SINCE WHEN HAS WORKING BEEN A CRIME?
the deportation of Mexicans without papers
by Sojourner Truth Organization
When Frank Stewart came to work early Tuesday morning, he punched in and went up to the locker room to change clothes.
"Where were you yesterday?" asked Joe Williams, who changed at the next locker. "Dont you know we work on Mondays around here?"
"I had to go to court to fight a speeding ticket. First they kept me waiting half a day. Then 1 had to look at this stupid movie about how to drive."
"You missed some real excitement around here," said Joe. "The government pulled a raid."
"What do you mean, a raid?"
"Just what I said," Joe answered. "A raid. Around four guys in suits came in and started asking questions. 'Where were you born? Where are your papers?' Questions like that. As soon as some of the people in packing saw what was happening, they took off. Man, you never saw anyone disappear so fast."
"No kidding? Where did they go?"
"I don't know. Out the door. Behind the boxes in 114. In the can. Maria told me one lady in her department hid out in the garbage pail."
Frank was starting to get the picture.
"Who were these guys?"
"Bill, the union steward said they were agents from the INS - Immigration and Naturalization Service. They were looking for people in this country without papers."
Frank was disappointed he'd missed the excitement.
"Wouldn't you know I'd pick that day to be off. How come I always miss all the fun?"
Joe looked serious.
"It wasn't much fun. I saw them hassling Julio -the Puerto Rican over in assembly. They were really giving him a hard time - making him show his papers. And he's a citizen, so he hasn't got papers. They were calling him a liar. Pushing him around. They wouldn't believe he was Puerto Rican. They kept asking him if he got here by bus."
Joe clearly didn't think much of the way the agents acted.
"They were pulling every person who looked like they were Mexican off their lines and hassling them. They even stopped Steve, and he's Japanese. This one agent kept talking to him in Spanish. The place was crazy - people running all over; lines backing up; everyone getting all shook up. The only departments that weren't touched were the ones where almost everyone's white."
"Did they catch anyone?" Frank asked.
"When I saw them leaving they had Juan Lopez and Eliseo that works in packing. And they had one of the Spanish women from assembly. I think her name is Mercedes. The foreman said they were here without papers. I guess they'll all be put on a bus back to Mexico."
"Why some of those people have been here for years. Two of Juan's kids were born here. And just last week he was telling me about the plans for his son's christening."
"Maybe so," said Joe, "but the christening will have to take place in Mexico, because he's gone from here."
Frank finished changing his clothes. He didn't say much for the rest of the day, but he listened to other people talking. Some of the conversation was about the raid of the day before. People wondered if there were others without papers in the plant besides the three they caught.
That night, after Frank and his wife, Joyce, had put the children to sleep, they sat around talking. He told her about the raid.
"It doesn't seem right," she said. "Those people have been in the plant working like everyone else. Juan's wife just had a baby. How will they live with three kids and him losing his job? And both of them being sent back?"
"I don't know. Some of the guys were saying it was a good thing that they got the three of them, because it will mean more jobs for Americans. That makes sense. It's hard enough to get a job now."
"Isn't Juan the one you used to trade food with?" Joyce continued.
"That's right. He'd give me tacos from home sometimes, and I'd give him some of my lunch. He really likes your meat loaf."
Frank thought for a minute.
"The other thing some of the guys were saying is that the Mexicans who are here illegally don't pay taxes and are a drain on the economy. I read something about that in the "Tribune" last week."
"How could Juan not pay taxes?" Joyce asked, frowning. "That's ridiculous. The company deducts taxes from his check the same as they do from yours - before you even see the money."
They both sat quietly for a minute, before Joyce continued.
"You'd think that a rich country like this wouldn't have to turn away anyone looking for honest work. After all, there are plenty of things that need doing."
The incident at the plant that Frank and Joyce Stewart talked about was only one of many such incidents all over the country. It is estimated that there are from six to twelve million people living in the U.S. without what the government calls "proper papers". They come from all over - from Canada, from Hong Kong, India and Greece, from Jamaica and Haiti - but the largest number come from Mexico.
Why do they come? The answer, in most cases, is simple: a chance to work. And work they do, in agriculture, food processing and serving, clothing manufacture, transportation wherever productive labor is carried on.
The argument is often made that the undocumented workers don't pay taxes. Exactly the opposite is true. Joyce Stewart was right when she pointed that out to Frank. Juan Lopez' employer withheld federal and state taxes from his paychecks. When Juan was returned to Mexico he was unable to recover the excess in income tax he paid during the course of the year. And taxes aren't the only losses suffered by people forced by the U.S. Government to leave. There is the money the employer takes out for social security. If people are forced to leave they lose it all. Even if they stay, they can't collect social security for the time they were here without papers. People also lose bank accounts, furniture, and other household goods and personal belongings everything that can't be packed up and put on a bus with them.
There are other losses as well. Greedy lawyers charge all kinds of money to "defend" victims of immigration arrests. In the end, the people have to leave anyway, and they leave a lot poorer than before the lawyer took their money. Similarly there is the problem of notaries. In Mexico, a notary is almost like a lawyer: someone people go to for certain legal services that do not require actually going to court. In the U.S., anyone with $15. can be a notary. But since the Spanish word is similar notaria and since unscrupulous notaries with neon signs outside their neighborhood offices are able to attract people with immigration problems, many notaries do a large illegal business. They steal money from people and give back false promises or simple services that are available at low cost, if the people only know where to look for them.
People without proper papers suffer other financial losses as well. There is the money that some pay to contractors for jobs and false papers. Not everyone does this, since not everyone has the money or the connections. But there are many contractors or middlemen who fix workers up with papers and jobs, in return for big sums of money. If these workers get caught by the immigration agents, they lose the money they put up for the jobs and papers, as well as everything else.
There are personal losses. Families are broken up by the immigration laws. The U.S. Constitution says that any person born here is a citizen. This means that many undocumented workers have children who are citizens. If children are old enough to stay and work, they may choose to stay and support the family when it is sent back. Or the child may go back with the family and then return when it is old enough to work. Also, it is very common for sisters and brothers to be separated by the immigration laws.
Besides discrimination at work, people like Juan live in constant fear and uncertainty. They know that if the immigration officials catch up with them, what little amount of financial security they've found will be taken away. Anything can lead to being caught: a raid, a fight with a neighbor, sending a child to school, a speeding ticket or just walking down the street and being Mexican. Raids and other forms of harassment are still common despite the government's claim that they are no longer doing this. In and near the community of South Chicago, there have been recent raids on local restaurants and numerous work places such as Republic Steel, Jay's Potato Chips, Solo Cup and two local hospitals. In the case of the hospitals, supervisors called an "employees meeting" and once the workers were assembled, the doors of the meeting room were closed and the immigration officials were brought in. Even workers with proper papers are hassled as the government is liable to stop any Mexican or person of color, trying to find "illegals." Being caught means jail, until the victim can put up $500 to $1500 in bond, or until that person is on the bus to Mexico.
Another problem that these U.S. corporations in Mexico create for workers is the language problem. The companies often want their employees, especially those in office jobs, to speak English. And because these companies want English speaking workers, Mexican schools want English speaking teachers. Since the arrival of U.S. business interests in Mexico, speaking Spanish is not good enough for many jobs. So people come here to learn English while they work, in hopes of some day landing a better job back home. It is doubly aggravating to Mexican workers here to have to put up with the argument "If they live here they should speak our language", when even in their own country, its getting to be important to speak our language.
Many workers just stay a few years in this country, before returning home. Others, like Juan, settle here and raise families. Do they compete with "American" Workers for jobs? Of course they do. Under the present system, all workers compete for jobs. But we think there is something wrong with the idea that competition of workers is more important than their contribution. Workers without papers, like immigrant workers generally be they from Africa, Europe, South America or the East have built the railroads, dredged the canals and dug the mines that have given this country the mightiest industrial base on earth. With so many more tasks waiting to be performed, the country cannot afford to turn away those who come from other lands looking for work. The contribution that the immigrant workers, including those without official papers, have made in the U.S. is enormous: a lot greater than the contribution made by those who are seeking to deport them.
Whenever we have high unemployment, those representing the interests of big business attempt to cover up their own responsibility for this situation by blaming working people. As the U.S. unemployment rate rose in the last five years, new laws were introduced to the Congress which were designed to blame Mexican workers for the U.S. economic troubles. One of these laws, the Rodino Bill, was defeated due to the united opposition of many people who understood its unjust-ness and the dirty trick behind it. However, a number of states have enacted similar legislation and others are attempting to do so. Furthermore another bill, called the Eilberg Law, was sneaked through the U.S. Congress to replace the Rodino Bill. Among other things, the Eilberg Law reduces the annual quota of Mexicans legally entering the U.S. from 43,000 to 20,000. It also changes the status of parents with children born in the U.S. by making them wait until the child is 21 before they can get the papers which would make them legal residents. This provision makes many more people liable for deportation and divides families. Such laws must be resisted and stopped. But it is even more important to resist all efforts to deport working people who are simply trying to work for the money that is being drained out of their country by U.S. corporations.
Frank and Joyce Stewart didn't know it, and neither do most people, but there is a precedent in history for the kinds of reactionary deportation laws that are being enacted against workers without papers now.
In 1850, when slavery still existed throughout the U.S. South, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law. This incredible law was designed to stop the steady stream of slaves escaping to the North. It provided for fines and prison terms for anyone sheltering refugees from slavery. Suspected runaway slaves could be arrested on request, or on sight, without a warrant and turned over to a claimant, on nothing more than the claimant's word that he was the owner. It was all perfectly "legal" just like the deportation hearings are today. A person would be arrested and brought before a judge. In about one minute, the person would be charged, the owner would testify the victim was "his" slave, and the so-called trial would be over.
The appeal the slave holders made to enlist northern support for the Fugitive Slave Law was in many ways like the argument put forward today by the U.S. Government for deporting undocumented workers. The slaveholders the biggest and cruelest exploiters of labor of their time painted themselves as heroes and champions of white labor. They boasted that they were protecting white people from competition for jobs by black laborers. "After all," they argued, "as long as black folks are working without wages on the plantations, they can't take away white people's jobs."
These arguments were exactly backwards. They were answered very well by Frederick Douglass, a brilliant man and a former slave himself. He showed that it was slavery, not black people, that degraded free labor. As long as black people were forced to work without wages on the plantations, nobody's wages black or white could rise very high. Unfortunately, few from the ranks of white laboring people heeded Douglas's wise words. Just like today, most white workers attached way too much importance to the benefits they received for being white. Then, they focused on the benefits of being free: as bad as things were for them, at least they weren't slaves. Today they focus on their relatively better jobs and housing; on their nicer neighborhoods and better schools. What they ignored was and still is the most important thing of all. As long as the corporations and the government can keep white people happy and quiet with their little privileges, they can keep the whole working class under their heel.
At the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law, fear and dread spread through the black population of the North, where it was estimated that more than 50,000 fugitives had taken refuge from slavery. Would they be caught? Would they be found, even after years of freedom? Would Congress come up with new laws making northern blacks slaves, as well. Some fled to Canada.
At the same time, resistance developed. Lots of it. Opponents of slavery condemned the law, declaring that the slaveholders were attempting to turn citizens of the republic into slave catchers. They held public assemblies to marshal opposition. They formed anti-slavery societies and circulated petitions. And they made bold, heroic efforts to rescue fugitives, in open defiance of the law. Armed clashes broke out between the slave catchers and defenders black and white of fugitive slaves.
An outstanding example of direct resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law was the case of Anthony Burns.
On May 24, 1854, Anthony Burns, who had learned to read and write in slavery, was arrested in Boston as a fugitive slave, put in irons, and placed under guard in the federal courthouse. The guard was a posse of special police, one-third of whom were known thugs with prison records. News of the arrest spread fast. The next day, three lawyers came to court to defend him: Charles M. Ellis, a member of the Boston Vigilance Committee, which was organized to protect the rights of black people; Richard Henry Dana Jr., author of Two Years Before the Mast; and Robert Morris, the city's most respected black attorney.
The next night, during a gathering nearby of citizens to protest Burns' arrest, a man cried out "WHEN WE GO FROM THIS CRADLE OF LIBERTY, LET US GO TO THE TOMB OF LIBERTY THE COURTHOUSE!" And go they did. The crowd stormed the courthouse and battered down the door, attempting to rescue Burns. The attack was repulsed by armed constables and deputies, but one deputy was killed in the process.
Black people gathered around the courthouse and stood vigil around the clock. Knowing it was impossible to win Burns' freedom in court, abolitionists and black people raised $1,200, his "price" and tried to buy his freedom. The U.S. Attorney, however, refused to allow this transaction, arguing that the Fugitive Slave Law required Burns' to be returned to his owner in Virginia.
Of course, Burns did lose the legal battle. When he was to sail to Virginia a few days later, 22 military units were called up to make sure he didn't escape. A cannon was mounted in front of the courthouse. 50,000 shouted "SHAME" as they watched the Boston police and the U.S. Army march Burns to the docks. The town was draped in black. At one point, the crowd tried to break through a police cordon to rescue Burns, but they were forced back.
Although Anthony Burns' market value was $1200, it had cost the government more than $40,000 to return him to his owner. Back in Virginia, the Richmond "Enquirer" printed an account: "We rejoice, but a few more such victories and the South is undone."
There were other slave rescue attempts, and some were successful. On February 15, 1851, waiter Fred Wilkins, or Shadrach, as he was known, was seized from his job and rushed to the Boston courthouse. While Shadrach was still in court, a group of 50 black people from the neighborhood pushed into the courtroom, lifted him in the air, and spirited him to a carriage. Shadrach and his rescuers moved away "like a black squall." The rescue was so fast, nobody even pursued Shadrach. His rescuers were all eventually found not guilty by a sympathetic jury.
From the beginning, black people made up the main force in the resistance to slavery. They operated on the universally recognized principle that people fighting for their freedom must themselves strike the first blow. The Civil War began with both sides fighting for slavery the South to take it out of the Union, the North to keep it in. It was the noble efforts of the black people, free and slave, and the efforts of their white supporters, that brought about the greatest achievement of the war the ending of the evil system of human slavery.
If Frank and Joyce Stewart had known the history of this country not just the part about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln they teach in school they would have been able to answer the question a lot of people ask about deportations. What can you do?
As was described in the previous section, at the time of the Fugitive Slave Law, the widest, boldest resistance came from the direct victims of the law: slaves and free black women and men. Just as then, widest resistance now will come from Mexican residents of the U.S., who bear the heaviest burden. Already, they are beginning to show the way. In Los Angeles last year, workers who are here with legal papers refused to show them to the immigration agents, jamming the prisons and courts with their resistance to an unjust, unfair, racist law. Also in Los Angeles, thousands of Mexican people without papers marched in defiance of the law to the Immigration Department offices. In such large numbers, and with the support of so many people, nobody was arrested.
There are many more actions that people can take to defend workers without papers. We can refuse all cooperation with the immigration agents. We can refuse to answer any questions, including where we were born. We can turn around and ask them where they were born. Or tell them to show us their papers, if we are stopped. All this is completely legal. And if a lot of us who are citizens or permanent residents refuse to cooperate, it will make it very difficult for the immigration police to do their dirty work.
Beyond that, we can go even further. We can begin to show our strength by acting together where we work. Workers in large plants and mills can prevent the immigration police from freely circulating around and snatching people out. There is no way that raids can be carried out at large mills like Republic Steel, the scene of a recent raid, if the people who work there decide to stop them. Furthermore, workers can respond with strike action against the deportation program. They can strike if the front office lets the immigration police in the door.
Like the slave rescues described earlier, these actions could put a fast stop to the ugly harassment and deportations of Mexican people in the U.S. There is no doubt that the American working class, veteran of the eight hour day movement, practitioner of the sit-down strike and the roving picket line, instigator of the flying wedge and the strike-on-the-job, can bring these evil deportations to a screeching halt once they make up their minds to do it.