There is a story that U.S. citizens often hear about undocumented Latino workers. It is fiction.
If you followed WJTV's report of recent Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids, discussed during the Feb. 21 Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance press conference and civic engagement day ("ICE Arrests 58 Criminal Aliens and Fugitives"), you might not have come away with a very positive impression of these immigrant families.
The catchy new phrase "criminal aliens and fugitives" seems to have replaced "illegal aliens" as border-watchers' pejorative-of-choice for undocumented Latino immigrants and their families. It helps the station contribute to the ethnic bigotry and hatred that, according to a recent report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, made 2010 the most prosperous year for hate groups in U.S. history.
Children, some of them now deprived of a parent, sat patiently throughout the conference. Occasionally, a baby cried. Elderly Latino women and men, many of whom made the three-block walk from the MIRA office to the Capitol and back, watched the press conference with more of a personal sense of history than most, no doubt wondering what kind of country their children and grandchildren would grow up in.
WJTV wasn't interested in any of these people or their stories; that would have humanized the victims of the ICE raids.
Details are still emerging about the raids, but three factors kept recurring in witnesses' stories: blatant ethnic profiling, casual violence and laughter on the part of the agents.
That mirrors the laughter of some legislators. After the press conference, I watched Rep. John Moore, R-Brandon, one of SB 2179's most vocal supporters, smile and cheerfully repeat talking points at the state Capitol as he explained to grieving families why he supported the bill, which would mandate ethnic profiling on a statewide level. What was clear to me was that he had absolutely no emotional investment in Latinos as human beings.
We can assume that what made these 57 men and one woman "criminals," in nearly all cases, was their immigration status; if it wasn't, local law enforcement or the FBI would have arrested them. When ICE comes knocking, the issue is immigration paperwork.
Immigration violations don't usually get the attention of United States authorities, and for good reason: U.S. corporations and landowners have long had a need for uncompensated or sub-minimum-wage labor. In the 16th century, it was American Indian slaves. In the 17th through 19th centuries, it was African American slaves. In the mid- to late-19th century, it was Chinese American railroad workers. And since 1910, it has primarily been undocumented or conditionally documented Latinos.
Corporations that hire undocumented Latinos tend to donate to politicians who want to deport undocumented Latinos. If you're wondering why, consider the fact that only a small percentage of undocumented Latinos are actually deported—but that these sensational cases are enough to frighten Latino workers into not organizing or reporting labor-code violations. In other words, the U.S. government—by selectively enforcing immigration policies against immigrant workers, but refusing to prosecute employers—helps corporations work their undocumented laborers as inexpensively as possible. Both major political parties are complicit in this arrangement.
Meanwhile, immigrants have, more often than not, left countries decimated by clever but heartless U.S. foreign policy and trade decisions. They face profound poverty, for themselves and their families, if they return. They are also well aware of the fact that the U.S. government has never really tried to prevent undocumented labor, and that they have a well-established role in the U.S. economy.
If the U.S. government were serious about ending the exploitation of undocumented workers, it would allow these workers to unionize without fear, enforce labor-code violations against employers who overwork or underpay undocumented immigrants, and end deportations altogether because of the obstructionary role it plays with respect to these first two goals. But the U.S. government is not serious about ending the system of undocumented labor; it is serious about profit, and the best way to maximize profits is to use ICE raids as a form of state-sponsored terrorism against Latino immigrant communities.
It works; I saw a lot of terrified people. But they weren't too terrified to march to the Capitol and give voice to their friends, their families, and their communities—and to that extent, the raids were a failure.
I don't know if the voices of Latinos and allies will be enough to defeat SB 2179—but after two highly successful immigrant civic-engagement days at the Capitol, no legislator can plead ignorance. Legislators who support this bill do so not because they don't know any better but because they think voters don't. If you want to prove they've underestimated you, call your local legislator and support the work of the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance (http://www.yourmira.org).
Your voice—no matter who you are—may be the one that finally persuades a key legislator to stop pandering to bigots and do the right thing.
Freelance writer Tom Head is a lifelong Jacksonian. He has authored or co-authored 24 nonfiction books on a wide range of topics, is a civil liberties writer for About.com, and volunteers as a grassroots progressive activist.