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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 334 | Mayo 2009



The Darker Sides of a “Country of Immigrants”

George Washington said that “The bosom of America is open to receive not only the opulent and respectable stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions whom we shall welcome to participate in all of our rights and privileges, if by decency and propriety of conduct they appear to merit the enjoyment.” But history contradicts his words, speaking rather of arbitrariness, prejudice and abuse with little measure of “decency” and of “propriety of conduct.” Up until now the US immigration service has been given to trampling the rights that establish who “deserves” to enjoy rights in the United States.

José Luis Rocha

The famous Statue of Liberty rises up on the island next to Ellis Island, the famous Island of Tears that filtered immigrants coming to the United States. The statue has the words of a poem by Emma Lazarus engraved on its plinth. In the name of the USA, the statue calls on the world to: “Give me your tired, your poor,/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,/ The wretched refuse of your teeming shore./ Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,/ I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Neither the immigrants of the 19th or 20th centuries, nor those still trying to get in not through the golden door reserved for white-collar immigrants, but through the hostile vacuous desert, that door of sand and fire, have enjoyed the welcome preached by the statue with such brazen hypocrisy. Following an emotional examination of the experiences of migrants who passed through Ellis Island, poet George Perec concluded that “perhaps being an emigrant was precisely that: seeing a sword where the sculptor believed, in good faith, to have put a torch, and not to be completely wrong.”

A gradual increase in the will to
exclude with the turn of the century

The US will to exclude, of which deportation has been the clearest expression, experienced a change of direction at the turn of the 19th century. According to Daniel Kanstroom, whose book Deportation Nation was the source of most of this information, the deportation system of the 20th century leaped from an expanded border control to a set of laws for post-entry social control requiring imperative loyalty, rigid conformity, governmental interference and fear.

This came in a number of gradual steps. A 1891 act established deportation for anyone who entered the United States violating its laws, but its application was limited to a year following entry. Another 12 years later extended the possibility of deportation for up to three years after arriving in the country, and even then it was still linked to violation of the law during entry. Seven years after that an act corrected this barrier to the will to deport, eliminating the three-year limit and allowing deportation of any foreigner who had committed a crime in the United States. In 1917, the barrier against Chinese immigration, established in the previous century, was expanded into a blockade against all Asians, making racial exclusion a key component of the immigration, naturalization and deportation laws. This tendency to erect dykes was reinforced by President Theodore Roosevelt, who also wielded his big stick against immigrants, after doing so against rebellious Latin American governments. In his Fifth State of the Union Address (1905), he stated that “there should be an increase in the stringency of the laws to keep out insane, idiotic, epileptic, and pauper immigrants. But this is by no means enough. Not merely the Anarchist, but every man of Anarchistic tendencies, all violent and disorderly people, all people of bad character, the incompetent, the lazy, the vicious, the physically unfit, defective, or degenerate should be kept out. The stocks out of which American citizenship is to be built should be strong and healthy, sound in body, mind, and character.”

The nationalism unleashed with World War I showed a hard hand to a range of groups, from prostitutes to political dissidents, especially anarchists, with no time limit following their moment of entry. The 1917 Espionage Act used criminal sentences to suppress those opposed to the war, particularly if they were of foreign origin. The 1918 Sedition Act, an amendment to the Espionage Act, punished anyone who published, printed or wrote “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language,” encouraging resistance against the United States or promoting the cause of its enemies. The 250,000 militants of the American Protection League fought against sedition, locating suspected subversives, and the Department of Justice received a thousand accusations of presumed sedition a day, of which 95% turned out to be pure gossip. The target of these attacks was foreigners.

The nationalist fever that inspired a gigantic electric sign on New York’s Fifth Avenue preaching absolute and unconditional loyalty to the country prohibited the teaching of German and promoted a nationalist jargon that renamed hamburgers “freedom sandwiches” and sauerkraut “freedom cabbage.” Many Germans were lynched by patriots while authorities turned a blind eye. All males of German origin over the age of 14 were forced to register and the government cancelled many naturalization certificates.

The McCarthy era later reinforced the doctrinal model underlying these policies. The virtue of having cultivated community links—having studied, having families and friends—was no longer sufficient reason to be considered a member of the US community.

Economic motives were added to the ideological reasons for exclusion. The system needed a growing labor force, but only a certain kind of labor. The first immigration laws of the 20th century sought to shake off recent arrivals who had become a burden. As a result, deportations skyrocketed with the Great Depression in the thirties. As can be seen in the figure on the next page, the percentage of the US and New York populations born abroad showed a clear downward slide starting in 1910 and becoming steadily steeper over the next fifty years.

In 1920, as this downward slide was gathering momentum, Frederic C. Howe wrote that foreigners were deported for becoming a burden, rejected by mines, mills, factories and packing plants. The depression turned them into the kind of human waste examined by Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. Never before had the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free and the wretched refuse of overpopulated lands been so unwelcome.

Eliminate the scum from the melting pot

Californian Senator Edwin E. Grant published an article in the American Journal of Sociology titled “Scum from the Melting-Pot.” The idea of a melting pot in which all nationalities become one is the most hackneyed metaphors for the United States as a nation of immigrants of different origins. Grant lamented that the prosperity achieved by the founding fathers attracted such a host of parasites, which could well have been eliminated from the melting pot. He suggested eliminating at all costs the scum that confused liberty with license to embark on all kinds of criminal activities.

Another metaphor—that of permanent residents as “guests”—was symptomatic of the attitude towards foreigners. They were never citizens with full rights. Both the authorities and nationalist associations assumed the right to conduct repeated, well coordinated and planned round-ups and deportations. Foreign strikers and union leaders were their favorite target, with the consent of employers. In 1917 the sheriff of Bisbee, Arizona, and in just one night a group of patriots deported a thousand striking miners from Bohemia, Serbia, Austria, Montenegro, Czechoslovakia, Italy and Mexico, dumping them in the desert for three days with water and food, but no shelter. The government report pointed out that the situation created by the mix of 30 nationalities had turned the mines into a small-scale version of the Balkans. The press proclaimed the sheriff the author of the Bisbee Tea Party and claimed he had waged the same fight in Arizona’s mines as US soldiers fighting in the trenches of France.

The war of colors:
White against black and red

Two years later the country was on edge and workers were unusually restless. There were around 3,600 hunger strikes in 1919 involving over 4 million workers; even the Boston police force went on strike. At the same time there was unrestrained anti-Bolshevik paranoia. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was created at the time to investigate the activities of radicals.

The new agency demonstrated laudable efficiency. In its first 100 days it gathered evidence against 60,000 suspects, which soon climbed to 200,000 well-located and monitored radicals. A few bombs—and a lot of rumors about bombs that never exploded—fueled terror of radicals. Soon the FBI determined that 90% of these radicals were foreigners who were finding a breeding ground among the blacks. As Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer observed, “The negro is seeing red.”

The war of the colors was unleashed with simultaneous ideological and racial hues: white against black and red. The demands of African-Americans against the lynching to which they were subjected were seen as the fruit of Bolshevik propaganda. Any excuse was used to multiply the deportations. Following the killing of three police officers and two detectives by a “drunken and crazy negro,” the mayor of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Joseph Cauffield, ordered all blacks and Mexicans who had been residing there for less than seven years to leave the city.

The US government marked the second anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution with the issuing of 6,000 arrest warrants for “red” foreigners. The intentional defects in many of the warrants were aimed at producing indefinite detention. In Boston, the detainees were forced to march through the city streets in chains. Attorney General Mitchell Palmer gave the most offensive description of the deportees: “…out of the sly and crafty eyes of many of them leap cupidity, cruelty, insanity, and crime, from their lopsided faces, sloping brows, and misshapen features may be recognized the unmistakable criminal type.”

Ellis Island is now everywhere

With the end of the war, the xenophobic fever dropped. But that did not mean a greater opening to immigration. The closure of Ellis Island and other ports of entry and probation stations meant that the eye of Argos spread out across the world. For decades it functioned in a space like the one Foucault described in his analysis, in which architecture itself allows a panoptic view, like an eye that takes in everything from any point in which it is located. Later, the process was distributed into different spaces, stages and bureaucracies: embassies where people apply for visas, border patrols, immigration posts for examining documents, residency application offices…. For Central Americans, the embassies that deny hundreds of visas a day and that purification filter in the shape of the long, vertical Mexican border are fragments of the old Ellis Island, now relocated on solid ground but just as isolating and filtering.

This reformulation of the model didn’t imply any less faith in the benevolent effects of deportation. But the change of era stamped a new choice of the target population to be sacrificed to avoid the chaos of Babel or the Balkanization of the United States, those mythical situations stirred up by religious and political ghosts that terrify a broad sector of public opinion.

The ethnic cleansing of Mexicans

The new wearers of the scarlet letter were Mexicans, whose immigration had originally been encouraged when the entry of Asians was blocked. The distance between the US culture of the southwest and the “brown” Mexican civilization had been perceived to be much shorter than the gulf between the “white” and “yellow” worlds.

Various legislative changes, including the reduction of immigration taxes and suspension of the law letting only literate people in, stimulated the entry of 50-80,000 Mexicans between 1917 and 1921. Physical attacks on Mexicans and destruction of their property by xenophobic groups, however, meant that almost 100,000 returned to their country between 1920 and 1921 alone. As this kind of “social control” wasn’t enough, it was complemented by deportations. Focusing on undocumented immigrants, the number of deportations increased from 2,762 in 1920 to 38,796 in 1929, of which 15,000 were Mexicans.

In 1930, well into the Great Depression, visas stopped being issued for Mexican workers. In 1930-33 the US secretary of labor decided that the best way to create job openings was to expel Mexicans, calculating that some 400,000 illegal ones were living in the United States. Soon the government discovered that if it negotiated wholesale prices, Mexicans could be transported to Mexico City for just US$14.70 a head, which was less than the cost of a week’s food and lodging. In 1933, the Los Angeles Times estimated that California had been relieved of over 200,000 people through repatriation. In the 1930s, the Mexican population in the United States dropped by 40%.

Over a million people of Mexican origin were expelled during the Great Depression in what was effectively one of the most successful cases of ethnic cleansing in history. Since then Mexicans have become the prototype of illegal foreigners against whom the deporting machinery is aimed. The deportation system came to acquire its current elements by being applied to these people: greater technical and bureaucratic sophistication; harsh persecutions long after the entry of foreigners who commit crimes or engage in ideological dissent; massive periodic attempts to use deportation as a mechanism to control the southern border; restrictions on the judicial process; and the reaffirmation that the rights of non-citizens facing deportation processes are iffy at best.

Another change of victims:
The “mysterious mafia”

The deportation processes followed the same path as the criminal justice system, becoming more centralized, bureaucratic, harsh and pitiless. The officials in charge not only treated detainees with brutal impunity, but also systematically extorted with the treat of deportation even foreigners whose papers were in order.

For some time deportation was aimed at other target populations. In the 1930s the deportation of Italians multiplied under the pretext of fighting the “mysterious mafia,” supposedly made up mainly of Sicilians.

But communists weren’t forgotten during the thirties. Congress was bombarded with bills aimed at fighting communists every way imaginable. When legislator Martin Dies was chosen to head the to investigative House Un-American Activities Committee, many were perplexed by the meaning of this new term. Dies helped them out with his own definition, geared to punishing foreigners: “By un-American activities we mean organizations or groups existing in the United States which are directed, controlled or subsidized by foreign governments or agencies and which seek to change the policies and form of government of the United States in accordance with the wishes of such foreign governments...”

The Japanese as an enemy race

World War II spurred on the persecution. The 1940 Alien Registration Act authorized the deportation of anyone who had once belonged to an organization whose objectives included the violent overthrow of the government. It forced all foreigners to register, notify the government of any change of address and declare under oath which activities they were or had been involved in.

The most persecuted during this time were the Japanese, who triggered a sense of paranoia akin to that stirred up by Arabs today. The attack on Pearl Harbor had the same effect as the attack on the Twin Towers, justifying the investigation, confinement and deportation of the aggressors’ co-nationals. The relocation or “internment” of 120,000 people of Japanese descent—many of them born in the United States and/or US citizens—was one of the most shameful episodes in the history of this “nation of immigrants.” One monument in San Francisco’s Japan Town recalls how more than 70,000 citizens and 40,000 non-citizens—most of the latter with permanent residency—were deprived of one of their most basic constitutional rights. Forced to abandon their homes, farms and businesses, they were first lodged in detention centers, then boarded on trains and sent to euphemistically-named “relocation centers,” where they remained for years. Some were recruited into the new temporary reserves and others expelled.

General DeWitt, whose dubious honor it was to direct this operation, wrote that “the Japanese race is an enemy race and while many second and third generation Japanese born on United States soil, possessed of United States citizenship, have become ‘Americanized,’ the racial strains are undiluted.” On another occasion he added, “A Japanese is a Japanese. It makes no difference whether he is an American or not… You can’t change him by giving him a piece of paper.”

Once more the system turned a blind eye to the most legitimate regulations. Many complained in vain, arguing the terrible consequences this precedent would have for a democratic system. In 1982, a belated government report recognized that these measures were fueled by racial prejudice, the war and failed political leadership. But it did not mention the main cause: the view of Asians as perpetual foreigners, which is still causing damage among many other foreigners through a deportation system that expels while ignoring family links, years of residency and even loss of family and cultural links with the countries of origin.

Out with communists and other subversives

Deportations became an essential weapon during the Cold War. The new Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 turned communists into the new scapegoat. Communists and members of organizations deemed dangerous to public security could be retroactively deported and have their naturalization prohibited. The law intended to sweep out no fewer than 22,000 “reds.” In July 1953 alone, almost 300 political deportations were being processed. To further expedite the procedures and create more immigrants vulnerable to deportation, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), the infamous “migra,” announced it was planning to de-naturalize over 1,500 citizens. According to an Immigration and Naturalization Institute report, over 8,000 people of 98 nationalities were expelled from the United States between 1952 and 1984 because of their political convictions. This system of exclusion was used to keep a great number of supposed subversives at arm’s length, including Charles Chaplin and Gabriel García Márquez.

Drying out the wetbacks

The new system wasted no time in turning its fangs on one of its favored targets: Mexicans. World War II had once again made Mexican labor essential. Following the signing of an agreement between the Mexican and US governments “for the temporary migration of Mexican agricultural workers to the United States,” the Bracero Program got under way and between 1942 and 1964 brought in around 4.5 million Mexican laborers. Workers who entered without the right documentation were captured by border patrols and handed over to the Texas Employment Commission, which fumigated and certified them then sent them to Texan plantations, a process sometimes known as “drying out the wetbacks.” The commission in question “dried out” around 142,000 wet¬backs between 1947 and 1949.

Those wetbacks subsequently grew in numbers and sowed panic. In 1949, with the war now over, they were neither dried out nor welcomed. A presidential commission calculated that year that at least 400,000 members of a total immigrant labor force of around a million were wetbacks. An immigration official declared that they represented the greatest invasion from one country to another in times of peace that a country had ever obligingly suffered, in open, flagrant and contentious violation of its laws. The number of deportations rose from 29,000 in 1944 to 565,000 in 1950. In 1954, over a million undocumented people were apprehended at an average of over 3,000 a day. Mexicans became more established than ever as the archetype of the illegal foreigner.

The Reagan era’s small carrot and big stick

The economic boom of the 1970s—the crest of the expansive/depressive cycle that Kondratieff identified as inherent to the capitalist economy—relaxed the migratory policies. To be minimally consistent with the policy of supplying technical advisers and weaponry to rightwing military regimes and reactionary insurgents, the US government administrations had to welcome Cubans and Nicaraguans fleeing from “red” governments. Such generosity reached a saturation point. Once again the brakes had to be hit and the vehicle slammed into reverse. President Ronald Reagan presented the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 as a strategy to “regain control over our borders.”

The IRCA had a little bit of carrot and a lot of stick. On the stick side, it imposed sanctions on employers who hired non-citizens lacking federal authorization to work, while the carrot was the possibility of giving legal status to those undocumented immigrants who had remained permanently in the country since January 1982, which amounted to an amnesty for 3 million non-citizens. The problem was that the act excluded judicial review of administratively rejected requests unless those appealing voluntarily embarked on a deportation process. In other words, the judicial review of rejected requests depended on acceptance of the risk of deportation.

Some groups supporting immigrants did win small victories. In 1982, the Supreme Court ruled that the undocumented children of undocumented immigrants in Texas had the right to receive a state school education. The ruling pointed out that the “sheer incapability or lax enforcement of the laws barring entry into this country, coupled with the failure to establish an effective bar to the employment of undocumented aliens, has resulted in the creation of a substantial ‘shadow population’ of illegal migrants—numbering in the millions—within our borders. This situation raises the specter of a permanent caste of undocumented resident aliens, encouraged by some to remain here as a source of cheap labor, but nevertheless denied the benefits that our society makes available to citizens and lawful residents. The existence of such an underclass presents most difficult problems for a Nation that prides itself on adherence to principles of equality under law.”

But federal legislation upheld the big stick. The act of 1994 was even harsher than previous ones, authorizing the attorney general to skip regular deportation procedures in cases of criminals who weren’t legal residents and were ineligible for special aid in the case of deportation. Again the system severely limited judicial review. Its novel element was the creation of a special center to house non-citizens who had committed crimes. That post-entry state control known as the deportation system became a hobby horse for politicians wanting to appear hard on crime at low political cost. Focusing on foreign criminals was a way to look like they were doing something against the intractable and resurgent problem of the undocumented.

Outside the rule of law

The trend remained the same in the second half of the nineties. In 1996 the rule of law applied to deportations finally died. Xenophobia was on the rise and the acts of 1988, 1990 and 1994 weren’t enough to satisfy it.

Two acts passed in 1996—the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act—facilitated deportation. Both were part of the aftershock of the Oklahoma bombing and an attitude that had just been waiting for the right moment to be legally incarnated. These acts changed the basis for exclusion and deportation, retroactively increased the crimes warranting deportation, stipulated arrest warrants for different classes of non-citizens, designed expeditious deportation procedures for certain kinds of cases, eliminated judicial review for certain types of deportation orders, authorized the legal reinforcement of state and local participation in the deportation processes, and created a new streamlined repatriation procedure—allowing the use of confidential evidence—for non-citizens accused of terrorist activities.

These laws have been bitterly criticized for the devastation their rigidity and retroactivity have wreaked on many families. They undoubtedly had an effect on the routes and danger involved in undocumented people’s entry into the United States. The Mexican government calculates that over 2,100 people have died crossing the border since 1997.

Both laws were a clear sign that the legal deportation system had been moved outside the dominant current of the rule of law in the United States. The new laws ratified characteristics coined in previous policies, such as the fact that deportation of non-citizens had no statute of limitations, i.e. it didn’t matter how long they had lived in the United States; the irrelevance of family links in the United States; and lack of consideration for the harm caused. And to challenge a deportation case, the person affected has to remain in prison for as long as the appeal lasts.

Discretion without judicial supervision

In the last two decades the US deportation system has become very efficient and far more rigid, but it’s still open to immense procedural discretion. This is nothing new, although in the past it played an ambivalent role, serving to both ruin many lives and annul many deportation orders. The most important thing was that the discretion, submitted to review, fed the legal corpus and reformed the administrative procedures by encouraging a dialogue among the executive branch’s administrative deportation processes, the legislative branch’s production of laws and the judicial branch’s application of those laws.

A recent regulation, however, prohibits the judicial branch from reviewing discretional decisions. Any appeal must be made on the basis of a violation of constitutional rights, but cannot question the discretional nature of a decision. The REAL ID Act of 2005 establishes that no court has the jurisdiction to review the more discretional decisions in deportation cases, although it does allow the appeals courts to review constitutional claims or legal questions.

The combination of harsh laws, broad discretion, lack of a legal adviser, reduction of administrative review and limited judicial supervision has created a legal Frankenstein’s monster, prone to abuse of authority. As a result, over 30% of the nearly 600,000 cases sent to the immigration judges in 2003-2004 involved some form of discretional assistance. Many judges tend to be generous to ensure they aren’t making a mistake. But the system exerts pressure and looks suspiciously on judicial generosity, so they can’t go too far in granting discretionary assistance. Of the 36,000 asylum cases presented to the immigration courts in 2004, 74% were rejected. Only 3% of the applications of the Convention against Torture—whose deliberation implies a high degree of discretion—are successful, and the figures vary alarmingly from one judge to another and one region to another.

Immigrants as guests
on eternal probation

In the United States, people without citizenship—whether undocumented, benefiting from Temporary Protection Status (TPS) or residents living in the country for 50 years—can be deported for a wide range of motives, some pretty clear and others based on mere bureaucratic technicalities.

US law requires all non-citizens to report any change of address within 10 days. Failing to do so is sufficient grounds for deportation. Immigrants aren’t even informed which violations of the law could lead to their deportation, and in fact it would make no sense to do so, as the range of violations can change and be retroactively applied. An immigrant can be deported for an act that wasn’t criminal at the time he or she committed it. The basic principle of non-retroactivity of the law doesn’t apply as an argument to stop deportations.

Deportees have far fewer rights than common criminals. They aren’t read the “Miranda rights” normally cited before interrogation of criminal suspects in police custody, or in a custodial situation, to protect them from incriminating themselves. They are therefore not informed of those rights, which include the right to remain silent and to consult with an attorney and have that attorney present during questioning. In fact they are only told of their right to consult with an attorney after having been subjected to an intimidating interrogation. They also don’t have the right to trial by jury, and, as mentioned above, if they are convicted and want to appeal the judge’s sentence, they must remain in prison throughout the process, which can easily take years even though it usually involves nothing more than a mid-level official from the immigration appeals team reviewing their case for about ten minutes and issuing a summary decision.

According to Kanstroom, the whole system is part of what he calls an “eternal probation” or “eternal guest” model.” Its most severe application suggests that millions of people are sheltered at the government’s whim and can be deported at any time for any reason. Paradoxically the laws of exclusion and deportation show the dark sides of the ideal that presents the United States as a nation of immigrants and the prerequisites underlying that ideal. George Washington was clear about this in his address to a group of Irish immigrants in 1783: “The bosom of America is open to receive not only the Opulent and respectable Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations And Religions; whom we shall wellcome to a participation of all our rights and previleges, if by decency and propriety of conduct they appear to merit the enjoyment.” Kanstroom sustains that the vagueness of these concepts of “decency,” “propriety of conduct” and “merit” are the murky water running beneath the fertile land of the mythical “nation of immigrants.”

No resident or citizen is safe

Millions of foreigners have seen naturalization as a safe haven against the arbitrary nature of deportation. But attaining it is quite an odyssey. First they have to become permanent residents, which can take several years. Then they have to wait another five years to start the naturalization procedures, whose requirements include continuous residency in the United States, being literate, speaking English, knowing the history and form of government of the United States, having a good character and demonstrating that they subscribe to the principles of the Constitution and are well disposed to the good order and happiness of the United States. Not all of those invited by George Washington are found to be sufficiently “decent” by the immigration officials. Between 1999 and 2004 over a third of the 3.6 million naturalization applications were rejected, with many of the applicants immediately subjected to deportation.

Deportations are increasing thanks to this flawed system. As can be seen in the table on the next page, there were 200,000 more deportations a year during the decade 1996-2005 than 1986-1995, an increase that fed off the rise in expeditious deportations. The panoptic view panned from the border line to a wider perspective. Expeditious deportation is applied to non-citizens captured within a 100-air-mile strip inside the north and south land borders and the coastal borders who weren’t legally admitted and can’t prove they have been physically and continually present in the United States for 14 days prior to their capture. This procedure means that non-citizens can be repatriated without due process, a formal interview, any possibility of communicating with their family and friends or a decision by the official at whose mercy they were subjected to review by immigration judges. This legislation allows non-citizens found in vast areas of US territory to be expelled and treated as if they were found crossing the border or arriving at an airport.

The application of this policy with xenophobic police hysteria has led to the violation of the basic rights of many US citizens of Latin American descent. They are condemned by their appearance, which is the first “document” the immigration police check.

A thousand and one stories of abuse

The following is just a tiny sample of the many Americans captured by the immigration police.

• Hugo Alvarado, 22 years old, born in Bakersfield, California: he was arrested in a bar and held for two days until his father submitted proof of his US nationality.

• Juan Manuel Carrillo, 19, born in San Diego, California: he was arrested along with another 300 people by immigration officials who had an arrest warrant that included his name because, as he had never committed a crime, as he didn’t show up on police records as a US citizen. Carillo told the officials he was a US citizen and suggested they go to his apartment and look for his passport. When they got there they pushed their way in and started questioning his brother about who lived there and what their legal status was.

• RMG Castro, 6: In late November 2003, this little girl’s mother, Monica Castro, walked out on her common-law husband, who was an illegal immigrant. Because he wouldn’t give up the child, not yet a year old at the time, Castro, a US citizen, went to the Border Patrol and turned him in. She thought they’d give her daughter back, but instead they transferred the girl 300 miles to the Mexican border with her father in a government vehicle with no child car seat. The little girl was in Mexico for three years, during which time her mother only knew she was somewhere in Ciudad Juárez.

• Kenrick Foncette, 38: detained for deportation back to Trinidad & Tobago when the 1996 act was retroactively applied to him for a 1987 weapons charge and 1991 attempted robbery. He argued that his mother had been naturalized and that he came to the United States when he was 14. His application for naturalization on those grounds was rejected with the argument that his mother didn’t have legal custody of him. By the time another court ruled that he was effectively a US citizen, Foncette had been locked up for three years. He was freed with no money and no way to ask his family to come pick him up. “I lost everything,” said Foncette. “I had to start all over again. When I say everything, I mean everything: bank account, house, clothing, everything.”

Sensenbrenner fans racist hysteria

The promoter of this kind of operation is Congressman James Sensenbrenner, incendiary stoker of racist hysteria, who has been reelected to the House of Representatives by Wisconsin’s 5th District 14 times and is already campaigning for his next race in 2010. One group, quite likely of Latinos, has given him a damning entry, which interestingly appears only in the Spanish version of Wikipedia: “Sensenbrenner intends to treat all immigrants as criminals, to punish anyone who gives any kind of aid, work or shelter to any US immigrants or rents them a house. He also proposes that all children born in the United States to immigrant parents should be stripped of their US citizenship, deported with their parents to their countries of origin and also be refused access to education, social assistance and any medical service. He also proposes building a wall across the Mexican border. Sensenbrenner is an openly racist Congressman who does nothing more in all the radio and television programs he appears on than speak badly of Mexicans and vent his hatred, minimizing all Latin American countries. He has accused all immigrants of being illegal and terrorists, even though most of his wealth comes from his businesses located across Latin America. Representative James Sen¬senbrenner is a person who will never get Hispanic votes in Wisconsin. What most Hispanics do not know is that James Sensen¬brenner is the heir of the Kimberly Clark fortune. Any Hispanics who buy products from the Kleenex, Scott, Huggies, Pull-Ups, Kotex and Depend brands are putting money into Sensenbrenner’s bank account.”

An infamous draft law

James Sensenbrenner is an idol for those who fight to reduce taxes, rewarded by the Chamber of Commerce and small businesses. He has his own website (http://sensen­brenner.house.gov) where he posts his communiqués and declarations. He promotes tax reductions, help for old people, recognition of war veterans, a coalition for victory in Iraq, support for Israel’s right to self-defense in Gaza and the reissuing of the Patriot Act of 2001, which expires in 2009.

While closing the door on Latinos, he introduced a bill offering 3,000 visas to displaced Tibetans. While supporting any reduction in taxes, he voted against a health insurance program for children that doesn’t require the showing of identity documents and therefore makes it possible for undocumented immigrant children to access health services.

In 2005, he tried to criminalize illegally staying in the United States, which for the moment is just a civil misdemeanor, placing 12 million undocumented people under threat. His reactionary anti-immigrant House bill HR4437 the following year, which failed, included among many other things penalties for anyone who gave aid or assistance to an undocumented person, the construction of new prisons for unauthorized foreigners and increased resources for the federal immigration agencies to carry out roundups and arrests. The bill triggered massive demonstrations all over the United States, in which even undocumented workers themselves dared to participate, and included a campaign to boycott Kimberly Clark products. In the height of cynical duplicity, small shops carrying those products in Nicaragua, and presumably in other Latin American countries, suddenly had their store-front walls painted with colorful displays of Kotex, Huggies and Scott toilet paper.

Before Obama’s victory in the November 2008 elections, Sensenbrenner surprised everyone with a new bill very like the previous one, this one called HR4065, aimed at strengthening border security, hardening the implementation of immigration policy, increasing roundups and accelerating deportations, expanding their ghastly specter to all states. Section 114 of this bill obliges the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security to report to Congress on the tracking of Central American youth gang members in border areas. Section 221 orders an enormous investment in capture processes and the granting of funds to state entities that have both the policy and practice of applying the most repressive immigration laws.

Sensenbrenner requests US$300 million for each fiscal year and requires those who would receive those funds to identify deportable foreigners in public prisons and correction centers and ensure that they aren’t freed into their communities. He instead wants them transferred to federal prisons to be deported once they finish their sentences.

The very costly “war against immigrants”

Sensenbrenner’s utopia would be the massive and sustained deportation of the 12 million undocumented immigrants currently estimated to be living in the United States. How much would that utopia cost? According to research by the Center for American Progress, deporting 10 million undocumented immigrants (the 2005 estimate) would have cost between $206 and $230 billion, if not more. Capturing, processing and expelling them over five years would cost no less than $41 billion annually, which is more than the Department of Homeland Security’s total budget for an ordinary year like 2006 ($34.2 billion), double the current transport and border security spending ($19.3 billion), over half the annual spending on the war in Iraq ($74 billion) and more than twice the annual cost of military operations in Afghanistan ($16.8 billion).

Immigration agents have a relatively low productivity rate of close to 10 captures each per year. The cost per agent is $174,714, with each capture averaging $17,603. The cost of capturing just 9 million immigrants—supposing the rest would be scared into leaving by the wave of deportations—would be over $158 billion. But given that each immigrant is detained for an average of 42.5 days before being repatriated, that number of detainees would cost another $34.4 billion for accommodation and food. Legally processing them would add $10.7 billion more; that is, if none were conceded the right to appeal. If they were, the processing and detention costs would rise tremendously.

The final cost—transportation—is far from the $14.70 of the 1930s. Today it averages $1,000, so transporting those 9 million undocumented immigrants would mean forking out $9 billion. Apart from the adverse effects of such an expulsion on the US economy, its impact on fiscal spending is horrifying. It would only be possible based on the conviction that the war against immigrants merits as much effort and cost as the war against Iraq, itself a proposition with ever fewer advocates. Such an attitude would be unprecedented even in such a deporting nation as the United States has proved to be throughout its history. Or has the ground now been prepared for the emergence of such outbreaks of xenophobia and the launching of deporting paranoia?

Will immigration increase?

Contrary to what some suppose, the historical immigration flow is not a continually increasing line. Converted into a graph, it displays a series of long waves, similar to those detected by Kondratieff in the economy. In the case of the United States, let’s take the weight of the foreign population shown in the figure on page 39. The cycles are clear for both New York and the country as a whole. The most marked drop started from a peak in 1910 and continued, fueled by the Great Depression, until the 1970s, when a new depression had the opposite effect, attracting more immigrants.

Many factors influence migratory cycles measured by the demographic weight of foreigners, including mortality and voluntary returnee rates. We assume that returnee rate to be small, although this hypothesis has not been studied much. Other factors are the immigration flow relative to the birth rate of natives—the weight of the 1945-1965 baby boom, for example—and external conditioners such as wars, propagation of the American dream and the relative disadvantages of the capitalist periphery—higher unemploy¬ment rates, lower salaries, etc.—compared to the imperial country.

The decline that started in the teens and lasted until the seventies is explained partly by the Great Depression, partly by the baby boom, which alters the relative weight of foreigners from the receiving side, and partly by relative improvement in the countries on the periphery. Subsequently the armed conflicts and repressive military governments of the seventies and eighties in Latin America multiplied the volume of people who fled to the United States to escape the war and violence to such a degree that they then acted as networks for inserting those fleeing the structural adjustment programs and other severe economic tremors of the nineties.

One point of ideological inflection was particularly important in increasing this flow: people stopped believing in the possibility of changing their country through either reform or revolution and put their faith in changing country, with transport facilities—particularly the growth in the “coyote” business—and an epidemic word-of-mouth contagion operating as incentives. A second element can be perceived in communities where migrating has become a rite of passage, a cultural factor supporting the principle that migration itself increases migration.

An increased migration flow and the demographic weight of immigrants in the population as a whole do not necessarily trigger restrictive policies, as proved by the graphic and the historical overview above. Much more important is who’s migrating: perceptions of ethnic distance between the native population and immigrants. More important still, of course, are fluctuations in labor demand: indispensable enemies are treated very differently than superfluous or competitive enemies.

Will deportations increase?

To better measure whether we are heading toward a more or less xenophobic era, it’s perhaps worth having a look at the figures on deportees and those related to the granting of residency or citizenship. As can be seen in the table on page 45, the percentage of rejected requests for citizenship has increased notably. Between 1925 and 2007, the period most favorable for people aspiring to be “Americans” was the 1965-75 decade, when only 1.73% of requests were rejected, partly because it was a time of low demand. The worst decade was 1996-2005, when almost a quarter were rejected. In the next two years almost 10% of the requests submitted were denied, but over a million were submitted during these two years, most of which are still being processed, meaning we will only know the real percentage rejected in a few years time. For the moment, we can conclude without a shadow of doubt that we are witnessing the most reluctant time for granting citizenships.

In contrast, deportations are increasing at a rapid rate, and their comparison with the granting of residency provides an alarming contrast. The golden era of 1925-33, when almost 10 immigrants obtained residency for each one deported, seems almost idyllic. Department of Homeland Security figures show that the ratio in 2006-2007 was one to one. According to the same source, worse winds blew in 1947-54, when each residency cost 2.6 deportations. During the Second World War the floodgates were opened to immigrants due to the pressing need for labor to replace the posts vacated by urban and rural workers recruited by the army.

The “Bracero” program imported many temporary workers from Mexico and the INS was less severe in persecuting undocumented immigrants. After the war, the immigrants were competing for jobs with natives, particularly returning soldiers elevated to the status of heroes. As a result, immigration policies hardened, explaining why the number of deportees for each resident permit rose so much in 1947-54.

But even so, those policies didn’t achieve today’s granite hardness, which the figures don’t reveal in their real magnitude. The nationalist panoptic eye and filters are now disseminated around the world. Taking a leaf from major corporations that outsource the manufacture of pieces of their product to different countries, the US government has broken down the Ellis Island process and located it in many points of the globe. For example, Mexico is now the main filter for immigration from Mexico, Central and South America, and even a large part of the Caribbean. Around 30 Nicaraguans and many more other Central Americans are sent back from Mexico every week.

An overall total of 128,840 Guatemalans, Hondurans, Salvadorans and Nicaraguans were deported from the United States in 2005. That year 2.66 Central Americans were deported for each one granted residency, a figure similar to the average deportees of all nationalities during the worst period: post WWII. The Mexican immigration police nearly doubled that figure the same year, deporting 226,205 people of those same nationalities. If we add deportations from the USA to those from Mexico on their way to the States, a total of 7.32 were deported for each 1 granted citizenship. Quite a record.

A “half slave, half free”
country that officializes racism

Abraham Lincoln made the following celebrated statement in 1858: “I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free.” As Martin Walter sarcastically observed, the USA is once again intoning God Bless (white) America and doing away with slavery…. This time it’s expelling the slaves, people with deteriorated citizenry, inhabitants of an inferior category. But to the alarm of white pride, these slaves are insubordinate and aren’t taking it lying down. In early April of this year, thousands of Haitians marched in Miami, Florida, to demand an end to the mass repatriation of undocumented Haitian immigrants. They were responding to events of February, when immigration authorities sent 30,000 Haitians orders to leave the United States. According to the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Service (ICE), an investigative arm of the Dept. of Homeland Security, nearly 600 Haitians are detained and 240 are under house arrest, controlled by electronic bracelets. This time the panoptic eye is electronic.

To protest that decision by the new Obama government, some 10,000 people turned out to march in solidarity with the Haitians threatened with expulsion. The site of their protest was the Broward County temporary detention center for immigrants, near Miami. The Haitian organizations were also planning a protest in Washington D.C. for May 6.

These immigrants were the embodiment of Touraine’s warning that if we are only able to see immigrants as people fleeing the misery promised them by their backward societies and anxious to adopt the Western life-style, then irresolvable problems await us.

Deportation is an official act of racism. The white savage feels himself the lord of all manors, wherever he goes. It happens in the United States but it has also happened in many other places, including Africa. As Mark Twain observed, the black savage “was replaced by the Boer, a white savage, who is dirty; houses himself like a cow; is indolent; worships a fetich; is grim, serious, solemn, and is always diligently fitting himself for heaven, probably suspecting that they couldn’t stand him in the other place.”

José Luis Rocha is a researcher for the Jesuit Service for Migrants of Central America (SJM) and a member of the envío editorial council.

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