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The Federal War on Immigrants Is a War on All Workers

by Elliott Young on Jun 29, 2007

President Bush's immigration reform legislation appears to be dead in the U.S. Congress, but the ground war against undocumented immigrants continues to escalate. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) has dramatically changed its tactics by its increased use of well-publicized workplace raids to terrorize immigrant communities. Although immigrants bear the brunt of these attacks, the raids undermine the position of all workers in the United States.

The number of immigrants arrested in workplace raids has exploded from fewer than 500 in 2003 to almost 3,700 in 2006. The rate of arrests this year has doubled from the previous year, so that we can expect a record of more than 7,000 arrests at worksites by the end of 2007.

The history of immigrant deportations over the last century reveals the intimate relationship between immigration legislation and the repression of workers' rights. The recent increase in worksite raids comes, not coincidentally, at a moment when, despite a growing economy, low-wage workers are falling farther and farther behind.

The latest major attack on immigrant workers, on June 12, at the Fresh Del Monte Produce plant in Portland, Ore., demonstrates that Bush's new immigration policy uses workplace raids to create a fearful and therefore easily exploitable immigrant labor force. In the Del Monte raid, hundreds of ICE agents swept into the factory in a military-style operation, rounded up 167 immigrants and took them away in buses with blacked-out windows to a jail-like detention center in the neighboring state of Washington.

This is not only an immigration issue. It's also a question of workers' and human rights. Del Monte workers had repeatedly complained about being paid below the states minimum wage. They said that they had been forced to work in frigid temperatures in ankle-high pools of water without protective gear. The company responded with threats to fire them. The federal government's response to this flagrant violation of workers' rights was to arrest the workers themselves.

Workplace raids are becoming a familiar scene across the United States. In March, 350 immigrants were arrested in a leather factory in New Bedford, Mass. The mostly Mexican and Central American workers were making backpacks for the U.S. military. Those arrested were taken to a decommissioned military facility, and 178 of them were flown to another detention center in Texas.

Lawyers for the immigrants have since complained that flying the immigrants to Texas denied them adequate access to lawyers. Even without the extraordinary measure of flying the immigrants halfway across the country, undocumented immigrants have found that they have no right to court-appointed lawyers and few have the means to afford their own legal counsel.

Deportations have been a tool of anti-unionism ever since 1917, when armed vigilantes known as Loyalty Leaguers rounded up more than 1,100 copper mine workers who supported a strike in Bisbee, Ariz. They loaded them in boxcars and dumped them in New Mexico. The federal government sent troops to detain many of the deportees, while the companies were exonerated by the courts.

In 1919-20, the Palmer Raids directed by the attorney general and J. Edgar Hoover's Bureau of Investigation targeted union members and leftists, leading to the mass arrest of at least 10,000 individuals and the deportation of hundreds of immigrants of Russian origin to the Soviet Union. In the 1930s, at the height of labor radicalism in the United States, more than 500,000 Mexican laborers were repatriated, even though more than half were legal residents or U.S. citizens.

The 1917 Bisbee deportations, the 1919 Palmer Raids, the 1930s Mexican repatriations, and the recent spate of workplace raids have a common feature: they inhibit workers' struggle for better working conditions and higher wages. While in 1917 the federal and state government stood by while vigilantes attacked workers, in 2007 the federal government does the dirty work itself.

In response to anti-immigrant federal policies, community organizations and local politicians around the country have condemned the violent workplace raids. On June 24, hundreds of Portland residents protested the Del Monte raids, and Portland's mayor, Tom Potter, criticized the ICE, calling it bad policy to attack laborers who are filling a local need.

Just three days after the raid, a Republican presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani, visited Portland and cheered the actions of the ICE, linking undocumented immigration to terrorism. According to Giuliani, "Once Sept. 11 happened, [immigration] became an issue of national security." Ultra right-wing anti-immigrant fringe groups such as the Minutemen used to be the ones demonizing immigrant laborers as criminals and potential terrorists. Today the Republican presidential front-runner utters the same kind of hate speech on his campaign stops.

The Bush proposals for guest worker legislation and the escalation of workplace raids are two sides of the same policy coin. Business interests need immigrant workers to pick crops, clean offices, build houses and mow lawns, but they also want a work force that is underpaid, fearful, and not unionized. Giuliani is right: there is a connection between immigration and terrorism, but it is the government and not the immigrants who are acting as the terrorists.


Elliott Young is an associate professor of history and director of Latin American and Ethnic Studies at Lewis & Clark College.