Immigrant Rights Under Attack

By DAVID BERNT

 

Amidst broader threats to civil liberties in the aftermath of recent terrorist actions, U.S. rulers are attacking the rights of immigrants.

Using the events of Sept. 11 as a pretext and the recent wave of xenophobia and racism toward Arabs and Muslims as a base of popular support, the Justice Department has sought to expand already draconian powers to detain and deport immigrants at will.

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that he was submitting legislation to allow the INS to arrest foreigners and deport them with no evidence if they are deemed terrorists by the Justice Department. These measures would in effect rob all immigrants of any pretensions of having rights under the law.

Mike Maggio, an immigration lawyer, told the Washington Post, “This proposed legislation is basically making a doormat of the Constitution; it would permit the INS to serve as prosecutor, judge, and jury with no judicial review.”

Barely a week after the Sept. 11 bombing, the Justice Department had already detained 75 people in connection with alleged immigrant violations. The FBI had also amassed a list of 190 people wanted for questioning.

These recent attacks on immigrants come in the wake of a growing immigrant rights movement, which has included mass mobilizations sponsored by the AFL-CIO. On May Day of this year thousands marched in Chicago, Boston, and New York, and other cities.

Thousands of workers marched in May and June in in Southern California demanding that immigrants have the right to receive driver’s licenses, which many workers need for their jobs.

Just days before the Sept. 11 bombing, politicians in Washington proposed granting legal status for some immigrants. The idea was raised partly in order to deflate the pressure of the immigrants’ rights movement.

In early September Mexican President Vicente Fox visited Washington to discuss the possibility of granting legal status to Mexican-born immigrants. President Bush has said that he is open to granting partial amnesty for certain immigrants as well as implementing a “guest worker” program that would grant work visas for Mexican workers while providing them little to no legal rights.

This “guest worker” program is a sham-designed to legalize the already widely accepted practice of super-exploitation of illegal immigrants in U.S. sweatshops. Bosses often hire illegal immigrants because of their lack of legal rights, which makes it more difficult for workers to organize and fight back in response to the horrible conditions they are forced to endure.

While this practice makes bosses subject to penalties that in truth amount to a slap on the wrist, they are rarely prosecuted. Conversely, immigrants are often detained and deported when they attempt to organize into unions. The “guest worker” program would in effect eliminate the threat of penalties for employers while granting no legal rights for workers.

Immigrant rights groups have opposed these measures and responded with calls for unconditional legalization for all immigrants. Unfortunately, the recent attacks in New York and Washington have made their task more difficult.

Citing the anti-immigrant backlash, Democratic politicians have responded by ducking for cover. For instance, Democratic Party representatives withdrew legislation in the Illinois State House that would have granted driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.

This retreat by the Democrats exposes their party’s real character while it also underscores weaknesses in the immigrant rights movement. Many immigrant rights advocates, including the bureaucratic heads of the AFL-CIO, believe they can pressure the Democratic Party, and even the Republican Party, into accepting legalization of immigrants.

However, both Democrats and Republicans supported and passed the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which, according to the ACLU, allows “the INS to deny bond, asylum and other immigration relief to non-citizens based on evidence kept secret from them.”

In addition, the twin parties of capitalism and racism passed the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act in response to the Oklahoma City bombing. The law created a special “Star Chamber” court that was granted the right to deport even lawful permanent residents based on secret evidence that they were “terrorists.”

This was despite the fact that the Oklahoma bombing was found by the U.S. to be the work of a right-wing militia member!

In times of reaction such as this one against the civil liberties of both citizens and immigrants alike, it is all the more important to recognize the bankruptcy of both the Democratic and Republican parties. Only independent mass mobilizations based on the social power of the working class can defend our civil liberties.