Letter from the editor

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Modern-day prisoner camp

When we don't learn from our errors, we are doomed to repeat them. And it certainly seems like federal immigration enforcement hasn't learned much.

Lesson number one - having brown skin does not make you a criminal.

A number of years ago, Storm Lake learned the problems with a massive, rather indiscriminate immigrant "sweep." We had hoped that such tactics had disappeared with the circling airplanes and the blacked out vans and the armed guards.

Until this week, when a raid sounding like a carbon copy of the controversial Storm Lake experience was held in Marshalltown.

At least 90 Hispanic meatpacking workers were rounded up and held under guard at a National Guard Armory, just as was the case in Storm Lake. There was no legal counsel at the time, and those held prisoner were not allowed to see family members for at least two days, the AP reports. They were held for up to three days, then bused away to places like Texas or Georgia, or sent straight to Mexico to fend for themselves.

Many were said to be afraid and confused at what was happening to them.

Families were split apart, parents taken away from children and children taken away from elder parents. A Latino community within a community - legal, illegal or gray area - thrown into turmoil.

We have been there and done that, and those who saw it happen realized it was not right.

The whole scenario sounds like something out of the World War II era when Asians in America were herded into camps for little reason other than their skin tone and misplaced racial fears.

All of us understand the need to respect the law, and most of us agree that there is a need for some more effective form of border control and enforcement.

Our problem with the tactics shown in Marshalltown, as in Storm Lake before it, is not in the idea of enforcing the law, but in what seems a lack of human decency.

After all, these are not people who have robbed, stolen, raped or murdered - their crime has been in going to work every day to try to support their families. Who among us could say that we would not do the same as they did, if it were the only avenue open to us?

Whether those who were initially taken into custody were legal or illegal immigrants, or undocumented ones, they still are people, and people do have rights in the United States. It is one of the reasons that people around the world continue to hope to come here for a new life.

We do not imprison people like cattle, without benefit of an attorney. We do not bully them into accepting deportation instead of a fair legal hearing. We do not break apart families needlessly.

The Storm Lake experience taught us that there are better ways to serve the public than a mass round-up of human beings, our neighbors and co-workers. There is a better way than to wake up the next morning and finds desks empty in every classroom in town.

We learned to concentrate first on those who actually commit crimes against their community. We learned to use better technology to catch illegal workers before they are hired. We learned to improve communication and help some good people in gray areas to become properly documented. We learned to encourage immigrants on visa programs to seek citizenship.

Let's face it - our state in particular needs workers, our schools need pupils, and our graying society needs young families. Are we so we want to bus them away in mass?

And yeah, while we're at it, let's face this too. If you do capture an illegal immigrant and dump them back across the border, the reality is that if there is no way to make a living there for him, he will be back in town within a couple of weeks, with a new name and ID card, and the insane cycle begins all over again.

We are going to have to be smart enough to learn that the old gestapo tactics not only violate the very national human rights that we so treasure, but simply are not practical or effective. They tear communities apart as well as families within them, and create little other than suspicion and fear.

The sweep in Storm Lake did not gain us a thing. It will not do much good anywhere else, either.

We need laws, enforcement and controls - but not this way. If we can't treat people like human beings, we've paid too big a price for our false sense of ethnocentricity.

Many in our diverse communities have learned that. So why aren't the feds learning from their own past mistakes and failed policies?