There have been a couple of protests or rallies in the city that I’ve noticed this spring. I’ve encountered one of the groups twice. The first time I went to the City Council Meeting to cover the anti-discrimination ordinance I met this unexpected group outside. Their concern was 286g which is a federal program that Knox County Sheriff Jones has asked to join. It incorporates local law enforcement into national immigration enforcement.
So a pretty good contingent showed up to protest the implementation of the plan in Knox County. One person had signed up to speak to city council. It seemed a little misguided: Their issue is a county issue, not a city issue. After allowing the representative his time, the council made it clear they are not entertaining anything similar to the county initiative.
The next time I ran into the group was in Krutch Park in a rally sponsored by the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition. This time there was a much larger group of probably two hundred or more and the event was much more organized. Television stations were present, a band was hired and speakers were listed on an agenda. Colorful signs were on display and the rush that only comes from righteous solidarity was in the air.
One of the things that struck me as I stood among the crowd, many of whom graciously allowed me to take their photograph, was how similar the people in this crowd are in so many ways to the very people who most rabidly want to stop immigration and remove immigrants from this country. I saw shirts that opposed abortion, a sentiment with which many conservatives in this country would agree. I saw Upward Basketball shirts on young children – a Christian sports program in which many of my conservative friends’ children participate.
Not many people question the work ethic of migrant workers and many other immigrants determined to make it in this country. So we have hard working, Christian, politically conservative potential citizens being targeted for removal by hard working. Christian, politically conservative citizens. Fascinating. You would think the groups would be staunch allies.
The participants spoke alternately in Spanish and English and most of those gathered appeared to be Hispanic. From the pieces I gathered, there were stories of families disrupted and afraid, deportations and particularly, racial profiling, which seems to be the major concern. Given limited training and a wider enforcement dictate the potential for abuse or at least mis-application of powers increases.
When related articles were published in the Knoxville News Sentinel, one prevailing line of logic was that if people came here legally they would have nothing to fear. It sounds logical on its face, but of course it includes a number of assumptions which may not be true. I’m no immigration expert, but I do think a bit about these things and here are some of the problems at least to my way of thinking with this effort and with current immigration law.
First of all, the question of legal immigration. Why not simply relocate legally? Do the paperwork and file it appropriately, wait a bit and voila, enter the U.S. of A. with your papers. Sounds good. U.S. citizens have become so accustomed to traveling any place any time without question that we assume it is just as easy for someone to enter our country as it is for us to leave for awhile. It’s not necessarily so.
My understanding is that 700,000 legal immigrants are allowed to enter the U.S. each year. About 100,000 of those are from Mexico. Of these most are allowed for purposes of family reunification and very few are allowed to immigrate in order to work. So, why don’t they just stay home, you ask?
It’s probably much more complicated than I understand, but there are several parts of the answer to that question that seem obvious to a casual observer. For example, when an imaginary line separates a person in a depressed economy from one that offers far greater opportunity, why not cross it? Even if it involves some risk. If my family was hungry I’d be willing to take some risk, wouldn’t you?
There is also the factor of the relative lawlessness due to drug cartels in some parts of Mexico. Again, if my family was at extreme risk of suffering violence I would be willing to take some risks. Pretty big risks. What other choice would I have? I can’t imagine that some of the people who cross feel similarly. So why don’t these people clean up their own backyard and make the country safe for themselves and leave us alone?
Again, complicated. For starters, if Knoxville suddenly had an epidemic of horrendous murders which seemed likely to continue into the foreseeable future would I alone be able to stop it? No, I’d likely take my family to a safer place. But on this issue, I think there is more. I think the responsibility of the U.S. government and citizenry is inescapable.
Our drug laws, combined our insatiable appetite for the very drugs we ban create an incredibly lucrative black market. Billions of dollars are at stake and when that kind of money is involved, it won’t be left lying around to be claimed by street-level riffraff. Organizations will develop to claim the money for themselves.
According to a 2008 survey, over 42% of Americans report having used marijuana. Even with our stringent drug laws we are over twice as likely to smoke marijuana as people in the Netherlands which has the most lenient laws. So, how do we get the marijuana we are so prodigiously smoking? Illegally from a number of countries and domestically, but 90% of all illegal drugs imported into the U.S. come through or from Mexico.
We also have a thriving and increasingly private prison industry in this country. We imprison a larger percentage of our population than any other country in the world. While our population represents about five percent of the world’s population our prisoners account for about 25% of all those incarcerated world-wide. Much of this is due to our drug laws.
Increasingly private corporations are building prisons to be run via contract with the government. Companies such as the Corrections Corporation of America are aggressively marketing their services to local and federal governments. As this business builds prisons wouldn’t it be crucial to their success to have those prisons filled? Of course, it would be necessary. So who do you think lobbies for ever more intense enforcement of immigration laws? That’s right, the same companies that financially benefit from high incarceration rates.
So, it’s complicated. We can’t honestly pretend that it’s “those people.” It is also us. It is our demand for cheap labor. It’s our drug laws and enforcement policies as well as our own personal usage. It’s abrogating our rehabilitation responsibilities to for-profit private concerns. If marijuana became legal today and emphasis on other drug enforcement turned from incarceration to rehabilitation. If private prisons were not allowed and the U.S. allowed reasonable numbers of workers from Mexico to enter the U.S. legally, what would happen? I think a manufactured crisis would ease. I also think violence from drug cartels in Mexico would plummet as profits disappear.
If these things happened, perhaps Mexico’s economy would improve. Maybe as many people wouldn’t feel compelled to cross the border at all. Maybe immigration wouldn’t be as major an issue and would cease to be used by politicians to create an environment of fear to further their own agenda.
Locally, it is fascinating to me that Sheriff Jones feels this is an important point of emphasis while other issues seem to be much more pressing. Does Knoxville have a problem with illegal citizens? Not that I’ve noticed. If it’s not obvious, then what are we responding to? Sheriff Jones seems to think this is his best point of emphasis, yet he ignored requests from local groups to meet with them to discuss the issues, primary among them how this new enforcement effort will be approached. Will having brown skin make a person suspect? If not, why not meet with the groups to allay those concerns?
So, we have protests and rallies. I’m heartened to see people with a concern raising their collective voices. As a group I think Americans have become passive. We don’t rally, we don’t protest, many of us don’t even bother to vote. That doesn’t stop us from posting ignorant views on Facebook and complaining about the “government.” Maybe all the more outspoken political movements from the Tea Party to the Occupy Wall Street movement to local protests and rallies signal a coming era of involvement in our government. I hope so.