As I wrote about Greece in Trucks here, a crusade against immigrants is the foundation stone of reactionary administrations, the nearest appeal to recruit political support, the most obvious form of criminality. Parliamentary democracies are, in fact, by and large dictatorships over what John Rawls calls the least advantaged, i.e. groups that are racially subordinated, particularly illegal immigrants,, and the poorer elements of the “white” or majority working class. Let us look at measures now being visited on those who come to comparatively economically developed countries to avoid starvation and provide some help to their families at home like the tall African I saw two weeks ago in Athens, perhaps a leader of his village, moving among the tables at outdoor restaurants in the Plaka, trying to sell carved wooden elephants and other animals to people who often ignored him, avoiding owners or waiters who occasionally harassed him…
The Berlusconi government in Italy embraces the fascist Northern League. Last week, the Interior Minister Roberto Maroni of the League had a triumph. By a vote of 157 to 124, the Senate passed a draconian law against migrants from Africa and Roma. More exaggeratedly even than other racist regimes, the Italian government has been hunting the Roma. In Granada, Spain where I taught four years ago, the Roma lived in encampments outside the city. They can get no work, they are not mentioned in “polite” society, they are sometimes thieves in order to survive. Even more intensely – how near fascism is to the ordinary - the Italian government makes them scapegoats. Italy like all other capitalist nations depends on a large immigrant work force, perhaps 10% of the population and far more of the ordinary work force, whom it can exploit even more harshly than citizens, since immigrants have no rights. It can then try to persuade citizens to attack immigrants rather than join with them in a democratic movement. That is the point of the massive displays of racism in soccer, for instance, the Italian player on a reactionary team Lazio who did the Mussolini salute, to the fans. See Soccer and the threat of fascism here. There is a rivalry between this team and Roma, representing decency, my student Michal McCoy has informed me, just as in Spain, there is a rivalry between Real Madrid – Royal Madrid, historically the best team, once sponsored by Franco – and Catalan-speaking Barcelona). Even in more peaceful times, the fascist sentiments nurtured at soccer games are inscribed on the bodies of immigrants.
But this new Italian law criminalizes immigration and calls for “citizen” patrols, mandated by the Berlusconi regime. The Northern League has set up a so-called Italian National Guard, wearing beige uniforms, sporting blacks hats, modeled on Mussolini’s troops (or “storm troopers” as the Sturmabteilung was called in Germany). This law licenses them to hunt for immigrants. It is as if during the civil rights movement, the Congress of the United States had approved the KKK as an “American National Guard” to hunt for freedom riders. Smilingly, Maroni says, this National Guard will not be “allowed” to mount street patrols. Since he organized them for that purpose, it is unlikely that he intends to stop them. This “Guard” already lurks, and this “law” is wind at their backs, license to kill…
The Italian law also levies heavy fines on captured people, 5-10,000 euros ($7,500-$15,000). It is difficult to be an immigrant selling umbrellas or goods at the margin, rousted by police, or employed for lower pay, under more dangerous conditions than Italian citizens in factories. You are occasionally spat on by foreman, you must remain in the shadows; the law reaches out unexpectedly to grab you and now “citizen” – that is Mussolini patrols - hunt for you as you shop, while you are away from your children, perhaps even as you sleep. The hope immigrants feel in a new country – often, at the slightest gesture of decency as we in America, that nation of immigrants, know, a fierce loyalty - is complemented by the reality of constant, gnawing fear. If you are not arrested or beaten by the “National Guard,” you will be subjected to debt enslavement. Will the Berlusconi government deport you or just keep you in debtor’s prison, demanding “their” money? The Italian law also introduces a new policy for asylum seekers: sending boatloads of immigrants to Libya where they must then appeal for possible admission many years hence.
In Israel, the government now follows the Bush or IMF policy (the so-called third world has now been brought home to the economically advanced countries) – it has “privatized” many check points. The occupied territories are divided between luxurious settlements and desolate refugee camps, crisscrossed with paths on which Palestinians go through checkpoints with many hours of delay in contrast to highways on which only Israelis are allowed to roar through to Israel. It is rightly named apartheid by columnists in Haaretz (there is some freedom of speech in Israel) and even by former President Carter. To work or go to school as a Palestinian, even children must pass through the check points. In the New York Times Sunday Magazine, a year ago, an Isreali officer who had searched a 10 year old boy at a check point said. “We are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. If we search him, he hates us. If we don’t search him, he might be a suicide bomber.” The officer searched. There have been of course few suicide bombers in the last year, but many innocents have been killed by the Israeli army in Gaza (for instance, in December and January, some 400 Palestinian children as opposed to one Israeli child, murdered by a Hamas rocket). Perhaps ordinary Israelis might think: if we got out of the occupied territories, if we gave the highways to the Palestinians, if we reached a decent settlement, perhaps there would not be the desperation of children against us, perhaps there would be no more threat of suicide bombing. That thought might lead to the further insight that ordinary Jews have common interests with the Palestinians against the occupation and against the Israeli government – what I name democratic internationalism in Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy? (as my friend Ilene Cohen who is in Israel writes, however, the movement of many Israelis to the right, reflected in racist disparaging of Obama in the press, perhaps a kind of death-wish, is frightening).
Now guards from private companies confiscate the meager lunches that Palestinians bring who work in Israel. They force Palestianians, who slave long hours, having risked their lives to cross each time at the checkpoint, having been looked at least as dangerous by these border guards who “stand small” (this is the quip of my friend George Downs), and had their food seized, to buy food, when they get too hungry, from Israeli companies. It is a game these companies play with the “security” firms; they can prey even further on the meager wages of Palestinians who can work in Israel but are not allowed to feed themselves. But the Isreali “Defense” Forces announce that at their checkpoints, of course, the Palestinians may bring their food through. Perhaps there is an analogy between the ordinary murders of the US army at checkpoints manned by two soldiers in Iraq from 2003-2006 – that car that will not stop when you shout “stop” in English; does it contain the enemy or a family? - and the September, 2007 murder by Blackwater of 17 civilians in Nissour Square in Baghdad.. Even the American-client Al-Maliki government in Iraq demanded that Blackwater leave. In fact, privatization of soldiering is much more expensive and much more harmful, often criminal, than ordinary government action (as the travesty of the American “health” system reveals, perhaps it is always). Of course, Blackwater has renamed itself Xe (pronounced Z)…
During the Bush administration, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raids – raids by the government to seize and deport immigrants who were working at factories in the United States, to intimidate the vast number, some 11 or 12 million, on which American capitalism depends – became a major phenomenon. So did border patrols of reactionary citizens, very like the Italian National Guard, promoted by talk show bigots like Glenn Beck and Michael Savage, and Republicans, led by Tom Tancredo. At its economic zenith, the Bush period was characterized by a redistribution of money from the bottom 90% of the population to the top 1/10 of 1%; then came financial collapse and the new depression with official unemployment statistics this month at 9.5% and the real unemployment rate – including those who have ceased looking for work, those who have part-time jobs but would take fulltime jobs in a heartbeat – nearing 20% (the rate in the Great Depression was roughly 30%). Does anyone see a connection between the wall with Mexico to keep out immigrants – the last gasp of the Republican Party, along with hating gays and preventing abortion its only thoughts, designed to keep “those Arab bombers” out – and the abandonment of regulation on financial speculation? Here too, the elite sadly needed citizens to identify with them, to strike out against immigrants. “Whiteness” is alive in America.
Since 2003, 91 people have died in ICE custody (Ice has earned its name). That is a figure that rivals the Pentagon’s 100 who were murdered in secret American prisons in what was then called “the War on Terror” (the Obama administration has marvelously dropped this term and stopped much of the torture/murder).
What crimes did these 91 immigrants commit? Looking for work to feed their families, putting up with misery? Among the 91 were longtime permanent residents of the United States of America (a legal status which does not ensure protection of the law, if you are brown). If an immigrant has “overstayed a visa” by a few months, she can be jailed with criminals, shackled, and then after months or years, deported. Currently, ICE has 31,000 in prison. Many are held in county jails with limited visitation (at best), no exercise, and abuse. Last week, a federal judge in New York ruled that the Department of Homeland Security’s 2 and 1/2 year delay in responding to a petition to create regulations was “unreasonable as a matter of law.” And the privatized immigration prisons, as in Israel, are worse.
Last year on December 12, ICE raided the huge Conagra meatpacking plants in Greeley and deported over a hundred people. In Mexico, December 12 is the day of the Virgin of Guadalupe. It is the Mexican Christmas. Families had been preparing to celebrate. Some children are still living with friends, their parents deported. Deported workers are not allowed to return legally for 10 years. This system of exploitation creates ever renewed personal tragedies.
Obama has now cancelled the raids - American democracy has changed - but the administration is still putting pressure on companies to not hire immigrants. A year ago, 75,000 immigrants and others including me went to a May Day march at the State Capitol in Denver protesting these policies and announcing, out of the shadows, their humanity. Half a million demonstrated in San Antonio. A big anti-Iraq war rally in Denver was 4,000; this was a display of citizenship, of petitioning about genuine grievances and for decent treatment 16 times as large. To go to that rally, to talk with the workers, mainly young, who soon got over their shyness since they were standing up, was a wonderful exercise in democracy.
The Bush administration answered with ICE.
Last night Lilly, a friend of my daughter Whitney, who majors in Chicano Studies at Metropolitan State College in Denver, described the visit of an ICE officer to her program. He was talking about the raid at Greeley. Someone asked him if he knew what December 12 was in Mexico. He hadn’t the slightest idea.
As Lilly said, we are becoming a multi-racial, bilingual culture. That is the future for democracy here, and for democracy in Europe. But the dark shadow of fascism lies today on the children, whose parents were arrested in Greeley. One does not have to believe in the Virgin of Guadalupe to understand that the earth itself cries out against a government and a society which does such things.