Remember the days when people, especially in the South, felt they had a perfect right to discriminate? Remember the time when skin color determined whether you would be treated like a human being?
Well, that litmus test has changed! Now humane treatment is determined by immigration status. If you have no right to be here, you can be treated as if you were an inferior form of humanity.
And if you are Hispanic, you are guilty by association, often erroneously assumed to be here illegally and just as subject to discrimination.
"We found a population under siege and living in fear — fear of the police, fear of the government and fear of criminals who prey on immigrants because of their vulnerability," reported the Southern Poverty Law Center last month, after conducting a survey of 500 low-income Latinos — including legal residents, undocumented immigrants and U.S. citizens in Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina and Louisiana.
While that region is now home to the fastest-growing population of Latinos in the country, the SPLC's report noted that "many in Dixie aren't treating their new neighbors with any semblance of Southern hospitality."
It concluded that Latinos are "encountering widespread hostility, discrimination and exploitation. They are routinely cheated out of their earnings and denied basic health and safety protections. They are regularly subjected to racial profiling and harassment by law enforcement. They are victimized by criminals who know they are reluctant to report attacks. And they are frequently forced to prove themselves innocent of immigration violations, regardless of their legal status."
The report, "Under Siege: Life for Low-Income Latinos in the South," noted that while illegal immigrants are victimized especially by unscrupulous employers, who take advantage of their status, "Even legal residents and U.S. citizens of Latino descent say that racial profiling, bigotry and myriad other forms of discrimination and injustice are staples of their daily lives." It cited vivid examples of the hardships endured by Latino immigrants — legal and illegal.
It cited the case of a young Tennessee mother, who said she was arrested for asking to be paid for her work at a cheese factory, an Alabama bean picker, who had his life savings confiscated by police during a traffic stop, and an alleged Georgia rapist, who went unpunished because his 13-year-old victim was an undocumented immigrant.
The survey came up with some figures that show that these cases are not unique.
"This report documents the human toll of failed policies that relegate millions of people to an underground economy, where they are beyond the protection of the law," said Mary Bauer, who wrote the report and directs the Immigrant Justice Project at the Montgomery, Ala., law center. "Workplace abuses and racial profiling are rampant in the South."
She concluded that legislators need to strengthen labor laws, crack down on racial profiling, and pass comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. It's "the only realistic, fair and humane solution," she noted.
The report said that the same Latino workers who "provided cheap labor to fuel the South's economy — building skyscrapers in Charlotte, harvesting onions in Georgia, slaughtering poultry in Alabama and rebuilding New Orleans after Katrina" — are often victims of systemic discrimination, which "constitutes a civil rights crisis that must be addressed."
"We're talking about a matter of basic human rights here," said SPLC's president, Richard Cohen. "By allowing this cycle of abuse and discrimination to continue, we're creating an underclass of people who are invisible to justice and undermining our country's fundamental ideals."
Instead of acting to protect Latino victims of discrimination and exploitation, the report noted that some of the region's state and local governments have worsened the situation by enacting "ordinances designed to limit services to undocumented immigrants and make their lives as difficult as possible, with the ultimate goal of driving them away." It also noted that local law enforcement agencies "are enforcing immigration law in a way that has led to accusations of systematic racial profiling and has made Latino crime victims and witnesses more reluctant to cooperate with police."
"Such policies," the report went on, "have the effect of creating a subclass of people who exist in a shadow economy, beyond the protection of the law. … This treatment — which many Latinos liken to the oppressive climate of racial subordination that blacks endured during the Jim Crow era — is encouraged by politicians and media figures who scapegoat immigrants and spread false propaganda. And as a result of relentless vilification in the media, Latinos are targeted for harassment by racist extremist groups, some of which are directly descended from the old guardians of white supremacy."
Perhaps the time has come to march through Dixie again, in a new civil rights movement.
To find out more about Miguel Perez and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
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