Friday, September 5, 2008

The new American gestapo strikes again…


It seems as if ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the new name for the INS) is out to break records as fast as the gold medal swimmers in the 2008 Summer Olympics. After undertaking the “largest single-site operation of its kind in American history” when ICE raided Agriprocessors Inc. in Postville Iowa, last May, ICE apparently decided they could best that record and did so at the Howard Industries plant in Laurel, Mississippi last week. In Postville 900 ICE agents detained roughly 400 undocumented immigrant workers. A 60 acre cattle fairground was turned into a concentration camp for the detainees, off limits to cameras and most of the media. One court interpreter, Prof. Erik Camayd-Freixas, described the scene as the detainees were brought into the trailers that served as courtrooms on the fairgrounds… “Driven single-file in groups of 10, shackled at the wrists, waist and ankles, chains dragging as they shuffled through, the slaughterhouse workers were brought in for arraignment, sat and listened through headsets to the interpreted initial appearance, before marching out again to be bused to different county jails, only to make room for the next row of 10. They appeared to be uniformly no more than 5 ft. tall, mostly illiterate Guatemalan peasants with Mayan last names, some being relatives (various Tajtaj, Xicay, Sajché, Sologüí…), some in tears; others with faces of worry, fear, and embarrassment.” (See first link below for source and more details).

In Laurel, Mississippi ICE broke it’s Postville record, arresting 595 workers. The raid occurred at Howard Industries, an electrical equipment factory that employs roughly 800 workers. Instead of taking the immigrants to a hastily constructed concentration camp on a fairgrounds, these detainees were brought to a new detention center constructed in Jena, Louisiana (yes, the same Jena made notorious by the racially motivated arrests and prosecutions of six African-American teenagers in 2006). The facility is owned and operated by GEO Group, Inc. (formerly Wackenhut Corrections Corporation) a vehemently anti-union company who has made millions on others misery and has an infamous record for civil and human rights violations at its facilities. According to reports from MIRA! (Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance) ICE agents also placed a nearby poultry plant on “lockdown” and set up roadblocks near the Wal-Mart in Hattiesburg. In both the Postville and Laurel raids, as is usually the case, families have been broken apart. MIRA! immediately began organizing a support network following the Laurel raid to take care of children left behind when their parents were arrested at work. Public pressure on ICE from previous raids has at least had some impact it seems. In both raids, mothers with young children at home were released after being fitted with electronic monitoring bracelets. This is of limited comfort for those families whose fathers continue to be detained and who now have no means of subsistence or survival. In the case of the Postville raid, a local Catholic church, which actual housed dozens of terrified immigrant families in the days following the raid (around 400 people in total), has taken it upon itself to provide the families with basic necessities like food, clothing and rent money.

Besides being record breaking, the Postville and Laurel raids also indicate new hard ball tactics employed by ICE, some of which have been criticized for bending, if not breaking standard legal practices and precedents. Prof. Camayd-Freixas raises serious concerns about ICE’s use of a threat to charge the workers with “aggravated identity theft”, a felony charge, to force the workers, regardless of the particulars of their case, to plead guilty to “knowingly using a false Social Security number”. The approach of ICE was to create a catch-22 situation in which the undocumented workers had no choice but to acquiesce to a guilty plea, deportation, and a 5 month stint in Jail, or defend their innocence and spend anywhere from 8 months to a few years in prison before being deported, regardless of the outcome of their trail. Prof. Camayd-Freixas further describes how the rushed hearings provided the workers by ICE and U.S. District Court were clearly designed to provide a veneer of legality while circumventing in practice, the worker’s legal rights (read Prof. Camayd-Freixas report below, it is truly disturbing). He refers to this new practice as “fast-tracking” and states… “It is no secret that the Postville ICE raid was a pilot operation, to be replicated elsewhere, with kinks ironed out after lessons learned. Next time, “fast-tracking” will be even more relentless. Never before has illegal immigration been criminalized in this fashion. It is no longer enough to deport them: we first have to put them in chains.” Prof. Camayd-Freixas claims are further bolstered by the ACLU’s recent discovery of government manuals distributed to defense attorneys assigned to represent immigrant workers after a raid. The manuals encourage the practices Prof. Camayd-Freixas witnessed in Postville. The threat of felony charges of aggravated identity theft was used again in the Laurel raid. And in Mississippi, undocumented workers can be sentenced to 5 years in jail and fined $10,000 under a new law passed earlier this year by right wing legislators and Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour. Mississippi seems determined to maintain it’s historical legacy as one of the country’s most white supremacist states, and it seems as if ICE has found the perfect place in which persecute undocumented workers.

Neither the Postville nor the Laurel raids break the record for ICE arrests in a single operation. The detaining of 1,297 immigrant workers during raids on Swift meatpacking plants in December 2006 is still largest single action taken by the agency since the reorganization of the INS into ICE in March 2003, the largest investigative branch of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). It appears that the Laurel raid may also have something in common with one of the more infamous ICE raids of the past couple years - the January 24th, 2007 raided at the Smithfield pork slaughtering plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina. That raid happened in the midst of efforts by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) to unite the often divided White, Black and Latino workers behind a union organizing effort in the plant. In the Winter of 06-07, the union had made great strides in this regard. Latino workers had become particular important in the growing campaign. As you might imagine, the January raids had a serious impact on those organizing efforts. Likewise the raid at Laurel seems to coincide with efforts by the relatively new union local at Howard Industries, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 1317 to reach out the growing Latino immigrant workforce in the plant. According to journalist David Bacon, their had been tensions between the union and the immigrant workers in the past. His article and other reports I have read indicate that it was a union member who initial contacted ICE several years ago about the presence of undocumented workers at the facility. However, the union’s contract expired last August, and in the face of stiff resistance to any concessions from company management and a growing number of immigrant workers in the plant, the union had made great strides in trying to organize these new workers (see the David Bacon link below for more details). How convenient than that the raid would happen now. It is yet to be seen how this will effect contract negotiations. From what I gather the union has not said much publicly about the raid. We will also have to see if evidence of possible collusion between company management and ICE surfaces as it did in the Smithfield raid (see the Smithfield link below).

Here lies the really reason behind the increase in immigration raids in the past few years. It is classic divide and conquer tactics. The massive immigrant rights marches in 2006 and the growing alliance between immigrant rights groups and labor unions have frightened the nation’s ruling class. The powers that be have moved swiftly to blunt this new burgeoning civil rights movement. Racist xenophobes and business elites share a common interest in terrorizing immigrant workers and driving a wedge between them and the rest of the working class. The raids are of course a response by the Bush administration to appease the rabidly anti-immigrant element within the Republican Party. But the raids serve many other purposes as well. They feed into the growing anti-immigrant hysteria whose aim is to distract the working class from the real causes of joblessness, declining wages and lowered living standards. Both immigrant and non-immigrant workers are easier to exploit, when immigrant workers are driven into the shadows, when immigrant workers are forced to accept slave wages and substandard working conditions out of fear and desperation. David Bacon’s recent article entitled “Did a Mississippi Raid Protect Rightwing Politicians?” points out the specifics of these dynamics in the case of the Laurel, Mississippi raid (see link below for the full article). In his article Bacon quotes Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, who states "raids drive down wages because they intimidate workers, even citizens and legal residents. The employer brings in another batch of employees and continues business as usual, while people who protest get targeted and workers get deported. Raids really demonstrate the employer's power." Bacon talks about the growing alliance between African-Americans and Latinos that has been changing the balance of power in Mississippi and challenging the old racist political elites. He states in his article…“… members of the Black Caucus, many of the state's labor organizations, and immigrant communities all see shifting demographics as the basis for changing the state's politics.” I witnessed this myself when I visited MIRA! in June of 2007. MIRA! is one of the most dynamic, militant and successful immigrant rights organizations I have encountered anywhere in the country. They have helped launch powerful campaigns like the Indian guest workers who are fighting the near involuntary servitude practiced by Signal International, a struggle I have talked of often on Labor Express Radio and pilsenprole. The founders of MIRA! are actually a group of white and African-American labor activists who realized that the states growing immigrant worker population need a voice. Unions have been their major base of support and the African-American caucus in the state legislature has championed their legislative efforts and defeated anti-immigrant measures. These raids are an arrow aimed at the heart of this growing solidarity. What the raids are definitely not about is increased prosperity for working class communities. In Postville, according to an ABC News article “Postville has lost more than one-fourth of its pre-raid population of 2,300…” The result is boarded up storefronts and schools where a third of the student body is missing. Like many other small towns around the country where recent waves of Latino immigrants had meant growing economic vitality, the raids bring doubt about these towns future survival.

Now I know some of you might abject to the use of the term “gestapo” in my title for this entry. Yes, this is hyperbole. Yes, I realize that immigrants are not, at least at this point, being shipped of to death camps. I realize that we are not yet, at least, living under a fascist regime. I too often tire of the left’s tendency to use the terms fascist and Nazi in a-historical comparisons for political effect. Such usage of the terms does diminish their true historic significance and robs the victims of those regime the specificity of their experience. But when I see ICE agents sweeping into factories and small towns arresting hundreds of workers, dividing parents from their children; when I see ICE bending the law and denying immigrant workers their legal rights in order to force confessions and convictions; when I see the massive investment in new detention facilities that has occurred in the past few years; when these detention facilities are now holding whole immigrant families (including young children) for indefinite periods of time (see Kari Lyderson article below for more details); when I place these developments alongside the other attacks on our civil liberties we have witnessed in recent years (i.e. the Patriot Act, etc.); I can’t help but be reminded of the famous Niemoeller quote…

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out--
because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out--
because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out--
because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out--
because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me--
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

Links to sources:

This first person account of the Postville raid by court interpreter Prof. Erik Camayd-Freixas is a must read…

http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2008/07/14/opinion/14ed-camayd.pdf

David Bacon continues to be the most insightful journalist there is on issues dealing with labor and immigrant rights. Here is his article on the Laurel raid…

http://www.truthout.org/article/did-a-mississippi-raid-protect-rightwing-politicians

Here is Bacon’s article on the Smithfield raid in 2007…

http://dbacon.igc.org/Imgrants/2007smithfieldraid.html

This article on Postville Iowa in the wake of the raid is amazingly insightful and sensitive to the experience of the undocumented immigrants - somewhat unusual for a mainstream news source. What is particular powerful in this article is the strong sense of solidarity expressed by the rest of the population of Postville toward the immigrant workers and their clear understanding of the valuable contribution these workers have made to the community…

http://abcnews.go.com/Business/wireStory?id=5597341

A truly chilling article about the growing number of immigrant children in detention centers by friend and journalist Kari Lyderson…

http://www.alternet.org/rights/48308/

The number of ICE detention facilities has exploded in recent years, especially in Texas and other Southern states. Many of these facilities are privately run, a situation just as disturbing in its implications as the growing use of private contractor mercenaries in Iraq. GEO Group (formerly Wackenhut), one of the companies that runs a number of these facilities, including the one in Jena, has already been charged with violating the human and civil rights of detainees. The company is a corrections facility multinational, operating prisons across the globe. The also have a history of being rabidly anti-union and have recently sued SEIU for “racketeering” because of the unions successful efforts to build labor/community coalitions around the companies abuses…

http://www.abcnews.go.com/Blotter/story?id=5466166&page=1

http://www.detentionwatchnetwork.org/node/2249

http://www.eyeonwackenhut.com/

http://www.afscme.org/workers/6845.cfm

You can see a video of the Jena detention facility here…

http://titancast.titantv.com/p/klax/v/Jena-Detention-Facility/000103AN.aspx

Important article on the connection between immigration raids and union busting…

http://www.mydd.com/story/2007/6/24/15322/2277

Articles on the Laurel raid…

http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,411121,00.html

http://www.commondreams.org/headline/2008/08/28-1

http://pww.org/article/articleview/13621/


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