Posts Tagged ‘Iowa’

Postville: The Difference a Year Makes

May 13, 2009

Yesterday, immigrant rights advocates marched down the tiny streets of Postville, IA. They marched to remind the nation that workplace raids cause ongoing devastation, that immigrants deserve basic human rights, and that Obama must live up to his promise to tackle immigration reform in the next year. [Martin, Liz. “Postville story, a year later, told in photos”]

Local businessman Gabay Menahem joined the march and commented on the economic difference a year makes.  “A year ago it was impossible to buy a house in Postville. Now there are 228 houses for sale out of 700 total.”  More than 30% of the Jewish community left after the raid, and much of the Latino community was either deported after entering guilty pleas or fled in fear.  [Love, Orlan] Some still remain, wearing transponders on their ankles more than a year later.  Children still remain [local school attendance has only dropped about 3%], but they are in increasing need of mental health services, and many of them are missing at least one parent.

Father Ouderkirk and St. Bridget’s Church continue to minister to the Latino community of Postville.  They currently care for 30 affected families, aiding them with housing and food and counseling as they seek to be reunited with their family members or as they wait for their day in court.

Most of the 389 workers arrested pled guilty last May.  They were housed in a cattle-barn, expedited through a trailer-home courthouse ten at a time, and threatened with years in prison unless they pled guilty on the spot.  Many of them were from Guatemala, and few of them spoke English.  The majority of them had no idea what a Social Security number was, or why the leading prosecutor Stephanie Rose thought that they had used fake ones.  Many of them had received fake numbers from their employer, Agriprocessor’s Inc., the largest kosher meatpacking plant in the nation.

Last week, the Supreme Court issued its ruling on Flores-Figueroa, ruling that to be convicted of aggravated identity theft, the person must know they are using another person’s identification.  While this ruling does little for the 389 workers, most of whom pled guilty and have since been deported, but it is resulting in dropped charges against some of Agriprocessor’s administration.  Last Tuesday, federal prosecutors dropped aggravated identity theft charges [a mandatory 2 years imprisonment] against human resources manager Laura Althouse, who was allowed to rescind a guilty plea she entered last year. [Preston, Julia. “Dismissal of Guilty Pleas is Sought for Immigrants”]

As the Supreme Court’s decision affects the sentencing of this dubious employer’s administrative staff, many are calling upon Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. to order a case-by-case investigation into the almost 300 guilty pleas entered last May in Postville. “The federal prosecutors used the law as a hammer to coerce the workers,” said David Leopold, vice president of American Immigration Lawyers Association.  Others went farther, including Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-California), chairwoman of the House immigration subcommittee.  She is calling on the Justice Department to start over, since these cases didn’t comport with the law. [Preston, Julia. “Dismissal of Guilty Pleas is Sought for Immigrants”]

Today marks the day after Postville’s raid last year.  Postville no longer represents the largest ICE raid [Laurel, MS, now holds that dubious title].  This tiny town in northern Iowa has largely been forgotten by politicians and lawmakers, if not the general public.  As life goes on and our courts begin to follow the new Flores-Figueroa ruling, it is vital that we make sure it is evenly applied.  There is an unpleasant aroma of injustice when the immigrants who worked in subhuman conditions were imprisoned five months and deported, while the employers were never made to stand accountable for their numerous employment violations [child labor laws, safety protocols, and pay] and look to walk on some of the harsher sanctions of identity theft and employing undocumented workers.

April Showers bring May Flores Decision from the Supreme Court

May 4, 2009

Having spent much of this past semester writing and researching my Legal Writing brief at the University of Minnesota Law School, I became intimately acquainted with the aggravated identity theft statute 18 USC 1028A.  Today, almost a year since it was used to deport nearly 400 Latino immigrants after the ICE raid in Postville, the Supreme Court issued its decision on Flores-Figueroa vs. United States. Justice Breyer authored the opinion which explained that for aggravated identity theft, the defendant must have known they were misappropriating an actual person’s identity.  All too often in the past, 1028A was used as a catch-all statute to compound the sentences of unwitting immigrants who were given papers and had no knowledge that their Social Security numbers belonged to a real person.[Stout, David. “Supreme Court Rules Against Government in Identity-Theft Case”]

In Postville, for example, local sources state that the management of Agriprocessors actively provided such false documents for the immigrant workers from Central America.  Within a week of that raid in May of 2008, chained groups of immigrants were brought before a judge holding court in a trailer. They were told that they had stolen people’s Social Security numbers [a word few of them knew], and that they should accept the government’s offer of 6 months and then deportation.  Most took the deal, though they understood little English and even less about the complex American immigration system.[Stout, David. “Supreme Court Rules Against Government in Identity-Theft Case”]

Ignacio Flores-Figueroa was a Mexican immigrant working in an Illinois steel facility.  Unbeknownst to him, the papers he had procured bore the name and number of an actual person. When he was caught, Ignacio pled guilty to the immigration charges but refused to accept the aggravating sentence of identity theft.  While the 8th Circuit upheld the conviction, the Supreme Court’s decision today means that Ignacio will serve less time before he is deported.  However, this case, argued by Stanford University Law Professor Kevin Russell, will hopefully change, if not eliminate, ICE employer raids in the future. [Stout, David. “Supreme Court Rules Against Government in Identity-Theft Case”]  While real identity thieves will still be subject to the compounding sentencing of 1028A, vulnerable immigrants will no longer be forced to spend extra time in prison before returning to their families.  As Postville prepares for its first anniversary march of last year’s ICE raid, one can only think Flores-Figueroa came a year too late.

Fear: The Bane of the Beloved Community

April 4, 2009

“There is another element that must be present in our struggle that then makes our resistance and nonviolence truly meaningful. That element is reconciliation. Our ultimate end must be the creation of the beloved community.” (Martin Luther King, 4/15/1960, Raleigh, NC)

41 years after his assassination, Martin Luther King’s dream of a fully integrated and reconciled society, his Beloved Community, still remains largely unfulfilled for the marginalized in America. Specifically, fear seems to reign in the lives of our nation’s most vulnerable group – immigrants are afraid to go to school, go to work, report crimes, visit anything but an Emergency Room. Immigrants, to a large extent, have been the object of laws designed to keep them segregated and silent and invisible.

Thursday’s joint subcommittee hearings brought national attention to the injustices inherent in the United State’s 287(g) program which deputizes local cops to become federal immigration enforcers. Sheriff Joe Arpaio from Maricopa County, Arizona, is a prime example of how certain jurisdictions are using this federal program to strike fear into the hearts of all immigrants. With his inhumane treatment of prisoners, his nativist focus on immigration enforcement over his other law enforcement duties, and his sensationalism and victimization of the immigrant community, both legal and not, Arpaio has succeeded in creating in Maricopa County (the fourth largest county in the U.S., with 4 million inhabitants) a community of distrust and fear. Maryland community advocate Antonio Ramirez, seconded by Rep. Conyers and others, testified at the subcommittee hearings on April 2, 2009, that the policies born of 287(g) lead to a drastic loss of trust and cooperation with authorities.  (Staff, Greg and Jackie Mahendra. America’s Voice)

Furthermore, Police Foundation President Hubert Williams stated that funding for this program takes away from money for smart community policing initiatives which are far more successful in preventing crime. In Sheriff Joe’s Maricopa County, for instance, Arpaio’ tactics seem to have backfired, with violent crime skyrocketing over 69% from 204-2007 (a statistic not echoed in nearby Phoenix or Mesa). When a large population of immigrants live in fear and are excluded from the Beloved Community, crime goes unreported and unchecked. (Bolick, Clint. “Mission Unaccomplished: The Misplaced Priorities of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office”)

The subcommittee hearings also brought to light the rampant racial profiling that has accompanied 287(g) programs across the country. UNC Chapel Hill Law School Professor Deborah Weissman highlighted the lack of sufficient training and the resulting civil rights abuses. Her recent report, “The Politics and Policies of Local Immigration Enforcement Laws,” illustrates that most “unwelcome” immigrants are stopped under the pretense of traffic violations; in Gaston County, NC, 83% of immigrants arrested by ICE had been cited first under a petty traffic violation.

Sadly, certain members of the subcommittee were insistent that 287(g) was marginally successful in the less than 5% of counties in which it is currently employed. It is hard to ascribe any motivation more flattering than unfettered xenophobia to such committee members. Rep. Steve King, a ranking member on the Immigration Subcommittee, questioned 19-year-old Julio Mora repeatedly about whether his father had taught him about rule of law (a.k.a. reporting undocumented immigrants). Mora, who had been detained and harassed because he’s Latino, responded eloquently, “My father taught me to respect everyone.” Rep. King and others seemed to intimate that racial profiling of American citizens was little more than an inconvenience or a slight embarrassment.

These joint subcommittee hearings’ decision on 287(g) is vitally important for creating a Beloved Community in the United States. Programs like 287(g) encourage fear, silence, and marginalization. The effects of this are chilling. Yesterday, a shooter opened fire on immigrants taking citizenship and language classes at an immigrant center in Binghamton, NY. 14 were found dead in the American Civic Association (an immigrant organization founded in 1939 and with support from United Way). The shooter, Jiverly Wong, is believed to have been a naturalized citizen who attended classes at ACA years before. While there are no clear answers and no explanations for such a tragedy, the fear 287(g) generates discourages crime reporting; we are left to speculate if this would have happened had Wong’s immigrant community felt empowered, rather than marginalized, by our nation’s laws.(CNN)

Similarly, Father Paul Ouderkirk gave a presentation at Pax Christi Church in Rochester, MN, on April 2. Much of his presentation focused on the fears in his community of Postville (where an ICE raid in May arrested 289 immigrants, closed the town’s largest employer, and crippled the town of 2400). Ouderkirk spoke of the psychological trauma felt by families after fathers were deported to Guatemala. He disparaged the fact that many women are still required to wear ankle bracelets. He discussed the fear of the citizen children, many of whom were terrified to return to school for fear that they would be arrested or they’d come home to find the rest of their family gone. (Valdez, Christina Killion. “Priests say Immigration Laws Need Reform.”)

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The ICE raid at Postville and 287(g) both serve to strike fear into our nation’s 12 million undocumented immigrants. Far from creating a Beloved Community, fear breeds distrust, un-cooperation, division, and hate. Additionally, this terror is not limited to extralegals in America; rather, it extends to most minorities. When Latinos are followed by police officers simply for looking Latino, fear reigns. When Somalis are interrogated at bus stops simply for being Muslim, fear reigns. When jaywalking Hmong citizens are detained because of their ethnicity, fear reigns. Our nation, our Beloved Community, demands comprehensive immigration reform to end the fear and begin an era of trust.

Please consider adding your name and voice to the letter going out to Chairman Conyers of the joint subcommittee. You can do so here.

Saint Patrick’s Day in Postville

March 25, 2009

Saint Bridget is one of Ireland’s patron saints.  Born to Dubhthach, a pagan chieftain of Leinster, and Brocca, a Christian Pict who had been baptized by Saint Patrick, Bridget went on to found an important monastery in Kildare or Cill-dara, the “church of the oak.”  Her symbol is the Saint Brigid’s cross, representative of a time when she wove some reeds together to form a cross in the house of a dying peasant in order to teach him the Gospel story.

Driving into Postville, Iowa, on Saint Patrick’s Day, I was immediately struck by the ghost-town feel of the western half of this town that used to boast a population of 2,000.  Dozens of chicken-coop semi-trucks were parked outside the abandoned Agriprocessor’s slaughterhouse.  Hundreds of coops sat outside, vacant, waiting.  A piece of heavy machinery was driving through the property, disposing with some of the tons of junk littered around the lot.  With the whine of its engine, it seems to be disposing with the evidence of what happened here last May.

Agriprocessors slaughterhouse

Agriprocessors slaughterhouse

On this dusty day, one can hardly imagine the cacophony of sounds here before the ICE raid on May 12, 2008.  Chickens squawking, machines whirring, blades thudding, trucks chugging, people shouting to be heard over the din of machinery.  Spanish mixed with Yiddish mixed with Arabic numerals preceded by $ signs.

In this abandoned slaughterhouse site, though, it is all too easy to imagine the eerie silence when the machines stopped, when 900 ICE agents increased the town’s population by 40%, when 389 immigrants were detained and interned in a cattle barn, when the chickens lived to squawk some more and this peaceful Iowa town screeched to a halt.  Only five immigrant workers had prior criminal records, but all were sentenced with working under false documents.  (Bobo, Kim. Religious Leaders Protest Postville Raid)  The public defenders, the translators, the immigration judge – everyone had been told to keep this date open on their calendars, ensuring a speedy process where nearly all the immigrants from Central America pled guilty to charges they didn’t understand in hopes of reduced sentences.  Professional interpreter Camayd-Freixas was so appalled that he published his eyewitness account with the New York Times.

Just down the street, I sit with Father Ouderkirk for a half-hour.  He is the father of St. Bridget’s Catholic Church here in Postville, a safe haven for many of the terrorized families still remaining after that fateful day in May.  “You should have been here earlier,” this once-retired priest tells me.  “On Tuesdays and Thursdays, this turns into the best restaurant in town.'”  Taking his job seriously as pastor to this reeling community, Ouderkirk serves Latino food to needy families on these days, in addition to working to provide housing funds for the scores of families who lost dads, moms, and children in this raid.  “You wouldn’t believe how much we spend each month, trying to keep a roof over their heads.”

Some of the women he serves at St. Bridget’s have been wearing an ankle bracelet for 10 months.  Some of the children haven’t seen or heard from their fathers for almost a year.  Many of the mothers are torn between returning to Central America to reunite with their husbands or staying here so their citizen children can receive a good education.  These families are facing excruciatingly difficult choices, choices one should never have to make.  Father Ouderkirk wipes with his handkerchief and tells me what we really need is comprehensive immigration reform.

As I leave Postville on Tuesday, the day after the mayor announced his resignation, the boarded-up windows and streams of For-Sale signs are a constant reminder that this town was dealt a devastating blow last May.  With a new administration and new DHS Secretary Napolitano, many are hopeful that the days of Postville and Oxford, Mississippi raids are over.  It is not enough, though, to merely hope that this administration will make the hard choices it must to ensure that comprehensive immigration reform wins out over high-profile, low-impact raids such as this.  We must make it very clear that criminalizing immigrant families is useless and inhumane, while opportunistic employers who lure workers under false pretenses (and, as here, actually provide the false identification documents to their unknowing workers) is the appropriate focus of workplace reform.  We must remind Obama that, if he is really attempting to out-do the New Deal, he should learn from FDR’s Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins who shut down the Department of Labor division that was then carrying out workplace raids (Bobo, Kim). We must encourage Napolitano to ensure that such Sinclair-like Jungle conditions never occur again, where immigrants are both victimized and criminalized.  We must urge our judicial department to reexamine current immigration policies which allow such a rushed, clandestine mockery of Due Process.

Father Ouderkirk will be traveling to my home in Rochester on April 2, to give a presentation at Pax Christi Catholic Church.  I encourage anyone and everyone to come and hear this man of faith who is earnestly working for immigration reform.  For all those afar, it is vital that we do not forget such tragedies as Postville.  We must stare at such instances with unblinking eyes and learn from them.  Please urge our administration to do the same.

Saint Bridget's Catholic Church, Postville, IA

Saint Bridget's Catholic Church, Postville, IA

Post-Postville America

March 6, 2009

Though it only occurred last May, the ICE raids in Postville, Iowa, keep resurfacing to the forefront of immigration policy in the United States. On February 25, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano ordered a review of a raid the day before. This raid on the Yamato Engine Specialists engine repair shop in Washington resulted in the arrest of 28 individuals and the first such raid under the new Obama administration (Stark, John and Anna Walters. Bellingham Herald). A top official suggested that Napolitano did not know of the raid beforehand, stating that, “She was not happy about it because it’s inconsistent with her position, and the president’s position on these matters.” The fate of these workers, most of whom await trial in a Tacoma detention center, will also signal the resolve of the Obama administration to focus more on noncompliant employers rather than the employees. So close to the events of Postville where nearly 400 immigrants were arrested and adjudicated in rapid fashion, Napolitano’s review of the raid will demonstrate how far we’ve come as a nation in ten months. (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/26/washington/26immig.html?emc=tnt&tntemail1=y)

Also last week, the Supreme Court heard the oral arguments of Flores-Figueroa v. United States. This case is a test case aimed at getting the Supreme Court to issue a binding national ruling on identity theft. 18 U.S.C. §1028 is an aggravated identity theft statute which extends criminal sentences by two years per charge. §1028 intersects with immigration law, however, when undocumented immigrants make up Social Security numbers which happen to belong to real people.

Six District Courts are evenly split over the extent of mens rea (foreknowledge) required for this crime. Currently, six District Courts are evenly divided in the interpretation of the ambiguous term “knowingly” within 18 U.S.C. §1028(a). The 4th, 8th, and 11th Courts have ruled no mens rea as to the person’s identity is necessary, while the 1st, 9th, and D.C. Circuits have ruled it a requirement. United States v. Villanueva-Sotelo, 380 U.S. App. D.C. 11, 515 F.3d 1234 (D.C. Cir. 2008)(explaining necessity for mens rea because theft is not mere misappropriation); United States v. Sanchez, 2008 U.S. Dist. Lexis 35460 (E.D.N.Y. April 30, 2008)(requiring government to prove scienter for identity theft); United States v. Mejorada-Cordova, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 44634 (D. Utah, June 5, 2008); United States v. Salazar-Montero, 520 F. Supp. 2d 1079 (N.D. Iowa 2007) (mens rea needed due to statutory ambiguity).

“There’s a basic problem here,” said Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.. “You get an extra two years if it just so happens that the number you picked out of the air belonged to somebody else.” Kevin Russell, attorney for the defendant, is arguing that, at the very least, the rule of lenity requires that ambiguous statutes such as §1028 be resolved in favor of the defendant in criminal cases. Ignacio Flores-Figueroa worked with false identification for years at a steel plant in Illinois. After six years, he changed his false identification documents and was arrested shortly thereafter. The Eighth Circuit convicted Flores on the basis that he knowingly used false identification, despite the fact he was ignorant of a true person’s identity. (Faitek, Adam. New York Times)

10 months ago in Iowa, 270 of the 400 immigrants working in a kosher meatpacking plant were criminally charged with using false identification. A marked departure from past instances where immigrants had faced only civil charges, the predominantly Guatemalan Spanish-speakers were penned in a cattle-barn and hurried through the mobile trailer-courthouse. Prof. Erik Camayd-Freixas of Florida International University, an interpreter who risked his professional life to speak out against the atrocities he witnessed that May, stated that most of the immigrants had no idea what a Social Security card was, let alone that they had “stolen” someone’s identity.

While much of this may seem like obscure legal arguments, what this realistically means for immigrants charged under §1028 is that, rather than the speedy deportation for which they were hoping, they may have to spend years in an American jail. Anxious to return to any jobsite to earn precious money for their families, the long sentences associated with §1028 condemn them and their families to a meager existence. Moreover, the arbitrary nature of §1028’s application means that some unlucky individuals who picked the wrong number are serving the same jail sentence as professional thieves who bilked thousands of dollars from unsuspecting internet users.

With the oral arguments in, the Supreme Court is now deliberating. Their published opinion will be released later this year, and it will certainly have far-reaching repercussions for the immigrant community. Hopefully their decision will ensure that in a post-Postville America immigrants will be guaranteed a fair civil trial.

High Time for Social Uplift

February 24, 2009

If a local law enforcement agency incarcerated 81 innocent people for every 19 criminals it caught, we would say it was violating civil rights and was wildly inept. When that same jurisdiction continued to hold those innocent 81, sometimes for a year, the media would run an expose and the public would be crying out for resignations.

This scenario is currently being played out through America’s immigration strategy of massive deportation over the last 15 years. Last week the Pew Hispanic Center revealed that Latinos make up 40% of those sentences in federal courts in 2008 while comprising only 13% of the adult population. It went on to state that Latinos are 1/3 of federal prison inmates as of 2007. With our prisons facing massive overcrowding and public defender’s offices around the nation facing debilitating budget cuts, one would assume that this prison population was all dangerous felons, but in fact, 81% of them did nothing more than cross an imaginary line in a desert or overstay a student visa. (“Enforcement Gone Bad. New York Times)


Earlier this month, the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute published findings that while the Department of Homeland Security’s budget went from $9 million in 2003 to $218 million last year, it ceased to arrest the undocumented felons and “terrorists” it was charged with capturing and instead shifted its focus to families, workers, children, women – none of whom had a previous record or anything besides an overstayed visa or lack of documentation. Of the 72,000 arrested through February 2008, 73% had no criminal record. (“Enforcement Gone Bad. New York Times)


As Homeland Security USA continues to run on ABC, the reality is that since 2006, DHS has shifted its focus to more “easily apprehended” targets. The raids on factories like Postville, Iowa, and on homes netted few criminals but a myriad of working families. Catchy names like “Operation Return to Sender” fail to mask the fact that while there were more than ½ million immigrants with removal orders in 2006, ICE raids honed in on families and workers rather than criminals and terrorists. According to the Migration Policy Institute’s report, internal directives in 2006 set quotas for operatives in the National Fugitive Operations Program but disbanded the standard that 75% of apprehended individuals be criminals. Fugitives with criminal records dropped to 9% of those captured, while immigrants without deportation orders increased to account for 40%. The 2006 directive sent by acting director John P. Torres raised each team’s goal to 1,000 a year, from 125. (Bernstein, Nina. “Target of Immigrant Raids Shifted”)

An author of the report, Yale Law Professor Michael Wishnie stated that random arrests of extralegal immigrants in such residential raids was “dramatically different from how ICE has sold this program to Congress,” not to mention the civil and human rights issues it raises where ICE agents enter private homes without consent and/or warrants. From New Haven to Brownsville, from Maricopa County to San Diego County, ICE abused its power by passing legislation in one form and then enforcing it in a completely different format. As she reviews the agency, Janet Napolitano must take this into account, realizing that our resources must be spent on legalizing our workforce and apprehending our criminals, and never the twain shall meet. (Bernstein, Nina. “Target of Immigrant Raids Shifted”)


DHS recently released statistics of the last decade’s deportations, and of the 2.2 million immigrants deported from 1997-2007, 108,000 of them were parents of legal American citizens. If these immigrants even had two children [a low estimate], then more than 200,000 children were affected. And if they took their children with them when they were removed, then essentially the United States was deporting two legal citizens for every undocumented one. Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies, Mark Krikorian, revealed a calloused, nativist sentiment when he responded, “Should those parents get off the hook just because their kids are put in a difficult position? Children often suffer because of the mistakes of their parents.” Mr. Krikorian seems to have a firm grasp on the Old Testament principle that Yahweh will punish “the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation” [Exodus 34:7], though he seems to have stopped his reading of the Torah just before 2 Chronicles 25:4 which repeals this vengeful promise [“Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers; each is to die for his own sins.”] (Falcone, Michael. New York Times). Children are not acceptable collateral damage.

In the spirit of reform under the new administration, one would hope that high on Attorney General Eric Holder’s agenda would be reversing Mukasey’s January ruling that immigrants lack the Constitutional rights to effective representation as secured by the Due Process Clause and the 5th and 14th Amendments. Mukasey’s eleventh-hour statement overruled a twenty-year standard. Because immigration cases are civil cases rather than criminal, there is no requirement for representation [a single day in immigration court drives home the fact that this default to pro se representation is manifestly unfair for the majority of immigrants who cannot speak English yet]. (“Deportation and Due Process. New York Times)

In 2009, the United States stands as a country in an economic depression which is poring vast amounts of money into detaining its workforce, deporting its own citizens, and constructing a 700-mile during peacetime. As Dr. King warned, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” It’s high time we renounced our declaration of war against the 12 million extralegal people within our borders and instead moved towards a nonpartisan, comprehensive immigration reform which affirms the humanity of all.

Immigrants did not cause the Economic Crisis, but they can help us rebuild

December 14, 2008

The Anti-Defamation League recently published a thoughtful article warning all of us to be careful in assigning blame to any one group of people (Nathan, Martin. Houston Chronicle)  The ADL’s article focused on Susan Carroll’s Houston Chronicle series which highlighted problems in our criminal system.  While study after study like that of Harvard Sociology Professor Robert Sampson has shown that recent immigrants are far less likely to commit crimes (45% less likely than 3rd generation Americans in his study), xenophobic rhetoric abounds on blogs, comments, and media posts concerning immigrants.

What’s more alarming, yet inextricably linked to such polarizing rhetoric of hate and “otherness,” are the increasing hate crimes against Latinos and other immigrant groups. The Houston Chronicle article highlighted FBI statistics that show from 2005-2007 hate crimes against Latinos grew from 475 to 595.  Indeed, several high-profile hate crimes against immigrants have occurred in New York City alone, that emblematic heart of the American melting pot.  Ecuadorean brothers Jose and Romel Sucuzhanay were brutally beaten in Bushwick, Brooklyn, on Sunday, December 7, by three men shouting obsenities which were “ugly, anti-gay and anti-Latino” (McFadden, Robert. New York Times).  On November 7 in Patchogue, NY, seven teenagers fatally stabbed 37-year-old Marcelo Lucero, an Ecuadorean returning from his late shift (Finn, Robin. New York Times).

And so, as the economy continues its downspin and people, unable to wreak justice on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, scan the nation for a proper scapegoat, preferrably one without a voice and lacking human rights.  It is this nativism fueled by the economic crisis which propels hate speech and hate crimes, as well as xenophobic legislation like New IDEA (Immigrant Deduction Enforcement Act), an attempt to massively expand the role of the IRS in aiding the Department of Homeland Security to crack down not on employers but primarily on unauthorized immigrants. Iowa Congressman Steven King, seemingly unfazed by the destruction the Postville ICE raid has caused his own small-town constituents, touts this bill he introduced as a means of wresting jobs from the immigrants holding 7 million jobs (as per the PEW Hispanic Research Center) and distributing them to the 9.5 million jobless Americans. While his Robin-Hood techniques may sound appealing in a time of economic depression, we cannot forget that immigrants are people too; this is not merely redistributing wealth or opportunity – this is redistributing people.

As we head into the New Year, looking back on our mistakes of 2008 and crafting new resolutions to see us through 2009, blame-shifting will help none of us.  No, we must turn from this simple scapegoating and look at real solutions which can help us all rather than profiting some at the expense of the most vulnerable (isn’t this the sort of predatory business model that caused the economic crisis in the first place?).  Immigrants didn’t cause the economic crisis, but they can sure help us rebuild.  Why? Because they are us and we are them; we are all in this thing together.

The ABC of Agriprocessors

December 7, 2008

Nearly seven months after their Postville processing plant was raided by Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE), Agriprocessors pled not guilty on all charges Friday, December 5, 2008. Their lawyer, who phoned in to make the plea, did not mention the plight of the 389 unauthorized immigrants or their families (http://www.desmoinesregister.com/article/20081205/NEWS/81205033). He didn’t highlight the fact that these hard workers were steered into cattle barns and misled to believe that if they admitted all charges against them the process would somehow be easier and more lenient. Agriprocessors’ attorney didn’t mention their Nebraska plant that closed down or the Chapter 11 bankruptcy the company filed on November 4 to “reinvigorate the company,” according to their bankruptcy lawyer Kevin Nash. (Preston, Julia. New York Times)

The saddest aspect of Agriprocessors’ court proceedings is that they are being tried for the wrong crimes. Agriprocessors will face a jury trial on January 20 on the charges of “harboring and aiding undocumented workers, document fraud, identity theft and bank fraud.” (http://www.postbulletin.com/newsmanager/templates/localnews_story.asp?z=7&a=374130) They are not awaiting judgment for their notorious safety violations, underpayment of their immigrant workers, and mandatory unpaid overtime, all of which community members like Rev. Paul Oderkirk of Saint Bridget’s Catholic Church had been decrying for years. They are on trial for “aiding” unauthorized” workers that they intentionally recruited and then kept illegal so as to have a docile, underpaid workforce. They are on trial for helping immigrants rather than for the fact that they worked to keep their workforce illegal because unauthorized workers can’t unionize or lobby for better conditions. They are being prosecuted to the full extent of the law for helping immigrants but not even being chastised for filling the deported immigrants’ positions with Latino workers scooped out of Texas homeless shelters this past June (http://immigrationmexicanamerican.blogspot.com/2008/06/breaking-news-agriprocessors.html).  This kosher meatpacking plant that boasted revenues of $300 million will not be sitting before the jury for its criminal hourly wages or its exploitation of the most vulnerable community within our borders. No, they are on trial for “harboring and aiding undocumented workers.”


It is deeply saddening that immigrants are criminalized so deeply in this country that everyone associated with them becomes guilty by association rather than by exploitation. When people are made criminal by unjust laws, the worst crime imaginable is aiding and abetting them. Harking back to the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 which were repealed just a few years later in the infancy of our nation, these laws are even more shameful in that they prosecute rather than protect the most vulnerable, unrepresented sector of American society, the 12 million extralegal immigrant workers living within our borders with little chance of effectively working toward citizenship.

14 days before Agriprocessors’ jury trial, ABC will be airing its new reality television show “Homeland Security USA.” This new series which profits off the often-fatal journey of immigrants through the most dangerous parts of desert borderland seems perfectly congruous with Agriprocessors’ charges of harboring and aiding extralegal immigrants (Stelter, Brian. New York Times). Something is fundamentally flawed in the United States when we are entertained by the criminalization, hunting, and deportation of people whose only crime is the desire for work and enough money for their family. Both ABC and Agriprocessors’ board of directors share this understanding and have figured out ways to profit from others’ painful, life-threatening choice to seek work in America.


From Postville to Hidalgo to Beijing- The Olympian Effects of Immigrants and Walls

July 19, 2008

Hidalgo County has seen contractors already readying the earth-moving equipment needed to construct their portion of a the border wall as early as July 21.  While officials have dodged specifics and Hidalgo County officials emphasize the fact that this cement structure is actually just an addition to strengthen the levees in need of serious repair,  local residents are chilled to see the giant bulldozers, pipes, and CATs which are planned to tear up their backyards in the coming days of summer.  (Leatherman, Jackie)

This past week also saw the controversial news of court interpreter Dr. Camayd-Freixas penning an essay about what he witnessed during the court proceedings following the recent Agriprocessors raid in Postville, Iowa, on May 12, 2008.  This ICE raid, the largest in its history, involved over 900 agents and put nearly 400 extralegal workers on trial for their work in the largest kosher meat-packing plant in the nation.  While Agriprocessors was merely fined and sternly reprimanded, the lives of these Guatemalan immigrants and the town which had become their home have been gutted by the legal proceedings that imprisoned more than 260 of them for 5 months.  Detained for weeks in a converted cattle-ground holding house called the National Cattle Congress, paraded into court in handcuffs, shackles, and chains, these immigrants with Mayan last names listened tearfully to the Spanish interpretation of what had already been decided in the court well in advance of the raid.  Rather than simply deporting these workers who were lured here under false promises of well-paid work and future citizenship, these hard-working immigrants now must sit in county jails with charges of aggravated identity theft and Social Security fraud as their families scramble to make ends meet without these principal breadwinners.  (“The Shame of Postville, Iowa”)

Postville, IA, once a town of 2,273, has lost more than 1/3 of its community in the month since the terrifying raid.  ICE timed the raid before the end of the school year, when some migrant workers would have returned to their homes, and as a result the end of the school year saw Latino students legal and extralegal terrified to go to school.  3 of 15 high-school students showed up for school the week after the raid, while 120 out of 260 students in the elementary and middle school were missing.  The schools’ principal actually rode around town on a school bus, coaxing and cajoling these students to come to school, assuring them that ICE cannot raid a public school because of Peter Schey’s landmark case in the 1980s; 50 of them would not be convinced. American children were having nightmares that their parents would be similarly deported or jailed.  (Camayd-Freixas)

Dr. Camayd-Freixas broke ranks with the “unbiased” legal interpreters by publishing his reflections and observations of this humanitarian disaster.  He was moved to write as he saw immigrants begging in their native language to be deported quickly.  He was moved as he listened to the weeping of fathers who had walked a month and ten days before finally crossing the Rio Grande.  He was moved to hear of families who had journeyed here only to work for a year or two in hopes of saving enough money to survive in Latin America, a desire that could have been legitimized if only temporary work permits were legislated instead of Secure Fence Acts.  These men and women waived their 5th amendment rights to trial by jury in hopes of a “fast-tracked” deportation five months later, despite the fact that they had used false papers not for unlawful activity or felonious actions but rather for seeking a living wage. (Camayd-Freixas)  In this New Era of ICE operations, a new government agency which grew 10% last year and is readying itself for many more of these raids in the name of the War on Terror, every small town must cringe in fear whether it has extralegals living within its borders or not;  terror terrifies indiscriminately.

 

As a border wall is being prepared for the Texas-Mexico border and as future ICE raids are being formulated based on the “success” of the Postville sting, the Beijing Olympics are about to begin.  The United States will boast its largest number of immigrant athletes since these statistics were kept.  These 33 immigrants will represent the United States and surely bring pride to red-blooded Americans as they stand on podiums to hear their new national anthem.  We can all be proud of the four Chinese-Americans representing us in table-tennis, or the Polish-American kayaker, or the Russian-American gymnast Nastia Liukin, or the New Zealand immigrant triathlete.  All of us will hold our breath in August as we watch the men’s 1500-meter squad of immigrants; Kenyan-American Bernard Lagat will run alongside the Sudanese “lost boy” Lopez Lomong and Mexican laborer’s son Leo Manzano who only recently got his citizenship in 2004.  We can all be proud of these new Americans, but we must also take a hard look at our nation’s policies which simultaneously champion a few token immigrants while terrorizing others and making the immigration process both dehumanizing and virtually impossible for so many (Wilson, Duff and Andrew Lehren)  As I watch the Summer Olympics, it will be tough for me to think of China’s human rights violations which have caused protests throughout much of the free world; I will be too busy crying as I watch American immigrants bask in their one day of glory, saving up these precious memories for four more years and for all the immigrants who will never receive acclaim and recognition for the work they do to make our country what it is.

Homeland Security

July 11, 2008

When we speak of homeland security, it is vital we define our terms. “Homeland security” must not mean defending the buildings and properties of the United States, or else the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) would be busy repairing bridges, condemning buildings, and fireproofing houses. It is impossible for “homeland security” to mean protecting the American people, because what we mean by the “American people” will have grown and changed by the time you finish reading this article. “Homeland security” cannot even mean preserving our nation’s heritage and culture, or else its name would be homeland taxidermy instead.

No, “homeland security” rightly understood must mean the protection of our nation’s laws. If society is a social contract, then people come to the United States and remain in the U.S. because they agree to live by the law in a land where others do the same, thus gaining civil rights while submitting to the authority elected to enforce those laws. Defined as such, the biggest threat to homeland security today could very well be the Department of Homeland Security.

Since the 1990s, and more aggressively since 2006, DHS has been militarizing the border. Having lived in the border town of Brownsville, Texas, I can personally attest to the effects this militarization has had on local residents from California and Arizona to Texas. I have had a gun pulled on me by a Border Patrol agent as I ran on a dirt trail along the border, not unlike so many cross-country trails here in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. Countless friends of mine have faced aggravation and humiliation as they crossed the secure border checkpoint more than 30 miles north of the Rio Grande. Third and fourth-generation Americans have been followed and questioned by police in every one of these border towns, simply because of the color of their skin or their fluency in Spanish.

With the Secure Fence Act of 2006, the law which mandates nearly 700 miles of border wall for our nation’s southern border, these dehumanizing factors were magnified in border communities. The Department of Homeland Security has used the REAL-ID Act to waive 11 laws in Arizona and more than 30 environmental and local laws in the Rio Grande Valley in order to expedite the construction of an eighteen-foot wall between the U.S. and Latin America. With the REAL ID Act, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff, an unelected official, has been granted the unconditional power to waive any and all laws “necessary to ensure expeditious construction of the barriers and roads under this section;” in effect, this gives Chertoff the power to undo countless laws voted on by elected officials in our nation’s Legislative Branch, thereby undermining the very “homeland security” it purports to protect, not to mention our system of checks and balances.

Despite the dour state of affairs in our nation’s handling of the border region and immigration, we have all seen real homeland security take place in our communities. Leaders like Father Paul Oderkirk in towns like Pottsville, Iowa, have offered support and banded together with immigrants after the terror of an ICE raid on their Agriprocessors Inc. kosher slaughterhouse in May. Organizations like the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, the University of Texas at Brownsville, and the Texas Border Coalition of mayors have all sought to defend homeland security by opposing the Secure Fence Act which divides rather than cooperates with our neighbors and the REAL ID Act which negates our nation’s checks and balances. We have seen homeland security in the integration of our community sports teams, English-as-a-Second-Language classes, hospitals, and churches. Every time a recent immigrant is welcomed, each instant someone takes the time to help another get involved, there is homeland security. Please show your solidarity by supporting immigrant resource centers like Rochester’s Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement and the Advocates for Human Rights, as well as writing your encouragement to beleaguered Americans on our southern border. Additionally, a letter to our senators Norm Coleman and Amy Klobuchar could go a long way to encouraging real “homeland security” instead of distracting and costly excuses for real immigration reform.


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