David Abalos: Against Assimilation

If Hispanic immigrants don’t do the menial jobs, who will? That’s the un PC question I didn’t dare ask in public, when David Abalos, a visiting professor at Princeton University, addressed the Princeton chamber breakfast. He is an expert on multicultural gender scholarship and on Latinas and Latinos in the U.S from the perspective of a politics of transformation, and he spoke about Hispanic immigration and its effect in Princeton.
Each wave of newcomers to this country – from Africa, Ireland, Italy, Eastern Europe – has worked their way up the chain to get educated, accepted, and assimilated, explained Abalos today, at the Nassau Club.

He told his own story. His parents emigrated from Mexico to Detroit in the 1920s. During the Depression, the Mexicans were pressured to go home but his father cut hair and sold apples to survive. His mother opened a boarding house. He began working at age 8, and at age 12 had a daily job.

Each “tribe” who immigrates, he said – Mexicans, Irish, Jews, Italians – has been made invisible and used for cheap labor. Then the children try to “assimilate,” because children want security above all else, and they try to be like everybody else. Those who are “exceptional” are seen as more like the elite (like “us”), and they get the college scholarships. After World War II, the GI Bill was the immigrants’ entrance into the white society, which is the power society.

But Abalos opposes the concept of “assimilation.” A graduate of the University of Toronto, Abalos was a professor at Seton Hall. In the 1970s, when it was not popular, he advocated for Latino representation in students, faculty, and administration. Now he is active in the immigrant community in his home town, Hightstown, and he urges his Princeton students not to forget where they came from. “When we make it, we close the door. Assimilation is a deadly issue. Be in Princeton, but not of Princeton. If you become elitist you will abandon your own community. Don’t forget what your parents went through.”

Some snippets, some statistics:

Economic: Undocumented Hispanics in Princeton currently come from Guatemala, Mexico, and Ecuador. The Ecuadorians have paid as much as $14,000 to a “coyote,” a smuggler, borrowed against their homes, to cross the border. They earn about $10 an hour, so most work two jobs, don’t have driver’s licenses, and live in overcrowded situations. “They will work any kind of job in order to support their families back home.”

Race and class: Even within an ethnic group, prejudice is rampant. “If you are dark and have an Indian name, you are in trouble throughout Latin America.” Abalos said that, as a light-skinned person, he initially had trouble being accepted by darker-skinned immigrants.

Official policies: School principals in the U.S.A. are no longer allowed to ask about immigration status of students and families. In Princeton and surrounding areas police officers write traffic tickets without asking about immigration status. The University Medical Center of Princeton is doing a “superb job” in treating the immigrant population, and this is in the interests of community-wide health. “If immigrants go underground, they will not report communicable diseases.”

Taxes: According to Princeton University’s Doug Massey, 86 percent of immigrants pay taxes, though they will never see Social Security payments (though these payments are being held in escrow). According to Rick Ober, the AARP tax center on Clay Street brings in lots of undocumented immigrants who are paying taxes. “They are paying taxes, they support the businesses on Main Street, the owners of their apartments are paying taxes – they are contributing to this country with their cheap labor,” said Abalos.

Education vs Demographics: As the U.S. workforce changes, by 2020 we will not have the college educated people needed for the workforce. Why? “For years we were not allowed to go to school, because they wanted us to do the cheap labor,” says Abalos. “Now we start to pay the piper.”

The birth to death ratio for whites is one to one. One person dies, one baby is born. For African Americans it is 1 to 3. For Asians, 1 to 2, for Latinos, 1 to 8. Yet only 12 percent of Latinos have a BA, 1 percent have master’s degrees, 0.2 percent PhDs. It is projected that, by 2043, there will be 100 million Latinos in the United States.

A good example of how compassion and democracy did work is when, in 2006, Princeton University’s valedictorian was an undocumented immigrant.

On NAFTA. This came up in the question period. Abalos believes that Mexico got a worse deal than Canada. Corn is a sacred and basic food in the Mexican culture. When the U.S. “dumped” subsidized cheap corn into Mexico, a good number of the 30 million Mexicans involved in corn production lost their jobs. They moved north, and couldn’t get manufacturing jobs, so more of them came across the border, compounding the undocumented immigration problem.

Afterwards I consorted with Denise Vargas of Excel Graphics to ask my un-PC question, who will be the next cheap labor force? “It could be teenagers,” she said. “Kids need to learn what work is. I raked leaves and shoveled walks. They could be out there raking leaves and shoveling walks on our street, rather than everyone hiring lawn services.”

And as I was walking out of the Nassau Club, talking with Abalos, I asked him that burning question, “So if democracy and compassion work to educate the current immigrants, who will do the cheap jobs? What population will fill in?”

Just as I said “cheap jobs” we passed a Nassau Club employee polishing the window next to the door. Maybe he didn’t hear, but to me it was an awkward moment. We didn’t stop. And anyway, the employee was “invisible,” right? But he wasn’t quite invisible. He spoke to us, a minor comment, on the order of Have a Good Day. To his credit, Abalos said something in reply. I’m embarrassed to admit I was so intent on my question that I did not reply.

My own answer to that question involves a concept that I am told looks like socialism and would stymie the desire to improve one’s self. But I will say it anyway: Pay unpopular blue collar jobs more at the risk of paying white collar jobs less. Pay in inverse proportion to the nastiness of the job.

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3 thoughts on “David Abalos: Against Assimilation

  1. Maria, I don’t know who you are but thank you. I am heartened by your thoughtful and informed addition to this important discussion. If you — or anybody — observes an organization that is “finding ways for these newcomers to go through a less painful, more humane, immigration experience” please let me know. And/or I also invite you to continue the discussion, by e-mail, to bfiggefox@gmail.com.

  2. I would not worry about your question, Barbara. It is both PC and EC (economically correct). In fact, it is one of the main underlying factors in the immigration debate. We, as a society, know, but choose to ignore or forget, our need for low-skilled labor and that there are not enough native-born workers to fill all these jobs. This need, i.e. “demand”, has been filled from the beginning of American history by imported labor, i.e. “supply”. History shows how American society has dealt with these “imports”, wave after wave. From the African slaves to today’s Central American unauthorized immigrants (the “illegals”), the American power structure has conspired to “keep them in their place”. America has struggled with this inherent contradiction between its principles and the reality of this underclass and so far we can be proud of the triumph of moral principles over “free market” economics, as each subsequent wave of forced or willing immigrants has eventually risen out of its second class status. Some would argue that many African Americans continue to suffer the stigma of de-facto second class citizenship thanks to racism. It remains to be seen what happens with the latest wave, the Latinos; whether large numbers of them will also join disenfranchised African Americans in a growing underclass.But there need not be such contradiction between morals and economics. For society to thrive under a market-driven economy inequality can co-exist with social mobility. America’s success has been its ability to absorb subsequent groups of immigrants willing to “pay their dues” in exchange for the bargain of a better future for their children. If we break that bargain, as we seem to be wanting to do with the latest wave of Latino immigrants, then we will get into trouble. Denied a path to legalization which would doom them and their families to a permanent underclass most of these Latino immigrants would not return “home” and fulfill the wishful thinking of those who advocate for “attrition”. Their home is now here, as was the home of the freed slaves who in-spite of Jim Crow did not go back to Africa.Faith in ourselves and humanity will continue to serve America, and other developed nations. Unfortunately, the world has not ran out of hungry, desperate but hopeful people willing to sacrifice for the next generation in exchange for the chance to a better future. We should also find ways for these newcomers to go through a less painful, more humane immigration experience.As to the assimilation fear, I am not sure Dr. Abalos advocates against it as much as in favor of a “social conscience” that recognizes the generational debt owed to those who came before us. And I think his point is not that Latinos should isolate themselves culturally but hat they should not loose their identity and by so doing enrich the American cultural tapestry. Keep in mind that “Latinos” are, by definition, “Americans”. They become Latinos after they get here. before that they were Mexicans, Guatemalans, Colombians, etc…

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