Targeted: Homeland Security and the Business of Immigration

StoryJanuary 25, 2007
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Author and radio host Deepa Fernandes joins us to talk about her new book, "Targeted: Homeland Security and the Business of Immigration." Fernandes documents the hidden human struggles behind the immigration debate and exposes how big business has been a driving force in setting immigration policy. [includes rush transcript]

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

JUAN GONZALEZ: President Bush renewed his call for immigration reform during his State of the Union address Tuesday. The president’s proposal echoed many of his earlier initiatives for an immigration overhaul.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Extending hope and opportunity in our country requires an immigration system worthy of America, with laws that are fair and borders that are secure. When laws and borders are routinely violated, this harms the interests of our country. To secure our border, we’re doubling the size of the Border Patrol and funding new infrastructure and technology.

Yet even with all these steps, we cannot fully secure the border unless we take pressure off the border, and that requires a temporary worker program. We should establish a legal and orderly path for foreign workers to enter our country to work on a temporary basis. As a result, they won’t have to try to sneak in, and that will leave border agents free to chase down drug smugglers and criminals and terrorists. We’ll enforce our immigration laws at the work site and give employers the tools to verify the legal status of their workers, so there’s no excuse left for violating the law.

We need to uphold the great tradition of the melting pot that welcomes and assimilates new arrivals. We need to resolve the status of the illegal immigrants who are already in our country without animosity and without amnesty.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The president’s State of the Union address came on the same day federal officials announced the results of one of the biggest immigration sweeps in U.S. history. Authorities said over 760 undocumented immigrants were arrested in a week-long series of raids in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. More than 450 of them have already been deported.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, a new book documents the hidden human struggles behind the immigration debate and exposes how big business has been a driving force in setting immigration policy. It’s called Targeted: Homeland Security and the Business of Immigration. Deepa Fernandes is the author. She is a producer at WBAI, Pacifica Radio, does the popular morning show, Wakeup Call, and joins us now here in New York, just down the street from WBAI. It’s great to have you with us, Deepa.

DEEPA FERNANDES: Amy, Juan, thank you so much.

AMY GOODMAN: And congratulations on this, your first book.


AMY GOODMAN: You’ve also just returned from New Orleans. How does that connect to your story about immigration?

DEEPA FERNANDES: Well, it’s very interesting, actually, that the president is talking about a guest worker program. And, of course, we only ever hear a sound bite about a guest worker program, which the right is very quick to call an amnesty program and immigrant rights advocates are very quick to say it’s the furthest thing from it. Well, what I found in New Orleans is what I believe is kind of a Petri dish, a testing ground for what this guest worker program will look like. And from all the immigration research and being in prisons, going to Haiti, seeing the front lines of what immigrants are going through under U.S. immigration policy, my last few trips to New Orleans have been truly shocking to see how the H-2B visa program, which is a low-skilled work program, how that is actually being implemented. And that is what Bush means when he says a guest worker program.

And let me just give you a really quick example of some of the folks who are living through this. So, post-Katrina, the city’s flooded, it needs to be rebuilt. Residents are dispersed en masse. The majority can’t return — African-American residents. They are stuck in trailer parks. They’re stuck all around the country. And there are many, many obstacles — namely housing and employment — to them coming back to the city.

Very quickly, corporations begin to apply to the Department of Labor, which is the process that you do, to bring in foreign workers. Now, in countries like Peru and Bolivia and the Dominican Republic and some Asian countries, there’s mass advertising happening: "Come and rebuild New Orleans. Come and help the devastated city. And we’re looking for carpenters and mechanics and painters." And so, you have professionals in these countries who — they’re poor countries. You can’t earn that much money. They apply for a visa. They have to go through a recruiting firm. That’s the way that you get this. They pay anything from $3,000 to $10,000, $15,000, just to be able to come to the United States to work.

Then they get a visa for eight or nine months, and they get a contract. They get promised — and it’s very interesting how it breaks down. The Peruvians who I met are getting $7.79 an hour. The Bolivians are getting $6 an hour. And the Dominicans are just barely making minimum wage. And they come to this country. They’re painters, mechanics. They’re going to work in rebuilding. And the Decatur Hotel chain is one of the main employers bringing in H-2B or "guest workers." They come, and they’re promised 40 hours a week. Within two weeks of getting here, there’s not one single H-2B worker that’s making their 40 hours a week. So they’re taking home — they’ve got paychecks of $200.

Not only do they have to support themselves here, and they have to pay the company that is employing them for their employment, for their food, for their transportation. It’s all — it’s a very neat package for the company. They then end up having — they have to support their families. They’re breadwinners. They left their families. They end up in debt. I was just with a particular group of H-2B workers. They’re going to go home, having paid to work in America and in debt. So not only have they come here and worked very hard for this amount of time, they are still in debt, for just coming here in the first place.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, you know, it’s interesting that you mentioned the New Orleans situation, because obviously this is not the first time this has happened. You know, the explosive growth of the Latino population throughout the South, especially — for instance, take Atlanta. Atlanta had an explosion of the Latino population.


JUAN GONZALEZ: And it happened basically in the lead-up to the construction of the Olympics in Atlanta, when the same thing happened, when these companies began bringing in, importing low-wage Latino workers to help in the building of the Olympic venues. But the problem is that then you have these long-standing poor African-American communities in these Southern cities that are now, many of them, furious, because they see that they’re still unemployed, but large numbers of immigrant workers, mostly Latinos, are coming into New Orleans, have already come into Atlanta, come into South Carolina and these other cities, in the chicken processing industry. And now, there’s enormous tensions that have begun to develop between the African-American and new immigrants in some of these cities. Did you address much of those conflicts in the book or how that’s going to work out, or your sense of how that may develop?

DEEPA FERNANDES: Well, it’s actually very interesting, Juan. That’s exactly what’s happening in New Orleans, and in some ways it’s one of the great wedge tactics to be able to pit two communities against each other and have a downward spiral on wages. Everybody loses. And there’s actually really exciting organizing happening in New Orleans, which, you know, could be a model for people around the country, groups that are working like the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, the People’s Organizing Committee are coming together.

And just before I left, I was actually at a meeting, an alianza of trabajadores huespedes, or an alliance of guest workers. And Curtis Muhammad, one of the elder statesmen, one of the leaders in the African-American community, came to address this group of workers who are from all across Latin America and the Caribbean, and — you know, and you ask them, and you’ll get a response very often, "Well, African Americans, they don’t want to do this work," or "We’re the only ones who will do this work." So on both sides, there are stereotypes and there are misconceptions. And Curtis Muhammad said something really powerful. He listened to testimony from Peruvian, Bolivian, Dominican workers, and then he got up and he said, "You know, this is the new slavery." And to hear that coming from an African-American leader to a group of Latino workers — and he said, "You know, we need to fight this battle together."

AMY GOODMAN: Deepa, you chronicle in Targeted the immigrant-industrial complex. Who profits off the immigrants?

DEEPA FERNANDES: Well, and that’s a great question, because it’s exactly what President Bush talked about in his State of the Union: We need more technology, we need to double Border Patrol, we need to — if you’re actually in the border region, which is just one way that you could focus on where is the money going in immigration, well, it’s going to companies both small and big.

And when we say "small" companies, I mean, think of — I chronicle an example of an open white supremacist, who decided that he wanted to invent an unmanned drone, following the Israeli model. Israeli defense corporations have the market down on drones. He wanted to invent this drone. He could do it much cheaper than the big Israeli companies. And this would be like a little kind of airplane that, you know, like a kid might play with a remote control, and it’s going to fly low to the ground, and it’s going to have heat detection, and it’s going to pick up undocumented immigrants, and it’s going to alert border control, and they’re going to be able to come. So, he invents this. He pitches DOD. He pitches DHS. And he’s in the process now of working towards a contract. Now, he’s much cheaper than the really big corporations.

The really big corporations — and just a quick example for folks who know New York City and they know B&H audio-video, which for many of us is the place where we go to get our microphones and our MiniDisc recorders — it’s kind of like a Circuit City — and B&H, I saw them — there are these large conferences where all these merchants gather to pitch the government. And B&H audio-video is there, along with all your other favorite American corporations, and I was wondering, "What are you doing here? What’s B&H selling the government to do with DHS?" And this salesman, who didn’t know I was a journalist, did this great little act for me. And to me, it really sums up the immigration-industrial complex.

So he got his little hand. He put it into a shape of a little tiny cylinder, and he thrust it onto his head. And then he, like, crouched low to the ground, and he started looking around, as if he were searching out something, like he had a helmet-cam. And he said, "We’re going to sell the government this great brand-new digital camera that is going to be able to take high-quality pictures of the 'illegals' as they come across the border. It’ll instantaneously snap their photo. Then it will transfer it to a database, and it’ll delete it from Border Patrol’s helmets, so they’re never in danger." And he did this great act, and I was like "Wow!"

And then I asked myself, "Well, why do you need that? What’s the point of taking a digital photo?" And, you know, so there’s a massive database being created, if the government decides to buy this. Now, from where I followed up, B&H has some 70 percent of their business done with the federal government. There’s a good chance they wouldn’t confirm or deny whether the federal government is actually going to purchase this, but these are the kinds of things that money is being spent on, everything from fingerprinting machines to the computer systems that are used at airports to the patrol systems that are put onto the Navy-Coast Guard vessels that run up and down the coast to keep particularly Haitian immigrants out. It’s a big business, and what I found was there’s a lot of companies lining up to get the contracts.

JUAN GONZALEZ: You also talk in the book about the influence of avowed racists and white supremacists in the development of legislation around immigration. Can you talk a little bit about that?

DEEPA FERNANDES: Yeah. It was not anything I set out to investigate or discover, but it just kept coming up, when the question for me was, "Who is writing our immigration policy?" We know that it’s —- on the immigrant advocate community side, we know that it’s very harsh. Who’s actually writing this? Where does it come from? So starting to actually trace literally the authors, who’s putting pen to paper, and where are those ideas coming from? And, Juan, when you start to trace that back, it was pretty shocking that it wasn’t that hard to make the links to what I call, in kind of inverted commas, anti-immigration groups, like FAIR, which has a reputation of being a balanced kind of just "we’re looking out for the environment" -—

JUAN GONZALEZ: And FAIR is? Because there’s obviously another FAIR.

DEEPA FERNANDES: Not Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, no. This is the Federation of Americans for Immigration Reform. And it was started by an ophthalmologist called John Tanton, and to trace John Tanton, it was chilling. And to see just how he started a whole network of really astroturf groups, but how his connections are very, very easily made to white supremacist groups, even though he has a great cover of simply being anti-immigration, but he actually authored a memo that was discovered two decades ago that, you know, kind of came and went.

And when you read that memo, it’s really chilling, because it documented a strategy for where we are today. It said that for an end to immigration, period — and that’s what I have to keep reading and keep investigating, because it was hard to believe that there could be a very powerful element in this country that could win power and want to end immigration, period — but that is the overt objective of this lobby, who right before the Democrats took to control had one-fifth of the House. They had signed onto this agenda, one-fifth of the House. John Tanton’s network. He wrote a memo that basically said we need judicial strategies, we need congressional strategies, we need grassroots strategies — we need to convince the American people in their hearts and minds that immigrants are criminals, that immigrants are ruining America, and that is how we will win an end to immigration.

And part of his congressional strategy was infiltrate the judiciary, which is where immigration policy originates, is made. And they were successful. FAIR put a plant into Lamar Smith’s subcommittee. Lamar Smith authored the legislation, which most people in that committee — well, everybody who I interviewed — will say, "Oh, that was written by this woman Cordia Strom, who was the FAIR plant." So FAIR is writing the immigration legislation. You then trace backwards, and you see what kinds of things are in our immigration legislation, and it comes right off a white supremacist agenda. So I think that it’s a very big warning signal of where things could go if we aren’t as proactive in countering that agenda.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Deepa Fernandes. Her new book, her first book, is Targeted: National Security and the Business of Immigration. Deepa, these raids. The day of the State of the Union, you have a raid. Hundreds, almost 800 people, are picked up; already more than half of them are deported. And then you have this overall, what’s called Operation Return to Sender? This is the government’s name for it.

DEEPA FERNANDES: And that, too, is chilling, Amy, because of the way it’s represented. I mean, 761 people, I think, picked up in California this week, 1,300 picked up in the Swift raids right before Christmas. I mean — and I think what is not portrayed to anybody is who these people are. What I actually did was look behind the rhetoric, so when we say we’re returning criminals, we’re getting criminals out of the country, what does "criminal" mean? What have they actually done?

And when you look at the record, the government’s own statistics on what people have done to be deported, you have immigration violations. And in frequent speeches — he hasn’t said it recently, but in 2005 and early 2006, every time Bush addressed immigration, he would say — he would allude to the fact that the country was getting rid of rapists and murderers. And that’s just simply lies. It is not true.

The people who are being deported, who are being picked up in these raids, many of whom are documented — you go to work. Do you take your immigration documentation with you to work? When a raid happens, you instantaneously have to show some kind of documentation. You’ve had citizens picked up. I mean, as a U.S. citizen, do you know how — if you don’t have a passport, if you haven’t traveled, how are you going to prove that, in that moment — and when these instant deportations happen, it’s like you said, Juan, it harks back to history, when there were massive raids through the Mexican-American community, and U.S. citizens, along with legal permanent residents, and legal permanent resident green card holders could have lived here their whole life. There’s very little distinction between a citizen and a legal permanent resident.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, yeah. You had Operation Wetback in the 1950s, the same hundreds of thousands of people sent back; 1930s, another wave of massive round-ups and deportations. This is — unfortunately, we sometimes forget we’re an immigrant nation. And as an immigration nation, immigration policy has always been at the heart of national policy and debates over it. And, of course, the one I always raise is the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The first low-wage program was really the coolie program that imported thousands of Chinese to help build the railroads, and then the Exclusion Act denies Chinese entrance, because of conflicts, again, within the working class over the new immigrants that were forming such a huge part of California’s workforce.

AMY GOODMAN: Deepa, as we end and you talk about immigrant nation, you, too, are an immigrant. We only have 30 seconds, but how has this affected your writing, your work, your research, your life here?

DEEPA FERNANDES: I think the most interesting part is that it got me incredible access that as a journalist you would never be able to get. I got into places. I got into secondary inspection rooms around the country, because I had to, because I was coming in the country and I was processed through there.

AMY GOODMAN: You were born in Bombay, grew up in Australia.

DEEPA FERNANDES: And came to the United States. And as you know, Amy, I’ve been through various immigration processes here just to try and regularize my status, which it is now. And it’s not easy, but I think in terms of writing the book, the access was huge.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Deepa, we’re going to continue to talk about this tonight at Cooper Union. I look forward to being with you as you launch this new book. And congratulations on it. Targeted: National Security and the Business of Immigration by Deepa Fernandes. We’ll be at Cooper Union beginning at 6:30 tonight.

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