Sunday, January 3, 2010

In Sickness Across Borders

For Ailing Illegal Immigrants, Return Home Brings No Relief

EJIDO MODELO, Mexico — On the two-hour bus rides from her village on Lake Chapala to a dialysis clinic in Guadalajara, Monica Chavarria’s thoughts would inevitably turn to the husband and son she left behind in Georgia.

A decade after crossing illegally into the United States, Ms. Chavarria returned home in September after learning that Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta was closing the clinic that had provided her with dialysis, at taxpayer expense, for more than a year.

Grady, a struggling charity hospital, had been absorbing multimillion-dollar losses for years because the dialysis clinic primarily served illegal immigrants who were not eligible for government insurance programs.

Hospital officials decided the losses were threatening Grady’s broader mission of serving the region’s indigent population. But before closing the clinic on Oct. 4, they offered to pay to relocate patients to their home countries or other states, and to provide dialysis for three transitional months.

Ms. Chavarria, 34, left quickly with her 8-year-old son, Jose Andres, an American citizen who had never been to Mexico. But she has not found a solution there. Her free treatments have run out, and she can now only afford dialysis by poaching the savings her family has set aside for a transplant.

Her husband, Roberto Barajas, 37, and their 14-year-old son, Eduardo, remained in Georgia so that Mr. Barajas could keep working and wire money home for her care.

In separate interviews, one in the farming village of Ejido Modelo, the other in the Atlanta suburb of East Point, Ga., Ms. Chavarria and Mr. Barajas each wept while describing their separation after 15 years of marriage.

“I think about them all the time,” said Ms. Chavarria, whose raven hair falls past her waist. “It was the hardest thing to leave without them.”

Mr. Barajas, a stocky road paver, shielded his eyes with his hand. “You don’t know if you’ll be able to see each other again,” he said. “We had always been together, the four of us, and then suddenly they had to go.”

Like other patients repatriated by Grady this fall, Ms. Chavarria gambled that her chances would be better at home. The costs of dialysis and a possible kidney transplant would be considerably lower in Mexico, and she had three siblings there willing to donate an organ.

But it has not worked out that way.

On Dec. 22, she exhausted the 30 free dialysis sessions that Grady had provided at a gleaming private clinic in Guadalajara. On her doctor’s advice, she had been stretching out the treatments, which filter toxins from the blood, by going two times a week instead of the recommended three. Going without dialysis can prove fatal in as little as two weeks, and the twice-a-week regimen has at times left her weak.

Now Ms. Chavarria is dipping into money that Mr. Barajas and other relatives have raised in East Point, which has long been a destination for migrants from Ejido Modelo. They have staged raffles and charity soccer tournaments, and placed gold-wrapped donation boxes at taquerias and stores.

The fund-raising proceeds — about $11,000, according to Mr. Barajas — had been earmarked to defray the $20,000 cost of a transplant. So it is a setback each time Ms. Chavarria has to withdraw $100 for a dialysis treatment.

Everywhere, it seems, there are roadblocks to affordable care. The dialysis unit at Guadalajara’s public hospital, which offers heavily discounted prices to the uninsured, has a waiting list that extends for months. Ms. Chavarria is not eligible for the insurance plan known here as Social Security, which is limited to salaried workers. The country’s five-year-old health program for the uninsured, Seguro Popular, does not cover end-stage renal disease.

On top of the cost, the preparations for a kidney transplant can take months. Ms. Chavarria’s brother, Roberto, her first volunteer, recently learned that his own kidneys might not be functioning properly, possibly ruling him out.

When Grady officials decided last summer to close the dialysis clinic for budgetary reasons, the board chairman, A. D. Correll, declared that “people are not going to die on the street because of these actions.” But that pledge may ignore the conditions that await patients who return to Latin America.

Two Grady dialysis patients have died in Mexico since the clinic’s closing, along with one exceedingly ill patient in Atlanta, according to the hospital. A Grady spokesman said the deaths resulted from severe kidney disease and not from insufficient dialysis.

But one of the Grady patients who died in Mexico, Adriana Ríos Fernández, was receiving dialysis only twice a week because her family could not afford a third treatment that might have helped clear her lungs of fluid, her father said. And recent research has found that dialysis patients in Ms. Chavarria’s state of Jalisco, where half of the residents are uninsured, are three times more likely to die than Hispanic dialysis patients in the United States.

“To have end-stage renal disease in Mexico is a tragedy,” said Dr. Guillermo Garcia-Garcia, the lead author of the study. “If you don’t have Social Security, if you don’t have private insurance, you are condemned to die.”

The health care dichotomy in Mexico is stark. At Guadalajara’s Hospital Civil, the teeming public hospital where Dr. Garcia is chief of nephrology, the dialysis unit runs eight stations around the clock, and meets barely half the demand. Doctors there said they see uninsured patients die every week for lack of dialysis. By contrast, the private clinic for the insured where Ms. Chavarria received her Grady-sponsored treatments is operating at one-fourth of its capacity.

During her journeys for dialysis, and her three-and-a-half hours in the chair, Ms. Chavarria daydreams that her family might some day reunite. “I hope it’s soon, while things are all right,” she said, as the bus rolled past fields of cactus and maize.

But it is difficult to block out the grim realities. She knows she may never be strong enough to cross the border again and that her continued treatment may depend on her husband’s ability to earn $11 an hour in Georgia, rather than $12 a day here as a farmhand.

There are an estimated 7 million illegal immigrants in the United States who have no medical coverage. New research shows there may be 5,500 with end-stage renal disease alone. The health care bills in Congress do not address the problem, leaving public hospitals like Grady to treat the immigrants with an ever-fraying safety net.

Most of the 66 immigrants who were dislodged by the Grady clinic’s closing have stayed in Atlanta to take advantage of the hospital’s offer of three months of treatment. They have signed documents stating that they understand that Grady’s financial assistance will end on Sunday, although the hospital’s contract with a commercial dialysis provider lasts until September.

Ten to 13 of the patients appear to have returned to Mexico, with varying success. Pastor Chavez, 37, said his aunt had managed to buy insurance for him. Patricia Pichardo, 36, a mother of three, said she was borrowing from friends to afford her twice-weekly dialysis.

Antonio Camron, 20, said he did not know what he would do after his Grady-sponsored treatments ended in late December. “I have very little time left,” he said.

The repatriation of most of the patients was carried out by MexCare, a California company hired by Grady. As an additional inducement, MexCare offered many patients a year of health insurance to follow their three months of paid dialysis.

But six patients interviewed in Mexico this month said they knew of no steps being taken to obtain meaningful health insurance. One of MexCare’s principals, George Ochoa, said in a brief interview that the company’s offer was to pay for a year of Seguro Popular. That program does not cover dialysis or kidney transplants, according to its national commissioner, Salomón Chertorivski Woldenberg.

Matt Gove, a senior vice president at Grady, said the hospital had not been aware that MexCare was promising patients insurance coverage.

Residents of this farming village on the south shore of Mexico’s largest lake began seeking work in the suburbs near Atlanta’s airport in the mid-1970s. Relatives then summoned relatives until the apartment complexes filled with migrants. On their days off from construction and landscaping, they reconstituted their social circles and soccer teams as if they had never left home.

During the holidays, when the population of Ejido Modelo swells with homecoming migrants, the rutted, unpaved streets are dotted with cars bearing Fulton County, Ga., license plates.

Mr. Barajas’ family came in waves. He said he made the first of his three illegal crossings at age 17 in 1989, shortly after meeting Ms. Chavarria at the soccer field in Ejido Modelo. They courted by telephone and mail, and he returned to get married in the whitewashed village church. After Eduardo was born, she followed him back to East Point.

Their American dream was to save enough to build a three-bedroom house in Ejido Modelo, and then return home. But in February 2008, while working at an auto parts plant near Atlanta, Ms. Chavarria began having trouble breathing. Doctors at Grady diagnosed her kidney failure and placed her on dialysis. She and her husband were astonished there was no charge.

When it came time to leave, the family made the heartbreaking decision that Eduardo would remain in Georgia because he wanted to stay in American schools. Jose Andres, they decided, was too young to leave his mother (and unlike his brother had the advantage of American citizenship). He is struggling in school in Mexico, according to his parents, because he had never learned to write in Spanish.

Mr. Barajas and Ms. Chavarria said their tearful farewells at a McDonald’s restaurant at Grady, where her MexCare escort had suggested they meet. Mr. Barajas’ sister has moved in to their apartment to help care for Eduardo, but the emptiness remains.

“It’s hard to get home from work or some other place and not see her here,” Mr. Barajas said.

Ms. Chavarria is living with her 64-year-old mother, who welcomes each morning by baking tortillas over a wood fire. Other family members live in a compound of small brick houses surrounding a communal courtyard that is planted with citrus and poinsettias. Ms. Chavarria said she was happy to be with her extended family, but was “missing my own.”

She seems fatalistic about the chances for a reunion, in the house they have all but completed. “I would want good things to happen,” Ms. Chavarria said, “but destiny is not in our hands.”

David Agren in Mexico and Catrin Einhorn in New York contributed reporting.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


Miami Herald
Posted on Mon, Dec. 15, 2008
Rule changes target vulnerable workers

OUR OPINION: Don't allow last-minute regulations to erode standards
The torrent of new rules being issued by the Bush administration as it heads out the door is turning into a regulatory fiasco. The changes have lowered the bar on environmental review across the board, from limiting worker exposure to toxins to ignoring provisions of the Clean Water Act and softening, if not gutting, the Endangered Species Act. Late last week, new rules targeted vulnerable members of the labor force -- farmworkers.
Regulatory end-run

The midnight changes have a sad history. At least since the days of the Carter administration, presidents have tried to extend their reach into the tenure of the next chief executive by putting in place last-minute rules that the successor will have difficulty rescinding. The fact that all presidents do it, however, does not excuse the regulatory end-run, especially when the rules seem like a favor to special interests rather than thoughtful changes in policy.

The new farmworker regulations are a case in point. Because farmworkers don't enjoy the protections of the National Labor Relations Act, they have traditionally been prey to abuses that a succession of administrations have tried to correct through Labor Department policy rules. The latest changes don't augur well for the farmworkers.

Rules that are to be published this week and which would take effect just days before President Bush leaves office would: make it easier to hire foreign ''guest workers'' -- to the detriment of Americans willing to work in the fields; lower wage standards; and weaken oversight of farm hiring.

This revision will hurt those who can least afford any cuts in pay or erosion of job protections. The changes in hiring rules are particularly egregious because the greatest fear of domestic farmworkers is being displaced by foreign guest workers who are less familiar with their rights and more likely to remain quiet when those rights are abused for fear of being deported.

AgJobs bill

Reversing the new H-2A rules, as they are known, won't be easy. It would require going through a lengthy ''notice and comment'' rule-changing process again next year. The best thing that President-elect Barack Obama can do is to push for enactment of a bipartisan AgJobs bill already in Congress that has the support of both farmworker unions and agricultural growers.

The proposal includes some of the changes in the H-2A proposal but with a significant difference: It would link the program to a path for legalization of undocumented farmworkers who pledge to continue working in agriculture for a certain period.

Florida is home to about 10 percent of the nation's farm workforce. If this administration won't do anything to lift their standards, the next one should make it a priority.

Bruce Goldstein
Farmworker Justice
1126 16th Street, N.W., Suite 270
Washington, D.C. 20036
Phone: 202-293-5420
Read and Donate at
Blog at

Monday, December 15, 2008

Immigrant Business Owners Contribute to the US economy.

Estimating the Contribution
of Immigrant Business Owners
to the U.S. Economy
Robert W. Fairlie, Ph.D.
Santa Cruz, CA 95060

Overall Findings
According to Census 2000, immigrants constitute
12.2 percent of the total U.S. work force, and 12.5
percent of the total population of U.S. business owners.
The total business income generated by immigrant
business owners is $67 billion, representing
11.6 percent of all business income in the United
States. Immigrant business ownership is geographically
concentrated in a few states.
• Immigrants are nearly 30 percent more likely to
start a business than are nonimmigrants, and they
represent 16.7 percent of all new business owners
in the United States
• Immigrant business owners make significant
contributions to business income, generating
$67 billion of the $577 billion in U.S. business
income, as estimated from 2000 U.S. Census
Immigrant business ownership is geographically
concentrated in a few states. Nearly 30 percent
of all business owners in California are immigrants,
compared with about 12.5 percent of the
population of U.S. business owners. Twenty-five
percent of business owners in New York and
more than 20 percent in New Jersey, Florida, and
Hawaii are foreign-born.
• In California, immigrants are 34.2 percent of
the new business owners each month. Nearly 30
percent of all new business owners per month in
New York, Florida, and Tex as are immigrants.
• Immigrants own 11.2 percent of businesses with
$100,000 or more in sales and 10.8 percent of
businesses with employees.
• Immigrants' contributions differ across sectors
of the economy. They own a large share—more
than one-fifth—of businesses in the arts, entertainment,
and recreation industry. They also contribute
significantly to other services, transportation,
and wholesale and retail trade.
• Immigrants also own a large share of businesses
in the lowest and highest skill sectors and in several
• Although business owners from Mexico constitute
the largest share of immigrant business
owners, total immigrant business ownership,
formation, and income originate with immigrant
business owners from around the world.
data. They generate nearly one-quarter of all
business income in California—nearly $20 billion—
and nearly one-fifth of business income in
New York, Florida, and New Jersey.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Illinois congressman vows to push for major immigration reform

12:00 AM CST on Friday, December 5, 2008

By JOHN RILEY / The Dallas Morning News

WASHINGTON – Flanked by hundreds of immigrants and their family members, an Illinois congressman called for a halt Thursday to immigration raids and vowed to push for a comprehensive overhaul that President-elect Barack Obama can sign into law.

Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Chicago, the House sponsor of a 2007 bill that failed, told a crowd of more than 200 on Capitol Hill that he would work to ensure that Mr. Obama follows through on his campaign promise to sign an immigration overhaul in the first year of his presidency.

"We have a new president of the United States who has made a very clear commitment to immigration reform," Mr. Gutierrez said. "We're not going to rest on the laurels of the election."

Mr. Gutierrez said workplace raids that separate families must stop and that he is trying to build momentum for immigration change in the House, where he believes a bill can be passed more easily than in the Senate.

Rep. Joe Baca, D-Calif., chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said he hopes to meet with the president-elect before the new session of Congress to discuss a comprehensive reform and urge Mr. Obama to stop workforce raids through an executive order.

Mr. Baca said a moratorium would make illegal immigrants more likely to "come out of the shadows" and be active community participants because it would reduce the fear of deportation. Immigration officials and supporters of the current strategy say it has helped reduce illegal immigration and held employers accountable.

© 2008, The Dallas Morning News, Inc.

Detained Immigrants Face Harsh Conditions!

ACLU alleges rights abuses
Report: Detained immigrants face harsh conditions
By Maria Sacchetti
Globe Staff / December 10, 2008

Immigrants jailed for deportation in Massachusetts are often subject to harsh conditions, including inadequate medical care, harassment, and overcrowding, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts said in a report to be released today.

The report alleges that state and county jails and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement are failing to oversee the detainees' treatment.

"There's no one watching over them, so there's no real incentive to make sure that the immigration detainees' rights are protected," said Laura Rótolo, staff attorney at the ACLU of Massachusetts and the lead researcher on the 22-month investigation. "They are not protecting people's fundamental rights."

ICE confirmed=2 0that the agency received letters from the ACLU of Massachusetts about its findings, and is in the process of responding fully.

"We take all allegations about conditions of confinement very seriously," said ICE spokeswoman Paula Grenier, who added that the agency follows federal guidelines to ensure that immigrants are treated humanely. "ICE is committed to providing all detainees in our care with humane and safe detention environments and ensuring that adequate medical services are available."

For the report, the ACLU interviewed 40 detainees and corresponded with more than 30 other inmates, spoke with dozens of advocates and lawyers, and reviewed hundreds of government documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. The authors of the report called for an end to immigration raids and alternatives to detaining immigrants, such as electronic monitoring bracelets.

As of August 2007, about 800 immigrants and asylum-seekers were in seven county jails, one state facility, and one federal medical center, although the report said none are serving time for crimes. Many detainees have criminal records, but the report's authors estimate that more than half have overstayed a visa, are awaiting a decision on asylum, or sneaked over the border - all civil violations. The cost of housing them is roughly $90 a day to the US government, the report said.

Jessica Vau ghan, recently named director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, said detaining immigrants - especially criminals - is important because it ensures that they will be deported.

"The odds are if we don't detain them that they're not going to be removed," said Vaughan, who is based in Franklin. "Then they become fugitives and they have to be tracked down."

The report documented several cases in which medical care was delayed or denied to immigrants, reportedly because they were about to be deported.

One 43-year-old Pakistani national, the report said, waited five months to have a specialist look at a painful lesion inside his mouth. He was released after the specialist ordered a biopsy, which was never performed, and is still awaiting deportation.

A 27-year-old Liberian national, diagnosed with schizophrenia, bounced among three county jails with a skin condition and dental problems that were left untreated for months.

Some mental health issues were ignored as well, the report found. An immigrant was removed from Bridgewater State Hospital and transferred to New Mexico, and then to Rhode Island, without his medications or health records.

The report was released at a time when ICE is investigating the August death of a 34-year-old Chinese national who allegedly received inadequate care at Wyatt Detention Center in Rhode Island. On Monday, ICE relocated 153 detainees from the center during its review.

Detainees also complained about crowding as well. At one point in Essex County, inmates were sleeping in the gymnasium, though they have since been relocated. The six New England states have space for approximately 1,200 detainees a day, the report said.

Interviewees complained about being assigned to cells with violent criminals and of guards who threatened them with sedation or harassed them if they complained about jail conditions or resisted deportation.

In Suffolk County, two detainees were transferred to Franklin County after complaining to the media about a strip search. A female detainee said she was sent to York, Pa., after she complained about her protracted detention.

Detainees spent an average of 11 months in Massachusetts jails awaiting deportation, Rótolo said, based on her interviews with 40 detainees. One man spent more than five years in jail fighting deportation before he was released to continue battling his case. Three immigrants spent more than two years in jail, and 10 spent more than a year in jail.

Maria Sacchetti can be reached at

© Copyright 2008 Globe Newspaper Company.

Hate Crime Against Immigrants/Latinos on the Rise!

As we have reported, hate crimes against Latinos are at record levels. Today, Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) President & General Counsel John Trasviña called upon leaders across all communities to unite and speak out against hate violence:

“We mourn and are outraged by the murder in Brooklyn, New York of Jose Osvaldo Sucuzhañay, whose life was violently taken by a group of people, and whose crime, according to witnesses, was motivated by hate-filled bigotry. Only one month ago, 37-year old Marcello Lucero was ferociously beaten and fatally stabbed in Long Island, New York by a group of teenagers who hunted him down simply for being Latino. In July, 25-year old Luis Ramirez lost his life after he was knocked unconscious and kicked in the head by a group of Shenandoah, Pennsylvania teenagers who yelled racial epithets before and during the brutal beating. We extend our sympathies to their families and loved ones.

In the past several years, hate crimes against Latinos have risen 40 percent. This is a national epidemic whose growth is spurred each day by hate speech and anti-immigrant sentiment expressed on cable shows, local radio shows and across the airwaves. National legislation, such as the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crime Prevention Act, must be a top priority for Congress and the new Administration, but it is not sufficient to reach the hate that threatens to pervade local communities. This drastic rise of hate crimes against Latinos, not coincidentally, has occurred during the same years in which there has been an explosive rebirth of extremist anti-immigrant rhetoric and measures.

The serious topic of immigration has been contaminated by hatred and racism, and has created a toxic climate which fosters and condones violence and civil rights violations motivated by bigotry. In seeking to enact unconstitu tional anti-immigrant ordinances, irresponsible elected officials spew inflammatory rhetoric that depicts undocumented immigrants as parasites and the root cause of the nation’s fallen economy. Television and radio personalities spread misinformation and stereotypes that criminalize and dehumanize Latino immigrants. Meanwhile, white supremacist groups are using this anti-immigrant wave to promote their racist groups and promote violent acts against Latinos. Collectively, the messages and norms they seek to establish are that immigrants are less human and less worthy, and do not merit basic human rights protections our Constitution demands. These messages have begun to infect too many Americans, and they are being manifested through violence.

Unfortunately, our elected leaders have failed to recognize and condemn this national crisis, the media has largely remained silent, and families have not acted to protect their children from being infected from this hatred. As proven by this year’s historic election, the great majority of Americans have defeated artificial barriers of racism and ushered us into a new era. After over a century of struggle for freedom and democracy irrespective of race, Americans have abolished the disease of racial hatred; however, a virus continues to linger with some, and we must not allow it to proliferate. There are those that may believe that racism and xenophobia will always exist, but it must not exist in our country, in our democratic institutions, in our schools, and in our homes. We must be ever-vigilant, and stamp it out where we see it.

MALDEF calls upon our national representatives, faith leaders, educators, and parents to stand up and take immediate action against this national wave of hatred. We again call on Congress and the next President to fix our broken, archaic immigration system to establish national immigration priorities, including community integration that serves the nation’s interests, allows newcomers to work with legal status and protections against exploitation, and safeguards the nation’s communities. Local and federal authorities must prosecute hate crimes to the fullest extent under law. Local officials and media personalities must take responsibility for the consequences of their extremist rhetoric and should spread messages of respect and tolerance. Most importantly, we call on all Americans to unite against this wave of hatred and defeat the hate and violence. It is unacceptable and we must stop it now.”


December 11, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

© Copyright 2005 by Law Professor Blogs, LLC. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008


By David Bacon
TruthOut Feature

LAUREL, MS (8/31/08) -- On August 25, immigration agents swooped down on Howard Industries, a Mississippi electrical equipment factory, taking 481 workers to a privately-run detention center in Jena, Louisiana. A hundred and six women were also arrested at the plant, and released wearing electronic monitoring devices on their ankles, if they had children, or without them, if they were pregnant. Eight workers were taken to Federal court in Hattiesburg, where they were charged with aggravated identity theft.

Afterwards Barbara Gonzalez, spokesperson for the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), stated the raid took place because of a tip by a "union member" two years before. Other media accounts focused on an incident in which plant workers allegedly cheered as their coworkers were led away by ICE agents. The articles claim the plant was torn by tension between immigrant and non-immigrant workers, and that unions in Mississippi are hostile to immigrants.

Many Mississippi activists and workers, however, charge the raid had a political agenda - undermining a growing political coalition that threatens the state's conservative Republican establishment. They also say the raid, which took place during union contract negotiations, will help the company resist demands for better wages and conditions.

Jim Evans, a national AFL-CIO staff member in Mississippi and a leading member of the state legislature's Black Caucus, said he believed "this raid is an effort to drive immigrants out of Mississippi. It is also an attempt to drive a wedge between immigrants, African Americans, white people and unions - all those who want political change here." Patricia Ice, attorney for the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance (MIRA), agreed that "this is political. They want a mass exodus of immigrants out of the state, the kind we've seen in Arizona and Oklahoma. The political establishment here is threatened by Mississippi's changing demographics, and what the electorate might look like in 20 years."

In the last two decades, the percentage of African Americans in the state's population has increased to over 35%, and immigrants, who were statistically insignificant until recently, are expected to reach 10% in the next decade. Mississippi union membership has been among the nation's lowest, but since the early 1980s, workers have joined unions in catfish and poultry plants, casinos and shipyards, along with those at Howard Industries.

Evans, other members of the Black Caucus, many of the state's labor organizations, and immigrant communities all see shifting demographics as the basis for changing the state's politics. Over the last seven years their growing coalition has proposed legislation to set up a Department of Labor (Mississippi is the only state without one), guarantee access to education for children of all races and nationalities, and provide drivers' licenses to immigrants. MIRA organized support in the state capitol for those proposals and Evans, who sponsored many of them, chairs MIRA's board.

Earlier this year, however, the legislature passed, and Governor Haley Barbour signed, a law making it a state felony for an undocumented worker to hold a job, punishable by 1-5 years in prison and $1,000-10,000 in fines. Employers are given immunity for employing workers without papers, so long as they vet new hires through an ICE database called E-Verify. It is still not known whether the people arrested at Howard Industries will be charged under the new state law. Evans says the law and the raid serve the same objectives. "They both just make it easier to exploit workers. The people who profit from Mississippi's low wage system want to keep it the way it is," he alleged.

In the week before the raid, MIRA organizers received reports of a growing number of ICE agents in southern Mississippi. They began leafleting immigrant communities, warning them about a possible raid and explaining their rights should people be questioned about their immigration status. When agents finally showed up at the Howard Industries plant, many workers say they tried to invoke those rights, and warn others that a raid was in progress. One woman, later detained and then released to care for her child, began to call workers who had not yet come to the factory on her cell phone, warning them to stay away. "She first called her brother, and then began calling anyone else she could think of," explained her mother, who works in a local chicken plant. Both feared being identified publicly. "An agent grabbed her arm, and asked her what she was doing, so she went into the bathroom, and kept calling people until they took her phone away."

Howard Industries, like most Mississippi employers, has a long record of opposing unions. Workers there chose representation by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers on June 8, 2000, by a vote of 162-108. Employment at the plant, which manufactures electrical ballasts and transformers, grew considerably after the election, and the company now employs over 4000 workers at several locations in Mississippi. In 2002 it received a $31.5 million subsidy for expansion from the state government, and at one point state legislators were all given HI laptop computers. "The company is very well-connected politically," says Evans, who noted that its owners donated to the campaigns of former Democratic governor Ronnie Musgrove, and then to Mississippi's current Republican governor Haley Barbour.

As it grew the company hired many immigrant Mexican and Central American workers, diversifying a workforce that was originally primarily African American and white. The company has declined to comment, and released a press statement that said, "Howard Industries runs every check allowed to ascertain the immigration status of all applicants for jobs. It is company policy that it hires only U.S. citizens and legal immigrants."

During the organizing drive the union filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging intimidation and violations of workers' rights. After the union and company agreed on a contract, more charges followed. NLRB Region 15 issued a complaint against the company for violating the union's bargaining rights. Roger Doolittle, attorney for IBEW Local 1317, says other charges allege that the company threatened a union steward for trying to represent workers in the plant. In June the Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced it intended to fine the company $123,000 for 36 violations of health and safety regulations at the Pendorf plant, where the raid took place, and another $41,000 in fines for a second Laurel location.

Tension between the company and union increased after the collective bargaining agreement expired at the beginning of August. According to one immigrant worker, who was not detained because he worked on swing shift and did not want to be identified, the union was asking for a wage increase of $1.50/hour and better vacation benefits. Company medical benefits are also an issue among workers, he said, because family coverage costs over $100/week, putting it out of reach for most employees.

Mississippi is a right-to-work state, and labor contracts cannot require that workers belong to the union. Instead, unions must continually try to sign workers up as members. In past years, according to other union sources, IBEW Local 1317 had a reputation as a union that did not offer much support to its immigrant members.
According to the swing shift worker, who did not belong to the union, there were just a few hundred members at the Pendorf plant, and in negotiations the company used that low membership as a reason not to sign a new agreement.

To increase its ability to negotiate a contract, Local 1317 began making greater efforts to sign up immigrant members. Spanish-speaking organizers were brought in, and they handed out leaflets in Spanish explaining the benefits of membership. They visited workers at home so they could talk about the union without being overheard or seen by company supervisors. According to the swing shift worker, many began to join, especially the immigrants who'd been hired most recently. IBEW's national newspaper, Electrical Worker, reported that over 200 had signed up last April, according to Local 1317's African-American business manager Clarence Larkin. "It's a constant process to keep the union alive and growing," he told the paper.

That's when the plant was raided. Local 1317 will now have to try to negotiate a contract after the loss of many of its members, who were among those detained. Those members, who joined the union in hopes of better wages and treatment, instead have been imprisoned for days in Jena, Louisiana, a two-hour drive from Laurel. ICE spokesperson Barbara Gonzalez would not provide an estimate of how long they might be jailed, but said "the investigation of their cases is ongoing."

The day after ICE agents stormed the factory MIRA began organizing meetings to provide legal advice, food and economic help. According to MIRA director Bill Chandler, Howard Industry representatives told detainees' families, and women released to care for children, that the company wouldn't give them their paychecks. On August 28 MIRA organizer Vicky Cintra led a group of workers to the Pendorf plant to demand their pay. Managers called Laurel police and sheriffs, who threatened to arrest her. After workers began chanting, "Let her go!" and news reporters appeared on the scene, the company finally agreed to distribute checks to about 70 people.

The swing shift worker was so frightened by the raid that he hadn't gone back to work after almost a week, and wasn't sure he'd have a job waiting if he did. "Everyone is still really scared," he said. Doolittle agreed, and said that fear would affect more than just the workers taken away. "Workers get apprehensive anytime something like this happens," he said. "That's just human nature."

Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, explained that "raids drive down wages because they intimidate workers, even citizens and legal residents. The employer brings in another batch of employees and continues business as usual, while people who protest get targeted and workers get deported. Raids really demonstrate the employer's power." The Hattiesburg American reported Friday that Howard Industries sent a letter to customers two days after the raid, assuring them that production would be back to normal by the end of the week, and noting that the company has not been charged.

Spokesperson Barbara Gonzalez claimed ICE waited two years after receiving a call from a "union member" before conducting the raid, because "we took the time needed for our investigation." She declined to say how that investigation was conducted, or what led ICE to believe their tip had come from a union member. The picture of a plant in which union members were hostile to immigrants was reinforced after the raid by media accounts of an incident in which workers "applauded" as their coworkers were taken away. But on August 29, when Cintra and the braceleted women sat in front of the plant for a second day, demanding more paychecks, African American workers came up to them as they left work, embraced the women, and told them they supported them.

"It's hard to believe that a two-year old phone call to ICE led to this raid, but whether or not the call ever took place, that possibility is a product of the poisonous atmosphere fostered by politicians of both parties in Mississippi," says MIRA director Chandler. "In the last election Barbour and Republicans campaigned against immigrants to get elected, but so did all the Democratic statewide candidates except Attorney General Jim Hood. The raid will make the climate even worse"

During the 2007 election campaign the Ku Klux Klan organized a 500-person rally in Tupelo, and when MIRA organizer Erik Fleming urged Barbour to veto the bill making work a felony for the undocumented, he was attacked by state anti-immigrant organizations.

Some state labor leaders have contributed to anti-immigrant hostility. After the Howard Industries workers, many of them union members, were arrested, state AFL-CIO President Robert Shaffer told the Associated Press that he doubted that immigrants could join unions if they were not in the country legally. U.S. labor law, however, holds that all workers have union rights, regardless of immigration status. It also says unions have a duty to represent all members fairly and equally

"This raid will just make us more determined," Evans declared. "We won't go back to the kind of racism Mississippi has known throughout its past."


For more articles and images on immigration, see

Just out from Beacon Press:
Illegal People -- How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants

See also the photodocumentary on indigenous migration to the US
Communities Without Borders (Cornell University/ILR Press, 2006)

See also The Children of NAFTA, Labor Wars on the U.S./Mexico Border (University of California, 2004)

Is the economy a bigger problem in the US than racism?