Municipal Government, New York

Reporter’s Notebook: Sometimes It’s Personal

September 6, 2017

By Steve Wishnia

Last week, after I finished covering a rally in Foley Square supporting Teamsters member Eber Garcia Vasquez, a woman asked me what the crowd was about. I said they were protesting that a Guatemalan refugee was facing deportation, even though his wife and kids were American citizens and he was applying for a green card.

“That’s really sad,” she said.

It was. Garcia Vasquez’s wife was sitting in a wheelchair because she’d broken her ankle in a car accident. His two grandchildren were also there, a 10-year-old girl and a four-month-old baby boy. He had been seized while doing a routine check-in at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices.

This isn’t the first such story I’ve written. In March, I covered a protest in the exact same spot, the backside of the building housing ICE’s Manhattan offices, after Colombian refugee Juan Vivarez was detained in similar circumstances. Vivarez, an electrician, worked days while his wife, a SEIU Local 32BJ member, worked nights so they could both take care of their 1-year-old daughter.

It’s not likely to be the last. The Trump administration’s policy is that all of the more than 11 million immigrants here illegally are subject to deportation, even if they have no other criminal record.

Being a reporter requires balancing being analytical and human, getting the facts and nuances of the policy and events right while feeling and showing how and why they affect people. I feel a story like this personally. My Polish-born grandfather, who’d stayed in the U.S. illegally after entering on a tourist visa, was deported to Paris in 1932 when my father was a baby.

He and my grandmother had emigrated there from Warsaw in the 1920s, and he’d been a marroquineur, a leather worker. Fortunately, he was able to return to Brooklyn a few years later, after my grandmother became a U.S. citizen. The Jewish Museum in Paris lists the names of hundreds of Jews known deported after the Nazi conquest of 1940, with their occupations: baker, tailor, marroquineur.

The Nazi reference isn’t too extreme. Guatemala had the worst dictatorship in Latin America in the last century. That’s not an easy title to claim, but it had a worse record of torture and murder than the Argentine, Chilean, and El Salvadoran regimes of the 1970s and 1980s. In the early 1980s, General Efrain Rios Montt’s forces killed an estimated 70,000 people—in a country that then had only 7 million people—and obliterated Mayan villages, torturing and massacring the residents. Eber Garcia Vasquez’s mother was among the victims.

It’s also not too extreme because last month, the President who rants for a crackdown on immigration failed one of the simplest moral tests any American leader can face: When heavily armed neo-Nazis march through a town and one of them kills someone, you condemn it. By name. You don’t put out mealy-mouthed equivocation about “many sides” and how there were “very fine people” among them.

“We have to understand the economic motive,” Angela Fernandez, head of the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights, told me during the rally. Federal law, which mandates that ICE keep at least 30,000 immigrant-detention beds open every day, guarantees private-prison companies a market.

The idea that private prisons are driving mass incarceration is a bit of a leftist conspiracy theory: According to 2015 figures from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, only 7% of state prisoners and 18% of the significantly smaller number of federal prisoners were confined in privately owned facilities. But they have a much bigger role in detaining immigrants. According to ICE figures from 2016, private prisons held nearly three-quarters of federal immigration detainees. Most are held by the two leading companies, GEO Group and CoreCivic.

I can understand the argument that our country can’t absorb an unlimited flow of immigrants, but there’s another overpowering economic motive. The minimum wage in Mexico is 55 cents an hour. Yes, prices are lower there, but it still takes three hours’ work to buy two tacos, a half-liter bottle of water, and two city bus rides. The lowest minimum-wage job on this side of the border pays 13 times as much.

As long as there’s that kind of imbalance, no wall will be high enough to stop people from coming here. And as long as those immigrants can be deported at any time—and don’t have the protection of a union—all an employer has to do to quash workers complaining about wage theft or dangerous conditions are threaten to call ICE.

 

September 6, 2017

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