What would the great religions have us do? What would the abolitionists have done? What would the best traditions of the labor movement suggest? How would a humanitarian of any sort react? There can be only one answer: defend the illegal immigrants.
I don’t usually use the word. In the immigrant rights movement we say, no human being is illegal. We call them undocumented immigrants. But in this current situation, to be clear to everyone, we’ll say: defend the illegal immigrants. All that is best in the American heritage and in the humanitarian traditions of the world call upon us to do so. They are our sisters and brothers. Help them. Harbor them.
Terror in our Communities
President Bush and Secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, have suddenly changed the rules of the game and created terror in our Latin American communities. In a raid on six Swift meatpacking plants Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents detained 1,300 Latino undocumented immigrants workers, charging some with identify theft and deporting others. Spouses and family members, distressed about their relatives, hesitated to contact authorities for fear of being picked up themselves. Children of arrested immigrants were left waiting at schools when no one came to pick them up.
Where the raids took place there was panic and in immigrant communities throughout the country there was dread. Latino immigrants declined to go to work, to go shopping, or to send their children to school. The 12 million or more undocumented people living in the United States were suddenly reminded that the country of the American dream, that had been for them a haven from political repression and poverty, might also become a nightmare of arrest, deportation, and even prison.
In Southern Ohio, Sheriff Richard K. Jones of Butler County, who has made his reputation through the persecution of immigrants, just received federal authority to arrest and detain suspected illegal immigrants, to take effect as soon as his deputies can be trained. Butler County thus joins the local police authorities of several other cities, counties and states that have been empowered to carry out federal immigration laws. Jones in a Fox Radio broadcast, speaking in part in the Spanish language, told immigrant listeners ominously, those of you who don’t know me soon will. Some immigrants in Butler County have begun to move out.
The Higher Law: Human Rights
In this new humanitarian crisis, we must defend the illegal immigrants in our communities from the federal authorities who would arrest them, deport them, break up their families and destroy their communities. When the law is wrong, as it so clearly is in this case, we appeal to the higher law of fundamental human rights. In doing so, we act in a great tradition. William Lloyd Garrison, the abolitionist, burned the U.S. Constitution in the streets because it protected slavery. Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. broke the law, refusing to abide by the South’s segregation statutes. American anti-war activists during the Vietnam War burned their draft cards and refused induction. The sanctuary movement of the 1980s illegally harbored undocumented Central American refugees facing death squads in their own countries. Let those be our models.
Clearly we owe it to these immigrants. Why after all are they here? U.S. foreign policy supported military dictatorships in various Latin American countries throughout the Cold War, leading many to leave for the U.S. because of political repression. More recent economic policy in the form of the Washington Consensus of “free trade” agreements foisted on their governments has devastated Latin American economies. In Mexico 40 percent of the people live in poverty, 20 percent in extreme poverty. They come here rather than starve there. Most could not get visas, there simply are not enough. So they come, smuggled in by the coyotes, backs wet from the river, feet sore from the trek across the desert and the mountains. Once here, they put their shoulders to the wheel.
They look for work, in the fields, in the restaurants, in construction. Anywhere. But to get work they need a Social Security number. They buy a phony card with someone else’s number not with the intention of stealing anyone’s identity, but because they need a number to work and feed their families. Ironically the social security payments from those cards provide billions of dollars to the Social Security fund, money the undocumented immigrants can never claim.
Despite the struggle, they are not ground down, but rather stand up. They join labor unions and fight for better wages and conditions. They form families, raise children, create soccer leagues, join or establish churches. Their children join ours in school where they learn English and American customs. Whether we have personally recognized it or not they have become part of the warp and woof of the fabric of our country. If they are torn out, we unravel.
What can be done now?
We must pressure Congress to pass a comprehensive immigration reform, one that would legalize all immigrants now here, create no guest worker programs, and increase several fold the number of visas with a path to residency and citizenship. Until that happens, we must restrain the immigration authorities and stop the expansion of immigration enforcement to local authorities, who are sure to abuse it. Where it has happened, as in Butler County, it should be turned back. Where it does not exist, as in Hamilton County or Cincinnati, we must be sure it does not go forward.
Until the law is changed, we must turn our churches and synagogues, our universities and labor unions into sanctuaries for the undocumented immigrants. And, when ICE shows up at the restaurant where you work, you should know what to do to save your friends and preserve their families. Who moved the slaves North on the Underground Railroad? Who hid the Jews in Europe during the holocaust? It was someone like you. Responding to the higher law. Brotherhood, sisterhood. Human rights.
DAN La BOTZ is a Cincinnati-based writer, teacher, and activist.
This article first appeared in DAN La BOTZ’s “Troublemaker’s Journal” column in Cincinnati CityBeat, Dec. 27, 2006.