On January 29, 1948, four Americans and 28 migrant farm workers were killed in a plane crash as they were being deported back to Mexico. This was typical of the time, since the Agreement of 1947 allowed deported Mexican workers to claim amnesty for short-term migrant labor. Employers often took advantage of the Mexican braceros, however, wherein American employers would notify Border Patrol officers about their own employees if they began to campaign for living wages or more humane work conditions.
In response to this tragedy, Guthrie penned the lyrics of the song “Deportee.” Although the terms “deportation” and “immigrant detention centers” have been changed to the dubious euphemisms “removal proceedings” and “immigrant processing centers,” the fact remains that the United States continues to spend massive amounts of money to deport immigrants each year. More than 350,000 immigrants were deported/removed in the year leading up to September, 2008 (FoxNews). While increased deportation is admittedly not an effective way to deal with the 12 million extralegal immigrants currently residing in the country, it most certainly has rerouted immigrants through more dangerous sections of the American border, increased the cost for coyotes to nearly $2,000, and has consigned millions of immigrant families to live in the shadows where their human rights are violated and their dignity denied.
My father’s own father, he waded that river,
They took all the money he made in his life;
My brothers and sisters come working the fruit trees,
And they rode the truck till they took down and died.
Some of us are illegal, and some are not wanted,
Our work contract’s out and we have to move on;
Six hundred miles to that Mexican border,
They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.
Regardless of your opinion about immigration, the United States cannot continue embracing “removal proceedings” or deportation as an alternative to real, comprehensive immigration reform. The rerouting of immigrant through the desert has resulted in nearly 2,000 from 1998-2004, with those numbers rising each year. Deportation often costs more than $6,000 per person (The Columbus Dispatch); during the Postville raid, Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) spent $5.2 million, or $14,000 per immigrant (Hildreth, Robert).
As Obama is inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States the day after Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, we must continue to highlight these immigrant issues. As Dr. King himself said, mankind must “…choose between chaos and community.” While much has been written about Obama’s plans for sustainable energy solutions and green jobs, we must urge him and incoming Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and new Commerce Secretary Bill Richardson and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis to advocate for sustainable immigration solutions (New York Times). With new politicians like Solis, the daughter of Mexican and Guatemalan immigrants, perhaps our nation can begin to realize that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Comprehensive immigration reform would not only help our flagging economy, it would also move these United States closer to King’s dream of a Beloved Community where all people are treated with dignity.