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The Accidental American

I must begin with deepest thanks to Rinku Sen and Fekkah Mamdouh for sharing the story of The Accidental American. This is not just an important book; it is a masterful book, educating and engrossing the reader on many levels. Its scope provides a look at conditions for immigrants from pre-9/11 New York to New York in 2008. Its focus shifts between close-ups of individual immigrants and wide-angle views of immigration policy. The reader closes this book in a completely different place from where she opened it.

Rinku Sen is the president and executive director of the Applied Research Center (ARC), and Fekkak Mamdouh is the cofounder of the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York (ROC-NY) and the codirector of the Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC-U). These are busy people doing worthwhile things. The Accidental American is Fekkak, called Mamdouh throughout the book. Ms. Sen begins by telling the story of his reaction to losing his job at the Windows on the World restaurant when the Twin Towers fell on September 11, 2001. Mamdouh is a Morrocan immigrant, and from his history Sen seamlessly moves to the stories of other Windows workers.

These people are immigrants, many of them undocumented, and Sen stresses the fact that they want to work, have skills and goals, and want to be legal, but are forced by the current global trade structure to leave their impoverished countries and then forced by the current immigration policy to live in a class below that of American citizens and below that of legal immigrants.

The book's most powerful sentence refers to how these people are called illegals: "When people break other laws," Sen writes, "we donít attach the stigma of illegality to their entire beings." She is right.

So many stories and perspectives are gathered here into one epic mosaic of the immigrant experience and its relation to globalization: there is Mamdouh's transformation from a union shop steward to a labor organizer, and the creation of the Restaurant Opportunities Center, which helps mistreated immigrant restaurant workers achieve their rights; there is Sen's reasoned explanation of how neoliberal policies created the climate for the current unsatisfactory conditions surrounding immigration, and there is her bravura chapter describing how businesses and those who wish to restrict immigration have control over the debate on the subject, while immigrants themselves have no voice.

When placed next to the shiny, attention-catching covers of other current-affairs books, The Accidental American may look grim and text-book-like. It is not. The story is one of hard work, hope, and longing -- longing for a kind of globalization in which immigrants can freely choose to become citizens and then do so in a cooperative atmosphere -- with no stigmas attached.


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