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NAME:
Claudia Smith
WHAT SHE DOES:
San Diego-based regional counsel for California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), a migrant rights group assisting documented and undocumented workers
BIGGEST TURNAROUND:
Convinced the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to reduce detention time for the undocumented and try to keep deported families together
FAVORITE TARGET:
The INS; employers who flout labor laws

“Nobody should be exploited.” That’s the bottom line for Claudia Smith, 46, whose job entails moving undocumented farmworkers through the courts, tracking down skinflint employers, and helping workers get medical help and such basic services as water and a bed to sleep on.

Currently, Smith monitors Operation Gatekeeper, the federal program that has beefed up border patrols using heat sensors and high metal fences.

“They’ve given all sorts of thought to high technology, but not to the people,” says Smith, who immigrated from Guatemala 30 years ago. Among the problems she’s found: immigrants detained for days with no water or food; rooms so overcrowded people stand for hours; routine beatings; family members separated and deported at different border crossings.

Last fall, Smith’s report on Gatekeeper’s abuses spurred the INS to make changes. But Smith wants more: She wants nutritional meals for the detainees, cells cleaned on a regular basis, and food stops for deportees traveling long distances. If the INS does not comply, she may file a complaint with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, part of the Organization of American States.

Smith maintains that Gatekeeper, California’s Proposition 187, and the like won’t deter immigrants from coming across the border. “The magnet is not public services,” she says.

“People come for jobs. The only nondiscriminatory option is to enforce labor laws–[penalizing] employers who do illegal deductions, flout health and safety standards.” The perception that the undocumented strain the economy, she thinks, masks the real issues. “In terms of taxes immigrants pay through rent, and what they get in services, it’s close to a wash.”

And, she contends, “Anglos are traumatized by the browning of California. Anti-immigrant sentiment doesn’t stop with the undocumented.” Smith wants to make sure such sentiments have nowhere to thrive.

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