Reframing "Illegal" in the Immigration Debate
by Patricia Rector

An Immigration Rights Rally in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Photo:

In the powerful documentary film, Crossing Arizona, a self-deputized Arizona border vigilante explains his interest in personally supplementing the law enforcement activities of federal border agents. He stalks Mexican men, women and children who have crossed the desert. He carries a gun. His query to a group of frightened, grossly dehydrated Mexicans is "What is it about 'illegal' that you people don't understand?"

That query has haunted me because it goes to the heart of the current debate on immigration policy. I have repeatedly heard versions of this question here in Central New York (CNY). The phrase "illegal alien" or "illegal immigrant" is imbedded in the general public's perception and severely limits not only our view of our seriously broken immigration system, but criminalizes people who, like our own immigrant forbearers, are hard-working and family-focused.

The reasoning goes that a human being who is labeled "illegal" must be a criminal and therefore deserves to suffer any and all injuries. Never mind that crossing a border is a civil not a criminal offense. Such niceties are lost in the politicized atmosphere which scapegoats approximately 20 million people who are "without documents" in the US.

Many undocumented people in CNY have been coming here for years, working in fields, dairy farms and food processing plants in jobs that have not appealed to US citizens. Local farmers have come to depend upon migrant labor. When the strawberries are ready, they must be picked. Locally, because of Operation Return to Sender, farmers are seeing a 30% reduction in their workforce.

Across the country, some seasonal workers have decided that the risks they take and the isolation they suffer are simply not worth the cold reception they have received. You can be stopped if you "look" Latino (or Haitian, or Ghanaian, or Filipino) on your way to the ER, grocery store or in the laundromat. If you board or travel through CNY on a train or a bus (even if you are on your way back to Mexico), you can expect to be confronted by a federal immigration agent and asked to prove you are a citizen.

Such stops in recent months have resulted in hundreds of people being interrogated by federal border patrol agents and then hauled off to local jails, county prisons and the Buffalo Federal Detention Center in Batavia, New York. Most of those who have been detained are people of color.

I admit that there is much about "illegal" that I do not understand. Here are some of my own queries:

Why are corporations allowed to cross borders freely while workers are not?

Why are the "illegal" actions of contractors ignored when they violate wage standards, health and safety laws and regulations governing proper disposal of hazardous material (not to mention degrading standards for unionized and prevailing wage employers)?

Why don't we call US "free" trade treaties "illegal" since they have impoverished whole communities, both in the US and in Third World nations, ravaged the environment and forced families to break apart just to survive? The "free" in "free trade" seems to mean "free to rob, pillage and drive foreign businesses into the ground."

Why isn't it "illegal" for government officials to wink at corporations that use labor contractors for the sole purpose of avoiding adherence to local, state and federal work laws?

Why don't people who are vehemently opposed to "illegal" immigration realize that the food that they eat is the product of immigrant labor?

Each generation faces its own unique moral challenges. There are times when at first we simply do not believe what is in front of us, in part, because to believe it would require us to act. I argue that a new form of slavery is in front of us: people torn from their families; force used to separate children from their parents, spouses from each other and aging parents from the adult children caring for them. Our migrant brothers and sisters are not the only victims of the global economy in Central New York. Job layoffs, union bashing, downsizing, health care cuts, pension reductions and job insecurity threaten many in our community. We can learn much from solidarity and accompaniment with those who are the most vulnerable - about how we can survive and fight for what we care for most.

The Detention Task Force meets every Friday at 9 am at the Workers' Rights Center (see SPC calendar).

Pat Rector is coordinator of the CNY Labor-Religion Coalition and a member of the Detention Task Force.