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750+ Immigrants Detained in “Operation Return to Sender” Raids

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Over the past month U.S. authorities have arrested and detained at least 750 immigrants in raids across the country. The sweeps are part of a program dubbed “Operation Return to Sender” run by the federal agency ICE, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement. We speak with longtime labor journalist David Bacon. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: Over the past month, U.S. authorities have arrested and detained at least 750 immigrants in raids across the country. The sweeps are part of a program dubbed Operation Return to Sender, run by the federal agency ICE, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

In California, 359 immigrants were detained over a two-week period in late March and early April. Many of the arrests were made after officials from ICE raided private homes.

In Maryland, 65 workers were detained in late March during a raid at the sportswear company Under Armour, outside Baltimore.

On April 4th in Beardstown, Illinois, ICE raided a slaughterhouse owned by Cargill. Sixty-two workers were arrested.

Here in New York, 42 immigrants were arrested near Albany in early April. Authorities raided private apartments and picked people off the streets. Two immigrants were arrested while buying a pizza.

In Pennsylvania, 61 immigrants were arrested during a four-day sweep.

In Willmar, Minnesota, immigration officials were accused of waging a campaign of terror and intimidation after they raided private homes without warrants, looking for undocumented immigrants. Forty-nine arrests were made. Immigrant rights advocates sued federal authorities and accused them of targeting anyone who looked Latino.

On April 17th, 19 workers were arrested during a raid at a potato farm and processing plant in Colorado.

Two days later in West Burlington, Iowa, 17 more immigrants were arrested at a concrete plant.

Another 88 immigrants have been detained recently in New Orleans.

Longtime labor journalist and photographer David Bacon joins us now in our firehouse studio. He has been closely following the recent immigration raids, has just written the article, “The Real Political Purpose of the ICE Raids.” David is a programmer on Pacifica Radio’s KPFA in Berkeley and author of the new book Communities Without Borders: Images and Voices from the World of Migration, in New York this weekend for the Labor Voices conference.

What is the purpose of these ICE raids, in your eyes, David?

DAVID BACON: Well, Michael Chertoff, the secretary of homeland security, told us what that purpose was, Amy, when he said after the raids at the Swift meatpacking plants last fall that these raids were intended to show Congress the need to adopt the Bush administration’s immigration program, which is essentially huge new guestworker programs and an increase in enforcement, both on the border and in workplaces.

So, essentially, I think communities and unions and progressive people around the country were being — this is a form of extortion, really. It’s like saying to us, “Give us what we want, or here’s what you can expect to have more of.” And it’s a very, I think, an inhuman and a brutal way of forcing us to agree to this program, because the people who are paying the price of this are people like the young child that was held in San Francisco in the detention center for hours and hours and hours. I mean, these are just ordinary human beings who are just trying to work for a living.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break, then come back to this discussion. David Bacon, labor journalist. We’ll also be joined from a member of the Immokalee Workers, who has just won a major battle against McDonald’s, next taking on Burger King. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: I’m Amy Goodman, joined by David Bacon, labor journalist, writes for a number of publications, including The Nation, The Progressive, the Pacifica News Service, as well as the Pacific News Service. His recent piece, “The Real Political Purpose of the ICE Raids.” David, the recent arrest of people in the New Bedford factory in Massachusetts, describe what happened.

DAVID BACON: Well, ICE came in, and it took people off the line. They came in as usual with warrants saying that there were certain people who had deportation orders, or that — they actually had the names of some people on warrants, but, of course, what they do is they have the names of a few people on warrants, and then they pull in a whole lot of other people who were around them.

They took — there were a lot of women who work in this plant, so they took the women, and they shipped them to detention centers in places like Georgia, for instance, long ways away from Massachusetts. They were separated from their children. These were women who were responsible for picking up their kids after school. So there was big outcry because of the separation of families here. And I think it highlights one of the important reform provisions that are being made in Congress now, which is the Child Citizen Protection Act, where often the children who are being separated from their mothers are citizens themselves, people who were born here. And yet, they’re either being deported themselves, because they have to stay with their parents, or they are separated from their mothers and their fathers. And we need to make sure that families are kept together.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it’s an amazing story. The women who were taken from the New Bedford factory, I mean, their kids, some infants, some women breast-feeding, were taken away. And their kids are just left with someone who was taking care of them while their mothers were at work.

DAVID BACON: That’s right. This is a very kind of — again, this is a very inhuman policy, these kinds of immigration raids. And it’s obvious that ICE really has no respect for people’s families and is really looking at people in a very anti-people, anti-human way.

AMY GOODMAN: How does it work? How does a raid work, whether it’s in a private home or whether it’s in one of these factories?

DAVID BACON: Well, again, you know, this is supposedly Operation Return to Sender. So ICE has the names of a few people on warrants, so they’ll go — for instance, in Richmond, California, they went out to a school and stationed themselves in front of the school, supposedly looking for these people, and just stopped everybody coming in and out, asked people for their documents, but only, of course, people who looked Latino. And in this case, they were stopping women who had just dropped their children off. So, obviously, they were going to separate these families, if they picked up any of the people who were involved.

Or there was just another immigration raid in Chicago, where they went to a parking lot in a kind of a mall in the Latino community in Chicago, and they just sort of closed off the parking lot, people carrying, you know, assault rifles. They looked like soldiers. And they, again, had the names of supposedly four people that they were looking for. How they expected to find them in a shopping mall in a parking lot, I have no idea. But what they really did was they went and asked everybody for their immigration papers and began just sort of pulling people in, shoving them into vans.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the Republican Senator John Cornyn proposing to eliminate all family-based visas and allowing people to come into the U.S. only as a result of recruitment by corporate employers?

DAVID BACON: Well, yes. This is the Bush proposal. Bush really wants to do and the corporations want to do away with the system of family reunification, which is the system under which people get visas, permanent residence visas, to come to the United States to reunite their families. And so, Bush and Cornyn are proposing to, instead, as part of setting up these huge guestworker programs, to only allow people to come to the United States when they’re being offered a job or when they’re being recruited by a big corporation. So, really, they’re trying to transform our immigration system into one in which people’s only value in the United States is as workers for some large corporation, rather as people with families and communities.

You know, it was an achievement, Amy, of our civil rights movement in 1965, when people like Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta and Ernesto Galarza and Bert Corona convinced Congress to end the Bracero program, which was a contract labor program, and instead initiate a new kind of immigration system whose intention was to protect families and communities. And this is what the Bush administration is trying to do away with.

And at the same time, you have to remember, also in Congress right now are things like new fast-track authority for negotiating new trade agreements. On January 1 of next year, the agricultural chapter of NAFTA will go into effect, which will allow big U.S. grain companies to dump corn and beans on the Mexican market, which will displace tens of thousands more people, who will have no alternative but to enter this migrant stream. So, on the one hand, the administration is doing those things which cause people to have to migrate, you know, increasing economic desperation, and at the same time trying to kind of convert that stream of migration into a stream of workers and, you know, only workers. In other words, not families, not communities, just people whose only value is what they can do for a corporation.

AMY GOODMAN: On Monday, I went down to Raymondville, Texas, to this vast tent detention camp right behind a prison. As soon as we got there, we were met by the security, and they cocked their guns at us, one of the men in the pickup truck saying we got to get off the property now. We reported on the Jonathan Hutto facility, where kids are held, hundreds of kids — the ACLU is suing now — and talked to a nine-year-old boy named Kevin, who said, “I just want to go home. I just want to be free.” What about these prisons?

DAVID BACON: Well, the Bush administration is privatizing the enforcement of immigration law. They’re building huge detention facilities, which are run by private corporations, like Halliburton, for instance. Halliburton has started to build these. And this is part of the increased enforcement program that the Bush administration has. This is sort of like the flip side of the guestworker programs, to say — you know, to try and negotiate or to establish new guestworker programs to bring people to the U.S. as contract workers, and for anybody who’s not part of that program, to begin to arrest people, detain people, as we’re seeing in these raids, put them into these kinds of — you know, I would say they’re close to concentration camps, really, but that are also sort of private business giveaways to Bush cronies.

AMY GOODMAN: Where is Halliburton building them?

DAVID BACON: You know, there are contracts that the administration has put out now for the construction of detention centers. This is part of the proposal for the wall. So, on the one hand, you build the wall, and on the other hand, you build detention centers along the border. And so, there are contracts now that have been let out for the building of these detention centers, and Halliburton has gotten some of these contracts.

AMY GOODMAN: To the Dubai-based company?

DAVID BACON: The Dubai — yes, right. No longer a U.S.-based company belonging to our vice president or one where he used to be an executive of it, for sure.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, as we talk about immigration and labor, I also want to bring into this conversation Gerardo Reyes-Chavez. He’s a farm worker and member of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. The coalition represents over 4,000 mostly immigrant workers who labor in the agricultural fields of Southwest Florida. The group recently waged a successful campaign against fast-food giant McDonald’s over the price paid for tomatoes picked in Florida. In 2005, the Immokalee Workers also won a campaign against Taco Bell.

Gerardo Reyes-Chavez, welcome to Democracy Now! You’re both here for this Labor Voices conference. Talk about this victory that you just won. You were on your way to McDonald’s headquarters?

GERARDO REYES-CHAVEZ: That’s right. Well, this is another big step for us in our struggle for fair food that started basically with the boycott of Taco Bell in 2001. And for us, this victory represents a big step, because, on one hand, we have the agreement with Taco Bell and Yum! Brands. The agreement was signed with the prime company of Taco Bell, and Yum! Brands is the largest corporation of fast food in the world, because it’s made by five brands, among them Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Now we have this agreement with McDonald’s. And what it represents is that we have the two biggest restaurant chains in the world with us, saying that they agree to pay more so that the farm workers have an increase of 32 cents per packet of tomatoes, that, before that, was stagnant since 1978 until now.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain how it works, because I remember certainly with the struggle with Taco Bell, they were saying we have no control over what these tomato pickers are getting paid, because we’re not the ones who pay them. It’s subcontractors. The same thing with McDonald’s? How did it work? Did you meet with them at the beginning and they refused? And then, how did the pressure build?

GERARDO REYES-CHAVEZ: It was a process that took two years, to McDonald’s. And after the victory with Taco Bell, after the agreement with them, we started to try to bring them to the table. And they were just trying to find another ways to find a solution, but without necessarily including us in that process. And we knew it was not going to work, and after two years, they realized that it was not working. So they had a seat at the table. It was because of the pressure of the people. There were many students all over the country organizing in solidarity with us. There were churches in the institutional level putting pressure publicly.

AMY GOODMAN: And how did they put pressure?

GERARDO REYES-CHAVEZ: They were just sending strong messages. For example, the NCC, the National Council of Churches, sent a message to them. People like John Sweeney from the AFL-CIO, students making protests, people from churches taking the streets —

AMY GOODMAN: How many tomato pickers are there?

GERARDO REYES-CHAVEZ: There are, I would say, around 6,000, maybe a little bit more. Every year is a little bit different.

AMY GOODMAN: And where are they originally from?

GERARDO REYES-CHAVEZ: Our community is formed by workers from Mexico, Guatemala and Haiti, mostly, and a few of other countries.

AMY GOODMAN: And who is next in your sights?

GERARDO REYES-CHAVEZ: Next in the list is Burger King, because they have said publicly that they are not going to — they are not willing to do anything to improve the lives of the farm workers who, in this case, make their profits possible.

AMY GOODMAN: How much do tomato pickers get paid?

GERARDO REYES-CHAVEZ: It’s 40 cents per packet of 32 pounds, which is — what it means is you have to pick two tons in a day in order to make only $50. That is not enough to have a decent living and sometimes not even enough to pay rent. And sometimes it is impossible to pick two tons. That is without any type of benefits or protections that exist in other industries. So we are just struggling in order to establish things that are normal. The most basic human rights are nonexistent when you are a farm worker.

AMY GOODMAN: David Bacon, we are moving up on May Day, on May 1, the anniversary of the big protest. What are the plans for May 1? Where do you see the immigrant rights movement today?

DAVID BACON: Well, I think there are going to be demonstrations in communities all around the country. You know, that’s what we saw last May Day, was not just the huge demonstrations in Los Angeles and New York, but also that they were taking place in communities where we’re not even accustomed to thinking of immigrants constituting a large part of the people there. So, personally, I’m going to be in New Jersey and Pennsylvania and little farm worker towns, you know, marching with some of the workers there.

I think that a lot of people are going to come out on May Day, because the problems that we were trying to deal with a year ago are still there. We need a legalization program in this country for the people who don’t have papers — and a real one, not some kind of phony temporary status, but one that really gives people rights and permanent residence. And at the same time, I think that people have sort of upped the ante since last year. We need to look at the fast-track authority. We need to look at the implementation of this last chapter of NAFTA and stop those from happening, because we also need to try and stop those things that are forcing people into this migrant stream so that people can choose for themselves whether to come or not.

AMY GOODMAN: Now that the Democrats are in charge, do you see them doing anything different than the Republicans?

DAVID BACON: I think there’s a debate in the Democratic Party between people who basically want this corporate program and are willing to make a deal with corporations to get it and other people like, for instance, Congresswomen Sheila Jackson-Lee in Houston, who proposed last time a real legalization program that would give people green cards, and she connected it with a jobs and employment program, which I thought was a very far-sighted kind of proposal here. And she, I think, is still advocating for that.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both very much for being with us — David Bacon, labor journalist, Gerardo Reyes-Chavez of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, for being with us today. And we’ll continue, of course, to follow this issue.

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Immokalee Tomato Pickers Win Campaign Against McDonald’s, Set Sights on Burger King

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