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Recently, more than 100 workers in Pascagoula, Mississippi walked off the job at a Mississippi shipyard last week to protest conditions similar to slavery. The workers were protesting the conditions they have been living and working in since being hired from India after Hurricane Katrina.
According to the lawsuit filed in the workers’ behalf, the workers were offered jobs, green cards and permanent residency in exchange for as much as $20,000 each that they paid to recruiters working for a Northrop Grumman subsidiary in Bombay. One of the organizers of the march was quoted in a press release put out by the New Orleans Worker Justice Coalition, saying “They promised us green cards and permanent residency, and instead gave us 10-month visas and made us live like animals in company trailers, 24 to a room. We were trapped between an ocean of debtat home and constant threats of deportation from our bosses in Mississippi.”
When workers attempted to organize against these conditions the organizers were fired.
This is but the tip of the iceberg.
In what can only be termed circumstances similar to those of foreign workers hired by US and British companies to work on the ill-fated reconstruction of Iraq, the litany of abuses against those—both US-born and foreign—hired by various corporations to work in the reconstruction of New Orleans and the rest of the US southern coast hit by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. A recently released report by the New Orleans Worker Justice Coalition is an ongoing litany of corporate corruption, worker abuse and outright illegal and immoral violation of human rights.
Also in Mississippi, beginning July 1st, 2008 it will become a felony for an undocumented worker to hold a job. Anyone caught working without papers “shall be subject to imprisonment in the custody of the Department of Corrections for not less than one (1) year nor more than five (5) years, a fine of not less than one thousand dollars ($1000) nor more than ten thousand dollars ($10,000) or both.” Furthermore, anyone charged with the crime of working without papers will not be eligible for bail.
In Iowa, federal ICE agents arrested hundreds of workers at the Agriprocessors, Inc. meat packing plant. The reason given by law enforcement was that the workers were using false social security numbers. Of course, the facts are that people can’t work without a social security number and cannot get one unless they have been given some kind of legal status by the government—a status becoming more difficult to acquire by the day. This is but one more Catch-22 in the life of an immigrant in the US.
Meanwhile, in Danbury, CT. a court upheld the use of undercover police acting as day-labor employers to arrest men and women looking for work in that city. The workers were then deported. In San Diego County, plans are underway to build two large detention centers that will hold immigrants without papers for indeterminate amounts of time. Haliburton hopes to get the contract. In South Carolina, Georgia and some other states, legislators have introduced laws forbidding the use of any language but English in the workplace.
Now, imagine a country where some residents have more rights than others. These residents can hold almost any job they desire. They live in neighborhoods away from those of darker skin and lesser means. The latter cannot hold any job they desire. Part of the reason for this is because of the law and part of the reason is because of the nature of their education and social status. Everyone must have identification that also signifies their social status, even though that status is primarily determined by the color of one’s skin. If one does not have such identification (especially if they are not white), they are arrested.
If they or their relatives can not produce identification, the arrestees once released are doomed to a life living in the shadows, always wondering if they will be turned in by their employer or enemies.
The country I am talking about was apartheid South Africa. Now, since the advent of NAFTA and other so-called free trade agreements, the national boundaries between North and South America have been economically erased. If one stretches their imagination just a bit, it is possible to perceive the southern lands of Mexico and Central America as the equivalent of bantustans with the United States as their Capetown.
Furthermore, the identification legal immigrants to the United States are required to carry can be compared to the passes blacks in South Africa needed to get into different parts of the white-ruled South Africa. If those passes were not in order or nonexistent, blacks were subject to arrest. Likewise, if the various documents that the US government requires immigrants to carry and produce at will are not in order or nonexistent, those immigrants will be arrested. Those immigrants without papers must live their lives in the shadows, always wondering if they will be turned in by their employer or enemies. If they live in some parts of the United States, the discovery of their lack of documents might occur as the result of a roadblock set up by police to check people’s identification.
Of course, there are a multitude of ways that these historical instances are not similar, but it is the underlying consciousness of fear is distressingly similar. It is questionable whether or not most US citizens agree with the efforts listed above that target immigrants.
However, the lack of outcry by those who disagree with these attempts to dehumanize undocumented immigrants provides those invested in destroying immigrants’ lives with a voice hopefully well beyond their numbers. So does the willingness of the US public to ignore the family-shattering raids and imprisonment of thousands of immigrants for no other reason than not having the approved documents.
Implicit in this willingness is a sense that those being picked up and thrown in detention centers are not as human as “real Americans.” If the lessons of authoritarian states have taught us anything, they should have taught us that we should be wary of those who would define a human being in ever-narrowing terms.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org