Immigration rights expert Jeff Winder spoke to students about current immigration policy, human rights issues, his personal experiences crossing the U.S.-Mexico border and the construction of a for-profit detention center in a talk hosted by the Tidewater Labor Support Committee Thursday.
Winder spoke about the sense of fear among immigrants, especially illegal immigrants, who risk their lives to come here in the hopes of a better life, only to face resentment from locals, discrimination from authorities and exploitation from employers.
Winder, who serves as the regional organizer for immigrant rights group The People United, said Virginia is becoming a more important battlefield on the immigration issue.
“Virginia is increasingly a popular destination state for illegal immigrants,” Winder said. “A lot of immigration happens in places where the communities are changing, and there is a need for labor. This is especially evident in Prince William County, and Latino immigrants are quickly filling that labor.”
The increases in Latino immigrants are changing the long-standing demographics of many communities, Winder said.
“There are communities that have stayed the same way for a long time, and the increase in Latinos creates a palpable sense of fear. People are thinking, who are these people taking our jobs, using our services?” Winder said.
Winder accused chairman of Prince William Board of County Supervisors Corey Stewart of taking a hard-line immigration policy, and called it influential in Virginia.
“Stewart decided to make illegal immigration a central theme in his campaigns, generated fear, spread myths and provided a sense of frustration for the government to come up with some kind of legislation,” Steward said. “It angers us that people are blindly believing these myths, and it makes it hard for us to inject any truth into the debate.”
Stewart’s campaign led to other organizations spreading their message into Virginia. Some of these include Ku Klux Klan members leafleting flyers, and FAIR, the leading right-wing immigration organization, advocating denying services to illegal immigrants.
“It’s really scary, especially since police now even have the right to question ‘suspicious-looking people,’” Winder said.
Winder added that this anti-immigrant policy among politicians has no real strategy behind it, and it’s often used to detract from other problems.
“Immigrants have become a new scapegoat, and has fueled a new climate of hatred and fear,” Winder said.
Winder said he and his co-workers started thinking of ways to debunk these myths, and protect the people hurt by the situation. Yet it was difficult to figure out how illegal immigrants were really feeling, as many of them were afraid to talk about their stories, for fear of deportation. They then came up with the idea to go to the U.S.-Mexico border, and cross the border themselves, without passports or any form of documentation.
“We walked 37 miles in our first three days in the desert. It was exhausting — there was sand, sharp rocks, thorned plants, scorpions, and rattlesnakes. The temperature got as high as 130 degrees during the day, and as cold as below freezing at night,” Winder said.
“Many people died of either dehydration or exhaustion from carrying too much water. It was common to be robbed, or sexually assaulted. We passed many candles and religious symbols of people who had died along the way.”
Winder explained how for illegal immigrants, it is only the beginning of hardship after they cross the border.
“They go through all this to get here, and once they get here they’re really afraid of authorities. When they do find a job, unscrupulous workers often exploit them, refusing to pay them their checks.,” Winder said. “Yet they can’t do anything about it. They can’t call the police, or form a union, or have any form of legal protection. They never know when ICE [immigration police] will come, or raid their workplace.”
The lack of rights for illegal immigrants ultimately affects all workers, Winder said.
“It forces downward pressures on wages of other workers, who then blame the immigrants for taking their jobs. These workers take jobs that most people couldn’t do because they don’t have do,” Winder said.
More recently, plans have developed for a for-profit detention center in Farmville, Va. This involves an agreement among U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Immigration Center of America, and the Farmville city government.
“Immigration detainees are the new market for cooperation to make a profit off of. Yet these people—these detainees are just trying to work hard and make money,” Winder said.
Winder talked about the recent incidents at the Piedmont Regional Jail, in which someone died of a bacteria infection that was easily curable. He said this man had been screaming of intense pains for days, but was ignored by the guards. After the truth was revealed, many newspapers wrote about the lacking medical treatment in various jails and detention centers. An investigation even reported one incident in which detainees’ food was filled with live maggots.
“Our main goal is to work against the construction of the new for-profit detention center, to raise the level of consciousness, and a stronger movement for social change in Virginia. These incidents of abuse and neglect from the prisons give us a window of opportunity,” Winder said.
Winder said as long as the poverty in particular countries continues, and there is demand for labor in the United States, illegal immigration will continue.
“If we want to stop illegal immigration, we need to et to the root of the problems. We often create the conditions that make them come here, through programs such as NAFTA in Mexico,” Winder said. “We’re pumping hundreds and millions of dollars into securing the border, when studies have shown that that does not deter immigrants from coming.”
Winder explained how the influx of immigration is expected to continue in the future, and we are met with a choice.
“We can try to make it a better environment to them, and try to reconcile with the immigrants, or we can play into the climate of fear. Either may, immigration is a reality that we’re going to have to live with,” Winder said.
There are many things regular citizens can do to spread tolerance toward them, Winder said.
“It’s the simple things. For example, calling them ‘illegal aliens’ implies they’re from another planet. Also, many people think undocumented immigrants don’t pay taxes, when in fact they pay a net contribution of over $400 million in taxes a year. And they only commit a tiny percentage of crime, despite the stereotype that they cause a lot of crime,” Winder said.
Tidewater Labor Support Committee member K.B. Brower ’11 said Winder’s talk served as a good way to get people involved in the movement.
“We were hoping to get the word out about the for-profit immigration center, and we’re going to try to get people together for the rally,” Brower said.
The rally will be held March 7 to protest the construction of the detention center.