Obama’s immigration dragnet

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 238 April/May 2014

Family members of those detained inside the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Wash., rallied outside the facility on Monday in solidarity with detainees on hunger strike.

On 7 March, 1,200 immigration detainees at the North West Detention Centre in Tacoma, Washington State, began a hunger strike, demanding an end to deportations and the separation of families, better food, medical care and wages for work inside the prison, where they currently receive just $1 a day for their labour. STEVE PALMER reports from the US on the struggle against Obama’s repressive immigration policies.

Over the past 20 years, the US Hispanic population has doubled to more than 52 million. Over the same period, the number of undocumented immigrants has risen from 3.5 million to 11.7 million, some 80% of whom are Hispanic. These huge population changes have made immigration a hot political issue.

In order to win the Hispanic vote, Obama has talked up reform, promising imminent legislation which would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented migrants, In a May 2008 interview with Univision, the premier US Spanish language channel, he said: ‘What I can guarantee is that we will have, in the first year, an immigration bill that I strongly support.’ Back then, the Democrats controlled the House of Representatives and were a majority in the Senate – but it never happened. Obama blamed the financial crisis and repeated his promise of legislation, which, somehow, never seemed to come to fruition, according to Obama, due to obstruction from the Republicans. The elusive legislation, Obama claims, over and over, will be introduced as soon as he can find Republicans who support it.

This seemingly perpetual cycle of absence of immigration reform and pitiful excuses contrasts with the energy devoted to immigration enforcement. In January 2009, Obama appointed Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano as Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). This was a targeted choice. Arizona is ‘on the frontline’ in the war on the undocumented and, for many years, Napolitano led the attack alongside notorious fascist Sheriff Joe Arpaio, of Maricopa County.

Arpaio set up his own radio station in the local jail (KJOE) which blasts patriotic music at inmates four hours a day, while feeding them only twice a day and forcing them to wear pink underwear and treating access to medical care as a reward for good behaviour. He set up ‘Tent City’, described by him as a ‘concentration camp’, next to the jail, where, in Arizona’s sweltering summer, temperatures have reached 63°C.

In 2007, Napolitano inked a deal with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to set up the nation’s largest 287(g) program. 287(g) is a clause buried deep in immigration legislation which permits ICE to train and deputise local law enforcement to act as ICE agents. Traditionally local law officers did not concern themselves with immigration offences. In most parts of California, for example, cops do not ask anyone their immigration status and concentrate on typical law enforcement duties. 287(g) was intended to help pursue gangsters, drug smugglers and human traffickers with the intent of getting them out of the country if possible; local cops would go about their normal duties, but have additional powers and resources, for example to check immigration status in Federal databases. Arpaio set up the largest contingent of 287(g) officers in the nation and committed them to concentrate on immigration law enforcement instead of investigating conventional crime. The result was an oppressive regime of racial profiling, targeting legal and illegal Hispanic people alike.

After the General Accounting Office wrote a damning report on abuse of 287(g), the programme was terminated. It was then quietly superseded by ‘Secure Communities’ (SCOMM), a programme initiated under the Bush presidency, which has provided the framework for the large increase in deportations under Napolitano. SCOMM integrates local and national crime and immigration databases in more than 3,000 state, county and local jails and prisons to alert the DHS to any immigration violators who enter the system. The result has been a disaster for the Hispanic community. Legal immigrants convicted of certain crimes are subject to deportation and undocumented immigrants can be deported even if they have committed no crime. With 21 months of its second term left to run, the Obama administration has already deported more undocumented immigrants than in the entire eight years of the Bush presidency. Total deportations each year exceed 400,000. By April, the total number of deportees will exceed two million.

The human trauma is enormous. More than 5,000 children born in the US are in foster care because their parents have been deported. In 2008, the Border Patrol apprehended 8,041 unaccompanied children attempting to enter the US; by 2012, the number had grown to 24,481. Of these, more than 12% are under the age of 14. Thousands of US citizens have been arrested and some even illegally deported, despite fingerprints not matching, simply because some local official decided they were really somebody else.

There is a huge processing backlog which extends the time people are detained into many months. In 2008, the backlog was 186,108 cases; by this year it had grown to 363,239. In 2008, the number in detention was 379,000; by 2012 this had grown to 478,000. There is a minimum quota of how many have to be detained and ICE is obliged to comply, whatever the individual circumstances. This ‘bed mandate’ is currently set at 34,000. This has led to a boom in for-profit detention.

The Hispanic community has lost patience with Obama and it is beginning to show. In an 11 March special election in Florida, the Democratic candidate, widely tipped to win, lost to the Republican by more than 4,000 votes, apparently due to abstentions by Hispanic voters. This has the Democrats running scared, since the November elections this year will probably result in the loss of control of the Senate. Local communities are becoming increasingly militant, mounting large demonstrations against police abuses and shootings.

The Tacoma hunger strike inspired a similar hunger strike which began on 16 March at the Joe Corley Detention Center at Conroe in Texas. A hunger strike is a very tough action and unsurprisingly only a core of really committed individuals were still on strike as it entered its third week – ICE claimed just two. However, on 24 March, around 70 Tacoma detainees began a second wave of hunger strikes. There has been retaliation against the hunger strikers at both prisons: the removal of supposed leaders from the general population and their segregation into solitary confinement in rooms with metal beds with no blankets or pillows and no toilet paper. Some have been pressured to sign deportation orders which would expedite removals and some have had their deportation dates brought forward.

The hunger strikes have generated significant media interest and forced Democratic politicians to take a stance against the administration’s vicious policies. There is a growing support network for the strikers and a National Day of Action is planned for 5 April to protest against the two million deportations the Obama Administration will reach by the month of April and to call for the President to take decisive action to reverse the deportation dragnet.

Victory to the hunger strikers!

End the deportations!

End immigration controls!


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