I will never forget the harrowing look of fear in the Hilda's eyes. I met her six years ago in Postville, a rural Iowa company town devastated by an immigration raid at a local meatpacking plant.
Hilda told me in her broken English how scared she was when the armed federal agents rushed in, corralled all the workers, and led everyone away in shackles. This was not Hilda's first encounter with masked men carrying guns. Hilda's family was like many others working in the plant. They found refuge in a sleepy section of Iowa after fleeing their small Guatemalan mountain village. In Guatemala, men with guns — guerrillas on one side and government death squads on the other — were indiscriminately killing people caught in the middle.
Hilda fled the horrors of violence in Central America and entered the United States as an undocumented immigrant. Once here, Hilda's limited options included a job in the meatpacking plant. She regularly worked 16-hour double-shifts, using what strength she had in her 4-foot, 10-inch frame to cut sides of beef on a band saw. That had been Hilda's life since she was 13 years old.
She was working when the plant was raided in May 2008. Nearly 400 workers, including Hilda, were detained. At just 16, she was slated to be deported. Hilda was afraid that she would never see her mother again. She was afraid of the violence that awaited her in Guatemala. I wanted to tell her in my broken Spanish that everything was going to be OK. But I couldn't. As a civil-rights organizer I witnessed in shame as the judge presided over federal prosecutors and public defenders, as the system processed the men, women, and the young boys and girls picked up in Postville with cruelly inhumane efficiency. I watched the courts deport people as fast as they could, tearing families and communities apart. All I could do was try to make sure Hilda's story was heard, by the courts and by anyone who cared to listen.
Today, we are seeing large numbers of children, fleeing extreme violence, enter our country and ask for our help. Unfortunately, the system is once again failing to recognize their humanity. Outspoken members of Congress, from freshmen tea-party members to the more mainstream Republican House speaker, take care not to refer to these youngsters as children. Instead, they opt for code words: illegals, aliens, invaders, threats.
They are children. They are refugees.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time our lawmakers proved not only inadequate, but also inclined to discriminate against vulnerable minorities. We all know American democracy began with landed gentlemen exalting equality while denying the humanity of native peoples. These men lived in deep denial. There was no liberty or justice for all when the country relied on enslaved African men, women, and children for hundreds of years. The highest democratic ideals that make America exceptional have always coexisted with the most base and hateful racism.
The spitting, angry mobs we see today, armed with rifles, shotguns, and pistols in Murrieta, Calif., in Oracle, Ariz., and in Lansing, Mich., raging against the arrival of scared children; the anonymous misspelled graffiti and epithets that mar a proposed shelter for the children in Westminster, Md.; as well as the message boards of every online newspaper article, unmask the rabid racism and xenophobia that continues to plague our democracy.
It is not the first time we've seen angry mobs of armed white men forming posses against buses filled with young people who sought freedom in our nation. It was 50 years ago in Mississippi during Freedom Summer that buses carrying young believers in a just democracy were met by the rage and ignorance of white men with guns.
The body politic continues to experience growing pains. With the election of our first black president came a backlash that was to be expected. The racist ties and roots of the anti-immigrant special interest groups that drive the demagoguery of nativist politicians and the activities of the angry mobs has long been uncovered and documented. Still, the majority of Americans want a fair, more welcoming society. The anger of these men with guns, however, is real — and born out of fear of the inevitably changing demographics.
In Iowa, where more than nine of 10 residents are white, I witnessed the American immigration and legal system fail to function adequately, hampered by structural and institutional racism. After the meatpacking plant raid, a temporary federal court set up at a fair grounds known as the Cattle Congress processed eight people at a time. They stood, shackled together and cowering before a judge who sat high above them. Federal agents armed with automatic weapons snickered while the court translators conveyed to the frightened workers that they had waived all their rights to appeal, and would next go to a trailer for sentencing.
If the judge had bothered to look up to see these men, women, and children as individuals, if he had asked any of them for a single verbal response, he may have learned that many were indigenous K'iche' people, who didn't understand the Spanish that was being thrown at them. He may have realized that these huddled masses could not have understood what rights they were guaranteed by our Constitution, or what it meant to waive them. And, in some cases he might have heard details that could support a legitimate claim for asylum or other forms of legal residence in the United States.
Hilda, like all the other women, was rounded up, arrested, and processed. But because she was only 16 years old, she was shackled, not with the other women in the make-shift jails, but with her own electronic monitoring device. She was not forced into detention at the Cattle Congress. Still, like all the other women, she stood in front of a judge for a hearing and faced deportation. It was her testimony about the abuses she suffered at the meatpacking plant, the fact that she had worked there since she was just 13, along with information from other witnesses, that led the government to indict and convict Agriprocessors, the plant's owners and managers, of crimes.
Even though Hilda herself had given up hope of living in safety in the U.S., determined advocates eventually won her case for permanent residence two years later through a provision in the Violence Against Women's Act that protects victims of abuse who testify in successful prosecutions.
In May of 2008, all I could really do in that dusty northeast corner of Iowa was bear witness as the blunt force of the immigration system, itself a manifestation of the failures or our polarized politics, ripped apart hundreds of families. I saw what had been a sleepy little rural town in the heartland of America transformed.
But I also saw American families — white men, women, and children from Postville and surrounding towns — who came to St. Bridget's, a little church where immigrant children and families were taking refuge, in the aftermath of the raid. The local farmers, construction workers, small-business owners, truckers, housewives, students, and children — all white and native-born Americans — came together at St. Bridget's as if to help at a barn-raising. They brought home-cooked meals, diapers, and blankets, and offered assistance, prayers, and love.
What they delivered was not only hope, but a living example of who many of us are and want to be as Americans.
Shuya Ohno is the Right to Vote director at Advancement Project, a national civil-rights and racial-justice organization.
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