Friday, October 02, 2009

To Count and be Counted: Latinos and the 2010 Census

Speech by: Nativo Vigil Lopez, National President,

Mexican American Political Association (MAPA) -, culpable, culpable, guilty, guilty, guilty - 85 times guilty. This is what I observed in a recent trip to Tucson, Arizona, the current epicenter of anti- immigrant laws, policies, and practices - the laboratory as we call it - when I attended the federal court hearing of the day of the recent batch of immigrant detainees who allegedly attempted to enter the U.S. without inspection. This is a daily occurrence, an average of 85 individuals, who are legally processed through the government's program called "streamline," which results in their incarceration and eventual removal to their country of origin. Annually the number comes to 25,000 such summary hearings and removals. On that particular day all of the detainees were of Mexican origin, but one, and ten were women. All were clearly of indigenous stock, rural workers; one-fourth only spoke their native language, not fluent even in Spanish. They were held in a private detention facility, a nice name for a prison, which has a contract with the government that brings down $13 million monthly to its owner.

Within one hour all 85 individuals had been advised of their rights by the judge, a Latina, counseled by their court-appointed attorneys (some Latinos), entered their guilty pleas, and been sentenced to time served, 30, 60, 120, and 180 days - after which they will be turned over to the Immigration and Custom Enforcement for deportation. They were ushered out of the hearing room by Latino federal marshals. And, if per chance they are detained again they could face up to ten years in federal prison. Their crime - seeking to work in the U.S. This is what we refer to as the criminalization of immigrant workers and the criminalization of work. And, boy, did I feel proud about the ultimate success of affirmative action for Latinos - judges, attorneys, marshals, interpreters, clerks, even prosecutors. Yes, we have truly arrived.
I point this out today due to the impression it made on me - the streamlined manner in which immigrants detained at the border are incarcerated and processed for removal, and the use of private prisons in this mix; and the collateral relationship with the issue we are addressing today. In fact, deportations are up over any quarter during the Bush administration; removal hearings are up beyond the Bush experience; enforcement of employer sanctions and the resulting terminations are up; yes, the trains run on time under the Obama administration. Google the word ENDGAME and you will conclude that the more things change the more they remain the same - at least as this applies to immigration law enforcement from one administration to another, irrespective of political party. The ENDGAME strategy was designed by the Department of Homeland Security under President Bush and its operational objective is the physical removal of millions of undocumented persons from the U.S., obviously preceding any eventual legalization program.
An August 3rd article by Julia Preston for the New York Times reminded us that, "After early pledges by President Obama that he would moderate the Bush administration's tough policy on immigration enforcement, his administration is pursuing an aggressive strategy for an illegal-immigration crackdown that relies significantly on programs started by his predecessor."
I made the trip purposely last week to witness Obama's streamline program for myself; the renunciation of legal rights by indigenous immigrants; their inability to obtain bond while they prepare for their defense (this has been disallowed in such hearings); and the use of private prisons subsidized by the American taxpayer to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, annually.
If I ever had any doubts about the correctness of the tactic of noncooperation and noncompliance with the U.S. Census, Tucson, Arizona removed them from my mind. Tucson, the old outpost cowboy town of bandits, cattle smugglers and rustlers, made it crystal clear that we are on the right road in not cooperating with an immoral and bad government.
But I was not always of this mind-set. In April of this year I was quoted as follows by the newspaper, Orange County Register, "I'm absolutely elated that there are pastors more radical than me but I think the target is misplaced." The article went on to relate that my organization, the Hermandad Mexicana Latinoamericana, would instead encourage the undocumented to participate and be counted. If not, I warned that immigrant communities will not get their fair share or resources and representation, which is based on population data. "Just for the very reason that a sizable percentage of our population hides in the shadows, their goal is politically counterproductive; it would be disastrous for us to do that." Well, that was then, and much has happened since April 2009, while we waited patiently as good obedient political loyalists for the Obama administration to make its move. And, move it did, but not in the direction that we had hoped for or in a direction of change promised to us.
After a radio interview debate with the good Reverend Miguel Rivera wherein I took the opposing view to that espoused by him, I was left feeling not triumphant, but intrigued. I told myself that I had a moral obligation to consult with my constituency, present both sides objectively, and then shut up and listen, and then listen some more. After a series of large public assemblies with immigrants I was astonished at what I heard and what I learned. And, I was won over, 180 degrees so, to a different perspective - one dictated by the life experiences and simple logic articulated by the immigrants that I serve.
One after another they took the floor to expound their views.
Nativo (they would call out directly to me), I've worked at Overhill Farms for 20 years and I was just fired along with 300 of my compatriots because the employer claimed that there was a discrepancy with my social security number, and now I have no recourse for employment - I DO NOT COUNT TO THE GOVERNMENT.
Nativo, I was losing y home to foreclosure due to fraud committed against me like so many millions of others. I went to the Legal Aid Services office for legal help and I was turned away for lack of legal papers - I DO NOT COUNT TO THE GOVERNMENT.
Nativo, I also was recently fired from my job from American Apparel, the largest clothing manufacturing company in the U.S., along with 1,800 of my friends and other family members - including my husband, son, and brother - due to employer sanctions enforcement by Mr. Obama; and then my husband was picked up by ICE and deported - I DO NOT COUNT TO THE GOVERNMENT.
Nativo, my daughter just completed high school with the highest honors and was accepted to some of the most prestigious universities, yet she was unable to attend due to her legal status and no available financial aid to her. I brought her to this country as a new-born and she has worked ever so hard with great expectations and hopes for a brighter future then that of my previous fate. Now, she DOES NOT COUNT TO THE GOVERNMENT.
Nativo, my husband just had his car impounded. This is his fifth vehicle confiscated in the city of Los Angeles due to the lack of a driver's license. This is just one of our dilemmas since 1994 in California and now this is the situation throughout the U.S. We thought that a new Latino mayor and city councilmembers could change this situation at least in Los Angeles, but they too have ignored us. MY HUSBAND DOES NOT COUNT TO THE GOVERNMENT.
And, on and on, example after example was presented, and I was told that the government not only does not count the immigrant, but in fact systematically pursues, persecutes, maligns, and denigrates the immigrant. Some, however, hypocritically sing their praises when it is politically convenient to them, but then pursue contrary policies and practices.
To the person I was emphatically, but politely, told that "if we cannot count on the government, the government shall not count on us, and we will not be counted."
We have given our lives in hard menial, but valuable labor; we have given up our sons and daughters to fight the government's wars in Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and continue to do so; our children for the most part have behaved themselves and studied hard, but have been denied access to higher education as the "Negro" and "Mexican" of a previous era of segregation and American apartheid; we have repeatedly demonstrated that there is no backbreaking, dangerous, filthy, degrading, miserly paid, job that we are not willing to perform. What more does the government want from us before we are accorded civility and fairness codified in a federal statue called legalization - a fair and humane immigration reform?
This was my epiphany ladies and gentlemen, about how I came around to take up the census boycott. As a person of faith and integrity to the constituency that I serve I could not do otherwise. Their logic was not esoteric, but quite simple and direct - very compelling, and premised not on an entertaining television reality show, but the life and death experiences of salt of the earth most common working poor immigrants - yes, the stock of which America is made.
Present to us all of the statistics, economic reasoning, devolution of tax dollars from the federal government to local communities, infrastructure, health and human services, even investment in education, more favorable congressional seats through redistricting - old and new-fangled arguments, many that I myself previously used, to counter the census boycott, and all of these are quite puny juxtaposed to the immigrant's logic.
This is why the census boycott - noncooperation and noncompliance, is winning. It is as simple as staying at home, remaining silent - the lion's growl of no confidence in an immoral government. It is the epitome of non-violent action through inaction, which undermines the moral credibility of a political regime and its political party leadership that urgently seeks the immigrant's participation, cooperation, and compliance. Herein lays the beauty and simplicity of the immigrant's leverage.
The government and party leaders want something that the immigrant has; and this is the something that the immigrant can withhold until she gets what she wants in return - a fair exchange. To use a pun, it is Adam Smith's idea of the free market in the era of globalization. It is a nodal point of vulnerability in the political regime that the immigrant can turn to his advantage.
The Obama "hard-line" enforcement-only pursuit of immigrants must be met with a counter-veiling response that brings to the fore the political character of the policy, but also demonstrates its immorality and objectionable nature to millions of immigrant families and their U.S. citizen and permanent resident relatives, and Americans generally who find favor with immigration reform in poll after poll.
Refusing to cooperate with the U.S. census count is a political act of noncooperation and noncompliance in the best of Gandhian tradition conducted for the purpose of pressuring the political regime that pursues the persecution of immigrants on a daily basis at all nexus of social connection. This action seeks to dissociate ourselves from this repugnant and immoral policy, which strikes at the heart of the immigrant family.
The immediate objective of this tactic is to secure a moratorium of the current policy. Second, the medium- range objective is to win a fair and humane immigration reform, which results in legalizing the estimated 12-15 million persons without authorized status, but also overhauls other areas of the law - including the repeal of employer sanctions and mothballing the e-verify program. Third, and most importantly, the campaign is designed to raise the civic awareness and political consciousness of the immigrant community and its family members - irrespective of status - with regard to their own inherent power as contributing members of society in all its dimensions, and express the same in an organized concerted way to send a message of disfavor with the president and the leadership in the U.S. Congress.
At a time when the federal government is spending millions of dollars to insure a "full count" and especially reach into the cracks and shadows of social life to enumerate the hardest to reach individuals, noncooperation and noncompliance appears as the greatest leverage available to immigrants in their own pursuit of fairness and justice. It is the equivalent of a vote abstention for those who do not have the right to vote - their vote of no-confidence. Immigrants will send a clear message to Mr. Obama that they will not step out of the shadow only to be counted by the census enumerators and then be told to step back in the shadow when it comes to benefits, services, and rights. Their resounding demand is - before you count you must legalize us! This will be their clearest expression of political power.

Center for Migration and Development 

Wallace Hall 
Princeton University, NJ

No comments: