By Rich Stolz
New America Media
On the feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, December 12, agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raided six meat packing plants belonging to Swift & Company. The legal justification for the raids, purportedly to investigate identity theft, marks an aggressive new ICE strategy for rounding up undocumented immigrants.
With the charge of identity theft, which may be categorized as an aggravated felony, not only are the arrested workers likely to be deported, but they may never be eligible for citizenship, even if Congress enacts a legalization program for the nation’s undocumented immigrants in 2007. Many of the detained workers had lived and worked in their communities for years, benefiting their employer, bolstering the economy and giving to their churches and communities.
The raids symbolize an intensification of a drive to discourage employers from hiring undocumented workers and to strike fear in the hearts of the more than 10 million undocumented immigrants and their families in the United States.
In a matter of hours, more than 1,000 federal agents arrested a total of 1,282 workers across the country, brutally disrupting the daily life of hundreds of families, the economies of their communities and Swift & Company’s business operations.
Hundreds of families in communities like Greeley, Colorado and Marshalltown, Iowa endured the holiday season without their loved ones, not knowing where their relatives were being taken and fearing for the safety and future of family members who were driven away in small fleets of white Department of Homeland Security buses. For families already living in fear of separation, the raids cast an ominous pall over the holiday season.
Those detained are now rapidly going through a nightmarish and expanding immigrant detention system. Civil rights advocates have raised serious concerns about the denial of basic due process, fair trials and appeals processes. They also questioned expedited removal processes that separate families with no concern for the consequences on loved ones that are left behind.
Within the plants, federal agents resorted to racial profiling. The Salt Lake Tribune reported that non-Latinos and people with lighter skin were plucked out of line and given blue bracelets. The rest, mostly Latinos with brown skin, waited until they were cleared or arrested. One shaken witness quoted in the article, a United States citizen, said she was put in the line because of the color of her skin. Union leaders said that out of nearly1,300 workers arrested, federal authorities held warrants for only 170. Beyond these 170 workers, ICE actions resembled a racially profiled witch-hunt.
In Marshalltown, Iowa, the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, and its Latino-led affiliate, Latinos en Accion de CCI, responded quickly to the raids and the campaign of intimidation inflicted on Marshalltown’s Latino community afterwards. Latinos en Accion is coordinating with the United Food and Commercial Workers, the union representing Swift & Company employees, to supply food and toys to affected families. They’re also holding public officials accountable.
At the urging of Latinos en Accion, State Rep. Mark Smith helped arrange a meeting with the incoming Governor of Iowa to prevent the raids from happening again and discuss the importance of a truly comprehensive immigration reform bill. They also joined in a special meeting with outgoing Governor Vilsack.
In a letter to the Department of Homeland Security, Vilsack and Major General Ron Dardis of the Iowa National Guard accused the Department of pursuing “a solitary path that limited the operation’s effectiveness, created undue hardship for many not at fault, and led to resentment and further mistrust of government.”
The letter warned, “In order to prevent similar or greater problems in the future, please note that the Iowa National Guard, at both Camp Dodge and throughout our state, will now require proper notification to the governor and appropriate law enforcement personnel, as well as a thorough and synchronized media plan, before we again agree to provide any space for future actions or operations by ICE.”
Many in the media have focused on the undue burden being placed on Swift & Company, which was cooperating with federal authorities by using existing tools to verify the employees’ documents. The raids raised new questions about the usefulness of employer cooperation with federal mandates.
These raids and their fallout on immigrant communities, spotlights the nation’s broken immigration system. Millions of migrants from dozens of nations have been coming in response to a real demand for labor in industries like agriculture, meat packing, construction, landscaping and services, a demand that hasn’t changed even as the Department of Homeland Security steps up its enforcement.
The human toll of these raids calls for a genuine, compassionate and pragmatic response from Congress. It’s time to acknowledge that undocumented immigrants make important contributions to their communities and to this country. It’s time to legalize their status without creating unfair legal barriers to citizenship. It’s also time to acknowledge that legalizing workers already here won’t end the migration of more workers into the United States.
Any comprehensive immigration bill must also ensure that basic civil rights are protected, regardless of the immigration status of people living within this nation’s borders. It’s time to honor families and protect them from an enforcement and detention regime that’s out of step with American values of fairness and justice.
Rich Stolz is with Center for Community Change/Fair Immigration Reform Movement.