Tuesday, May 12, 2009

United We Stand, in Solidarity

Exactly one year today, at approximately 10:00 a.m. CDT the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office conducted a massive raid at the Agriprocessors Inc. plant which shattered the small town of Postville, Iowa, formerly known as “Hometown to the World.”

In total, 389 people were detained, most of them taken away and jailed or deported without any kind of due process, and others, mostly mothers with dependent minors, were left to stay for the time being but ordered to wear a GPS device. Their families were left trembling with the grief of separation and of not knowing what would be of them or the loved ones. One year later they are still struggling.

On this anniversary, at least forty faith communities around the country that we know of, and probably many others we don’t know about, rang the bells or blew the shofar at exactly the time that the raid started a year ago. Others held prayer vigils throughout the day in solidarity. At St. Bridget Catholic Church in Postville, an emotional reading of the names of all those detained that morning will convey the message that the community does not forget. How could it?

One can’t help but wonder what immigration authorities thought the result of these worksite enforcement actions, which have continued until very recently, would be. If they wanted to instill a message of fear, of “we can be tough on enforcement if we want to,” of “look how mean we can be,” then they certainly succeeded but at the expense of much suffering.

If, on the contrary, the intended outcome was to scare people away so they would leave and return to their countries or put pressure on employers so they would not hire unauthorized workers, I’d say we are not much better than a year ago.

We have not been serious about enforcement for a long, long time. If anything, Postville and other raids thereafter are evidence that our political system has not adequately addressed the demand for labor, nor the reality of the forming of family ties that make it difficult for people to leave after a prolonged stay or the need to bring family from abroad to better provide for them.

The tough economy might help to discourage some prospective immigrants to cross into the U.S. and even encourage a small percentage to return to their homelands. But certainly the raids have nothing to do with it. Even with the economy and the pain of not being able to be with their loved ones, many immigrants prefer to stay here illegally than return to the desperation and the lack of opportunity in their communities of origin.

Instead of toughness, meanness and senseless terror, the U.S. would do well to assess more realistically its need for foreign workers. Paying just a little attention to Census and Social Security number estimates might help. Legalizing a workforce that is already an integral part of America’s economic and social tissue is critical—for the good of American workers as much as for the immigrants themselves.

Assessing the needs for family reunification of U.S. citizens and permanent legal residents and doing away with never-ending backlogs will bring relief to millions of U.S. families. A serious approach to enforcement that allows authorities to carry out the critical task of identifying and preventing entry of terrorists and dangerous criminals, as well as pursue the legitimate task of implementing American immigration policy while respecting human dignity, is essential. And finally, international cooperation to build trade and labor policies that help create and spread wealth in labor-sending countries will certainly reduce the pressure on our borders.

For those who do not get it yet, yes I am talking about comprehensive immigration reform. And how about raids? A lot of noise, little substance, lots of broken families. No, thanks.

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