As the Philippines Grieves for Dead Maid Found in Kuwaiti Freezer, Eric Posner Argues We Should Do That Here
This month saw Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte offering to fly Filipino maids home from Kuwait after one was found dead in the freezer of her employers. For some time, grim stories have been trickling out of the Gulf States about the mistreatment of foreign temporary employees, including a scandal a few years ago about temporary workers building NYU’s new campus, but this one seemed to mark a new low for the kafala, or temporary worker, system. The problems appear to be particularly acute when the worker is employed by a family or small business — at least in the case of the NYU workers, the fact that they worked for a large, international company helped ensure that their complaints were at least heard.
The problems with temporary worker programs that lock workers into a servitude relationship with a single employer or family are well-documented: an almost total lack of oversight, a financial and legal situation basically designed to encourage abuse and a lack of political will in either sending or receiving countries to safeguard the system.
Yet Eric Posner, celebrated American law professor, gave this system a ringing endorsement in a recent Politico article. He argues that we should bring a system that leads to murdered maids being stuffed in freezers to the United States. Because that’s what we need — more ways for the global 1% to abuse and exploit the rest.
The article is spectacularly, comically clueless. The original title, “What If You Could Get Your Own Immigrant,” was apparently met with such outrage that Politico changed it to “Let Them Eat Cake.” No, just kidding. It changed the title to “Sponsor an Immigrant Yourself.” This headline debacle must be one of journalism’s all time greatest headline epic fails, but it’s only the beginning. Joe Patrice of Above the Law covers some points here, and Zack Kopplin makes some others here for Slate.
The article also speaks loudly for itself, from it’s can-do tone of rah-rah capitalism to the blithe assurance that doing literally anything in America under any circumstances is always better than life someplace else, but if I can just draw out one particularly gruesome part of this through-the-looking glass version of the American dream of Posner’s (who by the way makes at least $200,000 dreaming up stuff like this and teaching America’s future lawyers) that has not yet been pointed out in any of the articles I’ve seen.
First, a brief summary of the fact pattern as presented by Posner: After having read far to many rosy stories of immigrants bootstrapping their way up into the American middle class, Posner introduces us to “Mary,” the working-class American who needs a servant to help her start a small business, and Sofia, who needs food and medicine and stuff but lives in Paraguay, which Posner darkly hints is the location of suffering pampered American minds could never imagine. Why Paraguay is singled out as a bastion of human misery is never made clear.
In an amusing detail, we learn that Mary, prior to coming to the US, is given some sort of mysterious “training” to acculturate her to our ways. It’s fascinating to try to get inside Posner’s mind when he wrote this sentence. What sorts of skills could he be imagining Sofia needs to learn? Basic English? How to tip an Uber driver? Why Cheez Whiz doesn’t contain any cheese? We are sadly left in the dark.
After this, the article takes a darker turn, suggesting that sponsors of immigrants should not only be allowed to charge their workers less than minimum wage, they should also be able to charge them a $6,000 fee in exchange for sponsorship. There are obvious incentives for abuse built into this idea. The fact that it would be used by countless private American families, sort of like the foster care system or nanny system, rather than large corporations used to performing oversight and submitting reviews to the government actually makes abuse much more likely.
The idea that sponsored foreign workers can “leave any time” is simply laughable. The fact that $5 an hour is much higher than what Sofia would earn in Paraguay is totally irrelevant because she would be living in West Virginia, where $5 an hour (even with room and board thrown in) is barely a living wage according to our own federal government. Implicit in this obvious fact is that Sofia would stay in her basement eating the food provided for her by her employer and not spend much money, sending most of her earnings home or saving them so that she returns to Paraguay a rich woman. What happens if Sofia gets sick? Well, we all know immigrants never get sick because they are so hardworking and grateful for opportunities.
But let’s set all that aside for a moment and look at the real problem with this article, which is suggesting that we exploit the desperation of poor people in other countries as a way for Americans to make cash. We would essentially be allowing Americans to sell a chance to work in the US, something so valuable to non-Americans, in Posner’s telling, that they would be willing to put up with almost anything to get it.
The naked, ugly idea at the bottom of Posner’s article is that we Americans should be monetizing our citizenship the way we might monetize having a nice apartment in a trendy neighborhood. Or rather, that we shouldn’t be monetizing our Americanism per se, but rather the desperation of the migrants trying to get a piece of it.
As Americans, we each own something incredibly valuable: our right to live and work in the United States. And leave it to an American to dream up a way to monetize this valuable asset, package it, and sell it to the huddled masses.