It’s a Terrorist War on Immigrants


In the spring of 1997, a Latino immigrant who had worked legally in the United States for 40 years committed suicide after receiving a letter saying that under the new welfare law his Supplemental Security Income (SSI) might end. Not long afterward a wheelchair-bound Russian immigrant threw himself off his balcony from the same fear. Does this not suggest a monstruous assault that we must call terrorist?

What we once called "immigrant bashing" should be called immigrant smashing. It’s an outright war, waged at the highest levels of government, as immigrant rights leader Maria Jimenez of Houston has long said. The war cabinet includes what we could call a Department of Propaganda, its purpose being to convince the public that some overwhelmingly poor, exploited, and vulnerable people are the enemy. Like many wars, this one utilizes vicious divide-and-conquer tactics to prevent a united resistance: divide Latinos, Asians, and the U.S.-born; the "undocumented" and the "documented"; recent and established arrivals. Other tactics include a barrage of new laws whose goal is to legalize the war and consolidate the foundation for anti-immigrant terrorism.

Those laws, passed since 1994, show that the warmakers include not only up-front reactionaries like Governor Pete Wilson of California with Prop. 187 in 1994 but also President Clinton. When he was running for re-election in 1996, Clinton supported a fat package of anti-immigrant legislation. It passed that year, followed in 1997 by the so-called welfare reform act, whose victims include millions of migrant workers—a more accurate, less loaded term than "immigrant," which has become a code word meaning people of color and not English nannies or French chefs. The 1994-1997 legislation was fed by state or national electoral competition and the politicians’ goal of winning votes from a scapegoating electorate. Such campaign opportunism explains a host of horrors, including Wilson’s announcement a few days before the November 1996 election that he would end prenatal care for "illegal" immigrants a month from that date. (As of late June 1997, he still intended to end it on August 30).

One of the worst anti-immigrant laws of 1996 was the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. It contains semi-fascist clauses attacking immigrant rights that were tucked into the Act by Clinton and supporters. Among them is what amounts to abolition of due process. Previously, longterm permanent residents could get a waiver to block being deported for minor criminal offenses, and thus have a chance to prove they had been rehabilitated. Although technically this right has not been abolished, the new law makes it next-to-impossible to meet the requirements. Also, it is now permissable to jail anyone on the spot who reports to apply for citizenship and is then found to have a criminal record.

Another clause provides for authorizing police to perform tasks outside their normal duties. Local police can "cooperate" with the INS by making arrests for supposed violations of immigration law. Even before this new law passed, local police had already been using false or non-existent warrants and engaging in physical and verbal abuse. Yet another clause in the Anti-Terrorism Act provides for spying on dissidents: any foreign group would be designated a "terrorist organization" if it "threatens the national security," and this could be done without revealing the evidence for such allegations. Groups that defend immigrant rights could obviously be made prime targets by manipulating that language.

Another law with fascist overtones passed in 1996, which even conservative attorneys found shocking. It said that the INS could single-handedly decide the fate of an immigrant—for example, to be given political asylum or not—with the person having no right of appeal for judicial intervention. The INS can legally pick up people, deny them asylum as refugees along with no right to an interpreter or attorney, and deport them—all with impunity.

When we consider how the Anti-Terrorism Act and other laws passed in 1994-97 have imposed fear and suffering, we have to ask: who are the real terrorists? If terrorism means the systematic use of intense fear as a means of coercion, we can look at Latino immigrants (not to mention others) and find appalling examples. To mention only one, uncounted Latino families have not gone to clinics for health care or sent their children to school out of fear of deportation. California’s Proposition 187 says children and adults must be able to show documents proving legal residence in order to receive such services. Isn’t there something surreal about little children having to be sure they walk to school carrying a certified birth certificate?

Prop 187 has frightened many but even without it, Latinos and others are stopped anywhere and everywhere to prove their legal status. The INS often announces new restrictions which suggest mass deportations in the minds of immigrants, some of whom remember Operation Wetback and similar expulsions in the past. Once again, after the new laws passed, lines formed around the block at INS offices of people trying to find out what’s happening, and when deadlines take effect. As a spokesperson for the National Council of La Raza said, "People are panicking."

The Border Patrol Rages On

The one law in this period that should have passed but didn’t is H.R. 2119, to establish an Immigration Enforcement Review Commission. It would investigate complaints about the Border Patrol—the largest, least-accountable police department in the U.S., which has resisted control for years. Thus the message rings out clearly from Congress and the White House: it’s open season on migrant labor, which means anyone who looks "foreign"—especially Latinos, the main focus of this article., although many others face the same.

To speak in terms of hunting seasons is no exaggeration. Check out the February 1995 issue of Outdoor Life and find an exciting article called "Manhunter." It’s the story of a Border Patrol agent named Mike Calvert who loves to use his "extraordinary tracking skills" to hunt "that most elusive trophy of all—man." The article ran with a drawing of a hunter staring intently at a map showing the U.S.-Mexico border.

And so…

  • …when we hear that 13 migrants were killed or injured along the San Diego border during just one month, April 1996, in high-speed chases by border patrol and highway patrol officers, we should think of the INS’s Operation Gatekeeper. Established by Clinton in 1994, supposedly to stop unauthorized immigrants and illegal drugs in San Diego, the Operation is equipped with millions of dollars in sophisticated military hardware and high-tech viewing devices. As of spring 1997, there were 2,000 Border Patrol officers and 250 National Guard in the San Diego area alone.
  • …when we hear about the May 1996 videotaped beating in Riverside County, California of Alicia Soltero Vasquez and her companion when the Border Patrol stopped their truck, we should think about the ferocious immigrant-bashing that went on during that national election year. (Last June 21, the two received a $740,000 settlement.)
  • …when, in November 1996, a group of ten including children were swept away by a wave and drowned on the Texas border in an area known to be dangerous—which they hoped would be less commonly used and thus less patrolled—we should think of how the number of such deaths will surely rise. A 1996 law said that the INS should hire at least 1,000 border patrol agents for the U.S.-Mexico border in each of the next five years, to have a total of 10,000 by the year 2000. Even the INS has said it cannot responsibly absorb more than 500 new agents a year; also, no plans to improve agents’ screening and training are required.  
  • …when we hear of a permanent resident returning to the U.S. in April, 1997 and the INS agent who gave him a karate chop to the neck while another handcuffed him, we should recall the limits on "legal" immigrant rights approved by Clinton in last year’s package. They include new financial requirements that make it nearly impossible for at least a third of the "legal" immigrants to bring in family members.
  • …when we hear that 190 to 300 persons died annually trying to cross the Texas border between 1985-1994, according to a University of Houston study, we should consider the racist attitudes toward these victims. Half of the bodies found are never identified; sometimes no autopsy is performed and no death certificate filed. One newspaper reported the attitude that "it’s just another illegal Mexican. They’re not from here. They don’t matter."
  • …when 17 migrants perished in freezing weather near San Diego between January 7-24, 1997 because they tried to avoid the Border Patrol by passing through isolated mountains, we can ask ourselves, "don’t they matter, either?"
  • …when we hear of the May 20, 1997 murder near the Texas border of an 18-year old U.S. citizen named Esequiel Hernandez by 4 U.S. Marines from an anti-drug task force, we should realize just what the growing militarization of the borderlands can mean. Involvement of the military in civilian law enforcemen is as dangerous today as when it was banned in the U.S. more than 100 years ago. The murder of Dominquez has created special outrage, for this rural high school sophomore was out grazing his flock of 45 goats when the Marines on a covert mission shot him dead.

Along with the specifically anti-immigrant laws passed in 1996, Clinton combined immigrants and welfare receipients in one big package for super-convenient scapegoating. He signed a so-called welfare reform bill that ended 60 years of federal responsibility for helping the nation’s poor. Among various provisions it denies benefits to "legal immigrants" including food stamps and SSI. It also abolished AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) and replaced it with TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families), which is time-limited and which states have the option of denying to legal immigrants. Under the new welfare law, states may also deny Medicaid to legal immigrants. As for those so-called "illegals," they are ineligible for all federal programs except some select emergency medical services and some immunizations.

What will all this mean? The Urban Institute announced in late 1996 that of the 1.1 million children predicted to fall into poverty from the new law, 450,000 will be harmed by the immigrant provisions. Other damage includes an estimated 500,000 "legal immigrants" losing access to SSI income and about 900,000 without food stamps. (People can continue to receive SSI only if they are veterans, can prove they have worked in the U.S. 10 years, or can prove refugee status, or become citizens.) In California alone, over 200,000 seniors and disabled people will lose their SSI.. In the face of sharp criticism Clinton later promised to restore some of the welfare benefits (but this is still being debated).

Even if Clinton’s package of new legislation is modified in small ways, or Prop. 187 is finally ruled unconstitutional, the damage has been done. Open season on migrant workers continues, nationwide. New York, with its conservative Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. appears to be an exception, for whatever reason—votes, perhaps? But right across the Hudson River one of the worst cases of abuse exploded on June 18, 1995 at the Elizabeth, N.J. Detention Center where immigrants with papers deemed questionable were being taken, usually direct from N.J. or New York airports.

Inmates demolished much of the Center’s interior and barricaded themselves inside for five hours. They rose up against conditions that investigators criticized harshly: being held in large dormitory rooms where, according to a Catholic official, they "eat, defecate, sleep and remain for 23 hours a day." Sometimes, if there was a shortage of guards, inmates could be shackled for hours. Many were applicants for refugee status who had been awaiting a decision too long, like the man from Sudan expelled from his country for pro-democracy activism who stayed locked up at the center seven months. Two years after the uprising, the Center reopened under new management and with many inmates discharged (investigators said they never should have been detained in the first place) but without real improvement in center conditions, one attorney said.

INS raids dramatically increased during 1996-97 from Maryland to California and at work-places from construction sites to garment factories to nightclubs. The main workers arrested—sometimes as many as 97 percent, for example, in New York City—were Latino. The raids are utilized as a tactic to maintain an abusive working environment and push the immigrant economy even further underground, where it will be even more vulnerable.

Collusion between the INS and employers often occurs for different reasons. On one hand, garment factory owners in New York asked the third-ranking INS official to curtail its raids—perhaps because they needed the workers they had trained?—and the INS complied. On the other hand, bosses use the INS to police their employees, for example when they suspect workers may be preparing some collective action. An especially notorious case involved Mediacopy, the world’s third largest videotape reproducing company, located in San Leandro, California. In early 1997, one day before workers planned to launch a unionization campaign, Mediacopy reportedly locked its doors and then brought in the INS. Almost 100 workers, some of them documented, were arrested. ILWU Local 6 has brought a case on their behalf.

How long does the arm of the INS reach, one wonders, when hearing about how the Ohio Highway Patrol has repeatedly stopped organizers of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), a 25-year-old union. In a federal suit filed last year, members reported being stopped on the highway and detained for hours without a ticket or warning ever being issued. Not infrequently, they are U.S. citizens.

Building A United Resistance

Many groups, networks, coalitions, and workers’ centers exist across the country and have been holding protests (see box) against the war on immigrant workers. In some, disagreement about strategy and tactics runs deep. Liberals have often bought into the distinction between "legal" and "illegal" immigrants, which has divided the immigrant rights movement in California and nationally. It fails to recognize that the new laws can devastate both groups and that the instruments of repression make no such distinction. Race and class link the documented and undocumented tightly, negating legalistic differences. When a cop or migra agent arbitrarily arrests a dark-skinned Latino who looks poor, he or she doesn’t really care whether the person has the right piece of paper or not.

The treatment of Latino (and other) immigrants tells us that if one freedom is curtailed today, others will be at risk tomorrow. Anti-immigrant laws and procedures threaten the civil rights of everyone. Thus we all, whatever our legal status, have an interest in maintaining the rights of all migrant workers, whether documented or not. In the end, those rights are no less than democratic rights.

Another debate centers on whether to utilize various reputable reports which show that nationwide immigrants pay more in taxes than the cost of services they receive. Therefore it can be said that immigrants are not parasites, contrary to the propaganda about pregnant Latinas who come to the U.S. just to have babies and collect welfare, or similar myths. But this argument also falters.

Do we really want the public to focus primarily on the net financial worth of a human being rather than on the need to provide human rights for everyone? Do we normally evaluate the life of a child or elderly person according to the value of what they produce or how much taxes they pay? The argument that immigrants are not a financial burden to taxpayers can be compelling and useful to immigrant rights activists. But it becomes depoliticized and liberal if we don’t add that a person’s economic contribution is not the main issue; we must look primarily at the importance of human and civil rights.

A third strategic problem in some quarters of the immigrant rights movement is lack of understanding about the reasons for migration. There is a tendency to speak of "the immigration problem," which has come to mean unwanted foreigners imposing difficulties which must somehow be eliminated. That terminology reduces a global movement of displaced human beings to a U.S. national security issue called "defending our borders." What is called "immigration" actually represents a set of economic forces intensified by the globalization of capital. Promoted by transnational corporate giants, globalization integrates the economies of poor nations into a world system created and controlled by those giants. That integration causes people who should really be called migrant workers to whirl from one space to another in search of subsistence. After the anti-immigrant laws of 1966 passed, one journalist commented "this was not an immigration reform bill, it was a labor bill."

Sometimes, though rarely, the truth appears in U.S. mass media, as in the special report entitled "Illegal in Iowa" published by U.S. News and World Report (September 23, 1996) with its cover statement that "American firms recruit thousands of Mexicans to do the nation’s dirtiest, most dangerous work." Which is, of course, hardly news.

Overcoming Our Divisions

For the immigrant rights movement and progressives in general, winning the support of U.S.-born workers calls for much work. Among the huge variety of Asian/Pacific Island communities, complex relations exist. Even people of the same national background can be divided, as conflicts between Chicanos/as and newly arrived Mexicans indicate. Among people of the same racial or ethnic background, division can also be found. The majority of Puerto Ricans (who are citizens) reportedly want stricter controls over immigration, including other Latinos. They see it in terms of job competition and other threats. Some Puerto Ricans actively support civil and human rights for immigrants, and see those rights as inextricably intertwined with Latino empowerment in general and Puerto Rican rights in particular. Howard Jordan, who edits the Puerto Rican publication <W0>Crítica in New York has written eloquently about this.

The vast majority of immigrants are people of color, for whom racism is the daily diet served along with immigrant status. Thus a potential for coalitions exists in Black communities. Alongside the commonality of racial oppression we also have the commonality of displacement—in the past or present—resulting from economic forces. But strong disunity has developed. Although often cultivated by divide-and-conquer tacticians, it must be taken seriously. We cannot ignore the issues of job and wage competition, with particular reference to Latinos and Blacks.

For several years, African American communities have believed that immigrants—meaning Latinos and Asians—are taking away jobs once available to Blacks. Defenders of immigrant rights have sometimes made the mistake of dismissing this concern arbitrarily. African American scholars cite such evidence as a 1993 Wall Street Journal study of the impact of the last recession which found that Blacks had lost 59,479 jobs across the U.S. (while other groups had a net gain) and that the worst losses were in states with the highest immigration rate, like Florida and California. Further, wages had gone down for Blacks in some sectors where unionized Black workers once prevailed. Localized studies also encourage the sense of loss. For example, a study of the garment and hotel industries in New York City in 1940-90 found that immigrants’ share of employment grew as the share of natives’ employment fell.

Other scholars, usually white, have maintained that a very small amount of absolute job loss for African Americans may indeed occur in a few sectors. However, they say, immigration generates new jobs, which are then available to all. For example, in a particular city immigration may cause an increase in jobs at government agencies that offer services used by immigrants. Often African Americans, and rarely immigrants, are hired for such work. In other words, one must look at the total employment picture.

A massive study by the National Research Council, released in draft form on May 17, 1997, agrees that there can be job loss, usually for less-skilled native workers, who compete with migrant workers—also less-skilled. This loss therefore affects primarily African Americans (but also low-income native Latinos). In other words, job loss does occur where the two categories of workers are similar in skill levels.

At the same time, states the 1997 report, the impact is tiny both in terms of job loss and decline in wages. Research on the job and wage loss for Black workers shows a negative impact of less than 1 percent for Black men in general and even a tiny gain of +.02 for African American men (no data for women).

The study gives as a major reason for the low rate of job loss the fact that African Americans and immigrants usually live in different parts of the country. According to the report, 63 percent of African Americans live in states other than the six top immigration states (California, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, and Texas). In the 44 other states where most Blacks live, only 4 percent of the population are immigrants. But the evidence presented for this seems inadequate. How to explain Los Angeles and New York, where both African Americans and immigrants live in great numbers? In California as a whole, perhaps the weight of Los Angeles is offset by the Central Valley and northern California which are largely white. As a result, on a statewide basis the report’s explanation for low rates of African American job and wage loss may work statistically. The same might hold true on a nationwide basis, statistically.

But there is another factor in Black anti-immigrant attitudes: people’s perceptions. Rarely if ever do reports and statistics examine the impact of human perception on the debate about job loss. In evaluating how serious such loss is for African Americans, we cannot ignore reality as seen by a people for whom centuries of enslavement and the worst kind of brutalization will almost inevitably condition their perspective. When an African American goes to a hotel in the East where the service workers have always been Black and sees mostly Latino faces, the impact is powerful. The word spreads. Even if only a few jobs are involved—and poor jobs at that—the visual reality strikes home. "Don’t tell me immigrants aren’t taking jobs from Blacks," they might say. (Similarly, a Latino might go to a gas station in San Francisco’s Mission District and find the gas station workers, once Latino, are now Asian.)

It is true, as the 1997 National Academy of Sciences report says, that immigrants represent only about 8 percent of the population, and so losses for any native group would have to be statistically huge to appear significant. Again, this fact doesn’t undermine the psychological effect on communities that have been under racist and classist siege for centuries. That effect is aggravated, in the case of African Americans, by the fact that they will soon become the second largest U.S. population of color—no longer the first—if current immigration rates continue.

Job and wage competition as an issue has to be faced. We must do so with honest dialogue and a commitment to creating understanding—not more divisiveness. In the end, the question is not whether job loss really happens or not, and how much. The question is: do we let it divide African Americans and migrant workers, or do we acknowledge the problem, join forces to offset division, and work to win more jobs for everyone?

In answering that question, we all need to recognize how effectively division has been fostered, deliberately in some cases and out of ignorance in others. During the campaign for Prop. 187, the rightwing Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) ran radio spots in Black communities that blamed their problems on those foreign hordes coming across the border. An anti-Asian commercial appeared on TV in which an African American car salesperson says, "Go see Rising Sun (the movie), then you’ll know why you have to buy your car from me." The target was, of course, Japanese manufacturers but the ad encouraged racist attitudes toward all Asians. The passage of Prop. 187 in California, with a large Black vote in favor, was facilitated by such propaganda.

On the Latino or Asian/Pacific side, negative reactions to Black attitudes toward immigrants should also be discussed. Latinos know all too well that migrant workers have suffered greatly and even lost their lives by trying to come to this country. So it did hurt when the NAACP initially refused to take a position against employer sanctions. Imposed by the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), these sanctions were supposed to penalize employers for hiring undocumented workers. As a study by the U.S. General Accounting Office showed, their main effect has been discrimination against job-seekers based on appearance or accent, with many victims being citizens. In other words, racism.

The Black Congressional Caucus opposed sanctions early on, but the NAACP supported sanctions for a decade until Latino civil rights organizations threatened to resign from the National Civil Rights Leadership Conference. Finally the NAACP joined the opposition to sanctions. What should count here, from a Black/brown coalition-building perspective, is the NAACP’s eventual support. Latinos and Blacks should also recall that the NAACP once worked together with LULAC (the League of Latin American Citizens) against segregation in the South at a time of intense Klan activity. Other examples of cooperation between the two peoples are described by several Black and brown scholars in Prof. Ishmael Reed’s revealing 1997 anthology of essays by authors of all colors, Multiamerica.

Another real issue that comes up in relation to Black-Latino views of immigration is language. Too often in a workplace we can hear the question from an African American employee, "Why don’t you speak English? You’re in America now!" Again, it can help to understand that being denied the right to speak Spanish is an old form of racism which has plagued Latinos for decades. To speak Spanish represents defense of one’s culture in a eurocentric, racist nation that doesn’t want to remember Spanish—not English—was the common language in much of the Southwest for 250 years. (We can also note that some of the worst racist stereotypes about Asians are based on a hateful mockery of speech like "tickee" and "laundree" that homogenizes everything Asian as Chinese.) At the same time, other peoples facing racism—such as African Americans—may feel excluded by the use in their presence of a language they don’t know. Sensitivity to these feelings is needed too.

All this touches only the tip of the iceberg. Relations between African Americans and Latinos (or other peoples of color) around immigration can be problematic in areas beyond work and culture. They come up in other aspects of urban life: neighborhoods changing, housing, equitable political representation, gangs. Whatever the arena of conflict, the goal needs to be greater cooperation and solidarity in opposing common enemies. Black Americans have sometimes called for such unity, like Joe Williams III, an African American writing in the Los Angeles Sentinel on September 9, 1996. Williams compared the current attacks on the undocumented to the harassment of Blacks during the 1950s-60s when many moved north or west as southern agriculture declined. "They were accused of taking the jobs of the white man. They were accused [by whites] of undermining the salaries of union workers." It’s even worse today, Williams concluded, because mainstream Black politicians as well as segments of the Black and Latino communities join the attacks.

We need Latino voices like Williams’s, people who will offer honest self-criticism about our attitudes toward African American concerns. We need more Latinos condemning the racist attitudes toward Blacks often found in our communities, along with African Americans coming to understand the Latino perspective and our commonalities. This kind of openness will take courage on both sides, not to mention all the other colors that must also communicate.

We can look across the seas for examples to inspire us in the difficult struggle for immigrants’ human and civil rights. In 1997, an organization of immigrant African men, women, and children made history in Paris. Its name: Sans-Papiers (Without Papers, as in undocumented). They organized openly despite threats of instant deportation; occupied a church and held a 50-day hunger strike there; confronted the passage of laws similar to anti-immigrant legislation here; and did not retreat in the face of severe repression by 1,000 military police who attacked with tear gas and clubs

Support for Sans Papiers by France’s largest labor union, which called for amnesty for everyone without papers, was crucial. Also, many white French citizens participated in demonstrations with tens of thousands of people against scapegoating immigrants. All these efforts, beginning with Sans Papiers’ organizing, paid off. On June 11, 1997, France’s new (and pro-socialist) government promised to review tens of thousands of requests for residence papers previously denied. It said it would revoke anti-immigrant laws passed by the previous government.

Here in the U.S. we have seen united commitment being built in various parts of the country. We must do still more. We need to be constantly moving beyond short-range definition of needs; not to be deceived by scapegoating campaigns or driven into new fights over crumbs; to see the harm done by various forms of nationalism. Instead of pursuing a nationalist agenda, people of color must build a transnational movement for civil and human rights, a movement that will empower working-class people everywhere. Such a movement requires all of us to educate ourselves about our histories and commonalities, including our experiences of working together, so as to break the mythology of inevitable division and domination. In the long run that movement requires creating a new national identity based on a multicultural vision of collective interdependence.

Why should we do all this? Because we have to, if we want to overcome massive disempowerment. Because we have to, period: it is decent and righteous for all people to be treated with respect and humanity. If we lose that vision, we lose immigrant rights and far, far more


Thanks to the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights headquarted in Oakland, California (510/465-1984) and the Northern California Coalition for Immigrant Rights (NCCIR) in San Francisco (415/243-8215) for their excellent newsletters and other assistance on this article.