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Arizona, Wisconsin…Searching for freedom in a sea of hate

Two months into the new year, it looks like the hateful and divisive rhetoric that marked 2010 is continuing to make it’s presence felt. Fueled by frustration over the economic situation, and by the changing racial and ethnic face of the country, ‘hate’ groups espousing extremist views on race, politics and culture are growing at an alarming rate. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s annual investigative report released on February 23rd, the number of hate groups in the country has topped 1000, more than have existed at any point in over 20 years.

A lot of the vitriol is directed at President Obama, who is often seen as a symbol of all that is “wrong” with the country. Any residue anger seems to be directed at minority groups, with a focus on the immigrant population that comprises a significant percentage of the country’s workforce. From previously existing mainly on the fringes of media and politics, this hate and resentment aimed at minorities has now decisively made its way into the mainstream, most visible in the political sphere in the form of countless bills that are being introduced around the country. In addition to the events currently taking place in Wisconsin, it is difficult to ignore the vast array of anti-immigrant legislation and enforcement measures that are on the cards at both the Federal and state levels.

The passage of SB1070 by Arizona’s Gov. Jan Brewer in April of last year set off a wave of harsh anti-immigrant laws that raise concerns of racial profiling and civil rights violations in various states around the country and pose a serious threat to basic American values. State legislative sessions across the country from California to Kentucky, Texas to Rhode Island have witnessed the introduction of immigration enforcement bills that have severe implications for racial profiling. On February 24th, Ohio introduced its own version of  Arizona’s SB1070 in a bill which permits local police officers to enforce federal immigration laws. A bill introduced in the Arkansas state legislature that would deny state benefits to undocumented immigrants except in emergencies was halted yesterday when a House committee voted against the bill by a small majority. On Tuesday , the Indiana Senate voted for a law to allow local police to question people stopped for infractions on their immigration status, in a bill that was similar to 2010′s SB1070.

While many states introduce harsh anti-immgrant laws, Arizona continues to stay two steps ahead of the others when it comes to advancing legislation that curtails basic rights and freedoms. The latest round of legislation that was cleared by the Appropriations Committee in the Arizona Senate on Wednesday illustrates this point best. In addition to SBs 1308 and 1309, the bills that undermine the 14th amendment’s birthright citizenship provision, was a package of immigration bills, led by Senator Russell Pearce (the author of SB1070), that curtail the rights of immigrants in the state of Arizona. These bills mandate that undocumented immigrants would be barred from receiving many public benefits, attending community collage, and be barred from driving motor vehicles and obtaining any state licenses including those required for marriage. The bills mandate that schoolchildren (k-12) would have to show proof of citizenship and run the risk of being reported to local police if there were undocumented, and that hospitals would be required to ask for proof of citizenship from patients demanding non-emergency care. Senator Russell Pearce defended his compendium of anti-immigrant legislation that he said was aimed at stopping the “invasion.” All the above laws were passed by the committee, and are now moving to the Senate floor for approval.

Alessandra Soler Meetze, executive director of the A.C.L.U. of Arizona decried the new measures as working towards a “papers please” society. Speaking to the New York Times, she said-

This bill is miles beyond S.B. 1070 in terms of its potential to roll back the rights and fundamental freedoms of both citizens and noncitizens alike…

And while the bold announcement by the Obama administration and the Department of Justice that they would no longer defend the constitutionality of the the federal Defense of Marriage Act (that bans the recognition of same-sex marriage) comes as good news, the issue of immigration is looking bleak on the Federal level as well. Since the beginning of the 112th session of Congress, the Immigration Subcommittee of the House Judiciary committee has been pushing its strategy for mass deportation, referred to as ‘Attrition Through Enforcement.’ A few weeks ago, America’s Voice released a report exposing the background and strategy behind the Immigration Subcommittee’s current policy on immigration enforcement.

The report, collated by the America’s Voice Education Fund, “uncovers the origin of “attrition through enforcement”; its radical goal to achieve the mass removal of millions of immigrants; and the impact this proposal would have on both our economy and politics.” The report details how this approach, promoted by nativist groups and anti-immigrant hard-liners such as the Center for Immigration Studies, FAIR (Federation for American Immigration Reform) and Numbers USA, is packaged as a program aiming  to create jobs for Americans, but is designed to ramp up enforcement on state and federal levels with a view to forcing the 11 million undocumented immigrants out of the country, despite the monumental cost to taxpayers and the agriculture industry. On a press call mid February, Mark Potok, Director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center; Fernand Amandi, Managing Partner of research organization, Bendixen & Amandi International; and Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice, discussed the strategy of mass deportation and the risks that it poses for the political future of the GOP, for the future of race relations in the U.S., and for the economy.

This long list of events, laws and movements taking place around the nation are working to thwart positive change and drastically affect the values of freedom, equality and justice that are intrinsic to the spirit of this country. At such a time it is important that we look to people that are standing up for what is right, and learn from their example. Over the last week, tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets in Wisconsin to demand that the government renew their commitment to the ‘American dream’ by valuing hard work instead of denying basic public services to those who are the most vulnerable. In a move to stand in solidarity with the people of Wisconsin and spread the “spirit of Madison” to the rest of the country, on Saturday, February 26, at noon local time, groups around the country are organizing rallies in front of every statehouse in all major cities.

Stand together to Save the American Dream. We are all Wisconsin, we are all Americans.

Photo courtesy of endoftheamericandream.com

Delayed justice for Guatemalan mother Encarnacion Bail Romero

Guest blogger: Michelle Brané, Director, Detention and Asylum Program, Women’s Refugee Commission

In 2007, Encarnación Bail Romero, a young woman from Guatemala, was arrested and detained during an immigration raid at the Missouri poultry processing plant where she worked. The fact that Encarnación was a mother with a baby at home did not matter. She was detained without the opportunity to make care arrangements for her son, Carlos—a U.S. citizen—who was just six months old. While in detention, Encarnación was not allowed to participate in her custody case and consequently, her parental rights were terminated. Carlos was adopted by a couple soon after.

This week, the Missouri Supreme Court decided to send Encarnación Bail Romero’s case back to the lower court for yet another hearing. When I heard this, I couldn’t help but welcome the news with mixed feelings. The fact that the court acknowledged that proper procedures were not followed is a relief; however, the court’s failure to reunite a mother and son and delay justice is a travesty. Encarnación’s son has been with his adoptive parents for over two years now, and has come to know them as his only parents. The more time that is spent in this limbo with a mother separated from her child the more harm is done.

I first met Encarnación in 2009, several years after she was arrested during an immigration raid at the poultry processing plant where she worked. Carlos—a U.S. citizen—was just six months old at the time of the raid. When I spoke with Encarnación I was struck most by not only her heartache, but also the incredible strength she has carried in her fight to reunite with her son. As a mother of two young children myself, hearing stories like Encarnación’s makes my heart stop. What would it feel like to not know if my children were safe, to have them think that I did not want them because I was locked in detention and unable to care for them?

Encarnación told me that while she was in detention, Carlos had a series of caretakers. He was first at her brother’s home and then with her sister before being cared for by a local couple who offered to babysit. She was approached and asked to allow her son to be adopted but she refused, asking instead that her son be placed in foster care until she could care for him herself.

Encarnación was then swept up in a series of events that ultimately led to the unjust termination of her parental rights. She was given information about her custody case in English—a language she does not understand. Her lawyer was hired by her son’s future adoptive parents, demonstrating a clear conflict of interest. And, despite Encarnación’s clear desire to be reunited with her son, a court found her to have abandoned him. Her parental rights were terminated, and Carlos was adopted. Encarnación’s case is complicated, involving the failures of multiple systems, but had Encarnación’s right to due process been upheld, none of this would have happened. She would have been able to present her case in court, and Carlos would still be with her.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy in this story is that many other families are suffering this same fate—a fate that could be avoided. Both Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and family courts have the legal obligation to ensure detainees are able to participate in all aspects of their custody and immigration cases. ICE has the authority to release parents from detention so that they can continue to care for their children while undergoing immigration proceedings. And should the outcome of their immigration case order them deported, mothers and fathers have the right—and must be given the opportunity—to either take their children with them or leave them behind in a safe situation.

Releasing parents from detention does not mean weakening immigration enforcement or letting undocumented migrants go free. Parents in immigration custody have an incentive to appear for their hearings and comply with court orders, simply because they do not want to lose their families. And for those who need some sort of supervision, ICE has access to cost-effective alternatives to traditional immigration detention that can be used to ensure parents appear at custody proceedings. It is critical that these alternatives be used in order to protect children from becoming unnecessary collateral damage.

Five million children in the United States have at least one undocumented parent and three million of these children are U.S. citizens. ICE’s failure to utilize these options has the potential to create a generation of lost children who are needlessly denied a relationship with their detained or deported parents. These children are far more likely to live in poverty, struggle in school and face unemployment and homelessness.

The court in Encarnación’s case has recognized the damage done by failing to uphold the 14th amendment, the constitutional right that ensures all persons—including undocumented immigrants—are entitled to due process and equal protection under the law. Encarnación’s case has shown that where due process rights are denied, families suffer. As a nation that prides itself on valuing the sanctity of family unity, we must uphold our commitment to the bond between parent and child, regardless of immigration status.

How is 2011 faring so far? Ethnic studies and the 14th amendment

At this moment it is very hard to focus on anything but the tragic incident that marked the beginning of this year when a man in Tucson, Arizona opened fire on a public meeting killing 6 people and gravely injuring 14 others last Saturday. While this tragedy cannot be undone, there are a number of issues around which we can hope for some positive developments in 2011.

In Arizona, the first week of 2011 saw all classes in the Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican-American ethnic studies program being declared illegal by the State of Arizona, in accordance with a state law came into effect on January 1st. Tom Horne, Arizona’s newly elected Attorney General, declared the program illegal on account of it allegedly teaching Latino students that are being mistreated, and encouraging the students to become activists for their race. In the capacity of State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Horne had written the law challenging the ethnic studies program last year. The bill, HB 2291, was passed by the State Legislature in April and signed into law by Gov. Jan Brewer in May of 2010. Defending his latest action deeming that the Tucson district’s Mexican-American program was not in compliance with state standards, (while allowing similar programs for black, Asian and Native America students to continue) Horne said that “They teach kids that they are oppressed, that the United States is dominated by a white, racist, imperialist power structure that wants to oppress them.” Under the law, Tucson would stand to lose 10 percent of its state education funds if the classes are not discontinued, amounts to nearly $15 million.

According to Augustine F. Romero, director of student equity in Tucson schools, the debate over the ethnic studies program demonstrates the strong anti-Latino sentiment in the state, and highlights the pressing need for such programs to continue to exist, giving the students a chance to be proud of their heritage. Mr. Romero posed the question in an interview with the New York Times-

Who are the true Americans here — those embracing our inalienable rights or those trying to diminish them?

In an even deeper affront to inalienable American values, on January 5th, a coalition of legislators from over 14 states announced a plan to join together in a state compact and deny citizenship rights to the children of undocumented immigrants. The compact, clearly motivated by anti-immigrant feeling, is designed to challenge the 14th amendment to the U.S. constitution which states that those born in the United States will be considered U.S. citizens, irrespective of race, class or creed. This was closely matched by Rep. Steve King’s introduction of legislation H.R. 140 before the new session of Congress, aimed to take away the citizenship of children born in the U.S. to parents who were undocumented.

The state compact is being led by Senator Russell Pearce of Arizona, the state Senator best known for introducing the controversial and harsh anti-immigrant law, SB1070 in 2010. The legislators that introduced the plan unveiled a plan that seeks to take birthright citizenship, which is a Federal issue, into state hands by establishing state citizenship laws that deny citizenship rights to those born to parents who are undocumented, and then developing a compact between the various states by which the laws are upheld in all those states. The group claims that their model state legislation aims to halt the “misapplication of the 14th amendment,” which they say is sapping taxpayers funds and attracting further immigration to the U.S. Ultimately, the goal of the coordinated state-level strategy is to force the Supreme Court to take up the issue.

The plan is a joint effort of anti-immigration legislators like Russell Pearce and Kansas Secretary of State-elect Kris Kobach, and State Legislators for Legal Immigration, an anti-immigration group of lawmakers which had representatives from Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Idaho, Indiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas and Utah. Senator Pearce told the Washington Times-

I’m not stopping until the problem is solved, and clearly the problem is not solved. The cost is destroying this country, and it can no longer be ignored…The 14th Amendment was never intended to be applied to illegal aliens. They [the sponsors] specifically said it didn’t apply to foreigners or aliens. That amendment belongs to the African-Americans of this country. It’s their amendment.

Critics are suggesting that in fact, the proposal is completely unconstitutional and deliberately misunderstands the 14th amendment. By suggesting a two-tiered system of citizenship by which those who are born to parents who are undocumented receive different birth certificates than those who are born in the U.S. to parents who are legal residents, the compact goes against the fundamental values of the constitution. Elizabeth Wydra, writing for Politico, sums it up clearly-

The 14th Amendment, which was drafted and ratified against a backdrop of prejudice against newly freed slaves and various immigrant communities, was added to the Constitution to place the question of who should be a citizen beyond the politics and prejudices of the day. The big idea behind the 14th Amendment is that all people are born equal, and, if born in the United States, are born equal citizens — regardless of color, creed or social status. It is no exaggeration to say that the 14th Amendment is the constitutional embodiment of the Declaration of Independence and lays the foundation for the American Dream. Because of the 14th Amendment, all American citizens are equal and equally American. Whether one’s parents were rich or poor, saint or sinner, an American child will be judged by his or her own deeds.

As long as the Federal government avoids enacting a comprehensive reform of the existing immigration system and dealing with an issue that is in their jurisdiction, restrictionists will continue to introduce laws that threaten the fabric of the United States. At the start of this year, as we hope that Rep. Giffords recovers her health, we must recall the values of equality, dignity and respect that are intrinsic to the strength of this country and remember that when we deny human rights to some, we jeopardize the rights of all.

Photo courtesy of colorlines.com

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A nation’s spirit uprooted by conservative focus on “anchor babies”

The 14th amendment, established in 1868 as a major gain from the Civil War, united a nation that was once half-slave and half-free. Today, some Republicans wish to revisit the debate of 1868 and revoke its notion of birthright citizenship in order to help prevent undocumented immigration. Instead of focusing on reforming the immigration system, these Republicans focus on punishing immigrants and Americans alike by altering an amendment that continues to carry so much of our national spirit.

The 14th amendment grants citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States”. It also forbids states from denying anyone “life, liberty or property, without due process of law” or “denying any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has led the proposal to debate the amendment, arguing that it induces undocumented immigration and the desire to have a baby to claim citizenship, calling such a baby by the derogatory term, “anchor baby.” Arizona’s Republican state Sen. Russell Pearce, the architect of SB 1070, agrees. He said,

“When [the 14th Amendment] was ratified in 1868, the amendment had to do with African-Americans; it had nothing to do with aliens. It’s got to be fixed.”

Anti-immigration activists often claim that their real concern is to prevent law-breaking. But the Washington Post puts it best,

Revoking birthright citizenship would turn hundreds of thousands of infants into ‘criminals’ – arriving, not across a border, but crying in a [U.S.] hospital. A whole class of people would grow up knowing they are hunted aliens, through no fault of their own. This cannot be called the rule of law. It would be viciousness and prejudice on a grand scale.

Even Lou Dobbs, known for an anti-immigration stance in many respects, spoke out against changing the 14th amendment.

I believe that the 14th amendment – particularly in its due process and equal protection clause – is so important; it lays the entire foundation for the Bill of Rights being applied.

Defenders of the amendment say altering it would weaken a fundamental American value while doing little to deter immigration. In fact, immigration activists say that birthright citizenship is not even a significant driver of immigration, because a child has to reach age 21 to petition for permanent legal residency for his or her parents.

In even more charged reasoning, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) warned that birthright citizenship was a national security issue – involving a diabolical 30-year-long plot by some very patient terrorists. He said,

I talked to a retired FBI agent who said that one of the things they were looking at were terrorist cells overseas who had figured out how to game our system. And it appeared they would have young women, who became pregnant, would get them into the United States to have a baby… And then they would turn back where they could be raised and coddled as future terrorists. And then one day, twenty, thirty years down the road, they can be sent in to help destroy our way of life.

If birthright citizenship was revoked on the premise of fearing terrorists, our nation would embark on an even uglier journey of racial profiling. Moreover, on a practical level, revoking the 14th Amendment would affect those Americans who “look immigrant”, leading to an ugly ladder of bureaucracy to  prove citizenship.

Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R-CA) has gone even further and said we should deport existing natural-born citizen children if their parents are illegal immigrants. This retroactive stripping of citizenship is completely unconstitutional.

We simply cannot afford what we’re doing right now. We’re not being mean. We’re just saying it takes more than walking across the border to become an American citizen.

The solution – to criminalize millions of babies who are born in this country is unacceptable. Denying these babies the 14th Amendment is the same as denying African-American slaves the 14th Amendment 150 years ago. Abolishing the birthright to citizenship is a movement not about the legality of immigrants, but about the stripping away of human rights.

The real anachronism standing here is these senators who want to take us back to the times before the Civil War. When the president of FAIR said, “We should not allow language from 1868 enslave our thinking…in the 21st Century,” Masao Suzuki, writer for Fight Back News Service, urges us to respond by saying, “We are not going to be enslaved ever again.”

Graham’s notion to debate the 14th amendment had a mixed reception even from groups that back tougher enforcement of the nation’s border restriction. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, for one, supports stronger enforcement and, yet, refuses to endorse Graham’s suggestion. Instead, he suggested looking into reports of businesses that help immigrants arrange to have babies in the U.S. in order to win their children U.S. citizenship. Many Democrats also refuse to endorse Graham’s suggestion, but they resist stronger enforcement as a solution, stressing the urgency for comprehensive immigration reform. While President Obama’s push for immigration reform is considered dead, some Democrats are pushing for a scaled-back bill to move this fall.

Given the controversial nature of Graham’s proposal, successfully amending the Constitution would be considered unlikely. Many understand that the 14th Amendment made the Constitution what it is today: a document that guarantees the equal rights of all Americans and to which individuals and groups who feel they are being denied equality can appeal. As the 19th-century Republican editor George William Curtis wrote how it was part of a process that changed the U.S. government from one “for white men” to one “for mankind.” Since the Reconstruction era, the amendment had not stopped short of protecting African-Americans. Those who lived during the civil rights era had sought its protection, as well. Even today, the Supreme Court has used it to expand the rights of aggrieved Americans, as it did in Lawrence v. Texas, which in 2003 overturned a state law criminalizing homosexual acts.

Birthright citizenship has continued to protect all sorts of people outside the legacy of slavery, thereby rejecting any claim that it is anachronistic and requires amending.

As if SB1070 isn’t bad enough, here comes the “anchor-baby” bill

In an interesting new take on Arizona’s anti-immigrant law, Arizona attorneys Maria V. Jones and Kara Hartzler give us a glimpse into just how flawed and impractical the law is. Once it gets implemented on July 29th, the lawyers claim that it has the potential to completely overwhelm the state’s court system. Jones, chairwoman of the bar association’s Immigration Law Section, referred to the law’s ambiguous and “legally onerous” clauses and said that “SB 1070′s implementation will create the legal-system equivalent of stepping into a minefield.”

The lawyers said that once enforcement of SB1070 begins, the number of civil and criminal cases in the courts could triple overnight, and while they were quick in passing the law, the government has done very little to prepare for it by way of additional funds and staff for a state court system that “already has a backlog of cases.” The Arizona attorneys were especially critical of the provision in the law that allows local residents to sue the authorities for not enforcing it properly. If they are cautious about detaining people, they could open themselves up to lawsuits claiming they failed to execute it. On the other hand, if they enforce it too aggressively, as the law enables them to do, then police could end up detaining a number of U.S. citizens, which could lead to “wrongful-arrest lawsuits,” Hartzler says. Either way, it places local law enforcement in a no-win situation that could be costly, complicated and quite counter-productive.

By placing U.S. citizens who look “reasonably suspicious” of being undocumented in danger of being detained, the implications of SB1070 would be reminiscent of the terrible consequences of the “Chandler Round-Up” of 1997, when police officers spread out across Phoenix looking for undocumented immigrants. In a terrifying 5-day crackdown that involved questioning children while they were walking home from school, dozens and dozens of legal residents and U.S. citizens were detained for speaking Spanish or looking Mexican.

This time around, we still have no guarantee that SB1070 will not lead to racial profiling. In an extremely disturbing defense of the law by Iowa Congressman Steve King, he stood by the aspects of the law that could lead police to stop people based on their appearance saying that racial profiling is an “important component” of law enforcement. Reminding us of Senator Bilbray’s comments about how trained officers could identify undocumented people based on their clothes and shoes, Rep. King said-

Some claim that the Arizona law will bring about racial discrimination profiling. First let me say, Mr. Speaker, that profiling has always been an important component of legitimate law enforcement. If you can’t profile someone, you can’t use those common sense indicators that are before your very eyes. Now, I think it’s wrong to use racial profiling for the reasons of discriminating against people, but it’s not wrong to use race or other indicators for the sake of identifying that are violating the law…It’s just a common sense thing. Law enforcement needs to use common sense indicators…what kind of shoes people wear, what kind of accident they have, um, the, the type of grooming they might have, there’re, there’re all kinds of indicators there and sometimes it’s just a sixth sense and they can’t put their finger on it.

A law that calls for police officers to detain people based on their shoes, their “grooming, what type of “accidents” they have and the officer’s “sixth sense.” Can it get worse than this? Well it just did. Arizona Republican state representative John Kavanagh announced his plans for introducing a bill that will disallow children born to undocumented parents in the United States from automatically gaining citizenship. Referred to as the “anchor baby” bill, Kavanagh’s bill has already come under direct criticism for contradicting the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The 1868 amendment that allowed for citizenship for freed slaves, accords citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States.” Not surprisingly, Russell Pearce, who is the main author of Arizona Senate Bill 1070, is a key sponsor on the new legislation, which Arizona Republicans intend to introduce in this fall. According to Pearce and Kavanagh, this law only serves to preserve the 14th amendment by ensuring that it does not continue to be “hijacked” by immigrants.

It is becoming more and more apparent that these new pieces of anti-immigrant legislation are functioning as conduits for hate and racism in ways that are extremely disturbing. In the face of these developments, we must remember the core tenets of the Declaration of Independence, equality, freedom and dignity, that enable us to strive for values of fairness and due process for all, regardless of our national origin, race, religion, or citizenship.

Photo courtesy of aolnews.com

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