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Unlike the woman in the DSK story, most immigrant women are afraid to report sexual assault

Among the numerous unique and compelling stories of immigration that our nation has witnessed in its rich history comes another one; one that is disturbing and moving in equal part. On May 14, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK), was arrested as he was about to catch a flight from New York’s JFK Airport to Paris. A 32-year-old housekeeper had courageously come forward to report that she was sexually assaulted by DSK during his stay in the midtown Manhattan Sofitel hotel. As the media storm around DSK’s scandal and his political future intensified, the woman (her identity is being kept secret) who accused him remained well away from the media glare, protecting her identity and dignity amidst an increasingly messy situation. However, as a recent New York Times portrait of her life revealed, her story is extremely unique- in an environment that is increasingly hostile towards immigrants, it is rare that immigrant women who are victims of sexual and physical abuse (and there are many), are able to find the courage to report the crimes they face.

The woman was born in a tiny hamlet in the West African country of Guinea, a 13-hour drive from the nation’s capital Conakry. While she was in her early teens, she was married off to a distant cousin, gave birth to her daughter, and was widowed soon after. While in her early 20s, she immigrated to the United States, seeking a better life for herself and her daughter, and began working at a small African restaurant in the Bronx. In 2008, she got a job as a maid at the Sofitel New York, a high-end hotel in the heart of Manhattan. Her lawyers confirmed that by this time she had documentation and legal status. Then on May 14, her world was suddenly thrust into the public eye as she became the center of an international scandal involving high-level diplomacy.

Her brother, Mamoudou, commented on her character-

She is a village girl who didn’t go to school to learn English, Greek, Portuguese, what have you…All she learned was the Koran. Can you imagine how on earth she is suffering through this ordeal?…Before she left here, nobody even knew if she could speak up for herself. She never got into any arguments, with anybody.

While DSK has been charged with the crime, the trial is still underway and no verdict has yet been reached. However, the story of his alleged victim highlights the rapidly growing issue of sexual assault among immigrant women, and indirectly points to the fact that undocumented women remain the most vulnerable to abuse, as they are especially afraid to report the crime for fear of being pulled into the detention and deportation dragnet. The housekeeper in DSK’s case has legal status, not to mention incredible courage, that enabled her to report the crime to the local police. But her courage seeks to remind us that there are many women who face violence, both at home and in their work, who continue to be exploited and are unable to seek help because of immigration status and their fear of being criminalized themselves.

Last week, many women – mostly hotel housekeeping staff from around the city – gathered outside DSK’s court hearing to protest against his alleged crime, claiming that many of them have been victims in similar incidents but are often afraid to speak out. One of the protesters, Ada Vélez Escalera, a housekeeper at the Hilton who had moved from Puerto Rico when she was 16, said-

A lot of us don’t speak up. You’re embarrassed or have a family to support and you know if it will be you or the guest who’s believed. In this case she was brave enough to scream for help…I’m proud of being a room attendant and when guests come to our hotels they need to respect us and know we are there to make their rooms clean and comfortable, not for private service…I had to leave my education because I had a sick child. But the money I’ve earned as a room attendant helped me have a house, a decent life and put my son and daughter through college.

The issue raised by the housekeepers is a growing concern among the immigrant community. It is worsened further by damaging statements made by political officials that essentially discourage the reporting of sexual assault crimes by immigrant women. In Massachusetts, State Rep. Ryan Fattman (R-Sutton) has been part of a group of regional GOP representatives uniting against Governor Deval L. Patrick’s decision not to join the controversial Secure Communities program (S-Comm). When asked if he would be concerned if a woman with undocumented status is raped and then is afraid to report the crime for fear of deportation, Fattman replied, “My thought is that if someone is here illegally, they should be afraid to come forward…If you do it the right way, you don’t have to be concerned about these things.” His comment brought him sharp criticism, and when contacted for further clarification, Fattman attempted to contextualize it with an even more troublesome allegory-

If someone got into a car accident, it’s obviously a tragic event. But if they’re drunk and they crash, it’s a crime. If that person was drunk and survived the accident they would be afraid to come forward. I think if someone is here illegally they should be afraid to come forward because they should be afraid to be deported…But if you weren’t here, the crime wouldn’t happen.

Such brash disregard for basic human rights, such as the right to be safe from harm and the right to due process and justice, is alarming. Rep. Fattman’s statements signal a dangerous situation in the country if victims of violence and sexual assault are afraid to report the crime for fear of being deported instead. This roundabout way of blaming the victim is incredibly damaging to our society, encouraging violent crime and making our communities less secure.

The harsh anti-immigrant enforcement laws that are being enacted in states around the country only seek to add to the environment of hostility and fear that makes it harder for local law enforcement to effectively protect communities. Last week Alabama Governor Bentley signed into law HB 56, the harshest anti-immigrant bill to be passed by any state thus far. The bill, inspired by Arizona’s notorious SB 1070, imposes even stricter requirements on virtually all institutions in the state to conduct immigration checks. In a statement reacting to the bill, Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, said-

Today, Alabama effectively turned state workers, peace officers, and school teachers into de facto immigration agents.  Immigrants and people of color will be subjected to additional, unconstitutional scrutiny when they take their children to school or interact with local law enforcement officers.  Friends and family members of undocumented immigrants will face criminal charges simply for driving them to church or to the grocery store. By passing HB 56, Alabama’s legislators have deemed an entire class of people not worthy of the most fundamental rights, which were carefully prescribed to all people by our Founding Fathers.  This law effectively makes immigrants the latest group of people to suffer a legalization of discriminatory behavior against them, and threatens to turn back the clock on our hard-won civil rights.

Alabama’s HB 56 adds to the growing number of states that have set in motion some sort of harsh anti-immigrant laws (see PDF map from the National Immigration Law Center for the latest Arizona-inspired legislation). These sweeping anti-immigrant legislations are not only unconstitutional and in violation of basic human rights, but they will also negatively impact the economies of the states that implement them. Most of all, communities will lose faith in their local law enforcement, always living in the fear of being racially profiled and arrested for deportation under the pretense of a minor offense.

With less than 18 months until the next presidential election, Democrats and Republicans are busy shaping their immigration policies to woo voters. At this time it is important that they focus on preventing draconian state-level anti-immigration laws from being enacted and instead, working towards comprehensive immigration reform that is enacted on a federal level. Statements such as those by Rep. Fattman only undermine the principles of freedom, justice and due process upon which our country is built. Victims of violence, such as sexual assault and rape, must be supported and made to feel safe and secure and given the justice they deserve, instead of being intimidated into silence. Denying basic human rights to one group will inevitably affect all our freedoms.

Sign the petition asking for Mass. Rep. Fattman to apologize for his comments and for the State House to publicly denounce his stance.

Show your support for due process. Become an ally of the Restore Fairness campaign today.

Photo courtesy of nij.gov.

POLL: Should all victims of abuse and violence have recourse to justice, regardless of their immigration status?

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BREAKING: DHS announces investigation of the misnamed “Secure Communities” program

In a move that has been widely welcomed by advocates for fair immigration policies, the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office of Inspector General announced this week that they plan to carry out an investigation of ICE’s Secure Communities program. Since the introduction of this program, ICE has faced criticism for many aspects of it, most importantly the lack of transparency and clarity with which ICE has executed the program. Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose), who has been instrumental in demanding the review of the highly controversial “Secure Communities” program, called on DHS to launch the investigation immediately following allegations that ICE had disseminated misleading information over the specifics of the program.

In a joint press release from the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), the CCR attorney Sunita Patel said-

“The worst part of ICE’s lack of transparency and accountability in the development and deployment of S-Comm is that every day S-Comm tears families apart and spreads fear in immigrant communities across the nation. ICE’s conduct belies a fundamental lack of respect for democracy and the people that are impacted by its harsh policies.”

Established in 2008, the Secure Communities program is DHS’s latest attempt to use local law enforcement to push people into the immigrant detention system. As per the program, all local law enforcement has to do is arrest someone on an offense, minor or major–  and before the person is even convicted of the offense – their fingerprints are checked against federal immigration databases. If the fingerprint scan gets a “hit,” immigrants can end up getting carted off by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to an immigration detention center, putting them in for deportation proceedings. The lack of due process sets the stage for racial profiling without any proper training or real consequences for police agents. Many local law enforcement officials and counties have sought to opt-out of the program on the grounds that it leads to mistrust between the community and law enforcement, in addition to being an inefficient way of enforcing immigration laws.

Moreover, recent data about the program, released by ICE in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, Center for Constitutional Rights and the Kathryn O. Greenberg Immigration Justice Clinic of the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law, contradicts ICE’s claim that the program is targeting high-level, dangerous criminals.

Based on a recent analysis of this data, Bridget Kessler of Benjamin Cardozo School of Law said-

Nationally, 1 in 4 people deported under S-Comm haven’t been convicted of any crime. That ratio jumps to over 50% in Boston, certain areas of California, and in multiple examples across the country.Those numbers raise questions about how S-Comm may allow local police to cover up profiling and circumvent due process.

The latest data analysis,  ICE’s lack of accountability and transparency around the program, along with the slew of critiques of the program from law enforcement officials, local government officials and immigration advocates indicates that, contrary to its name, Secure Communities is a program that makes people feel less safe, hurting the trust that is a cornerstone of an effective law enforcement system in a diverse country such as this.

This storm of objections over ICE and its Secure Communities program comes at a time when the U.S demographics are evolving rapidly and highlighting the ever pressing need for fair and just immigration reform that acknowledges the vastly diverse immigrant population of this country. The 2010 Census pointed to a significant increase in the minority (non-white) populations in the U.S., up from 31% in 2000 to 39% according to the latest numbers. Four states – California, Hawaii, New Mexico and Texas – now have minority populations that exceeded 50%, with Texas being the latest addition in this census. Painting a picture of the rapidly evolving demographic of our country, the Census results highlighted a dramatic increase in the Latino and Asian populations. While the Latino group grew by 3.1% to 48.4 million becoming the largest minority, the Asian population went up by 2.5% to 13.7 million. The African-American population grew less than 1% to 37.7 million, becoming the second-largest minority. Perhaps more interestingly, the fastest growing demographic was of those who identified themselves as “two or more races.” The Census reported that 9 million Americans identified as being multiracial, comprising 2.8% of the US population, a 3.2% increase since the last time. However, some estimate that the actual number is much higher, owing to people who picked one race over another or are simply unaware that they are multiracial.

Since the 1967 Supreme Court decision that repealed anti-miscegenation laws across several states, deeming them unconstitutional, there has been a considerable increase in the number of interracial couples and mixed-race children. The increase has also been spurred, in a large part, by the stream of immigrants that have made this country their home. It is time that the government makes sweeping changes to its policies towards immigrant populations, and ensure an end to harsh enforcement practices that break down the trust between communities and law enforcement, and endanger the safety and security of families. To lend your voice to ending the Secure Communities program, sign the NDLON petition at change.org.

For a lighter take on this issue, watch a segment on immigration reform from ‘The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.’ Stewart introduced Al Madrigal, a Mexican-American comedian who debuted as their new “Señior” Latino Correspondent. For his first report, Madrigal chose to focus on immigration reform:

Photo courtesy of soaw.org/presente

Few states walking a failed path

Guest blogger: Elena Lacayo from The National Council of La Raza

Despite the initial hype that anti-immigrant legislation modeled after Arizona’s SB 1070 would spread quickly through the country, state after state has rejected proposals to follow Arizona down its failed path. In the year since SB 1070 was signed, 24 states have rejected copycat legislation. Even Arizona legislators recently voted down a new set of anti-immigrant bills in response to mounting pressure from the business and civil rights leaders.

In some cases, states have rejected the flawed legislation twice over. For example, last week, Florida became the second state to reject SB 1070 copycat legislation for the second time since SB 1070 was passed in Arizona (Kansas having been the first). The debate there was contentious and controversial. Indeed, even the sponsors of anti-immigrant legislation began to walk away from their own proposals, leaving their bills to die at the very end of the legislative session. Florida got the message too and recognized that extreme anti-immigrant legislation comes with great economic, social, and political costs.

Unfortunately, not all states have learned the lesson from the failed experiment in Arizona.

Earlier this week, Utah’s Arizona-copycat law HB 497, the “Utah Illegal Immigration Enforcement Act,” was implemented for less than a day before it was put on hold by the courts. And today, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal signed into law HB 87, the “Illegal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Act of 2011,” harmful anti-immigrant legislation modeled after Arizona’s widely criticized and unquestionably flawed SB 1070. Both of these bills mimic the draconian Arizona legislation, providing local law enforcement with an overly broad license to investigate residents’ immigration statuses, thus, opening the doors to racial profiling.

States must ask themselves what Arizona has gained from pursuing this extremist approach to immigration reform. Instead of solving the problem, SB 1070 has inspired boycotts that cost Arizona hundreds of millions of dollars in tourism revenue and economic activity at a time when the state could least afford it. Governor Brewer has pumped $250,000 of public funds into a public relations campaign to repair the state’s tarnished image and continues to spend money defending SB 1070 against lawsuits, despite multiple court rulings upholding the unconstitutionality of the law.

Both Utah and Georgia are walking down the same failed path paved by Arizona lawmakers. These damaging pieces of legislation threaten the public safety and civil rights of state residents and will force both states to endure the same legal battles and financial losses that ensued in Arizona. Utah’s HB 497, which was signed by Utah Governor Gary Herbert on March 16 with a package of immigration bills, is already being challenged in court by civil right groups who argue that it violates federal law. Similar to Arizona, it is unclear how long or costly this legal battle will become.

Choosing to pursue the same course of action will also negatively impact the economy in both Utah and Georgia. A day before the Georgia law was even signed, new reports showed concern over the expected losses that would follow its approval. Opposition came from the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Georgia Farm Bureau. Even professional athletes scheduled to play at the Civil Rights Game in Atlanta this weekend have spoken out against the law due to concerns over racial profiling.

Twenty-four states have already rejected the irresponsible approach to immigration reform pioneered by Arizona; Georgia and Utah should heed the warning that nothing good will result from this legislation. While the American public is legitimately frustrated with the federal government’s failure to advance real immigration solutions, states cannot respond by passing irresponsible laws that legitimize racial profiling; lawmakers must create solutions that will reform the immigration system at the federal level. Utah and Georgia legislators must be part of this discussion, and we call upon their congressional delegations to help draft comprehensive legislation that fixes America’s immigration system.

Photo courtesy of flickr.com/deepmedia

Momentum is building for immigration reform

Could the conversation about immigration finally be changing?

Following the Obama administration’s determination in February that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutionally discriminates against same-sex couples, Attorney General Eric Holder last week requested that the immigration appeals court consider granting legal residency to an Irishman in a civil union with an American man. A Newark judge also suspended the deportation of Henry Velandia of Venezuela– who is married to  American, Josh Vandiver– in order to allow time for the court and the Department of Justice to determine under what circumstances a gay partner might be eligible for residency. These recent steps are a welcome indication that the Obama administration is working toward a fair and just policy towards bi-national same-sex couples.

In 2009, Restore Fairness used the power of documentary to tell the story of one such family, who was facing separation because their domestic partnership wasn’t recognized under DOMA. The video gives a voice to Shirley Tan, who came from the Philippines decades ago and built a life with her partner Jay, giving birth to twin boys and becoming a full-time mother. When we spoke to her, Shirley faced the biggest challenge of her life as she fought to stay on in the United States, crippled by laws that do not allow gay and lesbian couples to sponsor their partners.

Watch the Restore Fairness video of Two Moms Fighting to Stay Together:

In another positive step for immigration, the state of Illinois last week became the first state to entirely opt out of the so-called “Secure Communities,” which requires local police to send fingerprints of all arrestees to federal immigration databases, with immigrants who are found “deportable” being directly pushed into the deeply flawed detention and deportation system. This costly program threatens to reduce trust between local law enforcement and communities, encourage racial profiling and separate families. However, despite Illinois Gov. Quinn’s decisive announcement, and increased resistance from states and police departments across the country, the Department of Homeland Security has said that they will not allow Illinois to withdraw. In another indication that partnerships between ICE and local law enforcement are on the increase, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal signed into law on May 13, an immigration bill that would give local police the authority to question suspects about their immigration status. This law, which is being compared to Arizona’s SB1070, could lead to decreased trust between local police and communities, and increase the occurrence of racial profiling. The law has been met with much criticism already. Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, reacted-

Today is a dark day for Georgia. Our concern stems from the very serious economic repercussions that will be felt against our state on numerous fronts and the very serious civil and human rights abuses that will also likely follow…

This trend of states being given greater control of immigration policies, which is actually a federal issue, signals a threat to the otherwise positive momentum in the immigration movement. Joining the opposition to the “Secure Communities” program 38 lawmakers earlier this week sent a letter to New York Governor Cuomo urging him to terminate Secure Communities in New York State. Religious leaders from many faiths, joined by advocates and community members, yesterday held a vigil outside Governor Cuomo’s Manhattan office, to request him to stop unjust deportations. Speakers at the vigil applauded Illinois for withdrawing from Secure Communities and urged New York to protect New York’s immigrant communities by doing the same. You too can take action against Secure Communities, contact your state Governor to help your state withdraw from the program.

In another update, Senator Durbin (D-IL) and Senator Reid (D-NV) yesterday introduced the DREAM Act in the 112th session of Congress. If passed, it could positively impact the lives of 2.1 million young people in the United States. Despite the regained impetus of the DREAM Act this year, the movement lost the support of its third and final Republican politicians. Senator Dick Lugar (R-IN) abandoned his previous support for the DREAM Act and joins Representative Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Senator John McCain (R-AZ) who have already denounced their support. Senator Lugar blamed President Obama’s increased politicization of the issue for his withdrawal, even though it seems he has made the decision because of a rising Tea Party challenger in the Primary. However, many feel optimistic about the renewed chances of the bill this year. The DREAM Act’s failure in Congress last December was a huge disappointment, but the movement, supported by President Obama, is only getting stronger. And with your support, we can take this step forward in ensuring that young people who have worked tirelessly to build their lives in America- and contribute to the society- enjoy the rights they deserve.

The passage of the DREAM Act would benefit people like Emilio, a young man who was brought to the U.S. by his parents at the age of six. Speaking about his American identity, the only one he has ever really known, Emilio said-

“I went through elementary, middle, and high school in North Carolina, and it is the only place that I call home.  I graduated from high school in 2010 as one of the top ten students in my class, as an honor student, an AP scholar with hundreds of hours of community service, and I was awarded a full-ride scholarship to my first choice university.  However, unless the broken immigration system is fixed, when I graduate from college in four years I won’t be able to use my college degree.  My dream is to give back to my community.”

Immediately prior to the re-submission of the DREAM Act in Congress came a speech by President Obama to border communities in El Paso, Texas earlier this week. Obama reiterated his commitment to fair and just comprehensive immigration reform. He expressed his support for the DREAM Act, for keeping families together, and for visa reform. While this is not the first time we have heard these commitments, there is no denying the positive momentum that is building toward preventing the injustices caused by a broken immigration system. When we deny fairness to some, we put all of our rights at risk. Join Restore Fairness in our commitment to telling stories, inviting conversation, and inspiring action that will help America move even further in the right direction.

We strongly believe in the power of using culture to change culture. We’re using our new Facebook game, America 2049, to weave human rights issues– especially racial justice and immigration– into each week of game play. As we continue to tell these stories in the hope of changing the conversation, we ask that you play America 2049, and join the dialogue and action that will move us forward.

“With Osama Bin Laden dead, can we have our rights back?” – How the effects of 9/11 could lead to America 2049

On Sunday, May 1, President Obama announced the death of Al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, the notorious terrorist who spearheaded the 9/11 attacks against the U.S. While the predominant reaction from around the world has been one of relief and joy, bin Laden’s death reminds us of just how big an impact the 9/11 attacks had on us and the way we perceive and treat each other.

While the U.S. was already grappling with the immigration issue, 9/11 triggered a major overhaul of legislation that imposed stringent restrictions on immigration and gave the government much greater power to infringe on the rights of citizens and visitors to this country. The U.S had essentially gone into lock-down mode domestically, and U.S. foreign policy became more aggressive. At the time of the attacks, Barack Obama was an local politician only known in Chicago, and largely unknown to the world. He wrote a short article for his local newspaper, the Hyde Park Herald, in which he reacted to the tragic events of that day and suggested a cautious approach to its repercussions. He stated-

The essence of this tragedy, it seems to me, derives from a fundamental absence of empathy on the part of the attackers: an inability to imagine, or connect with, the humanity and suffering of others. Such a failure of empathy, such numbness to the pain of a child or the desperation of a parent, is not innate; nor, history tells us, is it unique to a particular culture, religion, or ethnicity….

We will have to make sure, despite our rage, that any U.S. military action takes into account the lives of innocent civilians abroad. We will have to be unwavering in opposing bigotry or discrimination directed against neighbors and friends of Middle Eastern descent. Finally, we will have to devote far more attention to the monumental task of raising the hopes of embittered children across the globe—children not just in the Middle East, but also in Africa, Asia, Latin American, Eastern Europe, and within our own shores.

Obama’s emphasis on steering clear of blind rage and discrimination, as a way of blaming certain groups for the attacks, seems prophetic now. Over the last ten years, we have witnessed increasingly stringent immigration enforcement, and a steady dissolution of civil rights and attitudes towards immigrant communities, especially Muslim-Americans and South Asians. This view was echoed by Chris Hedges, a senior journalist and war correspondent who witnessed 9/11 and was plunged into its aftermath. In an address at a fundraising event on Sunday night as news of bin Laden’s death was creeping in, Hedges remembered-

When I was in New York, as some of you were, on 9/11, I was in Times Square when the second plane hit. I walked into The New York Times, I stuffed notebooks in my pocket and walked down the West Side Highway and was at Ground Zero four hours later. I was there when Building 7 collapsed. And I watched as a nation drank deep from that very dark elixir of American nationalism … the flip side of nationalism is always racism, it’s about self-exaltation and the denigration of the other.

The risks and backlash that both Obama and Hedges referenced have materialized over the last decade and placed the U.S. at a crucial crossroads where the decisions we take now will significantly impact the America of the future. In its fifth week, Breakthrough‘s human rights Facebook game America 2049 takes players to their mission in Phoenix, Arizona, which has been in someway the epicenter of the immigration debate.  In Phoenix, players confront heightened debates around severely restricted immigration policies. Players are also confronted with a scenario where ethnic celebrations and festivals have been outlawed for fear that “they promote dissent and unnecessarily emphasize differences between populations.” The game presents players with choices for how to address such a situation in the future, and by referencing historical artifacts, shows how our present could very well lead to the dytopic future that the game depicts. One example of this historical reference is a 1920s songbook – “O! Close the Gates.” (see photo) – that demonized immigrants in popular culture.

In Level 5 of America 2049, players also meet Cynthia Espinoza. Watch her testimonial about the need to preserve America’s multicultural heritage:

America 2049 addresses the rights of immigrants, including forced immigrant workers, in a country that has struggled to reach a rational solution to the “foreign threats” amplified by the attacks of 9/11. The attacks changed the immigration issue in America dramatically, sparking off a wave of new legislation or a tightening of existing ones. In an intriguing article, the Southern California Public Radio (SCPR) outlined five ways in which Osama bin Laden — and the 9/11 attacks he masterminded — altered the immigration landscape in the U.S. These include, perhaps most notoriously, the establishment of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which has been responsible for a growing number of deportations each year, as well as the now-canceled Secure Border Initiative network (SBInet) or the “virtual fence” that was planned for the entire stretch of US-Mexico border. The erosion of basic rights accelerated with the Patriot Act, which considerably expanded the government’s ability to conduct surveillance over Americans.

The calls for comprehensive immigration reform have intensified over the past few years, making it even more pressing to address the rights of immigrants who have no criminal records and are working hard to become part of American society. Another aspect of the immigration debate that is brought up in America 2049 is the degradation of immigrant worker rights and forced migration. While the tragedy of 9/11 caused the government to enforce stricter anti-immigrant legislation, one of the side effects has been the neglect of immigrant worker conditions. In America 2049, players discover an actual account by a Puerto Rican laborer at Camp Bragg, Rafael F. Marchan, who protested against his deplorable working conditions in the early 1900s. Unfortunately, such situations still exist today, as reported by the New York Times about a story of “500 Indian men hired by Signal International of Alabama for rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina were confined in squalid camps, illegally charged for lodging and food, and subject to discrimination and abuse.” The fact that such forced servitude of immigrant workers continues a hundred years on from the example in America 2049 proves that prompt action must be taken to restore basic human rights for everyone.

So while the world celebrates the end of a tyrant, we must remember that more than celebrating a death, we must take this opportunity to work towards lasting peace and respect for basic rights for everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or background. Osama bin Laden caused much havoc around the world and claimed countless innocent lives, but letting his actions be used as a reason for the dissolution of respect and rights for hard working, innocent people can simply not be justified. As a statement that circulated virally soon after bin Laden’s death was announced said- “If Osama Bin Laden is dead, can we have our rights back?” Ten years on, let’s make that our main goal.

Photo courtesy of Norton, et. al., A People and a Nation (5th ed., 1998)

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

Looking forward to 2011, we hope 2010 goes out with a bang (and a DREAM)!

In this past year we witnessed many negative events: An all-time record number of deportations with over 400,000 men, women and children deported, most of whom were not guilty of crimes; reports of medical negligence, sexual assault and the denial of due process in detention centers; unfulfilled promises of immigration reform masked by the threat of raids; the introduction of harsh anti-immigrant legislation such as SB1070, mandating racial profiling and fueling anti-immigrant sentiment around the country; the expansion of partnerships between Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and local police with the introduction of programs such as Secure Communities; the “anchor-baby” bill; the list goes on and on.

From anti-immigrant actions and racial profiling to bullying and homophobia; from fear mongering to the extreme, divisive rhetoric of the mid-term elections, it is difficult to look back at 2010 and feel hopeful. In the midst of this, however, it is important to note that these events engendered unprecedented activism, and the mobilization and coming together of diverse communities, resulting in a number of victories in the name of restoring dignity, justice and equality. The rigorous debate over Arizona’s controversial SB1070 law resulted in sports men and women, musicians, artists, politicians, faith leaders, business owners, young people, as well as the Department of Justice and President Obama, taking a stand against a law that was unjust and offensive, and finally deemed unconstitutional. The March for America in Washington D.C. on March 21st saw 200,000 people, workers, LGBT groups, faith-based groups, etc., come out in support of comprehensive immigration reform, and even without the passage of CIR, the momentum built during that time was palpable for months after. Most recently, following a rally against Secure Communities in New York City, a judge ordered ICE to be transparent and release documents related to Secure Communities and the ability for localities to opt-out of the program.

And two weeks before the end of the year, we are just hours away from a Senate vote on the DREAM Act, a legislation that would provide a path to citizenship for young people that came to the U.S. as children, have completed high-school, and want to pursue college or military service. Every year, around 65,000 young, undocumented boys and girls- including honor rolls students and star athletes- graduate high school and then find themselves high and dry, without the chance to pursue their careers. A number of them, like Eric Balderas, find themselves facing deportation with the chance of being sent back to a country they are supposed to call ‘home’ but have no memory of. For David Cho, a senior honors student at UCLA who can’t count on entertaining job offers the way that his friends are, there are not a lot of options. So instead of young, able, bright people like David and Eric following their careers, pursuing their dreams, giving back to the country by supporting the economy and making the most out of the taxpayers money that has paid for the k-12 education, they are busy mobilizing support to ensure that the Senate passes the DREAM Act tomorrow morning.

Since Sen. Reid announced that he would be holding true to his campaign promise and bringing the DREAM Act up for a vote in the Senate as a stand-alone measure, the DREAMers and all the activists who support the passage of the DREAM Act have been working extremely hard to put pressure on Senators to pass the bill. As it stands, the Senate will vote on the version of the bill that that was passed in the House last week, by around 10am tomorrow. In addition to the DREAMers themselves, who have come out of the shadows to tell their individual stories and have mobilized unprecedented support for the movement, the Latino community is seeing this as a pivotal moment. Speaking to the New York Times, Janet Murguía, president of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) said-

This will be a watershed vote that Latinos will not forget. There is nowhere left to hide, in the minds of Latino voters. There will be members who choose to stand for innocent children and members who do not. This vote will be an indication of who stands for our families and our communities.

As we get closer to the vote, an increasing number of people are speaking up, urging Senators to vote in favor of the bill. Representatives from the Department of Defense, heads of educational institutions, religious leaders, heads of labor organizations and workers unions, officials from the Department of Homeland Security, and hundreds of others have spoken up in support of the bill and why it is crucial to the integrity and prosperity of the country. President Obama himself made calls to Democrat and Republican senators to garner support for the bill.

Currently, the legislation needs 60 Senate votes in order to be end debate, at which point the House-approved version of the bill will be finally voted on, on Sunday. If passed, it will go directly to President Obama for a signature.The momentum that has brought the movement to this point (since the DREAM Act was first introduced almost a decade ago) is solely the result of intense grassroots activism on the part of students. DREAMers and DREAMActivists have worked tirelessly, putting themselves on the line by coming out as undocumented and basically pushing this piece of legislation forward with their cross-country walks, vigils, hunger strikes and their storming of Capitol Hill online and off. But they can’t do it alone. So on the eve of this historic vote, and the eve of the New Year, call your Senators right now and tell them to vote YES on the DREAM Act.

What better way to conclude 2010 than by ensuring that the hard work and courage of the DREAMERs pays off and the DREAM Act passes in the Senate tomorrow morning, less than two weeks before the end of this year.

Pick up the phone, write a letter, and make a wish for the New Year. See you then!

Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

If we are One Nation, then why is racial profiling still such an issue?

When Huda Alasali tried to board the ferry to Governor’s Island with her children and a friend last Saturday, a New York Waterways employee told her that she could not get on the ferry unless she removed some of her religious attire. She was told that removing her hijab was in compliance with regulations and security reasons, yet these were not rules listed on the dock. New York Waterways later confirmed that they have no rules against ethnic and religious attire. Huda spoke to CBS about her ordeal-

“I said to him, if you have a metal detector, you can check our bags. You can check us. We don’t have nothing with us…He said, No you cannot go on the ferry with all that clothes. Take it off….Truly I felt like, you know what? He thinks that we are terrorists.”

When Huda and other passengers protested and the ferry’s captain got involved, the crew member relented and Huda, her friend and their children did eventually get to Governor’s Island. The damage had been done, however. Even though the authorities apologized and assured Huda that the employee in question has been suspended, she is planning on filing a lawsuit for discrimination. “I don’t want money…I’m looking for respect,” she told CBS news.

In light of increasing incidents of discrimination such as this one, and that of a New York taxi driver bring stabbed by a customer after saying that he was Muslim, a new 11 minute documentary challenging Americans to “Face the Truth” on race in America becomes more relevant than ever. The documentary accompanies a report by the Rights Working Group examines the devastating impact of religious intolerance and racial profiling.

The documentary and report were screened at a Congressional hearing in D.C. yesterday, attended by advocates, police chiefs, community organizers and legislators, and demonstrated how the humiliating practice of racial profiling does little to make us safer. They urge Congress to pass the End Racial Profiling Act (ERPA).

As the momentum for fair immigration and racial justice grows, this Saturday, October 2, exactly one month before Election Day, more than 100,000 people will gather in Washington, D.C. for One Nation Working Together. The march represents a rapidly growing movement across the United States with more than 170 human rights, civil rights, environmental, labor, peace, youth and faith-based organizations joining with the Latino community to stand up for what America believes in and to mobilize voters for this November.

The march comes on the heels of a comprehensive immigration reform bill introduced in the Senate by Senator Menendez (D-NJ). The bill, co-sponsored by Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT), is a strong workable bill to move the legislative process forward. For the senators who have introduced it, it is a concrete proposal that shows there is no stopping the demand for comprehesnsive immigration reform as a solution to our broken immigration system. Measures include strengthening border security, smart interior enforcement and requiring the estimated undocumented immigrants present in the U.S. to register with the government, pay their taxes, learn English, pay a fine, pass a background check and wait in line for permanent residence.

It’s time for action. As the elections move nearer, there will be political manoeuvrings no doubt, but it is important to stand by beliefs of whats important in America – fairness and justice. Take action now.

Union challenges the Colbert Report to take on immigrant farmworker jobs

Last night, talk show host Stephen Colbert took on the United Farm Workers (UFW) union offer calling on jobless citizens to replace immigrant farmworkers.

The tongue-in-cheek “Take our Jobs” campaign addresses the myth that our country’s unemployment rate is rising because undocumented immigrants are “taking jobs” away from U.S. citizens. Because of the obvious racist sentiment in such a myth, there are almost no safeguards for thousands of undocumented people that work on U.S. farms. And yet, much of the food we eat, in restaurants, stores and at home, comes to us from the hard labor of these very workers.

The Colbert Report
Arturo Rodriguez
www.colbertnation.com

“Take our Jobs” calls on unemployed U.S. citizens to apply for farm worker jobs and harvest the summer’s lettuce, peach and grape crops. Americans can fill out an online application form entitled “I want to be a farm worker”.

Farm workers are ready to welcome citizens and legal residents who wish to replace them in the field. We will use our knowledge and staff to help connect the unemployed with farm employers. Just fill out the form to the right and continue on to the request for job application.

Currently, about 1.8 million people work on farms in the U.S. According the the Department of Labor, about three-fourths of them are foreign-born, and approximately 50% of them are undocumented. And when it comes to working in the fields though, the proportion of undocumented workers is even greater. If all these workers were to be deported, as is the argument proposed by those opposed to immigration, the union holds that the result would be a huge increase in food prices in the country, the rotting of crops, and an increase in imports. the campaign is thus a segue into the need for immigration reform that creates a path to citizenship for these workers that form the backbone of this country’s agricultural economy. As the head of UFW’s union Arturo Rodriguez says, “If we asked all the undocumented immigrants to leave the country, the agriculture industry would die.”

Since its launch, the campaign website have received 2 million views. 5300 people have filled out the application form, but once they find out about the low pay and extremely difficult working conditions, most applicants withdraw their application. Only 3 people out of all those that applied are actually working in the fields.

Talk show host  Stephen Colbert had teamed up with the union to promote the campaign. Colbert interviewed Arturo Rodriguez last night on his popular talk show and signed on to be a farm worker, following up his commitment with the question, “It will be air-conditioned, right?” The hysterical interview addressed Arizona’s new law SB1070, growing anti-immigrant sentiment, and invited Americans to take the jobs that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has called one of the top ten most dangerous jobs in the nation. Their exchange went like this (skip to timecode 16:41 on the video) -

Stephen Colbert- You are the 2nd President of the UFW union. What are you working on right now?

Arturo Rodriguez- We are working on improving the lives of farm workers.

SC- Why do we need to improve the rights of farm workers? Don’t get me wrong, you seem like a nice guy, but they’re mostly illegal immigrants correct?

AR- This, is true, but…

SC-So they’re taking our jobs?

AR- Not really…

SC- Yes, really.

AR- No

SC- Those jobs belong to American farm workers.

AR- Americans do not want to work in the fields. It’s very difficult work, it requires a lot of expertise and the conditions are horrid…

SC- In summer, California is the salad bowl of the country. In winter, salad is grown in Arizona. Are these workers going to go to Arizona if SB1070 gets passed?

AR- If it is enforced, it will be very difficult for them to go, yes…

SC- So is there a chance I won’t have my lettuce?!

AR- There’s a chance that lettuce prices would sky rocket….!

Colbert highlighted how unlikely it was that American workers would be lining up to pick grapes for pay as low as $8 an hour. But in an honest attempt to open up the sector to citizens, the campaign addresses the argument that American workers are harmed by immigration.

It is essential to pass immigration reform that provides due process and fairness to everyone who is crucial to the growth of our country. Because when we deny due process to some, we deny rights to all. Let President Obama and Congress know they must restore fairness to our broken immigration system NOW!

Obama’s bittersweet immigration speech

We want to commend President Obama for taking an enormous step to talk about the immigration debate as openly and honestly as he felt he could. He shared what many of us who work tirelessly on the issue have known for some time – “this is a nation of immigrants.” He talked about how immigration has made America the place that it is and that our diversity is an asset. He made the powerful statement:

“These women, and men and women across this country… remind us that immigrants have always helped to build and defend this country -– and that being an American is not a matter of blood or birth. It’s a matter of faith. It’s a matter of fidelity to the shared values that we all hold so dear. That’s what makes us unique. That’s what makes us strong. Anybody can help us write the next great chapter in our history.”

He also shared that each new generation of immigrants has been met with fear and resentment – the Jewish, Irish, Chinese and more. And for acknowledging these things and reminding the public we thank you.

Obama made it clear that there is an urgent need for immigration reform. Our national fervor moved Obama to make his speech, and offer a platform for a public roundtable of questions.

“He thought this was a good time to talk plainly with the American people about his views on immigration,” spokesman Bill Burton said.

And we again thank the President for shedding light on the problems of the legal immigration system. He said:

“The result is an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. The overwhelming majority of these men and women are simply seeking a better life for themselves and their children. Many settle in low-wage sectors of the economy; they work hard, they save, they stay out of trouble. But because they live in the shadows, they’re vulnerable to unscrupulous businesses who pay them less than the minimum wage or violate worker safety rules… Crimes go unreported as victims and witnesses fear coming forward…”

“The legal immigration system is as broken as the borders. Backlogs and bureaucracy means the process can take years. While an applicant waits for approval, he or she is often forbidden from visiting the United States –- which means even husbands and wives may be forced to spend many years apart. High fees and the need for lawyers may exclude worthy applicants. And while we provide students from around the world visas to get engineering and computer science degrees at our top universities, our laws discourage them from using those skills to start a business or power a new industry right here in the United States…”

With this, we became somewhat empowered, excited by his public denouncing of the system, but we are a still confused by the direction our nation will take. We’re not alone, from Brad Bannon of the US News blog: “I would have liked the President’s speech even more if he had proposed a specific plan… I had hoped the President had learned from the healthcare reform battle that to get Congress to act quickly, he needs to give Congress something specific to chew on…”

We are also disheartened by some of the statements he made. He supports the DREAM Act, which grants qualifying undocumented youth with a 6-year-long conditional path to citizenship upon completion of a college degree or two years of military service. However, Obama added, “We should stop punishing innocent young people for the actions of their parents.” Here, Obama criminalizes and dehumanizes undocumented parents in our communities.

Rigo Padilla, one of dozens of migrant youth whose deportation Brownhouse has prevented, tweeted in response to Obama’s statement. He wrote, “My parents made no mistake.”

The President also used the term “illegal,” with reference to immigrants which is unnecessary and unacceptable.

Although Obama leaves us with concerns from some of his statements and still unanswered questions, he has made some steps toward immigration reform. This major Presidential speech to Congress is a start. We will see how Washington responds. Learn more about immigration reform and read a copy of Obama’s speech.

Photo courtesy of www.presidentspeech.com