Monday, March 27, 2017

ICE--a Latter Day Gestapo?

Under the previous administration ICE (the immigration and customs enforcement agency of the US government) arrested undocumented immigrants if they committed serious crimes. Now ICE will arrest undocumented immigrants even if they have not committed any crimes. This expanded use of government enforcement powers has produced a great deal of criticism and protest.
This opposition to government enforcement practices is supported by stories like that of Roberto Beristain which was recently in the news. In 1998 Roberto came from Mexico to visit his aunt and decided to remain in the US, outstaying his visa and becoming an undocumented immigrant. Roberto moved to South Bend, Indiana where he married and had several children and recently bought a restaurant which he had been managing for a number of years. Roberto became a member in good standing of the local business community. He was a good citizen; he was well-liked. He did not have as much as a traffic ticket against him.
Now ICE has detained him. He is in line to be deported back to Mexico. He has not faced a court. He has not been able to defend himself. Many criminal cases are settled not by the defendant going to trial but through negotiations between the defendant's lawyers and the prosecuting attorneys. Roberto has not had an opportunity to negotiate any settlement of his case. He has not been able to present to a judge his situation as a husband and father to American citizens, as a businessman who employs 20 other Americans, as a respected member of his American community.
It is difficult to resist comparisons between ICE and the secret police in authoritarian countries which arrests people for no other reason than that the government does not want them to be free and able to live ordinary lives. What ICE does to people from Mexico or Central or South America looks a great deal like what the Russian government or the government in Egypt and in many other authoritarian countries does to political protesters. If they get a chance in court at all, they are liable to get a rigged mass trial which has but the thinnest veneer of legality.
But, of course, Roberto was undocumented. In outstaying his visa in 1998 he had broken the law. ICE is enforcing a real law; it is not arresting unpopular persons under the pretext that they are have been broken the law. On the other hand, it is difficult to forget the President's racist comments about Mexicans a few months ago, characterizing all of them as drug dealers, murderers and rapists. One cannot resist the thought that the change between the practice of the previous administration and the present one is a response to the President's racist generalizations about Mexicans. Roberto, after all, came from Mexico.
There are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands cases like Roberto's. (His case attracted attention because his wife admitted to having voted for Donald Trump – a choice she now regrets bitterly.)
In addition there are the cases of somewhere between 500,000 and 700,000 undocumented farmworkers whose employers are now extremely anxious. If their workers are arrested by ICE their farm will have to shut down because there is a shortage of farmworkers--American or immigrant farmworkers with visas. If these farms shut down other economic consequences will ensue. The now bankrupt farmers will spend less money than before. That will have an impact on local economies and will either result in serious poverty for some people or a rise in the cost of social services for people without jobs. The products of these farms will no longer be offered in the marketplace and that may raise the cost of milk or fruit or other farm products. It is not in anyone's interest to arrest undocumented farmworkers.
The new practices of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement people are in some faint sense legal. Undocumented immigrants are doing something the law does not permit. But enforcing immigration statutes as harshly as they are being pushed today results in breaking up American families, depriving American children of their father or mother. It proves that being a good citizen and a well-liked member of a local community, is not valued by our government. In the past, ICE made allowances for that. Undocumented immigrants like Roberto, who led exemplary lives, checked in with ICE once a year and were allowed to continue living as before if they had not run into legal troubles. But this year, when Roberto reported to ICE, expecting the visit to be a mere formality, ICE detained him instead. He has not seen his wife and children since. ICE will no longer make any allowances for his positive contributions to his adopted country. Nor will it make any allowances for undocumented farmworkers who are performing an essential economic service such as doing farm work for which no other employees are available.
Deporting undocumented Mexicans (or Jamaicans) is more important to our government than rewarding good citizenship and doing essential work. It is difficult not to see the actual application of immigration law as no more than an exercise of blind racial prejudice.