Over the last 10 years, the struggle for immigration reform in the
United States has escalated. Capitalist politicians have imposed on
immigrants some of the most odious legal “reforms” in the name of
national security and “economic growth.” Now, in a time of
economic crisis, immigrant workers are facing new challenges that
make a sustained independent mass struggle even more critical.
One of the most significant hurdles that immigrants now face in the
struggle for equal rights is increased racist scapegoating by states.
Under the guise of “immigration enforcement,” several states have
enacted measures that hark back to the days of segregation. These
laws, the most infamous of which is Arizona’s SB 1070, obliterate
due process of law and constitutional protections by encouraging
local police to detain and harass immigrants based on race and
national origin. These laws also deny immigrants basic rights, such
as the right to a public education.
Recently, a number of states, including Georgia, Utah, Indiana, South
Carolina and Alabama, have passed such laws. Alabama’s new law, HB
56, goes so far as to turn public school administrators into
Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.
Extreme, racist law in Alabama
The law requires public schools to confirm the immigration status of
all students. The schools must then submit reports to the State Board
of Education on the immigration status of their students. A school
can then be denied funding on the basis that it has enrolled too many
undocumented youth. This law is scaring immigrant families away from
enrolling their children in school. Further, undocumented immigrants
will be banned from public colleges and universities.
Police are also encouraged to detain people they suspect are in the
United States unlawfully. This means more police stops for
“DWL”—driving while Latino. Anybody with an accent may be
detained by police if he or she fails to carry the right paperwork at
any given moment.
The Alabama law creates a number of new crimes that specifically
pertain to helping undocumented people. Landlords are penalized for
renting to immigrants. An undocumented immigrant can be charged with
a felony for simply applying for a license plate. It is illegal under
the new law to give an undocumented immigrant a ride in your car or
to provide an undocumented immigrant with a house. The law encourages
all people, including law enforcement, to act on the suspicion that
their neighbors and co-workers could be undocumented immigrants.
These states have tried to hide racism behind claims that such laws
are the legitimate exercise of “states’ rights.” The states
claim that the federal government is not being tough enough on
immigration, and it is up to state governments to step in. The states
also claim that the laws do not target people based on race, but
instead serve a legitimate state interest of curbing unlawful
immigration and use of public services.
These excuses cover the laws’ racist underpinnings. The laws do not
examine how states benefit from immigration. They do not analyze the
amount of tax revenue, economic growth or Social Security income
generated from the contributions and work of undocumented immigrants.
They also do not account for the harmful effect that deportation and
immigrant detention has on the many families that include both
documented and undocumented members.
States’ rights a cover for racism
Talk of “states’ rights” has long been used by politicians to
whitewash racism. This same rhetoric was used to rationalize
apartheid in the Jim Crow South. These laws are attacks on the gains
of the Civil Rights movement just as they are attacks on immigrant
workers. These laws are nothing other than a new brand of
And the lawmakers who support the Alabama legislation are not shy
about their bigotry. Alabama State Representative Mo Brooks publicly
stated at a recent town hall meeting that he would “do anything
short of shooting” undocumented immigrants. State Senator Scott
Beason, who sponsored the law, has “jokingly” referred to his
African American constituents as “aborigines.” He has also argued
that lawmakers must “empty the clip and do what has to be done”
to undocumented immigrants.
This resurgence of racist attacks on communities of color,
specifically immigrant communities, by states has not gone
unchallenged. In Alabama, there have been mass protests, including a
march of at least 2,500 people from across the state on June 25.
Linda Hill, a chaplain at an Episcopal ministry, expressed the
confusion and fear surrounding the new crimes created by Alabama HB
56: “I give out juice and cookies as a ministry. … Am I supposed
to ask for … identification before I can give them cookies?”
In Georgia and Indiana, federal judges have issued temporary orders
preventing the full implementation of the laws, while lawsuits
challenging the measures make their way through the courts. Many
businesses in Georgia closed on July 1 in opposition to the law.
Community groups and organizations throughout the state are trying to
show the negative impact that Georgia’s law will have on the state
Georgia is already feeling the impact of its new law, HB 87. The
agricultural labor workforce has declined by approximately 30
percent. Crops are rotting unpicked in the fields, because the
workers who used to pick them fear that they will be arrested for
merely working in the state. Under the new law, an immigrant can be
charged with a felony just for working.
Administration has increased criminal prosecution for immigration
Now the Democrats are encouraging immigrant families to re-elect the
Democratic president, with the implication that this will further
immigration reform. President Obama has publicly declared that the
enforcement programs, such as Secure Communities, militarization of
the boarder and mandatory employment eligibility verification through
E-verify, will not solve the “immigration problem.” He has
proposed that ICE focus its activity on violent criminal immigrants.
The federal government is also counterposing itself to the racist
state legislation, arguing that the states cannot enforce federal
But is the federal government treating immigrants any better? When
Obama first took office in January 2009, the Democrats had a
super-majority. They controlled the executive and legislative
branches of the government. Within his first month in office,
President Obama signed no less than 16 executive orders. Yet true
immigration reform was not a priority.
Instead, the Obama administration increased immigration enforcement,
leading to a record number of annual deportations. ICE continues
detaining immigrants and subcontracting detention facilities to
private corporate contractors. ICE has also announced that
collaboration by local police with the agency will be mandatory
across the country by 2013.
One harsh consequence of the Obama administration’s immigration
policy is that it has significantly increased the number of criminal
prosecutions for immigration violations. The federal crime of
“illegal reentry after deportation” is a felony that carries a
prison sentence of up to two years. The crime does not require that
the immigrant commit any violence or harm anyone, simply that the
person be present in the United States following a deportation.
From 2001 to 2008, 111,920 immigrants were prosecuted for this
immigration-only crime. During that time, federal prosecutions for
first-time immigrant entries rose by 330 percent. These are criminal
charges against immigrants for simply attempting to enter the United
States without authorization. In fact, the Department of Homeland
Security began a program called Operation Streamline, which mandated
that everyone caught trying to enter the United States face criminal
charges and prison time.
Rather than slowing this trend, the Obama administration has actually
sped it up. Now, immigration-related criminal prosecutions such as
illegal re-entry account for almost a quarter (23 percent) of all
federal criminal prosecutions. Illegal entry and reentry cases make
up over 90 percent of all criminal immigration prosecutions. The
Obama administration is on pace during his first term to prosecute
more immigrants for illegal re-entry than George W. Bush did in both
of his terms combined!
Between 2009 and 2011, more than 100,000 immigrants will have faced
federal charges for felony illegal reentry after deportation, a
non-violent offense. Those convicted on average spend 14 months in
federal prison. This does not include the subsequent immigration
detention and deportation. Over 130,000 more people will have been
prosecuted for illegal entry, a federal misdemeanor, under Obama.
The federal government has increased other immigration enforcement
actions. While there have been fewer workplace raids, there have been
more roving border patrols, immigration stops and comprehensive
information-sharing between state police and immigration. All of
these strategies have led to increased deportations.
Immigrants also targeted in Northeast and Northwest
This immigrant-hunting has not been confined to the Southwest. In
Forks, Wash., for example, an undocumented immigrant recently leaped
to his death into the icy cold waters of the Sol Duc River trying to
escape a Border Patrol agent.
Since 2007, Customs and Border Protection has targeted immigrants in
Washington State and along the northern border. The agents have begun
questioning immigrants and U.S. citizens leaving the Forks
courthouse, and have also increased raids among migrant flower
pickers in nearby forests. Forks Mayor Byron Monahon describes the
sentiment among immigrants as “an atmosphere of fear.” This
sentiment extends across the country to Upstate New York, where in
Buffalo and Rochester, immigrants are voicing similar concerns.
Amidst attacks on public-sector unions and budget cuts that are
shutting down state and public services en mass, immigrants
and their allies must take to the streets. The 2012 election will no
more bring equality and justice for immigrant families than did the
2008 election. Instead, the state and federal governments will only
respond to our united mass struggle.
We must push for amnesty and justice in the streets and in our union
halls. We must build solidarity between immigrant and non-immigrant
workers to forcefully roll back the legal attacks and make gains. As
we enter the 2012 election cycle, and as the capitalist politicians
attempt to redirect our anger to their benefit, our commitment to
independent mass struggle must remain steadfast.