Coming to a town near you: the battle over immigrant rights

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NewsAnalysis

Action in Congress on immigrant rights legislation is suspended at least until the fall session. But action is intensifying in state legislatures, in municipal councils and within the nooks and crannies of our social system.

The House Republican leadership has blocked the conference committee that, under normal procedures, would reconcile the House immigration bill, HR 4437, with the rather different Senate bill, S 2611. Instead, the House is holding a huge number of “field hearings” — 21 scheduled for August alone — on the Senate bill. The purpose is to give the Republicans a chance to use undocumented immigrants as a collective “Willie Horton” or scapegoat to save their necks in the November midterm elections. They have little else to run on.

In addition, the Department of Homeland Security is carrying out numerous arrests of undocumented workers and legal permanent residents, some of whom are being deported under the terms of draconian 1996 legislation that mandates arrest and deportation for all non-citizens convicted even of some relatively minor offenses, sometimes decades old. The way the government is carrying out the arrests — with big publicity and scooping up anybody else they run into who can’t prove that they are legally in the country — is designed to intimidate immigrants and to pander to the ultra-right.

Not to be outdone, more than half of the state legislatures have passed or are trying to pass anti-immigrant legislation as an electoral gimmick. These include laws against hiring the undocumented, preventing them from getting driver’s licenses and public services and so forth. Colorado’s legislation is so harsh that it is feared that many impoverished elderly people, not only immigrants but native born, will be kicked out of programs like Meals on Wheels because they can’t come up with their birth certificates.

And small towns around the country are also looking at ways of making immigrants’ lives impossible. In Hazleton (population 30,000), a southeastern Pennsylvania mountain community which is about one-third Latino, the town council has passed legislation prohibiting hiring, or providing services to, undocumented workers, as well as prohibiting the public use of any language but English.

The Hazleton ordinance would force anyone wishing to settle in the town to prove their legal status. All landlords would be obliged to check the citizenship status of anyone applying to rent an apartment.

What is not said is that this ordinance, like similar legislation elsewhere, would greatly increase racial profiling as authorities are likely to only enforce it against people with “foreign” accents or dark skins. The Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund is preparing a suit against Hazleton.

But these measures are meeting with increasing resistance, and not only from immigrants. Unions, churches, local organizations and informal networks of neighbors do not take kindly to their members, friends and neighbors being grabbed, put in handcuffs and spirited away. The main propaganda weapon of the anti-immigration movement, which is that undocumented immigrants are bringers of crime, disease and illiteracy, falls completely flat when non-immigrant families have come to know their immigrant neighbors at a personal level.

An example of this is the public response to a Homeland Security immigration raid at the Petite Jean poultry plant at Arkadelphia, Ark., reported by Molly Hennessy-Fiske in the July 23 edition of the Los Angeles Times.

Last year, the government rounded up 119 mostly Mexican immigrant workers, handcuffed them and processed them for deportation. To the government’s surprise, many ordinary citizens — including the sheriff — of this socially conservative town stood up for the immigrants, many of whom they also know personally.

Many cities, including New York, Boston and Chicago, have explicit policies limiting cooperation of their employees with federal deportation actions.

The possibility that harshly anti-immigrant measures might backfire against the Republican right is also reflected in national polls. Last week, results of such a poll, carried out jointly by the Republican-connected Tarrance Group and Democrat-connected Lake Research Partners, showed that 71 percent of a national sample favor an approach that “does something” about the borders but also would give at least some undocumented immigrants a chance to legalize themselves.

The lesson for supporters of immigrant rights is that efforts to appeal for support to the non-immigrant population are far from being a waste of time, and should be greatly strengthened.