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Will Prejudice about Immigrants and Crime Hamper Gulf Cleanup?

June 17, 2010 - Posted by Maurice Belanger

Spill cleanup


The other night, the President addressed the nation from the Oval Office on the federal government's efforts to contain the worst oil spill in American history, which is still uncontrolled in the Gulf of Mexico.  He spoke of the magnitude of the government's mobilization to fight the spill:


"We now have nearly 30,000 personnel who are working across four states to contain and clean up the oil.    And I’ve authorized the deployment of over 17,000 National Guard members along the coast." 


Even as this story focuses the administration and the nation, the story of our broken immigration system intrudes. 


The St. Bernard Parish Sheriff's Office (Louisiana) put out a press release on June 10 saying that Sheriff Jack Stephens asked immigration authorities,


"to look into reports of illegal aliens among those working in the oil spill clean-up effort, which he said was part of an overall effort by the Sheriff’s Office to prevent criminals from entering under the guise of doing legitimate work."


The Sheriff said that his office is "concerned illegal aliens with criminal records represent a danger to our parish," and the Sheriff's office has set up check points throughout areas affected by the spill.


It's not clear how a check of immigration status would protect the parish from potential criminals, especially since immigrants (including undocumented immigrants) tend to be less prone to crime than the native born.


While the Sheriff cited experiences with those "with crime in mind" taking advantage of the Hurricane Katrina cleanup, the real problem with crime in the wake of Katrina was from employers who were under-paying or not paying workers who were doing the back-braking cleanup work.  Immigration checks will not stop this from occurring again.  Perhaps the Sheriff should have called the Department of Labor, which is charged with enforcing labor laws that were so flagrantly violated during the Katrina cleanup.  That's not ICE's mission.


In reaction to the Sheriff's statement, Lucas Diaz, Executive Director of Puentes New Orleans (quoted in Colorlines) said,


"It’s the same kind of language you see everywhere else at the local, state and federal policy level, where they try to take a harsh position and scare the public into thinking that anyone who might lack documentation and appears to be Latino is a criminal.”


Unfortunately, as long as Congress pushes off fixing our broken immigration system, these sorts of misguided efforts will be common.  In this case, just as the federal government is engaged in an unprecedented mobilization to keep the oil spill from wrecking the environment of the Gulf states, the misplaced focus on keeping "illegal aliens" out of the area might just work against the government's efforts.


Image by Flickr User DVIDSHUB.

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