When Human Beings Are Illegal

Against the Current, No. 136, September/October 2008

Peter Rachleff

ONCE THE GOVERNMENT assumes the task of separating citizens from “impossible subjects,” historian Mae Ngai points out, “the border” is everywhere, not just between countries. Thus, the border has come to the Midwest. In the two years since the immigrant rights marches of spring 2006, there have been federal ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raids of workplaces, especially meatpacking plants, in Minnesota, Iowa, and Nebraska.

This May 900 ICE agents raided the AgriProcessors plant in Postville, Iowa, the largest kosher meatpacking plant in the country — the largest such raid in U.S. history. Nearly 400 undocumented packinghouse workers, mostly indigenous men and women from Guatemala, were rounded up and charged with the felony of “aggravated identity theft” for having used false social security numbers.

Separated from their children and relatives, these workers were chained, interned in tents in the Waterloo cattle grounds and pressured to plead guilty. Nearly all did. The men are serving five-month prison sentences, while the women are under house arrest, wearing electronic ankle bracelets, unable to work. When the men complete their sentences, they will change places with their partners. After the women serve their prison terms, all will be deported.

The brutality and horror of the May 12, 2008, raid and the ensuing judicial nightmare, detailed eloquently by interpreter Erik Camayd-Freixas in an impassioned open letter, grabbed widespread attention. It also prompted a series of investigations which have revealed a situation equivalent to Upton Sinclair’s “jungle”: the employment of underage workers; work and safety violations; abuse of workers by foremen, including the physical abuse of men and the sexual harassment of women; pressure to buy cars from certain dealers in order to keep jobs; the distinctly non-kosher abuse of animals; and a ferocious anti-unionism. The United Food and Commercial Workers’ Union, which had been trying to organize the plant, even questioned the timing of the raid and wondered out loud if AgriProcessors’ management itself had tipped off ICE. It was more than ironic when fund-raisers seeking to support the families of the imprisoned immigrant workers learned that new workers who had not received the free rent and cash bonuses they had been promised were among the supplicants at the food shelf set up by St. Bridget’s Church.

Liberians and Guatemalans in the Midwest, along with many other immigrants, are being rendered illegal by a state bureaucracy that invokes terrorism to justify budget increases for ICE while cutting back on social services. Under the logic of the state, borders and boundaries are sharply defined, with some of us on the inside, others of us on the outside. Men, women, and children fleeing regimes that have wreaked havoc in their communities seek ways to survive. When they get to the United States, some find dangerous, dirty, and low-paying jobs. Some do better economically but live in fear of deportation and the loss of anything they have built here.

The Twin Cities has become home to the largest Liberian community in the United States, even as the federal government denies many of them permanent residency status. Two decades of civil war and disorder, on top of a century of economic neocolonialism, much of it facilitated by U.S. weapons, money, and intervention, have demolished Liberia’s infrastructure and left its unemployment rate hovering at 80%.

Meanwhile, by their own accounting, Liberians working in Minnesota are sending $8-10 million a month back home to family members. Yet Washington only proffers “temporary protected status” to tens of thousands of displaced Liberians, with a time-clock ticking away towards expulsion in March 2009.

To add insult to injury, the government has introduced a DNA testing program in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, requiring applicants for U.S. immigration to “prove” their familial relationships with immigrants already here. Liberian immigrants are treated as potential criminals before they have set foot in the country and live each day here with one eye over their shoulders. (When Sierra Leonean immigrants lost their temporary protected status in May 2004, they were transformed from “refugees” into “undocumented illegals” with one sweep of the bureaucratic hand.)

Central Americans have not fared any better. In the last decades of the Cold War, dictatorial and military governments, often U.S. funded, waged virtual warfare against their own populations. With the rise of free trade and neoliberalism, self-sufficient agriculture and artisanal production have been battered by the import of cheap agricultural products and mass-produced commodities. Displaced peasants and village dwellers have migrated to support their families. Due to immigration restrictions many have entered the country surreptitiously, without legal documents. As economic insecurity for many white U.S. workers has worsened and as politicians and demagogues have fanned the flames of fear, these immigrants have been increasingly targeted by authorities.

How Did Immigration Policy Develop?

In April 2006, hundreds of thousands of immigrant rights protestors marched in cities across the United States. They countered prolonged debates about the pros and cons of comprehensive immigration reform with a short but sweet affirmation, scrawled on placards: “No Human Being Is Illegal.” Their direct assertion challenged the deeply entrenched practices of our government and a deep wellspring of racism in our culture. Their actions also evoked traditions of protest, organization, and resistance.

Since the days of slavery —- well before the establishment of the United States itself — the government, buttressed by popular culture, included some residents as citizens and excluded others as outsiders, as what historian Mae Ngai has called “impossible subjects.” Not only were slaves defined as outside the political and social community, but freed slaves and their children were typically excluded from citizenship. The U.S. constitution counted slaves as three-fifths of a person while the Naturalization Act of 1790 offered citizenship to “free white persons.” The Alien Act of 1798 authorized the president to order the deportation of any alien “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States” during peacetime. Once the government began to regulate immigration, argues Professor Ngai, it had begun to create the “illegal” alien.

Race was the central criterion by which such decisions would be made, and thinking about race was shaped by popular prejudices, beliefs, and passions. A dual process cast the racially different as “other,” while securing a place on the inside for all of those accorded “white” status.

From their own position of insecurity, simultaneously threatened by the wealth and power of those above them and the lack of power manifested by those below them on the socio-economic ladder, working-class whites struggled to hold on to what status and privilege they had. While they practiced discrimination and even, at times, mob justice, they also sought laws and state enforcement. Hence a pattern took shape which would be seared into the American body politic. Whenever insecurity spread among working-class whites and popular discontent threatened to swell, the elite and the state responded with scapegoating and exorcising “the other,” both people of color and immigrants.

When the industrial revolution undermined the independence of white artisans in the first half of the 19th century, they began to organize unions and independent political parties. But one state after another revised its voting qualifications from property ownership to whiteness and maleness and discontent subsided.

The deep depression of the 1870s and the political turmoil it occasioned led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first law which proscribed a particular race. Amidst the economic and political turbulence after World War I, Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, the nation’s first comprehensive immigration restriction. It established numerical quotas on immigration and a racial and national hierarchy that favored northern and western Europeans over southern, central, and eastern Europeans, most of whom initially were not considered “white.” An enforcement bureaucracy blossomed, attentive not only to borders and ports, but also to cities, fields, factories, and mines throughout the country.

Not only were barriers to immigration constructed, but the members of those banned groups who did live here were treated as suspect. Dominant popular attitudes, shaped by and expressed through cartoons, commercial advertisements, newspapers, radio, film and humor, rendered all members of these groups “alien,” “other,” not-quite American. Authorities, from the local police to the U.S. Supreme Court, enforced these attitudes through exclusionary laws and punitive actions.

Even those groups who had attained some level of “insider” status would discover how easily it could be revoked. During the 1930s Great Depression and World War II, Mexicans, Filipinos, and Japanese residents were marked as “illegal” despite having entered the country legally, having become citizens, or even having been born here. They were stripped of their property and their rights, some to be interned and others to be deported. Even third generation U.S. citizens found themselves rendered “illegal.”

The Immigration Act of 1965, influenced by the civil rights movement, on the one hand, and the Cold War, on the other, was to set aside old prejudices and establish a new day of openness and fairness. Racially-based quotas were dropped, and broad, regional categories were created.

Ironically, the post-1965 era also marked the transformation of the global and American economies into the turbulence of neoliberalism and free market economics. Free trade, the importation of less expensive farm products, the export of capital and the opening of factories, exploration for raw materials, war and the presence of the U.S. military, tied Hmong, Vietnamese, Salvadorans, Mexicans, Liberians, and others to the United States. Simultaneously, war, discrimination, drought, and political and economic crises pushed Somalis, Eritreans, Oromos, Guatemalans, Indians, Pakistanis, and others to leave their homes and seek peace and security elsewhere, including here.

The very same economic shifts were sweeping the U.S. domestic economy, destabilizing manufacturing and undermining the economic security of American workers. They feared losing their jobs, and were becoming increasingly aware of the presence of non-white immigrants in their communities, many of whom were willing to work longer hours for less pay. Politicians, demagogues, and radio talk show hosts found this fertile ground for the replaying of that historical nativist script. Scapegoating immigrants, especially non-white immigrants, was a path to fame, fortune, and political power.

Labor’s Stance

Throughout U.S. history the mainstream of the labor movement has been a willing participant in these processes. During the high tide of immigration from southern, central, and southern Europe, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the craft union-dominated American Federation of Labor sought to create a secure island for skilled white workers of northern and western European ancestry.

The AFL and its affiliates not only worked — unsuccessfully, by the way — to preserve the privileges exercised by their members, but they looked down their noses at unskilled labor itself. Even the more-encompassing Knights of Labor, who admitted African Americans and some new immigrants, rejected Chinese immigrant workers as unsuitable for membership. In the first two decades of the 20th century, part of the distaste that mainstream unions manifested towards the radical Industrial Workers of the World was grounded in their embrace of immigrants and workers of color.

When the Great Depression saw African Americans and immigrants generate the energy within the new industrial unions of the CIO, AFL unions often offered themselves to employers with sweetheart contracts and promises of loyalty. In the 1960s and ‘70s, while some unions embraced the civil rights movement, many did not.  As the new tide of immigration arrived, amidst the economic insecurity sown by neoliberalism, many unions adopted a protectionist and nativist stance, decrying not only immigrants but also their relatives back home working in U.S.-owned runaway shops.

By the late 1990s the militancy manifested by immigrant hotel and service workers in a series of very public struggles and the rise to leadership of the Sweeney coterie, led the AFL-CIO to drop both ts historic advocacy of resisting immigration and its reticence to organize immigrant workers. Despite this shift, the federation’s discourse remained interwoven with nationalism, patriotism, and the protection of “the American standard of living.” Racism, nativism, and xenophobia still lurked beneath the surface, and little was done to bring an expansive perspective to rank-and-file union members.

Challenging Racism

But not all Americans have been content with this state of affairs. Informed by the stories of protest, organization, and resistance that are also part of this country’s history, some have consistently challenged both popular racism and the actions of the state. Time and again, those directly hurt by racism and state policies have been joined by ordinary people moved by conscience to mount movements seeking social justice.

Some organized to free slaves in the Underground Railroad or challenged the very institution of slavery as abolitionists. In the next generations, workers, farmers, and farmworkers of color organized together with their white counterparts in the Knights of Labor, the Populist movement, and the Industrial Workers of World. They sought a democratic and egalitarian America in the face of the rising power of corporate elites. Southern and eastern European immigrants joined with African Americans who had migrated from the South to lead the industrial union movement of the 1930s. In the midst of the Great Depression, this movement sought economic security, fairness and dignity in the workplace, and a voice for workers in the nation’s political life. Sleeping Car Porters, hospital workers, government employees, auto workers, coal miners and many others mobilized their unions to support the civil rights movement. Latino and Filipino migrant workers backboned the United Farm Workers of America. Workplace and community-based organizations, churches, and social justice groups of all sorts have stood up time and again for fairness, equality, and inclusion, even when it wasn’t popular.

Supporting Immigrants

Currently organizations and individuals in Minnesota — religious and/or faith-based, labor, and rights and justice advocates — have formed a network to support permanent residency for Liberians and fair treatment and a path to citizenship for the Postville immigrant workers. Twin Cities-based Jewish Community Action, drawing on its interpretation of the complicated historical narrative of Jews — as “strangers” on the one hand, and as advocates of social justice on the other — has played a leading role in the organization of the Committee for Permanent Residency, “CPR,” which has focused on the insecure immigration of Liberians, and in the organization of material aid and a support rally in Postville last July. Immigrants themselves have been a major part of these efforts, bringing their neighbors, offering contacts and critical information, acting out of deep experiences of coalition and courage.

On July 27, buses converged on Postville from the Twin Cities, Chicago, Milwaukee, and LaCrosse, while groups drove in from Madison, Iowa City and Des Moines. Nearly 2,000 rallied called for lost wages and accrued vacation pay for the imprisoned immigrants, a hardship fund of $100,000 to be funded by AgriProcessors, management neutrality in the face of workers’ efforts to unionize, and the passage in Iowa of a version of the “Meatpackers’ Bill of Rights” that had been approved by the Minnesota Legislature in 2007. Marchers also called for “comprehensive immigration reform,” better federal oversight of working conditions, and a national environment that respects worker justice.

Jewish leadership of this protest reflected two years of work on the notion of hekhsher tzedek, the expansion of kosher guidelines to include worker treatment, several months of organizing in the Twin Cities and Chicago, and the determination to tell the AgriProcessors owners that their exploitation of workers cannot be done in Jews’ name.

While in Postville, labor, social justice, and immigrant rights activists mixed, shared experiences and stories, as well as phone numbers and email addresses. We participated in an interfaith service at St. Bridget’s Catholic Church, the center of assistance to the immigrant families, then marched a mile to the AgriProcessors plant (where there was a large sign reading “Now Hiring”).

This promising and growing coalition is coming together around immigrant rights and, particularly, the linking of immigrant and labor rights.The overall participation of the formal labor movement, whether AFSCME councils, the Minnesota AFL-CIO, Change to Win, or individual local unions, has been minimal. Yet if this movement is going to move forward, it must have more participation from organized labor, and not just those unions with substantial immigrant membership. History suggests that these organizations will have to be pushed and pulled into this movement.

The stories of exploitation, abuse, and disrespect have disturbed those of us participating in these organizing efforts, but we have also found inspiration and hope from history and from each other. Most of all, we cannot stand idle while the state, greedy employers, and racist organizations and individuals act in our name. It’s time for all of us to march with those immigrant rights signs: “No Human Being Is Illegal!”

ATC 136, September-October 2008