hired to work long hours with lower than legal wages and scant protections from any hazards in the working environment.

But for those from immigrant communities, this is not a despicable picture that needs to be addressed at any cost but rather a delicate balance of co-survival that cannot be addressed solely through the law.

In this ecosystem, employers provide work opportunities to new immigrants by taking the risk of breaking immigration laws and hiring undocumented workers. And undocumented immigrants settle for less in order to get jobs that they otherwise couldn’t get. It’s a system that has been working like that for decades.

In this case, selective enforcement does not only mean there is a focus on one industry and others are ignored, but it also means enforcing labor laws and ignoring immigration laws. This sends out confusing signals and even wrong ideas to employers who themselves are often new immigrants and know little about how laws work, or don’t, in this country.

But of course, despite the raids happening sporadically here and there, an across-the-board enforcement of the immigration law in the labor market won’t happen. The economies in this city and this country simply cannot afford to purge out the cheap labor provided by undocumented immigrants. And the authorities know it very well.

That’s why a labor activist in Chinatown I know calls the neighborhood a modern plantation, with undocumented immigrants working as slaves and the governments and everyone else taking advantage.

A vicious circle like this needs to be broken. But to only focus on nail salons or any other industry won’t do it. As long as undocumented immigrants exist, exploitation won’t be eradicated.

If there is any magic pill, it might be President Obama’s executive orders that would bring 5 million eligible undocumented immigrants out of the shadows by allowing them to stay and work in this country legally. But that move is now being evaluated by the Supreme Court. And judging by the partisan battle over the seat vacated by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, it would take a miracle to see those executive orders enforced before Obama leaves office next January.

But New York State seems to have gotten ahead of the federal government. In his State of the State speech, Cuomo announced the state would expand its sponsorship of the U visa, which is normally reserved for human trafficking victims and allows them to stay in this country legally, to undocumented immigrants whose employers steal their wages or abuse them physically.

Getting such a visa, of course, requires abundant proof from the victims. But if the state does it right, it can be the most powerful tool to fight against exploitation in immigrant communities.

Rong Xiaoqing is a reporter for the Chinese language newspaper Sing Tao Daily, covering various stories from health issues, immigration affairs, politics to business and social services.