Chickening Out

Some details the macroeconomic statistics on immigration can miss

The federal government, in this election year when immigration reform has been (inexplicably) one of the hottest issues, is out to prove it can protect our nation's borders—by invading our nation's chicken processing plants.

A nationwide crackdown on illegal immigrants, dubbed "Operation Return to Sender," is in process (its first wave, according to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, officially concluded in June, but raids continue apace, with, according to this San Francisco Chronicle account, 24,000 arrests and 6,800 deportations this year.

Chicken processing—probably because of the grotesque unpleasantness combined with relatively low wages of it all—tends to attract lots of illegal employees. Thus, two of the most detailed and telling accounts of the real meaning of operations such as Return to Sender to actual Americans (not, please, "America" as an abstract whole) appeared in tales of raids on chicken plants—the grim aftermaths for the captured, and for those left behind.

One, from the Associated Press, tells of the literal decimation of the city of Stillmore, Georgia, (the state as a whole has seen a near doubling in its illegal population since 2000) since its Crider chicken plant was raided, with over 100 workers in a town of around 1,000 population bussed off to Atlanta for deportation, and many other workers and family members literally fleeing to the woods to escape the same fate, some leaving infants behind in other's care. Most of the town's remaining businesses are dying slowly without their customer base.

A similar story ran in the LA Times back in July, about Arkadelphia, Arkansas. It was another tale of chicken processing plants, sudden immigration raids, over a hundred workers dragged away, and subsequent damage to the emotional and economic life of a city. The federal raiders got no cooperation, as the story tells it, from local prosecutors or sheriffs, who understand the local circumstances that make such raids a stupid waste of time that doesn't serve their communities, but disrupts them. Arkansas' Republican Gov. Huckabee even donated a grand to a relief fund set up for families hurt by the raid.

Sympathetic, specific, detailed stories such as the AP one about Stillmore and the LA Times one on Arkadelphia gripe the guts of anti-immigrant bloggers (and doubtless many perfectly normal anti-immigrant citizens as well).

Immigration opponents like to talk (when not talking about violent immigrant criminals, who of course exist, but whose actions and fate have little bearing on what we should do about immigrants only here to work) about abstractions such as the reverence for the law (why victimless crime laws deserve any particular respect is rarely argued, merely asserted), macroeconomic studies showing alleged overall negative effects on the national economy (for all I know, similar studies might say the same about political journalists, and they might well be right), or big-picture lucubration on the glories of a majority-white-European culture that is as doomed as our previous majority-English-German culture was in the 20th century.

But reporting such as these stories about Stillmore and Arkadelphia town bring us down to the experienced realities of immigration policy as they effect the people who actually live with and work with the supposedly damaging immigrants: human connections and relationships—familial, friendly, economic, all equally important in a human community—frayed or destroyed. Why would a legal American such as Stillmore trailer park owner David Robinson hang his flag upside down in solidarity with the "criminals" taken from his trailer park?

Because they were not criminals to him. They were his tenants. And this was (is) his country. I daresay anyone who could happily see the people who support his business, support his family, dragged away in the night for violating a paper statute, not for harming another human being's person or property, would also feel that the world has been turned upside down.

The immigration news cycle is not, alas, over; farmers in Idaho complain about unpicked potatoes because of border crackdowns; the number of border deaths has nearly doubled in the past decade, and not because of an equal known corresponding increase in illegal entries, the GAO reports. National Guard troops sent to beef up the border are driving around drunk and shooting up residential neighborhoods; meanwhile, the deterrent effect of "Operation Jump Start" there on the border doesn't seem to be working. The guest worker idea beloved of George Bush, with some small-scale examples of it already in effect, gets sympathetic press in both the Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times this week. The Times story in particular spells out, perhaps inadvertently, one of the major problems with such an idea: It makes your legal status dependent on an almost serflike relationship with the particular company that sponsors you—the one profiled in the LA Times has "uniformed security guards patrol the compound [where the guest workers live], where alcohol is not allowed."

"We can't lose sight of the fact that these people were here illegally," said Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Marc Raimondi when confronted by the AP reporter over the destruction his organization's efforts brought to Stillmore. But let's lose sight of it, and look at the true fruit of tough immigration law enforcement: plants without workers, children without parents, houses without tenants, stores without customers.

Immigration foes can dream of a land where ne'er is heard a Spanish word, where no flag but the American one flutters in the warm, comforting breeze; where all obey the Law because, dammit, it's the Law. I'll dream of one where no one is dragged away by armed thugs from their job for not keeping their papers in order with the regime. Neither of us is going to see their dream come true, alas; though we are likely to see a lot of wasted effort, wasted tax dollars, wasted wall-building, and wasted lives in the pursuit of that first sour dream.

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