Shelf Life: Immorally Detained in the Immigration Raids

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More than6,200 people were arrested for showing up to work in 2008, casualties of an unprecedented surge in raids by immigration officials. The workplace raids made big headlines, which dutifully announced staggering arrest counts in Postville, Iowa (389), Greenville, South Carolina (330), Laurel, Mississippi (592), and other cities and towns.

In the absence of meaningful immigration reform, we’ve arrived at a de facto policy that punishes workers, not the corporate bosses who benefit from their low wages and long hours. Just 135 of last year’s 6,200 workplace arrests were owners, supervisors, or managers, according to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. What’s more, a raid puts a community through the ringer: People are afraid to leave their homes to go to the grocery store or to their jobs. Children, some who are U.S. citizens, unknowingly sit through math class while their parents are hauled off to a remote detention center. Once-flourishing church congregations wilt and wither.

The raids are the most visible symptom of a dysfunctional system–and, perversely, the government may be stepping them up to push for the policies that corporate America wants. Writing for the Nation (Oct. 6, 2008), David Bacon argues that the dramatic expansion of workplace raids is part of ICE’s strategy to convince Congress to pass “an immigration reform package centered on guest-worker programs,” which by nature tend to stifle workers’ rights by limiting their ability to organize.

In the meantime, ICE dabbles in its own brand of union busting. A Washington Monthly (May-July 2008) investigation found “disturbing evidence to suggest that unscrupulous employers are leaning heavily on ICE” to threaten undocumented workers involved in unionization drives or complaints about working conditions. In These Times (Nov. 2008) notes that the Howard Industries electronics factory in Laurel, Mississippi, site of the largest workplace raid on record, “was in the midst of contentious union contract negotiations” when agents stormed in on August 25. And a May raid on the Postville, Iowa, Agriprocessors plant stopped a unionization drive dead in its tracks, reports Labor Notes (Sept. 2008). Just another example of the ICE acting as a “rogue agency,” a union spokesman told the magazine.

Raids drum up plenty of fear among undocumented workers, their families, and their communities, and so does another much-criticized ICE initiative: the 287(g) program, which trains local police to “enforce immigration law.” ICE likes to toot its crime-stopping horn, but in Arizona’s Maricopa County, according to the Phoenix New Times (Oct. 2 and July 10, 2008), the 287(g) program basically boils down to racial profiling–“roundups of Mexicans and anybody who looks Mexican.” People are being deported for minor crimes like driving without a license or a seat belt. In North Carolina, five men were arrested for fishing without licenses and later deported, reports the Independent Weekly (Aug. 13, 2008).

ICE proudly claims that it deported 349,041 “illegal aliens” last year. That’s 60,000 more people than the agency “removed” in 2007, an increase the Washington Post (Oct. 5, 2008) attributes in part to 287(g), which has “essentially transformed police, state troopers, deputies, and jail and prison guards into part-time immigration enforcers,” the PhoenixNew Times reports.

More deportations mean more detentions, and more jail cells: ICE “holds some 30,000 people on any given day,” according to Mother Jones (July-Aug. 2008), and private prison corporations are only too happy to rent out their beds. The Business of Detention (Aug. 2008), an online investigative project by Renee Feltz and Stokely Baksh, documents ICE’s contracts with bigwigs like the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), where business is booming. ICE pays the company significantly more–in some cases, $200 a day per detainee–than the $54 or so CCA normally charges to house federal or state prisoners.

The Washington Post has done excellent front-page reporting on the abominable medical care provided by (or, more frequently, withheld from) these often private-run immigrant detention centers. For the newspaper’s four-part series “Careless Detention,” Dana Priest and Amy Goldstein investigated cases in which detainees died in custody or shortly thereafter–83 in the past five years–and found repeated instances of “medical neglect.” Seattle Weekly (Aug. 13, 2008) reports that it took Juan Carlos Martinez-Mendez, who is detained at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, two years to get the surgery necessary to repair his “potentially life-threatening” sinus infections–even after repeated interventions from his regular doctor, a boost of support most detainees don’t have.

All of this probably doesn’t trouble the Lou Dobbs crowd. But here’s a question that might get through to those folks: What about the children?

So far, it seems, there isn’t much of a system in place for them. Some kids get locked up with their parents at one of the country’s two “residential” facilities that house families. One of them, the CCA-run T. Don Hutto Center in Taylor, Texas, was forced to improve conditions after being sued by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2007. Since then, the San Antonio Current reports (May 21, 2008), razor wire has been removed, more educational programs have been introduced, and food has gotten more nutritious–but it’s still just a big prison, a renovated medium-security facility filled with parents and children awaiting deportation. And it costs ICE $2.8 million a month.

It’s difficult to advocate for those children, writes Melissa del Bosque for the Texas Observer (May 16, 2008), because federal and state agencies clash over whose turf it is. “Child welfare is a state issue,” she notes, while “immigration is a federal issue.”

Right now, the issue–all the issues–seems to belong to ICE. Writing on (Oct. 26, 2008), David Bacon calls for an end to workplace raids and community sweeps within the much-hyped first hundred days of Barack Obama’s presidency. “Something is clearly wrong with the priorities of immigration enforcement,” he writes. “Hungry and desperate workers go to jail and get deported.”

Scores of passionate writers and activists are working to put immigration reform back on the agenda. I like to direct people to New America Media (, whose editors have equipped immigrants in the post-raid community of Postville, Iowa, with video cameras. One woman shows her black, bulky ankle monitoring device, which hovers above a hot-pink Croc. “I know that coming here and trying to find a better life for my family is not a crime,” she says.

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