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Vulnerable communities react to Arizona’s new law

Last Thursday, 10 year old Katherine Figueroa sat in a room in a Capitol Hill building in Washington DC telling Members of Congress about her personal encounter with immigration enforcement. Fighting back the tears, the young girl pleaded to the Democratic Members of Congress who were assembled, “Please tell President Obama to stop putting parents in jail, all they want is a better life for their kids.”She told the story of how her aunt took her in after her parents were arrested by Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s deputies. “I would also have bad dreams where the Arpaio deputies would take my aunt, her family and me to jail,” Katherine said. This brings to mind the poignant question from a second grader that caught the First Lady Michelle Obama off guard last month, with her honest fear for her family momentarily forcing the issue out of the political realm and into reality.

Katherine’s testimony was part of an ad-hoc Congressional hearing that took place in a packed committee room on Capital Hill and was attended by Democratic Members of Congress. One of the witnesses, Silvia Rodriguez, thanked Colorado Democrat Jared Polis for referring to her as an “American,” saying that it was one of the first times she had ever been called one. Her testimony and obvious pain brought tears to Rep. Polis’ eyes.

The event, a forum for Members of Congress to hear the stories of  women and children who were directly affected by Arizona’s harsh anti-immigrant law, SB1070, had been organized by Arizona Democratic Rep. Raul Grijalva and a number of labor and civil rights organizations such as the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, the National Domestic Worker Alliance, the AFL-CIO, the Family Values at Work Consortium and Jobs with Justice. The aim of the hearing was to illustrate the direct impact that extreme immigration enforcement measures such as SB1070 have on women and children, who are the most vulnerable members of immigrant populations, to demonstrate the extremely urgent need for a comprehensive overhaul of existing immigration laws, and to pressure the Obama administration and Congress to prevent the implementation of SB1070. Silvia Rodriguez, the witness mentioned earlier, appealed directly to President Obama at the end of her testimony. She said,

The only time that I felt to be the slightest happy, or accepted or proud by this country was when President Obama won his presidency. For him to not step up and fulfill his promises, really, really breaks a lot of hearts.

President Obama’s campaign promise of immigration reform fade from memory as such legislation looks less and less probable in this election year. Unless blocked by any of the five legal challenges that have been filed since Gov. Brewer signed the bill in to law on April 23rd, SB1070 is scheduled to take effect on July 29th. In addition to the horrific stories presented by the women at the June 10th hearing, community groups such as Puente, working on the ground in Arizona, have reported a massive increase in incidents of racial discrimination since the law was signed. While race has always been directly linked to immigration law, measures such as SB1070 have spurred on more instances of discrimination such as the case of a blood bank in Arizona refusing to take the blood of people who only speak Spanish.

Opposition to the tough measure has been coming from all sides, and most minority groups and communities of color worry that they will be targeted by its harsh clauses that allow police to stop and question people based on the degree to which they appear “reasonably suspicious” of being undocumented. Most recently, the country’s largest Native American reservation, the Navajo National Council, voted to officially oppose Arizona’s new enforcement measure during a special session convened for this purpose. Council Delegate Kee Allen Begay sponsored the measure which he thinks will definitely be used to harass Native Americans, specially given the strong resemblance between the Hispanic communities and Native Americans.

As opposition to the law grows, so does copy-cat legislation in other states across the country. On Saturday, Texas Republicans voted for a law that would require police officers to immediately check the immigration status of people arrested on suspicion of a crime, even before their culpability on the crime has been proven.  It is imperative that the Federal government wakes up to the large-scale detrimental effects that a laws like Arizona’s SB1070 will have on communities, on state unity, and on the economy.

Photo courtesy of csmonitor.com

Progressive bloggers and advocates set the stage for immigration reform in 2010

Next Up, Comprehensive Immigration Reform “Not the usual suspects-” This is how Nico Pitney, National Editor for the Huffington Post and moderator on a panel discussion about the prospect of immigration reform, introduced his fellow panelists. Organized by the Center for American Progress, Netroots Nation, and America’s Voice, the panel featured some of the leading voices for comprehensive and just immigration reform, including Markos Zúñiga, founder and editor of Daily Kos, Andrea Nill, immigration blogger for Think Progress, and María Elena Durazo from the AFL-CIO.

Using the context of Rep. Luis Gutierrez‘s progressive CIR ASAP immigration reform bill introduced in mid December, the recent election of Sen. Scott Brown in Massachusetts (and the obvious question of how this will affect the progressive agenda including immigration reform), President Obama’s campaign promise to address immigration reform with his election, a lively discussion ensued on what makes the present time ripe for the passage of immigration reform legislation. Unlike the harsh and divisive debates of failed reform in 2007, the overall outlook amongst the panelists was positive, as they approached the topic from the point of view of electoral vote politics, the economy, and the labor movement.

Using Rep. Gutierrez’s bill as a solid base, Andrea Nill began by clarifying the fundamentals of Comprehensive Immigration Reform which would include,

An earned path to legalization for undocumented immigrants, including registering with the government, a background check, paying taxes, and ensuring their integration into society.

Creating flexible channels for the future legal flow of immigration which could adjust itself to the ebb and flow of the economy.

Smart enforcement policies including moving resources away from spending money trying to detain and deport immigrants and “chasing busboys and nannies through the desert” into addressing problems such as drug and human trafficking at the border.

Markos Zuniga made the distinction between the political climate around immigration in 2007 and now by talking about today’s polls that show 66% of voters (an equal percentage of Democrats and Republicans) support reform making it a truly bipartisan issue. With Latino groups reaching a plurality in 2050 and Asian and other minority communities growing rapidly, the co-relation between electoral votes and reform is clear. For many Republicans, falling back onto nativist rhetoric and hate-mongering like in 2007, could mean a significant loss in votes from Latino and other immigrant communities.”President Bush won 40% of the immigrant vote in 2004, John McCain only got 28% in 2008, so the long term health of republican party is in jeopardy if they can’t appeal to immigration groups.”

Andrea Nill added that while there are three groups largely responsible for the nativist rhetoric – FAIR, NumbersUSA and the Center for Immigration Studies, there is also division between the anti-immigration movement, including within the Republican party between moderates willing to engage with immigration reform, and hardliners such as  Rep. Joe Wilson and Rep. Brian Bilbray and other members of the House Immigration Reform Caucas.

Speaking on behalf of  the labor movement, Maria Durazo said there is high expectations from the administration and Congress to deliver on its promise of reform.”These are people who harvests our crops, build our buildings and work in our restaurant…they do services for us but then when we need to respond to their need to bring them out of the shadows we call them names – law breakers, illegals…we want to make sure any immigration legislation has protections for workers, both native born and undocumented immigrants who will come out of the shadows – because we will all lose if we don’t work together.”

In terms of Sen. Scott Brown’s recent victory, the panelists felt that it has little effect since immigration reform has and always will be a bipartisan issue. But on a larger scale, the election felt emblematic of the waning of Democrat popularity due to their lack of engagement with many issues, including immigration, and while voters are looking for the ‘hope’ and ‘change’ that they were promised, immigration reform is an opportunity for both Democrats and Republicans to work together towards a viable solution.

But there is also an economic argument for reform. According to a recent Center for American progress report, immigration reform will be crucial for the economy, with mass deportation causing a loss of $2.6 trillion as opposed to a growth of approximately $1.5 trillion over a ten-year period if reform passes. And since the economy, like healthcare,  is a foremost priority of the Obama administration, this is an opportunity to address both issues simultaneously.

The panelists were unanimous on the fact that the present situation is highly favorable towards immigration reform and highlighted the expanse, width and strength of the present coalitions, which today include faith-based groups, LGBT groups, ethnic groups, immigrant rights advocates and immigrant communities in general.

Looking ahead, while Rep. Gutierrez‘s progressive immigration bill which has 90 co-sponsors would serve as the progressive conscience, everyone is waiting for the bill that Sen. Charles Schumer is working on with Sen. Lindsey Graham is introducing for debate in the Senate. It will then move to the House where it will be written by Rep. Zoe Lofgren.

The penultimate point of the discussion centered around ensuring that the mainstream media begin to report on the issue and mobilize around reform. Maria Elena pointed out the importance of providing people with honest information about the implications of enforcement actions such as raids and detention to families and the economy. Markos Zuniga pointed out that Latino and Asian communities are virtually invisible to the mainstream media, thus removing one side of the immigration story. Stressing the importance of building a pro-immigration story into the media narrative, the speakers highlighted the essential role of online journalism, blogging and networking in building knowledge and momentum for the movement.

ICED OUT: How Immigration Enforcement Has Interfered with Workers’ Rights

Picture 1The federal government’s immigration enforcement in recent years, including a heavy reliance on workplace raids and the involvement of state and local police in immigration enforcement, has resulted in a trampling of labor rights of workers.

So says a new report “ICED OUT | How Immigration Enforcement Has Interfered with Workers’ Rights” (the name reminds me of Breakthrough’s video game ICED – I Can End Deportation!).

Drawing on case studies from across the country – including California, Texas, Tennessee, Kansas, Iowa, Rhode Island, Florida and Oregon – the report examines a series of alarming incidents between 2005 and 2008 in which Immigration and Customs Enforcement has taken action at the behest of employers, conducted raids in the midst of labor disputes and even arrested workers on the courthouse steps while they were standing up for their rights.

An MOU from 1998 established a firewall between immigration and labor law enforcement to limit abusive treatment of workers but has largely been ignored, leading to serious impacts for on native and immigrant workers.

Like Josue Diaz, an immigrant worker who was recruited from a day laborer corner in New Orleans to work on reconstruction efforts in Texas after Hurricanes Ike. “We were forced to live in tents in an isolated labor camp at an abandoned oil refinery, we were made to work in toxic conditions without safety equipment, we were subjected to racist and dehumanizing treatment, and when we protested the discrimination and illegal treatment, our employer…called local police and ICE. We were arrested immediately. Instead of enforcing our labor rights against the company, the police and ICE tried to turn us into criminals.”

Or a series of very high profile raids from 2006-8 which captured the headlines, including a food processing plant in Portland, Oregon, just after local media reported on the settlement of a lawsuit brought by the workers in the plant. And let’s not forget the largest immigration raid in U.S. history in Postville, Iowa which resulted in the arrest of 389 workers, the same plant that was being investigated by 3 other agencies for serious labor violations.

And although ICE claims that the focus of its worksite enforcement is on employers that “egregiously
violate immigration laws”, for 2008 the agency made 6,287 arrests for immigration offenses at workplaces of which only a small fraction (2.1 percent) were of employers. At the same time, the labor department has cut back its own enforcement of the labor laws as reported in a recent Government Accountability Office report.

The only people who really benefit from this are employers who can terrify workers into accepting substandard wages, unsafe conditions, and lack of benefits. It’s time to stop letting immigration enforcement overshadow the equally important goal of protecting labor rights.