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Immigration Crackdown: 1,200 Undocumented Workers Detained Across U.S.

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In what is being called one of the largest immigration crackdowns in recent U.S. history, 1200 undocumented workers from 26 different states were rounded up and detained late Wednesday. We take a look at the unprecedented immigration raids and the ongoing struggle for immigrant rights. [includes rush transcript]

We look at the ongoing struggle around immigration rights in this country. On Wednesday evening, immigration authorities rounded up almost 1,200 undocumented immigrants in 26 states in what law enforcement officials say was the culmination of a year-long criminal investigation. The authorities raided the offices and plants of the company IFCO Systems North America which is based in Houston, Texas and makes wooden pallets and crates. Among those arrested were seven current and former managers who were charged with conspiracy to transport, harbor and encourage illegal immigrants to reside in the United States for commercial and financial gain. The managers face up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each undocumented worker. Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff made the announcement of the arrests yesterday morning.

  • Michael Chertoff, Secretary of Homeland Security speaking April 20, 2006.

The arrests come on the heels of the massive rallies in support of immigration rights that have taken place in the last month. The rallies are a response to proposed federal legislation that would turn millions of undocumented immigrants into criminals and would fence off sections of the U.S border with Mexico. In Chicago, which held some of the earliest protests, it is estimated that up to 60 people were arrested last night in the raids and were held at the Broadview Detention Facility on the city’s Southwest Side.

  • Jorge Mujica, one of the lead organizers for the March 10 protest in Chicago that drew up to 300,000 people. A former journalist and union organizer, Mujica has worked for La Raza, Univision, and Telemundo, and has been involved in union organizing in both the US and in Mexico.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Homeland Security chief, Michael Chertoff, made the announcement of the arrest yesterday morning.

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Yesterday and today, our agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, working with the U.S. Attorney’s office and other authorities, executed the largest single work site enforcement operation against a company in American history. In fact, we arrested more people in this single work site enforcement operation than in the entirety of last year. This was an investigation which began over a year ago, and yesterday we arrested 1,187 people on administrative immigration charges, and seven criminal complaints were brought against managers or former managers for alleged criminal violations in connection with the hiring of illegal undocumented aliens.

AMY GOODMAN: The arrests come on the heels of the massive rallies in support of immigration rights that have taken place in the last month. The rallies are a response to proposed federal legislation that would turn millions of undocumented immigrants into criminals, would fence off sections of the U.S. border with Mexico. In Chicago, which held some of the earliest protests, it’s estimated that up to 60 people were arrested last night in the raids and were held at the Broadview Detention Facility in Chicago’s Southwest Side. I’m joined right here in Chicago by Jorge Mujica. He was one of the main organizers of the Chicago protest last month. He’s also a journalist and union organizer in both the U.S. and Mexico. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

JORGE MUJICA: Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you respond to this roundup that has taken place?

JORGE MUJICA: Yeah, in two ways. We believe that this is the worst moment to be launching such an operation. If Chertoff says they had been preparing for this for as long as one year, then why now? Why not wait for three weeks, or two weeks even, or one month, until Congress, the Senate and the House of Representatives, come up with an integral immigration reform plan? Many of these people that were rounded up, arrested and some of them deported might have been legalized in two weeks or in three weeks or be eligible to be legalized. So why now? It was a total surprise for us, you know. It seems ridiculous to do it right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, what do you think? What do you think is the reason?

JORGE MUJICA: I think it was a message. I think it was a message for us. It’s incredible when you read the declarations of Chertoff. He uses, time and over, the word “criminal”: “criminal,” “criminal alien,” “criminal alien.” You know, and he insists that this is an operation to remove criminal aliens from the United States. The wording seems appropriated to the Sensenbrenner legislation, which is the legislation that would turn 12 million people into criminals, but that doesn’t exist yet. You know, we are not criminals according to the law. To cross the border without papers is an administrative fault. It’s not a crime, legally. So why is Chertoff using the word “criminal, criminal, criminal,” time and over? It’s a message for us, I think.

AMY GOODMAN: And what are you going to do about it?

JORGE MUJICA: Oh, this backfired on him. If that was the intention, to intimidate people, it backfired on him. Over the radio in Spanish language, over the printed media, everybody’s so outraged at this operation that people that were not marching with us, that were not organizing with us, are now doing it. We were preparing the next demonstration for May Day, Monday, and we were expecting to have 300,000 people. Now we expect to have half a million.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, yours was the first major protest of this wave of protests, that are not only the largest immigration protest in the history of this country, they’re the largest protests on any issue.


AMY GOODMAN: In the history of this country. And Chicago began it. How many people marched in the streets?

JORGE MUJICA: Well, according to the superintendent of police, Phil Cline, he said it was 300,000. Nevertheless, the official declaration by the Chicago Police Department only said it was 100,000. It doesn’t matter much. We consider this one the second largest demonstration in Chicago, right after the 1886 demonstrations by the people that brought us the weekend and the eight-hour workday, you know, the Chicago Martyrs, the guys that created May Day.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain that.

JORGE MUJICA: Yeah, in 1886, a lot of immigrants, hundreds of thousands of immigrants, took the streets of Chicago, went out on a strike, seeking a educed workday — only eight hours. That was the birth of the eight-hour, as we know it today, as the eight-hour workday. In 1886, there were many protests. There were confrontations with the police, riots, even a bomb. Some policemen were killed. And out of all of that, the labor unions were born, and this was basically an immigrant struggle. At the time, it was German immigrants, Russian immigrants, Italian immigrants, British immigrants.

Yeah, but we are coming, you know, around full circle. 120 years later, immigrants in this country are fighting again for working conditions, to have papers or not have papers, it’s a working problem. It’s not only an immigration problem. It’s regarding how do you work, where do you work, in which conditions do you work. So we are commemorating May Day, I guess, in full form.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us what this company is that the immigration raids were targeted at, what your understanding of IFCO Systems North America is, that’s based in Houston, Texas?

JORGE MUJICA: They create palettes. You know, it’s a very low-paid job. It’s the kind of job — when President George Bush said two years ago that immigrants take jobs the U.S. citizens are not willing to take, he was talking about these kind of jobs: dirty, heavy and very badly, badly paid. Apparently, from what we understand, executives at the company itself was encouraging workers, was seeking workers, you know, in other countries, not only in Mexico, but in other countries, encouraging them to come here and work for their company. This is a problem. The United States requires you to have certain papers in order to work here legally, but at the same time it refuses to give you those papers. The United States economy is creating a half a million jobs a year and is not producing a half a million U.S. citizens to fill up those jobs. So, okay. You want me to present papers? Give me the papers, before I cross the border. It’s as easy as that.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Jorge Mujica, who is a former journalist, worked for La Raza, Univision, Telemundo, as a union organizer. May 1st, you said, the next round of major protest. Do you support the boycott that a number of immigrant rights activists are advocating for that day, the idea of a day without an immigrant?

JORGE MUJICA: No, actually, we don’t. And it might be a matter of wording, the action. When we invite people to march with us, we obviously are inviting people not to work that day or not to go to school. And anyone marching is not going to be buying anything, is not going to be selling anything. Economically, you have the same effect. But we are not calling for a boycott for a simple reason. We brought the labor unions on board as our allies, because we want to take away the only immigration and only immigrants aspect of this struggle. This is a working problem. If we bring them on board the labor unions on board, they cannot even by far touch the word “boycott,” because that’s illegal for labor unions to do. And so, we put things in a balance, and we decided, 'Okay, do we talk about a boycott or we bring the labor unions to our side?' And we decided, definitely, we want the labor unions. So forget the boycott. The economic impact is going to be there, anyway. But we are not calling for a boycott.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us. We will certainly continue to follow this debate, struggle, protest. We’ve been speaking with Jorge Mujica, who is a former journalist, who is a union organizer, one of the major organizers of the March 10 protest here in Chicago.

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