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The Migrant Trap, and the Migrants' Way Out: May 1, 2007

by Leslie Radford Tuesday, May. 01, 2007 at 2:21 PM

Migrants face an impossible choice. And they've got their own humane and just answer. Is anybody listening?

The pre-dawn pounding at the door startles the family out of its sleep.  “Police!” a voice bellows from the other side.  Maybe a family member or neighbor is in trouble, maybe there’s an emergency in the neighborhood.  The door’s unlatched and opened, and federal agents burst through.  They grab the mother, handcuff her, and disappear her into the night.

Agents in riot gear seal off the factory, locking doors and windows, and, pointing military rifles at the employees, sort them into two groups.  One group is dragged out and dispersed to prisons a thousand miles away.  Older sisters lead their younger siblings through local jails looking for a parent.  A nun roams detention facilities clutching a nursing baby, trying to find the child’s mother.  It takes weeks and a lawsuit before lawyers and family members learn where all the workers have been taken.

The imprisoned have only two choices: struggle through a legal process they barely understand with official assurances they won’t succeed and might endanger the rest of their family, or go into self-imposed exile abroad, away from their wife, husband, sons, and daughters, from their home and their community.

This is not the extraordinary rendition of fingered terrorist suspects in some faraway land.  This is the increasingly ordinary rendition of migrants from within the United States.  Meanwhile, the Democratic Party-controlled Congress touts a new plan for "comprehensive immigration reform," itself hardly better than the forced-labor Bracero program of five decades ago.  And this time, the migrants will pay for their own exploitation.  These are the options offered migrants in the U.S. today.

And so it's happening again.  On May 1st, 2007, hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, will stand up to the anti-migrant tide, against the raids and deportations, against punitive and terroristic "immigration reform."  Migrants and those with recent migrant roots, will emerge from invisible communities and underground economies to demand dignity and justice from a government that is offering only a choice between which oppression it will unleash on them.  And they have an answer: stop the raids and deportations, and legalization for all immigrants now.

The U.S. House of Representatives, where the Sensenbrenner bill originated, has offered the migrants an untenable conundrum, a choice between poisons: continue living with the fear of imminent deportation and separation, or accept the Gutierrez-Flake proposal, officially called the STRIVE Act (Security Through Regularized Immigration and a Vibrant Economy) of 2007 and dismissed on the streets as the Son of Sensenbrenner.  In short, the Gutierrez-Flake bill gives Republicans nearly every punitive measure they flouted in the original Sensenbrenner proposal, and it gives migrants a rocky, uphill, nearly impossible climb to citizenship.

On Tuesday, there will be marches, rallies, vigils, and boycotts in the largest cities and tiniest hamlets.  Small businesses will shut down, traffic will be detoured, employees will mysteriously fall ill, students will cut classes or make their way home a few hours later than usual.  And on this side of the racial and economic divide, almost nobody knows it's happening, except for alert economic advisers, wary policy wonks, and savvy political candidates.  But powers-that-be are watching carefully, after last year's protests shut down the onerous Sensenbrenner anti-migrant bill in the House, stalling immigration reform indefinitely and forcing the Republican juggernaut to a standstill.

Likely they have already noticed that independent truckers have forced the Los Angeles Port Authority to declared May Day 2007 a holiday, to avoid the fines and penalties for an migrants' rights strike.  Last year's May Day strike for migrants' rights shut down more than 90% of the port's shipping.  In claiming victory, Ernesto Nevarez proclaimed, "We forced them to recognize May Day."

The Bush administration has been fierce in its backlash to last year's demonstrations and legislative shutdown.  After massive numbers of people protested in 2006, Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids took the place of failed Congressional mandates.  In Midwest cities, ICE agents wristbanded workers at the point of assault weapons to signal who was "foreign" and who was "domestic";  the "foreign" workers were shipped to detention camps across the country.  After the Swift & Co. raids, whole cities rallied to take in abandoned children, and the news couldn't ignore wives begging ICE for word of their husbands' fate for months without response.  So ICE learned to keep the raids small but frequent and harsh, to strike at small towns and farmlands.  Now, ICE agents burst into homes in early morning hours to roust sleeping families and drag parents away from cringing, terrified children.  People who's "crime" of entering the U.S. without a visa is subject to a $50 fine are dragged off to private prisons for being in the vicinity of ICE sweeps for felons.  Farmers in North Dakota are handcuffed and helplessly overlook vacant fields after thirty-six ICE agents cart away thirteen workers at gunpoint.  Rumors persist of bicyclers dragged away and ICE raids on public busses.  Two hundred children wear prison uniforms and languish in cells 23 hours a day at the T. Don Hutto facility in Taylor, Texas.  These and other nightmares spread in whispers through migrant-descent communities, while ICE gives the media nothing but local stories to report.

Not surprisingly, in the two months leading up to this year's May Day protests, the detentions have intensified.  Armed, warrantless home invasions have left hundreds of families shattered.  People have been hauled out of pizza joints, and "Latino-looking" shoppers at a Chicago mall were lined up against a wall at gunpoint, while white shoppers walked away.  The Department of Homeland Security's notorious raid and deportation program, Operation Return to Sender, brags that it has imprisoned 18,000 people since its inception eleven months ago.

Last year in Asheville, NC, thousands of people took to the streets.  This year, organizers plan a quieter vigil.  Danielle Fernandez of "We Are One America," explains, "There's an unspoken anti-immigrant sentiment in Asheville.  We heard reports of people being ticketed and fired from their jobs for participating in last year's march.  But we have to be seen, as much as it scares us.  What's happening here is intolerable."  But she adds, "It [the abuse of migrants] has brought the Latino community together.  When I was walking in the marches, a counterprotestor tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'Learn English, or go home.'  This whole hoopla is based on appearance."  Fernandez is a third-generation U.S. citizen, descended from Basque migrants.

For the government and its corporate interests, the point of enticing undocumented workers to the U.S. is to hold hostage a workforce that can't agitate, one that is blackmailed into political and economic silence even as its labor is exploited for bosses and businesses.  But these migrants--from Mexico, Korea, Guatemala, Russia, Ireland, Poland, Nigeria--have not been invisible enough.  They've brought new looks and sounds, different energies, and a darker complexion to their new country, and they take to the streets to demand humane treatment.  Other people, born and raised in the long shadow of "Father Knows Best" and "Leave It To Beaver," are uncomfortable, and so the newcomers must be intimidated back into silence and invisibility.  Hence, Operation Return to Sender, government doublespeak that lays the blame for global migration on foreign economies torn to shreds by U.S. trade policies.

Joy Marie Dunlap and Jennaya Dunlap, a mother-daughter team, have dropped off six hundred flyers at the high school, churches, and grocery stores in Romoland, CA, population 2000.  They hope a hundred people will rally with them at 2nd St. and Highway 74.  Joy Marie Dunlap says the point is that "They’ll be on notice that Romoland has a voice.  There's little white support for Latinos here, but our family's motto is 'Do unto to others as you would have them do unto you.'  If we don’t stand up for others, who will stand up for us?"  Her daughter adds, "We have friends in the Latino community here who’ve worked hard all their lives and have nothing to show for it.  Here we are back at the civil rights times, only this time it’s the Latinos.”

But government intimidation and oppression doesn't work when the pain it inflicts outstrips the fear it generates.  For migrants, that pain is family separation.  Since the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Bill, the Israeli-style border walls complete with drone aircraft and razor wire, and increasingly violent Border Patrol tactics, seasonal immigration and emigration of undocumented workers is too risky, too likely to end in exposure, dehydration, and death in the desert.  Crossing to the U.S. now means family migration and growing, intergenerational communities.  And deportation now means heart-wrenching choices that divide families according to citizenship.  Some, like the Miranda-Munoz family chronicled by the L.A. Times, leave their children in the U.S.  Others, like Elvira Arellano, defy all the might of the state's deportation order for each day with her son, on May 1 breaking a 25-day hunger-strike in the sanctuary Adalberto United Methodist Church in Chicago.  Others take their children away from homes, neighborhoods, friends, and schools to keep their family intact, to a country where those children confront unfamiliar customs and languages unpracticed since pre-school.  The pain of homeland terrorism, the war on migrants, has outstripped the fear.

In Washington, DC and Los Angeles, hunger strikers maintain a vigil with Arellano, and on Sunday in Los Angeles, according to organizer Javier Rodriquez, a Youth March from La Placita Church to City Hall will highlight "children and families affected by racist deportations."  The children will demand, "Legalize my parents."  Rodriquez, along with Gloria Saucedo of Hermandad Mexicana Nacional and others, are now in the seventh day of a fourteen-day fast.  They anticipate thousands will join them in one-day fasts. The Los Angeles Police Department is planning for 400,000-person convergence on Olympic and Broadway on Tuesday morning.

As Justin Akers Chacon has summarized in "H.R. 1645 (The STRIVE ACT): Image and Reality of 'Comprehensive Immigration Reform'," this version of immigration reform would massively expand the militarization of the border, including actively recruiting ex-military with border enforcement experience in war zones into the ranks of the Border Patrol.  Like the original Sensenbrenner bill, migrants who cross the border without papers, currently a $50 civil violation, will be criminalized, subject to 6 months in prison, and employer enforcement and penalties will increase.  Local law enforcement will be paid to train and equip themselves to turn over migrants to federal authorities.

At 4:00 pm EDT, ralliers will gather at Malcolm X Park, 16 St NW and Euclid St, in DC to demand that the District of Columbia declare itself a sanctuary city, that the city prohibit police for detaining people on suspicion of illegal entry, that all migrants be legalized, and that deportations end.

The much-touted "amnesty" for migrants already within U.S. borders requires that these low-paid workers leave the country and return, pay two thousand dollars in fines, prove a consistent work history in the U.S., pay back taxes unless they can establish a withholding record for years of past employment, and take classes until they are fluent in English.  Citizenship could take up to fifteen years.

Only 400,000 "New Worker" H-2C visas are scheduled for issuance in the first year of implementation, with future adjustments based on business demand for fresh labor.  The visa would cost the visa holder an application fee, now priced at $1000, and up an additional, punitive $500 fine.  In comparison, for technological and other highly skilled occupations, an H-1B visa costs the visa holder $500, while $1000 is paid by the employer.  In spite of claims of portability, these "New Workers" effectively would be bound to an employer for the three-year duration of the visa and tracked by an “Alien Employment Management System."  If the worker is fired by a vindictive boss or leaves their job and does not have an approved job waiting, they face deportation.

According to Dave Schmidt of Se Se Puede Coalition, "This bill incorporates some of the most odious elements of the Sensenbrenner Bill.  It’s a step backwards.  It still has the criminalization element of the Sensenbrenner bill.  The people hear it’s from the Democrats, and they think it’s the best they can get.  But it’s a common thing in Latin America, people really think pretty radically.  The answer, if you don’t want people dying in the desert, you allow a humane immigration policy that allows people to work humanely."  Si Se Puede Coalition is coordinating a march from San Diego State College to Presidio Park on Tuesday.

Migra Matters notes that this Son of Sensenbrenner bill separates those who overstay their visas from those who entered without papers, targeting Mexican and Central American migrants.  It allows broader use of indefinite detention--imprisonment without a sentence--for lack of government paperwork than proposed in the 2006 Sensenbrenner proposal, and a fifteen-year prison term for misuse of identification.  And the sweeps won't end if the bill is passed: the Gutierrez-Flake bill provides for building twenty more detention facilities, and a total of 20,000 beds.

Buffalo Forum in New York sponsored a teach-in on the proposed legislation last week.  Kathy Chandler says they're planning a hundred-person march on May 1st from the high school to a nearby park, and a caravan from there to the ICE facility to continue their protest.

For people who've struggled for years at seasonal, contract, and day labor, often for less than minimum wage and sometimes for fly-by-night employers, the burden in most cases will be too much to overcome.  Fruit vendors on the turnpike entrance, day laborers, cleaning women, farm workers shunted from site to site by contractors, face insurmountable hurdles.  The cost of the "New Worker" visa alone amounts to roughly 16% of the annual minimum wage of $9750 after federal taxes, making saving or helping overseas families less than unlikely.  But the ultimate insult is what a New York migrant activist called the "modern-day slavery" of being tied to the whim of an employer, nothing more than the old Bracero program returned, only this time, workers will pay for their own exploitation.

The incentives to work in the U.S: making money for impoverished family members, the freedom to move up the economic ladder, putting together a nest egg, all evaporate under Gutierrez-Flake.  The carrot of legal status is nearly impossible to grasp.  The penalties for failure to do so are immense.  And the choice between Gutierrez-Flake compliance and more deportations is a choice only between instruments of punishment.

Panama Alba, a New York City activist, isn't worried that this year's numbers may be fewer than last year's.  "We don't have the media backing.  They've been told to keep their mouths shut.  [The migrants] only have a voice in the streets, so they go to the streets.  But it's not about numbers.  They've tried to shut us down.  In light of the raids, any migrant who steps into the streets is a hero or heroine."  What's driving them?  "People are forced to emigrate for lack of work.  Otherwise, they will die.  Fourteen men were rescued last December trying to cross the Atlantic Ocean from Senegal to New York City in a 50-foot boat, in search of work.  Every other week we hear of the death or injury of a construction worker in New York, because the bosses don't follow safety rules.  Any guestworker program is bullshit, it's not acceptable.  We demand full legalization for all who are here."  The May 1st Coalition New York is marching from Union Square to the Federal Building and immigration center at Foley Square.

In Boston, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Ashland, San Diego, Romoland and dozens of other cities, town, and villages on May 1st, businesses will be closed and the streets will be jammed again, although perhaps not so densely as before, with the outcry of the people forgotten in the equation of  "compromise."  As chambers of commerce negotiate with nativist Congresspeople to find common ground, on May 1 the people will give them their answer.  It will be one neither the corporations, the Administration, nor the Congress want to hear.  It is a simple demand for freedom and family, and for the legal recognition and protections afforded to all other human beings in the U.S.  The question is, who will listen?

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