The War on Immigrants: Stories from the Front Lines

By Little, Cheryl | Americas Quarterly, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

The War on Immigrants: Stories from the Front Lines


Little, Cheryl, Americas Quarterly


Anti-immigration policies are hurting real people and families and undermining U.S. ideals of justice. They may also be making us less safe from terrorism.

The U.S. Government's War on Terror has transgressed into a War on Immigrants. Since September 11, 2001, Washington's attempt to secure the nation's borders has not only sent waves of fear through the immigrant community but has undermined the nation's long-standing principles of providing shelter and refuge to those fleeing tyranny, intolerance and hunger.1

Federal dragnets with code names like Operation Endgame and Return to Sender target immigrants who have broken no criminal laws, yet are treated like hardened criminals, with no right to a court-appointed lawyer. Fugitive Operations teams from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested over 30,000 immigrants in fiscal year 2007, nearly doubling the 2006 arrests.2

ICE detainees now represent the fastest growing prison population in the U.S., costing taxpayers more than $1.2 billion a year.3 The new laws, programs and strategies aimed at strengthening our borders and controlling immigration in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks have not only failed to make us safer; they have fueled an anti-immigrant hysteria.

Immigrant neighborhoods around the country have been the targets of massive sweeps by both local and federal law enforcement.4 Town and state officials have passed laws punishing immigrants and those who offer them shelter. And, as a weakening economy has prodded disgruntled Americans into a search for scapegoats, many hard-working, tax-paying immigrants with significant ties to the U.S., full-time jobs and American spousesand children, have been forced underground.5 Even when they have been victims of hate crimes, they avoid contact with law enforcement.

My agency, the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center (FIAC), has met with thousands of these immigrants since 9/11. A non-profit group dedicated to protecting the basic rights of immigrants, FIAC has documented their stories to put a face on the injustices being committed against them.

Our work has provided ample evidence that the barrage of anti-immigrant laws and regulations, often propelled by right-wing rhetoric, is an assault on the fundamental civil liberties of all. But our research also makes clear that driving immigrants further underground does nothing to fix our broken immigration system.

It only makes matters worse.

Overzealous Law Enforcement

A first step toward changing this situation must be to back away from the exclusive focus on law enforcement as a solution. Florida provides some poignant examples of the current trend. Sheriff deputies from Okaloosa and Santa Rosa counties are arresting immigrants without ICE assistance, claiming they are responding to tips about identity fraud.6 The sheriff's offices in these counties has a tip line for reporting suspected undocumented workers.7 Following the narrow defeat of anti-immigrant ordinances in Palm Bay, local police used a trespassing law to bring criminal charges against suspect Hispanics and turn them over to Border Patrol.8

In a climate that encourages overzealous policing, elaborate dragnets often employ racial profiling.9 In Florida, the Bay County sheriff who prosecutes immigrants for using false documents has been accused of such racial profiling by Hispanics.10 Across the state, immigrants traveling to work or to visit relatives are often targeted. Border Patrol agents spend hours looking for undocumented immigrants driving on Florida's Turnpike.11

Law enforcement authorities in Florida and elsewhere are increasingly entering into agreements with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to act as ICE agents, a practice which reduces already limited crime-fighting resources of local police.12 These agreements can be enticing to sheriffs in smaller counties anxious to foster a get-tough reputation and build arrest statistics by detaining suspected "illegals. …

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