Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Ongoing Drive for Justice


By Rev. Jeremy Tobin

History often repeats itself. Contemporary movements for immigration reform have been driven by a push-back for human rights, fairness and the constitutional protections afforded everyone in America. But once again this nation is seeing a growing anti-immigrant movement fueled by fear, racism and a desire to have the cheapest workforce for maximum profits.

The backlash against immigrants and immigration reform has played into the hands of corporate interests who cut overhead by flouting workplace safety rules because workers are afraid to complain. Organizations that started out anti-civil rights have reinvented themselves to be anti-immigrant rights, and too often the media act as their propaganda wing. When the Republican Party consistently supports anti-immigration legislation it is allying itself with some very unsavory characters.

In Mississippi, the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance (MIRA) has successfully killed about every piece of anti-immigrant legislation proposed in the statehouse for the last 10 years. In 2008, however, by agreement of the leadership in the Legislature and the governor’s office, SB 2988, a draconian bill to oppress immigrants, passed. The law makes it a felony for an undocumented immigrant to work in Mississippi. Punishment can range from one to five years in prison, with hefty fines of $1,000 to $10,000. SB 2988 also sanctions employers. The sanctions amount to fines, and are often waived if the employer cooperates with ICE. This opens the door for employers to discriminate against Latinos and others. To date, no one has been charged under SB 2988.

Every Republican in the statehouse supported this bill. What is disturbing is the number of Democrats who also supported the bill. The total vote in the House was 112 yeas and 8 nays, with 66 Democrats voting yea. During debate, a deliberate attempt to confuse legislators by covering the draconian impact of the bill only made racism more apparent. One legislator said, “Don’t you see? We are making it a crime to work an honest job.” – to no avail.

The label “illegal” has acquired emotional baggage. The same groups that discriminated against blacks in Mississippi now use similar tactics on immigrants. Mississippi is weakened when it does not stand up against this disciplined, ideologically driven wing of the Republican Party. The result for Latinos is isolation, fear, an efficient underground network, and separation by language. This creates a “Juan Crow society,” aided by so-far unsuccessful attempts to demand “English only” in schools and other public places in Mississippi. However, government forms and even signs in hospitals are English only. The irony is that most food item labels are often in English, Spanish and French.

The Republican Party, both locally and nationally, appears to be driven by an ideology based on the racism, xenophobia and other far-right extremism that floods the media. As efforts toward immigration reform developed in Congress, Republican opponents treated the word “amnesty” like it was cancer. Even the Kennedy-McCain Bill, a compromise effort, was seen as too soft. Bush’s Get Tough with Immigration raids might have been intended to shift attention and get a bill passed, but that strategy, if it was a strategy, failed.

Demographers tell us that America will soon be a “majority minority” nation.

Both Republican and Democratic parties must reverse their opposition to fair and just immigration reform on state and federal levels. This means supporting sanction-free hiring, a fair process toward permanent residency, and availability of citizenship to undocumented workers without criminal records. Employers should not be able to hold workers’ visas. Immigrant workers should have the same safety and benefits as other workers and should have the right to change jobs without penalty.

It’s time to correct this injustice – get rid of SB 2988 and pass fair and just immigration reform: no employer sanctions, a clear path to permanent status and citizenship, and freedom to change jobs.
Rev. Tobin is a member of the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance.
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