Yearning to Breathe Free

It was business as usual at the Wampler Longacre turkey processing plant in Harrisonburg, Virginia, last February 3, 1997. Some 150 workers punched in, took to their stations, and did their part to provide Americans with reasonably priced, low-fat alternatives to bologna and bratwurst.

Shortly after 2:30 p.m., just as people were beginning their shift break, armed men surrounded and stormed the factory. U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services agents, local and state police, the FBI, and local sheriffs rounded people into corners and slapped handcuffs on them. Aided by barking dogs and a loud command of the English language, they interrogated the workers in an effort to weed out all undocumented people. Everyone was cornered and grilled about their citizenship, including workers from Russia, China, and Latin America. In the end, 50 people were arrested and taken to jail. All those taken were Latin American.

Hours later, Rev. Samuel Pagan of the Agape Bilingual Mennonite Mission received word of the raid from local pastors asking him to go to the jail and check in on their parishioners who had been arrested. After much negotiation with INS agents, he was able to secure the release of women whose young children were awaiting them at home.

Pagan learned that 12 people were deported immediately after admitting to being in the country illegally. At least one from this group actually had been here legally; apparently he had been so intimidated by the experience that he pled guilty in order to secure his release, after which he was escorted out of the country. His family in Virginia didn’t know what had happened to him until they received his call from Mexico.

The Wampler raid, and others like it around the country, reflects a stepped-up INS enforcement of immigration law, especially in light of the immigration reform act passed by Congress last fall. Despite President Clinton’s assurance to Central American heads of state earlier this year that "there will be no mass deportations and no targeting of Central Americans under [the new immigration] law," Latin Americans continue to be rounded up and arrested with little concern for due process.

While not radically overhauled, immigration law has been tightened—ostensibly to decrease abuse—in terms of time limits for asylum applications, procedures for deportation, and requirements for entering the country legally. Some immigrant advocates worry that the new guidelines are too harsh. For example, the new law allows for people to be deported within 10 days of arrest, with no right to a hearing.

OF GREATER CONCERN is how nationwide attitudes toward immigrants have taken a turn for the worse. This is reflected in both the harsh enforcement of the immigration laws and in the denial of SSI and food stamps to legal immigrants mandated by the Welfare Reform Act. For years, the country looked the other way as Mexicans and Central Americans moved north to harvest our food and clean our high-rises. Several sectors of the economy—especially agriculture—are absolutely dependent on this pool of inexpensive labor.

Fifty-nine percent of surveyed Americans believe that Mexican immigrants have not benefited the country at all, and in fact have mostly created problems. With this kind of public attitude, the INS could arrest only the Latin Americans at the Wampler plant without much fear of reprise or outrage.

But there was outrage, and it came from the churches. Six days after the raid, 400 people from diverse religious backgrounds gathered at Ridgeway Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg. The Interdenominational Coalition for Justice was formed to provide assistance to the families of those arrested, to educate the community about immigration issues, and to provide legal assistance for those detained. Pagan, the coalition’s convener, hopes to broaden their efforts to a national level, connecting with other Christians to advocate for laws that ensure due process and fair treatment for all people, citizens or not.

Pagan believes that there should be civil—not criminal—enforcement of the laws in order to be consistent with the constitutional assurance that no one should be deprived of "freedom, property, or life without due process."

The coalition is not seeking policies without limits or restrictions, but guarantees of humane treatment for all, citizen and non-citizen. Last year’s Proposition 187 in California was a sign of a growing anti-immigrant sentiment in the country that affects not only illegal immigrants, but also those who are here legally. Even more frightening are the racist undertones, when all people of color—all "foreign" looking people—are automatically considered suspect.

"Churches have a lot to do," according to Pagan. "[They are] the ethical voice of God to society. They need to talk about these issues, take a stand, and be willing to organize and participate in the political process to change the laws." Pagan hopes that pastors and church leaders will take up the call to deal with these issues, "because if they do that they will affect their communities."

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"Yearning to Breathe Free"
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