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Interview with Maria Jimenez (2001)

“We must not equate immigration with terrorism”

Houston, Texas

Maria Jimenez. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
Maria Jimenez. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.

Maria Jiménez is director of the Immigration Law Enforcement Monitoring Project (LEMP), a project of the American Friends Service Committee. Founded in 1987, it's goal is to reduce the abuse of authority in the enforcement of immigration laws. LEMP works with community based groups in four areas of the U.S.-Mexico border: San Diego; southern Arizona; the El Paso/New Mexico area; and the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. Interview conducted (by phone from San Diego) and later edited by Nic Paget-Clarke, September 20, 2001.

The act of violence against the U.S.

In Motion Magazine: What has been the impact on immigration of the attacks (on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon -- 9/11/2001)?

Maria Jimenez: Definitely there has been a backlash. We had advanced to where we were challenging a lot of the restrictive immigration legislation passed in 1996. We were on our way in terms of a very strong social movement. But with the fact that many of the people who perpetrated this tragedy were foreign born, and were immigrants who lived in the United States, -- people are equating immigration with terrorism, which is not the case. Immigration is always a good political scapegoat for certain groups. We had, I think, gotten a lot of the anti-immigrant groups in the background as to their positions, but they are on the front burner now.

One of the things that is definitely happening is besides restrictive immigration legislation, and the curtailment of basic rights, constitutionally, there’s the issue of border security. Up to now, we had always attempted to move border policy so that the U.S./Mexico border would look like the U.S./Canadian border. It seems now, because of the fact that some of the people who participated in this act of violence against the United States came through the Canadian border and airports, that the Canadian border will begin to look like the U.S./Mexico border.

There is a call for more border patrol agents and more border enforcement techniques. Airports are now being policed by multi-agency operations including the Border Patrol. This has been very common for the U.S./Mexico border airports but it was uncommon for cities like Houston or Dallas to see uniformed agents. Border security has become a priority. It rolls us back years in challenging the concept that people should have a right to move across international borders.

President Bush and President Fox

In Motion Magazine: What do you think is going to be the impact on the talks between President Bush and Fox?

Maria Jimenez: Again, this gives rise to the strengthening voice of the restrictionists. Where we had a strong movement going toward legalization, any type of legalization will be difficult in coming years. Not that the political movement is gone because the need to legalize immigrants comes from the community and isn’t a fad or something invented. It reflects a real need and it will continue. It will develop as a political movement. But in terms of getting legalization through the decision-making process, it will be a very slow process, a difficult process.

I think it’ll have to be tied to the movement for peace, the movement for defending and protecting our civil rights and of course the movement for respect, for dignity, and human rights, which is at the base of the construction of a society that needs to get rid of violence and erect peace both internally and externally.

Guest worker programs

In Motion Magazine: What do think of some of the specific things that President Fox of Mexico has brought up. He’s been talking about amnesty, and so has Bush.

Maria Jimenez: No, no, no. I think both governments, before this week, had been talking about a guest worker program. Both the Bush administration and the Fox administration have the same interests in the sense of coinciding in their economic and philosophical and ideological views of the world. They are both proponents of free trade and expansion of commerce. Their proposition for legalization was basically ‘how do we better establish a control of labor across international borders.’ Their proposal was legalization without rights, while the immigrants in the United States raised the issue of legalization with rights for those already here. The Mexican immigrant, particularly, as soon as both governments began to talk about this possibility of a guest worker program, was the one who raised the issue ‘you can’t legalize people tied to an employer without rights if you first don’t come in and give a legal status to the millions of Mexicans already in the United States’.

Because of the pressure by unions, churches, and different coalitions among Mexican immigrants themselves, the Fox government was pushed to give lip service to amnesty and that pushed them to put it before the Bush administration. But the Bush administration was always very clear in saying no to that proposition and yes to the guest worker program.

When Fox left the United States, it was fairly clear that the only agreement they were reaching was the agreement on the guest worker program.

In Motion Magazine: And how does that work?

The Houston skyline. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
The Houston skyline. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
Maria Jimenez: In a guest worker program, U.S. employers decide they need a certain worker and the government in Mexico opens up offices and recruits workers to go to specific employers and specific industries. In the Fox/Bush proposal it looked like the workers would be in the agricultural area, the service area, construction, light manufacturing, and the hotel and restaurant area. Fundamentally what happens is that these workers are brought in for a specific job with a specific employer and are dependent upon the employer to renew their visas. One of our local labor leaders expressed it the best – it’s the legalizing of the practice of exploitation of a whole group of workers.

The proposition we wanted was for people to legalize the workers who are already here, with rights. If they were going to talk about bringing in workers, those workers should not be tied to a particular employer, and they should be protected in their rights, all their rights, especially their labor rights and the right to organize. Also, after working a certain number of years, they should be allowed the option of applying for permanent residency.

But that has dramatically changed. It’s going to be very difficult to raise both issues at this point as long as policy makers and political figures equate immigration with terrorism. Our work will be to place before the public and before public figures the fact that it’s unfair to equate those two. Immigration is a phenomenon of people who are displaced by international economic policies and when they arrive they contribute in the reconstruction of certain sectors of the economy and they contribute politically and socially.

The impact of the Oklahoma bombing on immigration law

In Motion Magazine: Please tell me about the current law that allows immigration officials to look back into people’s pasts and decide that if they committed a crime 20 years ago they can be deported.

Maria Jimenez: That is a part of the counter-terrorism law.

In Motion Magazine: Was that a result of the Oklahoma bombing?

Maria Jimenez: Yes, it was placed in the 1996 counter-terrorism measures that were enacted as a result of the Oklahoma bombing. While there was a great deal of consciousness that that violent political response was native to the United States, most of the worst features of the act were against foreign nationals. Including the allowing the use of secret evidence against a person in secret meetings, and the fact that the government does not have to show the witnesses or the evidence that they have against someone who is considered to be a “terrorist”. All of that is part of the 1996 anti-terrorist measures.

Summary exclusion

In Motion Magazine: What about the law that allows immigration officials to send people home based on their own judgment.

Maria Jimenez: That is called summary exclusion. It was considered a streamlining of the political asylum process. It’s mostly been applied on the U.S./Mexico border. 87% of the people who were trying to cross the border and were excluded from the United States were people approaching from Mexico. This was not necessarily because they asked for political asylum but the law gives a wide discretion for authorities to simply say no to a person without having to have basis. The law says, a person is not allowed into the United States unless they reach U.S. soil and then claim political asylum.

In Motion Magazine: And this is still going on?

A Houson neighborhood in the rain.
A Houston neighborhood in the rain. Near the Houston Ship Channel. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
Maria Jimenez: Yes.

Country of origin

In Motion Magazine: What can you tell me about the people from other countries who have been imprisoned for up to 20 years without any trial, here in the U.S.?

Maria Jimenez: That’s not quite right. These are people who have committed a crime and are sent to a federal prison. They complete their sentence, but if their country of origin, for example, Cuba, does not accept them if they are deported, then the U.S. continues to hold them in prison. Often for years and years. For a while, on a case by case basis, the government allowed people to be released but it was a very small number. Most continue to be imprisoned.

Open borders

In Motion Magazine: Recently, I was reading the Houston Chronicle and they quoted President Fox as saying that he thought that there would be an open border within two decades.

Maria Jimenez: That was his proposition. The U.S. was responding, “within fifty years”.

At least at that point, even though there was disagreement, there was a position of ending the border enforcement, in terms of open borders. But I think that has dramatically changed and it will be a long time before those issues are re-visited.

In Motion Magazine: Do you think they were basing the possibility of open borders on free trade equalizing the economies? Or some other idea?

Maria Jimenez: I think they were moving on their theory that open markets would lead to a better economic situation. They should have assured what the European Union has assured which is freedom of movement of their nationals.

In Motion Magazine: What’s your opinion on open borders?

Maria Jimenez: We are clear that the right to move is a necessity. Controlling the movement of people is a necessity for higher profits. That isn’t a contradiction within the whole argument of free trade. What cannot be free is labor. It has to be controlled.

The differences in policy are in the legalizing mechanisms that are designed for profit making by employers. These mechanisms include guest worker programs, and the work force being undocumented. Even in the European Union, the work force that comes from outside the Union does not have full rights. In Europe, they have guest worker programs, and so forth.

In Motion Magazine: They do?

Maria Jimenez: Yes, for people from out side of the European Union.

In Motion Magazine: So for people in Europe there’s two situations. There’s people moving around crossing borders who were born in Europe, and then there’s people who were born outside of Europe. There are still two types of people. Is that what you are saying?

Maria Jimenez: Yes. Well, actually, there are three. There are also people who get in without any documents. There are undocumented populations in Europe, as well.

In Motion Magazine: What do you think should be the goal for the Mexico/U.S. situation?

Maria Jimenez: At this point, our goal is to continue to work with communities to find out how they are feeling the impact of the increasing measures of enforcement and policing. In that sense, our only recourse is the process of consultation in the communities to defend and protect constitutional and human rights, and to oppose the increasing militarization on the U.S./Mexico border, in the interior, and now on the Canadian border. We must attempt to protect what rights we already have. Our rights should not be rolled back because of the tragic events of last week.

Grassroots organizing

In Motion Magazine: How would you characterize the growth of immigration grassroots organizing in Houston, around the U.S, and in Mexico?

Maria Jimenez: In Houston, grassroots organizing in the immigrant communities, like most of the country, has grown and has consolidated to a certain extent. We are better off now than we were five years ago in the sense of having stable organizations with a lot of involvement of different immigrants in the process of attempting to move towards change of policies. But this incident of the last week will make that participation much more difficult, as long as persons are uncertain, more than ever, about their ability to move inside the country without fearing arrest or fearing a violent attack. Some nationalities are now being subject to violent attacks.

In Mexico, as in the United States, the situation is uncertain, except that we must continue to defend our rights and look for ways to articulate the needs of immigrant communities. All this must be done within the process of working for peace.

Published in In Motion Magazine - November 11, 2001

Also see:
  • Mobility, Human Rights and Economic Development
    Lessons of the International Mexican Migrant Experience and United States Immigration Policies
    Maria Jiménez
    Houston, Texas
    Published in In Motion Magazine - July 12, 1999

  • Interview with Maria Jiménez (1998)
    The Militarization of the U.S.-Mexico Border
    - Border Communities Respond to Militarization Accountability and Direct Involvement
    2 - From Slave Patrol to Border Patrol Life and Culture in U.S.-Mexico Border Communities
    Houston, Texas

  • Immigration Issues (index of articles)