Posts Tagged ‘Arizona’

“American” Apparel, Kidnappings, and Fines in Depression-era Immigration Enforcement

October 12, 2009

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.

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Community Service

August 20, 2009

       A young man in Arizona was convicted last week of littering and sentenced to probation and 300 hours of picking up trash.  His petty misdemeanor – littering on national wildlife lands, also known as leaving water bottles for immigrants passing through the most lethal section of the borderlands. [New York Times]

          While officials at Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge allow some groups to maintain water tanks at specific aid stations within the refuge, they stated that the plastic bottles left by Walt Staton of the group No More Deaths endangered wildlife and was unsightly. [New York Times]

          This latest border incident highlights the sad paradox of our nation’s current border enforcement.  Through lawsuits like this which target humanitarian aid to rerouted immigrants and the lack of apprehended drug runners and human traffickers, the modern motto of la policia de la frontera seems to be that if we can’t catch the few criminals crossing the border then at least we can nab a lot of others.  Although the California Border Patrol just nixed its long-running quota system which incentivized agents to catch as many border-crossers as possible rather than focusing on the dangerous criminals, this philosophy still holds credence. 

          A similar lawsuit a few years ago involved another humanitarian aid being sued for illegally transporting an immigrant in critical condition to the local hospital.  Until comprehensive immigration reform is passed (an act which Obama has now hinted might be delayed until next year), these acts of compassion for will be criminalized and more and more border-crossers will die as they turn to more desperate measures.  The ever-lengthening serpentine border wall grows by the month, only serving to channel immigrants to the Scylla and Charybdis of human traffickers or Arizona’s arid desert.

          There is more than a little irony in the fact that Walt Staton was sentenced with community service for his past service to the human community. Until comprehensive immigration reform is seriously discussed, littering will continue to trump human lives.

What does May Day mean in 2009?

April 27, 2009

As May Day 2009 fast approaches, it is important to look back at the original celebration and what it did and did not do.  On May 1, 2006, millions of immigrant workers left their jobs for an hour or a whole day to bring home the message that they are an integral part of American society.  In cities like Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Houston, Tucson, and Portland, May 1 was an important day of immigrant empowerment and a powerful symbol of solidarity.  However, that same year, the immigration legislation failed to pass Congress and the Secure Fence Act was enacted.

For nonviolence to be an effective tool, it cannot be only a negative force.  It must be constructive as well. As Dr. King wrote, “True peace is not merely the absence of some negative force — tension, confusion or war; it is the presence of some positive force — justice, good will and brotherhood” (“Nonviolence and Racial Justice“).  For nonviolence to change hearts and minds, it must not only protest injustice but also present solutions.  Unlike the May Day celebrations of 2006, as well as the ones being planned for this year in countless cities across the United States, a much smaller but more determined group of people are actively engaged in a nonviolence which highlights the injustices inherent in our current immigration system but which also positively provide for real needs.

Founded in 2004 by Catholic bishop Gerald Kikanas, Presbyterian minister John Fife, and several leaders of the local Tucson Jewish community, No More Deaths has been dealing with the negative human effects resulting from Operation Gatekeeper.  The increased militarization of the border through deportation, detention, armed forces, and border wall construction have merely rerouted desperate human migration through the most dangerous portions of the desert.  The Pima County Medical Examiner’s office, for example, has reported 84 deaths annually between 2000 and 2005, up from 14 in the ’90s.  No More Deaths attempts to save border-crossing families by leaving out water in the desert and tending to the medical needs of injured crossers. [Wikipedia] According to their website, 50 individuals have died  attempting to enter Arizona.

No More Deaths operates under some basic faith-based principles:

  • Recognize that the current Militarized Border Enforcement Strategy is a failed policy
  • Address the status of undocumented persons currently living in the US
  • Make family unity and reunification the cornerstone of the US immigration system
  • Allow workers and their families to enter the US to live and work in a safe, legal, orderly, and humane manner through an Employment-Focused immigration program
  • Recognize that root causes of migration lie in environmental, economic, and trade inequities[4]

While No More Deaths meets the needs of immgirants, they are forbidden to aid them in crossing, but in times of dire emergency they are instructed to call an on-call medical expert and, if need be, transport the seriously injured immigrant to the local hospital.  On July 9, 2005, however, two No More Deaths volunteers were arrested by the Border Patrol for transporting three border-crossers to a nearby hospital.  Daniel Strauss and Shanti Sellz were accused transporting and conspiring to transport undocumented immigrants, both felonies under US law. If convicted, they would have faced 15 years in prison and/or $500,000 in fines.  After more than a year, Judge Collins dismissed the charges in September 2006, stating that these two volunteers had followed pre-approved protocol and that further litigation would violate their Due Process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. [Wikipedia]


Currently, Dan Millis is appealing to the 9th Circuit to contest the Arizona ruling that he and other volunteers had littered by placing water jugs for migrants in the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge.  Despite the five milk crates of trash the volunteers had picked up, they were issued citations by the US Fish & Wildlife Service officers.  Two days before, Millis had found the body of a 14-year-old girl who had died of exposure. As Dan Millis has said, ““We pick up trash, distribute food and water, and administer first aid to people who desperately need it. We are not criminals.” [Guntzel, Jeff Severens. Utne Reader]

As communities prepare for May Day 2009, it is important to stress real issues and practical solutions.  Obama has pledged that comprehensive immigration reform is on the table for 2009.  The DREAM Act is still a potentiality, as is the Border Security and Responsbility Act [HR 2076] sponsored by Rep. Grijalva last week.  Immigrants from Rochester to Brownsville need more than a token march or a one-day protest – campaign for real change by advocating locally and nationally for meaningful reform for immigrants.

Pulitzers & Unlikely Cooperation

April 21, 2009

Colbert Report with Sheriff Joe Arpaio

Yesterday, a Pulitzer Prize went to a team of largely unknown reporters Ryan Gabrielson and Paul Giblin of the East Valley Tribune based in Mesa, AZ.  The prize was for their unflinching coverage of Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s local immigration law enforcement under 287(g), its “successes” and its hefty costs for Maricopa County and the nation.  Their reporting uncovered the fact that Arpaio’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants sacrificed his unit’s response to emergency calls, contributed to an overtime pay increase which forced the department to close several other sites around the county, and uselessly focused on low-level immigrants who had merely broken a border-crossing law rather than felony or human smuggling charges.  Additionally, the five-piece set of articles entitled “Reasonable Doubt” highlighted the racial profiling inherent in Arpaio’s 287(g) campaign.  The most common pretext for arresting undocumented immigrants were traffic violations, ranging from speeding (and in some cases “poking” along too slowly), obscured license plates, “unsafe” lane changes, and broken lights.

The key findings of the East Valley Tribune’s report were:

“Deputies are failing to meet the county’s standard for response times on life-threatening emergencies. In 2006 and 2007, patrol cars arrived late two-thirds of the time on more than 6,000 of the most serious calls for service.

MCSO’s arrest rate has plunged the past two years even as the number of criminal investigations has soared.

The sheriff’s “saturation” patrols and “crime suppression/anti-illegal immigration” sweeps in Hispanic neighborhoods are done without any evidence of criminal activity, violating federal regulations intended to prevent racial profiling.

Rampant overtime spending on immigration operations drove the agency into financial crisis and forced it to close facilities across the county. Although MCSO officials have said state and federal grants covered all the expense, illegal immigration arrests actually are costing county taxpayers millions of dollars.

Despite the money and manpower expended, the sheriff’s office has arrested only low-level participants in human smuggling rings: drop house guards, drivers and the immigrants they ferry.

Deputies regularly make traffic stops based only on their suspicion that illegal immigrants are inside vehicles. They figure out probable cause after deciding whom to pull over. (“Reasonable Doubt”)

This Pulitzer is priceless, in that Gabrielson and Giblin reported on the extent to which immigrants are human beings and “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  As the Department of Justice and DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano look into Arpaio’s doings and the general concept of 287(g) [the program which charges local law enforcement officials with enforcing federal laws], this Pulitzer and the ideas it has spurred will undoubtedly play a part in ending these tactics of discrimination and terror.

In another victory for the civil rights of immigrants and anyone yearning for comprehensive immigration reform, last week saw the rival labor federations AFL-CIO and Change to Win go public with a cooperative immigration reform statement. The new accord advocates legalization of some of the nation’s 12 million undocumented individuals and the near abolition of the ad hoc temporary guest-worker programs.  Instead, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and Change to Win President Joe Hansen have proposed a national commission charged with determining the number of temporary and permanent visas which should be offered annually based on the current American labor markets.  Surely, the current temp worker program needs significant overhaul (along with the rest of America’s immigration legislation), in that immigrants sponsored through these programs cannot change jobs, are tied to one employer, and can be refused future labor opportunities for criticizing their sponsoring employer. (Preston, Julia and Steven Greenhouse. “Immigration Accord by Labor Boosts Obama Effort.”)

As I work with migrant farmworkers in Rochester, Plainview, and Owatonna, Minnesota, this summer, I am heartened that these two rival labor federations are articulately and bipartisanly advocating for comprehensive immigration reform in year which the Obama administration promises will see some immigration legislation.  Between this unlikely labor collaborative and the expert reporting from Pulitzer Prize winners Gabrielson and Giblin, hopefully compassionate and comprehensive immigration reform got one day closer to realization.

* To protest Arpaio’s tactics and 287(g), please fill out this petition.

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.

Silence of Good People

February 18, 2009

In the nation’s fifth-largest city, more than 200 men were humiliatingly marched past video cameras to a tent-city where they will await deportation. Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, “star” of a Fox reality television show, was simply continuing his long abuse of power in cruelly and unusually punishing prisoners in his jail system. While he makes convicted offenders wear pink underwear and has been cited as serving green bologna to prisoners, he has particularly situated himself as “hard on immigration,” teaming up with the federal policing program 287(g) which partners the U.S. government with local law enforcement. (Garcia, Carlos)

In theory, federal-state cooperation makes the whole system work better. However, local law enforcement officials in 287(g) are given little guidance and engage primarily in basic racial profiling, which results in a myriad of pretextual traffic stops, “jaywalking” violations, and general harassment of Latinos in Phoenix and other like communities throughout the United States. (New York Times)

As new Secretary of Homeland Security (and former Arizona governor) Janet Napolitano seeks to reform the broken Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Department, surely Arpaio should be high on her list. Napolitano’s investigations into the 287(g) should probe into the abuses, both local and federal, and seek to craft an alternative which doesn’t criminalize people based on race or appearance.

On March 7, the 44th anniversary of the famous Bloody Sunday March from Selma to Montgomery which so galvanized the civil rights movement, a march will be held in Phoenix to protest the civil rights abuses perpetrated by Joe Arpaio. While this march’s purpose states it wants Arpaio sent to jail, more generally it will be a march against 287(g) and all the abuses it has invited. Dr. King had Bull Connor; America’s immigrants have Sheriff Arpaio. (Garrido, Jon. Hispanic News)

This past week, as California Border Patrol officers accused their superiors of setting quotas for apprehended immigrants, we must all question our current immigration system which permits and perpetuates such abuses. The Migration Institute recently revealed a chilling report that ICE shifted its goals from apprehending “the most dangerous” undocumented immigrants to deporting anyone – women, children, factory workers – anyone to highlight the agency’s success (Garcia, Carlos). In changing their role from Homeland Security to Heartland Insecurity, our immigration system has struck fear in the hearts of families and terrorized immigrants both legal and otherwise. It is vital we note that America’s immigration issues are bigger than Sheriff Joe Arpaio, larger than ICE, and deeper than the flawed quota system – at its heart, our current immigration system reflects the complicit silence of America. As Dr. King wrote in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail, We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.” He goes on to write, though, that “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God.” This chance is there for all of us in this 21st century civil rights issue in the United States.

In this Together

February 1, 2009

On January 23, Nashville 43% of Nashville voters voted in favor of a bill touted as being able to unite their city and save it money in these difficult economic times. Had it passed, this Tennessee city would have become the nation’s largest to enact such legislation. In 1780, John Adams proposed similar legislation to the Continental Congress, stating it would help to “purify, develop, and dictate usage of” English; his proposal was rejected as undemocratic. Still, some 30 states and a dozen cities have made English their official language, showing not only intolerance to immigrants and international travelers but also a Pollyanna longing for the bygone days before globalization. (Cousins, Juanita)  It is truly scary that only 57% of Nashville voters weighed in against this “English First” proposal. Mayor Karl Dean said, “The results of this special election reaffirms Nashville’s identity as a welcoming and friendly city, and our ability to come together as a community,” but the nation’s largest Kurdish community must have felt more than a little terrified that the vote had been so close. If the economy continues on its downward trend and politicians look to scapegoat, immigrant communities around the States may be faced with similar nativist proposals. (Cousins, Juanita)

Already, immigrants and refugees throughout the nation are struggling to make ends meet. Always the most vulnerable community in any country, refugees arrive in the United States with about $450 of federal aid and a little temporary financial help from private agencies for 3 months. After that, they are on their own. While Nashville proposed English First legislation to help that city’s budget, Utah is answering the cries of low-income families in a different way. Beginning this month, Utah will provide recently arrived families rent subsidies for a period of 2 years. The money, drawn from unspent federal welfare reserves, will mean a world of difference for refugees living with the heat off this winter. Utah will disburse this money through refugee aid organizations like International Rescue Committee and Catholic Community Services. Utah’s compassionate new legislation will mean a world of difference for 1,000 new refugees each year, but for the other 59,000 the United States accepted last year, 2009 looks bleak. (Eckholm, Erik)

An editorial in the New York Times yesterday detailed the horrors xenophobia and its self-defeating nature. According to the article, the American Cause spoke at the National Press Club in Washington, declaring that the GOP’s November defeats were due to Republicans being too soft on immigrants, rather than too harsh. The author points out anti-amnesty and anti-immigrant thinking like this cost House and Senate seats in 2006 and 2008. Xenophobes like Lou Barletta of Hazleton, PA, or former congressman J.D. Hayworth of Arizona both lost due to their harsh stance toward immigrants and diversity. (New York Times) After Latinos’ huge showing in the polls this past election, this author correctly states that any political party which bases its success on the exclusion of immigrants risks deserved irrelevance.

Historically, nativist groups have flourished in troubled times. The Know-Nothings came to power in the 1840s and 1850s on a platform of anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant policies. Their rise to power coincided with the disintegration of the 2-party system, the increasing resistance to slavery, and the influx of Irish immigrants. Similarly, the revival of the Klu Klux Klan in 1915 coincided with the Great Migration of Africa-Americans and low-income whites from the South to the North, as well as a large number of immigrants from southern and Eastern Europe. The influence of this anti-minority, nativist organization eventually faded, but not before Calvin Coolidge signed the Immigration Act of 1924 which limited immigrants based on their national origin (severely restricting Asian and Eastern European immigration). (http://www.historicaldocuments.com/ImmigrationActof1924.htm)

This latest economic situation could instigate the same. However, it also could be a time when the United States grows closer together, seeking to integrate the immigrants within its borders and to become a nation that lives up to its moral responsibility toward refugees. As bank accounts shrink and jobs disappear over the coming months, we must be vigilant to ensure that no one is scapegoated. We are truly all in this thing together.

* Editor’s Note: Monday night’s edition of “The O’Reilly Factor” declared war on the New York Times because of the editorial mentioned in this article.  Pointedly, Bill O’Reilly took offense at the editorial’s mention of his statement that the Times wanted “…to break down the white, Christian, male power structure, which you’re a part, and so am I, and they want to bring in millions of foreign nationals to basically break down the structure that we have.”  Hurrah for such an article, Editorial Director Andrew Rosenthal.


How do you Communicate your Love for a Foreign Land?

January 7, 2009

This past Monday was the deadline for braceros to file for money owed them from the government of Mexico. During the Bracero Program, Mexico was given money for each bracero, but few received this money when they repatriated.  Between 1942-46, 250,000 braceros invested money into this automatic deduction program.  The Border Farmworkers Center/Centro de Trabajadores Fronterizos in El Paso participated in the Bracero Program, helping to register some 100,000 Mexican farmworkers eligible for the program. Eight years ago, six migrant farmworkers sued Wells Fargo, the US and Mexican government in a US federal district court.  While not admitting they did anything wrong, the Mexican government set up a $14.5 million fund to reimbures qualified braceros with up to $3,500. (El Paso Times)

As evidenced by El Paso’s commitment to registering braceros, they are a largely an immigrant-friendly city.  The Mexican Consulate in El Paso vaccinated over 600 Mexican immigrants in 2008.  Additionally, the Consulate has offered a free clinic to many immigrants afraid to go hospitals for fear of being reported.

Other groups in El Paso also reach out to a community too often voiceless and without rights.  Casa Anunciacion, an immigrant safe house which houses and feeds immigrants as they seek to integrate into American life, look for a job, try to relocate a spouse, or any other host of reasons that causes someone to endure hardships in order to migrate to a new land.  The house is a haven for women affected by spousal abuse, who have to wait upwards of a year before receiving relief thru VAWA (Violence Against Women Act).  It’s also a haven for teen mothers, or unacompanied children, or new arrivals, or recently jobless immigrants.  (Latin American Herald Tribune)

It is strange for me to live on the border again.  It feels like home in some ways, full of the life generated by so much diversity and interchange between such large nations.  It feels like a return to form to be working with immigrants one step over the Rio Grande and one step towards citizenship. I’m flooded with memories of  Brownsville, of the tight-knit immigrant communities all along la frontera, of the machismo but also the deep faith, of the fascination with futbol and the foreignness of the downtown markets.

It is also weird for me to return with people unacquainted with la vida en la frontera.  I vaguely remember when my ears perked up at hearing Spanish in the grocery store or when Mexican license plates were second nature. I recall when I thought border life was boring, that nothing was going on because I couldn’t read about much of it in the paper or online. Still, it frustrates me that I cannot fluently communicate my appreciation for the border to a group of Minnesota students, many of whom have traveled the world and are surely bound for great things.  I feel an ambassador of the border, and perhaps I am, but I don’t know if I have been able to make them passionate for it as I am.

Maybe it is a slow process.  Maybe my law-school friends see it in the faces of detained children anxiously awaiting the outcome of their asylum application. Maybe they recognize the grave injustice in a quota system that makes immigrants wait a decade to come legally to the United States.  Perhaps they see the dusty mesquite mountains in a new light after working with an asylum applicant who has been moved from New York to Houston, from Minnesota to El Paso, from Arizona to Harlingen.  Maybe they will read stories about immigrants differently now that they can associate names with faces instead of numbers.  Maybe…

El Paso del Mundo

January 6, 2009
Las Americas Asylum Law Project

Las Americas Asylum Law Project

El Paso is closer to Los Angeles than Houston, closer to three other state capitals than its own, 12 hours from Brownsville, Texas.  It is part New Mexico, part Tejano, part Mexico, part Wild West, all frontera.  With a population of 700,000 and separated from a 1.5 million city by a tiny rivulet called the Rio Grande, El Paso melds with Juarez in culture, language, music, food, and la gente.

11 University of Minnesota Law School students arrived in El Paso, Texas, on Sunday, January 4. We came as part of the Asylum Law Project to volunteer with nonprofit groups such as Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services, Paso del Norte Civil Rights Project, and Las Americas Advocacy Center.  We came to volunteer, but as always, we assuredly will gain more than we give.

Our first day in El Paso, we attended immigration court and saw the inside of a client interview room.  The immigration court was informal, the judge joking about Burn after Reading and giving informal history lessons about Ellis Island.  The hardest cases were the pro-se ones, where we had to watch a 19-year-old boy with oversized clothes sit silently in front of the judge as he was told he had to wait for the LA judge to reopen his case.  Beside him, a Korean man was whispering prayer upon prayer, eyes closed.  Inside the interview room, the circle chairs and the square table were stainless steel.  A woman from El Salvador had been transported from San Francisco to Los Angeles to Arizona to Houston to El Paso.  Her son was watching her younger children and attending Stanford, and this meeting was to gather some last-minute details so that she could apply for a change of venue.  The steel room was empty and echoed, her small voice enunciated each word of Spanish thoughtfully and deliberately.

That same day, we were told by numerous attorneys and well-meaning citizens not to venture across the bridge to Juarez.  Granted there were more than 1,600 murders in Juarez in 2008 and a group of hueros would generally attract a lot of attention; however, it is that same sort of terror that has depressed the economy on both sides of the river and has lent credence to the drug dealers and thugs like the Zetas.  It is that same fear that led Congress to pass the Secure Fence Act of 2006, the same fear that drives Bill O’Reilly’s ratings, the same fear that enables shows like ABC’s “Homeland Security USA” to exist.  As we crossed the El Paso del Norte Bridge and were greeted by the smell of tacos al pastor and the sight of cheap meds and fast surgeries, none of us felt threatened.  Even as we walked by the federales with their automatic rifles and teenage faces, it was impossible to see much of a difference between one side of the river and the other.  We watched Texas beat Ohio State for the Fiesta Bowl as we sat in the Yankees bar, across the centro from the Kentucky Bar where Marilyn Monroe bought drinks for everyone the day she divorced Arthur Miller.  Both sides of this river are hopelessly interconnected.

We are staying in the Gardner Hotel/El Paso International Hostel, a hotel from the 1920s that has hosted John Dillinger and Cormac McCarthy. An old PacBell phone booth stands sentry at the doorway, and an old-time telephone switchboard stands next to the check-in booth.  With its high ceilings and transoms, old charm and new faces daily, many languages and few rules, this hostel is as good a metaphor for El Paso and Juarez as one can imagine.

Tonight we visited Casa Anunciacion, an immigrant safe house.  Dreamed up by 5 Christian men more than 30 years ago, this organization operates in the historically most impoverished portion of El Paso.  It serves as a home for immigrants, whether for one night or for 8 months.  Families, abused women, single teens, mothers and babies, fathers – the house is full to the brim with immigrants seeking shelter and a change.  This particular night Juan Carlos cooked dinner for all 55 tenants and all 11 of us.  We sat next to immigrants from Guatemala and Sinaloa, El Salvador and Lebanon, Juarez, and Honduras.  After dinner, I washed dishes alongside Federico as everyone worked together to clean the facilities.  Although the house was raided by ICE several years ago, it still continues to offer hope to many seeking a better job and life.

The border towns of El Paso and Juarez serve as a microcosm of worldwide immigration patterns.  When goods are freely transportable in a globalizing world, it only stands to reason that people will desire to move freely legally or not.  Border lines are human conventions, and as one looks at the picnic cloth of stars between the Sierra Madre and Rocky Mountains that is El Paso/Juarez at night, it is impossible to see where one ends and the other begins.  Perhaps that would just be a perfunctory exercise anyway.

Arizona: Land of Snowbirds & Coyotes

December 16, 2008

At this time of year when many Midwesterners head down to the balmier climes of Arizona (like my own grandparents-in-law), it is important to think about this state which has the harshest immigration laws in the U.S.

While immigration enforcement has traditionally always been under the sole control of the federal government (and, in fact, is likely Constitutionally exclusive to the Federal Branch under the Dormant Commerce Clause of Article 1), Arizona has done its best to “help” the Department of Homeland Security. Joe Arpaio, self-proclaimed “America’s Toughest Sheriff,” man who makes his inmates wear pink underwear and sleep outside in tents year-round just to make their incarceration more retributive, is first and foremost a man who hates unauthorized immigrants. Contrary to state and national practice, Arpaio has arrested more than 7,000 extralegal immigrants a year because every single person the police question is asked their social security number and citizenship status. The Maricopa County police force partners with ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), though they are only supposed to ask the citizenship status of prisoners arrested on other charges. While the ACLU reminds immigrants in border towns like Brownsville, Texas, that it is their civil right to refuse to answer such questions without their attorney, Arpaio has taken advantage of these immigrants’ lack of legal expertise, often using his technique to incarcerate passengers of speeding cars and jaywalking pedestrians. (Robbins, Ted. NPR)


Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas has also seized on Sheriff Arpaio’s xenophobia. The Arizona state law, passed in 2005, made it a federal crime to be involved in human smuggling. While the statute was intended to protect extralegal immigrants from the dangers of border-crossing with coyotes, Thomas has used the law to convict some 200 immigrants of “smuggling conspiracy,” turning this law back on the people it was arguably designed to protect. (Kiefer, Michael. The Arizona Republic)

And so, when Governor Janet Napolitano replaces Michael Chertoff and is confirmed as Obama’s Secretary of Homeland Security, she will leave Arizona in the hands of men like Joe Arpaio, Andrew Thomas, and the rogue Minutemen taking vigilante justice into their hands on the southern border. Where Napolitano resisted most of Arizona’s more nativist and radical immigration legislation, her successor Jan Brewer is expected to be more deferential to these xenophobic influences (New York Times). Hopefully, Napolitano will be able to work a top-down shift in national immigration enforcement, cutting the 287(g) program that allows such dangerous collaboration with local officials like Arpaio on federal issues of immigration. Here’s hoping!