Weekly Diaspora: One Year After SB 1070, What’s Changed?

by Catherine A. Traywick, Medica Consortium blogger

A year ago this month, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed SB 1070 into law, effectively pushing an already vibrant anti-immigrant movement to a new extreme. Over the following months, immigrant rights advocates prepared for the worst, and grappled with multiple setbacks as other states threatened to follow Arizona’s example.

Looking back, though, it’s clear that the draconian immigration law hasn’t quite measured up to its bad reputation—in part because a federal injunction blocked several of its more pernicious provisions.Kent Peterson at New America Media/Frontera NorteSur suggests that anti-immigrant policymakers “overreached” with SB 1070, pushing the restrictionist movement to its own peak with the controversial law.

Arizona’s political influence has waned

Certainly in the long term, the law seems to have done more harm than good to the movement. While it initially added plenty of fuel to the restrictionists’ fire, it has ultimately failed to spread through other states the way many expected it to. While a few states (seeColorlines.com’s infographic or Alternet’s rundown) are still considering SB1070-type laws, most others have backed off the idea.

As Seth Hoy explains at Alternet/Immigration Impact, “states learned from Arizona — the numerous protests, Supreme Court challenge, costly litigation, economic boycotts that are still costing state businesses millions — and rejected similar laws.” Peterson similarly notes that a number of states have moved away from Arizona’s example because of SB 1070’s unexpected economic consequences—chiefly, an estimated $769 million in economic and tax revenues lost as a result of boycotts.

Immigrants still marginalized

That’s not say that the law has had no effect on immigrants. While a federal judge stayed several of its provisions last summer, SB 1070 proved to be a precursor to other insidious state laws targeting immigrants. Empowered by their success with SB 1070 and the ensuing media frenzy, state legislators quickly moved forward with several other harsh laws. As Feet in Two Worlds’ Valeria Fernandez explains, many immigrants in Arizona continue to live in fear even though SB 1070 is only partially enacted. She writes:

When you talk to immigrants in the street, they’ll tell you that not much has changed. Some continue to live in fear that they could be stopped by the police and deported. Others are having a difficult time getting work due to another Arizona law that harshly sanctions employers who hire undocumented immigrants.

At Colorlines.com, Seth Freed Wessler elaborates on the real impact of bills like SB 1070. He writes:

[The bills] send waves of fear and confusion into immigrant communities. … In the period since SB 1070 passed, uncounted numbers of immigrants have fled their homes in Arizona. … And the provisions in the law that were not blocked by the court, including one that makes it a crime to harbor or transport undocumented immigrants, put everyone at risk.

The role of the federal government

Nevertheless, Wessler points out that the federal government—not SB 1070 and not Arizona—is to blame for the brunt of the damage inflicted upon undocumented immigrants in the last year. Besides deporting record numbers of immigrant detainees and significantly expanding border enforcement, the Department of Homeland Security laid the groundwork for SB 1070 with its 287(g) program—which enabled local law enforcement to act as ICE agents. Adding insult to injury, President Barack Obama never came to close to fulfilling his campaign promise of passing comprehensive immigration reform.

Whether he will do so this year is up for debate, but many reform advocates remain skeptical after last year’s ups and downs. As Marcos Restrepo of the American Independent reports, several immigrant rights activists voiced disappointment after Obama convened a White House meeting on immigration last Tuesday. Chief among the critics was Pablo Alvorado, director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, who said in a statement:

While we appreciate the President’s effort to keep immigration reform on the national agenda, his actions belie his intent…If the President genuinely wanted to fix the broken immigration system, he would respond to the growing chorus of voices calling for the suspension of the secure communities program and move to legalize instead of further criminalize our immigrant communities.

The American Prospect’s Gabriel Arana is similarly skeptical of both the president’s approach to the problem, and his ability to enact meaningful reform:

On one hand, it is laudable that the president has revived the immigration debate, but there is a reason it died last year, even with Democrats in firm control of Congress and the executive branch. Instead of trying to tack immigration reform to an enforcement bill, the president should change the frame and stop talking about immigration as a national-security issue rather than an issue in its own right.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about immigration bymembers of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Diaspora for a complete list of articles on immigration issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, and health care issues, check out The AuditThe Mulch, and The Pulse. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

 

Tax day, Passover week: labor, migration & justice, now...and in 2049

From our Restore Fairness blog-

On this year’s Tax Day that has just passed, several organizations including the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), MoveOn, Daily Kos and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) joined forces for ‘Tax Day: Make Them Pay.’ The groups organized peaceful protests around the country outside the offices of big corporations and millionaires that have evaded paying taxes for last year, mostly due to government-mandated tax breaks. According to the site, “In 2009, after helping crash the American economy, Bank of America paid $0 in taxes. GE had a tax bill of $0 in 2010. Republicans want to give a $50 billion tax bailout to big oil companies…” These protests came at the heels of news that corporations such as General Electric paid no federal taxes in 2010, something that has infuriated the millions of workers around the country who work hard and are expected to dutifully pay their taxes on time.

The tax break issue is the latest in a series of developments that have recently charged the country’s politics around the issues of immigration and labor rights, with them coming together in the case of migrant workers. Last month, the country witnessed a major standoff in the Wisconsin state government between Governor Scott Walker (and his Republican-led state assembly) and thousands of labor groups and workers in the state as the Governor pledged to enact a bill to severely curtail collective bargaining. After three weeks of fierce debates, Gov. Walker managed to push the bill through. The Ohio state assembly soon followed suit, with other states such as Tennessee and Iowa heading in a similar direction. This steady erosion of worker rights presents an increasing risk not just to the economy of this country but also to its social fabric. It also echoes a past where worker rights were often ignored, especially in the case of immigrant workers.

Last month, several labor groups and organizations marked the centennial anniversary of an incident that highlights the lack of protection of workers – the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of March 28, 1911, in which 146 mostly immigrant workers died. To mark the centenary of the tragedy, many labor rights groups amplified their push for pro-labor rights legislation to challenge the spate of anti-union labor bills that were passed recently. The 1911 tragedy brings to light the plight of immigrant workers and the exploitation that still continues today. At a rally commemorating the tragedy, one union member, Walfre Merida, described the similarities between the condition of migrant workers today and those that perished in the fire a hundred years ago. Merida stated-

I see that a hundred years since this terrible accident that killed so many people, things have really not changed at all…Safety conditions, none. Grab your tool and go to work, no more. And do not stop. When we worked in high places, on roofs, we never used harnesses, one became accustomed to the dangers and thanked God we weren’t afraid of heights. One would risk his life out of necessity.

As stories of worker rights violations continue to proliferate, we must take heed from our past mistakes in order to avoid a degradation of these conditions in the future. This week – just as Jews around the world gather at the Passover table to recount their liberation from migrant slave labor in Egypt – Breakthrough’s Facebook game, America 2049, immerses players into discussions around labor rights, especially with regards to the rights of immigrant workers. The game utilizes several events and artifacts from the past to highlight the continued struggles of migrant workers in the United States. In the game’s world in which everyone has an embedded chip to mark their identity, players are given the mission to investigate a counterfeiting ring that helps indentured workers – primarily immigrants, though also citizens who have succumbed to crushing credit debt – to escape their unjust contracts and inhumane living conditions, and begin new lives. The game references the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire as a lesson from the past about the respect and rightful treatment of workers. It also suggests a future that is even bleaker because we as a country have failed to recognize the importance of immigrant workers and worker rights to the success of the country as a whole.

Watch a testimonial by a character in the game, Ziyad Youssef, a Syrian man who was lured into a job with promises of good pay and easy hours, but found himself in slavery-like conditions, unable to look after his sick daughter or provide basic amenities to his family:

The United States is currently grappling with an issue that will inevitably affect our national economy and social conditions in the years to come. The denial of legitimacy and basic rights to immigrant workers will only hamper the nation’s growth on the world stage. In a special report on global migration published in 2008, The Economist argued for the widespread acceptance of migrant workers by the richer countries that so desperately need them. Speaking about the United States, the report stated-

Around a third of the Americans who won Nobel prizes in physics in the past seven years were born abroad. About 40% of science and engineering PhDs working in America are immigrants. Around a third of Silicon Valley companies were started by Indians and Chinese. The low-skilled are needed too, especially in farming, services and care for children and the elderly. It is no coincidence that countries that welcome immigrants—such as Sweden, Ireland, America and Britain—have better economic records than those that shun them…Americans object to the presence of around 12m illegal migrant workers in a country with high rates of legal migration. But given the American economy’s reliance on them, it is not just futile but also foolish to build taller fences to keep them out.

Players in America 2049 will discover valuable artifacts from our country’s past that highlight an ongoing struggle for worker rights and have the agency to join the discussion and save the country’s future from the dystopic scenario the game depicts. One of the artifacts in the game is a poem titled ‘A Song for Many Movements,’ written in 1982 by Audre Lord, a black feminist lesbian poet. The poem articulates the connection between suffering and speaking out against injustices, which is what the workers rights protests around the country have been doing and which we must keep advocating until real change is made-

Broken down gods survive
in the crevasses and mudpots
of every beleaguered city
where it is obvious
there are too many bodies
to cart to the ovens
or gallows
and our uses have become
more important than our silence
after the fall
too many empty cases
of blood to bury or burn
there will be no body left
to listen
and our labor
has become more important
than our silence.

Our labor has become
more important
than our silence.

 

 

Weekly Diaspora: 100 Years After Triangle Fire, Immigrant Workers Still Fighting for Labor Rights

by Catherine A. Traywick, Media Consortium blogger

Last week marked the centennial of the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, in which 146 mostly immigrant workers died. The tragedy prompted widespread labor reforms in the United States, but its commemoration underscores the plight of immigrant workers similarly exploited today.

As Richard Greenwald notes at Working in These Times, the disaster marked “the moment that a strong collective working class demanded its citizenship rights,” while today, “we are living in a time where organized labor is weak, fractured and leaderless.” He concludes that a rebirth of labor must come, as it did in 1911, from today’s new immigrant communities, which continue to bear the brunt of exploitative labor practices.

Immigrant workers rally for labor rights

Immigrant workers and union organizers articulated the same sentiment when they commemorated the fire last week. According to Catalina Jaramillo at Feet in Two Worlds, labor groups rallied Friday to call for safer working conditions and unionization—especially for the thousands of immigrants who face abuse and exploitation because of their immigration status. One union member articulated the similarities between today’s migrant workers and those who perished in the Triangle Fire:

“I see that a hundred years since this terrible accident that killed so many people, things have really not changed at all,” said Walfre Merida, a member of Local 79, from the stage.

Merida, 25, said before joining the union he worked at a construction company where he was not paid overtime, had no benefits and was paid in cash.

“Safety conditions, none. Grab your tool and go to work, no more. And do not stop,” he told El Diario/La Prensa. ”When we worked in high places, on roofs, we never used harnesses, one became accustomed to the dangers and thanked God we weren’t afraid of heights. One would risk his life out of necessity.”

Kari Lydersen at Working In These Times adds that, while workplaces in general have gotten safer, immigrant workers tend to be employed in the most dangerous professions and are disproportionately affected by workplace health and safety problems. In particular, foreign-born Latinos tend to suffer injury and illness at a much higher rate than U.S.-born Latinos. Lydersen writes:

Work-related injury and illness can be especially devastating for undocumented workers since they are often fired because of their injury and they often don’t collect workers compensation or other benefits due them. […] A 2009 Government Accountability Office report says non-fatal workplace injuries could be under-reported by 80 percent.

Crackdown on immigrant workers bad for the economy

Other labor rights advocates are drawing attention to the federal government’s ongoing crackdown on immigrant workers. Worksite audits which require employers to check the immigration status of their workers have resulted in thousands of layoffs in recent months. This sweeping trend hurts families as well as local economies, according to a new report from the Center for American Progress and the Immigration Policy Center.

The report specifically looks at the economic impact of immigrant workers in Arizona, but its findings present much wider implications. Marcos Restrepo at The Colorado Independent sums up the key points:

  • The analysis estimates that immigrants on the whole paid $6 billion in taxes in 2008, while undocumented immigrants paid approximately $2.8 billion.
  • Increase tax revenues by $1.68 billion.

The report adds that the effects of deportation in Arizona would:

  • Decrease total employment by 17.2 percent.
  • Eliminate 581,000 jobs for immigrant and native-born workers alike.
  • Shrink the state economy by $48.8 billion.
  • Reduce state tax revenues by 10.1 percent.

Meanwhile, the effects of legalization in Arizona would:

  • Add 261,000 jobs for immigrant and native-born workers alike.
  • Increase labor income by $5.6 billion.

Restrepo adds that, in part because of such mounting evidence, immigrants rights advocates are exhorting authorities to recognize immigrants as workers, first and foremost.

Immigrant farm owners contend with exploitation

Of course, even when immigrants are owners, rather than employees, they still disproportionately contend with exploitative industry practices. At The American Prospect, Monica Potts reports on the unique experiences of Hmong immigrants operating chicken farms in the Ozarks. Specifically, Potts examines how behemoth agri-businesses like Tyson exploit the inexperience or limited English abilities of immigrants to sell chicken farms and secure contracts that often put the farmers deep into debt:

Many Hmong were signing contracts they couldn’t read and getting into deals they didn’t fully understand. At least 12 Hmong declared bankruptcy in 2006. […] The concerns are similar for other immigrant farmers, especially Hispanics, who moved into the area to work at chicken-processing plants but were also recruited to buy operations. Hispanic farmers sometimes pooled their money and bought farms without a contract, only to realize later they wouldn’t be able to sell their chickens on the open market. … Many just walked away rather than trying to save their farms.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about immigration by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Diaspora for a complete list of articles on immigration issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, and health care issues, check out The Audit, The Mulch, and The Pulse. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

N.Y. State bill and new student film aim to revive the DREAM

Last week week the U.S. Census Bureau announced that there had been an unanticipated spike in the Hispanic population of the country over the last decade. Hispanics now form the country’s second-largest group, having crossed the 50 million mark, or 16.3% of the national population. This announcement comes at a significant moment in our country as debates around the treatment of undocumented immigrants intensify. The Hispanic population now forms a much bigger portion of the electorate and, with much of the immigration debate (including the DREAM Act) focusing on this group, the need for comprehensive immigration reform is becoming even more pressing.

Also in the same week the New York State Youth Leadership Council (NYSYLC) announced the introduction of the first ever state version of the DREAM Act (S.4179), led by state senator Bill Perkins. If passed, this will be a major accomplishment for immigration reform advocates and will hopefully spark similar changes at the federal level. The N.Y. state version of the DREAM Act incorporates many of the same benefits as the federal version of the legislation that was defeated in the Senate in December of last year. According to the NYSYLC-

The benefits include access to financial aid for higher education, access to driver’s licenses, work authorization and access to health care. In order to qualify for these benefits, the young person must have arrived to the United States before the age of 16, be under the age of 35, have resided in New York State for at least two years, have obtained a high school diploma or GED equivalent from an American institution and have good moral character.

While the outcome of this bill remains to be seen, some are also skeptical of what such legislation, if passed, would actually accomplish. Steven Thrasher of the Village Voice expressed concerns that since immigration falls under federal jurisdiction, even after such legislation, New York State would have no power to halt raids by Immigrations Customs Enforcement (ICE) or to help the immigrant youth work towards U.S. citizenship. However, there is no doubt that this incarnation of the DREAM Act is a positive indication that this is a matter of national importance and that the efforts of the movement are paying off. If passed, this bill would benefit many undocumented youth such as Sonia Guinansaca, a 21-year-old young woman who is also a member of the NYSYLC. Reacting to the introduction of the state bill, Guinansaca stated-

We’re very excited, this is one of the most progressive bills particularly when we’re surrounded by failure of the federal DREAM Act and other anti-immigrant bills around the country…We’re making a statement that we are here, undocumented, unafraid, unapologetic and we’re going to work to resolve this issue. That is what this New York State campaign has meant for many of us and we’re not going to give up.

The anti-immigrant bills Guinansaca mentions are the other face of the current immigration debate around the country. While reform advocates continue to stress the urgent need for just and fair immigration reform, state legislatures around the country are vying for increased restrictions against the rights of immigrants. In addition to having adverse implications for the economic and social stability of the states in which they are enacted, these harsh anti-immigrant laws often call for state law enforcement to distinguish between people based on their appearance, a factor that goes against the constitutional fabric of the country.

A new short documentary released today by the Center for New Community explores the highly controversial SB1070 law passed in Arizona from a new angle. The poignant film, titled 'A Look Inside SB1070' (see below), follows a delegation of university students, from Washington D.C., New York, Chicago and Colorado, who visited the border regions of Arizona to learn more about the enactment of the draconian anti-immigration law. The film was screened on college campuses across the United States last week to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. For the students in the film, the experience was eye-opening and, in some cases, infuriating as they were privy to the conditions of immigrant communities along the border areas. One of the students who filmed the trip, President L. Davis, remarked-

Getting behind the camera to capture this story of the immigrant Hispanic population of Arizona and the American reaction will remain one of the greatest experiences of my life. One that I believe will help inspire another generation of freedom fighters determined to see freedom and justice prevail.

Youth-led efforts like this documentary and the New York state version of the DREAM Act signal the continued vigor with which advocates are pushing for immigration reform. The bill's fate in the N.Y. State senate is yet unknown, but supporters can sign the petition to Governor Cuomo to urge him to support S.4179. Meanwhile, films such as 'A Look Inside SB1070' will hopefully further raise awareness around the human impact of harsh anti-immigration laws such as SB1070 and help to highlight that fact that with ever-increasing immigrant populations, the call for comprehensive immigration reform simply cannot be ignored.

Watch the film 'A Look Inside SB1070' here:

 

Weekly Diaspora: Big Business Dictates Immigration Policy—At Workers’ Expense

By Catherine A. Traywick, Media Consortium blogger

Arizona’s business leaders, frustrated by the deep financial fallout of increasingly radical immigration proposals, successfully swayed state lawmakers into defeating five extremist anti-immigrant bills.

New America Media’s Valeria Fernández reports that 60 executives from the likes of WellsFargo bank and U.S. Airways penned an open letter to state Senate President Russell Pearce last week, urging him to leave immigration policy to federal government. Julianne Hing at Colorlines.com has posted the letter in full, but here’s the gist:

Last year, boycotts were called against our state’s business community, adversely impacting our already-struggling economy and costing us jobs. Arizona-based businesses saw contracts cancelled or were turned away from bidding. Sales outside of the state declined … It is an undeniable fact that each of our companies and our employees were impacted by the boycotts and the coincident negative image […] Arizona is looking like a nativist, restrictive and intolerant place, and that’s bad for business.

The legislature subsequently voted down five controversial measures that sought to redefine citizenship and ban undocumented immigrants from hospitals and public schools, among other provisions.

Pearce, whose behind-the-scenes maneuvering repeatedly saved the contentious bills from dying much sooner, has vowed to continue pushing his agenda by voter referendum, if necessary. If he does, he may have more success. Arizonans have repeatedly voted in favor of harsh anti-immigrant proposals, including measures that stripped undocumented college students of financial assistance, banned ethnic studies, and ended equal opportunity programs.

Arizona’s business leaders overlook immigrant workers

It’s worth noting, though, that while the letter’s signatories handily criticized the legislature’s immigration agenda for negatively impacting the state’s economy, they had almost nothing to say about its detrimental impact on the state’s workers—a considerable proportion of whom are  immigrants. Instead, they urge “market driven immigration policies” that will “preserve our ability to compete in the global economy“ — language that is more evocative of labor-exploitative capitalism than worker solidarity.

Their calls for “the creation of a meaningful guest worker program” are similarly suspect. While the notion of a “meaningful guest worker program” that would legalize certain undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. may, on the surface, seem like a sympathetic solution—particularly in light of the federal government’s failure to move forward with any kind of comprehensive immigration reform—it nevertheless poses dire implications for undocumented workers.

Utah’s guest worker proposal evokes Bracero program abuses

As David Bacon at In These Times posits, “guest workers” whose legal status is contingent on their employment situation are uniquely vulnerable to workplace abuse and exploitation, and could face labor conditions “close to slavery.” The Bracero Program, a guest worker initiative which imported Mexican laborers primarily for work in agriculture between 1942 and 1964, stands out as stark example of the dark side of guest worker programs. Bacon explains:

Braceros were treated as disposable, dirty and cheap. Herminio Quezada Durán, who came to Utah from Chihuahua, says ranchers often had agreements between each other to exchange or trade braceros as necessary for work. Jose Ezequiel Acevedo Perez, who came from Jerez, Zacatecas, remembers the humiliation of physical exams that treated Mexicans as louse-ridden.

“We were stripped naked in front of everyone,” he remembers, and sprayed with DDT, now an outlawed pesticide. Men in some camps were victims of criminals and pimps.

Arizona isn’t the only state to toy with the idea of establishing a guest worker program. In an effort to distance itself from Arizona’s contentious and economically disastrous immigration agenda, Utah—a fiercely red state and Arizona’s northern neighbor—is considering creating its own guest worker program, according to the Texas Observer’s Victor Landa. The law would grant legal residency to working, undocumented residents who do not commit serious crimes.

While Landa notes that the purportedly progressive measure nevertheless runs afoul of federal immigration laws (only the federal government can grant immigration status), the bill presents other issues. One must stay employed or lose residency—a circumstance that would strip employees of bargaining power while granting their employers an inordinate amount of license in the workplace. In practical terms, that doesn’t much change the existing workplace dynamics of undocumented immigrants, who frequently endure exploitation and abuse without recourse.

Labor unions vs. worksite immigration enforcement

What’s more: Exploitative employers generally get off scot free even when targeted by employer sanctions efforts; it’s the workers, not employers, who bear the brunt of the federal government’s worksite immigration enforcement. For this reason, a Services Employees International Union (SEIU) leader, Javier Morillo, has condemned the Department of Homeland Security’s emhasis on workplace raids and employer verification, according to Nicolas Mendoza at Campus Progress.

Responding to the termination of 250 unionized janitors in Minnesota following an I-9 audit—a verification process through which the federal government can ask businesses to check the immigration statuses of their employees—Morillo said:

Under the leadership of Secretary Napolitano the federal government has become an employment agency for the country’s worst employers. With each I-9 audit, the government is systematically pushing hardworking people into the underground economy where they face exploitation… Let’s be clear: I-9 audits, by definition, do not go after egregious employers who break immigration laws because many of them do not use I-9 forms. Human traffickers do not ask their victims for their social security cards. [emphasis added]

Mendoza notes that the federal government’s employer verification programs rely on the honesty of employers and rewards them for firing undocumented workers, rather than sanctioning businesses for hiring them. Workers pay the price, while employers get off.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about immigration by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Diaspora for a complete list of articles on immigration issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, and health care issues, check out The Audit, The Mulch, and The Pulse. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

 

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