Those Enterprising Immigrants: One Story
May 01, 2004, 05:00 AM
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[Peter Brimelow writes: There are two sides to every question, except immigration, where there`s only a good side, according the Establishment media—witness Newsweek`s recent paean to South Asian immigrants. Here we make a small, anecdotal effort to redress the balance.]

"Is the Yukon cold in the winter? Cold? No, not really. It`s fine."

The person speaking was my former roommate, a South Asian immigrant whom I will call Sam. He was trying to persuade another Indian immigrant in his employ to go work in Canada`s Yukon territories. The job the man was to take was to start in September and was to run through the end of February. The would-be contract worker was from southern India. Having never seen snow, he was afraid of going some place icy. This fear was exacerbated by the man`s inability to drive—a requirement in the northern stretch of the Yukon to which Sam wished to send him.

I know it must seem hard to believe that anyone could really say that the Yukon wasn`t especially cold in the winter. But those were Sam`s words. My ex-roommate`s business was to locate computer programmers in remote locales, and he was making a sale—a sale, which, if completed, would be highly profitable for him.

I cannot claim that the story of Sam is entirely representative of the behavior of immigrant entrepreneurs. But that immigrant business practices may not be ones which we would like to become commonplace in America should be pretty obvious to anyone who has observed immigrant-run small and medium-sized businesses.

At the very least Sam`s story should make us look critically at remarks like, "Immigrants work hard. They start businesses."

Yes, but at what do they work and what sort of businesses are they running?

Are they paying taxes? Are they abiding by work-place safety rules? Do they treat customers and workers fairly?

Do we want to live in cities made up of their sweat-shops and counterfeiting rings?

Perhaps because of indolence as much as political correctness, few academics have studied the ways in which immigrant businessmen operate within and outside the law.

Superficially, the case of my ex-roommate would seem to buttress the immigrant-entrepreneur mantra. An Ivy League graduate, Sam is the son of an Indian Brigadier General and his wife, an import-export heiress. And Sam`s business was technology.

I first met him in January of 1991 when he was returning to college, following an unexplained absence. It subsequently turned out that he had dropped out to travel around the American West, deal drugs at rock shows and participate in orgies at a New Age resort.

Sam had not reported his decision to leave school to immigration authorities, and his visa was not in order. During this time, he was apprehended by police in California with quantities of psilocybin that he intended to sell and was thrown in jail for a month. After making bail, he fled the jurisdiction and went back to school. A confusion on the part of his arresting officers as to what his surname was permitted him to avoid arrest warrants for a period of years.

After school, Sam went to Chicago to work as a computer programmer for a bond firm. While there, he decided to become licensed to work in trading activities and provided his fingerprints to the Securities and Exchange Commission—at which point authorities uncovered his flight from prosecution in California.

But, to his good fortune, the local prosecutor he encountered on his return to California was a graduate of the same Ivy League college. Seeing Sam`s arrival in a nicely-cut suit, the district attorney chose to let the poor young immigrant go with a suspended sentence. More, the prosecutor persuaded the presiding magistrate to seal the records to the case.

Soon thereafter, Sam relocated to New York, a city he supposed had more "action."

In New York he met an American diplomat, on his way to a foreign assignment, and befriended him. Charmed by the seemingly young man, the diplomat asked him to house-sit his Upper West Side penthouse apartment. Sam swore that he would do his best to take care of it.

However, once the diplomat had left the country, Sam invited me and a woman to move in and pay him rent for rooms in the apartment. In addition, he commenced throwing drug-fueled parties for his friends. During these, rare antiques in the apartment were destroyed.

Sam`s first job in New York was as a programmer developing risk models for a Wall Street firm. It would have been a great opportunity for any serious young programmer and his pay was considerable. His performance on the job, however, was such that he ultimately had to be dismissed and escorted out of the building by security personnel. (Yet Sam had, in fact, already managed to steal company records in anticipation of his dismissal.)

But, though Sam had failed out at the Wall Street firm and spent time in jail, it was the late 1990s—a time of opportunity for entrepreneurs. The economy was desperate for skilled computer programmers. Sam decided that he had the contacts and the moxie to go into business. Sam`s father had recently retired from the Indian army, and the two connived to set up a firm specializing in arranging for the importation of Indian computer specialists under U.S. technical visas.

The laws in India at that time allowed firms set up to arrange for such transfers to take their would-be employees` passports—in effect, taking control of their futures. Sam`s father used his previous army rank to gain the trust of novice Indian programmers and then got them to give him these documents.

Sam then was to make the "sales" of the programmers` services in the United States and Canada.

To save money, Sam began having the programmers come and live on the floors of the apartment he had promised to house-sit. When they were waiting for job assignments, he would have them practice working with unfamiliar software that he was promising companies that the programmers already knew. In their remaining time, he would have the techies perform menial chores—sweeping and making him meals. For food, he gave them the cheapest junk foods.

When the co-op building learned what was happening and threw Sam out, he took to housing his employees in cheap motels, cramming in as many as he could in each.

Sam`s former right-hand man says that his constant scheming and lying to clients eventually ruined the company`s reputation and its business. Similarly, the employees I spoke to that he had brought in to the U.S. were extremely bitter and angry about the way they had been deceived.

But Sam today claims that, while the late-1990`s boom lasted, he made enormous amounts of money.

Later, when the Internet boom peaked, Sam worked with other immigrant acquaintances to set up fraudulent internet stock companies.

In spite of all this, Sam did eventually receive his green card and he has stayed here. However, uneasy with the independence of American women, he brought a bride over from India to be his arranged wife.

If Sam`s behavior sounds like that of someone without established roots, ties or ongoing relationships, it may be because it is. But many immigrant entrepreneurs lack established roots, ties and ongoing relationships here. Is this an invitation to sociopathic business practices that subvert legitimate enterprise? Is it an accident that many immigrant ethnic business clans are so notorious?

Whatever the answer may be, Sam remains in the U.S. The last time I spoke time he told me he was busy trying to set up new companies.

Lincoln Kahn is a New York-based writer