The War on Immigrants
Aly Wane

There was an ICE home raid in Syracuse recently. For those not familiar with this friendly acronym, ICE is the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, which is under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). According to ICE’s website, its mission is to “protect national security, public safety and the integrity of the US Borders through the criminal and civil enforcement of federal laws governing border control, customs, trade and immigration.” As a result of the recent ICE home raid, several men and women (all from Guatemala) were put in detention centers, and they all have orders of deportation pending. A collection of activists was able to collect the $5,000 per person required to make bail for those who were put in detention. Their “crime” was re-entering the country illegally in order to reunite with family members instead of waiting the customary ten years before being able to do so legally. As a result of the raid, at least three children with United States citizenship have family members who are at risk of deportation. Welcome to one of the frontlines of the War on Terror.

In many ways, the War on Terror has turned into a war on immigrants, be they legal or undocumented. This war on immigrants is a bipartisan one. However, things first turned ugly before 9/11. The Clinton administration passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. This act made it a crime to be “unlawfully present” in the country and instituted three and ten year bans on immigrants who were caught in the US without papers. It also lowered the criteria for deportable offenses. As of now, even a legal permanent resident (“Green Card” holder) can be retroactively deported if he or she has ever committed a crime that has the theoretical possibility of resulting in a one year sentence. So, to make things clear: if you possessed a small amount of marijuana twenty years ago and have since become an exemplary member of society with a wife and children possessing US citizenship, even if you are here legally, that offense is a deportable offense.

But 9/11 made the situation much worse for immigrants, and the War on Terror has been disastrous to immigrant communities. The Former INS (Immigration and Naturalization Services) was transformed into ICE under a new department, the Department of Homeland Security. The USA turned into “Fortress America.” It became harder and harder for individuals to get visas, and the path to citizenship became even stricter. The new Department of Homeland Security was charged with protecting the United States from terrorists. Despite all the propaganda coming from both the Bush and Obama administrations, the simple fact of the matter is that there aren’t very many “terrorists” out there. The average US citizen is still much more likely to die in a traffic accident than in a terrorist attack. However, DHS has to justify its budget in one way or another. The solution was simple: increase the number of deportations and claim that this is “making America safer.” In a strange alchemy of bureaucratic necessity and exploited fear, “illegal immigrant” became synonymous with “terrorist.” And sadly, all immigrants became automatically suspect.

This is clear in the language that politicians of both parties use when addressing the issue of “illegal immigration.” In a March 2010 New York Times editorial, Senators Schumer (D-NY) and Graham (R-SC) wrote that “once it is clear that in twenty years our nation will not again confront the specter of another 11 million people coming here illegally, Americans will embrace more welcoming immigration policies.” To anyone familiar with Cold War terminology, the use of the word “specter” has glacial undertones which hearken back to former anti-communist era days. Clearly, the leadership of both parties believes that illegal immigrants are a danger to the body politic, and neither party is willing to speak to the humanitarian crisis which has been created by an outdated immigration system that has not caught up to the realities of globalization. Factories have been allowed to cross borders, but we have criminalized the workers who seek employment across national boundaries. Republicans and Democrats alike are unwilling to challenge the narrative that “illegal immigrants” are dangerous criminals, despite the reality that most undocumented workers commit crimes at lower rates than US citizens for an obvious reason: they do not want to be deported.

The lack of moral courage from our political leaders is leading to increasingly draconian proposals such as increased militarization at the borders and the current proposal by Republicans to re-interpret the 14th Amendment so as to deny birthright citizenship. It is up to grassroots activists and the average citizen to create communities that reject the demonizing and scapegoating of immigrants.

Aly, originally from Senegal, is an organizer with the Syracuse Peace Council and the Alliance of Communities Transforming Syracuse.