Central to the debate on immigration has been the appeal to law and order. But behind all the propaganda about respect for the law the core of the anti-immigration movement is about bigotry. Not surprisingly, the laws they appeal to are, in word and practice, unjust and barbaric.
We have heard that we should make a distinction between immigrants on the one hand and illegal aliens on the other. This is a way for the anti-immigration lobby to claim they are not racist or even xenophobic. They simply believe in obeying the law. But forget about the law for a moment. There is no reason why the millions of people who have moved here from Latin America in the last twenty years should be deported or criminalized. No one is being harmed by their presence, and there is strong evidence that we are all benefiting from this influx. So why is it so important to enforce these laws? After all, people violate genuinely serious laws all the time–citizens even. Driving while intoxicated, insider trading, corporate fraud, violating clean air laws are all much bigger problems. So why focus on immigration unless out of ignorance or hate? The truth is, just as with the the bigots of the past who disguised their hatred with the rhetoric of “law and order” when the law was apartheid in South Africa or “black codes” in the American South, the core of the anti-immigration movement today is about hate.
We can see this clearly with the conduct of the raids that have swept up thousands of people across the country in recent months. The federal agency under Homeland Security called Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is following the lead of the anti-immigrant activists. It is the agency responsible for incarcerating children and tearing apart families. ICE defends these huge sweeps of so many non-violent people, reminiscent of the internment of the Japanese during World War II, again with appeals to “law and order.” Operation Return to Sender, we are told, is not about deporting just anyone; it is about looking for the worst violators of the law; the immigrants who may actually be a burden on our communities, maybe even a danger to our communities. ICE calls them “immigration fugitives”–a nice official-sounding pejorative to add to the collection: “illegals,” “aliens,” “wetbacks.”
Despite these claims, 37% of the 18,149 people arrested nationwide through Feb. 23 were not wanted fugitives; that number is closer to 45% in the San Francisco Bay Area; and more than half of those arrested in the San Diego region were not these fugitives ICE claims to be after. Even the “fugitives” themselves are rarely people charged with any violent or deleterious crimes.
On the one hand ICE officials claim they can’t ignore people they happen to find who are in violation of immigration law, but on the other hand they defend their right to interrogate anyone at a home where they believe a fugitive might be. In the San Francisco Chronicle last week an ICE spokesperson explained, “If agents are going to the home of a target they believe is in the country illegally, they could reasonably suspect that others in the house might be here illegally as well.” So it isn’t as if they are just stumbling upon law violators; they are using their warrants as a pretext for broad sweeps at homes, workplaces and apartment complexes. ICE as is common with law enforcement is also racially profiling. There are not raids on Irish immigrants or Canadian immigrants; The overwhelming focus is on people with brown skin (just as the debate over border security is focused on our southern border).
To be blunt, ICE is using its power as enforcer of unjust immigration laws to terrorize communities of color. They have specifically raided homes before dawn and have reportedly had automatic weapons with them at some of these raids. They have moved people to far-away detention facilities within hours of arrest (such as to Texas from Massachusetts), and have intimidated and misled people into signing away their rights. They are doing all this while simultaneously claiming that they are merely enforcing the law and that immigrants have due process. Nonsense. They are in fact doing whatever they can to deny people their rights and, again, terrorize these communities.
Behind all the rhetoric about enforcing the law and respect for the law is a lot of ugliness. The immigration law as it stands is oppressive and the proposals in Congress are as well. They all presume that immigrants are a burden on our country and that we ought to have laws that spend billions of our tax dollars to build walls, add law enforcement, greatly restrict the rights of non-citizens, maintain unnecessary restrictions on citizenship and create a system of indentured servitude. Those of us who believe in human rights and human dignity must not be sucked into a debate on law and order. We should make clear that the law is unjust and defend those who are the targets of unnecessary, racist and inhumane enforcement.
Carlos Villarreal is the Executive Director of the National Lawyers Guild San Francisco Bay Area Chapter and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.