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When It Comes to Immigration Detention and Enforcement, Georgia Sets a Terrible Example

Guest blogger: Azadeh N. Shahshahani, National Security/Immigrants’ Rights Project Director, ACLU Foundation of Georgia

On Monday, the ACLU of Georgia submitted testimony to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) on conditions at Stewart and Irwin County Detention Centers as well as racial profiling in Cobb and Gwinnett counties. IACHR has a mandate to promote respect for human rights in the region and is authorized to examine allegations of human rights violations in all member states of the Organization of American States (OAS) including the United States.

The IACHR hearing came less than a week after the body released its report critical of the U.S. immigration enforcement and detention system. The report was based on visits to six detention centers in the U.S. and interviews with detainees and their family members as well as human rights defenders.

In its report, the IACHR voiced concern for the increasing reliance on detention of immigrants, where in fact detention should be the exception. In addition, the IACHR expressed its concern with “lack of a genuinely civil detention system with general conditions that are commensurate with human dignity and humane treatment” and the increasing privatization of the immigration detention system in the U.S., with little oversight provided for the contracting prison corporations.

In Georgia, we know firsthand that private immigration detention facilities are particularly ripe for abuse. The ACLU of Georgia and Georgia Detention Watch have documented conditions at the largest corporate-run facility in the U.S., the Stewart Detention Center located in Lumpkin, Georgia. In April 2009, Georgia Detention Watch released a report on conditions at Stewart based on interviews with 16 detainees conducted in December 2008. As the report details, complaints at Stewart have ranged from inadequate medical care, arbitrary transfers, prolonged detention, and inadequate access to interpreters and counsel, to verbal and physical abuse.

In March 2009, the situation at this facility took a tragic turn when Roberto Martinez Medina, a 39-year-old immigrant held at Stewart, died of a treatable heart infection. To this day, many unanswered questions surround his death.

And if the past is any indication, we may always remain in the dark about why Mr. Medina perished in detention. The local ICE office has refused to meet with us to discuss the findings of the Stewart report or the death of Roberto Martinez Medina. It was only in November 2010, at instigation of the Department of Homeland Security Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, that ICE finally granted us a meeting. ICE assured us then that they will look into complaints about the conditions faced by detainees and take such issues very seriously. However, the local ICE office has since refused to convey to us a mechanism for timely and effective communication of complaints for fear of “clogging up their system.”

In its report, the IACHR also expressed concern about local-federal partnerships for enforcement of immigration laws, such as 287(g) and “Secure Communities,” which have led to racial profiling. The IACHR specifically called for termination of the failed 287(g) program.

The ACLU of Georgia submission to the IACHR included testimony of racial profiling and human rights abuses related to implementation of 287(g) in two Georgia counties, namely, Cobb and Gwinnett.

As documented in the ACLU of Georgia reports, many Latino community members in Gwinnett and Cobb counties have been stopped without probable cause or reasonable suspicion. The 287(g) program lacks the proper oversight mechanisms for the state or local levels, and allows for abuse of power by police officers who are not well trained.

What happened to “Gabriel,” detailed in the Cobb report, is illustrative. On May 19, 2009, on his way to completing a construction job, Gabriel’s car was stopped around a residential neighborhood close to Rocky Mountain Road, an area known to be targeted by Cobb police. Approaching a stop sign, Gabriel was extra careful to make a complete stop. But he was nonetheless pulled over by two Cobb County policemen on motorcycles. The officers did not tell him why they were stopping him, but later issued him a ticket for an improper stop.

Gabriel was asked to exit his car and the officers searched his car without seeking his consent. Gabriel was then arrested because he had no driver’s license.

Gabriel said: “The officer in the patrol car who arrested me was really nice. He took off my handcuffs to transport me to the jail. Upon arrival, a sheriff deputy at the jail asked the Cobb Police officer why he didn’t have me in handcuffs. The officer replied that he didn’t feel it was necessary. The two officers began to argue about this. I heard the sheriff deputy say really insulting things about me. The Cobb officer told the sheriff deputy to be quiet because I spoke English. The sheriff deputy then felt embarrassed and reacted by turning to me and telling me not to try anything because he’d ‘kick [my] teeth out.’”

Following his arrest, Gabriel’s wife paid his bond in the amount of $2,000 and he was released. When we talked to him, he was scheduled to be deported, but still living in Cobb. He avoided certain areas due to police harassment. Asked whether he would be reluctant to call the police in the future, he said, “Yes. I fear the police more than the criminals that might rob me.”

Gabriel is not alone. Many victims of racial profiling we spoke to in Cobb and Gwinnett also expressed fear of further contact with the police.

In addition to yesterday’s hearing, the ACLU has brought these issues to the attention of the U.S. government in several different human rights forums. In February, the ACLU’s Human Rights Program delivered a statement as part of the U.S. government’s Universal Periodic Review cataloging the numerous documented civil and human rights abuses associated with programs like 287(g) and Secure Communities.

The U.S. government and Georgia should heed recommendations of the IACHR and put an immediate stop to programs such as 287(g) that lead to racial profiling and abuse of power by the police. The government should also end the unnecessary and inhumane detention of immigrants and instead, as urged by the IACHR, rely on effective alternatives to detention.

Photo courtesy of thenewstribune.com.

N.Y. State bill and new student film aim to revive the DREAM

Last week week the U.S. Census Bureau announced that there had been an unanticipated spike in the Hispanic population of the country over the last decade. Hispanics now form the country’s second-largest group, having crossed the 50 million mark, or 16.3% of the national population. This announcement comes at a significant moment in our country as debates around the treatment of undocumented immigrants intensify. The Hispanic population now forms a much bigger portion of the electorate and, with much of the immigration debate (including the DREAM Act) focusing on this group, the need for comprehensive immigration reform is becoming even more pressing.

Also in the same week the New York State Youth Leadership Council (NYSYLC) announced the introduction of the first ever state version of the DREAM Act (S.4179), led by state senator Bill Perkins. If passed, this will be a major accomplishment for immigration reform advocates and will hopefully spark similar changes at the federal level. The N.Y. state version of the DREAM Act incorporates many of the same benefits as the federal version of the legislation that was defeated in the Senate in December of last year. According to the NYSYLC-

“The benefits include access to financial aid for higher education, access to driver’s licenses, work authorization and access to health care. In order to qualify for these benefits, the young person must have arrived to the United States before the age of 16, be under the age of 35, have resided in New York State for at least two years, have obtained a high school diploma or GED equivalent from an American institution and have good moral character.”

While the outcome of this bill remains to be seen, some are also skeptical of what such legislation, if passed, would actually accomplish. Steven Thrasher of the Village Voice expressed concerns that since immigration falls under federal jurisdiction, even after such legislation, New York State would have no power to halt raids by Immigrations Customs Enforcement (ICE) or to help the immigrant youth work towards U.S. citizenship. However, there is no doubt that this incarnation of the DREAM Act is a positive indication that this is a matter of national importance and that the efforts of the movement are paying off. If passed, this bill would benefit many undocumented youth such as Sonia Guinansaca, a 21-year-old young woman who is also a member of the NYSYLC. Reacting to the introduction of the state bill, Guinansaca stated-

We’re very excited, this is one of the most progressive bills particularly when we’re surrounded by failure of the federal DREAM Act and other anti-immigrant bills around the country…We’re making a statement that we are here, undocumented, unafraid, unapologetic and we’re going to work to resolve this issue. That is what this New York State campaign has meant for many of us and we’re not going to give up.

The anti-immigrant bills Guinansaca mentions are the other face of the current immigration debate around the country. While reform advocates continue to stress the urgent need for just and fair immigration reform, state legislatures around the country are vying for increased restrictions against the rights of immigrants. In addition to having adverse implications for the economic and social stability of the states in which they are enacted, these harsh anti-immigrant laws often call for state law enforcement to distinguish between people based on their appearance, a factor that goes against the constitutional fabric of the country.

A new short documentary released today by the Center for New Community explores the highly controversial SB1070 law passed in Arizona from a new angle. The poignant film, titled ‘A Look Inside SB1070′ (see below), follows a delegation of university students, from Washington D.C., New York, Chicago and Colorado, who visited the border regions of Arizona to learn more about the enactment of the draconian anti-immigration law. The film was screened on college campuses across the United States last week to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. For the students in the film, the experience was eye-opening and, in some cases, infuriating as they were privy to the conditions of immigrant communities along the border areas. One of the students who filmed the trip, President L. Davis, remarked-

Getting behind the camera to capture this story of the immigrant Hispanic population of Arizona and the American reaction will remain one of the greatest experiences of my life. One that I believe will help inspire another generation of freedom fighters determined to see freedom and justice prevail.

Youth-led efforts like this documentary and the New York state version of the DREAM Act signal the continued vigor with which advocates are pushing for immigration reform. The bill’s fate in the N.Y. State senate is yet unknown, but supporters can sign the petition to Governor Cuomo to urge him to support S.4179. Meanwhile, films such as ‘A Look Inside SB1070′ will hopefully further raise awareness around the human impact of harsh anti-immigration laws such as SB1070 and help to highlight that fact that with ever-increasing immigrant populations, the call for comprehensive immigration reform simply cannot be ignored.

Watch the film ‘A Look Inside SB1070′ here:

Photo courtesy of news.change.org

It shouldn’t take a tragedy to bring people out of the shadows

UPDATE: In a happy ending to Emily Ruiz’s story, her family’s lawyer announced today that she has been flown back to the U.S. and has been reunited with her parents. Emily’s story became the focus of much public outcry and pressure from the media, which led the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to review her case. See photos and a video of the reunion here.

In the early hours of March 12, a bus ferrying passengers from the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut met with a horrific accident on the I-95 expressway in the Bronx, en route to Chinatown in Manhattan. The crash killed 15 of the passengers onboard, and the driver was later accused of being unlicensed as well as falling asleep at the wheel. One of the passengers who died in the crash was Mr. Wang Jianhua, a man who had come to America to escape government persecution and pursue the American dream  for himself and for the family that he had been forced to leave behind in the Fujian province, in China.

Three years ago, Mr. Wang arrived in New York City with the aid of smugglers, having made the conscious decision to seek a better life for his wife, daughter and then unborn son. After raising $75,000 with the help of relatives and numerous creditors to pay for his passage, Mr. Wang left all that was familiar to him and began his journey to the United States. Once in New York, Mr. Wang lived in cramped conditions with several other Chinese immigrants in Chinatown, where he found a job as a delivery-man in a restaurant – a grueling job that earned him approximately $500 a week. His life comprised of work and sleep, with very little respite by way of a social life. He only communicated with his family when he could afford to, and sent home whatever was left of his salary once he was done paying rent and other expenses. In November 2008, shortly after arriving in the United States, he had filed for asylum on the grounds of being targeted by Chinese authorities for trying to have more than one child, a case that was still pending when he was killed in the crash. Following his death, Mr. Wang’s wife and two children are now bereft, in an even more dire state of poverty than they were before.

It is unfortunate that it takes a tragedy such as this to shed light on stories such as Mr.Wang’s. Today, there are millions of hard working immigrants like him in the United States, who are living under hardship, separated from their families, and striving to work towards a better life for their families. Stigma against undocumented immigrants and lack of comprehensive immigration reform negates their valuable contribution to the economy and withholds their right to be a legitimate part of the workforce, as well as their access to basic human rights and services. Moreover, instead of working towards rational and humane immigration reform, the situation the country seems to be pushing for is an enforcement heavy approach that is inefficient, inhumane, and inadequate in addressing the reality of the nearly 12 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S.

The repercussions of a broken immigration system also extend to the children of undocumented immigrants, who are U.S. citizens. In what was a big relief for immigration reform lobbyists, on Thursday, March 17, the Arizona Senate rejected the latest packet of five bills that would have further curtailed the rights of immigrants in the state. The primary bill that had drawn the most opposition aimed at pushing the Supreme Court to strip citizenship rights of the children of illegal immigrants. The four other bills would have removed the rights of such immigrants from attending state universities and driving vehicles in Arizona, and required school districts and hospitals to check the legal status of students and patients. Senator Paula Aboud (D-Tucson) challenged the morality of the bills, calling them “morally reprehensible.” She further stated-

This bill would create a two-tiered system, a system of discrimination that says some children born in this country have different rights than other children born in this country…I do not believe that is the American way.

The double standard that Senator Aboud highlights is unfortunately in practice already. On March 11 (a day before the Bronx bus crash that killed Mr. Wang), immigration authorities at Dulles International Airport (Washington D.C.) deported Emily Ruiz, a 4-year-old girl who was flying back from Guatemala with her grandfather. Despite being a U.S. citizen, Emily was separated from her parents who live in New York and who are undocumented, and sent back to Guatemala. While there are conflicting reports from the immigration authorities and Emily’s family about what led to her being deported from the country of her birth, the fact remains that a 4- year old U.S. citizen was separated from her parents and denied entry into her country. The legislative action that Arizona has been attempting to take towards severely restricting the liberties and rights of immigrants will only lead to more stories such as Emily’s, and more families being separated.

The ramifications of these two events are alarming. Jeanne A. Butterfield, a former executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, spoke to the New York Times-

The case is alarming because it shows what can happen once you start treating kids who are born here whose parents are undocumented with less rights than a full-blown citizen.

The rejection of the packet of anti-immigrant bills in the Arizona state senate is a small but crucial step in the right direction. Recent legislation in Utah is also a positive marker of what comprehensive immigration reform could look like. Last week, Utah ratified a set of immigration bills that provide a balance between enforcement, and developing a program that recognizes the importance of immigrants to the state economy. State Rep. Bill Wright, who authored a part of the laws, commented-

I’m of the opinion that we really don’t have the ability as a society to remove that large a portion of a segment from our society — either the cost, or just the damage it would do…A lot of these people are intertwined in our society. They have financial obligations: They have bank notes; they’ve bought houses; they contribute; they have jobs.

It remains to be seen whether the federal government will use Utah as a model for crafting their own comprehensive immigration reform legislation. Perhaps, then, people like Mr. Wang would have a more legitimate chance at working towards financial stability for their families and U.S. citizens like Emily Ruiz won’t be turned away from their own country.

Image courtesy of extras.sltrib.com

This just in from the Irish government – NYC, make St. Patrick’s Day inclusive

From our b-listed blog:

On this, the 250th St. Patrick’s Day in the United States, we look at the symbolism of the holiday and its tremendous significance in current debates around immigration and civil rights in America. While the inclusiveness of the parade has come a long way since it first started, this year the New York City parade received sharp criticism from the Irish government for its continued exclusion of LGBTQ groups. The Irish Foreign Minister, Eamon Gilmore, in a landmark meeting with gay rights leaders and groups at the Irish Consulate in New York, stated-

What these parades are about is a celebration of Ireland and Irishness. I think they need to celebrate Ireland as it is, not as people imagine it. Equality is very much the center of who we are in our identity in Ireland.

This issue of exclusion is not Irish, let’s be clear about it. Exclusion is not an Irish thing. … I think that’s the message that needs to be driven home.

Gilmore was reacting to the open and continued exclusion of LGBTQ groups from participating in the parade in New York City, the world’s oldest civilian parade and the largest in the U.S. This follows another, perhaps even more blunt, reaction from the Irish government late last year when Irish President Mary McAleese turned down an invitation to be the grand marshal of New York City’s 2011 parade. This was reportedly connected to the same issue of LGBTQ exclusion. Several rights groups have openly criticized the city’s parade for promoting “hatred and intolerance,” shunning the stance of the parade’s organizers The Ancient Order of Hibernians that the event is a private, religious procession which justifies the absence of certain groups.

In 2000, the Queens’ neighborhoods of Sunnyside/Woodside began hosting an alternative parade called St. Pats for All, which upholds the theme of “cherishing all the children of the nation equally.” Besides a host of Irish cultural groups, this year’s St. Pats for All parade also included a diverse celebration of groups such as Marriage Equality NY, Dignity USA, NAACP, Tibetan students from the YCC & Himalayan Southeast Asian Club, and many more. Christine Quinn, the council speaker and openly gay Irish American, praised the Sunnyside/Woodside event, hopes that one day gay New Yorkers will also be invited to join the New York City parade, emulating the message sent out by the Queens parade that “there is a place where all people no matter their race, religion or sexual orientation can march.”

Irish immigrants have contributed substantially to the diverse fabric of the American society we live in today, but they too endured plenty of racial prejudice. When the Great Potato Famine struck Ireland in 1845, almost a million poor and desperate Irish migrated to the United States seeking better lives. They were, however, met with much prejudice and ridicule and had trouble finding even menial jobs. The infamously racist employment signs ‘No Irish Need Apply’ eventually pushed the Irish Americans to gather together and demand equal treatment for their community. As Brian O’Dwyer, chairman of the non-profit Emerald Isle Immigration Center, commented-

We learned very quickly that the only way we could combat oppression is by being in and of ourselves, become part of the politics and making sure we took part in the American democracy…

Unfortunately, the prejudice faced by the Irish immigrants back then continues in other forms against various immigrant communities and social groups in the U.S today. This bridging of the Irish experience with that of other groups at a crossroads today has been poignantly expressed in ‘San Patricio,’ a new album from Paddy Maloney of the Irish band the Chieftains. In a true celebration of diversity and history, the album is “thoroughly Mexican yet utterly Irish, carried aloft by tin whistles, skin drums, pipes, harps, guitars and stomping feet.”

As we confront these current issues in our society, let’s take this St. Patrick’s Day to push for the inclusion of all cultural and social groups, regardless of background, gender and sexuality, in our parades and the wider American identity. If on St. Patrick’s Day everyone unofficially becomes Irish for a day, then let’s make sure “everyone” is a truly inclusive term. Whether you celebrated today or not, we leave you with an old Irish blessing:

May love and laughter light your days,
and warm your heart and home.
May good and faithful friends be yours,
wherever you may roam.
May peace and plenty bless your world
with joy that long endures.
May all life’s passing seasons
bring the best to you and yours!

photo courtesy of blog.hotelbook.com

How ‘Un-American’ are Peter King’s Congressional hearings?

On Friday, March 4, two elderly Sikh men were gunned down without provocation while they were out for a casual stroll in a suburb of Sacramento. One of them, Surinder Singh (67), died immediately while his friend Gurmej Atwal (78), who was shot twice in the chest, is said to be in critical condition. The police who are investigating the attack have called on any witnessed to come forward and said that while they are still searching for evidence, there is a high probability that the there was a “hate or bias motivation for the crime.” This unfortunate attack took place just days before Rep. Peter King (R-NY) began his controversial House Homeland Security Committee hearings on the “The Extent of Radicalization” among American Muslims. With the upcoming 10th year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and the endless spate of hate crimes against minority groups, it is difficult to ignore the implications that this Congressional hearing will have on the future of this country.

In the aftermath of 9/11,  heightened national security measures and increased suspicion of immigrant communities have placed a harsh spotlight on Muslim Americans as well as the wider South Asian and Arab American communities, deeply impacting the ways in which these communities are perceived and damaging their sense of national identity.

The first of the King hearings took place in Washington D.C. yesterday. Rep. Peter King said that he initiated these hearings in response to a string of arrests in 2010 concerning Muslim Americans who were connected to intercepted plots against American targets. In an interview with the Associated Press, King stated-

There is a real threat to the country from the Muslim community and the only way to get to the bottom of it is to investigate what is happening.

The committee yesterday heard from a panel of witnesses that argued for and against the premise of the hearings. Those who argued that the country needs to be more vigilant about the “radicalization” of the Muslim community included Dr. M Zuhdi Jasser, a doctor and Navy veteran who called on his fellow Muslims to be more outspoken against radical Islam, and Abdirizak Bihi, a Somali American activist whose nephew joined a militant group in Somalia and was subsequently killed in 2009. During the hearing, the most pointed questions against the premise came from Representatives who raised concerns over why other extremist groups – affiliated with various religions – were not even being considered by King and his committee. Speaking to the press after the hearing yesterday, King called it a success, emphasizing that the purpose was to “inform, not to inflame.”

The run-up to the hearings saw a very polarized response, with groups like Fox News expressing substantial support for them, while human rights advocates consistently condemned them. The greatest criticism of the hearings was not that extremist acts of terror pose a threat to national security and need to be investigated, but that King’s approach is biased and isolationist. The criticism holds that by scapegoating a community based on their religious affiliation, the King hearings will have widespread repercussions on how American Muslims will be perceived by the wider public. For a community that is already the subject of suspicion and profiling, the Congressional hearings, by calling for greater accountability for American Muslims above any other group, has very real implications for community identity, public perception, integration and collective healing.

One of the most vocal opponents of the hearings is the country’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a group that Peter King has accused of conspiring with radical Islamist groups. In addition to asserting their identity as a peaceful organization, CAIR said that they would have supported the hearings if they were “balanced and fair.” Also opposing King’s approach to the issue is the civil rights organization, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), that stated in their 2010 annual report on “hate and extremism” that the “radical right in America expanded explosively in 2010,” as the number of hate groups topped 1,000.

A number of critics also held that this kind of focalized criticism of a specific community could result in the loss of trust these groups have towards law enforcement agencies and the government, impeding the work of law enforcement and thus work against ensuring the safety of all communities. At the hearing, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), the first Muslim member of Congress, gave an emotional testimony about Mohammad Salman Hamdani, a NYPD cadet who was under suspicion for being involved with the attacks even as died trying to help victims on September 11, 2001. Breaking into tears, Ellison described -

After the tragedy…some people tried to smear his character … solely because of his Islamic faith. Some people spread false rumors and speculated that he was in league with the attackers because he was a Muslim. But it was only when his remains were identified that these lies were exposed. Mohammad Salman Hamdani was a fellow American who gave his life for other Americans. His life should not be identified as just a member of an ethnic group or just a member of a religion, but as an American who gave everything for his fellow Americans.

This anecdote, from an event still fresh in public memory, highlights the deeply damaging impact that continued demonization of an entire religious group can and does have on people’s lives. Moreover, by coming from an institutionalized source such as the House of Representatives (despite a marked distance by the Obama administration), the hearings put out a very strong message to the American public, and need to be understood for the authority that they wield. Even after Rep. King diluted his more aggressive original agenda, the hearings signal and amplify a deep sense of suspicion towards one group of Americans. Especially when ratified by the political leaders of the country, such trends pose a threat to the fundamental American principles of dignity and respect towards everyone. And that, perhaps, is a bigger threat to national security, especially in these testing times.

For a lighter, yet insightful take on King’s track record and alleged hypocrisy in this issue, watch Jon Stewart’s analysis of the hearings here:

Photo courtesy of www.upi.com

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The winner of the I AM THIS LAND contest is…

From our b-listed blog-

(DRUMROLL PLEASE…)

The judges have spoken!

We’re pleased to announce that the winner for the I AM THIS LAND contest on diversity is Role Call!

Role Call was created by a team of students and alumni from Flushing International High School (FIHS) in Queens, New York under the supervision of FIHS Media Arts Teacher, Dillon Paul. The MTV-style video – of a student in class daydreaming about gender, cultural expression, and racial stereotypes – won the judges over.

Watch below!

Breakthrough got the chance to meet the winners at FIHS and we were quite taken with their story.Watch our interview with the high school team HERE. “The video was created in response to several incidents of violence in our school, and our desire to use media to promote respect and tolerance in our school and beyond,” said teacher Dillon Paul. “Our students come from approximately 40 different countries and speak 20 different languages. Like most high schools, however, cultural differences, sexual and gender identity can be sources of discomfort and fear, leading to bigotry, bullying and violence.”

Paul worked with current students and two alumni, Jean Franco Vergaray and Osbani Garcia, to introduce the Gay Straight Alliance, that promotes respect and equality for LGBTQ youth, at the school. Said Franco, “That we could portray one person being all these different personalities, all these different identities, was just a way to say, diversity is okay. People shouldn’t be labeled.”

We’re also pleased to announce the first runner up: What Are You? created by Genevieve Lin of Seattle, Washington.

Second place runners up (of equal ranking) are: I’m Coming Out and  American Girl by Eliyas Qureshi of Jersey City, New Jersey; American Dream by Suhir Ponncchamy of Belle Mead, New Jersey and Listen by Luke McKay of Fenton, Michigan. And check back for interviews with some of the other participants!  Visit I AM THIS LAND, to see all the amazing entries!

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