La Migra is a Spanish slang term used to refer to employees of the United States Government who are responsible for immigration enforcement and border patrols. Agencies such as United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Border Patrol are both referred to as La Migra. The term does not merely apply to law enforcement at the border; it is also used to refer to immigration officers who make inspections of businesses in the course of searching for illegal immigrants.
The term is derived from migración, a Spanish word which means “migration” in English. It is widely understood in the larger community in parts of the United States which have a large Hispanic population, such as states located along the Mexican border.
When entering into the United States legally, dealing with La Migra at the border can still be an unsettling experience. ICE officers have the authority to search vehicles and confiscate passports while they are inspected. Due to a proliferation of “watch lists,” legal immigrants with suspicious names may find themselves detained by ICE officers until they can prove their identity. While living or working in the United States, immigrants from any country are subject to inspection, and they may be asked for papers to prove their legal residence.
For illegal immigrants, of course, La Migra represents the end of the line. At the border, ICE officers strive to prevent illegal entry into the country. This is accomplished by patrolling the border and heavily controlling access points. ICE also works within the United States to track down and deport illegal immigrants. Unfortunately, because documentation for legal immigrants can sometimes be incomplete, they have occasionally been caught up in ICE raids as well.
Because of the large proportion of illegal immigrants from Central and South America, Hispanic immigrants are oftentimes more closely inspected than immigrants from other nations. Some feel that they are subject to discrimination, because La Migra appears to inspect restaurants and businesses with a heavy percentage of Hispanic staff more frequently. A cry of “La Migra!” in a crowded kitchen can cause most of the staff, legal or not, to vanish until the coast is clear.
There have been reported cases of employers using fear of La Migra to control their employees. In some industries, illegal immigrants are viewed almost as a disposable resource, especially in border states. If field workers are rounded up and deported, a new batch can usually be quickly found, as many people seek their fortunes in the United States. Fear of La Migra can put an immigrant into an uncomfortable position, as unscrupulous employers have been known to use it as blackmail. Even legal immigrants are not exempt from this fear, as ICE raids in the early 2000s proved.
Concerns about immigration policy in the United States have existed since the country was founded. At the turn of the twentieth century, immigrants from Ireland, Italy, and other impoverished European nations were maligned. By the turn of the twenty-first century, the focus had turned to immigrants from Central and South America. Immigration reformers would like to ensure that everyone in the United States, legal or not, is given basic human rights and respect. Some of these reformers are outspoken critics of the practices used by La Migra, especially when innocents are caught up in the tide of an immigration raid.