06/16/2008

Meet 'Juan Crow'

The final days of Boubacar Bah's life read like an account of a political prisoner in a gulag.

Bah, 52, was shackled to the floor of the prison's medical unit where he was left to moan and vomit until prison officials moved him to a "disciplinary cell."

He would stay there for more than 13 hours - alone, unresponsive and foaming at the mouth, the apparent result of a head injury. He would later die in a coma at a hospital.

But as The New York Times account of his death explains, Bah wasn't a political prisoner.

He wasn't a terrorist held at Guantanamo Bay. And he wasn't the kingpin of an international crime syndicate.

Bah was a tailor from Guinea who overstayed his tourist visa in the United States. He was an "illegal."

And he's a casualty of America's new war on immigrants.

In the South, Latinos call it "Juan Crow." Just as Jim Crow laws in the South once ensured that blacks remained "in their place," the hysterical over-reaction to illegal immigration is turning immigrants in second-class citizens.

In a Juan Crow world, human rights are trampled, communities terrorized and families torn apart all in the name of getting tough on "illegals." Anyone who looks or sounds "foreign" is a suspect. Just ask Justeen Mancha. She was getting ready for school one day at her south Georgia home when armed immigration agents barged in, shouting, "Police! Illegals!"

Justeen, who was 15 when this happened, is a U.S. citizen of Mexican descent. She was terrified by the ordeal.

A March 2008 report to the United Nations Human Rights Council stated the obvious when it found that "xenophobia and racism towards migrants in the United States has worsened since 9/11."

Loudmouth bigots on the airwaves are fanning the flames of hate, spreading propaganda and conspiracy theories that often originate in white supremacist organizations and blaming immigrants for everything from leprosy to invasion plans. The number of hate groups in the country is rising rapidly. And pandering politicians across the country have flooded state legislatures with bills designed to isolate, demean, humiliate and impoverish immigrants. No fewer than 18 state Houses of Representatives have passed resolutions opposing the "North American Union," a plan to merge the United States with Mexico and Canada, even though no such plan exists.

It's no wonder nearly two-thirds of Hispanics surveyed by the Pew Hispanic Center last year believe Congress' failure to enact immigration reform has made life more difficult for all Latinos.

America's war on immigrants is claiming victims, and the human toll is rising. Bah's family still has questions about their loved one's death. Justeen Mancha worries that agents might storm her home again. And we, as a nation, are in danger of losing sight of our most fundamental beliefs about human dignity.

This editorial was published June 14, 2008, in the Huffington Post.