Bush's Guatemala Visit Spotlights His Cruel Immigration Policies

President Bush got a big surprise on his goodwill visit to Guatemala this week. Protesters filled the streets of Guatemala City to denounce an immigration raid that took place at a leather goods factory in New Bedford, Massachusetts on March 6th. The raid resulted in the arrest of 361 people, most of them undocumented immigrants from Guatemala and El Salvador. Even the President of Guatemala criticized the raids in his welcoming speech to Bush on his arrival. This is big news in Guatemala because 10% of the entire Guatemalan population -- many of them undocumented -- lives in the US.

The press in Guatemala - and in Massachusetts -- has been filled with stories of the raid and its aftermath of families shattered, children separated from their parents, and children being held in federal custody. According to The New York Times:

Facing pointed questions from Guatemalan journalists, Mr. Bush stood by the raid, saying, "People will be treated with respect, but the United States will enforce our law.Mr. Bush said he disputed "conspiracies" relayed by Mr. Berger [Guatemala's President] that children were taken away from families. Mr. Bush denied such accounts. "No es la verdad," Mr. Bush said, "That's not the way America operates. We're a decent, compassionate country. Those are the kind of things we do not do. We believe in families, and we'll treat people with dignity.
Well, sí es verdad. Days after the raids the Massachusetts Department of Social Services ( DSS) reported that they "... could not connect 100 children with their families." One woman arrested in the raid was flown back from Texas where she was being held when her 7 year old daughter called a hot line created to unite families divided by the raid to ask about her mother's whereabouts. Two nursing infants were hospitalized for dehydration when they were separated from their mothers.

Once again Bush is either lying or out of touch with reality. The events of this raid have been well documented and roundly condemned by the press and politicians in Massachusetts across the political spectrum. In the era of global communications, people in Guatemala didn't even have to rely on the media; they could pick up the phone and call their relatives in New Bedford to find out what was really going on.

The New Bedford raid had what is by now a familiar feel to it. On March 6, up to 500 government agents, police, and others surrounded the Michael Bianco, Inc. leather goods factory in New Bedford Massachusetts. Inside, an announcement came over loudspeakers, "Stay where you are. Immigration agents are in the building." Panic ensued as workers made a run for it, but the exits were blocked, some by police with guns drawn. Some workers scurried into hiding places, hoping to wait out the raid.

When the building was finally locked down agents instructed US citizens or green card holders to move to one area and all others to another area. Workers were interviewed. Some were released in a few hours because of compelling health or family reasons. But most were loaded onto buses and transported to a holding facility on Fort Devens, a former military base about 60 miles away.

Following processing at Fort Devens, 70 of those arrested were released for a variety reasons within a few days, 90 are being held in various jails in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and 207 were flown far from their homes and families to jails in Texas. Eight minors were picked up, three were released the rest are being held in Miami.

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick engaged in a few testy exchanges with the Department of Homeland Security as did Senators Kennedy and Kerry and other members of the state's Congressional delegation. Patrick attacked the "race to the airport," to move the workers out of state before they could be properly interviewed. Kennedy compared the effect of the raids to, "the tragedy and human suffering that we all witnessed after the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Katrina. ...These men and women had not harmed anyone. They were victims of exploitation, forced to work under barbaric conditions by an employer who knew that they could not afford to complain. Their children, many of whom are United States citizens, had done nothing wrong at all. None of them had any reason to expect that the Department of Homeland Security would decide to make an example out of them."

Kerry called for a Congressional investigation of the raid.

Meanwhile, immigrant rights groups rushed to court and won a federal court order to halt the out of state flights. But most of the captives had already been moved.

The Massachusetts DSS sent two teams of 18 social workers to Texas to interview those arrested. They asked that 21 mothers be returned to Massachusetts immediately. While the Department of Homeland Security maintains that it has worked closely with DSS in the aftermath of the raids, DSS Commissioner Harry Spence angrily denies this: "They stopped us at every step of the way. ICE's rhetoric has been completely different from the truth."

The company -- owned by Michael Bianco -- makes backpacks and vests for the military under a $138 million contract, and employs about 500 people. The firm also makes high end leather goods for name brands like Coach, Inc.

Bianco and four others were arrested following the raid and charged with knowingly employing undocumented workers or providing false documents to workers. But unlike the workers, Bianco and the managers were immediately released on bail and were back at work the next day.

The Pentagon's contract rules encourage sweatshop production like those that exist at Bianco, Inc. In fact, Massachusetts' politicians complained to the Department of Defense long before the raids about poor labor conditions in factories producing uniforms and other articles for the military, although they did not specially mention Bianco.

At a press conference announcing the raid US Attorney Michael Sullivan pointed to the "horrible" conditions in the plant. Indeed an 11 month long investigation, which included the use of undercover agents, turned up evidence of classic sweatshop conditions: low wages, no benefits, harsh working conditions which included restrictions on workers talking or using restrooms, and workers' pay being docked for infractions of workplace rules.

Yet no attempt was made to enforce labor laws. Instead, the victims of the labor abuse were arrested and transported and their children subjected to what, by virtually any definition, is child abuse by federal authorities.

The story of the New Bedford raid is still unfolding. But it could have a real impact on the current immigration debate.

Many advocates of immigration reform see the increase in the number of raids by the Bush Administration as a move to satisfy both the hard-line anti-immigrant wing of the Republican Party and the corporate wing that wants access to cheap immigrant labor through a guest worker program. By creating a crisis, the Bush Administration hopes to push through an immigration reform bill that it likes. It's unclear whether the strategy will be successful.

On the one hand, many well meaning people -- and some not so well-meaning people -- are now calling for immediate action on comprehensive immigration reform. Massachusetts Senator Kennedy is preparing to refile a bill similar to one filed in the last session of Congress that attracted bi-partisan support. That bill would provide an amnesty for many of those already living in the US. But it would also create a guest worker program for future immigrant flows and increase funding for enforcement. It will not prevent future immigrant flows; it does not stop New Bedford-style raids but instead increases enforcement funding; and it creates a guest worker program that could institutionalize sweatshops, since it is clear that authorities are not interested in enforcing labor laws even when they know from their own investigations that rampant labor law violations exist.

On the other hand, the New Bedford raid could have a positive blowback effect. As a result of Bush's visit to Latin America and the protests in Guatemala, the raid may serve to highlight the need for a hemispheric approach to immigration reform. Real reform must involve both the sending and the receiving countries and as the US moves to further militarize the border and more draconian raids take place, Latin Americans are demanding more of a say in how immigration is managed. Latin American countries weighed in on the U.S. immigration law reform debate last year, and the coalitions of social movements and labor such as the Hemispheric Social Alliance have long proposed principles to regulate immigration throughout the Americas.

It's time for immigrant rights advocates, labor unions, and other elements of global civil society with a stake in US immigration policy to step into the vacuum and create a new immigration discourse and program based the realities of immigrant flows in the age of globalization.

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