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.