David Bacon | "We Are Workers, Not Criminals"

Tuesday, 13 May 2008 13:40 By David Bacon, t r u t h o u t | Perspective | name.
Also see below:     
Immigrant Rights Activists Join Protests Nationwide    â€¢    Thursday 01 May 2008

    In the big immigrant marches that swept the country on May Day in 2006 and 2007, one sign said it all: "We are Workers, not Criminals!" Often it was held in the calloused hands of men and women, who looked as though they'd just come from working in a factory, cleaning an office building or picking grapes.

    The sign stated an obvious truth. Millions of people have come to this country to work, not to break its laws. Some have come with visas, and others without them. But they are all contributors to the society they've found here, not people who mean it harm. Again this May Day, immigrant workers are filling the streets, making the same point.

    Yet, today the Federal government is taking actions that make holding a job a criminal act. Some states and local communities, seeing a green light from the Department of Homeland Security, are passing measures that go even further. These actions need a reality check.

    Last summer, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff proposed a rule requiring employers to fire any worker who couldn't correct a mismatch between the Social Security number they'd provided their employer, and the SSA database. The regulation assumes those workers have no valid immigration visa, and therefore no valid Social Security number.

    With 12 million people living in the US without legal immigration status, the regulation would lead to massive firings, bringing many industries and businesses to a halt. Citizens and legal visa holders would be swept up as well, since the Social Security database is often inaccurate.

    Under Chertoff, the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement has conducted sweeping workplace raids, arresting and deporting thousands of workers. Many have been charged with an additional crime - identity theft - because they used a Social Security number belonging to someone else to get a job. Yet, workers using another number actually deposit money into that holder's account, and these immigrants will never collect benefits their contributions paid for.

    The Arizona legislature has passed a law requiring employers to verify the immigration status of every worker through a federal database called E-Verify, which is even more incomplete and full of errors than Social Security. They must fire workers whose names get flagged. And Mississippi passed a bill making it a felony for an undocumented worker to hold a job, with jail time of from one year to ten years, fines of up to $10,000, and no bail for anyone arrested. Employers get immunity.

    Congress is now debating two bills, the SAVE Act and the New Employee Verification Act, that would require similar use of the E-Verify database.

    In 1986 the Immigration Reform and Control Act made it a crime, for the first time in our history, to hire people without papers. Defenders argued that if people could not legally work they would leave. Life was not so simple.

    Undocumented people are part of the communities they live in. They will not simply go, nor should they. They seek the same goals of equality and opportunity that everyone else in our country believes in.

    For most, there are no jobs to return to in the countries from which they've come. Rufino Dominguez, a Oaxacan community leader in Fresno, says, "The North American Free Trade Agreement [NAFTA] made the price of corn so low that it's not economically possible to plant a crop anymore. We come to the US to work because there's no alternative."

    When Congress passed NAFTA, six million displaced people came to the US as a result. If Congress stops passing new free trade agreements, and instead faces the damage NAFTA and other pro-corporate measures did in Mexico, the poverty and desperation that fuel migration can eventually be reversed.

    Trying to push people out of the US who've come here for survival simply won't work. The price of trying is that the vulnerability of undocumented workers will increase. Unscrupulous employers use that vulnerability to deny overtime, minimum wage, or fire workers when they protest or organize. Increased vulnerability ultimately results in cheaper labor and fewer rights for everyone. Children live in fear that their parents will be picked up in raids.

    After deporting over 1,000 workers at Swift meatpacking plants, Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff called for linking "effective interior enforcement and a temporary-worker program." The government is really after giving cheap labor to large employers. Deportations, firings and guest worker programs all make labor cheaper and union organizing harder. They contribute to a climate of fear and insecurity for everyone.

    Instead of making work a crime and treating immigrants as criminals, we need equality, economic security, jobs and rights for everyone.

    Coming in September, 2008, from Beacon Press: "Illegal People - How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants."

    For more articles and images on immigration, see http://dbacon.igc.org/Imgrants/imgrants.htm

    See also the photodocumentary on indigenous migration to the US, "Communities Without Borders" (Cornell University/ILR Press, 2006)

    See also "The Children of NAFTA, Labor Wars on the US/Mexico Border" (University of California, 2004)

    David Bacon, Photographs and Stories


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    Thousands Rally in May Day Effort for Immigration Reform
    By Sophia Tareen
    The Associated Press

    Thursday 01 May 2008

    Chicago - Thousands of chanting, flag-waving immigrants and activists rallied in cities across the country Thursday, attempting to reinvigorate calls for immigration reform in a presidential election year in which the economy has taken center stage.

    From Washington to Miami to Los Angeles, immigrant rights activists demanded citizenship opportunities for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. and an end to raids and deportations.

    "We come here to fight for legalization. We're people. We have rights," said Eric Molina, an undocumented factory worker who immigrated to Zion, Ill., from Mexico.

    Molina, his sister and his 13-year-old daughter Erika, a U.S. citizen, were among about 15,000 people who rallied in Chicago in one of the largest demonstrations of the day.

    Turnout has fallen sharply since the first nationwide rallies in 2006, when more than 1 million people - at least 400,000 in Chicago alone - clogged streets and brought downtown traffic to a standstill. Activists say this year's efforts are focused less on protests and more on voter registration and setting an agenda for the next president.

    Some said participation likely was lower because many immigrants increasingly fear deportation.

    Margot Veranes, a volunteer organizer in Tucson, Ariz., - where 12,000 took to the streets last year but early estimates Thursday put the crowd at about 500 - blamed the turnout on aggressive enforcement by Border Patrol and police.

    "People have been stopped and deported in the last week. This is a community living in fear," said Veranes, a researcher for the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades. "You never know when you're going to be stopped by Border Patrol and now the police."

    But she said that's also why people were marching.

    "We're marching to end the raids and the deportations, but we're also marching for health care and education and good jobs," she said.

    In Washington, immigrant rights groups and social justice organizations were demanding that Prince William County, in northern Virginia, rescind its anti-illegal immigration measure. They also called for an end to raids and deportations and for establishment of worker centers in Washington, Maryland and Virginia.

    Activists also asked the Republican and Democratic national committees to have their presidential candidates enact immigration reform.

    A crowd of about 1,000 gathered on the steps of the Oregon Capitol in Salem to call for changes in immigration and workplace laws within the first 100 days of the next congressional session. Many demanded that Oregon reverse a decision, imposed by the Legislature in February, to require proof of legal residence to get a driver's license.

    Hugo Orozzo, 17-year-old high school senior, was among hundreds who marched through the streets of southwest Detroit. He was born in the U.S., but his father was born in Mexico and some other family members are originally from Mexico.

    "It is going to help my family and friends," Orozzo said of the effort. He carried a preprinted sign that read: "Stop raids and deportations that separate families!" in both English and Spanish.

    And in Milwaukee, factory worker Miguel Tesillos, 29, was among hundreds who lined sidewalks waiting for the march to begin.

    "Our people, we pay taxes, we pay the same as a citizen," said Tesillos, who has a Green Card. "Maybe the new president can see this point, and do something for us."

    But activists say they know it will be a challenge to push their issues to the political forefront.

    Immigration reform did not resonate with voters in primary elections who overwhelmingly listed the economy as their top concern. Immigration legislation has stalled and been defeated in the Senate, and presidential candidates have not extensively addressed the issues.

    Democratic presidential rivals Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton supported a 2006 bill, sponsored by Republican candidate John McCain, that offered illegal immigrants legal status on conditions such as learning English. All three also have supported a border fence.

    In Chicago, 17-year-old Celeste Rodarte marched with a group of her friends from the city's West Side. She said her parents came to the United States more than 20 years ago and became citizens last year.

    "I know a lot of people who don't have papers and I want to help them out," Rodarte said.

    Seventh-grader Vicente Campos of Milwaukee was granted an excused absence from school to attend the march. He said he was concerned by stories of immigration officials separating parents and children.

    "Immigrants come here to support their families in Mexico," said Campos, 13. "They're not all here to do crimes."

    Associated Press writers Caryn Rousseau in Chicago, David Runk in Detroit, Dinesh Ramde in Milwaukee, Arthur H. Rotstein in Tucson, Arizona, Joseph B. Frazier in Salem, Oregon, and Jacquelyn Martin in Washington contributed to this report.
Last modified on Wednesday, 14 May 2008 12:56