Sunday, October 28, 2012

Who gains admission and who counts white? - Immigrants organize now and then (Part 1)

Strike! Source: UFW.
Back in August in Portland I committed a minor traffic infraction and unlucky me, there was a police officer on the spot who stopped me. I didn't have an international driver's license, he did not accept my Hungarian license, and he fined me. So I went to the local DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) in order to settle my status, and I did not have my immigration card on me, which would have verified that I was legally in the country. A few months earlier I had applied for the extension of my visa and carelessly, I did not attach the new card into my passport. Even though I was flaunting the printed email which proved the visa renewal process, in their eyes I could have been an undocumented immigrant.

In the U.S. it is not unusual that people in similar situations end up in detention facilities. In line with the continuously harshening immigration laws, in 2008, Secure Communities, a very controversial immigration program, started and this made the procedure with undocumented immigrants more severe. This whole issue made me think about whether any police officer would have let me go without checking my passport and my immigrant status if I had not been a white person with good English and a pretty decent appearance. This post is about immigrants and immigrant community organizers who put their body on the line risking even deportation to secure their rights.

Who gains admission and who counts white?

In 2010, 40.2 million immigrants lived in the U.S. (Pew), more than half of whom being Mexican. Significant numbers of people arrive also from China, India, the Philippines, Vietnam and South Korea, and from Central America (El Salvador, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Guatemala) (CIS).

11.2 million of them are estimated to be undocumented immigrants (2011: Pew), more than half of whom being Mexican (2011: Pew). Approximately 1 million of them arrive as a child with their parents (2011: Pew). Out of these 11.2 million people, 6-7 million cross the border illegally, through human smuggling (2006: Pew), another 4-6 million overstay their visa after the time of admission has expired (2011: CIS), and approximately 250-500,000 people enter using their Border Crossing Card which authorizes visits to the border areas for a set amount of time (2006: Pew).

In the last decade the number of deportations doubled, and the majority of the deported were Mexicans, 70 percent in 2009 (2011: Pew). In 2010, 400,000 people were deported (2011: CIS).

A Filipino on strike in 1966.
Source: Reuther
In the history of the U.S., where everybody is an immigrant (which is essentially true for Europe, too...), the state became concerned with determining eligibility for citizenship after it had broken free from the British hegemony. From 1790 until a little after the end of the American Civil War (1868), citizenship was designated to "free white persons" of "good moral character". "Whiteness" however, has always been a political category: in the beginning of the 20th century, for example, neither the Irish nor the Jews nor the Slavs were considered to be white.

The Fourteenth Amendment eventually proclaimed in 1868 that regardless of the race of the parents, their citizenship and place of birth, those who were born in the United States are entitled to become citizens, and this right was extended in 1870 to African-Americans who had formerly been slaves. This right to citizenship was, however, denied to Native Americans, some of whom first became citizens in 1890, until finally this right was extended to all Native Americans in 1924. Moreover, Chinese immigrants, who started to migrate to the U.S. at the second half of the 19th century, were excluded from the right to become citizens in 1882 (Chinese Exclusion Act). Racial discrimination in gaining citizenship was eventually abolished with the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952.

There were practically no legal restrictions on immigration to the U.S. until 1875. People from different nations arrived in different periods with significantly different social and financial background (primarily, the Spanish, the English, the French, the Germans, the Dutch, people from other countries from Northwestern Europe, and the African slaves, then Central, Eastern and Southeastern Europeans, Italians, Greeks, Russians, and Asians, Latin-Americans, Africans). The connections between these nations and their prevailing power relations over the course of history made an impact on the American immigration legislation.

The first two immigration laws were the Page Act of 1875 followed by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which restricted and banned the immigration of Chinese workers based on ethnicity. The ban was abolished only in 1943. The Immigration Act of 1924 essentially restricted the entry of Central and Eastern Europeans by limiting the annual number of immigrants who could be admitted from any country to 2 percent of the number of people from that country who were already living in the United States (Canadians, Latin Americans and Caribbeans were exempt from the quota system). The national-origin quota was repealed in 1965, and the new law focused on skills and family connections in the U.S. This was a significant paradigm change compared to the overtly or covertly racist immigration legislation.

A new significant milestone in the changing attitude and policy of the government towards immigrants was the Illegal Immigration Act of 1996, which imposed stricter sanctions against immigrants unlawfully present in the country and extended the possibility of deportations. So far this law provides the basis for the current U.S. immigration policy.

Under procedure in a detention facility.
At the same time, the U.S. granted amnesty to undocumented immigrants several times. In 1940, for example, during WWII for security reasons in order to control and oppress any activities aiming against the state or the prevailing state ideology, the status of several million people, mostly of European origin were legalized (Alien Registry Act of 1940). In 1986, the Reagan administration legalized the status of approximately 3 million people, mostly Latin-American and Asian immigrant farmworkers, and those who settled down in the U.S. before 1982. And now, the most recent beam of hope for young immigrants is the DREAM Act, which would open the avenue to gain citizenship for undocumented immigrants who are under the age of 30, graduated from high school and obtain a college degree or complete two years of military service within six years.

Who does NOT get caught in the control mechanism of the immigration office?

These measures were accompanied by a more severe border protection and immigration control mechanism, which were in line with national security measures after 2001. In 2005, for example, the federal government determined the process (Real ID Act) of how local DMVs issue a driver's license and other personal identification documents (until then the system was not centralized). As a result, every DMV in each state of the whole country needs to request the immigration documents in case of a non-American citizen (that's the reason why I was asked for my immigration card which I did not have on me), and are obliged to store and to some extent share the data of the clients with other authorities.

The other recent measure in 2008 was the already mentioned Secure Communities program, which determines that data and fingerprints of arrestees are submitted not only to the FBI but also to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The automated system indicates to ICE when the detainee is an immigrant, where officers evaluate the case and can request further detention in case they want to start a procedure against the detainee. The officially declared aim of the program is to identify those detainees who are eligible for deportation according to current immigration laws, that is, those who were convicted of a crime, and to assess these cases based on the level of crime, and at the same time only to deport those who committed serious crimes such as homicide, robbery, kidnapping, major drug offenses, or those who impose a threat to national security. But despite Secure Communities’ stated priorities, many of the undocumented immigrants detained and deported via the program have never been convicted of any crime. The possibility of racial discrimination and an avenue to anti-immigrant sentiments are inherently encoded into the implementation of such a program, as it gives opportunity for law enforcement officers to pick and check "immigrant-like" people (Latin Americans, Asians).

While according to the statistics, in 2011, 26 percent of the deported people committed the above listed serious crimes, another 29 percent were deported for misdemeanors and lesser crimes, and another 26 percent were deported for not having committed any crime, but who were undocumented (IPC), and who were, for instance, arrested because of driving without a license, burned-out tail lights or speeding. Take the case of Emiliano Rojas, who was immediately asked for his immigration papers by the police officer in 2010 when he committed a minor traffic infraction. He did not have proper documents, so the police officer did not let him go away, saying that the car Emiliano had been driving was in the name of his father. When his father, Claudio, who was also undocumented, arrived to help his son out, both of them were arrested and detained.

This made me think that if any police officer had wanted to see my passport and had realized that I cannot prove my legal status on the spot, would have I gotten arrested? In that case, would he or she have found it suspicious that the car I was driving was not mine? Naturally, I would have been cleared within foreseeable time that I am legally in the country, and obviously nobody would have wanted to deport me, but the fair treatment, which everybody would deserve, saved me from getting in closer acquaintance with the American detention facilities. Not like the Rojas family, where the boy was let go after three months of detention, but the father was ordered to leave the country. Neither of them had any criminal record. Despite the sentence, Claudio, however, had decided to stay in the country with his family, until the ICE caught him two years later and imprisoned him again and ordered the deportation. The case became famous because Claudio started a hunger strike this August and the DREAM activists protested for him.

Lower-middle class undocumented immigrants organize: the DREAM activists

The DREAMers got their name after the bill known as the DREAM Act (Development, Relief, Education for Alien Minors). These young people have been living in the U.S. undocumented for many years, they once left the country of their birth with their immigrant parents. They grew up without proper documents, with the support of their family, they attended high school, they are firmly rooted in the U.S.

Currently, approximately one million children live undocumented in the U.S. The DREAM Act offers permanent residency to young people under the age of 30, which would later open a path for them to apply for citizenship. Those are eligible for the benefits who came before the age of 16 and have been living here for more than five consecutive years, and who within six years get a college degree, or complete at least two years at a college or complete a two-year military service.

The DREAMers, who started the movement in 2007, protested for Claudio Rojas because they knew that there are other people like him unjustly detained despite the fact that the ICE announced in June 2011 (Morton Memo, prosecutorial discretion) that "low-priority" undocumented immigrants who impose no threat to national security should be protected from detention or deportation. ICE requested to review their cases, and declared that they will not use their resources any further to deport these immigrants. In order to prove that ICE was not fulfilling its promise, and to collect evidence that that there are immigrants kept in detention facilities who would be eligible for the DREAM Act, the young immigrants launched an action: by pretending to be uninformed undocumented immigrants, they got themselves arrested in order to infiltrate the immigrant detention facilities and collect evidence about how many people are unjustly detained. Their action gained huge media coverage.

They demanded the release of Claudio Rojas and other immigrants in situations similar to his and requested that the deportation procedures of these immigrants be stopped. They sent video messages about themselves and their own stories, and about how the DREAM Act would change their lives. They published their personal stories on their website. The bill was introduced in 2001 and is awaiting the decision of Congress. The presidency of Barack Obama has not brought the expected breakthrough. Therefore, the DREAMers, exploiting media attention around the presidential election, organized sit-ins in many states, and demanded that President Obama should use his executive authority to cease the deportations of DREAM Act eligible youth, then protested at the National Democratic Convention. This August, as a reply to the organizing of the activists and under the pressure of the presidential election campaign, Obama introduced a "deferred action" (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) for DREAM Act eligible youth. The measure ceases deportation for two years for those, who are under the age of 31, came to the country before the age of 16, have been living here for at least five consecutive years, are in school, already graduated from high school or completed a two-year military service, and have no criminal records. They can apply for a work permit, but this is not a path to receive citizenship. These are the latest developments of the issue and the results of the presidential election will probably bring substantial changes.

Part 2 (next week)
Working-class undocumented immigrants organize: César Chávez and the non-violent movement of farmworkers and their unions

The American middle class organizes: the Sanctuary Movement in support of undocumented immigrants

Further literature: Walter A. Ewing: Opportunity and Exclusion: A Brief History of U.S. Immigration Policy. Immigration Policy Center, 2012.

Read it in Hungarian.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Betti! Very educational ... lots of history, dates, facts ... thank you for caring and sharing!