Tough on workers, but not employers
The recent roundup of hundreds of undocumented workers is a symptom of America's broken immigration policy
Monday September 01 2008
Last Monday, US immigration and custom enforcement (ICE) agents swooped down on a manufacturing plant in Laurel, Mississippi, and detained almost 600 workers on suspicion of violations of immigration laws. This raid represents an escalation in Washington's war on the undocumented, surpassing the shock and scale of the recent raid in Postville, Iowa.
The dramatic scale and human cost of the raid strain credulity. Five-hundred ninety-five workers arrested. Four-hundred seventy-five immediately transferred to a holding facility to the infamous town of Jena, Louisiana, proving once again that irony is not dead. Nine workers under the age of 18 transferred to the custody of the federal office of refugee resettlement, supposedly to Miami, Florida, although information is sketchy.
Those 595 workers leave behind almost 300 children under the age of five and 187 school-age children to be cared for by someone, anyone - who, exactly? Clearly, in the mind of ICE, the almost 500 children left fatherless, motherless, auntless, uncless or just plain parentless are collateral damage in the war for who can be "toughest" on the immigration issue. Eight workers detained on aggravated identify-theft violations, one of whom is pregnant. ICE officials promise due process and respect for the rights of the accused, but given the mass criminal trials held on the grounds of the Cattle Congress in Iowa - like a twisted version of a cultish mass wedding - advocates and workers alike have good reason to be suspicious.
Numbers alone do not accurately convey the scope of this disaster and the flawed, draconian actions that precipitated it. Whole neighbourhoods are emptied of inhabitants, whether those detained by raid or those who have fled to local churches in fear. "Cars are being broken into, houses are empty, kids want to know where their parents are," says Marie Thompson, director of Mississippi Poultry Workers for Empowerment and Respect (Mpower). "It's a humanitarian disaster."
Mpower is a small workers centre staffed by two dedicated advocates for the rights of low-wage workers in Mississippi. This staff has suddenly been thrust into a role usually reserved for the UN high commissioner for refugees or aid agencies like the Red Cross. An emotional Thompson is left confronting the massive challenge of coordinating aid efforts for families that fear they will be next, and who have received little to no information about their loved ones and have no idea where to turn.
It is, to steal a theme from a recent speech, the most ordinary of ordinary Americans that are standing in the gap and being their brothers' and sisters' keepers. It is the clergy who have supported Mpower from its founding and Father Kent Ramon Landry of Sacred Heart Church in Hattiesburg who are providing the literal sanctuary, the cups of cold water - who are weeping with those who weep and who are scrambling to find lawyers, legal documents and loved ones.
It would be comical if the consequences weren't so dire that blue-shirted ICE agents congregated in a fast food restaurant claimed to a New York Times reporter that a "little inspection" was going on. It is appalling that workers were essentially rendered to Louisiana and Florida, according to most accounts, with minimal translation or explanation of where they were going. It is a sad commentary on the state of justice in the US that the same actions were deemed as correct process by a judge in Iowa who rendered as acceptable the guilty pleas of immigrant workers, many of whom did not speak English and were offered minimal translation. As rents come due, the diapers and wipes run out, and as Hurricane Gustav bears down on the Gulf coast, the disaster just grows in scope.
Is this not a sad, tragic commentary on the state of worker rights and the priorities of our national government and political class? A huge, coordinated effort that required intense planning and vast resources swoops up workers and whisks them away to who knows where, while local churches, workers centres and individuals of good will are left to pick up the pieces the best they can. Public agencies, funded by taxpayer money, are accountable to no one in their application of due process or even in their steadfast refusal to provide timely, complete and accurate information on the whereabouts, conditions and future of hundreds of people, including minors.
Employers routinely violate workers' rights and abuse, threaten and mistreat the undocumented labourers they knowingly hire. These hard-working, undocumented people who have come to the US to escape poverty and misery are terrorised by shotgun-wielding ICE agents and deemed criminals. Our immigration policy is broken, but it is not broken in isolation. We have substituted a blame-the–victim, tough-on-immigrants policy for a government that protects the rights of all workers, regardless of race, national origin, education level or documentation status. We have allowed the real lawbreakers - those who violate wage and hour laws, health and safety laws and other basic workplace protections - off the hook while clamping down on workers.
It is time for those who care about workers rights and human dignity to declare: no more Postvilles, no more Laurels, no more humanitarian disasters created by a flawed immigration policy. The children of central Mississippi and Postville deserve no less.