For a time, most Americans believed theirs to be a liberal democratic republic respectful of individual freedoms, and many including some with authority, behaved as if it were. As long as there was a separation of powers—the federal authority limited by the power of states, while itself divided by across executive, judicial and legislative branches, and big business balanced by government regulation—it was believed that space exists for individual freedom. Where the individual confronted the state, due process would guard against abuse. However plausible as a theory, or even as a description of reality, the United-States-as-a-liberal-democratic-republic notion now appears to be antiquated and tattered.
The decision, by President Obama’s Department of Homeland Security (DHS), to impose the Secure Communities Program on the State of Massachusetts, seriously undermines reasonable sovereignty claims of the states, encourages the practice racial profiling, and erodes individual rights to due process. Of course, it targets immigrants and specifically Latinos. But this is no aberration. Secure communities is cut from the same cloth as the National Defense Authorization Act providing for the indefinite worldwide detention of individuals, or the executive branch assertion that it has the right to kill anyone it deems to be a threat (regardless of their citizenship and without benefit of any judicial process), or the attempt via SOPA/PIPA and now CISPA to make either federal agencies or powerful companies the arbiters of internet content and property claims. If fabricated by a broader more repressive set of legislation and executive actions, Secure Communities is also colored by a harsh, xenophobic dye of anti-immigrant animus. In short, the program electronically connects local law enforcement with the federal government, all arrestees' information is shared, individuals are then subject to the whim of the federal officials and potentially slated for deportation in an expedited process.
So it is that several shameful sheriffs have welcomed the blurring of local and federal powers that the Secure Communities Program entails. Often cited to justify this miserable choice wherein a local arrestee’s biometric data will be routinely collected and transmitted to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcements (ICE), is the infrequent drunk driving arrest of an undocumented person.(1) Writing about the impending extension of Secure Communities to Massachusetts, Maria Sacchetti of the Boston Globe noted that the extension of the program comes after 2 ‘high profile” fatal accidents, one this year and one from last year, involving undocumented individuals. A useful addition to the article would have been data on actual driving fatalities in our state. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s latest data indicates more than 300 Massachusetts traffic fatalities each year for 2009 and 2010.
Clearly then, removing “illegal aliens” will have only a negligible impact of traffic safety. Even if it were significant, Secure Communities, in the cases cited, would only have come into effect after the accidents and not before. Secure Communities would not have prevented those deaths, nor would it have obtained convictions for drunk driving and manslaughter. All the program would have achieved is the deportation of the suspects after their interaction with local law enforcement (regardless of the normal outcome: release without charge, charge, plea deal, trial, verdict, etc.)
But Secure Communities does have a track record based on data from the states in which it was voluntarily implemented. Following litigation to obtain data from ICE regarding the program, the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at UC Berkeley analyzed the record. Their findings give lie to any claims of fairness. Among the examples cited: about 3,600 citizens have been arrested through the program; it has impacted about 88,000 families with US citizens, it disproportionately impacts Latinos who are 93% of the arrestees although only 77% of the undocumented; little over half of those arrested are slated to appear before a judge; less than a quarter of those designated for immigration hearings are represented by an attorney. The data also reveals that ICE does not significantly prioritize “criminal aliens” as against other undocumented individuals caught up in the Secure Communities dragnet. In short, local governments are dragooned into carrying out ICE’s mandates, undocumented individuals are largely without legal representation, and the program has a discriminatory impact… according to ICE’s own data that it tried to hide from public scrutiny.
All of this begs the question, “What is to be done?” One could approach the matter as if it were of concern only to immigrants. Only immigrants as the most directly affected may be forgiven for such a mistake! The short circuiting of due process, the hardwiring of local government into federal structures, the continuing downward pressure on wages that punitive immigration policies impose, all occur in a broader context.(2) It is one that connects immigrants and native-born in a fight back for real human rights and dignity unconstrained by markets and states. With the arrival last year of the #Occupy movement, this country’s vast working class—a large portion of whom self-identifies as “middle class”—may finally be arising from its costly slumber. This past May Day Occupy Wall Street united with the pro-immigrant movement and the labor movement for a large action in New York City. Replicated with respect elsewhere, theirs may be the model for building a democratic republic, even a socially democratic one at that.
However, it is worth noting that ours is a distinctly global moment. Just short hours north of Boston by road, in Montreal, students are rising up in their hundreds of thousands to challenge higher education policies and commercial exploitation of their northern hinterland, across Latin America grassroots movements of young people, mostly notably in the capitalist “success stories” of Chile and Colombia are challenging the rule of capital over their lives. On May 15, when Secure Communities is slated to go into effect in Massachusetts, Europe’s May 15 movement (Democracia Real YA or Real Democracy NOW!) will resurface in massive protests. Nigeria, home to the world’s largest #Occupy movements and Africa’s most populous nation, is being rocked by protests over the cost of living. If the pressure to fight Secure Communities results in campaigns that narrowly target this or that official, we would have missed the moment. If instead, as Sergio Reyes and Dorotea Manuela of Boston May Day Committee regularly remind us, we connect with the global currents, like the Global Day of Action, while taking action on those issues which most impact us, our movement will have begun to discover its power.
In this context, it may be worth recalling the words of the Russian dissident, Yevgeny Yevtushenko: (3)
In every border post
There’s something insecure
Each one of them
Is longing for leaves and for flowers
the greatest punishment for a tree
is to become a border post.
The birds that pause to rest
on border posts
can’t figure out
what kind of tree they’ve landed on
that at first , it was people who invented borders,
and then borders
started to invent people, armies and border guards
(1) Note: the biometric is transmitted even if the detained individual is not convicted, not tried, nor even charged with any criminal act.
(2) It may be worth recalling Tocqueville's classic, Democracy in America in which local self-government is the imagined essence of what made America work. Even where local government had broader mandates from higher levels of government, Tocqueville distinguishes between the mandate (which is obligatory) and the "performance" (which is local); he writes, "Strict as this obligation is, the government of the State imposes it in principle only, and in its performance the township resumes all its independent rights." (Chapter Five). Secure Communities, of course, creates a seamless web of "performance" between different levels of government.
(3) Excerpted from “Fuku: A Poem” in Yevtushenko, Yevgeny, The Collected Poems, 1952-1990, pp.586-87.
Suren Moodliar is a coordinator of Massachusetts Global Action.