Despite the persistent high rate of unemployment in the United States, the need for comprehensive immigration reform is as urgent today as the first day Obama took office. A recent Pew Research Center poll noted that the United States still has a magnetic pull for Mexican citizens, citing that some 57% still would leave their homes to try to make a better life in the United States [Preston, Julia. “Survey Shows Pull of the U.S. is Still Strong Inside Mexico”]. Although immigration is down currently, the push and pull factors are still there and, without any real change in the immigration laws, the self-same issues will persist long after the Lehman Brothers are forgotten.
With Department of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano’s “enforcement only” strategy, the flawed laws continue to be administered with the same tragic results. Two owners of the Yamato plant in Bellingham, the first ICE raid to take place after Obama took office and highlighted as a model of the sort of small-scale raids that this administration prefers instead of massive workplace operations like that in Postville, escaped with fines of $100,000 but no jail time for hiring and exploiting undocumented immigrants [Associated Press, September 22, 2009]. While this workplace raid strategy honorably focuses more on the errant employers than the exploited workers, $100,000 fines without jail time seem an inconsequential deterrent for multi-million-dollar companies.
In another glimpse into the current administration’s immigration tactics, American Apparel was compelled to fire 1800 workers with identification irregularities rather than undergo an ICE raid. Far from a sweatshop, this factory was praised for paying well above the industry standard, for keeping their clothes “Made in the USA” (albeit by the hands of New Americans), giving health benefits and recently giving $18 million in stock options to employees [Preston, Julia. “Immigration Crackdown with Firings, not Raids”]. While technically illegal, the main rationale for workplace raids, that of depressed wages and exploitative conditions, were not present here. Perhaps a reprioritization of workplace audits might be in store.
Similarly, although Napolitano and DHS has publicly come out against Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s use of program 287(g) to racially profile and go on immigrant sweeps of Maricopa County, Arizona, still immigrants live in fear of going to the proper authorities after hearing stories like that of Ms. Gurrolla. Last Tuesday she was stabbed and her newborn child kidnapped by a woman posing as an ICE official; Saturday she was reunited with her son Yair Anthony Carillo; shortly thereafter the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services came and took all four of her children away. This story highlights the vulnerability of immigrants, undocumented and longtime, as well as depicting the very real fears they face from exploitative parties and government agencies. [Associated Press, Mother Briefly Loses Baby to Kidnapper, then All Her Children to the Authorities"]
As Napolitano finishes her first year as Secretary of Homeland Security, may we all urge her to aim for integration rather than reprisal, safety over fear, a real balance of workplace power rather than fines and deportations, real change instead of a façade of “fixing” the symptoms.