Posted September 12, 2008
On August 25, ICE agents (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) conducted one of the single largest immigration raids in the country at Howard Industries just outside of Laurel, MS. Across South Mississippi, a community of immigrant workers has flourished since Hurricane Katrina three years ago, including both people working under H2B visas and those lacking proper legal documentation to live and/or work in the United States. In response to this, a violent nativist campaign has also made itself known, with anti-immigrant rhetoric propagated via local and state-wide radio stations. One of the main tactics used by this movement is legislative pressure, and throughout 2008, nearly 40 House Bills and Senate Bills were proposed in Mississippi to target all elements of life within the undocumented community.
These bills ranged from citizenship verification in higher education, and passing laws against “sheltering and harboring” undocumented people under the Taxpayer and Employment Protection Act of 2008 (House Bill 0949); to criminalizing the “official resistance or noncooperation of sharing information regarding immigration status” under Senate Bill 2823; and allowing local police to work as ICE agents under Senate Bill 3035. Each bill is justified by immigration “undermining the security of our borders, and impermissibly restrict[ing] the privileges and immunities of the citizens of Mississippi.” The one bill to pass the Senate was Senate Bill 2988, the “Mississippi Employment Protection Act,” which both provides protection for employers who did not “knowingly and willfully accept false documents from the employee” while strengthening anti-worker enforcement measures., thus creating the legal framework which shields Howard Industries and the capitalist leaders from legal penalties while castigating and terrorizing workers, their families and communities.
Working class organizing appears to be gaining traction in Mississippi. This police action came just a few months after a group of Indian H2B visa workers on the MS Gulf Coast stood up for their legal working rights, walked off the job, and are challenging the legality of the conditions under which they were brought to the United States to work. This call for justice in the Mississippi Gulf Coast was met with resentment and anger among the leaders of the nativist movement. Also importantly, Howard Industries was under contract negotiations just as the raid occurred.
It seems unclear at this point how the union organizing played into the timing of the immigration raid, but many on the ground feel there is a connection. Fear of unionization is also currently being played out in senatorial election campaign rhetoric, a definite change from what has seemed to be persistent and cynical silence on the issue in this right-to-work state.
Economic strain and a violent racist history (which continues today) are the social realities that set the scene for this humanitarian crisis. Racial segmenting of the workforce and management ploys of using race as a division wedge in the working class are well known strategies of consolidating the power of the capitalist class, and such tactics seem to have been in full swing throughout the region. It has been reported that some non-Latino workers cheered as their coworkers were divided out based on skin color, interrogated, and detained by ICE agents.
The realities of racism and persistent racial segregation have impeded understanding of other communities on all levels. It seems to be the case that immigrant Latinos, coming to the United States generally out of dire necessity to find work, have little understanding of racial oppression encountered by Black workers for hundreds of years, and the same racist lines which have historically been used to divide working class white and Black people are now being utilized to undermine workplace unity among Black and Latino workers. Anti-immigrant and racist anti-Latino rhetoric also seems to resonate within many sectors of the working class as reactionary responses to competition for manufacturing and construction jobs, and generally unfounded fears of competition for public services. Within the white community, this has resounded in a feigning respect for “protection,” which is often a thinly veiled call for protecting Anglo cultural hegemony.
At the center of this crisis, however, are the lives being disrupted by an enforcement-centered immigration policy which criminalizes the workforce on which the local economies depend. Within one school district, almost 200 children had no parent or guardian to come home to or to pick them up from school. Some of those, mainly women, with family needs have been released with electronic tracking devices, which serve as a constant physical reinforcement of stigma, criminalization and fear for those directly affected and the entire community. The few bonds which have been set for those detained have been around $5,000, far outside the economic means of most working class families. Families are also left with no economic lifeline, and the strains of caring for basic needs is pressing directly on those facing the aftermath of this police action.
As Mississippi is an impoverished state, and the rise in the immigrant population seen as a relatively new phenomenon, social services which could help with the direct aftermath of the raid are severely lacking.
While the current police action has directly attacked the immigrant community, the ideological work of criminalizing immigrant workers has laid the foundations of mistrust and isolation for years.
One major difficulty with the pro-immigrant movement today is the basic idea that we can make capitalism work for everyone, when in fact this has never been the case, and is contrary to the internal logic of capital. Many in the movement seem to understand the relation between “free trade” agreements, immigration, and the creation of a highly vulnerable work force. During a direct crisis, obviously, the work of supporting workers and communities to use whatever channels they have to fight for their rights and for human dignity take precedence. However, without recognizing the schism between business and xenophobic movements as a fundamental contradiction of U.S. capitalism, we risk becoming mired down in and issue-by-issue, crisis-by-crisis operating strategy. We must advocate within our movements the basic nature of capitalism (exploitation and class war) of which the current immigration struggles are one manifestation.
This has ultimately been tied to the larger nativist movements and rhetoric which has gripped the nation in response to current economic fears and has resounded clearly throughout the region, and the humanitarian crisis which is now the reality in South Mississippi seems to be unfolding with little resistance among the United States born population.