Another Look at the Immigration Debate

Immigrant rights activist Deepa Fernandes has emigrated twice in her life, and her new book Targeted: Homeland Security and the Business of Immigration, takes a look at the politics of modern immigration. She talks to Farai Chideya about the connections between the Minute Men, Haiti's so-called "boat people," and Latin American guest workers in New Orleans.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

Deepa Fernandes is passionate about understanding the laws that shape human lives. Her new book is "Targeted: Homeland Security and the Business of Immigration." It offers a sweeping view of our modern borders. She chronicles the rise of the Minute Men, guest worker programs in New Orleans, and the struggles of Haitian refugees. Fernandes is an immigrant herself, twice over. I asked her where she thinks she's from.

Ms. DEEPA FERNANDES (Author, "Targeted: Homeland Security and the Business of Immigration"): That's an interesting question. I was born in India and have spend a lot of time in India. But I grew up and I was educated in Sydney, in Australia, and I spent pretty much the last 10 years between New York City and Latin America.

So, you know, my mom said that when I was born in India, they didn't have a bed for me so I slept in a suitcase with the lid propped open. And she said that was the start of me being a gypsy. And so I feel like - I don't really know where I'm from. I feel like, right now, I've spent quiet a lot of time in New York and I like that, kind of, internationalist New Yorker identity.

CHIDEYA: What you're talking about really is the nature of belonging in a way that to me - and tell me if I'm totally off base here - is similar to the difference between a biological child born to two parents and to an adoptive child.

It's like there shouldn't be any difference in, I think, most people's minds, you know, if you're a child, you're a child. But in a certain sense, what you're saying is that if you are someone who came into this relationship, if you're someone who came into being a part of the American family, there's a profound difference.

Ms. FERNANDES: Well - and that's because our legal system sets it up that way. And I think what many people are beginning to question is is how false is that distinction? In the book, I follow one young Haitian-American man who was brought here when he was five, and he actually just assumed he was a citizen because his parents naturalized. He and his brother are the only non-citizens in a family of citizens. He had more brothers and sisters who were born here.

At age 19, he signed up. He joined the military. He went to Iraq. And then on coming back from putting his life on the line for the country, he was put into deportation proceedings because he had spent 37 days in a military brig. He was lucky that in his case, there was a technicality that let him go. But that doesn't mean he's free.

His green card is up in 2008. Now this is a kid who's lived in this country since he was five. He's now in his 20s. He's put his life on the line for the country. He's not going to get a renewed green card. He's definitely not going to get citizenship. He's out of the country.

CHIDEYA: Though those are strong words. Do you think that it has anything to do with race?

Ms. FERNANDES: You know, it absolutely has to do with race. When we look at -there's always been a fear in white America that there's going to be a rush on the U.S. by Haitians. Of course, we all know that Haiti was the first successful slave revolt. It was the first place where blacks took power in the Americas.

And I've done research, I've gone back in it, and that really is a lingering thing. You see Democratic presidents - as much as Republican presidents - do everything they can to - you know, just the first time Guantanamo Bay was ever used was not what we're seeing right now.

Guantanamo Bay was used for Haitians, when Haitians were fleeing during the Duvalier dictatorships. And so you've seen multiple presidents, Ronald Reagan was the first one to formalize through executive orders that Haitians would be summarily returned. And just one very interesting note, Farai, is that I think in the popular perception, it always seems like Haitians are rushing the U.S.

I think it would surprise many people, but the number of Ecuadorians, of Central Americans who are using the waters to come here is much higher than the numbers of Haitians. And you have to ask if it's not about race, why aren't Haitians allowed to come, but through the waters Ecuadorians are allowed to come?

CHIDEYA: We, as a show, NEWS & NOTES have been to New Orleans several times and have seen that city change - not just in terms of the impact of the hurricane and the flooding, but also in terms of all of the workers from Mexico and Latin America who've come in. How does that illustrate what you're talking about in your book?

Ms. FERNANDES: You know, I think the critical thing that New Orleans right now - and your show has done great coverage, I listen regularly - and one of the things that I know you've highlighted is the way in which so many African-Americans have not been able to return to the city. And the critical question in that is, well, who's doing the work?

The guest worker program that's currently underway in New Orleans, I think if people actually had the details and could see up close what that looks like I think people would ask some very serious questions about the guest worker program, because not only does it serve to reinforce and keep African-Americans out of certain jobs, what it also does is lock immigrants into a very exploitative situation. I mean immigrants have been - they've been targeted in other countries; mass advertising campaigns in Peru, Bolivia, the Dominican Republican after Katrina: come to New Orleans, come and help rebuild. This is a devastated city…

CHIDEYA: Wait. Wait. Let me stop you. Who is putting out those advertisements?

Ms. FERNANDES: Well, it's being put out by recruiting companies, but at the behest of U.S. companies who are hiring. So a U.S. companies, say like the Decatur hotel chain, which is the largest hotel chain in Louisiana, they run many of the downtown hotels. You've been in New Orleans, along Canal Street in the French district, in the French Quarters.

They need immigrant workers because they say they can't find workers. So they contract with a recruiting firm. Now, that recruiting firm runs - puts ads in the major newspapers, has billboards, and they have informational sessions where they bring workers in.

And imagine it like a college room where you bring in a hundred workers. They sit down. You give them a 20-minute session. You sell them on the wonders of coming to work. And you charge them. They pay a fee and then they come out. Then you start an application process with the U.S. embassy. And out of maybe the thousands that go through these recruiting firms, a few hundred will be contracted to work for Decatur.

And then they'll come in and when they're here, they're promised a wage, which is minimum wage because under the guest worker program you have to meet that. The workers do the math. They know that even though they have to pay these high fees and the workers who I've been spending time paid between three and $5,000 each. Now, consider in a country like Peru or the Dominican Republic, this might take you a couple of years…

CHIDEYA: Let me stop you again. To whom did they pay those fees?

Ms. FERNANDES: To the recruiting firms. And…

CHIDEYA: And that's legal?

Ms. FERNANDES: It's completely legal. It's a business. And it's a very lucrative business indeed, actually. And I think that - in some ways, a little problematic is that there is no regulation from an immigration perspective, just on those recruiting firms. So you go and find workers, you bring them, they pass a test, they come here, and they get given a visa.

And that they then get to work to Decatur. Now, what's in it for Decatur is that they don't have to pay benefits like they would possibly a U.S. worker. They don't have the overheads. And many of them will even pass on costs to the workers.

So in many instances the workers get locked into having to pay for their accommodation to the employer, and they pay for food and they pay for transportation. Now, imagine the dingiest Motel 6 room, Farai, you've ever stayed in. Well, the workers who I was spending time with were put here by their employers, four of them in one room, not a single window, no light, no air. Four of them in the tiniest room with bunk beds. They have to stay in this room and they're each paying $400 a month. That's $1,200 just for that room.

And you know, I asked them, why don't you leave? Why don't you go and find an apartment for that much money? And of course New Orleans rent is very high, but they also can't, they will be out of status. They will have broken their contract with Decatur if they leave.

So there's many ways in which this is very exploitative, and these particular workers, as is the case with many in New Orleans, they're not getting their 40 hours a week. So they're - while they may be paid minimum wage, they're bringing home very small paychecks. These workers who I've spent time with, Farai, went home in debt. They paid to come to the U.S. and work.

CHIDEYA: Thanks, Deepa.

Ms. FERNANDES: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Deepa Fernandes. Her new book is called "Targeted: Homeland Security and the Business of Immigration."

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