Posted at PSLweb.org by Natividad Carrera
Sheriff Joe Arpaio is the new Bull Connor
Thousands of undocumented treated like criminals
On Dec. 15, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) introduced HR 4321, the “Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America’s Security and Prosperity Act of 2009,” into the House with 89 cosponsors. The Obama administration has stated that it will not act on the bill until health care legislation is passed, but there is a good chance it is also waiting for a more conservative compromise proposal to emerge from the Senate subcommittee on immigration. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is also supposed to introduce an administration bill next year.
The introduction of HR 4321 reflects mounting pressure on the broken immigration system, and growing frustration from immigrant rights, labor, and religious groups who have seen no substantive change in policy since the Democrats took control a year ago. In fact, Democratic Party leaders have gone out of their way in the health care debate to appease the right wing and make clear that undocumented workers will not stand to gain from any reform.
The immigration bill has serious flaws in that it accepts the logic of tightening “border security” and thus does not challenge the category of the “illegal” immigrant. This logic only benefits the bosses and corporations, whose super-exploitation of undocumented workers puts downward pressure on all wages. Only full legalization and complete equality between U.S-born and foreign-born workers can reverse this dynamic.
Nonetheless, HR 4321 has already been dubbed “too radical” because it provides a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants, who would not be required to return to their home countries (as earlier bills had required). Nor does it include a temporary “guest worker program,” which is the main demand of corporations who aim to recruit workers from across the border, pay them low wages without labor rights, and then send them back. The United States has never implemented a low-skilled guest worker program that does not super-exploit workers.
The federal government’s inability and unwillingness to pass immigration reform has given space to local and state law enforcement agencies to increase their repressive activities. While the federal government twiddled its thumbs during the Civil Rights Movement, local police departments in the South led the forces of reaction and bigotry against the Black freedom struggle. A similar situation now confronts the immigrant rights movement. While civil rights marchers had to square off against Bull Connor in Birmingham and Sheriff Jim Clark in Selma, today Sheriff Joe Arpaio plays a similar role in Phoenix, Ariz.
A test lab for new anti-immigrant tactics and legislation
Under an Arizona law passed in 2005 to prosecute the smuggling of immigrants, local police were given authority to enforce immigration law. However, the law interpreted those being smuggled as “co-conspirators,” thereby allowing the likes of Arpaio to use anti-coyote laws to prosecute immigrants crossing the border.
Arpaio has pursued the anti-immigrant crusade with zeal, going so far as to organize and deputize a “civilian posse” to arrest the undocumented. Arpaio’s actions are tantamount to sanctioning police brutality against a section of the working class. His actions have drawn the attention of the Department of Justice, which revoked his deputies’ immigration enforcement powers, though Arpaio has sworn to continue with his heavy-handed tactics.
Many liberals assume that the Obama administration shies away from the repressive tactics of right-wing ideologues and the previous Bush administration. But that view fails to recognize how badly things are shaping up under this administration. Administration officials have talked about increased “efficiency” instead of outright expansion of repressive measures to stem the tide of immigration. But this euphemism is just a cover for increased oppression.
Already there are 369,000 people imprisoned in camps and special jails set up for immigration violators under the previous administration. There are an anticipated 440,000 people who will join them under the Obama administration this year alone. This is the result of continued raids and immigration sweeps into oppressed communities.
Given estimates of an undocumented population ranging from 12 to 20 million, we are talking anywhere from 2 to 4 percent undocumented workers and family members incarcerated or deported in a given year. Three years of these policies and one-tenth of the undocumented population could be gone.
At the present rate, this massive criminalization and incarceration of undocumented immigrants shows no sign of slowing down. This oppression of the undocumented is compounded by the current economic crisis, with many choosing to leave under the current harsh economic and political conditions. It is what right-wing ideologue Mark Krekorian has labeled “attrition through enforcement.”
Not only that, but without passage of a comprehensive immigration-reform bill, some of the more right-wing members of the political establishment, such as Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), have pushed for more enforcement-only legislation. Currently, the only other bills on the legislative table are enforcement bills alongside Luis Gutierrez’s recent offering.
When E-Verify (an Internet-based system that allows an employer to determine the eligibility of an employee to work in the United States) was passed, the legislation made funds available for 700 miles of wall along the border. This, on top of the increased funding for border enforcement, has only led to further oppression for those seeking a better life, with many forced into even more desperate measures and even more remote and dangerous parts of the desert to cross over.
When these people are caught, they are thrown into new prisons for immigrants. But the people imprisoned are not criminals. They are workers. The increased enforcement has even seen the militarization of the border with military equipment being used including high-tech surveillance devices and unmanned aerial drones.
Tightening the screws
The raids and increased border enforcement are nothing new. These policies and tactics were used under the previous administration and continue to be used. What the Obama administration has done is made the repressive apparatus function more “efficiently.” It has turned the screws even tighter, however, with the introduction of E-Verify.
This electronic employment verification system, meant to ensure that only documented immigrants and native-born workers are legally hired, is also supposed to better enforce employer sanctions. It has resulted in the wholesale firing of immigrant labor forces some employers have seen as too risky to keep on the payroll. Even employers who support immigration reform, like American Apparel, have given their labor forces notice that they could be laid off for fear of reprisal and government audits.
Now, not only do undocumented workers face the prospect of increased border enforcement and harassing raids, but the removal of any way to make a living. Never has an oppressed sector of society been in a more precarious situation. If fully implemented, no one will be hired without documents under E-Verify. One of the leaders in the immigrants rights movement, Juan Jose Gutierrez of Latino movement USA, pointed out that nearly 65,000 workers could lose their jobs immediately.
The choice for the immigration rights movement and their allies is stark. Left to their own devices, the powers-that-be would like to fashion a bill that serves only the needs of big business and agribusiness or simply a bill that increases enforcement measures.
The only force that can break this status quo is the intervention of a massive people’s movement that seeks to make the workers and oppressed the ones who decide how society is organized. This can be done—it has been done before. Just like Martin Luther King stared down the Bull Connors and Jim Clarks of his time, so can we. Just as the organized workers’ movement won an eight-hour workday and the right to organize, so can we.
Failure to secure passage of a bill that recognizes the human rights of the undocumented and provides a path to citizenship would not only be a blow to immigrants but to the working class as a whole. The only hope lies in organizing for change, in the streets, in the hearts and minds of the people, in the space from which the ruling class never expects change to come—from below.