With the November elections hanging in the balance, politicians from both parties are desperately jostling for votes on this year’s key “wedge” issue. Both parties have embraced the vague phrase, “securing our borders,” which conveniently teeters between the “patriotic” virtues of criminalizing Latinos migrating northward and vilifying Arabs and Muslims in the name of fighting terrorism.
This election year’s antics on Capitol Hill reached full swing on September 14, when the House of Representatives voted by 283-138 to call for yet another set of sweeping border control measures, including the construction of a 700-mile wall along the U.S.-Mexico border-a meaningless provision, since it was already included in the notoriously repressive H.R. 4437 bill passed by the House last December. But lawmakers seemed eager to demonstrate that, as the Los Angeles Times commented, “bipartisan support exists for significantly toughening border security-especially as the November election nears.”
Indeed, 64 Democrats joined their Republican brethren to ensure easy passage through the House. California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, in a nod to her xenophobic supporters, announced that she was “delighted” that the House included a provision to criminalize the construction of border tunnels for transporting immigrants, while noting that she has proposed a similar measure in the Senate. Looking over her other shoulder at her agribusiness backers, Feinstein also mouthed disappointment that the bill did not include a guest worker program for farm workers.
In an equally meaningless gesture on the same day, President Bush reiterated a pledge he first made in May, announcing that he has officially ended the practice called “Catch and Release,” allowing Border Patrol to release undocumented Mexicans pending a future court date. All those captured will now be detained by Border Patrol authorities.
This is not the first election year in which opportunist politicians have used racism against immigrants as a campaign ploy. In October 1996, just weeks before his re-election, Bill Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRAIRA) into law.
IIRAIRA is notable for its multifold expansion of the category of deportable immigrant “criminals”-including those convicted of an “aggravated felony” or an act of “moral turpitude.” As recently as 1988, an aggravated felony had included only the serious crimes of murder, transporting drugs and terrorism, while acts of moral turpitude referred to rape and murder.
But under Clinton’s watch, the crime of shoplifting rose to aggravated felony status. Crimes of moral turpitude suddenly included jumping a subway turnstile. A Cambodian man was designated a “sex-offender” for the crime of indecent exposure after urinating on a construction site.
This Clinton-era legislation also targeted legal immigrants, to be deported for alleged offences that might have occurred decades earlier-even if the crime was not then defined as an aggravated felony, but as a misdemeanor, and the immigrant had already served time for it. By 1997, the number of detained immigrants nearly doubled from the 1996 figure of 8,500.
Many of the provisions currently credited to the Bush Administration’s PATRIOT ACT were originally included in the 1996 legislation. Most notably, the Clinton-era law, not the PATRIOT ACT, first required detention during deportation proceedings, while removing any time limit on the duration of detention-whether lasting several months or several years. The PATRIOT ACT went on to authorize the indefinite detention of any non-citizen suspected of alleged “terrorist” activities.
Deportations first shot up in 1997 and have continued to rise ever since, reaching over 200,000 in 2005, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Nearly 1.4 million immigrants have been deported since 1996.
Election-year harassment, raids and deportations
To demonstrate its resolve in this election year, the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) moved into overdrive, in a sweeping “Operation Return to Sender” exercise. ICE has arrested and deported thousands of immigrants since June.
On Sept. 7 and 8, for example, ICE arrested 107 immigrants in Northern California, which ICE described as “criminal aliens, foreign nationals with final orders of deportation, and other immigration violators.” Yet only 19 of the 107 people arrested had prior criminal convictions. Most had arrived in the U.S. as children.
For three months, immigration officials have refused to allow Mohammad Ramadan Hassan Salama, an Egyptian-born assistant professor at San Francisco State University, to return to his wife and children in the U.S.-after he traveled to Canada in June to update his temporary scholar visa, which was set to expire.
Officials told Salama he is being held because his name is similar to one of the men convicted in the 1993 World Trade Center bombings, Mohammed A. Salameh. “It is a very common name,” the professor remarked. “This is laughable, just because my name is Mohammad Salama. If we look for somebody with the last name McVeigh, should we just arrest them and harass them? I really think this has nothing to do with me.”
In early September, Georgia’s Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue-up for re-election-pledged a statewide crackdown on undocumented immigrants. Within days, federal agents descended on the small town of Stillmore, rounding up more than 120 immigrants for deportation, while many more immigrant families fled for their safety.
David Robinson, the owner of a trailer park where agents handcuffed and arrested many residents, flew an American flag upside down in protest. Stillmore Mayor Marilyn Slater observed, “This reminds me of what I read about Nazi Germany, the Gestapo coming in and yanking people up.”
SHARON SMITH is the author of Women and Socialism and Subterranean Fire: a History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States. She can be reached at: email@example.com