Southern 32 seek immigration justice

The New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice on May Day launched a campaign called Stand Up 2012 that calls on the Obama Administration and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to grant amnesty to immigrants facing deportation because they stood up for labor and/or civil rights.

In June, six members of the New Orleans Congress of Day Laborers, an affiliate of the Workers Center, traveled to Washington to press their case for amnesty. The six are part of a group known as the Southern 32, immigrant workers who have been arrested and are facing deportation because they fought for labor and/or civil rights here in the US.

The Southern 32 includes  Josue Diaz. Diaz, an immigrant from Mexico, moved to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to find work helping to clean up and rebuild the city. To facilitate the clean up effort, the US Department of Homeland Security in the aftermath of Katrina had issued a directive suspending employment immigration enforcement in New Orleans.

Like thousands of other immigrants who moved to New Orleans, Diaz found work on New Orleans street corners where he would wait for contractors who needed day laborers.

In 2008, Diaz and a crew of other laborers were picked up by a contractor and taken to Beaumont, Texas where work was underway to clean up the city after it was hit by Hurricane Gustav.

Diaz worked in a neighborhood heavily damaged by flooding. He and other crew members worked in stagnant water and sludge. He noticed that some workers were given masks, gloves, boots, and other safety equipment, but his immigrant compatriots were not.

When he and 11 other immigrant workers demanded the same safety equipment the others had, their boss refused and cut their pay in half.

To get the safety equipment and recover their wages, Diaz and another worker, Melvin Mejia, led a strike of immigrant workers. They were arrested, held in jail, and turned over to ICE, which began the process of deporting them.

Diaz recently won a court victory that postpones his deportation hearing until February 2013, but he and the other Southern 32 still have the threat of deportation hanging over their heads.

This threat would not exist if ICE officials in the South had followed instructions issued more than a year ago by ICE Director John Morton. The instructions told ICE officials to concentrate their efforts on criminals and others who pose a serious threat and specifically stated that ICE staff should ensure that immigrants pursuing justice in labor, housing, and civil rights disputes should be allowed to do so freely.

Those instructions have largely been ignored in the South.

An incident that happened after the instructions were issued is not uncommon. A New Orleans company that specializes in home elevations owed 30 immigrant workers about $100,000 for work on a recently completed project.

The company told the workers to meet in the parking area of the construction site. When the workers gathered expecting to get paid, ICE officers appeared on scene and arrested the workers, who subsequently filed complaints against the company for not paying overtime.

Immigrant rights supporters have criticized the Obama Administration for making gestures that seem to support fair treatment of immigrants, but then failing to make their actions align with the gesture. Recently, Andrew Strait, the ICE Public Advocate in Washington, traveled to New Orleans to meet with ICE officials in the South.

Members of the Southern 32 thought that this visit signaled a turn in direction. Instead, after the meeting, Stait and the ICE officials questioned whether the case of the Southern 32 involved any violation of labor or civil rights.

“This is the first time that immigration officials from Washington have confirmed what we feared was true – the promise made by the Obama Administration of a more moderate deportation policy was exaggerated,” said Saket Soni, Executive Director of the New Orleans Worker Center for Racial Justice. “The campaign to stop the deportations of the Southern 32 has only begun, and we intend to insist that the President ensure his immigration agencies are implementing the good policy announced a year ago.”


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