David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Are Undocumented Workers Being Thrown to the Wolves?
by David Bacon

SAN FRANCISCO (4/11/96) - Last week Riverside County sheriff's deputies pulled an undocumented couple out of a pickup truck, in which they were passengers fleeing a Border Patrol checkpoint. When they then beat them severely, community-based immigrant rights organizations were not surprised. They were even less surprised when, on April 6, another pickup truck full of people was chased by the Border Patrol from the same checkpoint. It crashed and seven young Mexican workers were killed.

Immigrant advocates say that undocumented workers are being treated like hunted animals. "California's Proposition 187 has never been implemented, but we're paying the price for it," Emily Goldfarb, executive director of the Northern California Coalition for Immigrant Rights, comments bitterly.

For activists like Goldfarb, anti-immigrant hysteria responsible for the beating and deaths comes from the distinction which has been created between legal and illegal immigration. Illegal immigration is treated as a problem which must be corrected by measures ranging from walls and troops along the border, to the denial of education and healthcare to immigrants themselves, and finally by violence.

"With over 100 million people around the world living in countries other than those they were born in, it is a dangerous illusion to think we can remove and isolate ourselves from this global phenomenon," Goldfarb explains. "There is no law, no fence that can stand in the way of the basic human need to feed one's family, to free oneself from poverty, violence or persecution."

She cites U.N. statistics, showing that over 20 million people have been forced to leave their countries of origin, and live as immigrants in Europe. Another 16-20 million live in Africa. Immigration to North America comes in third, with 15-17 million.

About 1 million people enter the U.S. every year, and a quarter of that number leave. Yet today only about 8% of our population was born outside the country. In 1910 it was fifteen percent. But fueling anti-immigrant sentiment is a crucial difference. The immigrants of 1910 came largely from eastern and southern Europe - that is, they were white. Today, immigrants come mostly from Latin America and Asia, and Mexico in particular. They are Asian, Latino and Caribbean.

Moreover, immigrants to the U.S. come from countries where the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and U.S. economic policies have imposed austerity programs. As wages go down and unemployment rises, or prices for crops tumble, conditions improve for investment, but people also leave their homes and seek survival elsewhere.

Immigrant rights advocates say that the current climate of anti-immigrant hysteria doesn't recognize this global reality - that anti-immigrant laws passed in the U.S. have no effect on the economic pressure fueling immigration. But those laws, they say, do have an enormous impact on the lives of immigrants once they arrive in the U.S., as well as on the communities in which they live.

Susan Alva, an attorney for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles, says that the tactics used in the fight against Proposition 187 actually contributed to the anti-immigrant climate. In television and other media advertising, some opponents of the proposition took the line that stopping illegal immigration was a necessary goal, but that the proposition was simply the wrong way to do it. "Once you say that illegal immigration is a problem, and only struggle over the means of solving it, you feed this hysteria," she says. "You have to tell the truth, even if it's not politically popular or runs against racist stereotypes. When you don't, you lay the basis for further attacks against all immigrants and people of color, for the sake of tactical considerations which are really illusions."

Alva notes that the tactic didn't convince a majority of voters, and at the same time, left a bitter legacy. CHIRLA set up a hotline which documented over 1000 discrimination cases in the eleven months after 187 passed. A Latino family's home was torched in Palmdale after being painted with racist graffiti. Chicano children were thrown out of amusement parks. Latino passengers were told to sit in the back of busses, and required to show identification to get meals in restaurants, cash checks, get medical care or buy groceries. Hundreds of cases of racial insults were collected.

The police were no exception. Many officers stopped people for simply looking Latino, and demanded immigration papers. "You're not an American citizen," a Chino Hills cop told a motorist he stopped. "Why don't you go back to Mexico?" A CHIRLA lawyer received hate mail and a death threat for collecting this information.

Proposition 187 "transformed everyday life for Latinos of every status," a CHIRLA report concluded, "including those born here, and many whose ancestors had lived in the U.S. for generations." Not only Latinos suffered. "There is abundant evidence of anti-Asian hate activity which has been extensively documented," it added.

The argument over strategy resurfaced last fall, with the introduction of sweeping new anti-immigrant legislation into the Congress. This debate came to a head when the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to divide Senator Alan Simpson's omnibus immigration bill into two parts. One bill deals with undocumented immigrants, and a separate, second proposal affects legal immigration. Dividing the original bill was advocated by those who believe that repressive legislation against the undocumented is unstoppable. They argued that by separating the proposals, liberal legislators could cast what they considered a necessary vote against the undocumented, while the bill directed against legal immigrants could be defeated.

The same strategy was used in the House of Representatives, where an even more repressive bill was originally directed against both legal and undocumented immigrants. The provisions directed against legal immigration were stripped out, and the remaining provisions were then passed.

The House bill, like Proposition 187, would bar undocumented children from attending school. It provides a government database which employers can check when hiring workers. Most observers consider this a big step towards requiring a national identification card to get a job, a potential source of discrimination and abuse.

The house bill requires hospitals, churches, homeless shelters and soup kitchens to turn undocumented immigrants in to the border patrol. They are already barred from receiving public assistance, but the bill bans assistance for their children as well, even if they are citizens. It reduces the number of refugees eligible for visas drastically, making it practically impossible to win political asylum, and virtually wipes out protection against immigration-related discrimination.

Liberal Democratic representative Howard Berman announced when the bill passed that "hope won over fear."

As these bill began travelling through the Congress late last year, national immigration lobbying groups in Washington DC evolved the strategy for splitting them in two. The National Immigration Forum, which has historically coordinated lobbying in defense of immigrants in Washington, told legislators that "legal immigration is not the same as illegal immigration," and that "the American people want the federal government to take decisive and effective action to control illegal immigration."

The Forum opposed requiring hospitals to turn in undocumented patients, holding that while "controlling illegal immigration is the right goal," it should be done at the border.

The National Forum's position parallels the position taken by Democratic Party leaders. President Clinton, in his State of the Union speech in January, declared that "we are still a nation of immigrants," and called on the country to "go forward as one America, one nation working together." Then he proposed increasing border enforcement, stiffening sanctions against employing undocumented workers, and signed an order barring businesses which do so from receiving federal contracts.

When Washington lobbying groups began advocating compromise, community-based immigrant rights coalitions around the country raised their voices in protest, even withdrawing from lobbying days organized by the Forum. Almost all research shows, they said, that undocumented immigration is not a drain on society.

The Northern California Coalition for Immigrant Rights produced its own fact sheet to guide lobbying efforts. It pointed out that all immigrants together earn about $300 billion each year, pay over $70 billion in taxes, and use only $5.7 billion in welfare benefits. The 3.8 million undocumented make up 13% of all immigrants nationally, and only 1.25% of the total population.

In California, where they are 4% of the population, they contribute 7% of the state's $900 billion gross annual product. Undocumented workers nationally pay $7 billion a year in taxes, the Coalition noted, including $2.7 billion for Social Security and $168 million in unemployment contributions. They are barred by law from receiving any benefit from these programs, as well as from all forms of welfare.

The undocumented don't present an economic problem, but a political one.

Goldfarb says that the strategy pursued in Washington by national immigration advocacy groups flows from the same logic used in the fight against Proposition 187. "Immigrant advocates have agreed to sacrifice one group of immigrants for the sake of another," she says. "We not only are dividing immigrants between legal and illegal, but along racial and national lines - Asian immigrants, who are perceived as legal, against Latinos, who are perceived as the undocumented. This strategy drives in the wedge."

Frank Scharry, director of the National Immigration Forum, says that issues involving legal and undocumented immigrants should be treated separately. "People are using concern over illegal immigration to push a whole host of repressive measures," he charged. "Our strategy is to avert cuts to legal immigration, and to stop the most extreme repressive measures directed against illegal immigrants."

Nevertheless, he bristles at criticism from community-based immigrant rights coalitions. "They have to decide if they want to stand on the sidelines, or get into the middle and shape the debate," he declares hotly. "Too many advocates are so upset at the current political climate that they're not engaged in the process of changing public opinion."

But while the Forum concentrates on Beltway lobbying, community-based groups are the main, and often the only organizations opposing anti-immigrant policies on the ground, in cities around the country.

One political force which could make a difference in this debate, the AFL-CIO, seems to have had its effectiveness eroded by differences within its own ranks. The federation took no official position on splitting the Senate bill. Before the bill split, it sent a letter to Senator Orrin Hatch, chair of the Judiciary Committee. Like the Forum, the letter urged "effective control of illegal immigration," including an additional 700 Border Patrol agents. It then objected to most of the omnibus bill's provisions, however, including the national ID card, unrestricted immigration raids in the fields, asylum restrictions, and the disqualification of legal immigrants from public benefits.

Jane O'Grady, AFL-CIO legislative representative, explains that the federation's two historic concerns are protecting legal immigration, especially family reunification, and imposing restrictions on employers who want to bring workers into the country. Employers are currently required to verify that no unemployed resident workers are available before they can bring in "guest workers." O'Grady says the requirement is hardly enforced. Senator Simpson originally proposed tougher restrictions, but dropped them when his bill was split.

On other immigration issues, O'Grady says, "unions are all over the lot. We've always said that our society can't tolerate large numbers of undocumented people, and that every humane effort should be made to stem the flow. The controversy has been over the method, particularly over employer sanctions."

In California, the state labor federation called for the repeal of sanctions in 1993. That is also the position taken by the garment workers union, UNITE, and the Service Employees, whose past president, John Sweeney, is now head of the AFL-CIO. They argue that many unions have large numbers of undocumented members, who have an equal right to representation against employers and in politics.

Immigrant workers, especially the undocumented, are also the backbone of widespread and militant union organizing campaigns. Sweeney has supported these efforts. He campaigned to become AFL-CIO president on a program emphasizing the need to organize, and has said that immigrants and minority workers should be special targets of those efforts. Repressive legislation directed at undocumented workers would make them more vulnerable, and undermine their ability to organize.

The position of the AFL-CIO in the current debate over the immigration bills seems caught in the transition from the policies of its old leaders, to those which might be expected from its new ones.

The debate over immigration has become hostage to election year politics. Both Republicans and Democrats are campaigning for office by competing with each other over their commitment to "doing something about immigration." Republicans have made the undocumented an untouchable issue for Democrats.

Undocumented immigrants have become scapegoats again. And the division among immigrant-rights advocates over defending them will contribute to the passage of some of the most repressive immigration legislation in decades.

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

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