Investigators called them "ready-made victims"–the six men killed and six others gravely injured at the end of a night of robberies in southern Georgia. They were mostly migrant workers who scraped by working long hours in cotton fields and on peanut farms. Other immigrants had been robbed before in the area–in a string of assaults stretching back for months.
But while bats and a gun did the damage to their bodies, the legal hurdles facing undocumented immigrants made them the perfect targets.
Since most undocumented immigrants are unable to obtain the paperwork necessary to open a bank account, they are more likely to carry their wages in cash. And the robbers may have been counting on the fact that undocumented immigrants are less likely to report being the victims of a crime–for fear of being deported. Nevertheless, police say that racism wasn’t a factor in the crimes.
These are all elements in a larger picture of injustice and inequality. Undocumented Latino immigrants remain largely segregated in a low-paying workforce that is open to exploitation in some of the nation’s most dangerous and degrading jobs–the meat industry, construction, janitorial and other service industries.
The same right-wing myths continue to be recycled–that undocumented immigrants are too "lazy" to go through legal channels to get a green card; that the border is being "overrun"; and that immigrants "steal" jobs from native-born workers.
The truth, however, is that immigrants face tremendous hurdles in applying for status as legal immigrants. Currently, the wait for an employment-based green card is more than five years on average.
The U.S. border with Mexico isn’t "overrun"–just 1 percent of all crossings are unauthorized. Both documented and undocumented immigrants are a tremendous boost to the economy in the form of federal, state and local taxes–while they are increasingly denied access to social services like Medicare and food stamps.
While undocumented immigrants in particular take on many of the most dangerous jobs in society, their wages are often far below that other workers. And contrary to the stereotype of undocumented migrants as single males with little education, a Pew Hispanic Center study recently found that most of the unauthorized immigrant population lives in families, and that one-quarter has at least some college education.
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IMMIGRANTS ARE a convenient scapegoat for politicians and the right wing–all the more so since Washington declared its "war on terror" in 2001.
That’s why some in Tifton, Ga., aren’t convinced that race wasn’t a factor. Blanca Perez, who lives in the same mobile home park as some of the victims, told reporters that her car had been shot at in the past. And according to resident Savanah Marin, Latinos had been recently targeted with both violence and accusations. "We hear that we are ‘invading their country,’" she told the Atlanta Journal Constitution. "There’s a lot of prejudice in South Georgia."
Courtney Gear, who lives in the same Tifton mobile home park where three of the victims were killed, said he sometimes hears resentment towards Latinos. "Some people are like, ‘They are taking these jobs,’ that this is bad," said Gear.
The attacks in Tifton are an entirely predictable outcome in a system where some lives are seen as "disposable."
Today, there are laws on the books to protect undocumented immigrants who are the victims of crime–but the government refuses to enforce them. Earlier this month, lawyers for a group of undocumented immigrants filed a lawsuit to force federal officials to implement a provision of the federal Crime Victims Act of 2000, which allows undocumented immigrants who are the victims of crimes and cooperate with law enforcement the chance to apply for and receive protective visas allowing them to stay in the country.
The lawsuit’s plaintiffs include six people who claim that a gun-wielding vigilante threatened them at an Arizona highway rest stop, a live-in domestic worker who charges that her Beverly Hills boss beat her, and a woman who said she was a victim of domestic violence. As lawyer Peter Schey told Copley News Service, "If this were a million-dollar-investor visa, [immigration officials] would have jumped to attention and implemented a procedure within a matter of weeks."
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THE ATTACKS in Tifton are only the latest example of anti-immigrant violence across the country in the wake of the whipped-up hysteria since September 11.
In July, in Hamilton, Ohio, after a Latino man was accused of sexually assaulting a white girl, vigilantes spray-painted "Rapest" on the house where he lived–and later set it on fire. According to the Associated Press, "Men roamed the streets wearing pillowcases with eye holes, and Ku Klux Klansmen in hoods and robes showed up to pass out pamphlets. There were rumors of assaults and beatings."
And in April, a masked vigilante in military fatigues carrying an assault rifle and speaking in "broken Spanish" accosted a group of 18 Mexican immigrants on the border near Columbus, N.M. After stopping their car and ordering immigrants out of the vehicle, the man proceeded to shoot the driver, Apolinar Ortega Sanchez, in the head at point-blank range, before racing to the U.S. side of the border.
No one has been arrested in the death of Ortega Sanchez, but there is speculation that the murderer could be a member of one of self-styled border patrol groups that have sprung up this year. In fact, days before the attack, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had praised the "border patrols" of a group of vigilantes called the Minutemen, who descended on Arizona.
Schwarzenegger isn’t the only politician to join the anti-immigrant chorus. New Mexico’s Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson–who proudly touts his status as the nation’s only Latino governor–declared a "state of emergency" at his state’s border in August, freeing up $750,000 to hire additional law enforcement personnel and pay officers overtime.
And just last week, George W. Bush promised to expel from the U.S. every "single illegal entrant, with no exceptions."
Bush also took the opportunity to reintroduce his proposal for "immigration reform"–a plan that would create a temporary guest-worker program allowing the approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., and those wishing to enter the U.S., to apply for a three-year work permit with one renewal.
But this "reform" is nothing more than an expanded version of the previous "bracero" program for immigrant farm laborers. It would keep immigrants segregated into a low-paying workforce, open to exploitation at the whim of employers. Workers would be prevented from striking or joining unions–and would not be allowed to seek citizenship at the end of their work permit.
Rival plans are hardly any better. Sens. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) recently announced that they will soon put forward their own immigration reform plan that stresses–what else?–national security. "First and foremost, we’ve got to do border enforcement," Martinez told reporters. "Then we have to have a worker program."
Actually, what we "need"–rather than hyped-up border control or a new spin on "guest worker" programs–are real labor rights, for immigrant and native-born workers alike. And increasingly, immigrant workers are on the front lines of making those struggles happen.
Leticia Corona, a Mexican immigrant who in June was fired from her job as a janitor in Indianapolis for joining in a one-day strike, told Agence France Presse that she and her coworkers were given no protective gear, had vacuums with cords so frayed that they would catch on fire, and got wages that could be knocked down from $6.50 to $5.50 an hour if they called in sick or came in late.
Now she is picketing her former employer, GSF, in the hopes of forming a union and fighting for her rights. "We work at night and nobody sees us," she said. "We don’t have benefits, we don’t have vacations, we don’t have anything."
Making sure that workers like Leticia Corona are "seen"–and win the right to a decent job, good pay and union recognition–should be a top priority for anyone who hates injustice and inequality in George Bush’s America.
Used as cheap labor in New Orleans
"HOW DO I ensure that New Orleans is not overrun by Mexican workers?" New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin was actually applauded when he put that question to a meeting of local business leaders.
Nagin later claimed his comments were innocent–that he was simply concerned about whether Louisiana companies and residents were getting their fair share of reconstruction jobs. But his comment about an influx of immigrants into New Orleans is just one part of a growing chorus blaming immigrants and "outsiders" for supposedly taking jobs away from residents.
Latino immigrants are in many cases becoming the latest victims of Hurricane Katrina–scapegoated even as they take on some of the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs of Gulf Coast reconstruction, often under horribly exploitive conditions.
The Bush administration ensured the easy exploitation of immigrant workers. Following Katrina, the administration suspended the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires contractors to pay workers at least the local prevailing wage, and the Homeland Security Department announced that it would temporarily stop prosecuting contractors who fail check the legal status of workers.
That was a green light to Gulf Coast employers to take advantage of immigrant workers. And now, many immigrants are finding that promises of easy money and accommodations used to lure them to the Gulf Coast are the cover for a very different reality.
Myron Moran, an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala, came to New Orleans on the promise of good-paying construction and cleanup jobs. Today, he works 14-hour days and pays $30 a night to live in a room in an abandoned hotel on Canal Street, with no electricity or running water.
His roommate, Ruben Lopez, a U.S. citizen who drove from Fresno, Calif., to New Orleans after he heard about jobs at a job fair, says he is still owed $1,200 by a local contractor for house gutting and other clean-up work.
Lopez and others say that the climate in the city is becoming increasingly hostile to Latino immigrants. "I walked up and asked this white guy if he knew where we could get some food," Lopez told Salon, "and he said, ‘I don’t know a place where you can eat, wetback.’…There’s lots of racism here."
Meanwhile, to many employers, workplace safety laws seem to have become little more than a suggestion. An investigator with the Laborers Union, Rafael Duran, recently told the Associated Press that outside the New Orleans Arena he encountered Mexican teenagers as young as 15 and 16 years old removing carpets covered in excrement. The teens said they were sleeping in a field under a tent.
In Gulfport, Miss., the New York Times recently found a group of 32 undocumented Guatemalan immigrants being paid just $8 an hour to tear down Sheetrock for 10 hours a day. All 32 were being housed in just three mobile homes. One of the men, Arnoldo Antonio Lopez, said that he had paid $70 a month to live in the trailer–and that the first contractor who had hired him for $7 an hour failed to pay him. A second contractor to hire the men also failed to pay them.
"They hadn’t eaten for three days when we got to them," Vicki Cintra, the Gulf Coast outreach organizer for the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance, told the Times. "They had no blankets, nothing. They were sleeping on the floor. They had no money to buy food." Bill Chandler, president of the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance, added, "These workers are super-exploited by contractors in horrible living conditions. People are working without any kind of inoculation–tetanus or anti-hepatitis. They don’t have goggles, they don’t have gloves, they don’t have any safety protection at all."
Also in Gulfport, Knight Ridder found a group of 17 migrant workers who had left jobs in Florida on promises of $150-a-day construction jobs and apartments to live in. The men ended up living in small tents on a Frisbee golf course, with no electricity or running water. After two weeks of heavy construction work, they were paid just $300 each–one-fifth of what they were expecting.
"Some labor contractors will bring our people up for two or three weeks of work, and then leave them there," Tirso Moreno, director of the Farmworker Association of Florida, told Knight Ridder. "Sometimes they are paid too little and sometimes not at all." But, says Moreno, because the workers are often undocumented immigrants, "there’s nothing they can do to fight it."
Unfortunately, even some labor organizers are echoing the anti-immigrant backlash. Roman Feher, an organizer with the Laborers Union, recently told the Associated Press that: "It’s really a shame. We’re trying to get people back on their feet. The last thing we need is contractors bringing people in from out of state."
Comments like Feher’s and Mayor Nagin’s do nothing but blame the victims of a system that views some people as expendable. As Malik Rahim, a former Black Panther and housing rights activist in New Orleans, told Salon, this is "the kind of scapegoating that only worsens an already difficult situation."
Discrimination at the Red Cross
SOME IMMIGRANTS displaced by Hurricane Katrina have been doubly victimized–once by the storm and once by the system that’s supposed to protect them. According to media reports, police and U.S. marshals have charged into at least two Red Cross shelters for hurricane refugees and threatened to deport people.
The Wall Street Journal reported that in late September at a shelter in Long Beach, Miss., police and marshals blockaded the parking lot and exits, and then demanded identification from about 60 people who "looked Hispanic"–including some who had been pulled out of the shower and bathroom. Dozens of shelter residents were told to leave within two days, or else they would be deported.
"They asked me where I wanted to go: to Houston, Atlanta or back to Mexico," Jose Luis Rivera, an undocumented construction worker, told the Journal. "I lost everything I own in the storm," said Rivera, whose apartment and pickup truck were destroyed in the flood. "But they said they didn’t care. They told us that if we didn’t leave, they would return [two days later] with buses to take us away."
Assistant shelter manager and volunteer Jesse Acosta was forced to show two forms of ID and wait 20 minutes while being screened for outstanding arrest warrants. He told the Journal that the line of men, women and children who were screened included no whites or African Americans. "I was singled out because of my skin," Acosta said. "These people went through Katrina and went there to be taken care of, not to be hassled."
The Harrison County Sheriff’s Department claimed that no one was threatened with deportation–and it was making sure that those staying in the shelter were hurricane victims. Capt. Windy Swetman even called the raid " more of a humanitarian mission." The following week, another 40 people were forced to leave a Red Cross shelter in D’Iberville, Miss., under similar circumstances.
Even more disturbing, however, are reports that the Red Cross itself has targeted Latinos. Vicky Cintra, of the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance, recently told New America Media that staff at Red Cross shelters in Hattiesburg and Laurel, Miss., cities with large Latino populations, had asked people to show social security numbers and birth certificates–a violation of Red Cross policy, and an incredible request given that many seeking shelter had just lost everything they owned.
Also, the Red Cross allegedly told Latino clean-up and construction workers staying in some shelters to leave within 48 hours to make space for Katrina victims whose houses were condemned by FEMA.
This policy–to move workers out of shelters in order to free up space for hurricane evacuees–is "only being implemented against Latinos," Cintra said. "The Red Cross has always thought that everybody who even look like a Latino is a clean-up worker." Even some who could prove that they lived in the area and were victims of Katrina were frightened into leaving, she said.
As Cintra told the Wall Street Journal: "These people have already lost everything they had, and now, they have been victimized all over again."
NICOLE COLSON writes for the Socialist Worker.