On the morning of Dec. 12, immigration and other federal officials launched a simultaneous raid — the biggest ever of its kind — at Swift & Co. meatpacking plants across six different states.
At the plant in Greeley, Colo., about an hour's drive north of Denver, agents surrounded the windowless, monolithic facility, then entered, carrying hundreds of pairs of handcuffs. By day's end, they had detained more than 250 meat plant workers and trucked them off in buses or vans for questioning. Some were released, some will end up in jail, and some were deported, separated from their families just before Christmas.
Many of those carted off had broken the law by working without documentation, and co-opting someone else's social security number to navigate the plant's employee verification process. That's not unusual: Like the agriculture, construction and service sectors, around one-third of the meat processing employees in this country are undocumented immigrants. Their timing was lousy but, in the end, the immigration officers were just doing their job.
Nevertheless, the raids were a glaring example of an ugly and ineffective approach to dealing with immigration. Like establishing English as an official language, further militarizing the border and putting more restrictions on public services for immigrants, the raids worsen, rather than solve, problems associated with immigration.
Call it the marginalization approach: Make them as uncomfortable as you can, and perhaps they'll just up and leave. This might work for pesky houseguests, but it's not going to cause some 12 million undocumented immigrants in this country to just up and head home. After all, they're not here for comfort, they're here for jobs in places like the Swift meatpacking plant, where wages start at $12 per hour, plus benefits. That's enticing to people who would make closer to $10 per day back home. Many of those who are deported will simply turn around and come back. And even as lawyers in Greeley struggled to determine where their apprehended clients were held, workers lined up to take the newly available jobs at the meatpacking plants.
Even without the raids, living as an undocumented immigrant is to always live in fear. Each morning in places like Greeley, hundreds of immigrants watch their spouses or parents go to work, always wondering whether they'll come home, or end up instead in a detention center on the way to being deported. The raids heightened that fear.
Now, the rest of Greeley's immigrant community — not to mention other Latinos who may be targeted by raids simply because of their skin color — is even more anxious. They'll move deeper into the shadows, be less involved with the community, and maybe even keep their kids out of school. Afraid of being caught, they'll become more suspicious of the police, meaning they'll be less likely to report crimes or cooperate with criminal investigations.
Out of this dynamic comes a group of second-class citizens partitioned from the rest of society. Assimilation is stifled. In turn, we as a society miss out on the exchange between natives and immigrants that has shaped and enriched United States culture for centuries. Meanwhile, the institutions that bind our society — social services, public education and law enforcement — face the challenges of dealing with an alienated population, and must build bridges that faulty immigration policy and xenophobic attitudes do their best to destroy.
Ultimately, the only solution to illegal immigration from Mexico is a dramatic change in the economic landscape. Barring a collapse of the U.S. economy, or a miraculous reform of Mexico's entrenched politics, that's not going to happen anytime soon. There is a realistic approach: immigration reform that accommodates economic realities, provides a guest-worker program, and gives an easier route to legalization for the millions of undocumented workers already here.
But as the Chinese established themselves, starting businesses and becoming active members of the community, they were first ridiculed, their businesses were boycotted, and then they were intimidated. Finally, angry mobs rounded up the Chinese and threatened or beat them until they left town. By 1910, this ethnic cleansing of many small communities was complete. We look back on that moment in the West's history as an ugly time that ultimately took a toll not only on the victims of the intimidation, but also on the culture of the communities where it happened.
Judging by December's raids and their painful aftermath, we haven't learned much from our mistakes.
Jonathan Thompson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the paper's associate editor in Paonia, Colorado.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.