Gross Violations of Immigrants’ Rights: Obama Administration Continues Harsh Attacks

By Larry Jones

The infamous Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio last week made a shocking spectacle by marching 120 undocumented immigrants in striped prison suites and chains through the streets of Maricopa County.

“Not only was this inhumane, but violated international human rights principles — not to mention

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American values — that require us to treat people who are incarcerated with dignity and respect,” said the ACLU.  “But Sheriff Arpaio has absolute contempt for the dignity of the people in his custody and demonstrates this by treating people like circus animals.”

ICE Duplicity

Several years ago the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency  (ICE) told Congress that it was going to concentrate on rounding up the most dangerous undocumented immigrants – those who were criminals or terrorism suspects.  But on February 4, the NY Times reported that newly available reports revealed that the agency had changed the rules in the middle of the game and had begun going after easier targets.  A vast majority of those arrested had no criminal record, and many had no deportation orders against them, either,” wrote Nina Bernstein of the Times.

ICE had claimed that they had wanted 75% of their detainees to be fugitive criminals, but then such fugitives amounted to only 9% and non-fugitives picked up by chance without deportation orders rose to 40%.  Bernstein reported that many were sent to detention centers far from their homes and were ultimately deported.

The condition of the 350 detention centers across the nation should itself be considered a crime by responsible officials in the Department of Homeland Security.  Tens of thousands of men, women and children are frequently housed in overcrowded facilities where sick people, including the mentally ill, are denied care.  Last year a column in the Washington Post reported that there were 83 deaths in the previous five years among those who were in or had just left detention centers. 

The ACLU reports that that frequently people caught up in immigration sweeps are sent to “out-of-state detention centers and pressured into signing removal orders, often without being able to tell anyone where they are; as a result, family and lawyers have no time or ability to provide support and a legal defense. Inhumane and cruel conditions of confinement in the immigration detention centers are pervasive.”

In other cases mothers are separated from their children and detainees are denied the right to speak to an attorney or relatives.

Oscar “Diana” Santander, a transgendered person, was tortured by Mexican police and she finally crossed illegally into the U.S. in 2004 and was arrested by immigration authorities.  She eventually applied for asylum and in 2007 a judge granted her request.  Yet for 21 months she has remained in detention because the government appealed the case. 

Rebelling Against Unjust and Inhumane Conditions

In late January, immigrant prisoners held at the Reeves County Detention Facility in Pecos Texas began a protest when prison authorities refused to release a seriously ill inmate from solitary confinement. According to an account on Houston IndyMedia, ”the protest began after a group of immigrant prisoners attempted to meet with the detention facility’s authorities … the prison authorities refused to listen and did not take action. The detainees responded by protesting after being ignored. … prison authorities literally laughed at the immigrant detainees’ demands and told the prisoners that they had complete power over them and could do whatever they pleased.”

A fire broke out during a confrontation between prisoners and guards, and prison authorities responded by locking down remaining prisoners in the burning building, and shooting tear gas and rubber bullets into the building. This was the second rebellion among these immigrant prisoners in less than a month. In December prisoners had protested to demand better medical care after an immigrant detainee had died at the prison – of “natural causes”, according to the authorities.

Many, if not most, of the prisoners held in barbaric conditions at the Pecos prison are people who had been picked up in ICE sweeps aimed at arresting workers and others accused of immigration, not criminal violations. The privately owned prison is run by a corporation called the “GEO Group”, which is, according to one of their own guards, “a bare-bones, profit-making machine”.

What Can We Expect From Obama and his Head of Homeland Security?

When then candidate Barack Obama spoke before the National Council of La Raza last July, he received huge cheers from the crowd after he said: “When communities are terrorized by ICE immigration raids, when nursing mothers are torn from their babies, when children come home from school to find their parents missing, when people are detained without access to legal counsel, when all that is happening, the system just isn’t working, and we need to change it."

But now what can we expect from him and his Director of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, under whose aegis comes immigration enforcement?  On his website, Obama has what sounds like a liberal middle-of-the-road position designed to satisfy even the “keep-‘em-out folks.”   You can read it here.  But when I got to the part where he talks about removing the incentives for people to come here illegally, I thought maybe he was going to propose eliminating NAFTA which has ransacked the Mexican economy in favor of U.S. corporations, or that maybe he was going to propose a massive plan of economic aid to Mexico so people could meet their needs in their home country.  But, no, what he proposes is to “clamp down on employers” who hire immigrants desperate to earn enough to support their families. These efforts supposedly targeting unscrupulous employers in every case end up arresting and deporting workers slaving in inhuman conditions at wages at or close to or even below the legal minimum, while their employers are hit with, at most, a token fine. That’s certainly not the change humane people were expecting.

Obama’s economic stimulus plan had contained expanded funding for the “E-Verify” program, an online program operated by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Social Security Administration. This program required employers to electronically check prospective employees’ legal status.  Its many flaws greatly upset immigrant rights leaders as well as the National Chamber of Commerce.  The Immigration Law Center stated that: “Efforts by anti-immigrant groups to persuade Congress to expand the ‘E-Verify’ program as part of the economic stimulus bill would hinder, not help, the U.S. economy's recovery.  E-Verify is a voluntary federal program which is deeply flawed and ensnares American job-seekers in database errors, adds to the costs incurred by employers required to use it, and does not actually prevent undocumented immigrants from getting jobs.” 

The senate version of the stimulus package passed 61-36, but when Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the day of the final vote sought to add an amendment to the bill to make E-Verify a requirement. Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) prevented it from going to a floor vote. 

The House bill, which had already been passed, contains a provision which would require any entity receiving stimulus money to utilize E-Verify.  Now the battle around how best to both exploit and control immigrants will be carried out in conference committee.  Keep tuned to see how this turns out in the next few days.

Napolitano

As for the new head of Homeland Security, "Napolitano is probably the closest the Democrats could get to an immigration hawk," Mark Kirkorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank advocating low immigration rates, told reporter Matthew Bell of nationally-syndicated radio show The World. 

As I have also reported previously, in 1995 Napolitano as U.S. Attorney was asked to oversee a Justice Department investigation into the horrible conditions in Sheriff Arpaio's jails.  But her now-familiar indifference to critical problems led her to say, "We run a strict jail but a safe jail."  Two years later the Justice Department's report decried the use of such torture techniques as hog-tying, beating inmates, unnecessary use of pepper spray, and use of restraint chairs which led to the deaths of three inmates. Arpaio settled with the feds and promised some changes, yet he bragged that "The chain gangs stay.  The tents stay.  The pink underwear stays.  All my programs stay."

At a press conference, Napolitano stood next to Arpaio and, according to the Arizona Republic, "pooh-poohed her own lawsuit [against Arpaio] as 'lawyerly paperwork.'"  So it was no surprise that in 2002 Republican Arpaio supported Democrat Napolitano's bid for governor. Throughout her career, Napolitano has appeared to be a rather blatant opportunist, generally doing that which would advance her own career the most.  And now she’s in Obama’s cabinet.

We are a long way from what many Obama supporters had hoped for when it comes to justice for immigrants, and we need to keep letting our voices be heard.