May 16, 2011

To keep an underclass invisible

An immigration story:

The police officer received a report of truancy. Kids, according to the caller, who used a racial expletive and complained about having made complaints before, weren't in school. They were all in an apartment having a mid-afternoon party. This, it turned out, was true.

This was 2007. Before George Bush attempted to reform immigration law and give those immigrants who are hard working, tax-paying, and law-abiding, immigrants that the American economy depends upon, a clear path to citizenship and protection from never-ending exploitation. These efforts, of course, were trounced, sometimes somewhat viciously, in an organized effort that tested the waters for the Tea Party's populist agitations a few years later.

An officer went to check on the truancy report, and found about a dozen teens in an apartment, listening to music and drinking beer. All of them were Hispanic. Some of them were there just to party. Some them were there to avoid the more-or-less unchecked harassment they get from the high school's African-American gangs. In the investigation, which was really just asking for ages and asking if there was a parent around and saying, basically, "aren't y'all supposed to be in school right now?", one of the kids talked back to the officer, insulting him.

I suspect the kid used a racial epithet, but wasn't ever able to get any reliable information about what was said. Probably the kid called the officer a nigger, but I don't know.

Whatever was said, though, the disrespected officer took offense, and said he was going to punish the whole lot of them. Since the kids were Hispanic, he took them all to the police station, and cuffed them to a long bench.

He called Immigration Customs Enforcement, and began checking everyone's legal status.

The office also called the truants' parents. He didn't tell them in the phone call that their children were being investigated by ICE, but just said they were in trouble at school, and that the parents needed to come get them. Normally, if one's kid is in trouble at school and ends up at the police station and a parent doesn't respond in a certain amount of time, the kid ends up in juvenile detention. By all accounts, this is pretty much a nightmare, but especially so for kids who haven't been in any real trouble and aren't in any sense "hardened criminals," or, as the county police chief would have said, "bangers."

Basically a kid can go from cutting class on a Tuesday to sleeping in a room full of rageful and hostile teens who a) were in serious trouble and/or b) did not have an adult in the world who was willing or able to take responsibility for them (which tends to aggravate the anger, as one might expect). This happens in a matter or hours if a parent does not answer a cell phone. So, most parents in this situation drop everything and respond really quickly, which is what the parents of the Hispanic truants did.

In this case, when the parents responded to the officer's call, however, they were also detained, and cuffed to another long bench at the police station. Whatever other children or babies they brought with them to the police station were detained as well. Basically, the kids were used as bait. Everyone was locked up (without access to legal advice) and their legal statuses were checked.

About half or a few more than half of the kids originally reported for truancy were not able to prove they were legal residents of the US. It's possible they were legal, of course, but as the parents were not told to bring documentation, they couldn't prove their statuses, and they were taken away by ICE on the assumption that not having documents meant they weren't documented. Those who were legal and could prove they were born in the US, however, had, in this situation, parents or siblings without proof of citizenship, so they were remanded to juvenile detention and their parents were taken away.

Three or four families were split up this way.

When I got there, several of the parents were crying, several of the younger kids wailing, but most looked angry, sullen, raging in their handcuffs and like they'd burn the whole place down and kill every cop and motherfucker in sight, if given the chance.

I was called at the newspaper as the ICE agents were packing the cuffed kids into a van, and allowed to take pictures, but not to talk to any of those being deported. I was given an official report, a statement by the officer, which left out the details about the insult and the vow to punish the disrespectful teens, and which described the deportation as "the result of an investigation of the joint task force," and a sign that the police department was "getting tough" on undocumented immigrants.

The story didn't seem right to me. The gap between the available details of what had happened (a call, a party, an officer responding) and the official language (an "operation," an "investigation," etc.) seemed especially large. I only had the info I was given, though. I asked the TV reporter if it didn't seem a little odd to him, but he just spieled about illegal aliens, which was also what he did on the 6 o'clock news. I tried to write it so a discerning reader could maybe see some of the oddities in the official account, some of what didn't make sense, but basically I failed as a journalist, and just relayed what the cops said. You're not allowed, in that form, to yourself question an official account. Without a dissenter, someone to speak up, you can only repeat and relay what feels like a cover-up, a lie: "Police say a successful joint investigation lead to the deportation of X number of illegal immigrants on Tuesday," etc.

My story functioned just to affirm the police action, and didn't come close to telling the truth or exposing the mechanisms of power at work.

There's more than one story I wrote as a journalist where I feel like I wasn't able to get anywhere close to anything like the truth, and more than one where, frustratingly, I acted as a cog in a machine that made helpless people more helpless. This is one of those, and one that bothers me.

It was only later that I put together a fuller account of what happened, and realized that the officer had aggressively and punitively acted out against a whole network of families not out of some commitment to the law, but because he'd been disrespected, because some mouthy teen hadn't acquiesced to his authority.

Later, when the officer was praised and promoted, I was told more about what really happened, but even then couldn't write about it in the confines of journalistic form as there was no documentary evidence except what was between the lines, and the disgruntled officers, concerned court officials and distraught teachers who knew about the situation would not risk their positions to go on the record. They had no confidence they could speak the truth without themselves being seriously punished. Besides that, anti-immigrant sentiment was so strong they were unlikely to get any public support for speaking out.

Generally speaking, civil rights and the bill of rights' protections are only defended by the public when the accused are so demonstrably innocent as to be able to be made into glowing saints in the public imagination.

It's basically impossible to get the public to think about whether or not they really want to be a people or a society that treats people this way -- whether, for instance, they want to be a society that benefits from the labor of undocumented workers while punishing those workers if and only if they encounter some problem or need some help, making it so there's an invisible underclass accepted and rewarded so long as they stay out of sight and trouble, don't need anything like medical help or police protection, but then they're punished to an extreme degree if they can't remain invisible, a system which the middle class and the corporations greatly benefit from without having to take any responsibility for. It seems impossible to call attention to, at least to me.

I never found anyway to make this -- the system -- the conversation, as opposed to, say, how the "illegal" immigrants were illegal (or, on the other side, how people upset about illegal immigrants were all just racist hicks).

Except in the cases of certain celebrities or cases where there's a racial or gender element that causes parts of the public to identify with the accused over and against the victim, I can't think of any situation in my life time where the constitutional rights of someone who was guilty of something was of much concern to the public. Even when they're guilty, basically, of being poor, as poverty is criminalized in so many ways, that guilt is enough for the public en masse to dismiss them and their claims to basic human rights and protections. The only response I was ever able to elicit from the public was some self righteous, cleaned-up version of "fuck 'em."

This was one of the reasons journalism left me, many times, really just depressed.

It's in this context that I read Georgia's new anti-immigration law, HB 87, the "Illegal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Act of 2011," which was signed by Republican Gov. Nathan Deal on Friday.

The Georgia immigration law is better than the one that received so much attention in Arizona. Unlike the Az. law, the Ga. rules are very specific in outlining when a police officer may check someone's immigration status. In Az., the bar was "reasonable suspicion," which seemed like it might not be anything more than racial profiling. That law also -- at least in its original form, I haven't looked at what's happened after court challenges -- as I recall, carried penalties for the police officer who didn't check an illegal immigrant's immigration status, which essentially added incentive for officers to check every Mexican-looking person they came in contact with. In Ga., an immigration check is only called for and allowed if a) the person is a suspect in a crime, and b) the person fails to provide certain standard types of identification, such as a driver's license or a passport.

The Ga. law also tries to shift the penalties for hiring illegal aliens to work from the workers to the employers, holding the contractors, sub-contractors and sub-sub-contractors responsible for the documentation of workers. It sets up, basically, a system of paperwork, certifications that have to be filed and passed on and accounted for.

I can see three or four ways that employers could probably break this law and fake their way through the paperwork without getting caught or punished, and another two or three that would be technically, arguably legal (such as reclassification of "employees," like Wal-Mart did making almost everyone "part-time"), allowing employers to skirt the hassle of the paperwork, and re-shift the punitive effects of the law back to the workers.

So I doubt this will be effective. Given that I can see loopholes, I suspect that those motivated by large profits and backed by teams of lawyers will find more than enough chinks in HB 87 to ensure the status quo continues.

The effect, I think will only be to force this work force to be more invisible, and to increase the fury with which they're punished for being visible.

As with a lot of anti-illegal law, the function of this bill will be basically to have it hanging over the head of undocumented workers, making it so they have to avoid contacts with authorities at all costs, lest this horrible, punitive hammer come down. It's not just the undocumented either -- the documented workers who could be mistaken for undocumented workers, i.e., hispanics, have to constantly be on guard lest they come into contact with authorities, be accused of being illegal aliens, and be unable to prove their right to be in the US. This adds, obviously, a certain level of anxiety and stress to any contact between hispanics and officials, and creates a pretty strong incentive to avoid all interactions.

Which is why hispanics are significantly less likely to call police, and thus robberies, gang violence, domestic violence, child molestation, fraud, illegally poor working conditions and other forms of exploitation are often wildly underreported, and whole communities are turned, more or less, into unprotected prey. Predators are protected by the fear created by laws like Georgia's HB 87.

From what I can tell, there are three types of solutions to the illegal immigration "problem." The one is to mask it, while continuing to befefit from the labor, and keeping the illegal immigrants around to scapegoat as a distraction from the problems of the economic system, and as an outlet for certain types of populist rage. The other solution is to actually try and change the economy, either by having no illegal immigrant labor, which would raise the prices Americans would have to pay for all sorts of things, from houses to tomatos, or by legitimizing the work force, and protecting them from exploitation and victimization. That would probably raise prices too, and would cut into corporate profits and lower the living standard of middle class Americans. It would also possibly (hopefully) eliminate focus for populist resentment, which might then turn the focus somewhere else (whether or not that other focus would be the actual locus of the cause of the situation making so many people so frustrated or not), a shift that could have unpredictable political repurcussions.

The third, which basically no one seems interested in, is to just acknowledge what we have now, as a system, and call it good. We would stop punishing people for doing the work we give them to do, but not actively help them either. It'd be a class, basically, below the social safety net. Immigrants would have, in this case, access to schools, police, emergency rooms, and defense attorneys, but not welfare, workers' comp., social security, unionization rights, legal recourse against exploitive employers, etc. And, if they attracted certain negative attention, like say, one of their kids happened to be hanging out with a kid who called a police officer an offensive name, there wouldn't be any protection against that.

The Georgia law, unlike most conservative anti-immigration measures, does seem like it's trying to enact the second kind of solution. It does seem to try to shift the responsibility from the laborer to the employer, and it does give clear if not particularly strict guidelines about when papers can be checked, which would allow, at least in principle, a defense attorney to challenge a police check on Fourth Amendment grounds.

The law even goes so far as to acknowledge "both Georgia and federal law fail to address many of the legal, economic and security aspects of immigration facing our state and especially our agricultural industry" and to call for a study of the economics of immigration and agriculture. Which could be a good thing, and is at least an acknowledgement that we're not completely cognizant of the ways in which we're criminalizing work that we reward and which the economy needs to get done.

My guess is, though, that this law will ultimately only give employers a kind of paperwork cover, where they're able to say they did what they were supposed to do because they have on file certain certified papers, while continuing, more or less, the system as it is, and those workers we depend on and need to staff whole sectors of the economy will continue as an invisible underclass, harshly punished whenever they have any needs or it benefits certain sets of politicians.

We'll see if anything changes. The law goes into effect on July 1.