Immigrant Rights News – Wednesday, April 23, 2008
IRN and other NNIRR posts are also posted at www.nnirr.blogspot.com
1. Truthout: “In Mississippi, Work Is Now a Felony for Undocumented Immigrants”
2. Seattle Times: “Border Patrol "spot checks" on ferries provoke outrage in San Juan Islands”
3. Houston Chronicle: “Immigration, taxes, crime darken Houston Area Survey”
In Mississippi, Work Is Now a Felony for Undocumented Immigrants
By David Bacon
t r u t h o u t | Report
Tuesday 22 April 2008
Jackson, Mississippi - On March 17, Mississippi Governor Hayley Barbour signed into law the farthest-reaching employer sanctions law of any on the books in the US. Employer sanctions is a shorthand name for laws that prohibit employers from hiring immigrants who don't have legal immigration status in the US. That provision was part of the Immigration Reform and Control Act, passed by Congress in 1986, which - for the first time in US history - required employers to verify the immigration status of employees.
The Mississippi bill, SB 2988, requires employers to use an electronic system to verify immigration status, called E-Verify. That system has only recently been developed by the Department of Homeland Security, and by the department's own admission the system is not a complete record. Its accuracy is unknown, but by comparison, the Social Security database of US workers, compiled since the 1930s, contains millions of errors.
The Mississippi bill goes much further, however. Employers are absolved from any liability for hiring undocumented workers so long as they use the E-Verify system. But it will become a felony for an undocumented worker to hold a job. Anyone caught "shall be subject to imprisonment in the custody of the Department of Corrections for not less than one (1) year nor more than five (5) years, a fine of not less than one thousand dollars ($1000) nor more than ten thousand dollars ($10,000) or both." Anyone charged with the crime of working without papers will not be eligible for bail. The law is set to become effective for large employers on July 1.
In The (Jackson) Clarion-Ledger, University of Mississippi journalism professor Joe Atkins called the law "a new xenophobia ... that threatens once again to lock down the state's borders and resurrect the 'closed society' that once made it the shame of the nation." According to the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance, the bill got the support of many Democratic state legislators because party leaders "wanted the house to bring out at least one bill dealing with immigration to relieve the political pressure being put on members (i.e. white Democrats), by right-wing forces in their districts. Many Black Caucus members were persuaded to go along. Unfortunately, the bill they brought out was the worst of the six the Mississippi Senate passed."
Passage of the bill was a setback to the political strategy that has shown the most promise of changing the old conservative power structure in the state, the "closed society" described by Professor Atkins. That strategy, building over the last several years, has relied on creating an electoral base of African-Americans, immigrants and unions. The new employer sanctions law, according to supporters of that strategy, is intended to drive immigrants out of the state by making it impossible for them to find work.
In Mississippi, African-American political leaders and immigrant and labor organizers have cooperated in organizing one of the country's most active immigrant rights coalitions - the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance. They see hope for political transformation in the demographic changes sweeping the South. Beginning after World War 2, Mississippi, like most Southern states, began to lose its black population. Out-migration reached its peak in the '60s, when 66,614 African-Americans left between 1965 and 1970, while civil rights activists were murdered, hosed and sent to jail. But in the following decades, Midwest industrial jobs began to vanish overseas, the cost of living in Northern cities skyrocketed, and the flow began to reverse.
From 1995 to 2000, the state capital, Jackson, gained 3,600 black residents. In the 2000 census, African-Americans made up over 36 percent of Mississippi's 2.8 million residents - no doubt more today. And while immigrants were statistically insignificant two decades ago, today they're over 4.5 percent of the total, according to news reports. "Immigrants are always undercounted, but I think they're now about 130,000, and they'll be 10% of the population ten years from now," predicts MIRA Director Bill Chandler.
"We have the chance here to avoid the rivalry that plagues Los Angeles, and build real power," says Chandler. Eric Fleming, a MIRA staff member and former state legislator who recently filed for the Democratic nomination to replace Senator Trent Lott, believes "we can stop Mississippi from making the same mistakes others have made."
The same calculus can apply across the South, which is now the entry point for a third of all new immigrants to the US. Four decades ago, President Richard Nixon brought its white power structure, threatened by civil rights, into the Republican Party. President Ronald Reagan celebrated that achievement at the Confederate monument at Georgia's Stone Mountain. MIRA-type alliances could transform the region, and change the politics of the country as a whole. SB 2988 is not only intended to stir anti-immigrant sentiment, but to reverse that demographic change and the political transformation it might make possible.
MIRA is the fruit of strategic thinking among a diverse group that reaches from African-American workers' centers on catfish farms and immigrant union organizers in chicken plants to guest workers and contract laborers on the Gulf Coast, and ultimately, into the halls of the state legislature in Jackson. Activists look back to changes that started when Mississippi passed a law permitting casino development in 1991, bringing the first immigrant construction workers from Florida. Employers in gaming then began to use contractors to supply their growing labor needs. Guest workers, eventually numbering in the thousands, were brought under the H2-B program to fill many of the jobs development created.
Through the '90s, more immigrants arrived looking for work. Some guest workers overstayed their visas, while husbands brought wives, cousins and friends from home. Mexicans and Central Americans joined South and Southeast Asians, and began traveling north through the state, getting jobs in rural poultry plants. There they met African-Americans, many of whom had fought hard campaigns to organize unions for chicken and catfish workers over the preceding decade.
It was not easy for newcomers to fit in. Their union representatives didn't speak their languages. When workers got pulled over by state troopers, they found themselves not only cited for lacking driver's licenses, but also often handed over to the Border Patrol. Sometimes their children weren't even allowed to enroll in school.
In the fall of 2000, labor, church and civil rights activists formed an impromptu coalition, and went to the legislature. At their heart was the core of activists who'd organized Mississippi's state workers, and a growing caucus of black legislators sympathetic to labor. Jim Evans, a former organizer for the National Football League Players Association, headed the group on the House side, while Senator Alice Harden, who'd led a state teachers' strike in 1986, organized the vote in the Senate. "We decided that the place to start was trying to get a bill passed allowing everyone to get driver's licenses, regardless of who they were or where they came from," Evans remembers.
Harden's efforts bore fruit when the drivers' license bill passed the Senate unanimously in 2001. "But they saw us coming in the House, and killed it," Chandler says. Nevertheless, the close fight convinced them that a coalition supporting immigrant rights had a wide potential base of support, and could help change the state's political landscape. In a meeting that November, the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance was born.
To build a grassroots base, MIRA volunteers went into chicken plants to help recruit newly arrived immigrants into unions. In the casinos, MIRA volunteers worked with UNITE HERE organizers. In Jackson, the coalition got six bills passed the following year, stopping schools from requiring Social Security numbers from immigrant parents, and winning in-state tuition for any student who'd spent four years in a Mississippi high school.
Then Katrina hit the Gulf. MIRA fought evictions and the cases of workers cheated by employers, and eventually recovered over $1 million. MIRA organizer Vicky Cintra and other activists participated in several celebrated cases defending guest workers, especially in the Signal International shipyard in Pascagoula. "There's still a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment here," Cintra says, "but when people give the police their MIRA ID card they get treated with more respect, because they know their rights and have some support." Laborers Union organizer Frank Curiel says, "In Kentucky, outside of Louisville, Latinos are afraid to go out into the street. In Mississippi, it's different."
Not always that different, however. In Laurel and many other Mississippi towns, police still set up roadblocks to trap immigrants without licenses. "They take us away in handcuffs and we have to pay over $1,000 to get out of jail and get our cars back," according to chicken plant worker Elisa Reyes. And the way the state's Council of Conservative Citizens demonizes immigrants is reminiscent of the language of its predecessor - the White Citizens Councils: "The CofCC not only fights for European rights, but also for Confederate Heritage, fights against illegal immigration, fights against gun control, fights against abortion, fights against gay rights etc. SO JOIN UP!!!" its web site urges.
In 2007, the Republican machine introduced twenty-one anti-immigrant bills into the state legislature, including ones to impose state penalties for hiring undocumented workers and English-only requirements on state license and benefit applicants, to prohibit undocumented students at state universities, and to require local police to check immigration status. MIRA defeated all of them. "The Black Caucus stood behind us every time," Evans says proudly. There are no immigrant or Latino legislators. Without the Caucus all 21 bills would have passed in 2007, and 19 similar bills in 2006.
The 2008 legislative session was different, however. Chandler describes three factions in the party - the Black Caucus at one end, white conservatives hanging on at the other, and "liberals who will do whatever they have to do to get elected" in the middle. After some Democratic candidates campaigned in 2007 on an anti-immigrant platform, MIRA wrote a letter in protest to Howard Dean, national chair of the Democratic Party. Those tactics, it said, were undermining the only strategy capable of changing the state's politics. "The attacks on Latinos, initiated by Republican Phil Bryant a year and a half ago, and joined by other Republicans, are now being echoed by Democrats like John Arthur Eaves and Jamie Franks," the letter said. State party leaders who "would go along to be accepted, rather than show the courage necessary for positive change ... are peddling racist lies against immigrants that violate the core of the party's progressive agenda." Anti-immigrant campaigning by Democrats was unsuccessful. Conservative Republican Hayley Barbour was returned to the governor's mansion and Phil Bryant was elected lieutenant governor. And in the legislative session that followed, some Democrats began to buckle under pressure from vocal right-wing groups, including the Klan.
During the 2007 elections, the Ku Klux Klan held a rally of 500 people in front of the Lee County courthouse in Tupelo, wearing white hoods and robes, and carrying signs saying, "Stop the Latino Invasion." Their presence was so intimidating that Ricky Cummings, a generally progressive Democrat running for re-election to the State House of Representatives, voted for some of the anti-immigrant bills in the legislature. When MIRA leaders challenged him, he told them that Klan-generated calls had "worn out his cell phone."
The Klan's web site says "it's time to declare war on these illegal Mexicans.... The racial war is among us, will you fight with us for the future of our race and for our children? Or will you sit on your ass and do nothing? Our blissful ignorance is over. It is time to fight. Time for Mexico and Mexicans to get the hell out!"
The web site has links to the site of the Mississippi Federation for Immigration Reform and Enforcement (the state affiliate of the Federation for American Immigration Reform), directed by Mike Lott, who sits in the state legislature. After MIRA's Erik Fleming urged Governor Barbour to veto the employer sanctions bill, saying it would be "devastating to our economy and community here in Mississippi," he was then targeted on the MFIRE website.
For those threatened by changing demographics and the political upsurge they might produce, SB 2988 law is a finger in the dike. The fight to implement it is not over, however, and MIRA has assembled a legal team to challenge its constitutionality in court.
Border Patrol "spot checks" on ferries provoke outrage in San Juan Islands
By Sara Jean Green
Seattle Times staff reporter
FRIDAY HARBOR, San Juan County — The people of the San Juan Islands tend to be independent sorts, espousing a do-it-yourself, leave-me-be ethos as natural and ever-present as the tide.
But for many of the 17,000 people of this island county, the normal rhythms of small-town life have hit a dissonant chord lately.
A couple of months ago, the U.S. Border Patrol began occasional "spot checks" of every vehicle and passenger arriving in Anacortes off state ferries, the lifeline between these islands and the mainland.
For some here, it seems like a good idea or, at worst, a minor inconvenience. But for a vocal and active faction, the federal agents' aggressive questioning and demands for identification have spurred outrage.
In the islands' coffee shops and the editorial pages of the local paper, then in a crowded, heated meeting last month, a number of people have complained that islanders are being unfairly treated and questioned, even though they haven't left the country and normally wouldn't be subject to such scrutiny.
Terms like "police state" are hurled around, as they say the searches are illegal, unconstitutional — and just a ruse to catch illegal immigrants and petty drug users.
The Border Patrol responds that the stops are annoying but necessary, the cost of keeping the country safe. It maintains that a terrorist could easily use the same maze of waterways and islands here that for generations has harbored smugglers, rumrunners and drug dealers.
But in this comparatively affluent county, where there isn't a single stoplight, angry islanders are unsatisfied. They've complained to their congressional delegates and recently asked the American Civil Liberties Union to monitor the situation and provide legal advice.
And they have rallied around a family who immigrated illegally from Mexico years ago and were recently caught up in the dragnet. They raised bail for them and paid their rent while they were detained.
The Border Patrol's actions are "hurting good people, even if they are undocumented," said the Rev. Raymond Heffernan, priest at Friday Harbor's St. Francis Catholic Church.
Island residents "are concerned about the invasion to their own privacy and the damage it's doing to good people — people who are contributing to the community," said the 77-year-old priest.
With their location 20 or so miles from Canada, the San Juan Islands have enticed smugglers for more than a century. Complex channels and isolated coves concealed the import of Chinese laborers and opium in the 1880s, moonshine during Prohibition, and more recently, potent marijuana known as "B.C. bud."
And the Border Patrol says terrorists could be next.
San Juan Islanders are used to customs inspections in Anacortes if they take the ferry that comes from Sidney, B.C. Before now, though, they were never subjected to checks on domestic ferry runs.
That changed in February, when federal agents started corralling everyone off domestic ferries into a fenced-off area in Anacortes and questioning them about their citizenship. It now happens once, maybe twice a week; no one has any way to know if they will be stopped.
When islanders talk about taking a ferry to the mainland, the joke around town these days is, "I'm going back to America," said David Jones, the mayor of Friday Harbor.
"There's a great surge of indignation underneath the surface here," he said.
So much so that local attorney Carolyn de Roos recently asked three Seattle lawyers to come speak at two meetings about residents' rights and legal options.
Their advice: Don't answer any questions.
Because island residents who board domestic ferries don't cross an international border, they "have a right not to reveal anything about their legal status," said Matt Adams, an attorney with the Seattle-based Northwest Immigrant Rights Project and a member of the ACLU.
"Once they're inside the country, Immigration doesn't have the right to detain someone without reasonable suspicion," Adams said. And ethnic background, skin color or language don't meet that threshold.
But if someone admits to being in the country illegally, Border Patrol can arrest the person.
"It's a vulnerability"
Joe Giuliano, the Border Patrol's deputy chief patrol agent for the Blaine border sector, says he understands that the stops are a hassle for law-abiding citizens.
But he stresses that the threat of terrorism is no joke.
It's conceivable that someone could get to the islands by plane or boat, or board an international ferry in Sidney, B.C., and get off in Friday Harbor instead of Anacortes. Once in an island community, a person with nefarious intentions could mix with the locals and then board a domestic ferry in order to sneak into the country, Giuliano said.
"It's a vulnerability and we're worried that it could be exploited," he said.
"You have to catch it all to make sure you're not dealing with a terrorist issue. And, if an immigration issue walks up to you, you're pretty much compelled to act on it."
As for residents who refuse to cooperate or answer questions, Giuliano said, agents will still run their license-plate numbers and search databases, detaining them until it can be determined whether they are here legally. But if an agent doesn't have enough information to make that determination, or doesn't have probable cause to arrest someone, "the thing is let go," he said.
Between late February and last week, 43 people — 38 of them from Mexico — have been arrested in the ferry stops, Giuliano said. An additional 141 people from a total of 33 countries were interviewed by agents before they were let go.
"Oh, no. They've got us"
Late last year, rumors began circulating among the islands' Hispanics that the Border Patrol was snaring illegal immigrants who rode the ferries to Anacortes.
So for three months, the Sanabria family — Antonio, Amelia and their daughters Guadalupe, 18, and Carmen, 15 — never left Friday Harbor.
When they didn't hear of any arrests, they decided to chance it in February so Guadalupe could take her driver's-license test on the mainland.
A Border Patrol agent approached their pickup truck as they got off the ferry in Anacortes. Antonio Sanabria whispered to his family in Spanish: "Oh, no. They've got us."
It never occurred to them that they could refuse to answer the agents' questions, said Guadalupe Sanabria, who was 2 when her parents illegally came to the U.S. from Michoacan, Mexico.
The family was sent to a federal detention facility in Pennsylvania. Even before the Sanabrias were escorted onto a plane, Guadalupe was phoning friends back in Friday Harbor.
As it will in small towns, news spread fast. Members of the community managed to raise enough money to get the family out on a $30,000 bond, and they were back in Friday Harbor by the end of March — their plane tickets also courtesy of folks back home.
Even so, the Sanabrias know they will probably lose their bid to stay in the United States.
"I'm really thankful our community helped us because if not for them, we wouldn't be back," Guadalupe said. "It's in God's hands. We just hope someday there's a way for us to be legal."
Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Immigration, taxes, crime darken Houston Area Survey
Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle
Harris County residents increasingly carry negative views about immigrants, saying they burden tax-supported services including schools and hospitals while contributing to crime, according to the 2008 Houston Area Survey.
The survey, conducted annually since 1982 by Rice University sociology professor Stephen Klineberg, questioned local residents recently about the economy, housing, immigration and other topics.
The survey found 63 percent agreed that new immigration should be limited, up from 48 percent in 2004. Meanwhile, 61 percent of those polled said illegal immigrants are a ''very serious" problem, up from 43 percent in 2006.
This year, 56 percent favored granting citizenship to illegal immigrants who have learned English and didn't have a criminal record, down from 68 percent in 2007. And today, 43 percent believe immigrants contribute more than they take, down from 52 percent in 2002.
The pessimistic attitudes toward immigrants are striking in an area as diverse as Houston. Nearly 25 percent of Harris County's population of 3.8 million is foreign-born, according to 2006 Census Bureau data.
The local attitudes reflect a nationwide fear of a rapidly growing population of immigrants who don't embrace American culture, reduce the prominence of English and increase poverty that will strap taxpayers, the survey noted.
The backlash against the mostly Latino immigrants is comparable to past resentment over large-scale immigration from Europe, Klineberg said, adding the bias is stoked by conservative media outlets who only focus on the negative aspects of the influx.
Feeling surfaced in 2005
''Whenever there have been large waves of immigrants arriving in the country — the Irish in 1840s and 1850s or the Greeks, Italians and Poles at the turn of the century — Americans have always responded with antagonism and fear," he said.
This increasingly negative feeling about immigrants, both legal and illegal, first surfaced in the Houston Area Survey in 2005, he said.
''Each year there has been deepening anti-immigration attitudes, and this is happening despite the evidence of successful assimilation and upward mobility" of new arrivals, said Klineberg. ''All the evidence suggests Latino immigrants moving up and out of poverty, learning English and becoming Americans at least as rapidly, if not more rapidly, than Greeks and Italians did 100 years ago."
But the positive indicators are little comfort to some.
Robert Bracht, a 71-year-old retired Houston accountant, said limited immigration has always been good for the nation, ''but it's gotten out of hand."
Bracht said attitudes about illegal immigrants have soured because of the perception they're responsible for increasing crime, a sentiment expressed by 23 percent of those surveyed.
However, 48 percent of those surveyed said their primary concern was the strain illegal immigrants placed on public services. Thirteen percent said the newcomers were taking jobs away from Americans.
''The crime is probably the biggest thing, and maybe the fact that here in Houston every car that passes you has Hispanics in it," Bracht said. ''Maybe they feel we are being overrun."
Other academics, including Raul A. Ramos, an assistant history professor at the University of Houston, agreed anti-immigrant sentiment is triggered by external events as well as cultural anxiety.
Ramos said Mexicans in particular are targets because current resentment taps into anti-Mexican sentiment dating to before the Mexican-American War of 1848.
The shifting attitudes are due to ''a continued security concern combined with a major economic downturn, so the conditions are right for anti-immigrant sentiment to take root," Ramos said.
Houstonians should not ignore contributions made by immigrants, one Spring resident said.
''More than anything, people should remember ... they do very good work for little money," said Griselda Rivera, 34, a baby sitter who became a U.S. citizen this year.
Klineberg said the shift in attitudes has implications for Houston's continued prosperity, since the city's population has become one of the most diverse in the nation.
''As the older Anglos move into retirement, the young people who will be the citizens, the workers, the taxpayers and voters will be increasingly non-Anglo and increasingly Hispanic," Klineberg said. ''So these attitude changes are consequential for Houston."
OTHER KEY SURVEY FINDINGS
Traffic called the biggest problem
• Crime no longer top concern: Traffic congestion surpassed crime this year for the first time since 2005. The percentage of respondents citing crime dropped to 24 percent from 38 percent in 2007, while the percentage citing traffic grew from 35 percent to 25 percent.
• Not as optimistic about economy: Positive assessment of the local economy dropped to 57 percent from 60 percent in 2007, even though the official local unemployment rate has fallen.
• Abortion attitudes unchanged: Support for the right to choose remains strong, with 54 percent agreeing that "abortion should be legal for any reason." The figure has been stable in recent years.
• Katrina effect lingers: 70 percent believe that those fleeing the hurricane have been "a bad thing for the city," up from 65 percent last year and 49 percent in 2006. However, 67 percent this year said Houston should respond with the same generosity if another storm like Katrina occurred.
HOW IT WAS DONE
The 2008 Houston Area Survey of 702 randomly selected Harris County residents was conducted from Feb. 15 to March 5 by the University of Houston's Center for Public Policy. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. The findings are to be officially released today at a luncheon hosted by the Greater Houston Partnership, a not-for-profit booster group with 1,800 member companies.
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