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Bush's Sweep Stakes: Targeting Latino Workers

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 other cities.

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 Stewart 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 and others."

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 workers.

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. Derechos 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 jwendland@politicalaffairs.net.

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