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News and Features
As the shock of September 11 fades, courts are standing up for civil
September 11 is being used as a reason to build up police intelligence
Osmín, a Cuban trucker, is living in Florida legally--but that
didn't matter to the department of motor vehicles. When he was stopped
on May 2 by a policeman who wanted to see the permit for a job he was
working on, as well as his license, he handed over all the necessary
papers. Although they were in order, he was sent to the driver's-license
office because the document granting his temporary stay will expire
later this month. When dutifully checking in at the DMV the next day, he
explained that his application for permanent residency is pending,
allowing him legal stay until it is resolved. But the clerk, guided by
the governor's new antiterror restrictions, didn't understand the
intricacies of his immigration status. He confiscated Osmín's
license--good until 2007--and sent him home, unable to drive and unable
to work. "I feel very bad," said Osmín (who didn't want to have
his last name used out of fear it might harm his residency application)
the following workday, stuck inside. "I have to pay my bills, I've lost
a complete day of work and I don't know when I'll get my license back."
Spurred on by post-September 11 fears, more than a dozen states, from
Colorado to Delaware, have passed or are considering restrictions on
issuing driver's licenses to noncitizens. Some, like Georgia, Minnesota
and New York, may tie license expiration dates to the expiration of
immigration papers, as Florida, New Jersey and Kentucky do now.
Florida's Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles now sends
records of all its transactions to the FBI every night. A Michigan bill
would authorize DMV staff to contact federal authorities if there is
"reasonable cause" to believe an applicant is an illegal alien. Even
legal refugees from Bosnia or El Salvador can get tripped up in the new
red tape. "If you make it difficult for people to get a driver's
license, you're going to get a lot more people driving without a
license, and we might have more uninsured drivers on the road," says Ben
Johnson, associate director of the American Immigration Lawyers
Association. "Getting tough on driver's-license law isn't going to make
the country any safer."
Declaring his state's enlistment in a "war against illegal immigration,"
South Carolina Attorney General Charlie Condon introduced legislation to
have local cops enforce federal immigration laws. Florida is working
with the Immigration and Naturalization Service on a groundbreaking plan
to deputize police officers as INS agents. "This gives police another
legal hook to justify their profiling and will prevent illegal
immigrants from reporting crimes against them," says Dan Kesselbrenner,
director of the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers
Heightening surveillance of foreign students, bills pending in
California, Minnesota and Georgia, and a new Virginia law, would require
colleges to report noncitizens to the INS if they repeatedly miss class
or withdraw. An Oklahoma measure would prevent noncitizens from
enrolling in flight school. "While everybody's in the patriotic mood,
people's tolerance level is a little bit lower," says Lena Lee, a
research assistant for South Carolina's House of Representatives,
describing a bill to restrict university enrollment of students who come
from a "state sponsor of international terrorism" as determined by the
US Secretary of State. "The rush is on to get the legislation out.
People are kind of blindly doing it--with good intent."
Oklahoma's Joint Homeland Security Task Force even brought up blocking
foreign students from certain courses. Representative Bill Paulk, a task
force member, said legislators are particularly worried about nuclear
design and computer classes. "Obviously," he said, "there are some
courses you would not want foreigners to take."
For more than a century, a recognizable pattern existed among those
migrating to New York City: They came first either through Ellis Island
or up from the American South, and more recently via JFK. As the
newcomers quickly helped build larger communities, they began to occupy
distinct places in the mental and physical geography of the city.
Yet the fastest-growing migration of the past few decades into the city
severely complicates the demographic pattern to which most New Yorkers
are accustomed. Mexican migrants, whose (counted) ranks nearly tripled
to 275,000 between 1990 and 2000, are indeed coming in significant
numbers, but they are staying for quite varying amounts of time and
inhabiting quite varying parts of the city. Spatially, there is no
Mexican equivalent of the Puerto Rican neighborhoods of the Bronx, or
the Dominican enclave in Washington Heights. That the vast majority of
those who come across the Rio Grande are undocumented also suggests that
it may be a while before the Mexican community will have a direct voice,
either politically or via organized labor, in city affairs.
Enter Jimmy Breslin. Yes, the same pugnacious figure familiar to New
Yorkers for his four decades as a muckraking columnist, and to national
audiences most recently for his intro to Spike Lee's Summer of
Sam. Could there be a better guide to the new pattern of immigration
than Breslin? From a scholarly standpoint, the answer would obviously be
yes--the recent work of Arlene Dávila and Agustín
Laó-Montes, Nancy Foner and others is a good place to start. Such
scholarship shows that the current wave of immigration fits no one mold,
with some groups, particularly Mexicans, establishing a transnational
pattern of going back and forth to their home countries, thus making it
impossible even to identify a single unified process of Latino
immigration. But from the perspective of gritty, everyday, street-level
New York, or at least that fast-disappearing world of tough talk and
no-nonsense reporting, Breslin has no match as a firsthand observer of
the newcomers' place in the city's social hierarchy. Ultimately, the way
Breslin, an older, working-class Irish-American, grapples with the new
migration tells us more than a little bit about the changing meaning of
the American dream.
Breslin's new book, his eighth nonfiction work, tells of The Short
Sweet Dream of Eduardo Gutiérrez. Gutiérrez, an undocumented Mexican
laborer, died in a 1999 construction accident in the Hasidic
neighborhood of the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. For Breslin,
Gutiérrez's story not only typifies the hardships that Mexican
migrants face in coming north but shows how harsh the working conditions
are when they arrive. Gutiérrez, in other words, hardly lived the
life of a latter-day Horatio Alger. Instead of fortune, the city
provided only loneliness and a gruesome but entirely preventable death
in a cement foundation.
Gutiérrez's tragic demise sets Breslin on course to discover the
origins of what would otherwise have been yet another mostly forgotten
existence. Breslin goes to central Mexico, to the small town of San
Matias (near Puebla), to recapture Eduardo's life and surroundings
there, and then follows his tortuous journey north across the border,
before arriving in Brooklyn. In the process, Breslin accomplishes twin
goals: to show how Mexican migrants are increasingly making their way
well beyond the Southwest, steadily transforming the demographics of
Midwestern and Northeastern cities; and, more dramatically, he
illustrates how that migration probably has more in common with the
Middle Passage than with any of the heroism now accorded to the
immigrant journey through Ellis Island.
Breslin opens with a series of outsider's observations of life in
impoverished San Matias. Ninety percent of Mexican children will never
go to school beyond the sixth grade, and instead go to work, which in
places like San Matias is sporadic and pays almost nothing. Thus, as a
result of stories told by relatives and others within their community,
the young of San Matias live their lives with pictures of American money
in their heads. And "such poor, dark-skinned children," Breslin
observes, soon become the young adults who are migrating along with
counterparts from India, China and elsewhere to become New York City's
new majority, by which he essentially means people of color.
Getting here from San Matias is no mean feat. After hearing from his
girlfriend Silvia's brother-in-law of construction work in Brooklyn that
paid $6 or $7 an hour (to undocumented Mexicans), less than one-third of
what unionized American workers receive, Eduardo was tempted to go
north. After Silvia, only 15, told him that she was headed for Texas,
Eduardo, four years older, had even less reason to stay home. Breslin
then vividly re-creates both journeys, supplementing the two stories
with documentation of parallel dangers that Mexican migrants experience
every day: dangerous coyotes (smugglers), rattlesnakes, heat exhaustion,
drowning in the Rio Grande, suffocation in a tunnel leading to Tijuana,
getting hit by a train in Texas or a car in San Diego, local police,
airport security and, above all, the Border Patrol. Thus harrowed, both
Silvia and Eduardo nevertheless do land safely: the former in Bryan-College Station, Texas, where she works at both the Olive Garden and a
barbecue joint; and the latter initially at JFK, only after being
delivered COD by a coyote on a flight from Los Angeles.
Sympathetic as the author is to the courage and struggles of those who
endure such hardship in coming north, there are still some troubling
dimensions to Breslin's account, particularly in his somewhat simplistic
choice of terms to describe the process. He so often uses "the Mexicans"
as the subject of his sentences that one begins to fear Buchananesque
calls for big walls along the border (fortunately, they are not there).
Breslin also far too simplistically refers on many occasions to how
Mexican migrants are lured by The Job, and at one point riffs: "They
come across the riverbanks and the dry border, those people who want to
work, who want to scrub floors and clean pots, or mow lawns." Yet as his
own telling of Silvia's double shifts in El Paso and of Eduardo's later
job-hopping in New York suggests, the specific work matters much less
than the simple fact of a paycheck. Migrants seeking wages who will
accept the least-desirable work is surely more accurate than talk of
Mexicans who want "The Job," but then again, drama is Breslin's primary
Once away from the airport, Eduardo enters a frighteningly impersonal
city, and here Breslin emphasizes the changing meaning of the
contemporary immigrant experience: "Once, they came in dreadful old
ships, from Magilligan in Northern Ireland, from Cobh in southern
Ireland, from Liverpool and Naples and Palermo and Odessa.... Those able
to stand always scoured the horizon for the first look at a city where
the streets were decorated, if not paved, with gold." The numbers of
subsequent nonwhite migrations, particularly those of Puerto Ricans and
Dominicans, are missing from Breslin's litany, which illustrates the
degree to which the traditional mythology of immigration into New York
City needs to be rewritten continually. But here as elsewhere, Breslin
should be indulged, for the experience of Mexican immigrants in New York
is skewing more than a few familiar demographic patterns.
Eduardo's experiences in Brooklyn illustrate some of the unique features
of contemporary Mexican migration. He settles with a handful of others
from San Matias in Brighton Beach, an area whose Eastern European Jewish
identity grew rapidly with the influx of Russian and Ukrainian
immigrants in the early 1990s. On a few occasions, he and a friend would
go to Sunset Park, an increasingly Latino neighborhood and one of the
few areas of the city with a visible Mexican presence. Indeed, as the
ongoing research of John Mollenkopf and others demonstrates, even though
their ranks are growing rapidly, Mexican migrants are tending to favor
heterogeneous ethnic neighborhoods rather than grouping together.
Breslin's re-creation of Eduardo's life in the city may help explain one
of the reasons this is so. As Eduardo and his roommates drink a few
beers after a long day's work, they reminisce of home and discuss plans
to go back. That so many do go back and forth, perhaps, diminishes the
necessity for those who stay to form distinct neighborhoods of their
Those working here as undocumented laborers also face conditions hardly
conducive to sticking around. Despite repeated building-code violations
elsewhere in the neighborhood, a slumlord named Eugene Ostreicher was
able to continue building in South Williamsburg, using undocumented
Mexican laborers like Eduardo. While working for Ostreicher in November
of 1999, Eduardo poured cement on the third and top floor, which was
supported by only three flimsy, improperly fastened beams; the structure
soon collapsed, and Eduardo drowned in cement three floors below.
Breslin thus takes aim at a variety of targets: Ostreicher, who was slow
to face punishment, and whose cozy relationship to City Hall (via Bruce
Teitelbaum, ex-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's liaison to the Hasidic
community) had allowed him to keep building despite past violations; the
city's Department of Buildings, a bastion of frightening corruption and
inefficiency; and, to a lesser extent, the construction unions, which
allow the use of nonunion labor. Some of Breslin's examples do seem
tangential, like his discussion of a phony Pell Grant scheme run by
Ostreicher's Hasidic neighbors, or of Mayor Giuliani's war on sex shops.
But there is no doubting Breslin's crusading spirit, and he's always
good for a memorable barb or two--as when he reminds us that pre-9/11,
Giuliani did "virtually nothing each day except get into the papers or
to meet girlfriends."
As the book closes, with Eduardo dead and Ostreicher facing minimal
punishment at best, the meaning of the former's sweet dream is
uncertain. He came to New York with a desire only to make enough money
to go home, perhaps with Silvia. But now he is sent home in a casket
paid for by the Red Cross and the Central Labor Trades Council, the
latter doing so to "get into the newspapers." Though by no means the
first group to come to America with the primary goal of making money in
order to take it back home, Mexican migrants find a labor market that is
increasingly transient, unregulated and brutal. Still, despite the
hardships, they are helping to create a new, transnational version of
the American dream. It is a story that we all need to consider, and
Jimmy Breslin has successfully helped open the door.
A camera system in the nation's capital is making civil libertarians
The recent decision of the Supreme Court in the case of Hoffman Plastic
Compounds, Inc. v. National Labor Relations Board makes it plain that
the Court's majority lives in denial of the social reality millions of
working people face every day. The Court began by making worse an
already bad precedent. As a result of a previous decision in the case of
Sure-Tan Inc. v. National Labor Relations Board, millions of
undocumented immigrants lost the right to be reinstated to their jobs if
they were fired for joining a union. Now the Rehnquist Court says they
can also forget about back pay for the time they were out of work.
The decision rewards employers who want to stop union organizing efforts
among immigrant workers--the very people who've built a decade-long
track record of labor activism, often organizing themselves when unions
showed little interest in them. Their bosses can now terminate
undocumented workers who join a union, without monetary consequences.
But the Court's logic goes further, willfully ignoring social reality.
Today in 31 percent of union drives employers illegally fire workers,
immigrant and native-born alike. Federal labor law may prohibit this,
but companies already treat the cost of legal battles, reinstatement and
back pay as a cost of doing business. Many consider it cheaper than
signing a union contract. In the Court's eyes, however, retaliatory
firings are not even a violation of law.
William Gould IV, former chair of the National Labor Relations Board,
points to "a basic conflict between US labor law and US immigration
law." The Court has held that the enforcement of employer sanctions,
which makes it illegal for an undocumented immigrant to hold a job, is
more important than the right of that worker to join a union and resist
exploitation on the job.
According to Rehnquist, Jose Castro, the fired worker in the Hoffman
case, committed the cardinal sin of falsely saying he had legal status
to get a job. This lie, told by millions of workers every year, is
winked at by employers who want to take advantage of immigrants' labor.
It is only in the face of union activity that bosses suddenly wake up to
the fact that their workers have no papers (and usually then fire only
the ones involved with unions).
This decision isn't about enforcing immigration law, despite Rehnquist's
pious assertion that employers can already be fined for hiring people
like Castro. It's about money. When it becomes more risky and difficult
for workers to organize and join unions, or even to hold a job at all,
they settle for lower wages. And when the price of immigrant labor goes
down, so do the wages for everyone else. The decision has already been
misused by some employers, who have told their immigrant workers they no
longer have the right to organize at all, or have illegally refused to
pay them the minimum wage or overtime.
A recent study by the Pew Charitable Trust counts almost 8 million
undocumented people in the United States. They make up almost 4 percent
of the urban work force, and more than half of all farmworkers. The flow
of workers across the border will not stop anytime soon. The National
Population Council of Mexico reports that "migration between Mexico and
the United States is a permanent, structural phenomenon--the intense
relationship between the two countries makes it inevitable."
Sacrificing the rights of those workers will not stop people from
crossing the border, nor end the need for the work they do. If they are
to have legal status, the door to legal immigration must be opened and
sanctions repealed. But come they will, regardless. The Court's message
to them, however, is: Know your place. Do the work, stay in the shadows,
accept what you are given and never think of organizing to challenge the
structure that holds you in chains.
Extreme Solution I: Priests
The old movies used to feature a priest walking alongside the condemned
man toward the scaffold, offering last seconds of comfort,
plea-bargaining strategies with St. Peter, a bolstering hand under the
elbow. Sometime in the next decade the tableau may be reversed, with a
lay counselor assisting the condemned priest as he totters toward that
final rendezvous with the executioner.
The death penalty is being vigorously touted as the best way to deal
with child molesters. And as the world knows, the Roman Catholic Church
has sheltered many a child molester. On the cutting edge here are three
states noted for the moral refinement of their legislators: to wit,
Montana, Louisiana and Alabama. The first two states have already put
Death for Molesters into their statute books, and when Alabama lawmakers
convene again next year they will press forward into legislation, after
an overwhelming vote from the state's House of Representatives last year
in favor of molester executions.
The Montana law allows a person previously convicted of "sexual
intercourse without consent" with someone under 16 in any state to be
sentenced to death if convicted of the crime in Montana. The law was
passed in 1997, but no one has yet been charged under that provision.
Since 1995 Louisiana has had a law allowing the death penalty for people
convicted of raping a child under 12. Thus far, a few charges, no
Alabama's bill would authorize the death penalty for people convicted a
second time of having sex with someone under 12. No other states allow
capital punishment for a sex crime. ABC News quoted Marcel Black,
chairman of the Alabama House Judiciary Committee, as saying, "The very
serious meaning of this is to send a message to child molesters that it
is a bad thing to do."
Molesters can take comfort in the fact that these laws will probably not
survive challenges from higher courts. The US Supreme Court ruled in
1977 that the death penalty is excessive punishment for rape. But who
knows, in the current atmosphere anything is possible. Maybe that's why
Pope John Paul II, a far-seeing man, shifted the Church toward
opposition to the death penalty.
Extreme Solution II: Palestinians
Two years ago fewer than 8 percent of those who took part in a Gallup
poll among Jewish Israelis said they were in favor of what is politely
called "transfer"--that is, the expulsion of perhaps 2 million
Palestinians across the Jordan River. This month that figure reached 44
Professor Martin van Creveld is one of Israel's best-known military
historians. On April 28 Britain's conservative newspaper the Telegraph
published an article outlining what van Creveld believes is Sharon's
According to van Creveld, Sharon's plan is to drive 2 million
Palestinians across the Jordan using the pretext of a US attack on Iraq
or a terrorist strike in Israel. This could trigger a vast mobilization
to clear the occupied territories of Arabs. Van Creveld notes that in
the 1970 showdown between Jordan's King Hussein and the PLO, Sharon,
serving as commanding officer of Israel's southern front, argued that
Israel's assistance to the King was a mistake; instead it should have
tried to topple the Hashemite regime. Sharon has often said since that
Jordan, which has a Palestinian majority even now, is the Palestinian
state, and thus a suitable destination for Palestinians to be kicked out
of his Greater Israel.
A US attack on Iraq would offer appropriate cover. Sharon himself told
Secretary of State Colin Powell that nothing happening in Israel should
delay a US attack. Other pretexts could include an uprising in Jordan,
followed by the collapse of King Abdullah's regime.
Should such circumstances arise, according to van Creveld, Israel would
mobilize within hours. "First, the country's three ultra-modern
submarines would take up firing positions out at sea. Borders would be
closed, a news blackout imposed, and all foreign journalists rounded up
and confined to a hotel as guests of the Government. A force of 12
divisions, 11 of them armoured, plus various territorial units suitable
for occupation duties, would be deployed: five against Egypt, three
against Syria, and one opposite Lebanon. This would leave three to face
east as well as enough forces to put a tank inside every Arab-Israeli
village just in case their populations get any funny ideas."
In van Creveld's view (he does say that he is utterly opposed to any
form of "transfer"), "the expulsion of the Palestinians would require
only a few brigades. They would not drag people out of their houses but
use heavy artillery to drive them out; the damage caused to Jenin would
look like a pinprick in comparison." He discounts any effective response
from Egypt, Syria, Lebanon or Iraq.
But what about international reaction? Van Creveld thinks it would not
be an effective deterrent. "If Mr Sharon decides to go ahead, the only
country that can stop him is the United States. The US, however, regards
itself as being at war with parts of the Muslim world that have
supported Osama bin Laden. America will not necessarily object to that
world being taught a lesson--particularly if it could be as swift and
brutal as the 1967 campaign; and also particularly if it does not
disrupt the flow of oil for too long.
"Israeli military experts estimate that such a war could be over in just
eight days," van Creveld writes. "If the Arab states do not intervene,
it will end with the Palestinians expelled and Jordan in ruins. If they
do intervene, the result will be the same, with the main Arab armies
destroyed. Israel would, of course, take some casualties, especially in
the north, where its population would come under fire from Hizbollah.
However, their number would be limited and Israel would stand
triumphant, as it did in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973."
We've been warned.
Anyone looking for evidence that the death penalty should be
abolished need only look at the case of Zacarias Moussaoui, the
so-called twentieth hijacker, now on trial for his life for allegedly
I am beginning to suspect that Nation readers may not fully appreciate the challenges Attorney General John Ashcroft faces. What would you do in his place? Your intelligence agencies had no advance knowledge of the September 11 plot and don't appear to know much more about future attackers. Airport security screeners are letting test bombs and guns pass at alarming rates, and your immigration agency is so hapless that it issued visa extensions to two of the hijackers six months after they died flying planes into the World Trade Center towers. When you consider the threat from their side and the incompetence on ours, it's understandable that Ashcroft has cast his net so wide. He's shooting in the dark. In fact, the expanse of his net is probably inversely proportional to the depth of the intelligence he has received.
But just as with the terrorists themselves, understanding Ashcroft's motives does not justify his actions. To date, despite the thousands of Arab and Muslim immigrants arrested, searched, profiled and questioned, Ashcroft has charged only a single person--Zaccarias Moussaoui--with any involvement in the attacks of September 11. And he was arrested before the attacks occurred. Such broad-brush tactics are unlikely to succeed, for they give notice to potential targets, allowing them to evade detection while alienating the very communities we must work with to identify potential threats who may be living among them.
Ashcroft has shown no signs of getting closer to his target. And the less he finds, the wider he sweeps. He recently announced that he was extending to 3,000 more people his much-criticized initiative to subject male immigrants from Arab countries to "voluntary" interviews, despite the fact that the initial interviews have led to no further charges in the investigation. And having learned how easy it is to use immigration law as a pretext for criminal law enforcement when you lack probable cause, the Justice Department is now preparing to enlist local police officers to help enforce immigration law, a disastrous proposal likely to drive immigrant communities even deeper underground.
The lengths to which Ashcroft will go was revealed most recently by his indictment of Lynne Stewart, a 62-year-old New York attorney who has made a career of courageously taking on clients for whom few other lawyers are willing to risk their reputations. Her most notorious such case was defending Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman in his 1995 criminal trial for conspiring to bomb the tunnels into Manhattan. Now she's charged with providing "material support" to the sheik's organization, the Egypt-based Islamic Group, largely by abetting communications between the sheik--whom prison regulations prohibit from communicating with virtually anyone in the outside world--and others in the group.
The government simultaneously announced that it will make Rahman its test case for its unprecedented initiative to listen in on attorney-client communications. Confidential exchanges with lawyers have long been sacrosanct, because they are critical to any fair legal process. In the past, they could be intruded upon only with a warrant based on probable cause that the communications were intentionally furthering criminal activity, but the new regulations permit monitoring without a warrant or probable cause. But under regulations issued after September 11, the government claims the authority to monitor attorney-client communications without establishing probable cause for believing that the communications are being used for illegal ends, and without obtaining authorization from a judge.
Most troubling, Ashcroft is prosecuting Stewart although she has not been charged with furthering any illegal or violent activity of the Islamic Group, a wide-ranging Islamic political movement that engages in a great deal of lawful activity in addition to terrorism. While many have criticized the government for targeting a lawyer, of far more concern is its criminalization of speech and associations having no connection to terrorism. Unable to link Stewart to any actual terrorist activity in any way, Ashcroft has resorted to guilt by association. As a US citizen, Stewart will at least have an opportunity to defend herself in a public trial. Not so the hundreds of noncitizens still being detained on immigration charges in connection with the September 11 investigation, many long after their immigration proceedings have concluded. Under orders from Ashcroft, they are being tried in secret proceedings closed to the public, press, legal observers and family members.
In a major setback for the Ashcroft agenda, US District Judge Nancy Edmunds on April 3 declared the closed proceedings unconstitutional. She ruled that open trials are a fundamental feature of our justice system and that any closure must be carried out not in the sweeping manner that Ashcroft so favors but through means narrowly tailored to protect national security interests. The government has appealed, arguing that to act in a more narrowly tailored fashion might tip off Al Qaeda to what we do and don't know. But one has to wonder whether the government's real concern isn't that opening the proceedings might tip off the public to just how wildly John Ashcroft is shooting in the dark.
While most of the media focused, with good reason, on the huge increase in military spending and dramatic cuts in domestic programs in President Bush's $2.1 trillion budget proposal for 2003, a fe
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