Immigration enforcers conducted a little sting operation here in North Carolina last week:
The 48 immigrants thought they were attending mandatory safety training by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. But it was not until they showed up to the meeting in Goldsboro, N.C., last week that they discovered they had been summoned for an altogether different reason.
Federal immigration officials had posted fliers telling immigrant workers for several subcontractors at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro that they had to attend a safety meeting. There was no meeting, however; instead there was a sting operation in which immigration officials arrested 48 people on charges that they were illegal immigrants from Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and Ukraine.
The action had one branch of the federal government speaking out against another. The United States Labor Department as well as North Carolina's Labor Department on Friday criticized the sting, suggesting that it would make immigrant workers distrust safety officials just when safety agencies across the nation are stepping up efforts to reduce the disproportionately high injury rate among Hispanic workers.
A spokesman for the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement proved adept at changing the subject: "For many years we have used undercover techniques in drug investigations, arms investigations and money-laundering investigations." Well, the point isn't that you can't use "undercover techniques," but specifically that it's a dangerous precedent to destroy trust in people responsible for making sure workplaces are safe. And these weren't gun-toting drug lords and arms dealers, but air-conditioning repairmen and construction workers.
Much to everyone's shock, he went on to play the terrorism card:
"We believe it is a very serious vulnerability when there are illegal aliens working at Air Force bases, nuclear power plants, chemical plants and airports. They have access to some of the most sensitive work sites in the U.S. Our job is to take actions to immediately remove them from positions where they can do harm."
Something else that caught my eye later in the story was the case of Felipe Bravo, an immigrant from Mexico City who came to the meeting, got arrested, but was later released when he proved he was an American citizen. Isn't it a little frightening that somebody can be presumed a non-citizen, arrested, and held until he proves his citizenship? If you were in jail and had to prove your citizenship, what would you do? What if he weren't a recent immigrant and didn't have his naturalization papers handy, or weren't an immigrant at all and didn't have any in the first place? What documents are accepted as proving citizenship--and how many of us would be able to get hold of them easily?
Of course, being (for example) a white person not named "Felipe Bravo" would generally enable one to avoid such situations. But not all of us have this luxury.