Imagine yourself out driving one evening. It can be in any of the fifty states. Suddenly you hear a siren behind you. You simultaneously turn down the music you’re listening to and look in the rear-view mirror. Those blinking blue lights are right behind you and there are no other cars around. You quickly run through an inventory of possible reasons you are being pulled over as you stop your car on the shoulder of the road. You weren’t driving too fast, your registration is current, what could it be? Heck, you haven’t been in trouble with the police since you were 19 and got arrested for marijuana possession and that ended up being reduced to a misdemeanor once you copped a plea. The police officer strolls up to your rolled-down window and asks you for your license and registration, which you gladly provide. Before he leaves to call in your id and registration, he tells you that one of your taillights is not working. You breathe a sigh of relief. Just an inspection ticket, no problem.
Now, imagine you are a legal immigrant in the exact same circumstance. You’ve been working steadily since you graduated college and you have a nice house and a family. But, you too, have a felony arrest in your past. It wasn’t for pot, but for driving while intoxicated. Guess what? You’re busted. In some cases, it doesn’t even matter if the original conviction was for a felony. Thanks to the immigration laws passed in 1996, there’s a good chance that the misdemeanor in your past was converted to a felony. You will, in all likelihood, be deported. Yes, even though you have not been arrested since you were a kid twenty years ago, you can be deported for that arrest even after serving your sentence (or paying any fines), despite your owning property and being gainfully employed. And, thanks to the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s (INS)-now part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)-Law Enforcement Support Center (LESC) computer database located in Burlington, VT., it doesn’t even take the police officer who just asked for your registration and license very long to find that old arrest. It’s just a matter of your local police department signing up with the federal government for the service. This big brother apparatus was originally only for the use of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), but had its reach extend to the INS since 1996, when the Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act was passed by congress. Like many other aspects of this policing network, it has also fit neatly into the designs of Washington since the terrorist acts of 2003. Indeed, the database has expanded its reach even further, with more local police agencies and more people are being added.
This law flies in the face of reason. Not only does it require deportation for felony acts committed after its implementation, it makes those penalties retroactive. That means any felony or misdemeanor an immigrant might have been convicted for in her/his past can cause that person to be thrown out of the country. Although the current law applies only to convictions, the creation of the database would make any enhancement of the law (say misdemeanor convictions or even arrests without convictions) by anti-immigrant legislators very simple to enact. Now, imagine if all of us were held to such a restriction. How many of us would not have a job or a place to live? This contradicts the very principles our nation was founded on and makes a lie of one of the primary reasons people from other countries try to become residents. And it is the LESC computer system that makes it work.
Another aspect of the LESC system is its potential use by law enforcement officials against those of us who are citizens by birth. Its storage capabilities are immense and, although its use is currently limited by law to serve as an interchange between the INS and local police departments only, if the demand is there from federal and local law enforcement officials, it might not be long before it (or a similar system) is used to provide instant information on the rest of us, too. At this point, however, its most deleterious impact is on immigrants who, knowing that they are always a police interaction away from potential deportation, are much more likely to keep to themselves, stay out of sight, and refrain from expressing their political opinions, especially in public demonstrations and the like. Of course, this makes them much easier to exploit and abuse–the part of the quotient employers and law enforcement truly appreciate.
Recently, George Bush proposed a change in the current laws regarding undocumented workers in the United States. Under his plan, he would “allow” all those people currently in the US illegally to register with the immigration services. According to Bush’s spin, this process would allow those workers to work here legally and make it easier for them to cross the southern border should they want to visit their families. In addition, they could then send money more easily to relatives. On the down side of this-at least for the workers-is that this registration would only be for a three-year period. Then, depending on the needs and whims of agribusiness and other employers, these workers would be sent back to their home countries or required to re-register. This program is nothing more than another attempt to regulate the workforce and keep labor costs low for the likes of corporate America without giving any permanent rights to any of the currently illegal workers. In addition, and even more insidious, it is one more government attempt to control the other in US society. Just like the INS-required registration of most Muslim and Arab men after 911, this proposal is reminiscent of Nazi Germany’s registration of its Jewish residents. Even if there is no malicious intent in these registrations, the mere existence of the database leaves the way open to its use by unscrupulous and ill-intentioned politicians and bureaucrats. If you think such creatures don’t exist in America, I beg you to look no further than the current Attorney General for proof that they do.
In his recent address to the nation, George Bush demanded (in so many words) that Congress extend the provisions of the PATRIOT Act that are scheduled to expire. Playing the card he knows best-the one of fear-he told his listeners that “terrorists” do not have a timetable or an ending date for their activities. In the next morning’s newspaper there was an article that one of the current lists of potential terrorists is around five million names long. Now, think about that. Five million? How does the Department of Homeland Security reconcile this with their boss’s assertion that the number of America’s “enemies” is small and on the run, thanks to Washington’s war on the world? These lists that the authoritarians in our government insist on compiling are not about protecting us from terrorists, they’re about protecting the government and its corporate lords from us.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is being republished by Verso.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org