State of the Union for Immigrant USA?

Posted February 25, 2009

I’ll leave the task of detailed dissections of Obama’s applause-heavy and content-light State of the Union address to others. For now I feel it’s worth noting that immigration reform was not mentioned once in the 6,000 word, 50-minute address. This lack of attention at the top doesn’t mean that the immigration gestapo called in for the day. Around the country on Tuesday, local law enforcement and ICE rounded up scores of undocumented immigrants:

  • A federal officer caught 14 undocumented immigrants digging a ditch at Palm Beach International Airport on Tuesday morning… The workers will be processed in Riviera Beach and then handed over to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents for further investigation and likely deportation. (source)
  • [Outside of Tempe, Arizona] nineteen suspected undocumented immigrants and two suspected human smugglers were taken into custody during a Monday morning traffic stop in Tempe… They were suspected to be undocumented immigrants and all were turned over to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officers. (source)
  • U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers Tuesday raided an engine-remanufacturing plant in Bellingham [Washington].They arrested 28 illegal (sic) immigrants at Yamato Engine Specialists — more than one-quarter of the company’s work force — and immediately began the process to deport them, ICE officials said. (source)
  • An undocumented Honduran immigrant was released from the Lake County jail and handed to federal authorities Tuesday after police arrested her a week ago while responding to a domestic-assault call… The arrest and subsequent detention have left the family in despair, said Cote’s husband, Robert Cote, a 37-year-old U.S. citizen. He said that on the day of the arrest, he got a call at work from their 7-year-old son, Robert Jr., who was crying hysterically because police were taking his mother away. They have two other sons, ages 4 and 2. (source)

These numbers drive home the reality of a recent report from the Pew Research Center on the insanely disproportionate number of Latinos in federal prisons – at 40%, over three times their 13% representation in the total population. Most are held on immigration offenses. And, as the last news clipping above demonstrates, this issue spills far beyond individual or group arrests.

Communities with high numbers of recent immigrants – African, Latin American, Asian, and Eastern European – often have families with an undocumented parent, somebody with a Green Card, somebody with a visa, somebody with citizenship, etc. These sweeps don’t just take away a handful of people but rip apart households and terrorize communities. (This is obvious for the affected communities but is worth stating for ignorant anglos like me, who are a few generations removed from our own undocumented ancestors.)

Of course, those numbers do not paint a full picture. The still-booming business of private prisons has gotten in on the action with private immigration detention centers that lock up many more people.

Break International Law, Earn US Citizenship

Given the refusal of authorities to open the borders for people in the same way they’ve busted them wide open for corporations, one enticing option for legalization remains: the US military, which needs warm bodies to fulfill its brutal overseas obligations.

Today, US Citizen and Immigration Services reported “a 30 percent increase over the past three years in the number of foreign-born members of the armed forces obtaining U.S. citizenship” – nearly 40,000 since the beginning of the “War on Terror.” The military “hopes that these immigrants will be better educated, know more foreign languages and have more professional skills than many U.S. citizens who volunteer,” which is a real concern for the war machine. The decline in enlistment that began a year or so into the Iraq War has since rebounded, but the new recruits are clearly responding to the “economic draft” – educational attainment and other marks of a “high quality recruit” in military terminology have dipped significantly.

Back to the war at home. The uprising of mostly Black youngsters following the police execution of Oscar Grant (which forced Chief Wayne Tucker to resign and brought down a murder charge for the cop who pulled the trigger) has not been the only recent mass self-defense against state violence and terror. Not one, not two, but three major riots have rocked immigrant detention centers in Texas and Arizona since December (two of them at the private facility in Reeves County, Texas, following the “mysterious death” of an inmate.)

Understandably, these incidents have been kept fairly under wraps, so there’s a scarcity of information about what exactly went down and what has happened since. The National Network on Immigrant and Refugee Rights put out a Call to Action around the prisoners’ demands for medical care and an end to brutality.

Part Two: My Kafka-esque experience with ICE

Somewhat – ok, a lot – less dramatically, I did my small part about a month ago, although in full compliance with existing immigration laws. Occasionally, a certain community organization calls on me with an opportunity to help out immigrant workers. Most recently, my bank account was needed as a proxy where funds could be deposited. Some guest workers had been picked up and held in ICE detainment in North Dakota, and their families were collecting bond money, but needed an account to send it.

I felt out of my league, sort of like The Dude in the movie The Big Lebowski: stumbling into a Bank of America branch office with unkempt hair and a sweat stained t-shirt, asking them for confirmation that thirty grand had been wired to my paltry savings account (now that I’m no longer subject to the grooming standards of my usual hospitality or customer service employment, I revel in the opportunity to look like shit on a Monday.)

In any case, if there is a suave way to go about this task, I certainly missed out on learning what it is. “Good afternoon, ma’am. Hi. Uh… does my account have, well, a much larger sum in it than usual? If so, can I get a couple of checks for… fifteen thousand bucks each? Yeah, uh, make ‘em out to Federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency.” Try that, and they’ll call out the manager and tell you to come back the next day.

So, the next morning I successfully collected the cashier’s checks and make my way down to the bland looking federal building that houses the Atlanta ICE office at a little past 9am. Well-prepped by workers center staff, I carried a cheat sheet with all the necessary information: names, birthdays, nationalities, and “A-numbers” for the people I would bond out, as well as contact information for the ICE agent related to the case, the social services center they would live in after release, and so forth. The security guards posted at the metal detector did not know where the relevant ICE office was located (at first they assumed I was applying for a job as a pig for la migra and sent me to that office.)

I finally made my way to the correct room which might as well double as the setting for a story by Franz Kafka. Other unfortunate souls packed several rows of seating in the center of the room and lining the walls, the latter interrupted by a mysterious metal door. The only other feature of the room is a single glass window with a non-attentive woman behind and an English-only sign that reads “Do not tap window for service” taped to the front. In front of the window is a sign-in sheet. All of the printed directives around the room (“No Cell Phones,” “Bond Hours End 4pm,” etc) are brief, unhelpful, and monolingual in English.

Although armed with thorough instructions, I had no idea what to do at this point. I decided to violate the command on the window, earned a dirty look to and a finger pointing at the sign. A reminder: no service provided here. I signed in and sat down.

An aside: most of the other folks I spoke with had come on behalf of friends and relatives swept up by a series of laws that reduced rights for some (immigrants), while expanding rights for others (local and state police.) Georgia is one of the states where legislators found a connection between having a social security number and having the ability to drive a vehicle. Following this discovery, they snapped to attention and banned drivers’ licenses for undocumented immigrants, thus protecting the American Way of Life. Second example is that local and state cops, practically oppressed in their inability to enforce federal immigration laws, were granted the opportunity to not just ticket but deport undocumented people. (This is what’s referred to as “southern hospitality.”)

My day-long adventure at the ICE office consisted of a lot of sitting with occasional requests for information or to sign one or another piece of paper, which was then faxed to the detention center in North Dakota. Again, I came prepared with an organized effort backing me up, with immigration lawyers and other experienced folks answering any questions I had via text message (violating the “no cell phones” rule – my little rebellion in the belly of the beast.) Most others there had even less idea of what was going on, and some reported they’d been there since the previous morning.

The fees were enormous – I’ve already alluded to the $15,000 for each of my guys, which was higher than most, but everyone present was there to pay at least a $2,000 bond.

My nine-hour day at the ICE office (including two hours after the office officially closed) was a frustrating reminder that lost in the debates over the outrageous proposed extensions of anti-immigrant measures are the really existing pain-in-the-ass bureaucracies that carry out existing practices.

Although the dive-bombing US economy has resulted in declining immigration over the past year, the danger of re-invigorated xenophobia and immigrant bashing is real – both in the form more vigilante attacks like the murder of an Ecuadorean man in Long Island as well as more draconian state measures.

Here’s hoping that Si, se puede once again returns to where it belongs, in the streets. Open the borders for people – full legalization for all!


One response to “State of the Union for Immigrant USA?”

  1. Isaac Avatar

    From today’s AJC (the local bourgeois rag – just check out that first sentence!)

    Immigration detention center to open, hire
    Private company to open facility by summer in former Hall County jail
    Monday, March 09, 2009

    Illegal immigration, long the bane of U.S. workers, is about to bring 162 jobs to Hall County.

    Corrections Corporation of America will hire support staff to complete its staffing of the North Georgia Detention Center in Gainesville. The facility will be used to house some 500 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees.

    The Nashville-based company has signed a five-year agreement with Hall County and the state to operate the center and will lease the former county jail. The agreement, which took about 10 months to complete, will provide Hall County with about $2 million annually for the lease, said Phil Sutton, assistant county administrator.

    “We were vacating the old jail and thought the best use for it would be as a jail,” Sutton said. “You can’t retrofit a jail to anything else, frankly.”

    ICE, a division of the federal Department of Homeland Security, currently has four immigration detention facilities in Georgia and another 11 in South and North Carolina, said Barbara Gonzalez, spokeswoman for the ICE Georgia field office.

    “Everyone who is in an ICE detention facility has violated immigration law,” Gonzalez said. “Some individuals have been arrested for other crimes.”

    The company expects to open the facility before summer and anticipates it to be substantially occupied by the end of the year, said Louise Grant, CCA Vice President of Marketing and Communications.

    CCA is the nation’s largest owner and operator of privatized correctional and detention centers, with 63 facilities in 19 states and the District of Columbia. It has had contracts to house federal immigration detainees for 25 years, Grant said.

    The company will hire correctional professionals in security, facility management, accounting, health services, human resources, business management, quality assurance and education, Grant said. Openings will be posted soon on its web page, she said, but those interested can visit to apply early.

    The economic impact for Gainesville and Hall County should provide a lift in the sagging local economy, where unemployment was 8.3 percent in January. CCA estimates a payroll of $7.5 million annually and has budgeted for about $350,000 in utility costs, Grant said.

    CCA is currently employing 80 workers — mostly local — for a $4 million renovation of the old jail, Grant said.