Repression Against NAFTA's Refugees

Dave Onion & Lillian Goodman

Last month, in Shenandoah, PA, just a couple hours drive from Philly, an all white jury dismissed murder charges against 4 white high school students accused of killing Luis Ramirez. Last July, Ramirez, a young Mexican living in Shenandoah, had been waiting to meet up with his fiancée and sister when four football players from the local high school picked a fight, interspersing racist epithets with punches and kicks. The four took turns beating Ramirez. Once Ramirez was beaten to the ground, a final kick cracked his skull. He died in the hospital the next day from the injuries.



Luis Ramirez moments shortly before his death

In contrast with Ramirez' brutal treatment, his killers were handled with velvet gloves. Not only did the police wait 13 days before arresting the 4 racist teenagers (in a town of hardly 5000), but they received almost unimaginable support from locals and were then released with simple assault and some charges related to underage drinking. Though some mobilized to show support for immigrants now under increased attack in the Shenandoah area, the incident also sprung a groundswell of unrestrained racism among locals. In many cases seemingly influenced by an articulate presence of organized white supremacists.

Without a doubt, some marginal groups like the Keystone State Skinheads (now Keystone United), and other white supremacists, are making noticeable efforts to tone down their thug identities to connect with more mainstream racist organizations like the police or the Minutemen.1 The election of Barack Obama seems to have given some of these groups a good deal of additional fuel, with a serious increase in white supremacist organizing lately, and an influx of very open racism increasingly directed towards African Americans and other non-immigrant minorities.

As ethnic tension and racism rises, and murderers are set free, the immigrant population continues to grow. According to some, North America is experiencing the largest migration of people in recorded history. Up until recently, approximately 1 million people cross the US-Mexico border through the southwest desert of what is now called Arizona each year. Much of this can be attributed to the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a trade agreement between the governments of Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. NAFTA has served to destroy environmental standards, labor standards, tariffs on trade and many social gains that were fought for by social movements to protect working people from capitalism's excesses. At the same time, NAFTA protects intellectual property rights, and ensures that commodities sold by corporations can move across borders as easily and profitably as possible.

One of the most broadly felt effects of NAFTA in Mexico has been the decrease in the price of corn. Since NAFTA was signed in 1994, Mexican corn has had to compete on the market with U.S. corn sold at prices cheaper than it is possible to even produce because of U.S. government subsidy. While the corn prices decreased, the price of tortillas made of that corn more than doubled. Corn is a primary staple in Mexico and some use a phrase "sin maiz, no hay pais" (without corn there is no country). Free Trade has aggressively dismantled many parts of Mexico's domestic economy while the US has prospered. One migrant, while testifying in court in the US after being apprehended by border patrol, explained that he could earn more money working for one day in the U.S. than he could earn in one month back home in Mexico. The choice seems clear. Or rather, the absence of choice. Locally, the killers of Luis Ramirez are set free despite the crime they committed, internationally NAFTA is killing the domestic economy of Mexico and creating millions of economic NAFTA refugees who to survive in a cut throat economy need to follow the capital.

But in the midst of the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, the land of opportunity is not as plentiful. In fact, many immigrants currently working in the U.S. or coming in search of work will return to Mexico in the face of a shrinking economy. Some predict that up to 3 million people will return to Mexico in the first half of 2009. Although up to 35 million people in Mexico rely on remittances (money sent home from workers in the US), that amount of money is down by $1 billion since 2008. The challenge that is faced at home is the same as in the The Mexican government promised job creation under the Calderon administration, however the growth rate has been 0. Without opportunities in the US or Mexico, the consequences felt by these workers and their families are undeniable.

But while Luis Ramirez' death made headlines and made hearts sink, and while some are still riding on a hopeful high from Obama's victory in D.C., it's crucial to remember that the most far reaching acts of violence still emanate from the nation's capitol. In the last few months especially, the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) has shown no signs of post-racial policy changes when it comes to immigration. Instead, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano has upped pressure on employers hiring undocumented immigrants with a new series of fines and charges for employers. This along with the Labor department's suspension of Bush's guest worker program could be creating a whole new level of legal hell for immigrants in the U.S.

The integral role that undocumented labor has in the domestic US economy is undeniable. Meat packing plants in the midwest advertise employment opportunities in Mexico. As of 2006, undocumented workers made up 58% of the agricultural labor force (Fernandez, 2007). The film, "A Day Without A Mexican" highlights life in southern California without 1/3 of the population who are Mexican or Chicano. Despite the satirical tone, this film speaks to larger issues that are often denied attention. That the business elite and the enfranchised population of the US rely heavily on workers who are much more vulnerable to being exploited.

Changes in the PPD and Ramsey's role

Up until recently, Philly was a relatively safe place for an immigrant without papers. Though not an official "Sanctuary City"2, Philly ran under a "policy of non-inquiry" which meant if stopped by police or arrested, Immigration would only be notified at the arrestees' request, or if federally mandated. A May 2001 Philadelphia Police department memo specifically instructed police to lay off informing Immigration unless asked specifically to by Feds. A 2003 City Council Resolution introduced by Councilperson Ortiz made a point to refresh that directive in the post September 11th climate, a direct affront to the Patriot Act. That all seemed to change with the arrival of the Nutter administration. Ramsey's appointment as police chief roughly coincides with the PPD and ICE quietly linking their computer networks last July, a discovery that turned up to the surprise of lawyers during a recent immigration case. According to local immigrant advocates, there has been a marked increase in immigration arrests ending in deportation hearings initiated by the non ICE cops since last summer.

Simultaneously, the Obama administration has also chosen to escalate state pressure on immigrants. Currently a program introduced originally by the Bush administration, linking databases at local jails to federal immigration databases, is being expanded by the Obama administration. Through this program, local police forces become an extension of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. If the person arrested is deportable for any reason, they can be turned over to ICE without ever being released from custody.

On the streets, this translates into almost random disappearances. One can be pulled over driving to work, or taken in any reason from driving a sketchy vehicle, to being involved in a fight. Before any criminal charges or arrest record is entered into the computer, the person is run through the ICE database as part of the routine harassment. If they're tagged with something as banal as having their visa expire, police hold them until ICE picks them up. At this point the person enters an ambiguous legal limbo with hardly any recourse. Supporters, family, and lawyers have less access or power. If a concerned friend calls the station to see if they've been picked up, in the worst cases the person will have never been even entered into the system. Some ICE detainees have spent months trapped in detention centers before they were able to connect to friends on the outside.

A fearful and vulnerable population of workers is of course always good for business, as it is when racial divides create situations in which workers can't organize effectively. When Bush disappointed his own largely anti-immigrant base by issuing guest worker permits, allowing immigrants to cross the border to do agricultural work most US citizens find unsavory (or too much effort), he was pragmatically putting his business and class allegiances into practice; maintaining uncomfortable and legally precarious situations for immigrants while allowing businesses to squeeze the most they can out of workers. With the current flight of economic refugees back south across the borders, fines against business can have less of an effect while appeasing a racist anti-immigration movement.

The pressure has been felt locally as well with a number of raids on immigrant communities.

One raid last August seemed directly orchestrated by ABM Industries, a janitorial service for a King of Prussia office park. Workers where told to come in for a mandatory training. Not showing up meant they wouldn't receive their paycheck. When they did show, the ABM managers left the room, only to have ICE agents come in and detain 42 workers, nearly the entire workforce. That is, with the exception of white employees who, without any check on their identity were allowed to leave. The rest where held for immigration hearings.

Of course there has been some organizing for immigrants well being as well. 2006's Mayday protests, among the biggest such protests in the United States, sowed some ground for more work. Philly has a wide range of organizing around immigrant justice across this city. Groups representing a variety of tactics from legal advocates, legislative advocacy, social services and community organizing are all prominent. JUNTOS Casa de los Soles is based in South Philly as a membership organization of Mexican and Latino immigrants working to build power for justice in Philadelphia and in their home countries.( HIAS and Council Migration Service offers legal services for asylum seekers and domestic violence survivors, children and families.( Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition is a diverse group that brings together professionals, advocates and immigrant groups of different backgrounds to share information and resources, identify common problems, and advocate for solutions. ( Open Borders Project (Proecto Sin Fronteras) provides adult education and technical training services to immigrant and non-immigrant Latino residents of Open Borders Project provides adult education and technical training services to immigrant and non-immigrant Latino residents of Philadelphia. ( Villanova and UPenn Law Clinics provide immigration legal services as well as Community Legal Services. ( New Sanctuary Movement is a coalition of different faith based communities working together address the injustices faced by the immigrant community of Philadelphia. This list only represents a few of the many organizations in Philly working and organizing around immigration.

For those of us who are immigrants or inclined to stand beside immigrants, the situation may seem bleak. Luis Ramirez' murder could be read as a deadly serious indicator of what it means to live precariously, at risk, to experience an economy that will expel you from your home, the place you live, and then keep you under a gun, in detention centers, or facing violence from other working people. But we're also in a time where many givens are being put into question. While the neocons, and the Republican party in general, are staggering from some serious blows, and alternatives to neoliberalism, such as Keynesianism and socialism, are being talked about seriously, radicals should be contributing even reformist measures to the dialogue and expand the parameters of the conversation over immigration, mandating global maximum and minimum wages for example. And of course, always be articulate and practical in our solidarity. Supporting undocumented workers in their struggles is just the beginning.


1.In KSS' case, the nazi organization made a very public effort last year to cozy up to white supremacists in the Phila PD. Ironically they were simultaneously being infiltrated by the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force and peppered with snitches internally./ This information which surfaced in discovery after local anti-racist activists were arrested picking a fight with cops and FBI agents wearing nazi garb at a falsely advertised KKK rally in Love Park last year ).

2. A number of cities decided to not cooperate with immigration authorities seeking to deport refugees of the US sponsored or led wars in Latin America