Skip to main content

End the War on Immigrants: Bringing It All Back Home

wall at the border

wall at the border

When the Bush administration came up with a special classification, "enemy combatant," and a special site—Guantánamo—to put prisoners beyond the purview of human and legal rights, I had a shock of recognition. The trial run had taken place right here in the US when we threw due process out the window for that other special category of human beings: immigrants.

It's only recently that the mainstream media has covered this story but even now I believe fellow progressives in Los Angeles (with the notable exception of the ACLU) are missing the boat. When millions of immigrants marched in '06, remember how we wondered how to get that mass movement to join our peace movement? But I didn't see—still don't see—progressives going to the immigrant organizations such as CHIRLA (Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles) and offering our support.

First let me give you an idea of how serious the problem is. Then I'll review some reasonable proposals that have not yet gained traction. (The only legislative initiative with bipartisan and Anglo support—one that's been kicking around for years—is the Dream Act, which would create a pathway to legalization for foreign-born children who grew up here, but it would funnel many of them into the military.)

Immigration violations, including being undocumented, are not crimes and so, when people are locked up for months, even years, ICE (previously INS) claims the Constitution doesn't apply and prisoners have none of the rights we guarantee to criminal defendants. Hearings are conducted in immigration courts, which might as well be military commissions given how stacked the deck can be—especially since the Bush administration has filled vacancies with ideologues who show an astonishing lack of legal training and experience.

When I entered our immigrant gulags in 1999 as a volunteer interpreter and paralegal, journalists and Amnesty International were being denied access to detainees in Los Angeles County, just as detainees were hidden from the Red Cross in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Since 1996, the government has claimed the right to deport legal immigrants who've been convicted of "aggravated felonies," which might sound reasonable except "aggravated felony" was then defined to make it mean whatever the government wanted it to mean, including offenses that are more ordinarily considered minor. Not only that, but the law was made retroactive so that people who'd committed an offense any time in the past and been law-abiding productive residents ever since could be suddenly shipped out of the country. People who were given probation or suspended sentences were also caught up in the dragnet.

When immigrants fall afoul of the law through government incompetence and no fault of their own, they have no recourse. Take the young man I tried to visit this year.

His parents were here legally and had applied for green cards for all their minor children. The paperwork for his siblings went through, but somehow, the government kept losing the papers on this boy. His parents filed again and again. There were more delays. Years went by. As soon as the boy was no longer a minor child, he was picked up for deportation. When I arrived at the detention facility early in the morning to see him, I was told this person didn't exist. It turned out he had been awakened at 3 a.m. for transfer to an undisclosed location. When prisoners are being transferred—something that is often done to put some distance between them and their families and lawyers—or when no long-term bed is available in the overcrowded facilities, they fall out of the computer system and ICE simply denies that they exist. Ghost prisoners.

Under the Bush administration, the feds began intensive scrutiny of people who'd been granted green cards in the past. Did we catch any terrorists? No, only people who had minor technical errors or violations on their applications, such as the Filipino-born doctor I read about who'd served a rural community in Pennsylvania for more than a decade.

With hundreds of thousands of people detained each year, there's been a construction boom for the prison-industrial complex. A meatpacking plant in Texas was remodeled to serve as a detention facility. Halliburton subsidiary KBR got a $385 million contract to build more.

Who gets locked up? Here's some of the people I've met:

  • A gay man from Nigeria who thought he'd be safe in the US after escaping from the mob that beheaded his lover.
  • A legal immigrant from Peru who was held for months due to what turned out to be a computer glitch. She went through her savings on lawyers and mortgage payments while she was detained and therefore unable to work. When finally brought to a hearing, the immigration judge said "Well, your papers seem to be in order, but you wouldn't have been detained unless there was a reason" and ruled against her release. This woman, a professional who had worked legally in LA for more than 10 years, ended up accepting voluntary deportation when she feared for her health and safety in the detention center.
  • A man who escaped from Iran after he was tortured and imprisoned for opposing the government which the Bush administration considers an enemy of the US. Here in the land of the free, he was locked up for years on the entirely groundless claim that he might be a terrorist.
  • An undocumented worker from Mexico who got home from the sweatshop one day and found her 6-year-old son kicking the babysitter. She chased him into the street and unfortunately was seen when she walloped him. Accused of child abuse, she was sentenced to parenting class, then identified as undocumented and detained. She was about to be sent to Mexico, but because of the child abuse charge the feds decided her son should remain in California in the foster-care system. Her social worker begged that this basically good mother be allowed out on bond just long enough to complete the mandated parenting class so that her record could be wiped clean and her parental rights restored. The feds weren't interested in this solution.
  • A woman in her 50s who had decades-old convictions for prostitution and drug addiction and was scared half out of her wits because the US government was about to ship her back to Thailand, a place she'd left as a teenager when she married an American GI. He took her to Vegas and got her hooked on drugs. OKay, she was not a poster child for immigrant success, but to me, she—like her ex-husband—was a casualty of the war in Vietnam and here she was, about to be sent back, penniless, to a country where she had no surviving relatives and hardly remembered the language. "What am I supposed to do in Bangkok? How will I survive?" One of the guards laughed at her: "You're a whore. They have a great sex industry in Thailand."

Since 1996, more than a million immigrants have been deported. Many have left behind American families plunged into pain and poverty.

In lockup, I met men such as the humble farm worker, here legally, who'd been arrested when the workers van he was riding in was stopped and cocaine was found on one passenger. All were arrested. Time and again, I heard how with no attorney or only a court-appointed attorney, men like him accepted plea bargains in exchange for a suspended sentence. They went home free, with no jail time, only to learn years later that their guilty pleas meant deportation.

Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

I saw children in detention who spoke only Spanish and were subjected to pepper spray when they didn't instantly follow English-language orders.

One morning, as I sat in a hearing room providing moral support to a Spanish-speaking prisoner, a Chinese man was brought in, shackled and chained. He'd been detained in New York where he had family and quickly transferred thousands of miles away from them. But his family hired a lawyer who flew to LA, rented a car, and drove up to Lancaster for the early morning hearing. There was a problem: You're not allowed to bring your own interpreter and the feds had forgotten to provide one. The hearing was canceled, but no one could explain that to the Chinese man. He shouted in alarm, not understanding, as he was dragged from the room still in shackles and chains.

With so many immigrants in detention, there's often no place to put them. I met women who'd been driven around on buses half the night, then given plastic mattresses to sleep on under a cafeteria table, awakened at dawn and put back on the bus. Until they were officially in the system—which could take weeks—they couldn't contact anyone and no one could reach them.

Once they were admitted to a facility, things didn't get much better. Detainees weren't allowed any personal possessions. Everything had to be government-issued, and the government simply didn't have enough underwear or toothbrushes to go around. No books, no magazines as these were considered potential weapons. Women in need of medical or psychiatric meds didn't get them. Pregnant women were denied abortions. Families were allowed to visit on weekends, lining up, waiting as much as six hours for a 10-minute visit. Partners, siblings, children, and babies were sent into cramped booths in order to talk via telephone, separated from the prisoners by Plexiglas. I tried one of those phones once. It didn't work.

As a paralegal, I could meet with detainees without a separation wall. And since the lawyers rarely accepted a case, I found that often the only thing I could do was hold someone's hand, or hold a woman in my arms while she cried, offering the human touch and support her own family was not allowed to give her.

What more can we do?
We're unlikely to see so-called "comprehensive immigration reform" this year or next. Before that happens, there are legislative remedies we should get behind to rectify the massive violations of human rights that are occurring right now. Janet Napolitano, if she's confirmed at head of Homeland Security, will surely be more reasonable than Michael Chertoff, who has ordered the deportations of widows and widowers following the deaths of their US-citizens spouses and has presided over massive roundups and repeated instances of abuse of process: workers threatened with bogus identity-theft charges; victims of human trafficking prosecuted instead of protected.

Through racial profiling, US citizens have been deported to Mexico. In a local take on extraordinary rendition, immigrants who had asylum claims pending were forcibly drugged with anti-psychotic meds to render them nonresistant when loaded onto planes returning them to countries where they'd been persecuted and tortured.

  • Demand an end to the roundups that are terrorizing immigrant communities. As Arizona Governor, Napolitano has preferred going after employers who hire undocumented immigrants rather than punishing the workers, but in today's climate of economic meltdown and unemployment, we'll have to help stiffen her spine so that immigrants aren't made scapegoats.
  • Stop building the border wall. Spending millions on hundreds of miles of double fencing and security equipment benefits no one but the favored contractors, notably a consortium headed by Boeing. Napolitano has been critical of the construction. Let's ask her to stop it.Right now, the wall continues to go up. Homeland Security has waived environmental regulations. Private property as much as a mile north of the border has been seized while Chertoff's department has approved gaps and detours to spare the favored: a golf course, a country club, and acreage belonging to the rich and to the politically connected. From the legislative assistant to Rep. Raúl Grijalva, I heard of shoddy construction in his Arizona district. Underground sewer lines were breached and homes and businesses in the Mexican city of Nogales were flooded with filth.
  • Address the engines that drive migration. In rural Oaxaca, which has sent thousands of impoverished migrants to the US, especially to California, the FIOB (Indigenous Front of Binational Organizations) has raised the call for the right to remain home. People cross our border out of desperation. They do not freely choose to risk their lives for the chance to be part of a surplus exploited labor force. NAFTA has put small farmers out of business. The right-of-center Mexican government, pressured by the World Bank and US loans, has embraced privatization and trickle-down economics, cutting off programs meant to reduce rural poverty and to encourage rural development. A renegotiation of NAFTA and a more fair and realistic approach by US policy makers to Mexico's development needs will do more to stem the tide of migrants than any wall.
  • Support legislation to protect families. Last year, Rep. Jose Serrano of New York introduced the Child Citizen Protection Act, HR1176, that would allow immigration judges to consider the best interests of American-citizen children before a parent is banned forever from these shores. In our local Congressional delegation, Lucille Roybal-Allard, Xavier Becerra, Grace Napolitano, and Hilda Solis signed on as co-sponsors. Under this bill, judges could take into account a person's overall situation, current reputation, contribution to the community.Right now, a judge has no discretion. ( I would amend the act to allow discretion in all cases of deportation, not only when a American- citizen child's life will be irreparably harmed.) Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez D of Illinois intends to reintroduce legislation in the next Congress to make it possible to keep immigrant families together and reunite those already separated through deportation of a parent.

Please note that every representative I know of who's taken a clear stand is a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Where's everyone else? Our voices are needed to counteract the loud clamoring of the anti-immigrant right. This is not a Latino issue. It's a human rights issue. It's about the US Constitution.

In the meantime, I know how offensive—and exaggerated—it can seem when comparisons are raised to Nazi Germany. But our neighbors, friends, colleagues, employers, employees, parents, spouses, and partners are being taken off buses and trains. They are being arrested at their places of employment and herded into livestock grounds.

diane lefer

They are being separated from their families. They are disappearing into distant gulags. They are dying in custody, denied medical care. They are being dragged out of their homes after the knock on the door in the middle of the night. And the reaction from most Anglo progressives has been a resounding silence.

Diane Lefer

Diane Lefer is an author, playwright, and activist whose most recent book, California Transit, was awarded the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. Her stories, novels, and nonfiction often address social issues and draw on such experiences as going to jail for civil disobedience and her volunteer work as a legal assistant/interpreter for immigrants in detention. She collaborated with exiled Colombian theatre artist Hector Aristizábal on "Nightwind," about his arrest and torture by the US-supported military in Colombia, a play that has toured theatres, campuses, conferences, and houses of worship throughout the US and Canada. Other recent work for the stage includes "Majikan," a Ciona Taylor Production in New York's Central Park, about an orangutan and the War on Terror. She has picked potatoes, typed autopsy reports, surveyed parolees and drug addicts about their sex lives, and taught creative writing to gangbangers as well as, for twenty years, to graduate students in the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College. She received the 2006-07 COLA (City of Los Angeles) literary arts fellowship in support of Phantom Heart, her novel-in-progress set in and around a beautiful Southern California nuclear waste site. She lives in Los Angeles and has never written a screenplay.

Other Articles by Diane Lefer: