The cruelty was the point.
Last week, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raided seven plants, owned by five companies in six different cities, rounding up nearly 700 workers they believe were undocumented immigrants. What captured the attention of our country, though, were the images of children crying, not knowing where their parents were or what had happened to them.
Anyone who could use a calendar would know that these raids were planned on the first day of school in Mississippi, when kids were going back to class with excitement to meet new friends and learn new things. However, doing this raid on the first day of school to emotionally traumatize families and further discourage illegal immigration was precisely the goal. To wit, the cruelty was the point.
Our President has already been clear that he views practices like family separation as a deterrent to undocumented immigration–the immense emotional pain is precisely the point. The Acting Director of ICE, Matthew Albence, defended his agency’s raids, saying, “The parents or the individuals that are breaking the law are ultimately the ones that are responsible for placing their children in this situation.”
Wrong, Director Albence. Your choice, and the choice of your administration, to enforce our broken immigration laws in this way is what placed children in this situation.
First off, let’s be clear, illegal immigration is a crime–but it’s either a civil violation or a misdemeanor, depending on the circumstances. Even the higher-level crime of misdemeanor is not a serious crime in our country’s statutes. It is on the same level as public intoxication, vandalism, or shoplifting. To respond to a crime like a misdemeanor by taking a child’s parents away is cruel and unusual punishment.
Interestingly enough, hiring an undocumented immigrant is a felony – a much more serious crime. However, to date, no one from any of the companies raided has been charged with a felony. None of them have had their children taken away. In the past year, more than 120,000 people have been prosecuted for illegal entry into our country. How many employers were prosecuted? Eleven. How many were sentenced to prison time? Three.
Let’s be clear. Our entire enforcement of immigration law is predicated upon punishing those who have no power – they are easy targets. Those who benefit from undocumented labor – and often taking advantage of the vulnerabilities of the undocumented – are rarely held to account. And so those who commit misdemeanors are carted off to jail while their children come home crying to empty houses while those who commit felonies not only don’t face any significant penalty but continue to profit from our broken immigration system and the way it enables the oppression of those who are desperate for a better life for their kids and their families.
This is why the United Food and Commercial Workers union which represents workers at plants which were raided has condemned the raids. Rather than fixing our immigration system so that it is easier for those who are looking for jobs to safely and legally come to our country, our current administration has increased the failures (yes, the failures) of the Obama administration when it comes to addressing issues with immigration law. One of the few penalties any of these plants has seen actually was a $3.75 million dollar settlement between Koch Foods and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The issue wasn’t the hiring of undocumented workers, but was charges of sexual harassment, racial and national origin discrimination, sexual comments and touching of Hispanic workers, and retaliation against Hispanic workers who spoke up.
Our current immigration system is cruelly and brutally hurting our fellow human beings, people who – just like many of us – are trying to build a better life. People who have fled violence and poverty in the hope of their kids growing up hungry and not winding up dead in the street – choices I hope no person ever has to make. Increasing the failed deportation policies of the Obama administration, and making it even worse through practices of family separation, is not the answer to this moral stain upon our country.
The answer is to finally have an entirely reworked immigration system where people can safely and legally come to our country and do what immigrants have always done – make America a better place to life. And the answer is to hold to account those companies, governmental agencies, and other societal powers which continue to oppress and dehumanize immigrants.
The Rev. Dr. Jared C. Cramer, Tribune community columnist, serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven. Information about his parish can be found at www.sjegh.com.