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That Was the Year That Was

January 13, 2009 - Posted by Douglas Rivlin

For those of us who support immigration reform and still consume “old” media, the New York Times editorial page has become a home away from home.  Sensible editorial positions poetically and forcefully expressed delve into the issues of top importance, often expanding upon the first rate news reporting the paper provides.  Taking advantage of the gift of web archiving provided by “new” media, here now are the top immigration stories of the year as discussed on the editorial page of the Times. 

·        E-Verify Sounded Like A Good Idea At The Time; But Now? Not So Much…

·        Local Communities Behaving Badly…And Sometimes Wisely

·        In the Absence Of Real Immigration Reform…Dumb Stuff Happens

·        Citizenship Delayed Is Voting Denied

·        The Candidates, The Campaigns, And Immigration

·        Unfair, Unbridled, and Unhinged: Sheriff Joe Arpaio

·        Ground Zero: Postville, Iowa

·        Deaths In Detention: The Shameful Consequences Of Our Dysfunctional System


E-Verify Sounded Like A Good Idea At The Time; But Now? Not So Much…

Rep. Heath Shuler (D-NC), the former Washington Redskins quarterback, led the way as the Congress flirted with the very bad idea of making the “E-Verify” electronic employment verification system mandatory for all employers.  Immigration restrictionists in the House, including ex-Presidential candidate Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO), joined the freshman lawmaker in pushing the flawed E-Verify system to the very brink of passage.  Employers, Social Security advocates, unions, religious leaders, and others prevented this fiscal and economic disaster from becoming law.  The Times’ editorial page argued that the data problems underlying the Shuler/Tancredo proposal were a problem, yes, but in a perfect world could be corrected.  Equally important, however, was the folly of enacting mandatory electronic employment verification without broader immigration reform. 

Imagine that we end up with an airtight workplace verification system built on a perfect database — but without a path to legalization. In that world, an honest company that learns it has undocumented workers has the unhappy choice of firing them or taking them off the books. How many would choose option B?

Sleazy employers who already hire under the table would be encouraged, since the millions of workers stranded in the shadows would have nowhere else to go. (They will not deport themselves en masse, no matter what the Minutemen say.) American workers would then be more vulnerable to competition from illegal labor, not less.

Some employers, meanwhile, would readily abuse the system, prescreening job applicants, avoiding or discriminating against non-natives, not letting workers know their rights, firing them at will. (Immigration, Off the Books,” April 17, 2008)

It was mandatory E-Verify’s potential harm to the Social Security system — the Social Security Administration would have to administer the new requirement — which ultimately proved decisive in scuttling the proposal, at least for now.

Barbara Kennelly, a former Democratic representative from Connecticut and president of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, warned…that forcing Social Security to take on the enormous burden of immigration enforcement would be a harmful diversion from its core mission and could strain the bureaucracy to the breaking point.

That would have frightening implications for millions of people who are supposed to be served by the Social Security Administration, particularly the elderly and those who are disabled. With Social Security struggling to provide existing services and the sunset of the baby boom approaching, Ms. Kennelly said, now is no time to pile on more responsibilities. The backlog of pending disability cases at the initial level is more than 500,000, and more than 750,000 people who have appealed rejected claims are awaiting decisions. As of February, the average wait on an appeal was more than 500 days. (“What Social Security Isn’t Meant to Do,” May 12, 2008)


Local Communities Behaving Badly…And Sometimes Wisely

When the federal government fails to enact sensible immigration reform, states and localities are left to pick up the pieces, typified by local firebrand leaders trying to score political points with a game of “quien es mas macho?” to look tough on immigrants and immigration: 


·        In Danbury, Connecticut (“Rushing and Posturing in Danbury,” January 13, 2008), the city council proposed deputizing local police to enforce federal, civil immigration law.

·        In the State of New Jersey, where a narrow directive by the Attorney General to inquire about the legal status of those arrested for serious crimes was misinterpreted by some local police as a green light to start questioning all those who look foreign (“New Jersey’s Immigration Crackdown,” April 16, 2008). 

·        Completing the Tri-State trifecta, Suffolk County (Long Island) Executive Steve Levy, has made a name for himself by sowing over-the-top immigration discontent.  He found himself boxed into a corner when seven local youths allegedly stabbed a local Ecuadoran immigrant to death in November (“The High Cost of Harsh Words,” November 14, 2008).

Most of the focus was on communities seeking to get tough, but there were some localities that chose to get smart: 

·        Despite an onslaught from anti-immigration groups across the country, New Haven, Connecticut, fought to defend their locally-issued identification card – designed to provide valid government-issued ID and make the community safer (“Courage in Elm City,” May 22, 2008). 

·        The Los Angeles City Council considered an ordinance to have big-box stores that sell home improvement gear provide some form of shelter or accommodation for the day-laborers – many of them immigrants – who gather around them (“Day Laborers and Home Depot,” August 13, 2008); a sensible idea, which predictably drew the wrath of the anti-immigration crowd.


In the Absence Of Real Immigration Reform…Dumb Stuff Happens

You could call them the gang that doesn’t shoot straight, but perhaps the Department of Homeland Security is best thought of as a collection of law enforcement professionals that periodically test their weapons by shooting themselves in the foot.

During the dog days of August, a senior DHS official accidentally revealed during a TV interview that the agency would be instituting a new program.  The idea was to encourage immigrants to come forward for voluntary self-deportation.  After a month-long trial, you could count the immigrants who availed themselves of this “offer” on both hands.

This month, the Bush administration rolled out a new strategy to solve illegal immigration and just as quickly rolled it back in. It was called Operation Scheduled Departure, and it was simply this: It asked people to turn themselves in…

It is tempting to mock the administration for naïve conception and even worse execution, but that would give it too much credit for sincerity. Immigration and Customs Enforcement could never have expected to reap a big crop of undocumented people this way.

We suspect what it really wanted was to lend cover to its continuing campaign of raids and arrests. That is the real strategy. It is brutal, simplistic and also ineffective, but it is the one the country is sticking with. (“That’s 8 out of 457,000,” August 25, 2008)

Throughout this year’s hurricane season, local officials from the Department of Homeland Security along the Gulf Coast gave conflicting reports about whether they would or would not check the legal status of people fleeing a storm.  By the time Gustav bore down on New Orleans in August, there was sufficient confusion that a local worker center asked the Red Cross to clarify its policy as a way of encouraging immigrant workers to evacuate the city so damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The Red Cross has a long-standing policy of impartiality; it never asks evacuees about their legal status. But the workers’ center wanted something more reassuring. It asked the Red Cross to state in writing that its volunteers would be educated about the open-door policy, and that immigration agents would not be allowed to enter shelters for raids or investigations.

With the storm rolling ever closer, and the authorities ordering people to flee, no letter came. The Red Cross issued a general restatement of its impartiality policy — after the hurricane passed.

The Red Cross argues, rightly, that it cannot keep law-enforcement officials from doing their jobs if they have legal warrants. But it does have an internal policy stating that officials without warrants are not allowed into its shelters. The workers’ center says that a simple public statement of that policy would have been enough to persuade its members to get on the bus. Instead, with mere hours to spare, more than a thousand people decided they could not take the chance of being picked up. Though short on money and access to cars, they cobbled together their own evacuations.

This storm, thankfully, did far less damage than Katrina. But other storms still loom, and thousands of scattered workers are still lying low. And the federal government and the Red Cross still lack what should be an ironclad public policy: that during all phases of a disaster, from evacuation to shelter to return, victims without papers need never be afraid of accepting life-saving help.  (“No Shelter From the Storm,” September 7, 2008)


Citizenship Delayed Is Voting Denied

In 2006, record numbers marched for immigration reform.  In 2007, as that legislative effort foundered, record numbers of eligible immigrants applied for citizenship.  In 2008, the clock ticked to see how many of those who had taken the final steps toward citizenship would have the honor of taking the citizenship oath in time to vote in November.

[T]he wait for citizenship and green cards is up — way up. Citizenship and Immigration Services reported in January that the average time to process a citizenship application had risen to 18 months, from seven, and that green cards would now take a year, instead of six months or less. (“Citizenship Blues,” February 17, 2008)

* * *

The director of the federal Citizenship and Immigration Services agency, Emilio Gonzalez, is stepping down next month, leaving behind a gummed-up bureaucracy and perhaps a million empty promises. That’s about how many people are stuck waiting to have their citizenship petitions approved by the agency, which was swamped last summer by a flood of applications that it failed to predict or prepare for. (“Citizenship, Thwarted,” March19, 2008)


The Candidates, The Campaigns, And Immigration

Primaries: Grandstanding in Iowa and New Hampshire

Even by the low standards of presidential campaigns, the issue of immigration has been badly served in the 2008 race. Candidates — and by this we mean the Republicans, mostly — have been striking poses and offering prescriptions that sound tough but will solve nothing. They have distorted or disowned their pasts and attacked one another ferociously, but over appearances, not ideas — over who can claim to be the authentic scourge of illegal immigrants, and who is the Lou-Dobbs-Come-Lately. (“Immigration and the Candidates,” December 30, 2007)

* * *

The Republicans have been battling over the sincerity of their sound bites and trying to make their fixation on one dimension of the problem — tough border and workplace enforcement — sound like the solution.

But it isn’t, of course, because it ignores the fundamental question of what to do about the undocumented 12 million. A locked-down border won’t affect them. There is no way to round them up and move them out all at once. Not even the most eagerly anti-immigration candidate would dare talk about detention camps. Amnesty is a Republican curse word. So what’s the plan?

This is the cavernous hole in anti-immigration policy that its proponents want to cover with chain link and razor wire. It’s where swaggering Republicans get vague and mushy. (“One Argument, 12 Million Holes,” January 18, 2008)

General election: Mostly silence…

Immigration has vanished from the presidential race, but its problems are still with us, distorted by opportunists and poisoned by fear.

The system has too few visas, too many shadow workers and no way to bring a huge and vital undocumented labor force into compliance with the law.

The new president will not only have to stand up for something better; he will have to stand against the repulsive scapegoating that hard-liners like Sheriff Arpaio, who is up for re-election next month, have waged for short-term political gain. (“A War on Janitors,” October 20, 2008)

With a little bit of attack advertising:

Yes, immigration is a complicated and combustible issue for political candidates — and the economic meltdown is everyone’s top priority. No, that is no excuse for ignoring immigration or lying about it to voters, as John McCain and Barack Obama have been doing. (“Immigration Deception,” September 19, 2008)


Unfair, Unbridled, and Unhinged: Arizona’s Sheriff Joe Arpaio

One consequence of the federal government abdicating immigration regulation to the states is that some state and local officials are power hungry nut cases.  Few individuals received more negative ink from the New York Times editorial board than Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, which encompasses Phoenix, the nation’s fifth most populous county. 

For months now, Sheriff Joe has been sending squads of officers through Latino neighborhoods, pulling cars over for broken taillights or turn-signal violations, checking drivers’ and passengers’ papers and arresting illegal immigrants by the dozen.

Because he sends out press releases beforehand, the sweeps are accompanied by TV crews and protesters — deport-’em-all hard-liners facing off against immigrant advocates. Being Arizona, many of those shouting and jeering are also packing guns. Sheriff Joe, seemingly addicted to the buzz, has been filmed marching down the street shaking hands with adoring Minutemen.

If this doesn’t look to you like a carefully regulated, federally supervised effort to catch dangerous criminals, that’s because it isn’t. It is a series of stunts focused mostly on day laborers, as Sheriff Joe bulldozes his way toward re-election.  (“Immigration Outsourced,” April 9, 2008)

Gov. Janet Napolitano vetoed a state bill to enlist Arizona in the costly and controversial federal 287(g) program to federalize local police in immigration enforcement. 

Sheriff Joe Arpaio has built the biggest 287(g) posse in the country — 160 officers…Defenders of the Maricopa raids deny accusations of racial profiling, but it is hard to see it as anything else. The highly publicized sweeps have reaped bumper crops of fear and anger among Latino Arizonans — citizens and illegal immigrants — who have endured the stops, the flashing lights, the requests for papers. They have been little use in the serious pursuit of criminals.

Governor Napolitano’s veto of this repugnant bill will surely lead the Minutemen and their allies to denounce her again. She is standing up for what is right for her state and for what is right. The search for a rational immigration system will not be resolved by simplistic, predatory enforcement schemes. (“Pulling Back the Immigration Posses,” April 30, 2008)

As Gov. Napolitano prepares to leave the state, having been nominated to be the next President’s Secretary of Homeland Security, one question is whether Sheriff Joe will continue his antics without federal oversight or intervention.

None of the changes in Arizona’s capital will have much effect on one of the state’s worst actors, Joe Arpaio, the aggressive sheriff of Maricopa County who has taken the pursuit of the undocumented to unconstitutional extremes.

Ms. Napolitano has been criticized for not taking a tougher stance against Sheriff Arpaio, although she did cut off some of his state financing. There isn’t much anyone in Arizona can do to stop the sheriff, since he is an elected official who has just won a fifth term.

Here lies the brightest side of Ms. Napolitano’s promotion to the top federal immigration job. She can do what she has been imploring Washington to do for years: reassert federal control over immigration enforcement duties that have been randomly and haphazardly delegated to state and local governments; put enough meaningful enforcement resources at the border and in the workplace; and promote sensible reforms that allow immigrants to enter legally and to work safely in jobs where their rights and dignity are protected.  (“State of Fear,” December 8, 2008)


Ground Zero: Postville, Iowa

On May 12, thousands of federal officers descended on tiny Postville, Iowa, to round up and deport workers at the nation’s largest kosher meat packing plant and Postville’s largest employer.  Julia Preston and other New York Times reporters were instrumental in shining a national spotlight on Postville as a watershed for how our immigration laws are enforced.

An escalating campaign of raids in homes and workplaces has spread indiscriminate terror among millions of people who pose no threat. After the largest raid ever last month — at a meatpacking plant in Iowa — hundreds were swiftly force-fed through the legal system and sent to prison. Civil-rights lawyers complained, futilely, that workers had been steamrolled into giving up their rights, treated more as a presumptive criminal gang than as potentially exploited workers who deserved a fair hearing. The company that harnessed their desperation, like so many others, has faced no charges.  (“The Great Immigration Panic,” June 3, 2008)

It was not just the scale of the Postville raid that was remarkable, although it was the biggest single workplace raid up to that time in U.S. history (a record later broken by a raid in Mississippi).  It was also the combination of criminal charges, expedited proceedings, truncated due process, and limited legal counsel and translator access to the detained that made this ICE action so unique and brutal.  One of the translators for the accused later wrote a description of the Postville proceedings, which was published in the Times.

Anyone who has doubts that this country is abusing and terrorizing undocumented immigrant workers should read an essay by Erik Camayd-Freixas, a professor and Spanish-language court interpreter who witnessed the aftermath of a huge immigration workplace raid at a meatpacking plant in Iowa.

The essay chillingly describes what Dr. Camayd-Freixas saw and heard as he translated for some of the nearly 400 undocumented workers who were seized by federal agents at the Agriprocessors kosher plant in Postville in May.

Under the old way of doing things, the workers, nearly all Guatemalans, would have been simply and swiftly deported. But in a twist of Dickensian cruelty, more than 260 were charged as serious criminals for using false Social Security numbers or residency papers, and most were sentenced to five months in prison.

What is worse, Dr. Camayd-Freixas wrote, is that the system was clearly rigged for the wholesale imposition of mass guilt. (“The Shame of Postville, Iowa,” July 13, 2008)


Deaths In Detention: Shameful Consequences Of A Dysfunctional System

In early May, veteran immigration reporter Nina Bernstein looked into the conditions facing immigrants in detention in the New York metro area.  Her discoveries were chilling and entirely consistent with another front page investigation run by the Washington Post in 2008.

Bernstein’s report focused on the story of Boubacar Bah, a tailor from Guinea, who was imprisoned for overstaying a tourist visa and who injured his head in a fall:

Though clearly gravely injured, Mr. Bah was shackled and taken to a disciplinary cell. He was left alone — unconscious and occasionally foaming at the mouth — for more than 13 hours. He was eventually taken to the hospital and died after four months in a coma.

Nobody told Mr. Bah’s relatives until five days after his fall. When they finally found him, he was on life support, soon to become one of the 66 immigrants known to have died in federal custody between 2004 and 2007. Mr. Bah’s family still does not know the full story of when or how he suffered his fatal injuries.  (“Death by Detention,” May 6, 2008)

The tragedy befalling the Bah family was hardly unique.  The story of another death in detention, this time Hiu Lui Ng of China, was told by Bernstein and summarized on the editorial page:

Although he complained of excruciating back pain for months, and grew ever frailer in custody, officials at the Rhode Island detention center where he was being held denied Mr. Ng an independent medical evaluation and even a wheelchair. At one point, according to the affidavits, he was shackled and taken in an ambulance for a two-hour drive to Hartford, where an immigration officer pressured him to stop appealing his case and accept deportation.

When lawyers finally persuaded a judge to insist on suitable medical treatment for Mr. Ng, the long-deferred diagnosis was dire. Prison officials had said it was all an act. It was terminal cancer — and a broken spine. Mr. Ng was taken to the hospital, and died five days later.  (“Mr. Ng’s Death,” August 17, 2008)

The Times editorial board came out in support of the Detainee Basic Medical Care Act, introduced by Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) (“Dying in Detention,” June 11, 2008), but noted the problems go beyond medical care:

There is no public system for tracking deaths in immigration custody, no requirement for independent investigations. Relatives and lawyers who want to unearth details of such tragedies have found the bureaucracy unresponsive and hostile. In the case of Mr. Bah, records were marked “proprietary information — not for distribution” by the Corrections Corporation of America, a private company that runs the Elizabeth Detention Center and many others under contract with the federal government.

Secrecy and shockingly inadequate medical care are hardly the only problems with immigration detention.  Immigrants taken into federal custody enter a world where many of the rights taken for granted by people charged with real crimes do not exist. Detainees have no right to legal representation. Many are unable to defend or explain themselves, or even to understand the charges against them, because they don’t speak English and lack access to lawyers or telephones.  (“Death by Detention,” May 6, 2008)


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