Less than Equal: The Criminalization of Immigrant Workers

by Tom Gomez

David Miljares came to the US from Mexico in the early 1980’s. He hoped to find streets paved with gold; instead he found work as a migrant laborer. Sometimes Miljares says he earned as much as $40 a day picking crops in the broiling sun. Often though, he earned far less. A whole day’s work in a pesticide laden field sometimes brought only $20. Once Miljares claims he spent two weeks cleaning land in eastern Oregon with dozens of other undocumented workers and didn’t get paid at all. Eventually Miljares turned to crime and became a thief. At the age of 25 he was given a 28 years sentence for multiple counts of residential burglary and illegally re-entering the US. Now 41 and in prison for the past 16 years, Miljares is one of hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants incarcerated in US prisons.

Unlike Miljares however, many, if not most of the undocumented immigrants in the criminal justice system, are in prison for no more than using false documents to work and drive, lying to police about their immigration status, or illegally re-entering the US; often having been deported usually to be reunited with wives and children. Others however are in prison for serious crimes, and will be here for a long time. No one believes that criminal aliens like David Miljares serving time for serious felony charges should be set free. But the cost of housing undocumented immigrants in US prisons is prohibitively high. Should he serve his full sentence the government will have spent $840,000 on Miljares alone. Few undocumented immigrants justify such expense.

In June of 2006 Immigration Control and Enforcement (ICE) announced the apprehension and deportation of 2,179 persons deemed to be ‘criminal aliens’ as part of the Secure Border Initiative. Few had criminal records. The largest group (829 people) was arrested for “administrative violations.’ In fact, complaints filed by the Capital Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and the CRU of Northern California alleged that over 23,000 people were rounded up during the first week of June 2006 as part of ‘Operation Return to Sender.’ They included a number of US citizens. One of those was seven year old Kebin Reyes who was captured along with his father and held without being able to make a phone call for over 24 hours before concerned friends and relatives could locate them. It was not known how many US citizens may have been wrongfully deported for being brown.

While such enforcement actions as ‘Operation Return to Sender’ and the immigration raids in Greeley have received some media attention, immigrants in the criminal justice system have received far less attention. Most such ‘criminal aliens’ are guilty of little more than trying to earn a living. The overwhelming white community of Telluride, where I caught the case on which I’m currently serving time, is one of the most liberal in the US. A mural in the center of town proclaims that “Your civil liberties are safe in Telluride” and highlights the town council’s historic vote to refuse to cooperate in implementing the USA Patriot Act. Its voters have reelected a Sheriff who supports legalizing all drugs for close to thirty years. Yet the San Miguel County jail is consistently filled with Mexican immigrants. Despite that fact, Sheriff Bill Masters has little if any bi-lingual staff which prevents his mostly Spanish speaking prisoners from writing letters or making phone calls. While the area is also home to a fairly large number of Russian and Eastern European immigrants, few if any are even apprehended and held without bond for status violations, such as visas. Telluride is unique only in that it accords more civil liberties to suspected cocaine dealers than to cooks and roofers.

Across the Unites States local law enforcement has been anxious to cooperate with the Federal government in targeting immigrants from non-white countries, especially Mexico but also Haiti, the Dominican Republic and other third world countries. Even in bastions of liberalism like Telluride, rarely, if ever, have the owners of 4-12 million dollar vacation homes been prosecuted for hiring undocumented workers. Nor have the contractors to build those homes. That has been the case throughout the country. In 2005 Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. In its aftermath over 100,000 Latino workers were relocated to Mississippi alone to clean up and rebuild. When they finished their work in September of 2005, 725 ICE officers assisted by local and state police who were deployed to detain and remove them. More than 25 percent of reconstruction in New Orleans was also done by immigrant Latino workers. A joint report in the aftermath of the disaster issued by the National Immigration Law Center, the NOLA Worker Justice Coalition, and the Advancement Project concluded, “NOLA was rebuilt on the back of unpaid and underpaid workers. The structural racism that shapes NOLA today is the result of a series of policies and practices, public and private, that create, maintain, and worsen inequality.” A conclusion that applies far beyond New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina, and could well apply to much of the nation.

In the coming year Congress is expected to take up the issue of immigration. It is unlikely they will open the borders of the US to the world’s poor. In the name of securing the Nation’s borders there are many Americans, not all of them white, who want a renewed campaign of mass deportation to expel all of the estimated 12 million undocumented workers in the US, a program that would shut down whole sectors of the US economy. The American workers whether Black, White, or Latino, share common economic interests in living wage jobs and the right to organize for better pay and working conditions. The holders of institutional power in this society exploit our cultural differences to prevent us from acting in concert, enlisting the support of Black intellectuals from groups like the Harvest Institute for a movement the goal of which is ultimately to undermine civil rights for all people in the US. By criminalizing large numbers of low wage workers the Right creates the very conditions they ostensibly are opposed to. The actions of men like Miljares cannot be divorced from the social conditions they emerge from. Exploited and marginalized immigrants keep wages low because they lack protections other workers have. In the case of those who wind up here the cost is enormous. By the time he is released from custody, David Miljares’ incarceration alone will have cost far more than his crimes were worth.


Convict writer Tom Gomez is serving 4 years in prison for the commercial burglary of a pharmacy in Telluride, CO. Tom needs your help to keep publishing on Indymedia. If you can help by typing up and posting some of his articles, or if you would like to correspond with him, he can be reached at:
Tom Gomez
Unit CH 1/Tier B/Cell 16
Box #6000
Sterling, CO 80751

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This is a good article. I noticed you called ICE - Immigration Control Enforcement. ICE stands for Immigration and Customs Enforcement but using the word 'Control' seems perhaps more descriptive of their role. Also I like the way David Miljares is introduced in the article. It captures the human essence of all people in prison, and includes illustration of the circumstances and structural factors and how they contribute to the creation of people like Miljares. Thanks for publishing this here.