Public Comment

Commentary: City Considers Proposals to Counter Immigration Raids

By Margot Pepper
Friday May 18, 2007

Following two months of community pressure, the Berkeley City Council is considering strengthening Berkeley’s 1986 status as a City of Refuge for immigrants. Two competing measures, both of which would direct city staff to expend no funds nor staff time in aiding Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), will be on the City Council agenda Tuesday, May 22. Last week, the Peace and Justice Commission passed a proposal for a San Francisco-style ordinance that would also require the city manager to notify the public whenever ICE asks for assistance. City Council members Kriss Worthington and Dona Spring will be introducing this ordinance. And Mayor Tom Bates is weighing in with a resolution offering language similar to San Francisco’s ordinance, minus the enforcement provisions and durability, since unlike the other proposal, it would not be adopted as part of the city’s municipal code.  

Community organizations led by parents and teachers are calling for a community rally on the front steps of the City Council Chambers in support of Berkeley’s defense of immigrant rights. Second-grade students from Rosa Parks will offer moving poetry testimonies about their deported classmate, Gerardo Espinoza, a 7-year-old U.S. citizen. The tragic deportation of Gerardo and his older brothers Felipe and José, both attending Berkeley public schools, fostered an outcry of community support. 

Last month, a diverse crowd of teachers, labor activists, parents and city officials packed the Rosa Parks multi-purpose room at a teach-in to inform immigrants of their legal rights. The event, largely organized by Berkeley Organizing Congregations for Action (BOCA) with the help of the LeConte PTA, Berkeley Federation of Teachers (BFT) and the Rosa Parks Collaborative among others, was entitled, “Know Your Rights to Melt the ICE; dispelling myths and fears.” In a courageous statement, Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) Superintendent Michele Lawrence lamented the tragic deportation of Rosa Parks’ student Gerardo and his brothers and said regarding any ICE’s laws requiring the violation of confidentiality between BUSD and families, “I would resign rather than break those confidences to Imigration.” Pressure from the organizers and public culminated in consideration of the current City of Refuge proposals. 

But critics of immigration reform argue that sanctuary proposals send the wrong message to immigrants who, they argue, are responsible for eroding citizens’ living standards. They say what’s needed is the opposite: stiffer penalties and stronger barriers. A Public Policy Institute of California report (Feb. 27) by University of California, Davis, economist Giovanni Peri shows that actually the opposite is true.  

“During 1990-2004, immigration induced a 4 percent real wage increase for the average native worker. An increase in the number of immigrants evidently increases the demand for tasks performed by native workers and raises their wages.” 

“Between 1990 and 2004, as the percentage of immigrants in California’s labor force rose, immigration helped boost natives’ wages as much as 7 percent, even giving a tiny bump to native high school dropouts,” reports Kristin Bender in the Oakland Tribune, (2/28/07) “A well-organized program that allows some legal way for less-educated workers to work in the United States will benefit the rest of American workers,” Giovanni concludes. 

U.S. workers are not the biggest winners in the “immigrant sweeps-takes” —or at least in one game which is driving immigrants northward: the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA.) A little known fact is stricter immigration policies, such as Operation Return to Sender, are products of NAFTA—a trade policy which is primarily enriching only a tiny sector. 

Thanks to protectionist measures like NAFTA, over an eight year period, “Resource transfers from the poor to the rich amounted to more than $400 billion,” reported Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Noam Chomsky in The Nation (“Notes on NAFTA.”) “The World Bank reports that protectionist measures of the industrialized countries reduce national income in the South by about twice the amount of official aid to the region—aid that is itself largely export promotion,” Chomsky states.  

In Mexico, “Poverty has risen by over 50 percent during the first four years of NAFTA and wages in the manufacturing sector have declined,” reports the Data Center.  

A 2004 report published by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Ways and Means states that “At least 1.5 million Mexican farmers lost their livelihoods to NAFTA.” The situation is only expected to worsen in 2008 when Mexico is required to comply with a NAFTA deadline to totally eliminate its corn and bean import tariffs. Many policy experts predicted that farmers displaced by NAFTA would migrate to the United States.  

Indeed, a comparison of U.S. censuses of 1990 and 2000 shows “the number of Mexican-born residents in the United States increased by more than 80 percent,” states Jeff Faux in “How NAFTA Failed Mexico,” The American Prospect (July 3, 2003.) “Some half-million Mexicans come to the United States every year; roughly 60 percent of them are undocumented. The massive investments in both border guards and detection equipment have not diminished the migrant flow; they have just made it more dangerous. More than 1,600 Mexican migrants have died on the journey to the north.” 

While NAFTA is responsible for the latest “migration hump,” it is not the sole culprit. Practices by bodies like the World Trade Organization, “along with the programs dictated by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, have helped double the gap between rich and poor countries since 1960,” reports Noam Chomsky in The Nation. The ensuing foreign debt deprives these countries from accumulating capital to develop competitive industries and has lead to mass migration northward. 

After NAFTA was passed by Congress in 1992, “the agreement raised concerns in the United States about immigration from south of the border,” according to “NAFTA, The Patriot Act and the New Immigration Backlash” by the American Anthropological Association. To counter the predicted influx of Latin Americans, President Bill Clinton signed The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. “The 1996 Welfare Reform bill included anti-immigrant and other measures that eliminated many social services for undocumented immigrants,” the report states. The current ICE raids are a result of these long term policies.  

According to the Contra Costa Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, thousands of people have been detained in the Bay Area since the beginning of Operation Return to Sender, a campaign that has resulted in over 18,000 arrests nationwide and the deportation of 800 immigrants in Northern California cities alone. Over 58 sanctuary city initiatives have been promulgated in 21 states across the country. These cities include: Richmond, San Francisco, San Jose and East Palo Alto, and most recently, Oakland. 

Berkeley’s stance condemning these raids, if approved, would be a statement that families like Berkeley’s beloved Espinozas should not be forced to suffer tragic separations or deportations because of our nation’s trade policies. And in fact, a move offering more protection to immigrants residing in Berkeley would comply the Federal government’s request to “Return To Sender,” since the “Sender,” or source of the problem lies on U.S. soil. 


For more information about the rally, contact BOCA at 665-5821.  


Margot Pepper is a journalist and author whose work has been published internationally by Utne Reader, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, City Lights, Monthly Review, Hampton Brown and others. Her memoir, Through the Wall: A Year in Havana, was a top nomination for the 2006 American Book Award.