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The Ugly War on Immigrants

Snatch-and-Jail Justice?



Reading the latest AP report on how American citizens are being snatched up, detained and deported (sic) by the Immigration and Naturalization Service has reminded me just what a f**ked up place this country has become.

Ever since September 11, 2001, the country has simply lost it.

Remember back then, no sooner had the dust settled over Lower Manhattan, than the INS and other police agencies began rounding up thousands of people with Muslam sounding names, or even with non-Muslim sounding names but Muslim-looking faces, and locking them away in federal and county detentenion centers, with no access to lawyers. People who were here on grants of asylum because of political persecution in their home countries were being shipped home to likely torture and death, without any hearings.

Most Americans seemed okay about this.

There has been a “nativist” (sic) resurgence, with people who consider themselves “real” Americans getting hysterical about all the non-white immigrants and descendants of non-white immigrants in this country. (Of course the whole idea of calling such idiocy “nativist” is itself nonsense, since the real natives are the people that we systematically exterminated in the 19th and early 20th century, and that we try to keep confined on reservations.) So it shouldn’t be surprising that besides plenty of immigrants who are here on legitimate grounds being caught up in the government deportation machine, there turn out to be many actual American citizens who are being snatched up and sent to god knows where.

Not that any of this is new.

La Migra, as the agency is known among Latinos, and by people who live south of the border, has never been particularly careful about whom it deports when it comes to those with Hispanic surnames. I remember back in the late 1970s, when I was part of a collective running a spunky little alternative weekly newspaper, the LA Vanguard, in Los Angeles, we had a had a cartoonist, Joseph Billie, who did a comic strip for us called “Taco Rabbit.” Despite his name and surname, neither of which was Hispanic in the least, Joseph was at least half Latino, and looked the part.

Still a teenager, he on at least three separate occasions within only one year’s time, found himself, despite his being a native-born US citizen with only minimal Spanish language skills, snatched off the street by agents of La Migra, who with no hearing would whisk him off to the border at Tijuana and dump him in Mexico. Once there, he would call his father, who would drive down and pick him up. Once Joseph had to call us from Mexico to say he’d be late delivering his strip, because he had been snatched by La Migra.

Joseph’s problem was that he didn’t drive, and so he didn’t carry any ID. That was enough for the INS, which didn’t bother with any legal niceties, like granting the arrestee a phone call—which would have saved Joseph’s dad a long drive down to the border. Joseph, as it turned out, didn’t mind being deported that much. He liked Tijuana, and it was a free ride down, even if the INS guys could get a little rough putting him on the bus.

But that was then. Now things are much worse. Lawyers who have tried to defend some of the victims of INS roundups report that many detainees are subjected to what can only be termed torture—things like having themselves slammed into walls or pushed down stairs while arms and legs are manacled, having their teeth smashed out, being left outside in cold rain or blazing sun, kept from sleeping for days at a time. Sound like Guantanamo or Bagram? In fact, there is little difference.

But I really cannot think of anything much worse than being a US citizen, or a legitimate Green Card holder, and being snatched away from family and friends and job and, after being held incommunicado in some stinking cell, shipped off to some country to which I did not belong, and where I might not even be able to communicate.

The AP report quotes immigrant rights groups as saying that the erroneous arrest, detention and deportation of US citizens has been soaring, with one group saying that documented cases have gone from 129 in 2006 to 322 in 2007. But the numbers are going to really soar, because in addition to the INS, increasingly local police agencies are getting into the act. Last year over 950 law enforcement officers from 23 states attended brief training sessions run by the INS to learn about picking up and detaining alleged illegal aliens.

Not so surprisingly, an appalling one in 10 Hispanic Americans reported in 2007 that they had been stopped by law enforcement and asked to prove that they were citizens or were in this country legally.

Ahem. Those kinds of numbers are the description of a police state, folks.

There is a simple solution to this problem. It’s in the Constitution, actually. It is the Bill of Rights protection against “unreasonable searches and seizures (Fourth Amendment), and against arrest “without due process of law” (the Fifth Amendment), as well as the right to “a speedy and public trial” and to “assisstance of counsel” (The Sixth Amendment).

People really flipped out after 9-11, and many still think it’s okay to treat “furriners” differently than we treat our own citizens, but aside from the fact that the US Constitution doesn’t distinguish between citizen and tourist or illegal resident, the growing number of arrests, detentions and even deportations of American citizens by the IRS shows what can happen when we start saying that some people don’t deserve the protections afforded by that document.

In the end, any one of us could end up in an INS hellhole with no access to a phone.

Dave Lindorff is a Philadelphia-based journalist and columnist. His latest book is The Case for Impeachment (St. Martin’s Press, 2006 and now available in paperback). He can be reached at

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