Bush's Sweep Stakes: Targeting Latino
August 11, 2004
by Joel Wendland
"It must be their imagination because we aren't doing anything,"
say Bush administration officials about reports from across the
country of increased immigration sweeps over the last two years.
Various reports from local media and human rights activists show
that immigration sweeps have occurred in Latino communities from
Maine, to Chicago, Washington State, the Southwest, and Southern
California. The upsurge in sweeps in Latino communities comes in
the larger context of raids and surveillance aimed at immigrant
Asian and African communities suspected of harboring terrorists.
Under the cover of homeland security, the Bush administration seems
to have ordered these sweeps to please his ultra-right, anti-immigration,
racist base with the effect of spreading panic and fear in the Latino
community. In response, Latino communities have organized numerous
protests demanding an end to secret sweeps and immigration raids.
Ultimately, systematic targeting of immigrant working class communities
have harmful consequences on non-citizens and citizens alike.
Last October, federal agents under the auspices of the Department
of Homeland Security (DHS) raided 60 Wal-Mart stores in different
parts of the country rounding up about 250 people who work the night
shift cleaning crew. While human rights organizations described
the round-ups as both a political event to justify enormous spending
in the DHS as well as a measure to keep citizens frightened about
terrorism, a DHS spokesperson admitted to Roberta
Wood of the People's Weekly World [Novemebr 1, 2003] that the
raids had nothing to do with homeland security. All of the workers
were immigrants and none could be linked to terrorism. None could
even be linked to countries that we have been told are the origins
of terrorism. Most of the detainees await deportation hearings for
lacking proper work documentation.
In early December of 2002 a highly coordinated series of raids,
which were part of a long term Justice Department effort known as
"Operation Tarmac," were conducted at Chicago's O'Hare and Midway
Airports and the at the homes of dozens of airport workers. Several
hundred workers were caught up in this dragnet, and over 500 of
them have since lost their security clearances and jobs at airports.
According to one
report [January 11, 2003], "The U.S. Attorney for Northern Illinois,
Patrick Fitzgerald, boasted that these people were arrested 'as
a lesson' to others" who might try to find work in the US without
required documentation. According to Justice
Department documents, "Operation Tarmac" was implemented nationally
after September 11th "to promote heightened security" at airports.
But, as social policy analyst Paul
Street writes, of the 800 workers caught in Ashcroft's airport
raids, almost all have been Latino immigrants, and of the 600 people
charged since early 2002, none has ever been linked to terrorism.
Another major immigration operation accompanied by anti-immigrant
newspaper stories shook Portland, Maine just weeks after George
W. Bush announced his plan for immigration reform in January of
2004. US Border Patrol agents raided the city's low-income, minority
community searching for undocumented residents. In the process they
ransacked the homes of citizens and non-citizens in their search.
Human rights activists reported that Portland's immigrant community
emerged from the experience afraid to send their children to school,
to go to the market, work or to seek medical aid. Immigrant rights
activists linked the sweeps to an upswing in anti-immigrant sentiment
and legislation being pushed by congressional Republicans.
Three thousand miles away in the Yakima Valley in central Washington,
an agriculturally rich region dependent on migrant farm workers
- many of whom are Latin American immigrants and often undocumented
- the Latino community protested immigration sweeps this past July.
While federal officials denied increased anti-immigrant activities,
Washington Growers' League Executive Director Mike Gempler was reported
by the Bremerton Sun [July 13, 2004] as expressing "surprise
over the more concentrated effort [to detain undocumented workers]
that has occurred the past couple of weeks."
The largest scale of anti-immigrant sweeps by federal agencies
took place throughout the spring into early June in Southern and
Central California. In the Northern San Joaquin Valley area of California
near Modesto, California, Latino community members reported a series
of raids on workplaces and neighborhoods. Federal immigration officials,
according to the Modesto Bee (June 30, 2004) denied the raid
as "rumors" but then contradictorily stated that anyone caught up
in the raid would be deported as a result of felony charges related
to drug smuggling. As reported
in the North County Times [May 11, 2004)] a Border Patrol
operation called "Trans Check" began as early as April in the San
Diego area and saw federal officials randomly demanding identity
and immigration papers on the area's public transportation system
on a wide scale.
Immigrant workers in Central California were undoubtedly concerned
not only by the activities of federal officials in the San Joaquin
Valley, but also by widespread immigration sweeps in several cities
in Southern California earlier in the month. In the first week of
June between 400 and 500 immigrant workers were rounded up by immigration
officials in or near several cities in Southern California, including
Los Angeles, Ontario, Coronado, Temecula, San Juan Capistrano and
According to a story posted to Pacific
News Service, Spanish-language newspapers reported testimony
by local activists in San Diego of as many as 45 raids where "federal
immigration agents were combing residential neighborhoods for undocumented
migrants and also were boarding public transportation to ask people
for their papers." According to Gabriel
Lerner, editor of La Opinion, despite denials from authorities,
"[f]ear is the source of rumors that the detentions have expanded
to Norwalk, Long Beach, Pasadena, San Fernando, San Bernardino,
Santa Ana, Huntington Park, [and] Santa Barbara."
A new period of sweeps, according to Lerner, signals the Bush
administration's complete break with past policies of decreasing
interior sweeps in favor of a highly militarized border patrol ordered
by the Clinton administration. Both seem to be priorities for the
current administration. And, while community protests against sweeps
in the past could "embarrass" federal agencies into being more open
and working more closely with community members and ending interior
sweeps, numerous large protests have been met with denials and vague
responses. The Bush administration has made no gestures to the Latino
community except to deny an increase in operations and to insist
that the panic and fear in those targeted communities is simply
in the imagination of people living there.
Immigration sweeps have created a widespread panic in other immigrant
communities as well. Commenting on more recent sweeps in Southern
California Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC) Director
Kwoh remarked, "The sweeps have created a climate of fear and
distrust that affect not just the undocumented, but virtually everyone,
including employees and employers." Kwoh continued, "We're concerned
that employers may respond by unfairly discriminating against immigrants
Though APALC spokesperson Mark Yoshida could not cite new discrimination
cases directed to APALC related to recent immigration sweeps, he
said in a phone interview that this may be because people simply
may not understand their rights. "People might be scared to file
complaints," he added, as a result of the federal government's operations.
Yoshida also could not cite a case of an employer, manager or corporate
executive being targeted or investigated for illegally hiring undocumented
Yoshida further pointed out the effect of the sweeps on immigrants
of Asian descent. Asian and Pacific Islander communities haven't
been the main target for immigration sweeps, but, as Yoshida says,
"health clinic appointments are down" because of a "general worry"
and a "concern and frustration" with the federal government's policies.
Sweeps, however, are only part of the conflict between immigrant
communities and the federal government. Latino communities along
the Southwestern border with Mexico also report growing violence.
Humanos, a Tucson, Arizona-based immigrant rights group stated
last February that in "the last few months, there have been events
reported regarding Border Patrol agents' involvement in incidents
of alleged corruption, physical abuse, sexual assault, and fatal
shootings." Further, since DHS has taken oversight of immigration
enforcement, its "policies and plans has created fear, xenophobia,
and division in communities."
While sweeps, violence, and mass deportations have provoked fear
and protest in immigrant communities, the consequences of Bush anti-immigrant
policies have more far-reaching effects. Workers threatened with
federal action may be less likely to demand rights they are owed
in the workplace: fair wages, the right to join unions, freedom
from discrimination and harassment, safe and healthy conditions
and so on.
In the last three years, the organized sector of the worker class
has taken a pro-active stand against the mistreatment of immigrants
and support legislative action that will protect their right to
unionize and to become legal citizens if they choose and remain
free of discrimination if they don't. The United
Food and Commercial Workers union, a union that organizes retail
workers many of whom are from immigrant communities, adopted a position
that challenges the role of the federal authorities in using the
immigration issue to try to break organizing campaigns.
"Too often, it appears to workers," says the union's position statement,
"that INS [now the Immigration and Customs Enforcement] is a partner,
intentionally or not, with employers in the exploitation of immigrant
labor and the suppression of worker rights. INS seems to show up
more often during an organizing campaign or a strike situation."
More broadly, the union movement has come to recognize that the
rights of citizen workers for a decent standard of living and good
job conditions is closely linked to the rights of immigrant workers.
John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, remarked
last May that "We know that our workplace rights, our economic
security, our future are linked to that of immigrant workers. If
unscrupulous employers can exploit immigrant workers' status, violate
their rights, and crush their freedom to choose to join a union,
then it will be harder for non-immigrant workers to exercise their
rights and build a better future."
Bush's attacks on immigrant communities, with particular focus
on Latinos, has nothing to do with homeland security. It is all
about hurting working people and enhancing the bottom lines of employers.
An administration that supports worker rights and comprehensive,
humanistic immigration reform and fair trade business practices
is the best replacement for the Bush team.
Joel Wendland is managing editor of Political
Affairs and can be reached at email@example.com.