Sunday, July 13, 2008

A nation's shame

A New York Times editorial today is titled “The Shame of Postville, Iowa,” but it's about an issue that has become the shame of our nation. The federal government has stepped up raids of undocumented immigrants and charged them unfairly with crimes that lead to jail time as opposed to deportation. The accused almost always come to America to work so they can feed their families and now we are putting them behind bars, an outcome that does no good for anyone.

The Times editorial makes reference to an essay by a translator who worked on a case involving the arrest of 390 workers in May at a Postville, Iowa, meat processing plant owned by Agriprocessors, Inc. The workers were charged with identity theft, but as the editorial points out, “there is a profound difference between stealing people’s identities to rob them of money and property, and using false papers to merely get a job.”

Further, most of the workers just filled out the papers they were presented with when they showed up to work, so many had no idea what they were doing, and -- in a twist that I hadn’t considered before, but which is something that puts the entire immigration saga in context -- many of those arrested not only couldn’t speak English, but they were illiterate in Spanish. The essay points out that most of the workers were from Guatemala, but were part of local indigenous tribes. In other words, these are Native Americans, whose ancestors were conquered by the Spanish and who have been pushed to the margins in those societies, and when they come to the only place where they can find work to feed their children they are thrown in jail by another country founded on the trampled lands of native peoples.

Unsure of what was happening around them, most of the immigrants accepted the “deal” that was worked out on their behalf -- five months in prison and then deportation -- because pleading innocent would have likely led to more jail time and they need to get back home as soon as possible. Meanwhile, their children remain unfed, our tax dollars pay to house and feed the prisoners, and the flow of people crossing the border looking for work does not slow in the least. The background for all of this is that American economic and foreign policy has often led to widening poverty for our neighbors to the south. We are culpable for some of the reasons that people migrate here for work, we benefit from their willingness to work at dirty, tough jobs for low wages, and then we arrest, jail and deport them.

The interpreter, Dr. Erik Camayd-Freixas of Florida International University, said that nearly everyone involved in the proceedings -- the clerks, the guards, the judges -- felt that this was an awful miscarriage of justice and an inhumane undertaking, but everyone’s hands were tied by federal laws and the policies of the Bush Administration. Of course, Agriprocessors -- a giant corporation that has recently been guilty of violating child labor, environmental and animal cruelty laws -- will get off with a fine and none of the company’s management will be held otherwise accountable for breaking laws on the employment of undocumented workers.

One of those workers, a Guatemalan peasant, said that he reached the US after walking “for a month and ten days until I crossed the river.” The essay goes on to say that the man “crossed alone, met other immigrants, and hitched a truck ride to Dallas, then Postville, where he heard there was sure work. He slept in an apartment hallway with other immigrants until employed. He had scarcely been working a couple of months when he was arrested.” Imagine walking 40 days, Most Americans, me included, don’t walk 40 seconds if we don’t have to.

Our nation’s vilification of immigrants is shameful, all the more so because we are a land of immigrants. How quickly we have forgotten our roots -- and lost our way.


John R. said...

What exactly do you propose be done with illegal immigrants? Should we maintain our sovereignty? Or should we return the land to Native Americans? Should we all line up for DNA tests to determine which of our ancestral homes has a plurality and return there?
As many times as I've read your railers against our immigration policy, I don't know that I've seen a proposed solution from you.
It also seems that you hold most of our Consitution in high esteem except for Article IV section 4 and the 2nd amendment. This is your blog, however, and you certainly don't need to explain yourself to me.

Jimbo said...

I don't believe that one should only speak the truth or rail against injustice after figuring out a solution. However, on immigration I don't believe our course is difficult to determine. Congress debated but eventually rejected a bill earlier this year that included a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented workers who are here. Such a policy is a start.

But beyond that I'd like to see us stop vilifying immigrants. Most of them are good people attempting to support their families; the country would grind to a halt without their labor; and there is no conceivable way to send home 12 million people.

As has happened throughout history, foreigners are being made scapegoats by governments and political factions. I'd hope that here in America in the 21st Century we are beyond that.

John W. said...

The problem with the immigration issue is that if you begin to talk about the big picture of why these people (in particular Mexicans and Central Americans) are coming here you'd have to talk about US economic policy both foreign and domestic and your average "what part of illegal don't you understand???" type of person doesn't want to hear it. It is a lot of dots to connect and most people don't know or understand much about economics, geography or history. That's not being elitist or arrogant; it's simply stating a fact.
You also have to overcome a jingoistic prejudice that blindly accepts (and vilifies anyone who questions) that "this is the best country on the face of the earth and they're coming here because they've screwed up their own countries". No doubt this is one of the better countries to live and work in (that's why these folks are coming and staying here when they can), but how we got that way might have something to with how other countries have gotten to the states that they're in.
Finally the scapegoating of immigrants is slowly displacing the complaints that used to be reserved for other demographic groups who were seen as leeching off the taxpayers hard earned monies -- "they're just living off welfare and looking for hand-outs." That used to just be reserved for certain sectors of US society but now that Latinos are surpassing all other minorities they get the mantle of welfare leeches.
I can't really see an immigration solution coming from the US (certainly not from our politicians) until the jobs disappear here -- i.e., we have a larger financial collapse. It's already happening with Brazilians emptying out of places like Framingham, returning to their homes as the dollar falls against the real. For the central Americans it's tougher because their countries were screwed harder in the past 40 years.

John R. said...

ah yes... the enlightened and less jingoistic (what's the opposite of jingoistic - no time to consult a thesaurus) argument that the U.S. is responsible for all of the worlds ills... Jimbo, you can use your own name to post on your own blog, come now... (kidding, that was a joke)
Regardless of how we got to this point, we are still entitled to require people and entities to adhere to certain minimum standards as they have been legislated. This is true of immigrants, employers and our government. None of these is doing their share.

Jimbo said...

John R. uses a common rhetorical device when he exaggerates to say that John W. blames America for "all of the world's ills." Of course, John W. wrote about a specific issue (immigration) and a specific factor (US economic policy) that has contributed to it.

John R. cannot argue the facts, of course, because John W. is correct in his assessment. When John R. says that everyone needs to adhere to "certain minimum standards," that is something we can all agree on. However, we are likely to disagree on what those standards are.

I'd say: Let's treat immigrants with some dignity and recognize that, for the most part, they are just trying to work, feed their children and live peacefully. From there, we need to establish a reasonable pathway to citizenship.

John R. said...

...and Jimbo counters with another common rhetorical device, i.e., assuming facts not in evidence. You might recall this tactic from the Neil Entwistle defense. There is nothing to argue as there have been only unsupported assertions to this point.
The suggestion that we are responsible for the conditions that exist in Central American countries is one of them.

Jimbo said...

That the United States has been intricately involved in the political and economic histories of the nations of Latin America is a given.

Military coups that removed democratically-elected leaders backed by (and likely assisted by) the US include Guatemala in 1954, Brazil in 1964, Chile in 1973 and Argentina in 1976, Guatemala again in 1993, and others that were attempted but were not successful; the escapades of United Fruit (now Chiquita), massacring thousands of workers and their families to keep control of the banana market; the support of death squads in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Colombia, Haiti and Guatemala; initiating the creation of Panama from Colombia so the US could build and run the canal; the careless use of the Colorado River so that it no longer reaches the Mexican farmers who historically depended on it; the useless embargo of Cuba; the wasted resources of the drug war in Colombia; etc.

If you are unaware of any of this -- and the list only includes the well known and commonly accepted -- then you have some research to do. On the other hand, you may simply choose to wave it away, as it is of no concern to you. Unfortunately, most of us -- myself included -- don't take enough time to follow the machinations of their government.

john r. said...

I would suggest that those countries, even given their current condition, are better off having not become Communist puppet regimes. Further, I for one am glad that those in power at the time had the fortitude to stem the growth of Communism in this hemisphere. Not sure if you've heard, but the USSR no longer exists and most of those who live in the former Soviet Block are extremely grateful to us.
The Bananna Massacre may have been a case where a US concern took advantage of the heightened sensitivity to Communist expansion. Alternatively, those workers may also have been manipulated by Soviet operatives in the hope that they might spark nation-wide support of Communism.
I choose to believe that the goals of this country have been righteous. That there have been individuals, factions and companies who have exploited conditions for their own betterment is not surprising or unexpected. I believe that it is the exception rather than the rule, however. I also believe that we have the power to change what we don't like about this country.
I would like it to be less like Central and South America not more like them. To that end, I'd like to see less illegal immigration, not more.

John W. said...

I want to live in John R.'s world. It's a hell of a lot easier than dealing with reality.

And I resent being thought of as just an alias for Jimbo.