On Thursday, Grand Valley State University’s Latin American Studies department hosted a speaker on the topic of immigration. Erik Camayd-Freixas, a Professor of Interpretation at the University of Florida International addressed an audience of about 100 on his experiences of being an interpreter in one of the largest government raids on immigrants in the US.
On May 12, 2008, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raided a meat packing plant in Postville, Iowa and arrested 389 undocumented immigrants from Guatemala who were charged with false identity. Those arrested were jailed for 5 months, which had a tremendous impact on their families in the US and Guatemala, according to the speaker. The cost of the raid and legal proceedings was an estimated $10 million, but the economic cost for the town of Postville has been much worse, since the raid has caused the meat packing plant to close in bankruptcy.
The raid, according to Camayd-Freixas, also has far reaching impacts on the immigration crisis in the US and could be another catalyst in the movement for immigration justice.
He compares the immigration crisis today with the abolition movement and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, stating, “the current immigrant rights movement could be the next great movement in this country.” The speaker said that he did not have a history of working with the movement, but his involvement as a certified interpreter gave him access to all aspects of this case. This access radicalized the professor and caused him to re-evaluate his own role in the legal system. After the initial arrests and legal proceedings he wrote a report on the abuses–both legal and physical–that the detainees suffered at the hands of US officials. His report has received wide distribution and even resulted in him being asked to testify before Congress on this issue.
Since June, Professor Camayd-Freixas has continued to conduct research and investigations by talking with hundreds of people on immigration policy which included interviews with many of those arrested at Postville.
The speaker then gave an overview of US Immigration policy, which he says has always been racially motivated to limit minority rights and to provide cheap labor for capital. More recently, the neoliberal policies of the 1980s and 1990s has caused even more migration from around the world, particularly from Latin America. He points out the strange contradiction of “the criminalization of immigration with an increase in the need for migrant workers.” Pottsville, according to Camayd-Freixas, is an example of the neoliberal trends, since the Swift & Company moved its meat packing plants to rural areas where organized labor was almost non-existent and they could utilize cheap migrant labor.
Once migrant workers exceeded the number needed for labor there became a shift in attitudes on immigration. However, NAFTA and neoliberalism have weakened the Mexican economy and forced some people to migrate. The Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) has had a similar impact. All those he interviewed in Postville were Guatemalan agricultural workers and small farmers who could no longer make a living since CAFTA was adopted.
Professor Camayd-Freixas then went on to say, “9/11 drastically changed US government policies on immigration.” The policies put in place after the creation of the Department of Homeland Security were draconian. In 2006 the shift was directed at immigration. With the INS being folded into Homeland Security, it centralized government policies that are manifested in ICE–Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “The War on Terror” provided the justification for the war on immigration, according to the speaker. Operation Endgame became the blueprint for ICE. Endgame is a ten-year master plan (2003-2013) to remove all undocumented immigrants:
“Operation Endgame sets the standard for immigration policy where humanitarian concerns become secondary if not meaningless. Operation Endgame, along with the Patriot Act, has significantly limited Constitutional Rights and gave the government nearly unlimited power with little accountability. Postville is an example of this authoritarian power. However, beyond Postville, there are these kinds of arrests going on daily, with little media attention.”
Camayd-Freixas said that ICE has an annual budget of $6 billion. Additionally, they have agreements with local law enforcement to give local police the ability to carry out immigration enforcement.
“What the police are doing is engaging in racial profiling by stopping motorists who looks Mexican.”
He cited an example of a woman who was 9 months pregnant. She was chained to a bed and gave birth. The baby was then taken away and she was sent to prison.
In 2007, another example of how local law enforcement engages in what the speaker called “racial profiling,” was of a young man picked up who couldn’t prove his status. He was mentally retarded and deported to Mexico. He eventually made his way back after surviving off of food from the trash. The young man was born a US citizen, but because he looked like he was from Mexico and didn’t carry an ID with him, he was deported.
The speaker said that there have been about 10,000 cases of US citizens being picked up and falsely deported. The arrests sometimes happen when police follow kids home from school. Hospitals are also now turning over information to police and the use of warrantless raids and breaking into people’s homes has become common practice.
“The people in Postville were absolutely terrified,” said Camayd-Freixas, with people not knowing how they were going to survive. “To see them as criminals in chains was profoundly terrifying, since most of them were confused about what they were being charged with.” The speaker said that many of the detainees were shifted around the country from various jails. “Those who were brutalized during the raid were deported immediately so that the courts would not see them. Those who remained were shackled for up to 14 hours a day, even to eat.”
Camayd-Freixas said that those who had social security numbers that belonged to other people had the worse sentences. The immigration judges might see 4,000 cases a year, since there are not enough judges to deal with all the cases. “If you are arrested for immigration violations you can stay in jail waiting for a hearing for an unlimited amount of time.” Some still have not received a court date and others will not go before a judge until March or May of 2009.
Immigration detention has 32,000 beds across the country, but those beds are always occupied, so now they are putting electrical collars or tethers on people. The speaker said “they were threatening the detainees with identity theft, which has a minimum 2 years in jail. If they plead guilty to social security fraud they accepted 5 months in jail and deportation. So the case was really a political decision, not a legal one.”
Camayd-Freixas said that many more immigrants are arrested for criminal charges by Homeland Security under the guise of preventing terrorism. “The pretext is identity theft in order to say they are terrorists. Thus, in the name of national security, human rights can be violated, particularly against people of color and migrants.” The speaker also cited AETA (the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act) as an unprecedented policy, which could make terrorists of those who oppose the state in any form. “We now have a growing anti-immigrant paramilitary movement and a privatized prison system as a response to the immigration crisis. KBR has been the recipient of no-bid contracts for jailing those arrested in the war on terror which increasingly are those arrested for immigration violations.”
The speaker concluded by saying that “After 9/11 we have done what terrorists wanted the US to do, by creating a climate of fear.” However, Professor Camayd-Freixas has been receiving lots of letters of support since his essay on Postville went out over the Internet and he thinks that people want justice to be done. However, “if we are to solve this crisis, we need to understand that it is rooted in the economy.”
He then gave his own five-point plan to reform immigration policy.
First, there should be a prioritized path to legalization, in which the government makes it easier for people to apply for legal status. Second, there should be an expansion of visa processing. Third, the needs to be a “free trade workers program” not like the braceros or guest workers programs, which essentially created indentured servants. Fourth, there should be the use of legitimate means of enforcement, which the speaker said the US government has. Lastly, he said there should be “Migration Prevention,” where funds and programs can be used to prevent people from coming to the US by creating real economic development throughout Latin America.