Veteran photojournalist, labor organizer and immigrant rights activist. His articles have appeared in The Nation, American Prospect, Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle. He hosts a weekly radio show on KPFA in Berkeley, California. His latest book is Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Migrants.
Undocumented immigrants along the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast have resisted mandatory evacuation orders out of fear they could be arrested and deported at checkpoints. The climate of fear around deportation has worsened as the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, or ICE, continues to step up its raids across the country, with two of the largest raids in US history taking place in the last five months. We speak to David Bacon, award-winning photojournalist, labor organizer and immigrant rights activist and author of Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Migrants. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: Nearly a million people have been ordered to evacuate their homes along the coast of Texas as Hurricane Ike prepares to strike the Gulf. The National Weather Service issued a stern warning for certain areas, saying that people who ignored the evacuation order could “face instant death.”
But there’s a portion of the population who might not evacuate out of fear. Undocumented immigrants in affected areas of Texas remain skeptical about the mandatory evacuation order, and they fear that they could be arrested and deported at checkpoints and evacuation centers. FEMA spokesman Dan Martinez said Thursday that there would be a “hurricane amnesty” for all undocumented migrants in Texas.
But earlier this summer, despite assurances to the contrary from Department of Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff, Border Patrol agents kept open checkpoints and apprehended a van of people trying to evacuate from Hurricane Dolly. Last month, many undocumented immigrants in New Orleans did not evacuate during Hurricane Gustav due to deportation concerns.
AMY GOODMAN: The climate of fear around deportation has worsened as the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, or ICE, continues to step up its raids across the country. The two largest raids in US history took place in the last five months. ICE agents rounded up hundreds of workers in Postville, Iowa in May and then in Laurel, Mississippi last month, during the Democratic — right around the Democratic convention.
Although the subject of immigration and the growing crackdown on immigrants was largely absent from both the conventions, immigrant rights organizers held marches in both Denver and St. Paul. Democracy Now! was at the immigration rally in Denver, Colorado last month.
IMMIGRANT RIGHTS MARCHER 1: They want us here working, but they don’t want us to have any rights.
IMMIGRANT RIGHTS MARCHER 2: And they don’t want to pay the right way. They don’t want to pay the minimum wage. They want to pay less than minimum wage.
IMMIGRANT RIGHTS MARCHER 3: [translated] We are in a country that isn’t our own, but we want the government and the new administration to reform immigration for everyone.
IMMIGRANT RIGHTS MARCHER 4: There’s strength in immigrants. They have a lot of passion. You know, they’re recent people here. And we need to let them know what it feels like to have rights. And they have the power to change things in this country. A few generations back, my family was immigrants, as well. And it can only bring strength to the nation.
IMMIGRANT RIGHTS MARCHERS: Yes, we can do it. Yes, we can.
IMMIGRANT RIGHTS MARCHER 5: ...to make sure that the people’s voices are heard and that there — the issues that are important to people — immigrant rights, rights of children, rights of families, health insurance for all people — are recognized here, recognized by our government, recognized by the people in power, by Barack Obama, who I support and who recognizes that these are important issues to us for this election.
IMMIGRANT RIGHTS MARCHER 6: My mom and my dad came here in the early ’70s. They managed to get amnesty in ’86 under the IRCA law. We feel that it’s possible to get amnesty once again. And we want to just get out of the shadows of scapegoating. You know, scapegoating. And so, nobody — my parents don’t have to deal with that, and the next generation’s parents don’t have to deal with that.
IMMIGRANT RIGHTS MARCHER 7: In May of this year, ICE went in and rounded up about 300 to 400 workers, and right now the town has become a virtual prison for the women and the children. They can’t leave, and they can’t work.
IMMIGRANT RIGHTS MARCHERS: What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!
IMMIGRANT RIGHTS MARCHER 8: [translated] This country doesn’t respect you. My words don’t matter. They’ll get what they want, including taking my life. I’m tired of them treating me like I’m less just because of the color of my skin. They have everything of ours, including our country. America is for all Americans. This is my boat, too. [in English] This is a country of immigrants. We need the change bad. Obama is not the solution.
IMMIGRANT RIGHTS MARCHER 9: Regardless of who gets elected in November, working people will continue to bear the brunt of the economic crisis. The war in Afghanistan and Iraq will continue, and it will be deepened into Pakistan. And the attacks against working people at home will continue, the raids and deportations.
AMY GOODMAN: Immigrants’ rights activists rallying in Denver during the Democratic National Convention.
As the ICE raids on immigrant communities continue across the country, we’re joined in the firehouse studio by someone who’s been following the issues of immigration, labor and free trade for years: David Bacon, award-winning photojournalist, labor organizer, immigrant rights activist. His articles have appeared in The Nation, American Prospect, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and he hosts a radio show on Pacifica station KPFA in Berkeley. His latest book is called Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants.
David Bacon, welcome to Democracy Now! The largest raid in US history, immigrant raid, right before the Democratic convention, hundreds rounded up.
DAVID BACON: That’s right, in Laurel, Mississippi. And then, what got even less coverage was that they took 481 people, and they put them in a detention center in Jena, Louisiana and just sort of left them there —-
AMY GOODMAN: In Jena.
DAVID BACON: —- for two weeks. In Jena, right.
AMY GOODMAN: The Jena Six.
DAVID BACON: Right. In fact, that detention center is probably the biggest single, you know, source of employment for people who live in Jena now. But the problem with those workers is that they were — you know, there was no habeas corpus, there was no bail. There weren’t even any charges against those people for two weeks. It’s kind of like creating, I think, a Guantanamo-style of justice or injustice that’s excused because it’s being directed — you know, ICE mentions the word "illegal," and then all kinds of things become permissible that they wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And the spread of these huge raids over the last few years, it seems almost in response to the immigrant rights protests that developed a couple of years ago, when you saw this new movement developing in America, and suddenly the federal government all across the country begins clamping down and raiding factories, communities, stopping buses and trains, boarding buses and trains, even Amtrak trains and regular commercial buses, checking IDs all over the place.
DAVID BACON: That’s right. These are — as you say, Juan, these are terror raids, really. The purpose of these raids is really to terrorize and frighten immigrant communities, partly because, I think, the government is afraid of people asserting their rights and asserting their existence in the country through the marches and through other kinds of immigrant rights activities, organizing unions in plants and so forth.
But also, I think the government has an agenda here. In fact, it’s pretty open. Michael Chertoff keeps saying it over and over and over, and that is that he says we’re going to shut the back door and open the front door. And what that means is that ICE is trying to push for the establishment of new guest worker programs, so that people can come here as workers, but only as workers, without rights, without eventually getting political rights, without becoming citizens, certainly without voting, but whose labor is going to be used in the economy. And so, these raids are a way of terrorizing people and saying to people: don’t think that you’re going to be able to come to the United States; don’t think that you’re going to be able to work in any other way other than through these programs.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And I think one of the things that you raise in your book and in a lot of your articles is that the movement for comprehensive immigration reform, even among Democrats, is divided in terms of the purposes of that immigration reform, that there are groups that are really representative of business interests who are looking for that front-door situation. Could you expound on that?
DAVID BACON: Sure. The comprehensive immigration bills that we saw in Congress in a lot of ways were labor supply bills. These were bills that were really intended to supply guest workers to industry and then an enforcement program to kind of drive workers into those programs.
So, the difference of opinion, I think in the Democratic Party, especially, is between people who sponsored those programs and other people like Sheila Jackson-Lee, the congresswoman from Houston, who said instead of having a guest worker program, what we need is people to be able to come here with green cards and with permanent residence visas.
And also, the thing I think that she said that was really a pioneering idea, and that was that we also need a jobs program. We need to couple immigration reform with jobs programs. So she said, let’s take the fees that people pay when they’re normalizing their status and use that to set up job creation and job training programs in communities with high unemployment, so that all communities can have some kind of benefit out of these bills. You know, these labor supply bills, comprehensive immigration reform bills, what they do is they pit communities against each other over jobs, over wages and so forth.
AMY GOODMAN: David Bacon, there is a new ad campaign from NumbersUSA, an anti-immigrant group, that talks about diminishing resources, which everyone is concerned about, and the increased number of immigrants coming into this country. You also have ads on, well, like the magazine you work for, The Nation: an African American face, a full-page ad, talks about immigrants taking jobs from African Americans.
DAVID BACON: Well, that’s the kind of job competition that I think Jackson-Lee was trying to get at with her bill, the idea that if we advocate for a jobs program — and, you know, a jobs program used to be part of the Democratic Party platform every election. We would hear Democrats saying we need the federal government to guarantee employment. You don’t hear that anymore, and I think that’s also one reason why people are being pitted against each other. But clearly also, this is something that’s in the interest of the employers, because the more job competition there is, then the lower wages go.
You know, the real situation, Amy, is that Congress passes trade agreements. You know, we passed an agreement with Peru this last year, right? So, here we had a free trade agreement with Peru that is guaranteed to displace people in Peru, to produce poverty, to force people into migration as the only economic alternative that people have for survival.
AMY GOODMAN: Why is it guaranteed to do that?
DAVID BACON: That’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: Why?
DAVID BACON: Why? Because, well, take NAFTA, for instance. NAFTA allowed big US grain companies to dump corn on the Mexican market, which essentially made it impossible for small Mexican farmers to sell their corn that they were growing for a price that would pay for the cost of growing it. So you can’t farm any longer. What do you do? You have to support your family some way. And so, people become part of this migrant stream coming to the United States.
And it’s not just the US. I mean, these structural adjustment programs, trade agreements, it’s happening all over the world. There are 200 million people in the world who are living outside the countries where they were born.
So, you know, Congress passes these agreements, which sort of push people into migration, and then immigration bills, which are essentially trying to ensure that their labor gets supplied to corporations at the lowest possible price and that people have the fewest possible rights.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Your book actually makes the direct link between immigration policies in this country and trade policies. You talk about how NAFTA really came out of the immigration reform of 1986, of the — that Congress passed. Could you explain that? Because I’m not sure that many people are aware of that.
DAVID BACON: Right. The Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986, we think of it as being the amnesty bill, because it helped, you know, three million people to get legal status here. But what it also did was it set up a commission to study the causes of migration. And in 1991, that commission reported to Congress that the primary cause of migration was economic. So it then recommended the negotiation of a free trade agreement between the US and Mexico and held out that agreement as being something that would slow migration.
And so, the reality of it was that NAFTA increased migration. Six million people came to live in the United States from Mexico during the time that the treaty was in effect, because of the way in which it kind of uprooted communities and uprooted people and sort of forced them into motion.
So, you could say that that immigration bill made recommendations that I think the people who were writing the bill and writing the report in that commission knew perfectly well was going to displace people. In fact, the commission itself said in its report, in the short run, this is going to cause economic pain to people, and it’s going to cause dislocation. So they knew that it was going to send people to the United States. And then the bill, at the same time, the Immigration Reform and Control Act, was the bill that made it illegal for somebody who didn’t have papers to work in the United States, which meant that people were going to become very, very vulnerable as a result of that.
AMY GOODMAN: David, why this upswing in raids? I mean, in the last few months, we’ve seen the two largest immigration raids in US history: in Iowa, then in Mississippi.
DAVID BACON: Well, I think partly, Amy, it’s to keep people down. You know, there was an organizing drive in the Agriprocessors plant before that immigration raid. So immigration raids terrorize people. They make it much more fear — much higher climate of fear in the plant, much harder for people to organize.
In Mississippi, I think that raid was also directed — if you listen to the people from the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance, they’ll tell you that it was designed to attack the political coalition in Mississippi that’s been growing between African Americans, Latinos, immigrants and unions that had some prospect of eventually kind of displacing the political class in Mississippi that’s held power since Reconstruction. So that raid kind of terrorizes people and makes it — and divides people against each other and makes it more difficult for people to get together politically.
But I think, overall, that the real purpose of these raids, or the overarching purpose of these raids, is to, on the one hand, criminalize work and criminalize migration. ICE is now charging people with federal crimes for simply being present in the United States without papers. That used to be just simply a status violation. Now people are going to federal prison for it. People who give a bad Social Security number to their employer are now being charged with identity theft. At Postville, people were kind of forced to plead guilty to a federal crime that wound them up in prison for five months for simply misusing a Social Security number.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And, of course, there’s a report just yesterday that — of what happened in Greeley, Colorado at the Swift company there, the meatpacking company that had been subjected to a raid, and 260 Latino workers removed from that plant back in 2006. The company then hires hundreds of Somali Muslims, who come from all around the country to work there, and they then go — went out on strike this week, 400 Muslims, because the plant operators would not let them pray during the holy month of Ramadan. So now you have a whole new group of immigrant workers replacing the Latinos, and now they’re in conflict with their employers.
DAVID BACON: That’s right. And this would have been — see, what companies want is they want people for their work, and they don’t want human beings. So it would have been really easy for the company to simply say, “We’re going to shut the line down during the few minutes that it takes people to pray.” Everybody in the plant would have liked that, because, you know, it would have given people a break on that kind of backbreaking work on a meatpacking line. And instead, you know, the company said, “No, you may not do this. You may not pray.” And the workers said, “We have to do this. This is our religious practice.” And so, you know, that was the source of the conflict there.
But, you know, again, you know, it’s like they want people as workers. They want them to go and make those production lines run. But they don’t want the line to go down for even five minutes, so that people can pray, or the same problem about whether —- what time they were going to have their break in order to break their fast after Ramadan. You know, it would’ve been really easy for the company to give people two breaks instead of one. It just would have cost them money. That’s the problem. It would have cost them a little bit of money, in terms of shutting the line down during that period of time.
AMY GOODMAN: David Bacon, there was hardly any discussion of immigrants during the Republican or Democratic convention. As we wrap up the discussion, what are the leading presidential candidates proposing? What do you think has to be done?
DAVID BACON: Well, we already know what John McCain thinks about immigration, because he was a sponsor of one of the big comprehensive immigration reform or kind of labor supply guest worker bills. So that’s where he’s at. He’s kind of a sponsor of the corporate approach to immigration, looking at it as a labor supply system with more enforcement -—
AMY GOODMAN: Hasn’t he even backed off that?
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, except he’s qualified that by saying that until we get the borders under control, even that cannot occur.
DAVID BACON: That’s right. And also, he comes from Arizona, and Arizona is the most repressive state for immigrants today. So the kinds of raids that we’ve seen in Phoenix, you know, the courtroom in Tucson, that every day seventy young people get sent off to federal prison for the crime of crossing the border, this is kind of like what immigration policy is like in Arizona, and that’s what we can expect from him.
You know, Obama, in the beginning of the primary, made some kind of positive statements about the border and the need to demilitarize the border and have better relationships between the communities on both sides. I think in the — since then, he has said that he’s for comprehensive immigration reform. Personally, I find that worrying, because comprehensive immigration reform, I think, is basically a way of saying we want labor supply bills and guest worker bills. So I think that under an Obama administration, we would still have a lot of arguing and debate over what direction we want immigration reform to go in, because I think we do face a fundamental choice, as you ask, Amy: are we going to have immigration reform that basically guarantees human rights for people, that gives people legal status, that offers people a way of coming to the United States other than as guest workers and as work animals, or are we going to simply allow corporations to dictate what immigration policy should be here, in the interests, essentially, of having a labor supply at a very, very low wage level.
AMY GOODMAN: And the state of the immigrants’ rights movement? Two years ago, we saw the largest immigrants’ rights marches in the history of this country.
DAVID BACON: Yeah, immigrants gave us back May Day. You know, when we — I was a child of the Cold War. We didn’t have May Day in this country, because it was the so-called communist holiday. And all of a sudden, we have people going out in the streets, and we’re celebrating May Day and celebrating the contributions of working people. I think we ought to thank the immigrant rights movement for giving us back our holiday.
AMY GOODMAN: On that note, I want to thank you very much, David Bacon, for being with us. His new book is called Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants.