The first of the 388 workers arrested in the immigration raid on the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, were deported last week, having spent five months in federal prison. Their crime? Giving a bad Social Security number to the company to get hired. Among them will be a young man who had his eyes covered with duct tape by a supervisor on the line, who then beat him with a meathook. The supervisor is still on the job.
Postville was one of the many recent immigration raids leading to criminal charges and deportations for thousands of people. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff calls this "closing the back door." Meanwhile, his department seeks to "open the front door" by establishing new guest worker programs called "close to slavery" by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Something is clearly wrong with the priorities of immigration enforcement. Hungry and desperate workers go to jail and get deported. The government protects employers and seeks to turn a family-based immigration system into their managed labor supply. Yet national political campaigns say less and less about it. Immigrant Latino and Asian communities feel increasingly afraid and frustrated. Politicians want their votes, but avoid talking about the rising wave of arrests, imprisonment and deportations.
This month, national demonstrations across the nation are protesting the silence, asking candidates to speak out. Immigrant communities expect a new deal from a new administration, especially from Democrats. They want a new president to take swift and decisive action to give human rights a priority over fear, and recognize immigrants as people, not just a source of cheap labor.
In its first 100 days, a new administration could take these simple steps to benefit immigrants and working families:
• Stop Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) from seeking serious federal criminal charges, with incarceration in privately run prisons, for lacking papers or for bad Social Security numbers.
• Stop raiding workplaces, especially where workers are trying to organize unions or enforce wage and hour laws. This would help all workers, not just immigrants, to raise low wages.
• Double the paltry 742 federal inspectors responsible for all US wage and hour violations, and focus on industries where immigrants are concentrated. The National Labor Relations Board could target employers who use immigration threats to violate union rights.
• Halt community sweeps, where agents use warrants for one or two people to detain and deport dozens of others. End the government's campaign to repeal local sanctuary ordinances, and to drag local law enforcement into immigration raids.
• Allow all workers to apply for a Social Security number and pay legally into the system that benefits everyone. Social Security numbers should be used for their true purpose - paying retirement and disability benefits - not to fire immigrants from their jobs and send them to prison.
• Reestablish worker protections ended under Bush on existing guest worker programs, force employers to hire domestically first, and decertify any contractor guilty of labor violations.
• Restore human rights in border communities, stop construction of the border wall between the US and Mexico, and disband the Operation Streamline federal court, where scores of young border crossers are sent to prison in chains every day.
After the first 100 days, Democrats will have to decide what reforms to bring before Congress, and when. Some would delay action for a year or more. But the US Chamber of Commerce and dozens of trade groups will not sit on their hands. They have been pushing for years for big guest worker programs, more raids and enforcement, and a weak legalization program. Many immigrant and labor rights activists want an alternative, and advocate three steps toward a more progressive reform:
1. A moratorium on raids, while protecting human and labor rights, in the first 100 days.
2. Introduce a bill to give green card visas to the undocumented, and clear up the backlog of people already waiting for them. If more visas are more easily available abroad, people won't have to cross the border without them. That bill should also create jobs in unemployed communities, repeal employer sanctions laws that make work a crime for immigrants, and pass labor law reform to protect workers' rights. Guest worker programs with a record of abuse should be ended, as they were in 1964.
3. Change trade policy and renegotiate agreements like NAFTA, so they stop causing poverty and uprooting communities, making migration peoples' only alternative for survival. Defeat new trade agreements with countries like Colombia, which will cause job loss in the US and spread low wages, labor violations and displacement abroad. US tax dollars, instead of being spent on war in Iraq, could expand rural credit, education and healthcare in Mexico and other countries, easing the pressure behind migration.
There is a common ground between immigrants, African-Americans and other communities of color, unions, churches, civil rights organizations and working families generally. Legalization and immigrant rights, tied to guaranteeing jobs for all working families, can bring people together. All workers, including immigrants, need the right to organize and enforce labor standards - the same goal sought by unions in the Employee Free Choice Act. Changing trade policy will benefit working class communities in the US, while helping the families of immigrants back home from Oaxaca to El Salvador.
The diverse communities who need these reforms can and will find ways to seek them together. In fact, if Barack Obama and a larger Democratic majority in Congress gain office in November, they will owe their victory to this coalition.
After the election, this same coalition will need jobs and rights. But immigrant workers are going to jail now. The wave of raids continues to divide families, even as candidates hold rallies and ask for votes. In Los Angeles' Placita Olvera, activists have begun a hunger strike to stop the deportations. Marches and demonstrations are making the same point from coast to coast.
Promises of change are not enough. For candidates who want working-class votes, the first step is to speak out.