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We refuse to live in fear

May 4, 2007 | Pages 6 and 7

LEE SUSTAR reports on an ICE raid in the heart of Chicago's Mexican community on the eve of May Day protests--and the angry response of immigrant rights supporters determined to stop the federal government's assault on the most vulnerable in U.S. society.

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IT'S THE new face of immigration law enforcement in the U.S.: military-style mass arrests, separation of small children from parents, arbitrary detention and rapid deportation.

But if the crackdown by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was intended to intimidate immigrant rights activists, it's having the opposite effect. Organizers for the May Day protests across the U.S. reported that outrage over the raids gave new energy to mobilizations for the demonstrations.

An April 24 raid in the heart of Chicago's Mexican-American community of La Villita (Little Village) highlighted the mood, as hundreds of people in the area rallied, marched and blocked traffic for hours after ICE agents and federal authorities shut down an entire shopping mall, questioning store employees and customers at gunpoint.

"They locked down the parking lot and closed the gates, so anyone shopping or working was being detained," said a Chicago immigrant rights activist who lives nearby and watched the raid unfold.

What else to read

For regular coverage of the immigration issue and the struggle of the movement for equality, read the International Socialist Review. Among the recent articles is Justin Akers Chacón's "Immigration: Myth and Reality."

One of the best recent books on the politics of immigration and the struggle for justice and equality is No One Is Illegal: Racism and State Violence on the U.S.-Mexico Border, by Mike Davis and Justin Akers Chacón.

Socialist Worker's featured coverage of the immigrant rights movement is collected in an archive "The Fight for Immigrant Rights."

 

"They sat people down on the ground and busted down bathroom doors. Some ICE agents had on jeans and bulletproof vests, while others were in full military gear and carrying M-16 rifles. Only 12 people were arrested in Chicago, but there were 250 people being held. But people didn't run away. They were furious and we started protesting immediately."

The Chicago Tribune took notice of the response: "The show of force, including questioning of dozens of shoppers and workers, has unified immigrant advocates and electrified [May Day] rally planning--again putting Chicago at the center of the immigration debate."

U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, whose office ran the operation, claimed that the heavily armed contingent was necessary because the target of the raids--a network that allegedly manufactures false documents for immigrants--was violent and had supposedly assassinated a rival in Mexico.

Yet the ICE agents made a point of terrorizing one of the largest Mexican-American communities in the U.S.

"The raid seems to have been an intimidation tactic because of the way that these agents were armed, and the fact that they didn't allow anyone to pass without getting their ID inspected," said Graham Fuller, an immigrant rights activist who was on the scene. "But community members rejected this intimidation by marching into the street, chanting for amnesty and banging on enormous drums."

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THE ANGER that boiled over in Chicago has been building throughout the country in response to ICE's "Operation Return to Sender," which, according to an agency fact sheet, "arrested, closed the cases of, or otherwise removed 14,356 aliens from the fugitive/illegal population between May 26 and September 30, 2006."

The stated target is people who have ignored deportation orders. Yet of the 18,149 apprehended by February 23, some 36.9 percent were "collateral" arrests--that is, people whom ICE agents suspected of being undocumented, and thus were taken into detention, the San Francisco Chronicle reported recently.

More of this is to come. ICE reports that it has already increased its "fugitive operations teams" nationwide from 18 to 50, and will have 75 by the end of fiscal year 2007.

Moreover, ICE is turning local and state police into de facto federal agents. The agency fact sheet states that since January of last year, "ICE has trained an additional 40 state and county law enforcement officers as part of the 287(g) program to provide targeted immigration enforcement by state and local authorities."

Meanwhile, worksite enforcement--highlighted by huge raids at six Swift meatpacking plants in December and a leather goods factory in New Bedford, Mass., in March--is also being ramped up.

ICE reported that in 2006, it arrested 716 individuals on criminal charges (against both employers and employees) and another 3,667 people on administrative, i.e., immigration, charges. The agency boasts that the total is a sevenfold increase over worksite enforcement raids by the old Immigration and Nationalization Service in 2002.

The detainees are entering a speeded-up deportation machine. ICE reports that it "removed more than 186,600 illegal aliens from the country in fiscal year 2006, a record for the agency and a ten percent increase over the number of removals during the prior fiscal year."

The agency has even created a "National Center to Coordinate Deportation of Aliens Upon Release from Prison" to scour all 119 federal detention facilities for "criminal aliens" to be deported upon completion of their sentences.

The government's ever-harder line has instilled fear into immigrant communities for the past year.

But the mainstream media and politicians finally took notice of the human cost of the raids after the forcible separation of babies from nursing mothers in the New Bedford raid at the Michael Bianco company, which makes leather goods for the U.S. military. Some 361 people were arrested--more than 70 percent of the workers at the plant.

Anger over the plight of the children of those arrested prompted Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Sens. Ted Kennedy and John Kerry, all Democrats, to denounce the raids, and a U.S. District Court judge issued a temporary restraining order barring ICE from deporting 110 New Bedford workers who had been sent to a Texas detention facility. The judge found that ICE had coerced the workers into waiving their right to appeal their deportation orders.

The impact of the raids on children and minors are driving an anti-ICE backlash in other parts of the U.S. as well. In San Francisco, the ACLU and the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights are suing the Feds on behalf of Kevin Reyes, who was 6 years old when he was taken into custody March 6 after his father was arrested.

In another case, Elvira and Victor Mendoza, aged 17 and 21, were detained in San Pablo, Calif., after ICE tried to serve an arrest warrant on someone who no longer lived at their address. The two had crossed the border without papers in 2003 to be reunited with their parents, who are legal residents.

"Everyone else in our family has papers except my sister and me," Victor Mendoza told the San Francisco Chronicle. "When we were in Mexico, we tried to get papers to come but we couldn't, so we crossed the border without permission. It's kind of hard to be without your parents." An immigration judge will rule on the deportation.

The situation of the Mendozas is far more common than the media suggest. While ICE justifies the raids with claims about "identity theft" and spins accounts of "criminal gangs," the reality is that the sweeps inevitably break up families who find themselves straddling the bureaucratic divide between those who have papers to live and work in the U.S. and those who do not.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, as of 2005, there were 6.6 million families, with 14.6 million people, in which either the head of the family or spouse were "unauthorized."

Two-thirds of the children in such families are U.S. citizens by birth--kids like Saúl Arellano, the 8-year-old son of Elvira Arellano, an undocumented immigrant in Chicago who has publicly defied a deportation order in order to remain in the country with her son.

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AS THE raids put pressure on immigrant families, they've been able to respond by tapping into the energy of the immigrant rights movement.

The movement remains divided on whether or not to support the STRIVE Act, a bill sponsored by Reps. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), given its restrictive legalization procedure and harsh enforcement provisions. But the size and scope of the ICE raids created a new basis for unity on the eve of May Day protests and instilled a new urgency into activism.

The movement's persistence, in turn, has put pressure on liberal Democrats to denounce the raids and declare their refusal to collaborate with ICE.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom reiterated his city's status as a sanctuary for immigrants, while across the bay, Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums backed resolutions condemning raids and establishing that city as a sanctuary. "Immigration is the civil rights issue of our time," Dellums said.

Last year, it was local anti-immigrant laws, like the one passed in Hazelton, Pa., that made the news. According to one estimate, some 80 municipalities, many of them small towns, have passed such measures. However 20 cities, including some of the biggest in the U.S., have ordinances limiting cooperation with the Feds on immigration matters.

The challenge now is to pressure politicians into backing pro-immigrant statements with action--material aid for affected families, including support for children and legal help, for starters.

It can be done. While it's politically easy for a Newsom or a Dellums to take pro-immigrant positions, the example of Fresno, Calif., Mayor Alan Autry is instructive. Two years ago, Autry called for banning further immigration into the Central Valley. These days, he's lining up with immigrant rights activists.

Autry said of ICE's Operation Return to Sender raids: "I'll do everything I can legally and physically to stop them. I'll stand in the doorway of the building."

The action of the politicians, of course, is only a reflection of the pressure they feel from the grassroots. The anger that erupted on the streets of Chicago showed the potential to build a fightback against the raids as a central part of the movement for immigrant rights.

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