Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Criminalizing Charity

Some xenophobic, anti-immigrant rightwing blowhard Louisiana Republican Legislator from House District 35 (parts of Beauregard and Calcasieu Parishes), Brett Geymann, is attempting to criminalize charity towards undocumented immigrants.

This dude has sponsored three bits of rancid legislation:

HB24 - Creates the crime of harboring an illegal alien. The actual text reads:

A. It shall be unlawful for any person to harbor, conceal, or shelter from detection any illegal alien in any place within the state of Louisiana, including any building or means of transportation, knowing or in reckless disregard of the fact that the illegal alien has come to, entered, or remained in the United States in violation of law.
B. For the purposes of this Section, "illegal alien" means any person who is not a United States citizen, who is physically present in the United States without the legal right to remain in the United States.
C. Nothing in this Section shall be construed so as to prohibit or restrict the provision of any state or local public benefit described in 8 U.S.C. 1621(b), or regulated public health services provided by a private charity using private funds.
D. Whoever commits the crime of unlawfully harboring, concealing, or sheltering an illegal alien shall be fined not more than one thousand dollars, or imprisoned for not more than one year, or both.
What does this potentially mean? That any person who behaves like a Christian and who welcomes, houses, or provides shelter to undocumented migrants can be potentially sent to jail for a year.

The other pieces of legislation are no better:

HB 25 - Provides for verification of citizenship or immigration status upon arrest. Read the text. The title of this Bill is pretty self-explanatory. Local law enforcement officials are being asked to function as Immigration agents.

HB 26 - Unlawful transportation of an illegal alien. The relevant section of this Bill reads:
A. It shall be unlawful for any person to transport, move, or attempt to transport in the state of Louisiana any illegal alien, knowing or in reckless disregard of the fact that the nonresident alien has come to, entered, or remained in the United States in violation of law, in furtherance of the illegal presence of the illegal alien in the United States.
You give your undocumented migrant worker neighbor a ride to the emergency room or the grocery store, you could spend a year in jail. What will the public transportation agencies do?

These pieces of hateful legislation are designed to tackle the undocumented immigration problem by criminalizing good deeds and charity. It jeopardizes the work that so many charitable organizations provide for marginalized and exploited peoples and seeks to criminalize such organizations for their good works. It is not only a completely impractical and wrong-headed way to resolve the issue, it is morally repugnant and wrong.

Right now, these three pieces of horse excrement are assigned to the House Criminal Justice Committee. Let's hope this Committee lives up to the Justice side of its mandate and buries these Bills. In the meantime, any decent and fair minded Louisiana resident who reads this blog should contact his or her Louisiana representative and demand forcefully that they go on record as opposing these bills.

10 comments:

Eric said...

First, I'd offer that this law doesn't cut off all charity from illegal immigrants, it only cuts off certain kins of charity. If you run a soup kitchen, I don't see how this bill is going to get you in trouble for serving a bowl of soup to a hungry undocumented worker.

I don't know what the situation is in Louisiana, but I know when they passed similar legislation here in Oklahoma, it was more directed at farmers and ranchers who were housing large groups of illegal employees. This wasn't charity, it was much closer to indentured servitude.

Since the federal government is apparently never going to do anything constructive regarding our illegal immigration problem, each state is having to decide how to handle their own population of illegals. Unfortunately, about the only thing, so far, that seems to consistantly work is to pass laws that are hostile towards illegal immigrants and the people who enable them. Oklahoma passed a series of such laws last year and we have seen mass self-deportation from the illegal migrant population; to the point that it is negatively effecting our economy.

I actually think this is probably the best solution: let the states work these issues out for themselves. If a certain states want to be particularly kind to their illegal populations, let them. I am satisfied with what my state has done, and only wish the federal government would allow us to replace these workers by implementing a system to bring in more legal workers from Latin America.

Huck said...

Eric - You know, I think you have a point. On this subject, for which I have a very personal interest, I tend to get a bit worked up about. Perhaps my reaction is being a bit overdramatic. I don't think it is out of bounds for states and local authorities to try to deal with the issue in the wake of a perceived federal inactivity or incompetence. But, I have seen the origins of many of these efforts and they almost always stem out of a visceral animosity towards immigrants that borders on xenophobic racism. I tend to believe that this is the case with these pieces of legislation sponsored by this Louisiana congressman. The reason why I think this is that the legislation is written in such sweeping generalized terms that it could very well (and probably is intended to) apply as broadly as possible to cover all activities, even activities by individuals and charities who are just trying to be good neighbors and caretakers of those in their midst who might need assistance. I am sure that my reaction would have been much more tempered had Geymann been more careful and explicit in how he wrote this legislation. There's no reason that he couldn't have written the legislation to address the specific nature of the problem as you identified it (i.e. indentured servitude conditions, etc.) If that was his intention, then I wouldn't oppose it at all, because it's a matter of defending the human rights of such workers; but I'm pretty convinced that his intention wasn't to protect the workers, but to vilify them and punish not only those who would exploit them, but also those who would care for them and advocate on their behalf.

It's that reading of the intent of this legislation that makes my blood boil. And I don't think I'm wrong to read that intention into the legislation.

Eric said...

"I'm pretty convinced that his intention wasn't to protect the workers, but to vilify them and punish not only those who would exploit them, but also those who would care for them and advocate on their behalf."

Lest I make it sound like we passed a workers rights initiative, I believe the set of laws we passed last year was worded almost identically to what you quote above. In some cases, it was even more hostile (we severly restriced the ability of illegal immigrants to obtain government IDs or public assistance, and also granted the police authority to check the immigration status of anyone arrested, and detain them for deportation if they weren't here legally). The intent was absolutely to scare illegal immigrants out of the state, and to discourage citizens from taking actions that would make it easier for them to stay here.

5 years ago I probably would have taken issue with these laws... but 5 years ago I was still thinking the federal government would likely act on securing the border. I no longer believe this to be the case, so the choices were either to do nothing as more illegal immigrants continued to pour into our state from Texas every year, or to support a more heavyhanded approach at the state level. Unfortunately, in order to get people to leave, you have to make it unpleasant for them to stay. Hopefully, as more states take this approach, it will send a message to the federal government saying, "Either you take care of this problem or else we will."

Eric said...

Also, while of course these laws target immigrants, I don't think it is fair to characterize them as xenophobic.

I actually support increased immigration into the US, especially from Latin America, where I think we could stand to use an infusion of some their cultural traits into our society. I also strongly believe that whenever the unemployment rate hovers below 5% for any appreciable length of time, we need to import workers.

I know a lot of people in my local community who feel the exact same way, but also strongly supported the laws we passed last year. Xenophobia had nothing to do with it.

Cynthia said...

jimmy, you are not over-dramatizing the situation. i have to strongly disagree with eric's argument that state by state decisions to criminalize relations with undocumented workers will push the federal government to move in any direction on this issue. i grew up on the border, and worked with migrant farm workers and with immigration policy makers for years. but it doesn't take a genius to recognize that US immigration policy, in all its protectionist rhetoric, actually allows a steady flow of immigrants to enter the country because of corporate lobbyists whose economic interests would be harmed if pat robertson and his protectionist cronies actually won the war on immigration. it's not a coincidence that the lawsuit against tyson chicken a few years ago was the first and only time the government has gone after a corporation for employing undocumented workers, rather than simply criminalizing the workers.

then there's the argument (ala saskia sassen) that the presence of us multinational corporations abroad encourages immigration to the united states. it makes sense, and sassen has shown that the countries that send the highest number of immigrants to the us (i.e., mexico) have the highest number of us manufacturing companies within their own borders.

we can't have it both ways. we're either in favor of globlization, in favor of supporting us corporations and their use of cheap labor abroad and at home, and willing to deal with the consequences of our own country becoming more globalized. OR we become completely protectionist. we can't use mexico as a temp agency when it's convenient for us and then complain about influxes of labor when we decide we don't need it.

this globalization vs. protectionism debate is the real issue that the federal government has been grappling with for centuries, but the lay citizen doesn't understand that this is the heart of the issue. and individual state's attempts to then criminalize workers once they are here seems counteractive to what's really going on at the federal level.

(on xenophobia: any time you use the word "alien" to talk about a human being of foreign descent, it's xenophobia. i also think that protectionist policies that criminalize the movement of human beings from one region of the world to another are inherently xenophobic.)

Eric said...

cynthia,
I think you make some great points here, but I also think you present some false dichotomies. The USA can (and should) embrace a less protectionist economic policy while also demanding more control over who crosses our borders and for what reasons. States can (and should) choose how to deal with their illegal immigrant populations, while also continuing to push the federal government to take action. If this means the states pass measures that are counteractive to the federal government's immigration policy, so be it. If, as you imply, our federal immigration policy is being dictated to us by unelected corporate lobbyists, then having the states combat immigration on their own can only serve to bring this problem into the light (unless, of course, the federal government choses not to counter these state ininitiatives, in which case I foresee many states being succesful in solving the problem on thier own... the horror!)

Regarding xenophobia, I simply disgree with you. I personally think the word 'alien' is distasteful in context to immigration, but a person can certainly use it while harboring no innate fear or hostility towards another culture. As far as your incredible statement that it is xenophobic even to have any kind of enforceable borders... by your definition of the word, every nation, state, group, or person that has ever existed is xenophobic.

Cynthia said...

"States can (and should) choose how to deal with their illegal immigrant populations, while also continuing to push the federal government to take action."

States taking action via laws like the one that started this discussion would mean criminalizing relations with the same workforce within our borders that multinationals "legally" employ in other contexts, right? That makes no sense to me. How do you think these types of laws will pressure the federal government to "take action"? And what do you mean by "take action"? Spend more tax dollars on "protecting the border"? Target corporations that employ undocumented workers? Create a set of standards for who can be let in to our country and who is kept out? Those are all protectionist policies, which takes me back to what I was getting at before: liberal economic policies call for more liberal immigration policies. Anything else would result in business as usual - unethical, contradictory US policies that only support what is favorable to the accumulation of wealth and well-being on OUR side of the border. Didn't we learn anything from NAFTA?

Finally, borders (theoretical borders and physical borders) exist to protect an imagined or defined people or nation from what is unknown or foreign. That is the root of xenophobia. It's not my definition of the word. In fact, conceptualizing borders in this manner is not uncommon.

Eric said...

First, thanks for the thoughtful debate on this topic, both to Cynthia and Huck. Although I disagree with you, it is nice to discuss the subject in a level headed manner with people who actually construct logical arguments.

"States taking action via laws like the one that started this discussion would mean criminalizing relations with the same workforce within our borders that multinationals "legally" employ in other contexts, right? That makes no sense to me."

I don't know what to say here... it makes perfect sense to me. All countries I know of play by the same rules (you have to be a citizen or an invited guest worker to gain legal employment), so the playing field is level. Within America's borders, these workers cannot be legally employed by anyone.

"How do you think these types of laws will pressure the federal government to "take action"?"

Because these types of laws work. Once a bunch of states have cleaned up their illegal immigrant population it will become much more difficult for the federal government to pacify corporate lobbyists by ignoring the problem when a proven solution is sitting in front of them. Eventually the will of the people will trump the power of the lobbying efforts and dollars of a few industries.

"And what do you mean by "take action"? Spend more tax dollars on "protecting the border"? Target corporations that employ undocumented workers? Create a set of standards for who can be let in to our country and who is kept out?"

Yes to all of those, especially the part about enforcing the border.

"Those are all protectionist policies, which takes me back to what I was getting at before: liberal economic policies call for more liberal immigration policies."

To a limited extent I think I agree with you here: I support having the federal government greatly increase legal immigration, both through naturalization (for workers who want to become citizens and qualify for any type of federal government benefits) and guest worker programs (for everybody else). As long as unemployment remains low, I support a lot of immigration, but that isn't the same as completely open borders.

"borders... exist to protect an imagined or defined people or nation from what is unknown or foreign. That is the root of xenophobia."

Fine, but I think we can agree that the word is used in a different context in the immigration debate. You could say it is xenophobic to lock your door in order to keep strangers out of your house, and in a sense you'd be right, but there is no negative connotation when you use it in that sense. In the immigration debate, xenophobic is more like a code word for racist.

Huck said...

Eric - I think what cynthia means when she says that the practice of multinationals hiring workers in other countries for jobs that are outsourced there "makes no sense" is that bringing jobs to other countries so as to take advantage of the cheaper labor there is essentially no different than keeping jobs in the U.S. and hiring the same cheaper labor to fill such jobs here. If it's acceptable to tolerate the practice of outsourcing jobs to hire cheaper foreign labor, why is it not acceptable to do the same thing here? That's what I gather cynthia (and I, too, for that matter) finds contradictory with the willing acceptance among many advocates of neoliberal border-erasing with regard to the flow of goods and services, but not with regard to labor. It just doesn't make much sense to embrace free market capitalism in the context of globalization and not have that apply to labor as well as other factors of production.

Xenophobia may not always have an element of racism attached to it, but any honest observer must recognize that what a good many people do actually fear in the foreign is difference defined by ethnicity and ethnic culture, which smacks of racism (which is more than just skin-color, and also includes habits of thought and cultural practices). Surely you must recognize that many racist "xenophobes" (who exist in abundance) hide their prejudice behind some claim to legalism (i.e. I'm not against them, per se, I only want them to respect the law). My test to determine how deep that conviction goes is to ask what some anti-illegal immigrant proponent would think if the law were such that permitted much more legal immigration of folks from different racial and cultural backgrounds. I'd bet that there are many people who wouldn't be too happy to have more and more Latin Americans flooding into the U.S., even if such flows were legally permitted. You are the rare bird among anti-illegal immigrant folk that would welcome a change in policy that would embrace modifying the law to reflect the realities of labor supply and demand in this country regardless of what that labor looked like. Others aren't so generous, which leads me to think that their opposition is not really about legal status, but something much deeper, much more personal, and much uglier.

Daisy said...

TOO MANY BIG WORDS!