The New Operation Wetback
By JAMES KILGORE
Arresting undocumented workers — cruelly known
as "WETBACKS" to most white Americans — has now
turned into a wicked but very lucrative device for America's
Prison Industrial Complex to fill its prisons and profit
from the misery of the poor.
It is in this light that one must consider the government's
shift in priorities regarding "illegal immigrants" —
i.e., to move away from arresting and simply deporting
"illegals" that the government finds it cannot charge
with a felony that will result in "prison time" to concentrating
on arresting "illegals" that it believes it can successfully
charge with a felony and imprison.
It is for people such as these so-called "illegals"
--- people who have been chased off their farms in Mexico
by giant plantation farm operations run by such American
mega-corporations as Cargil and Archer-Daniels-Midland,
and forced to migrate surreptitiously to the United States
to work as "Illegals" picking tomatoes on plantation
farms in the United States run by these very same corporations
--— that Christ is coming to make "MAKE THINGS RIGHT."
[Please see our report on this phenomenon, "Chiapas:
The Effect of the New World Order on the Poor."]
Last week Representative Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) joined a demonstration
in Washington D.C. to protest the government's refusal to halt
the deportations of the undocumented. Gutierrez' arrest came
only two days after Obama had addressed a conference of the
National Council of La Raza.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and 10 other immigration reform supporters were arrested in front of the White House on Tuesday for protesting against the government's deportation of young people and families.
With over 392,000 deportations in 2010, more than in any of
the Bush years, many activists fear we are in the midst of a
repeat of notorious episodes of the past such as the "Repatriation"
campaign of the 1930s and the infamous Operation Wetback of
1954, both of which resulted in the deportation of hundreds
of thousands of Latinos.
But several things are different this time around. A crucial
distinction is that we are in the era of mass incarceration.
Not only are the undocumented being
deported, many are going to prison for years before being delivered
across the border. While the writings of Michelle
Alexander and others have highlighted the widespread targeting
of young African-American males by the criminal justice system,
few have noted that in the last decade the complexion of new
faces behind bars has been dramatically changing. Since the
turn of the century, the number of blacks in prisons has declined
slightly, while the ranks of Latinos incarcerated has increased
by nearly 50%, reaching just over 300,000 in 2009.
A second distinguishing feature of the current state of
affairs is the presence of the private prison corporations.
For the likes of the industry's leading powers, Corrections
Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group, detaining
immigrants has been the life blood for reviving their financial
Just over a decade ago their bottom lines were flagging. Freshly
built prisons sat with empty beds while share values plummeted.
For financial year 1999 CCA reported losses of $53.4 million
and laid off 40% of its workforce.
Just over a decade ago their bottom lines were flagging. Freshly built prisons sat with empty beds while share values plummeted. For financial year 1999 CCA reported losses of $53.4 million and laid off 40% of its workforce.
Then came the windfall - 9/11.
In 2001 Steven Logan, then CEO of Cornell Industries, a private
prison firm which has since merged with GEO, spelled out exactly
what this meant for his sector:
Unbeknownst to most people, one of the driving forces behind such anti-immigration bills as SB 1070 is the Prison Industrial Complex which profits from incarcerating immigrants prior to their deportation.
"I think it's clear that with the events of Sept.
11, there's a heightened focus on detention, both on the borders
and within the U.S. [and] more people are gonna get caught…So
that's a positive for our business. The federal business is
the best business for us. It's the most consistent business
for us, and the events of Sept. 11 are increasing that level
Logan was right. The Patriot Act and
other legislation led to a new wave of immigration detentions.
By linking immigrants to terrorism, aggressive roundups supplied
Latinos and other undocumented people to fill those empty private
prison cells. Tougher immigration laws mandated felony
convictions and prison time for cases which previously merited
only deportation. Suddenly, the business of detaining immigrants
was booming. PBS Commentator Maria Hinojosa went so far as
to call this the new "Gold Rush" for private prisons.
The figures support Hinojosa's assertion. While private prisons
own or operate only 8% of general prison beds, they control
49% of the immigration detention market. CCA alone operates
14 facilities via contracts with ICE, providing 14,556 beds.
They have laid the groundwork for more business through the
creation of a vast lobbying and advocacy network. From 1999-2009
the corporation spent more than $18 million on lobbying, mostly
focusing on harsher sentencing, prison privatization and immigration.
One significant result of their lobbying efforts was the
passage of SB 1070 in Arizona, a law which nearly provides police
with a license to profile Latinos for stops and searches.
The roots of SB 1070 lie in the halls
of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a far right
grouping that specializes in supplying template legislation
to elected state officials. CCA and other private prison firms
are key participants in ALEC and played a major role in the
development of the template that ended up as SB 1070.
For its part, GEO Group has also been carving out its immigration
market niche. Earlier this year they broke ground on a new 600
bed detention center in Karnes County, Texas. At about the same
time the company bought a controlling interest in BI Corporation,
the largest provider of electronic monitoring systems in the
U.S. The primary motivation for this takeover was the five
year, $372 million contract BI signed with ICE in 2009 to step
up the Bush initiated Intense Supervision Appearance Program.
(ISAP 11). Under this arrangement the Feds hired BI to provide
ankle bracelets and a host of other surveillance for some 27,000
people awaiting deportation or asylum hearings.
Sadly, the Obama presidency has secretly and very consistently
provided encouragement for the likes of CCA and GEO to grow
the market for detainees. While failing to pass immigration
reform or the Dream Act, the current administration has kept
the core of the previous administration's immigration policy
measures intact. These include the Operation Endgame, a 2003
measure that promised to purge the nation of all "illegals"
by 2012 and the more vibrant Secure Communities (S-Comm). Under
S-Comm the Federal government authorizes local authorities to
share fingerprints with ICE of all those they arrest. Though
supposedly intended to capture only people with serious criminal
backgrounds, in reality S-Comm has led to the detention and
deportation of thousands of people with no previous convictions.
At the National Council of La Raza's Conference Obama tried
to console the audience by saying that he knows "very well the
pain and heartbreak deportation has caused." His words failed
to resonate. Instead Rep. Gutierrez and others took to the streets,
demonstrating that "I feel your pain" statements and appeals
to the audacity of hope carry little credibility these days.
It is time for a serious change of direction on immigration
issues or pretty soon, just as Michelle Alexander has referred
to the mass incarceration of African-Americans as the New Jim
Crow, we may hear people start to call the ongoing repression
of Latinos a "New Operation Wetback."
Top row of pictures: "illegals who have
Bottom row of pictures: "Follow the money."
FOLLOW THE MONEY if you really
want to know what's happening insofar as poor "illegal"
immigrants are concerned.
James Kilgore is a Research Scholar at the Center
for African Studies at the University of Illinois.
He is the author of three novels, We Are All Zimbabweans
Now, Freedom Never Rests and Prudence Couldn't Swim,
all written during his six and a half years of incarceration.
He can be reached at [email protected]
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