The federal government should stop rounding up hardworking immigrants.
In the largest single workplace raid to date, 595 of the 800 workers who showed up for work on Aug. 25 at the Howard Industries electronics plant in Laurel, Miss., never made it back home.
The vast majority of these undocumented workers have been separated from their families and now languish in the LaSalle Detention Facility in Jena, La., a for-profit immigrant prison maintained by the GEO Group, the multinational company formerly known as the Wackenhut Corrections Corp. Its fortunes have risen in tandem with immigrant detentions.
The rest of the detainees, mostly female workers with children left stranded at home and at school, were released only after having their ankles affixed with monitoring devices to ensure that they remain prisoners in their own homes pending eventual deportation hearings.
These raids are wrong for several reasons.
First, they tear apart families. As a result of the Howard Industries bust, nearly 500 children face the prospect of being motherless and fatherless if the deportations proceed.
Second, they terrorize the Latino community. In the wake of the Laurel raid, many workers skipped their shifts at the local poultry plants out of fear, Mexican restaurants shuttered their doors, and the superintendent of the county school district reported that about half of all Latino students stayed away from school the next day.
Third, they rock the local economy. Labor markets shrink, productivity declines and consumption levels plummet when immigrant workers are incarcerated or flee as a result of repression. This is because undocumented Latino workers — like it or not — are an integral and essential component of the national work force and increasingly provide the necessary labor for small towns along the factory belts of the Midwest and South.
According to a recent study by the National Council of La Raza, Latinos are the fastest-growing segment of the labor force.
Today, nearly 21.6-million Latinos are at work in the United States, representing 14.1 percent of the labor force. Of this, more than 55 percent are foreign-born, including an estimated 10- to 12-million undocumented workers.
Finally, raids don't work. While they have dramatically increased in frequency in recent years, they fail to significantly stem migration. Workplace raids and arrests in 2007 were 10 times what they were in 2002. Last year, the agency charged 863 people with criminal violations, such as identity theft, and 4,077 for allegedly being in the country illegally (an 800 percent increase since 2002).
Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff says illegal immigration has gone down as a result. But it has not fallen in direct proportion to the increase in the raids. And large numbers of migrant workers continue to cross without papers.
They do so because they are desperate to find a job to feed themselves and their families — and because their labor is needed. As one worker from economically depressed El Salvador planning to come to the United States told the Los Angeles Times, the U.S. economic slump and crackdowns on undocumented immigrants don't scare him. "Things may be bad there, but they're worse here," he said.
Farsighted Latino politicians like Reps. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., and Joe Baca, D-Calif., have properly called for a moratorium on raids while new efforts at immigration reform are pursued.
Sen. Barack Obama, for his part, has rightfully stated that raids are "terrorizing immigrant communities," and during his convention speech remarked that no one benefits "from an immigrant mother separated from a child." But more will need to be done to bring an end to this harmful policy.
The Republicans, meanwhile, passed a platform that endorses workplace raids and urges a greater crackdown on illegal immigration.
That's no solution. It will only cause more hardship, all the way around.
Justin Akers Chacon is a professor of U.S. history and Chicano studies in San Diego.
© Justin Akers Chacon; distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services