Tuesday, November 30, 2010

New Federal Mandate and Our Region's Most Vulnerable Newcomers

Irish immigrant family in early 20th century
(courtesy Albany Times Union)

A recent series of postings on this site has focused on the World Peace and Health Organization, a native Chinese sect which has settled in Amsterdam. When I learned of the arrival of this group, I was hoping that they were the kind of immigrants who could revitalize our region, which has suffered depopulation for decades as manufacturing jobs were outsourced and our once thriving factories and farms were abandoned to decay. However, a close study of the WPHO group revealed that, whatever their intentions, they do not intend to permanently settle and raise families here. - unless their holy master Ziguang tells them to do so.

Following publication in the November 28  Schenectady Gazette of a summary of my findings on the WPHO, I became more concerned that some local people are  hostile to any newcomers who do not speak English, and  feel free to express the kind of anti-immigrant bias  encouraged by media demagogues like Lou Dobbs. Such people choose to forget the previous waves of immigrants, almost always facing a similar hostility,  who have contributed so much  to the flourishing of the Hudson and Mohawk Valleys. Except for the Mohicans and the Mohawks, we are all immigrants or the children of immigrants.

Mohicans viewing the arrival of Henry 
Hudson's Half Moon in 1609
(courtesy Library of Congress)

When the first immigrants arrived, the people  who had lived here for thousands of years welcomed  them, but according the website of  the N'DahAhki people, the  result was not a happy one for them:

On September 15th, 1609 Henry Hudson and the crew of the Half Moon first sailed up the Mohicanituk in search of Cathay and the Indies. One of the ship's officers, Robert Juet, described them on that first meeting as a "loving people". They were also the first Native people in the Northeast recorded as having been made deliberately drunk by the Europeans. Fur trading with the Dutch began the next year. Within a few years, 90% of the Mohicans had died of epidemic disease. The middle 17th century Mohican-Mohawk conflicts for control of the lucrative fur trade (the so-called 'Beaver Wars')

 Sojourner Truth was born near KIngston
(courtesy Library of Congress)

The next group to arrive were Africans imported as slaves  by the Dutch starting in 1626, and their history in  this valley has been ignored for far too long. Too few of our schoolchildren even know that Sojourner Truth was born near Kingston and grew up speaking Dutch. One can't help but wonder what contemporary bigots would make of her: illiterate, hostile to authority, no way to earn her own living. She'd end up on a no-fly list for sure.

German immigrants prior to the Revolution were more readily accepted by the English and Dutch, and militia commander Nicholas Herkimer is renowned for his heroism at Oriskany in 1777. Irish and German Catholic immigrants in the 1840s and 1850s met with religious prejudice, but as  they buillt their own school and political systems, they  compelled Protestants to accept them. Immigrants from Italy, Poland and other parts of eastern Europe readily found work in the expanding economy of the early 20th century and rose with the growth of the middle class fostred by the labor movement of  the last century.

All  these waves of immigrants, with the shameful exception of those who were enslaved, were from Europe. Only in recent decades have people from Latin America begun to arrive upstate  in significant numbers. Susan Lang of Cornell University explored the growing presence of this group in a 2006 article:

Mexican farmworkers and their families are settling in rural upstate New York communities in record numbers, often offsetting recent decades of population loss and making upstate much more diverse. However, two-thirds of the newcomers can't speak or understand English, and most are marginalized in their communities.  Seasonal farmworkers in New York used to be primarily African-Americans, but 95 percent of the farmworkers now are Latino, primarily Mexican, and they are increasingly settling down with their families in the farm communities rather than returning to their home countries.

Although these new migrants tend to keep a low profile, their labor is in demand. A farmer in Columbia county told me that he simply couldn’t afford to stay  in business were it not for the labor of Spanish-speaking farm workers, and he did not care if they were documented or undocumented. “Americans don’t want to spend all day picking in the hot sun, or if they did, they wouldn’t work for what I can afford to pay them.” He held up a pint of strawberries and asked me, “Do you want to pay eight dollars for this? That’s what I’d have to charge if I didn’t have the Mexicans.”

It is interesting to speculate about how much such working people could contribute  if they had a chance to own land and raise their own crops. Our countryside  is littered with abandoned farms that might be restored to life by newcomers from Latin Americas. Certainly, there are few others except for the Amish who are drawn to such a hard life.

Instead, the Spanish-speaking families who  could revitalize our agricultural economy  may well become the innocent victims of a new federal program designed to deport truly dangerous  people, called the “Secure Communities Initiative.” The program’s executive director David Venturella described the program's joint national security/community security mission: "Secure Communities is a comprehensive effort to increase national security and community safety by identifying, processing, and removing deportable criminal aliens, beginning with those who pose the greatest known risk to public safety."

No one could quarrel with such goals, but the key words are “beginning with those who pose the greatest known risk to public safety."   And knowing something of how bureaucracies operate, I am sure there will be considerable pressure to produce results, and if no truly “criminal aliens” turn up, the temptation to deport those with minor charges, or whose charges were dismissed, will be inevitable.

The program requires that anyone who is booked for any charge, whether felony or misdemeanor or even if the charges are quickly dismissed, should have his/her fingerprints transmitted electronically to Immigration and Customs Enforcement Once ICE identifies an eligible individual through a database match, it will issue an “immigration detainer” requiring that the individual should be held in the local jail until a decision is made regarding deportation.  No federal funds will be provided for local communities to pay for the additional incarceration.

Governor David Patterson signed a Memorandum of Agreement with the Department of Homeland Security/Immigration and Customs Enforcement on May 10, committing every locality in the state to participation in this program. An earlier provision from ICE allowing localities to opt out was changed in August and the program is now mandatory, thus extending the policy of Arizona’s draconian SB-1070 anti-immigration statute nationwide.  

The possibility that “Secure Communities” will interfere with good police work by tying down law enforcement officers in the pursuit of harmless migrants, or that it will damage necessary relations between the police and the Spanish-speaking community, must be taken seriously. The Police Foundation has voiced these same concerns, making a strong case that “Secure Communities” is disruptive of good police work.

I was eager to uncover the effects of this new policy in our region, and I began by contacting police departments to learn if, or how, this initiative was being implemented. At the same time I decided to reach out to the designated targets of this latest federal mandate, and to immigrant rights organizations in our area.

As I set about my research, I kept in mind the example of an Irish immigrant  who  was most certainly considered a dangerous alien in  his own time. James Connolly lived  in Troy a hundred years ago, and was a founder of the Industrial Workers of the World before returning to his homeland. By contemporary standards, he might well be put on a  government list for extra scrutiny and possible deportation.

Connolly is revered today as one of the founding fathers of the Irish republic  He  led the Irish forces in the Easter Rebellion of 1916,  the first battle in the  bitter war for independence from British tyranny and  was executed by the foreign occupiers of his country at Kilmainham Jail.

James Connolly is honored in Troy's Riverside Park

Update December 29, 2010: 

As of this date it is still unclear if communities can opt out of the Secure Communities Initiative. A judge has given Immigration and Customs Enforcement until January 17 to release the documents that will clarify this issue. The evident stalling by ICE would suggest that the bureaucrats know they can't  legally impose this diktat on every police department but are hoping to do so anyway. Thus far, most states states are falling into line, despite the lack of clarity from the feds:

Update May 22, 2011 

Good news. The Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security has announced an investigation of the abuses of the Secure Communities Program, specifically the damage it has done to innocent immigrants vs. actual felons deserving of deportation.

U.S. to investigate Secure Communities deportation program


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