War on Immigrants
s the controversy over undocumented immigration mounted after the House
of Representatives passed the immigration “reform” bill HR 4437 on December
16, 2005, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids escalated (though
the bill stalled in the Senate). During the months from October 2005 to
September 2006, ICE tripled the number of its operating teams and set a
new record of over 186,600 “alien removals.”
In the first half of 2006 the raids initially focused on employers hiring
undocumented workers, such as the ICE arrests of IFCO Systems managers
in New York and other states on April 19. But by the second half of that
year, the emphasis had shifted back to arresting workers, such as at the
six Swift & Company meatpacking plants raided on December 12. The result
has been widespread disappearances in the current offensive labelled “Operation
Return to Sender.”
Unlike in the past, when deportation proceedings could take months while
federal immigration courts reviewed individual cases, many of the undocumented
immigrants detained today are being intimidated from seeking access to
courts by federal agents who ask them to sign papers for immediate deportation
to avoid prolonged detention and trial. After being terrorized by a surprise
ICE raid, and without a lawyer, many sign out of fear. Most are given little
opportunity to pack up their lives and make arrangements with remaining
family members who are either legal residents or in hiding. To make matters
worse, more and more immigration detainees are being transported to distant
locations or out of state for detention and processing.
It’s all part of the Department of Homeland Security’s Secure Border Initiative
(SBI), a multi-year plan to “secure” America’s borders and reduce illegal
According to an ICE press release of April 20, 2006: “The first phase of
the SBI remains focused on gaining operational control of the nation’s
borders through additional personnel and technology while also re-engineering
the detention and removal system to ensure that illegal aliens are removed
from this country quickly and efficiently.” It calls for measures that
“target and remove aliens that pose criminal/national security threats.”
Despite this, less than 0.5 percent of immigrants arrested in 2006 were
subsequently charged with crimes.
Not only does the war on immigrants terrorize an entire community, it completely
fails to address the underlying economic factors that cause undocumented
immigration. These problems stem, in part, from the inability of the globalized
economy to provide jobs in Mexico and Central America.
onsidering the government’s war on terror and the heightened concern over
the soaring numbers of undocumented immigrants entering the U.S. in recent
years, one might think that immigration inspections at all points of entry
would have been universally tightened.
On a recent trip to Mexico, I returned to the United States by car through
the border crossing at Tecate, Mexico and Baja, California, some 30 miles
southeast of San Diego. It was around 10:00 PM. There was no queue. The
immigration officer greeted me and I handed him a stack of U.S. passports.
He asked me how many people were in the minivan. I said, “Six.” He asked
me to open the rear sliding door. In the darkness, although he could not
see faces, somehow he could make out that the minivan was not packed with
Mexican workers. After only a glimpse he said, “Okay, you may close it.”
He never really looked at the photos on the passports or attempted to match
passports to the faces of the passengers.
The immigration officer slid each passport through a computerized scanner,
verifying that the passports were valid and logging the entry of each passenger
into the country. Within minutes, he handed the stack of passports back
to me and allowed me to go.
So, while there is so much fuss over controlling the country’s borders
and preventing potential alleged terrorists and undocumented immigrants
from entering the country, there remain gigantic loopoles. Perhaps the
fuss is not entirely about controlling borders, blocking terrorists, and
preventing “illegal” immigration. For example, if it were really about
stopping undocumented immigrants, then why build more double-layered fences
in the middle of inhospitable desert while failing to identify who actually
enters at border crossings? Why terrorize people who are already working
in the country and have families here, rather than positively identify
those coming across the border?
War for Control over People
f it is not really about stopping terrorism and undocumented immigration,
then what is it really about? There is a clear parallel between the public
fear that was created after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001
and the public fear being falsely created about “illegal” immigrants taking
away jobs and causing violent crimes. Both fears enable the federal government
to intimidate the population, launching secret dragnets to round up thousands
After September 11, over 3,000 people (those are just the ones we know
about), mostly Muslims of Middle Eastern descent, disappeared simply because
the Bush administration “suspected” that they might have terrorist ties.
An organization called the Blue Triangle Network managed (with difficulty)
to collect names of these disappeared. Most were never charged, were not
allowed to contact their families, and were systematically denied access
to court hearings. Nearly all were rounded up on the basis of racial or
A similar pattern has emerged in Iraq where U.S. troops break into houses
in the middle of the night, rounding up “suspected” insurgents. The men
and boys who are taken away are often not heard from for many days, weeks,
or months. Most Iraqis seized in these “pacification” or “cleansing” operations
are never charged, never given access to courts, and never informed of
their rights. Some disappear in custody. A few who may be classified as
“enemy combatants” are flown via “extraordinary rendition” flights to secret
CIA prisons in other countries where they may be tortured during aggressive
interrogation. Many are rounded up for being from a community that backs
any of a plethora of insurgent groups. By the way, if, in the process of
searching for insurgents, a U.S. soldier violates Iraqi laws, the U.S.
occupation of Iraq has granted all Americans immunity from prosecution
in Iraqi courts.
Recently U.S. troops began seizing Iranians in Iraq, including diplomats,
on the pretext that they support Iraqi insurgents. The Iranians have no
recourse to the courts because the U.S. occupation forces have legal immunity
in Iraq. Like the others, they are being rounded up on the basis of an
ethnic profile—of being Iranian. As the Bush administration escalates its
threats against Iran and positions its aircraft carrier strike groups and
missiles for an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities and strategic infrastructure,
the war on Iran is becoming more and more real.
The war on immigrants, war on terror, and war on Iraq are elements of the
same state terrorism against human beings. It is a war for control over
people and resources, one war with many fronts at home and abroad. Increasingly,
human rights, immigrant rights, and peace and justice groups around the
world are recognizing this common thread and calling for money for human
needs, not war. Their response in the streets and on the Internet is a
common struggle for justice and human dignity.
Sharat G. Lin writes on the global political economy, migrant labor, the
Middle East, India, and the environment.