Leadership Afraid to Cling to Immigration

Posted by Bobbi Murray on May 28, 2008

While lots of us fired up the grill over the Memorial Day weekend, a story came out Saturday in The New York Times about the previous week’s prosecution of 270 undocumented workers, arrested May 12 at an Iowa meat-packing plant.

270 Illegal Immigrants Sent to Prison in Federal Push

Kudos to the feds— the bust just 10 days before the three-day weekend still probably allowed Agriprocessors of Postville, Iowa to get the Memorial Day shipment out before their workers were shackled and led away.

The raid is nothing new — federal government figures show 2007 workplace raids by ICE — Immigration and Customs Enforcement— at 10 times the 2006 figure. The number of raids continues to track upwards.

And they have become a terrible way of life in immigrant communities. The Los Angeles Times carried a story on Tuesday about workshops organized by rights advocates — they advise undocumented parents on how to legally designate caretakers for U.S.-born children left behind.

But the prosecutions that concluded last Friday in Iowa kicked the whole workplace raid campaign up a notch. The workers were not charged with the usual civil violations that result in deportation, but with federal offenses — using false Social Security cards or immigration documents — identity theft and document fraud.

“To my knowledge the magnitude of these indictments is completely unprecedented,” Juliet Stumpf, an immigration law professor at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon, and a former senior civil rights attorney at the Department of Justice told The New York Times.

“Itís the reliance on criminal process here as part of an immigration enforcement action that takes this out of the ordinary,” she said, “a startling intensification of the criminalization of immigration law.”

Most of those caught up in the Agriprocessors raid accepted guilty pleas to avoid the even more serious charge of felony identity theft the prosecution threatened. That’s good for a minimum two-year sentence. As it is, the plea agreement means five months in jail followed by immediate deportation. The defendants also gave up their rights to go to immigration court.

Those snared were almost all Guatemalan, many of them indigenous people from the mountains and countryside. That means Spanish would be their second language, English, their third if they spoke any.

And there they were, busted in Iowa, many worlds from home, doing the goriest, dreariest jobs for wages that donít top out much over $7 an hour.

If that doesnít say “zero options,” nothing does.

The criminal proceedings took place on the grounds of the National Cattle Congress in Waterloo, Iowa. Meat-packing plant raid, “cattle congress” venue — another nice touch, prosecutors!

The location wasnít the only thing “cattle” about the hearings. It took all of four days to process the detained; 94 of them pleaded guilty and received sentence in a single day last Wednesday.

Agriprocessors, by the way, didn’t have much to say except the company was cooperating with the investigation.

The company has been the target of government sanctions for violations environmental and worker safety regulations.

No, those sanctions did NOT include five months in jail and deportation for the companyís owner, the Rubashkin family. Daddy Rubashkin did tell the media that in the wake of the raid he had begun a search to replace Son Rubashkin as the companyís CEO.

An April NPR report notes that the rise in the number of raids has yielded fre executive prosecutions.

Agriprocessors has repeatedly stiff-armed approaches from the United Food and Commercial Workers. A union contract would set standards for all the workers regardless of immigration status and raise the wage floor, which would make it less worthwhile for the company to exploit the undocumented.

But anyway, we have already established that Agriprocessors snubbed the union. Look on the UFCWís website for an unhappy company history

It also mentions the supermarkets that purchase from Agriprocessors, including Albertsonís Kroger, Shop-Rite, Walmart and Trader Joe’s.

The U.S. government’s workplace crackdown is all the more painful in light of the failed immigration reform bill last year. The measure was far from perfect — but would have provided a way for some 12 million undocumented in the U.S. to get legal status and eventually achieve citizenship.

Millions filled the streets in 2006 and 2007 in support of reform. John McCainís name was on the reform bill, along with that of Senator Edward Kennedy. The whole confluence hints of a miracle in the offing. No dice, though — the Senate Republicans voted to talk it to death rather than pass it.

The Bush administration and Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff launched the workplace raid strategy in 2006, even as Congress debated the bill and the Administration supported parts of it.

I’ve got to wonder how much this present escalation has to do with election year chest-thumping.

Not to give the Administration too much credit on its ability to implement complex plans.

But if I were a GOP-er, I’d shut up about the economy, and seems they mostly do.

Even the previously vaunted War On Terror seems to be too incompetently run to promote with any vigor.

The Administration has managed to roundly thrash civil liberties, drive dozens in the Guantanamo prison camp to suicide attempts as they await their day in kangaroo court, and shock the conscience of those of us paying attention.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — tragically AWOL from an election debate that should focus on them — are not going well enough to plug in the Republican campaign.

So War On Terror — no doubt conceived as a bust-out political marketing magnet — not going that way.

But immigration crackdowns always sell. Barack Obama got pilloried for his remarks about the way American people left behind by a globalized economy turn “bitter.” That, and the “cling to guns and religion” part, was the focus of the ruckus. Obama also mentioned “anti-immigrant sentiment,” and he was right.

There’s an endless supply of bile from people who blame immigrants. For crashing our public health systems — rather than employers who donít provide insurance and a government that can’t or wonít meet a basic need .

Or for overcrowding the schools even though education is the constant target of budget cuts.

Immigrants even get blamed here in Los Angeles for traffic congestion, for Pete’s sake, while you can safely bet that immigrants make up the bulk of those using our awful bus system.

The pressures on the native-born are real. Itís also true that the most powerful industrial nation on earth should — but does not — have a coherent policy governing workers who come from other countries and benefit our economy, a policy that acknowledges the complexities and protects human rights.

You want a headache? Spend half an hour trying to thread through the current patchwork of policies. Youíll find rules that allow visas for some classes of workers, not others, permit some nationalities, not others, to bring in family members (but only after a decade-plus wait) or allow immediate asylum for some and none at all for others, even if both seekers are from countries with hair-curling human rights records.

You always hear about Mexican undocumented “jumping the line.” I couldn’t find a figure for the number of visas allowed to Mexican nationals, but itís certainly not 7 million — very roughly the number of undocumented Mexicans here. For them, a visa is a not a matter of doing the paperwork.

There are no legal means to enter. There is no line to jump.There are piles of policy papers and lots of good thinking, even a grassroots movement that may someday push through the more humane and sensible proposals.

What would get those policies through? Leadership unafraid of the polls and willing to figure out and fight for something that would benefit all Americans.

Immigration has scarcely made center stage this election year except for a few dustups about whether the undocumented should have drivers licenses — a matter individual states could work out. If the issue does flare, it’s sure to be as a wedge. Maybe something positive can happen after November.

Meanwhile, I hope those Guatemalans busted in Iowa eventually get home safely.

If you like this article, please subscribe to Shelterforce in print or make a small donation to keep Rooflines strong.

COMMENTS

 

There are no comments on this article yet. Start the discussion below.

POST YOUR COMMENTS register or login