The Federal War on Immigrants Is a War on All Workers





Mr. Young is an associate professor of history, and director of Latin American and Ethnic Studies at Lewis & Clark College. He writes for the History News Service.

Banner ad for History Posters. History Posters. click to see 400+ selections.

President Bush's immigration reform legislation appears to be dead in the U.S. Congress, but the ground war against undocumented immigrants continues to escalate. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) has dramatically changed its tactics by its increased use of well-publicized workplace raids to terrorize immigrant communities. Although immigrants bear the brunt of these attacks, the raids undermine the position of all workers in the United States.

The number of immigrants arrested in workplace raids has exploded from fewer than 500 in 2003 to almost 3,700 in 2006. The rate of arrests this year has doubled from the previous year, so that we can expect a record of more than 7,000 arrests at worksites by the end of 2007.

The history of immigrant deportations over the last century reveals the intimate relationship between immigration legislation and the repression of workers' rights. The recent increase in worksite raids comes, not coincidentally, at a moment when, despite a growing economy, low-wage workers are falling farther and farther behind.

The latest major attack on immigrant workers, on June 12, at the Fresh Del Monte Produce plant in Portland, Ore., demonstrates that Bush's new immigration policy uses workplace raids to create a fearful and therefore easily exploitable immigrant labor force. In the Del Monte raid, hundreds of ICE agents swept into the factory in a military-style operation, rounded up 167 immigrants and took them away in buses with blacked-out windows to a jail-like detention center in the neighboring state of Washington.

This is not only an immigration issue. It's also a question of workers' and human rights. Del Monte workers had repeatedly complained about being paid below the state's minimum wage. They said that they had been forced to work in frigid temperatures in ankle-high pools of water without protective gear. The company responded with threats to fire them. The federal government's response to this flagrant violation of workers' rights was to arrest the workers themselves.

Workplace raids are becoming a familiar scene across the United States. In March, 350 immigrants were arrested in a leather factory in New Bedford, Mass. The mostly Mexican and Central American workers were making backpacks for the U.S. military. Those arrested were taken to a decommissioned military facility, and 178 of them were flown to another detention center in Texas.

Lawyers for the immigrants have since complained that flying the immigrants to Texas denied them adequate access to lawyers. Even without the extraordinary measure of flying the immigrants halfway across the country, undocumented immigrants have found that they have no right to court-appointed lawyers and few have the means to afford their own legal counsel.

Deportations have been a tool of anti-unionism ever since 1917, when armed vigilantes known as Loyalty Leaguers rounded up more than 1,100 copper mine workers who supported a strike in Bisbee, Ariz. They loaded them in boxcars and dumped them in New Mexico. The federal government sent troops to detain many of the deportees, while the companies were exonerated by the courts.

In 1919-20, the Palmer Raids directed by the attorney general and J. Edgar Hoover's Bureau of Investigation targeted union members and leftists, leading to the mass arrest of at least 10,000 individuals and the deportation of hundreds of immigrants of Russian origin to the Soviet Union. In the 1930s, at the height of labor radicalism in the United States, more than 500,000 Mexican laborers were repatriated, even though more than half were legal residents or U.S. citizens.

The 1917 Bisbee deportations, the 1919 Palmer Raids, the 1930s Mexican repatriations, and the recent spate of workplace raids have a common feature: they inhibit workers' struggle for better working conditions and higher wages. While in 1917 the federal and state government stood by while vigilantes attacked workers, in 2007 the federal government does the dirty work itself.

In response to anti-immigrant federal policies, community organizations and local politicians around the country have condemned the violent workplace raids. On June 24, hundreds of Portland residents protested the Del Monte raids, and Portland's mayor, Tom Potter, criticized the ICE, calling it bad policy to attack laborers who are filling a local need.

Just three days after the raid, a Republican presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani, visited Portland and cheered the actions of the ICE, linking undocumented immigration to terrorism. According to Giuliani, "Once Sept. 11 happened, [immigration] became an issue of national security." Ultra right-wing anti-immigrant fringe groups such as the Minutemen used to be the ones demonizing immigrant laborers as criminals and potential terrorists. Today the Republican presidential front-runner utters the same kind of hate speech on his campaign stops.

The Bush proposals for guest worker legislation and the escalation of workplace raids are two sides of the same policy coin. Business interests need immigrant workers to pick crops, clean offices, build houses and mow lawns, but they also want a work force that is underpaid, fearful, and not unionized. Giuliani is right: there is a connection between immigration and terrorism, but it is the government and not the immigrants who are acting as the terrorists.

Related Links

  • HNN Hot Topics: Immigration

  • This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.



    comments powered by Disqus

    More Comments:


    Gwendolyn Midlo Hall - 7/7/2007

    I agree,Larry,that most Americans are good people,as are most people all over the world.The problem in this case is profiteering and diversion of supplies by some of the people in charge of US Detention centers and keeping the prisoners incommunicado to hide these nasty secrets. Hopefully, we still have a free press and a legal system which protects human rights. OK?


    Jason Blake Keuter - 7/6/2007

    Anyone with a modicum of econommic knowledge knows this articles argument is nonsense. The beneficiaries of illegal immigration are many and among the losers are some workers, especially those with no skills and no experience who cannot (or will not thanks to the welfare state) enter the workforce at a pay level commiserate with what they actually produce. In plain simple English: there are lost of Americans who can't make five dollars an hour. By that I mean they can't actually generate five dollars of value an hour with their labor; minimum wage laws prevent employers from paying them a fair and just wage for their work, and thus the tax payer (workers themselves) must subsidize these "workers" in a variety of ways - despite having already done so with an education system that did provide the student with plenty of opportunities to develop skills that would make them capable of producing something of value through work.

    Thus the welfare state lumpenproletariat benefit immensely from the immigration status quo.

    Workers also benefit from illegal immigration because it makes products cost a lot less, which in turn, allows workers to consume more products for less money. This in turn means workers have more disposable income to use on housing, cars, vacations, education or whatever else they want. Further, just wage levels (which, contrary to leftist received wisdom are not always high) improve the profitability of companies, which raises the stock value of those companies, which benefits workers as it increases the value of their retirement protfoloios, which in turn means they can fulfill every workers dream earlier: namely, RETIRING (not working).

    All of these crackdowns on "companies" (i.e the capitalist villans) are bad for many workers, but not in the sense that the quasi-marxist posters of hnn say.


    Gwendolyn Midlo Hall - 7/5/2007

    Not all laws are enforceable and closing our border with Mexico without comprehenisve immigration reform is clearly one example. Prohibition of alcohol fueled crime syndicates and had to be repealed. criminalization of illegal drugs is much, much worse. These unenforceable laws create sky high, artificial prices and profits for suppliers vastly strengthening the criminal syndicats and greatly expanding self-interested and self-protective enforcement bureaucracies. With miserable and very expensive health care and spiralling corruption in our country,we are heading for another disaster perhaps worse than Iraq because it is closer to home stemming from high levels of blind self-righteousness,ignorance, arrogance,stubbornness,corruption,inefficiency and xenophobia which threaten to destroy our great country.Stop trying to project our serious problems on and criminalize hard working,responsbile,self-sacrifiing workers who are here to provide for their families. Comprehensive immigration reform is absolutely essential to the future of our great nation.


    John Charles Crocker - 7/5/2007

    American people have the same capacity to abuse prisoners as other people. The conditions in these detention centers are one small piece of evidence in testament to this. What separates us from more abusive countries is the human rights protected by our legal system and generally held as important by our society. When we abandon these, as you advocate, we abandon what separates us from them.
    I know it is hard for some to stomach but criminals, even illegal aliens, are human beings and deserve human rights. Remember that those rights that were/are held to be self evident were for all men not just citizens.


    Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 7/4/2007

    Let's see some admission that most Americans are incapable of abusing prisoners, and that these illegal aliens are abusing us far more than we are abusing them. Yuma and San Isidro are not Baghdad, Cairo, Guadalajara, or Vera Cruz. Throw away ALL the legal safeguards in the U.S. and there would still be minimal inhumanity. It is no contest, either, when compared to how they treat us in their jails. If some day, somewhere, one of them is abused, he should have thought about that before breaking our laws. You are mistaken, Gwen, because all illegal aliens are criminals, and it is only inundation by them which is likely to turn us into a Third World country. It is about time to start correcting the problem.


    Gwendolyn Midlo Hall - 7/4/2007

    First let's be practical. Very few of these detained immigrants are criminals. A 2000 mile border cannot be controlled. Smuggling will escalate as it gets more profitable anad criminalization of both countries will escalate. Nor can 10 million+ workers be deported. To have roofers in New Orleans told if they fall off the roof they are fired before they hit the ground will turn us into a third world country. The rights of all workers must be protected. When it comes to what is legal, it is hard to justify our taking much of our country from Mexico and the entire country from their ancestors who were mainly Native Americans.


    John Charles Crocker - 7/3/2007

    Should corrupt practices and human rights abuses be swept under the rug so as not to "diminish America"?


    John Charles Crocker - 7/3/2007

    "... since they are not citizens, they should not be entitled to lawyers, either, whether at public expense or their own. They should have NO rights here..."
    Why should any rights? Just because they are human beings? No thats plainly ridiculous, human rights are only for citizens. Right?


    Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 7/3/2007

    With all the vigorous defenders of criminals in our country, I feel confident the abuses at detention centers, if any, will be flushed out and displayed on television as part of the liberal media's usual efforts to diminish America.


    Andrew D. Todd - 7/3/2007

    William McCall (Associated Press Writer), Raid on Portland plant uncovers illegal workers, KATU (Portland Oregon), Published: Jun 12, 2007 at 11:43 AM PDT, Updated: Jun 13, 2007 at 11:13 AM PDT

    http://www.katu.com/news/7959737.html

    -----------------------------------------

    Beth Slovic, Chop Shop: In a town that cares about food and human rights, WW finds a hidden world of illegal immigrants. On this May Day, something's rotten in St. Johns, Williamette Week, Monday, July 2nd, 2007

    http://www.wweek.com/editorial/3325/8915/

    -------------------------------------------

    Jeff Manning, From Farming To Construction, Illegal Workers Are Ingrained, Newhouse News Service (Portland Oregonian)

    http://www.newhouse.com/from-farming-to-construction,-illegal-workers-are-ingrained-2.html


    Gwendolyn Midlo Hall - 7/2/2007

    I have been told by a very reliable person detained in the El Paso detention center that they were held incommunicado and starved. I know his family could not communicate with him for over a month and they had no idea where he was. He told us he had not been allowed one telephone call. They were fed only cabbage and potatoes, no protein, not even eggs except for one small portion of meat per week. We seem to be losing just about everything that makes us proud to be citizens of our great country. This must stop!
    Gwendolyn Midlo Hall


    Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 7/2/2007

    Maybe they will scare some of them into going home--let's hope so. People should not be rewarded for cutting in at the head of the line, and since they are not citizens, they should not be entitled to lawyers, either, whether at public expense or their own. They should have NO rights here, and we should not have to suffer their jamming up our courts, jails, hospitals and schools. The United States has no sovereignty if it cannot control its borders. At present, an increase in enforcement of immigration laws is desired by about 80% of American citizens, without much difference between Republicans and Democrats. These raids should help our government get control of an outrageous situation, and end a serious threat to national security.


    Brian Martin - 7/2/2007

    >Del Monte workers had repeatedly complained about being paid below the state's minimum wage. They said that they had been forced to work in frigid temperatures in ankle-high pools of water without protective gear.<

    How praytell were they "forced to work in frigid temperatures"? Was someone standing there with a gun? If so, you might have a story, otherwise it just looks like hyperbole coming from supporters of illegal immigrants.

    Your so-called "ground war against undocumented immigrants" sounds like the gov't finally getting around
    to enforcing the existing laws.


    Clara McIver - 7/2/2007

    During WWII my father worked on the New York Central Railroad as a laborer. One of his memories was of Mexicans being brought in to work with him. He believed some of these men were not there voluntarily. One man very deliberately put his hand in a piece of equipment. My father always felt the fellow did it so he'd be sent back home.

    I wonder if that importing of workers was "official" in some way. The railroads were essential to the war effort so maybe they were allowed to get workers any way they could. Railroad workers were unionized, but using Mexican labor may have been accepted because of the war.

    It would be interesting to know if any of these imported workers stayed after the war. Presumably once American men returned and wanted jobs, they would no longer be accepted. It would also be interesting to know if the Mexicans were paid at the same rate.


    Al Johnson - 7/2/2007

    Workers of the World unite!! -- right... we've heard all this communist crap before, professor. The only right that illegal immigrants have is to get the hell out of the United States.

    Subscribe to our mailing list