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The New Immigration Nightmare : Widespread Abuse May Attend Latinos' Uncertain Status

October 26, 1986|ANTONIO RODRIGUEZ | Antonio Rodriguez is an attorney and director of the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice in Boyle Heights.

Americans may think that passage of the Simpson-Rodino immigration reform bill, with its promise of amnesty for millions, was cause for celebration in the nation's Latino community. Far from it. Fear and anxiety are the predominant emotions in Latino neighborhoods. There is anxiety because little is known about what the legislation actually will do, and there is fear that the worst--loss of jobs, eviction from homes, deportation--will happen before the law is clarified. This must be addressed immediately, or there will be economic and social abuses and suffering on a vast scale throughout the Southwest.

The anxiety is focused on the law's provision for "legalization" of immigrants. Many of those who qualify in one respect may be ruled ineligible for other reasons. It is safe to guess that there are few families in which all of the members can have legal status; what will happen to the brother or wife or grandparent who does not qualify? There are literally uncounted numbers of these people living and working among us all, in fear that grows daily.

The fear is not unreasonable. Already, employers are threatening Latino workers because of a misunderstanding of the new law's sanctions, which provide for fines or jail sentences for those who knowingly hire illegal immigrants. However, the sanctions apply only to future hiring, not to those who were employed at the time of the bill's passage. Nevertheless, many misinformed company managers, or those who are simply unscrupulous, will give the law as an excuse to clear their payrolls of people they see as "potential problems"--Latinos in general, those with seniority and higher pay, those who have been active in unions or have expressed grievances.

Unemployment causes its individual victims extreme hardship. Massive unemployment devastates whole communities, for when the quality of life is suddenly and drastically reduced, the trauma and tension is felt by everyone.

Mass firings and unemployment of Latinos who are--or are only suspected of being--here illegally would have a severe effect on Southern California.

The workers most likely to be victimized are poor, and there is no safety net to catch them. They have been just surviving on wages close to the minimum and most have no savings to fall back on. Under the law, they cannot receive unemployment insurance or any kind of public assistance.

Job loss on a massive scale would have a dramatic impact on the mental health, self-image and human relations of the entire Latino community. And the collective trauma will be aggravated because it will be compounded by the threat of--or actual--deportations.

Massive unemployment would also be felt eventually in neighborhood commercial areas. Small businesses and stores, suffering a drop in sales, would be forced to close--causing more unemployment.

The jobless will have no real choice on how to survive the blow. Most will be compelled to descend deeper than before into clandestine work, with little pay and poor health and safety conditions. They will have even less hope than before of organizing to protect themselves or better their conditions. They also will be subject to greater exploitation by slumlords and other human predators.

Some will take up the call of growers for cheap field labor in order to qualify for special legalization promised to agricultural workers. Others will leave the country, taking their U.S.-born children with them into an uncertain future in Mexico and other countries where the unemployment rate is already 50% or worse.

Of course, legalization will benefit many. How many is uncertain. Some say that no more than 50%--perhaps only 20%--of those who apply will be given legal status. That number would be reduced even more by mass firings, because unemployed people probably will be disqualified on the grounds that they would become a public charge.

But Simpson-Rodino is not the end of the world. The Latino community will survive. We survived the "Great Repatriation" of the 1930s, when one-third of the Mexicans in the United States were deported, and "Operation Wetback," when, in 1954 alone, more than 1 million men, women and children were deported to Mexico. As we did in those times, the community will close ranks and organize to defend its rights, and then to bring on better times.

Survival requires solidarity and support. The country as a whole, and especially those areas like Southern California with large immigrant populations, must act quickly to mitigate the adverse affects of the Immigration Reform Act of 1986. Coalitions of community organizations and agencies, church, labor and civil-rights groups, must be formed to implement plans to meet the challenge, which must go beyond opening processing centers for legalization.

As a first task, a massive public information campaign is necessary to educate workers and employers about the new law, to prevent unnecessary and unjust firings. Unions must be especially vigilant and prepared to defend their members who are wrongfully discharged. Watchdog committees will be needed to document and fight violations by employers and the authorities enforcing the law, especially the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Our society enacted this law despite numerous warnings of the discrimination and suffering that it would cause. The least we can do now is collectively minimize its negative impact on both individuals and the community by ensuring humane implementation of the law--that is, if it can be implemented humanely.

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