Last week’s controversial immigration raids at Swift & Company meatpacking plants in six states, which federal officials have characterized as the largest sweep of its kind in U.S. history, should send waves of fear among citizens and non-citizens alike. The very high profile arrest and detention of almost 1,300 workers marks a major move to further erode all of our rights.
Merely viewing “Operation Wagon Train” as another in the lengthening line of dehumanizing and brutal attacks on immigrant and labor rights—as most analysts do—falls short. That’s because in the so-called War on Terror immigration and immigrants have become the justification of choice in the ongoing erosion of labor, privacy and other rights under the Bush administration.
For example, a statement about the status of the Swift workers by John Bowen, the attorney representing the workers on behalf of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7, was indistinguishable from those of attorneys representing detainees in Guantanamo or in secret CIA facilities. “We don't know where they are and we don't know what's happening," he said. "We don't know if they are being pressured to do something or not. We can't provide them or their families with information until we know where they are."
One of the distinguishing characteristics of the recent raid is the effort by Department of Homeland Security head Michael Chertoff and Immigration and Citizenship Enforcement chief Julie Myers to frame it as a crackdown on “identity theft.”
When I called to find out more about the raids, ICE public affairs officer Richard Rocha was anxious to talk about how the need to protect “victims of identity theft” prompted the Swift & Company raid. The investigation “began as an identity theft investigation and we only later learned about the illegal workers at the plants,” he said.
“OK, sure. You discovered that there were undocumented workers after the fact,” I thought. Having covered privacy and electronic surveillance issues a few years ago, I asked Rocha what sorts of traditional identity theft practices ICE found. Rocha only cited the case of a man who was stopped because his driver’s license had violations which he was later found not to have committed.
“Are there any instances of credit card scams?” I asked. “Not that I know of” he responded. “Bank fraud?” I asked. “I have no specifics” he answered. “Terrorism links?” I asked. “We have not been told of any links to terrorism regarding the identity theft cases tied to Swift employees,” he said.
At a press conference, Myers used the increasingly militarized language of immigration policy to describe the Swift & Company raid:
This investigation has uncovered a disturbing front in the war against illegal immigration. We believe that the genuine identities of possibly hundreds of U.S. citizens are being stolen or hijacked by criminal organizations and sold to illegal aliens in order to gain unlawful employment in this country. Combating this burgeoning problem is one of ICE’s highest priorities.
“Hundreds of U.S. citizens” refers to alleged and potential cases. Of the nearly 1,300 grabbed and detained without legal recourse (including U.S citizens) only 65 were charged “identity theft” and ICE representative Rocha could only provide one concrete case after repeated requests for other examples besides the drivers license case he cited. Victims of identity theft are people who generally have some personal identity document—Social Security number, credit card number, bank account—stolen or lost and then used for fraud, deception or economic gain.
Chertoff also used the discussion of the Swift raid to highlight the guest worker program and a national ID card, a high Bush administration priority. The best way to deal with the issues raised in the raid, Chertoff said, “would be a program that would allow businesses that need foreign workers—because they can't otherwise satisfy their labor needs—to be able to get those workers in a regulated program that gives us visibility into who is coming in, has a secure form of identification and makes sure that the federal government is able to collect and promptly allocate all the necessary taxes.”
Some activists are calling for a boycott of Swift, including its pork products, for collaborating with the government in the recent raids. But for too long, Democrats and Republicans have gone to the trough of “illegal immigration” for votes and for fresh contracts benefiting their backers in the multibillion-dollar, immigration-industrial complex growing in our midst. It is as important and urgent to pressure Democrats to boycott the pork politics of immigration reform that make vilifying, jailing and surveillance of immigrants “natural”—and profitable.
Roberto Lovato is a New York-based writer with New America Media.
© 2006 TomPaine.com