The Baffler

Walls, Moats, and Borders

In the new world of work, how will immigration crackdowns be justified?

The Baffler
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If the Trump Administration were a medieval court, and some, including the man at the top, would like it to be, then Stephen Miller would be the sly and artful courtier ever in search of hospitable moments in which to further his cause of an all-white America. He may sometimes get shafted and shamed, but Slinky Steve never gives up. Take a look at his most recent failure: after Trump tweeted with relish a Miller-inspired plan to “suspend immigration into the United States,” the plan ended up lifeless on the castle floor. Reportedly through the interventions of Jared Kushner, the luminescent son-in-law of the ruler, what would have been ambitious plan to install a gator-ridden, extra-deep moat around all the land was reduced to a mere puddle.

By the time it was signed on April 22, Trump’s executive order did not, as hardliners would have wished, halt all immigration; it only stopped the processing of green cards for immigrants not already in the United States—with a number of major exceptions, including for spouses and children of U.S. citizens and health care professionals—for sixty days. Foreign workers, both the highly skilled and the migrant laborers, could stay. It was a dud document, its teeth extracted by Kushner and other powerful men who had held the president, a devoted xenophobe, back. Miller likely spent the day after this defeat sulking in his West Wing dungeon, sharpening the proverbial knives he would need for the next battle. He still believed that victory was imminent, he told supporters of his moat-and-wall vision in a phone call, assuring them that he wouldn’t “leave them hanging.”

They will be left hanging, but not owing to the vertiginous details of Trump court politics, nor the mercurial fortunes of those who want the president’s ear. For an interminably long three-and-a-half years, Trump Inc. have been dangling the halcyon apparition of an all-white America before their followers. Every few months, they have been thrown a travel ban, a limitation of asylum, or a ban on refugees, so that their ardor for Trump never cools. This most recent order would have been another iteration of throwing scraps to this herd, a juicy bit of xenophobia to look forward to in uncertain times.

The coronavirus pandemic, or rather the “work-from-home” habits it has necessitated among white-collar workers in the United States, is what is ultimately going to complicate the grand plan of American jobs for Americans only (read: white people). This is how Miller sells his fake populism: the entire project of restricting immigration is designed, he says, to protect American workers from having to compete with immigrants for jobs. He’s found that’s a more palatable explanation than the white nationalism line, which he’s tried to restrict to his private email messages.

Yet in the past couple of weeks, Twitter, Facebook, Google, and financial services corporations like Visa have all announced that most of their employees will likely be working from home for the rest of 2020. Twitter, in fact, has announced that any workers who have jobs that do not require them to be physically present can work from home from here on out.

Miller likely spent the day after this defeat sulking in his West Wing dungeon, sharpening the proverbial knives he would need for the next battle.

The extent of the coming work-from-home era has already bred quite a bit of anxiety in places like New York, where banks rent so many of the large looming towers that are such an integral part of the skyline. Barclays, Morgan Stanley, and J.P. Morgan Chase currently house tens of thousands of workers in imposing office towers all over Manhattan. Even if the circumstances imposed by the pandemic dissipate with the development of a vaccine, the change in work culture and norms means that companies might decide that paying for expensive real estate is foolish given the cost savings. Instead of housing every single worker on office campuses, companies will likely choose to have meeting spaces available to teams that would like to use it. Companies, after all, would always prefer that their workers work rather than share cakes in the breakroom or gossip in the bathroom. That workers may have liked the sociable workplace is unlikely to hold up against the millions, even billions, in savings that large companies will see.

The bells have already begun to toll the coming of the real estate apocalypse and their peals will likely ring deep into our unyielding pandemic night. Trump and his courtiers will suffer losses—some of them, not least the Kushner family, have large investments in commercial real estate in what is considered the city at the center of the world. Slinky Steve, architect of exclusions, however, is likely to suffer a defeat all his own.

If a big part of the labor force works from home most of the time, then it follows that those working from home can have a home anywhere at all. Why indeed should anyone fork out exorbitant rent in expensive and filthy cities where pandemics appear to flourish? If American workers, now liberated by geography, can work from home, and if the location of home no longer matters, then why should workers be American at all? It will not take very long for American companies, or Indian companies, or any companies anywhere, to realize that the post-pandemic worker is no longer attached to a region or even a nation. At least in the realm of white-collar, office-based work and the tech-savvy employee (just the sort that the recent watered-down executive order was aiming at), open borders will be a reality.

It is undoubted that Slinky Steve and his cabal of courtiers will begin again to dig the moat and build the wall as November, slowly, steadily draws closer. A few more bans, a few more rule changes that impose further tortures on would-be asylum seekers or migrant workers or any American who has had the gall to marry a foreigner, are surely all forthcoming. When the white nationalist dream cannot create the white supremacist society it so longs for, imposing further cruelties on brown and black people is the second best thing.

Trump and his courtiers are fighting a battle that is backward-looking.

Yet this agenda has never been universally popular in the business world. It is precisely this impulse to constrict and constrain that will contribute to the freeing of a certain kind of work, of intellectual capital, from the accidents of birth. A person born in Nigeria may be able to work a job that, in the before times, required his or her presence in the United States. Similarly, an American may work for a French company without having to make the onerous move to France. The places where we choose to live may no longer have much connection with the places where we work. When more jobs are not located in the world’s richest countries, but instead a virtual cloud, clamping down on immigration in the name of American jobs may no longer hold up as an excuse.

At this moment when so many of us are sitting out the plague in our living rooms in our increasingly shabby loungewear, in our suddenly claustrophobic dwellings, we can barely grasp the dimensions of the change to come. We cannot help but be frustrated by the interminable slowness of our lives, stuck as they are in indefinite thrall. It is a stretch in this condition to consider the dimensions of the impalpable transformation occurring around us.

It is the same with President Trump and his courtiers. The lot of them, used to the intrigue and cavorting of the world as they have known it, are fighting a battle that is backward-looking. In the world that was, where working from home full-time was impossible even for most white-collar work, much of life was arranged around the location of the office and the physical requirement to be present in it. Homes were bought as close to offices as possible because work and not community were the fulcrum of life. Now, people from around the world will be able to work together easily, but they may have to actively choose to be in physical proximity of their co-workers.

For those with white-collar office-based jobs amenable to remote work this new world may be one in which work will not bind us to geography; and make it possible for us to choose our community, choose our polity, choose, instead of resigning ourselves. In this world of intentional community, the world’s “highly skilled workers,” (a statutory immigration category that is often the only legal route for those with graduate degrees to get into the United States) currently held back by arbitrary accidents of birth, will no longer have to beg and plead for visas, and be deemed lesser than Americans. Every day of the last three years, men like Slinky Steve have plotted and agitated to maintain white racial privilege in employment. Who would have thought that working from home might herald the first days of their downfall?

Rafia Zakaria is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon 2015) and Veil (Bloomsbury 2017). She is a columnist for Dawn in Pakistan. She writes regularly for the Guardian, Boston Review, The New Republic, and The New York Times Book Review.

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