Should We Defend Undocumented Workers?

One winter morning in 1996, Border Patrol agents charged into a Los Angeles street-corner clinic where 40 day laborers had lined up to be tested for AIDS. One worker, Omar Sierra, had just taken his seat, and a nurse had inserted the needle for drawing the blood. As agents of the migra ran across the street and sidewalk, Sierra jumped up, tore off the tourniquet, pulled the needle out of his vein and ran.


Sierra escaped and made it home. Shaken by his experience and determined never to forget his friends who were deported, he wrote a song.


I’m going to sing you a story, friends
that will make you cry,
how one day in front of K-Mart
the migra came down on us,
sent by the sheriff
of this very same place …


We don’t understand why,
we don’t know the reason,
why there is so much
discrimination against us.
In the end we’ll wind up
all the same in the grave.


With this verse I leave you,
I’m tired of singing,
hoping the migra
won’t come after us again,
because in the end, we all have to work.


Working – A Criminal Act


Sierra states an obvious truth about people in the US without immigration papers: "We all have to work." Yet, work has become a crime for the undocumented. That Hollywood raid took place 13 years ago, but since then immigration enforcement against workers has grown much more widespread, with catastrophic consequences. In the last eight years of the Bush administration in particular, a succession of raids treated undocumented workers as criminals.


A year ago in Los Angeles, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents ("the migra") arrived at Micro Solutions, a circuit board assembly plant in the San Fernando Valley.  Unsuspecting workers were first herded into the plant’s cafeteria. Then, immigration agents told those who were citizens to line up on one side of the room. Then they told the workers who had green cards to go over to the same side. Finally, as one worker said, "it just left us." The remaining workers – those who were neither citizens nor visa holders – were put into vans, and taken off to the migra jail.


Some women were later released to care for their kids, but had to wear ankle bracelets, and couldn’t work. How were they supposed to pay rent? Where would they get money to buy food?


On May 12, 2008, ICE agents raided the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa.  They sent 388 Guatemalan young people to the National Cattle Congress, a livestock showground in Waterloo, two hours away. In a makeshift courtroom, workers in chains came before a judge who’d helped prosecutors design plea agreements five months before the raid even took place. The workers had given the company Social Security numbers that were either invented, or belonged to someone else. The judge and prosecutor told workers they’d be charged with aggravated identity theft, which carries a two-year prison jolt, and held without bail. If they pleaded guilty to misusing a Social Security number, however, they would serve just five months, and be deported immediately afterwards.


Many of these young people spoke only Mam or Qanjobal, the indigenous languages of the region of Guatemala from which they came, so even with Spanish translation, they understood little of the skewed process. They had no real options anyway, and agreed to the five months in a federal lockup and were then expelled from the country. One of them was a young worker who’d been beaten with a meat hook by a supervisor. Lacking papers, he was afraid to complain. After the raid, he went to prison with the others. The supervisor stayed working on the line.


As in Los Angeles, women released to care for their children couldn’t work; they had no way to pay rent or buy food; their husbands or brothers were in prison or deported, and they were held up to ostracism in this tiny town. Had it not been for St. Brigida’s Catholic Church and local activists, the women and children would have been left hungry and homeless as they waited months for their own hearings and deportations.


They say it’s just "illegals" – that’s what makes this politically acceptable.


A year ago, ICE agents raided a Howard Industries plant in Laurel, Mississippi, sending 481 workers to a privately-run detention center in Jena, Louisiana, and releasing 106 women in ankle bracelets. Workers were incarcerated with no idea of where they were being held, and weren’t charged or provided lawyers for days. They slept on concrete floors, and went on a hunger strike after a week of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.


Patricia Ice, attorney for the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance (MIRA), called the raid political. "They want a mass exodus of immigrants out of the state," she declared. "The political establishment here is threatened by Mississippi’s changing demographics, and what the electorate might look like in 20 years."


She means that African-Americans are moving back to Mississippi, and now make up over 35 percent of the population. In ten years, immigrants will make up another ten percent. MIRA and the state’s legislative black caucus have a plan – combine those votes with unions and progressive whites, and Mississippi can finally get rid of the power structure that’s governed in Jackson since Reconstruction.


The Howard Industries raid was intended to drive a wedge into the heart of that political coalition – to stop any possibility for change.