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Georgia Is Not a “Show Me Your Papers” State

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

Co-authored with Omar Jadwat, ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project. Cross-posted from Huffington Post.

This week the ACLU and ACLU of Georgia along with a coalition of other civil rights groups filed a class action lawsuit challenging Georgia’s discriminatory anti-immigrant law inspired by Arizona’s notorious S.B. 1070. The Georgia law authorizes police to demand “papers” demonstrating citizenship or immigration status during traffic stops and makes it unjustifiably difficult for individuals without specific identification documents to access state facilities and services. The lawsuit charges the extreme law endangers public safety, invites the racial profiling of Latinos, Asians, and others who appear foreign to a police officer, and interferes with federal law.

The Georgia law criminalizes everyday folks who have daily interactions with undocumented individuals in their community, making people of faith and others vulnerable to arrest and detention while conducting acts of charity and kindness.

Paul Bridges is one such person. Mr. Bridges, one of our clients in the case, is a long-time supporter of the Republican Party and is the mayor of Uvalda, Georgia, a town of approximately 600 people in Montgomery County. Because he speaks Spanish and is a well-known presence in the community, Mr. Bridges often assists with interpretation in schools, doctors’ offices, court and other settings. He also provides transportation to undocumented individuals so they can go to church, the grocery store, doctors’ appointments and soccer tournaments in nearby towns. If the Georgia law goes into effect, Mr. Bridges and the undocumented individuals traveling with him will be at risk of criminal prosecution.

Paul J. Edwards is another plaintiff in our case who believes strongly in helping all individuals in his community regardless of their immigration status. Mr. Edwards is a devout Christian, and as part of his religious commitment, he transports people, including those who are undocumented, to places of worship and to locations which provide medical assistance. Under the Georgia law, he would be subject to criminal liability for assisting, transporting and harboring these undocumented individuals.

In the words of Anton Flores, Executive Director of Alterna, a faith-based organization that provides a variety of social services to the Latino immigrant community, under Georgia’s law: “we will be forced to wrestle with the new law that contradicts the mandates of our faith tradition as well as having to fear religious persecution and social pressures because of our programs and activities.”

The criminalization of these acts of hospitality, faith, and conscience is misplaced and poses an undue burden on Georgians’ every day interactions with their friends and community.

Georgia is not a “show me your papers” state nor one that believes in making certain people “untouchables” that others should be afraid to assist, house, or transport. We expect that the courts will block this fundamentally un-American law from implementation.

Photo courtesy of immigrationtruthsquad.com.

New reports document discriminatory government treatment of Muslims in America

Guest blogger: Amna Akbar, Senior Research Scholar & Advocacy Fellow at the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at NYU School of Law, and co-author of both reports mentioned below.

Cross-posted from Rights Working Group.

There are visible and less visible ways the government has targeted Muslims, Arabs, and South Asians since September 11, 2001. With the death of Osama bin Laden, however, mainstream pundits, commentators, and lawmakers have attempted to push us to forget the damage and the grief this “war on terror” has brought to our communities—and to immigrant communities and communities of color more broadly.

The “war on terror” has provided a rationale and an argument for an augmentation of state power.  As in prior historical moments, the brunt of increased state power has fallen on vulnerable communities.

But it is important to remember and account for the ways in which our families and communities have been marked and have suffered.  To grieve for the ways in which we have had to change.

This past month, the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ) has released two reports documenting, remembering, and memorializing.  Both reports raise serious human rights concerns.

Under the Radar: Muslims Deported, Detained, and Denied on Unsubstantiated Terrorism Allegations– which we released with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF)– draws on interviews with attorneys and community-based groups, court documents, and media accounts to identify five key under-documented patterns of how the U.S. government has discriminatorily abused the immigration legal system against Muslim immigrants.  The patterns we document include the U.S. government’s use of unsubstantiated terrorism-related allegations without bringing official charges in cases involving ordinary immigration violations.  These practices prejudice the immigration judge and place the Muslim immigrant in a precarious situation where he is unable to defend himself against the allegations.  As a result, he is often pressured to self-deport.

Another pattern we document is the U.S. government’s use of flimsy immigration charges.  For example, the government often uses false statement charges for failure to disclose tenuous ties to Muslim charitable organizations in a way that seems to target Muslim immigrants for religious and political activities and affiliations.

The overall effect of these practices is that religious, cultural, and political affiliations and lawful activities of Muslims are being construed as dangerous terrorism-related factors to justify detention, deportation, and denial of immigration benefits.  The government seems to be targeting Muslim immigrants not for any particular acts, but on the basis of unsubstantiated innuendo drawing largely on their religious and ethnic identities, political views, employment histories, and ties to their home countries.

The patterns outlined in Under the Radar seem to be guided by racial and religious stereotypes, in a way that constitutes discrimination in violation of U.S. obligations under international human rights law.  The patterns also suggest the United States is failing to uphold its international human rights obligations to guarantee the rights to due process; liberty and security of person; freedom of religion; freedom of expression and opinion; and the right to privacy and family.   CHRGJ and AALDEF call on the government to put an immediate stop to the discriminatory targeting of Muslims through the immigration system, to provide greater transparency and accountability for immigration policies and enforcement.

Targeted and Entrapped: Manufacturing the ‘Homegrown Threat’ critically examines three high-profile domestic terrorism prosecutions and raises serious questions about the role of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the New York City Police Department (NYPD) in constructing the specter of “homegrown” terrorism through the deployment of paid informants to encourage terrorist plots in Muslim communities.  Focusing on the government’s cases against the Newburgh Four, the Fort Dix Five, and Shahawar Matin Siraj, the report relies on court documents, media accounts, and interviews with family members of the defendants to critically assess the government’s practices.  The report also, lays bare the devastating toll these practices have had on the families involved.

In the cases we examined, the government sent paid informants into Muslim communities, without any basis for suspicion of criminal activity.  The government’s informants introduced, cultivated, and then aggressively pushed ideas about violent jihad, encouraging the defendants to believe that it was their duty to take action against the United States.  The informants also selected or encouraged the proposed locations that the defendants would later be accused of targeting, and provided the defendants with—or encouraged the defendants to acquire—material evidence, such as weaponry or violent videos, which would later be used to convict them.  The defendants in these cases have all been convicted and currently face prison sentences ranging from 25 years to life.

The families caught up in these abusive government practices have been torn apart. As a result of these prosecutions, they have lost their loved ones to prison, but they have also been branded as families of terrorists. They have lost jobs, family, and friends. Though many of them are organizing for change, the devastating impacts cannot be overestimated.

A number of cases around the country, raising similar concerns, suggest that these practices are illustrative of larger patterns of law enforcement activities targeting Muslim communities.  The report considers key trends in counterterrorism law enforcement policies that have facilitated these practices, including the government’s promulgation of so-called radicalization theories that justify the abusive targeting of entire communities based on the unsubstantiated notion that Muslims in the U.S. are “radicalizing.”  The prosecutions that result from these practices are central to the government’s claim that the country faces a “homegrown threat” of terrorism, and have bolstered calls for the continued use of informants in Muslim communities.

These practices are violative of U.S. obligations to guarantee, without discrimination, the rights to: a fair trial, religion, expression, and opinion; and effective remedy. The report calls on the government to stop discriminating against Muslims in counterterrorism investigations; to hold hearings on the impacts that current law enforcement practices are having on Muslim communities; and to revise the guidelines that currently govern FBI and NYPD activities and allow for such abusive practices to go unchecked.

Both reports raise serious concerns about the ways in which the U.S. government is marking Muslims and Muslim communities as particularly dangerous.  These practices have taken profound tolls on our communities.  The need to remember, and to remain vigilant, remains.

Photo courtesy of muslimmedianetwork.com

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

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)

Dept. of Homeland Security ends biased and ineffective immigrant registration & tracking system

On April 27, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) made a long overdue announcement indefinitely suspending the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), a framework that has been fraught with controversy and inefficiency since it was launched in the wake of 9/11. Several advocacy organizations have welcomed the move but have also called for the DHS to repair the damage that NSEERS has done over the years.

Over the past six years, the NSEERS required individuals from primarily Arab countries to register with the government on arrival and departure from the United States. These countries included Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Egypt, Eritrea, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, North Korea, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Individuals who fell under the critera were required to undergo around 30 minutes of additional inspection at a port of entry if  entering the U.S on nonimmigrant visas. Visitors had to register again when exiting the country. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) justified the existence of the system stating that it was implemented “to keep track of those entering and leaving our country in order to safeguard U.S. citizens and America’s borders.”

The DHS and ICE have been criticized for their overt racial profiling of Arab visitors or those who appear Arab in an effort to preserve national security. The almost exclusive focus on visitors from the Arab countries showed that an institutional typecast was established, a move that received much flak from advocacy groups. The NSEERS impacted a lot of innocent people . In 2003, Abdulameer Yousef Habeeb, a refugee from Iraq was traveling on an Amtrak train from Seattle to Washington, DC to start a new job at an Arabic-language newspaper. While the train had stopped for a 30-minute break in Havre, Montana, Habeeb was singled out by two border patrol agents and then subsequently interrogated, arrested, imprisoned and set up for deportation back to Iraq. This was all because Habeeb hadn’t registered with the NSEERS even though his status didn’t require him to do so. In March 2005, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit on behalf of Habeeb, seeking compensation and damages for his losses and suffering as a result of the erroneous arrest and imprisonment. Finally, in June 2007, the U.S. government apologized to Habeeb for their misconduct and offered compensation. The message from U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Sullivan for the Western District of Washington giving Habeeb a formal statement said-

The United States of America acknowledges that, by not registering under NSEERS, you did nothing wrong. The United States of America regrets the mistake.

In what seems like an extension of their acceptance that Habeeb “did nothing wrong,” the DHS is now saying the same thing with regard to the entire community their NSEERS program had targeted. In their official announcement, the DHS gave the following reason for the cessation of NSEERS-

Over the past six years, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has implemented several new automated systems that capture arrival and exit information on nonimmigrant travelers to the United States, and DHS has determined that recapturing this data manually when a nonimmigrant is seeking admission to the United States is redundant and no longer provides any increase in security. DHS, therefore, has determined that it is no longer necessary to subject nationals from these countries to special registration procedures.

Cases such as Habeeb’s indicate that the NSEERS mistreated several nonimmigrant visitors to the U.S. from Arab countries. Therefore, while the suspension of the NSEERS is a much welcomed move, we must also not forget the damage to people and families that was caused by the program’s implementation over nine years. The mistrust of Arabs in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 branched out into the profiling of other ethnic communities such as Sikhs and other South Asian groups as well as the wider community of Muslims in America. The recent congressional hearings lead by Peter King on the “radicalization of Islam” are another testament to this deep mistrust and societal damage. Several advocacy groups such as the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), and South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), along with the Arab American Institute (AAI), the National Immigration Forum (NIF) and the Rights Working Group (RWG), have praised the end of NSEERS, jointly stating-

The NSEERS program was a counter-productive response in the wake of September 11, 2001…One controversial aspect of the NSEERS program was a “domestic call-in” component that solicited registrations from more than 80,000 males who were inside the United States on temporary visas from predominantly Arab, South Asian, or Muslim-majority countries. The specific parameters of NSEERS revealed it to be a system that was a clear example of profiling: discriminatory, arbitrary, and, as DHS itself has stated, an ineffective national security measure…It is critical that DHS view this rule as a starting point for granting relief retroactively for those affected by NSEERS. Ultimately, these groups believe that NSEERS must be repealed in its entirety.

The steady erosion of basic human rights after the tragedy of 9/11 has affected numerous Americans and visitors to this country. In our current state of paranoia, we as a country have singled out and alienated specific groups, and programs such as NSEERS have added to this damage to the social and cultural fabric of our country. The suspension of the program is definitely a positive step by the DHS, which should be furthered by the full elimination of the program and a reform of the DHS policies and functioning to become unbiased and effective. The unfortunate cases of racial profiling, such as that of Habeeb, should not be repeated. As we approach the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy, we must strive towards an America that cherishes its diversity and doesn’t needlessly suspect those who are different. The time is right for us to re-embrace one of our greatest strengths as a nation – our diversity.

Photo courtesy of dhs.gov

Re-enactment of Chinese immigrant exclusion and recent quelling of protests show a future without diversity and freedom

“The only way to make sure people you agree with can speak is to support the rights of people you don’t agree with.”
- Eleanor Holmes Norton, civil rights activist and Democrat Delegate to Congress representing the District of Columbia.

The freedom to disagree forms the bedrock of a thriving democratic society. Today, as we witness numerous incidents of suppressed protests and dissent around the world, the call for this freedom becomes even more pertinent. It also reminds us of America’s fortunate position as a society where considerable disagreement is allowed to foster healthy debates on issues. This freedom of speech and debate is inextricably linked to our nation’s fabric as a confluence of immigrants. This week, Breakthrough‘s ongoing Facebook game America 2049 addresses the issue of quelling dissent in the future, reminding us that the freedoms we have today can easily be restricted for the sake of supposed national security. On Saturday, April 30, Breakthrough is also partnering with the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation (AIISF) in San Francisco to host the Interrogation Reenactment Event,* an opportunity for visitors to witness a historical scenario and learn about its repercussions today. From the event organizers-

…actors in period costumes will reenact an actual interrogation of Chinese immigrants attempting to overcome the Chinese Exclusion Acts [of 1882], the first American legislation to exclude a specific race or nationality from immigration to this country. We will see what these intended immigrants went through at the island’s Administration Building, and the outcome of their ordeal. Following that, well-known professors Judy Yung, professor emerita at UC Santa Cruz, and Bill Ong Hing, law professor at the University of San Francisco, and a recent immigrant who is a college student will participate in a panel discussion relating the Angel Island experience to what immigrants face today.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 provided a 10-year absolute moratorium on Chinese labor immigration. It was then extended in the form of the Geary Act, which added further restrictions on Chinese immigrants already in the United States. Chinese immigration was stringently regulated until 1943, when all these exclusionary acts were repealed in favor of more rational quotas on immigration for each nationality. The targeting of specific immigrant groups (based on their ethnic background) in the U.S. exists in other forms even today with some states passing stringent immigration acts that tend to affect the Latino communities primarily.

Harsh immigration laws affect our country to this day. The diversity of opinion that comes with healthy immigration forms the unique social, cultural and political fabric of our country. Today, as the people of several Arab nations are rising to claim their rights for equality and fair governance, some of their own governments are actively halting their protests. While the future of the ‘Arab Spring’ remains to be seen, this moment in history points to the greater issue of freedom of speech. Americans are fortunate to have much greater freedoms in protesting and dissent, but we must remain aware of this and not take it for granted.

In America 2049 this week, players are confronted with a situation where the authorities have sanctioned the use of a chemical agent in the water supply, SerennAide, that would pre-emptively quell any dissenting activity, making the population completely passive. Whether fictitious, as shown in Joss Whedon’s 2005 space western film Serenity (in which a chemical agent was added to the air processors of a planet to calm the population), or the very real new “calming” drink ‘Just Chill’ from a California-based company, a SerennAide-like scenario is not too far from reality. Most importantly, SerennAide is also a symbol for institutional measures that have sought to prevent dissent or difference of opinion for the sake of national good throughout our history. In the bleak future of America 2049, the situation is at an extreme, raising awareness for the value of diversity of opinion.

A society that is so heavily based on immigration and diversity, such as the United States, must remain aware of its uniqueness and strengths. We must learn from our past, from decisions we made then to actively prohibit specific groups of immigrants, and understand how such practices today or in the future will only damage our social framework.

Watch a message from ‘M,’ the masked leader of Divided We Fall, the presumed terrorist group in America 2049. ‘M’ speaks about the the importance of dissent and difference of opinion to nurture a healthy democracy, especially as authorities in 2049 sanction the use of SerennAide:

*Be sure to check out the ferry schedule to allow for more time to arrive to the Immigration Station. For more information on ferry, tickets and schedule, visit AIISF’s event page.

Click here to “Like” the America 2049 Facebook Page.

Photo courtesy of guardian.co.uk

Tax day, Passover week: labor, migration & justice, now…and in 2049

On this year’s Tax Day that has just passed, several organizations including the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), MoveOn, Daily Kos and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) joined forces for ‘Tax Day: Make Them Pay.’ The groups organized peaceful protests around the country outside the offices of big corporations and millionaires that have evaded paying taxes for last year, mostly due to government-mandated tax breaks. According to the site, “In 2009, after helping crash the American economy, Bank of America paid $0 in taxes. GE had a tax bill of $0 in 2010. Republicans want to give a $50 billion tax bailout to big oil companies…” These protests came at the heels of news that corporations such as General Electric paid no federal taxes in 2010, something that has infuriated the millions of workers around the country who work hard and are expected to dutifully pay their taxes on time.

The tax break issue is the latest in a series of developments that have recently charged the country’s politics around the issues of immigration and labor rights, with them coming together in the case of migrant workers. Last month, the country witnessed a major standoff in the Wisconsin state government between Governor Scott Walker (and his Republican-led state assembly) and thousands of labor groups and workers in the state as the Governor pledged to enact a bill to severely curtail collective bargaining. After three weeks of fierce debates, Gov. Walker managed to push the bill through. The Ohio state assembly soon followed suit, with other states such as Tennessee and Iowa heading in a similar direction. This steady erosion of worker rights presents an increasing risk not just to the economy of this country but also to its social fabric. It also echoes a past where worker rights were often ignored, especially in the case of immigrant workers.

Last month, several labor groups and organizations marked the centennial anniversary of an incident that highlights the lack of protection of workers – the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of March 28, 1911, in which 146 mostly immigrant workers died. To mark the centenary of the tragedy, many labor rights groups amplified their push for pro-labor rights legislation to challenge the spate of anti-union labor bills that were passed recently. The 1911 tragedy brings to light the plight of immigrant workers and the exploitation that still continues today. At a rally commemorating the tragedy, one union member, Walfre Merida, described the similarities between the condition of migrant workers today and those that perished in the fire a hundred years ago. Merida stated-

I see that a hundred years since this terrible accident that killed so many people, things have really not changed at all…Safety conditions, none. Grab your tool and go to work, no more. And do not stop. When we worked in high places, on roofs, we never used harnesses, one became accustomed to the dangers and thanked God we weren’t afraid of heights. One would risk his life out of necessity.

As stories of worker rights violations continue to proliferate, we must take heed from our past mistakes in order to avoid a degradation of these conditions in the future. This week – just as Jews around the world gather at the Passover table to recount their liberation from migrant slave labor in Egypt – Breakthrough’s Facebook game, America 2049, immerses players into discussions around labor rights, especially with regards to the rights of immigrant workers. The game utilizes several events and artifacts from the past to highlight the continued struggles of migrant workers in the United States. In the game’s world in which everyone has an embedded chip to mark their identity, players are given the mission to investigate a counterfeiting ring that helps indentured workers – primarily immigrants, though also citizens who have succumbed to crushing credit debt – to escape their unjust contracts and inhumane living conditions, and begin new lives. The game references the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire as a lesson from the past about the respect and rightful treatment of workers. It also suggests a future that is even bleaker because we as a country have failed to recognize the importance of immigrant workers and worker rights to the success of the country as a whole.

Watch a testimonial by a character in the game, Ziyad Youssef, a Syrian man who was lured into a job with promises of good pay and easy hours, but found himself in slavery-like conditions, unable to look after his sick daughter or provide basic amenities to his family:

The United States is currently grappling with an issue that will inevitably affect our national economy and social conditions in the years to come. The denial of legitimacy and basic rights to immigrant workers will only hamper the nation’s growth on the world stage. In a special report on global migration published in 2008, The Economist argued for the widespread acceptance of migrant workers by the richer countries that so desperately need them. Speaking about the United States, the report stated-

Around a third of the Americans who won Nobel prizes in physics in the past seven years were born abroad. About 40% of science and engineering PhDs working in America are immigrants. Around a third of Silicon Valley companies were started by Indians and Chinese. The low-skilled are needed too, especially in farming, services and care for children and the elderly. It is no coincidence that countries that welcome immigrants—such as Sweden, Ireland, America and Britain—have better economic records than those that shun them…Americans object to the presence of around 12m illegal migrant workers in a country with high rates of legal migration. But given the American economy’s reliance on them, it is not just futile but also foolish to build taller fences to keep them out.

Players in America 2049 will discover valuable artifacts from our country’s past that highlight an ongoing struggle for worker rights and have the agency to join the discussion and save the country’s future from the dystopic scenario the game depicts. One of the artifacts in the game is a poem titled ‘A Song for Many Movements,’ written in 1982 by Audre Lord, a black feminist lesbian poet. The poem articulates the connection between suffering and speaking out against injustices, which is what the workers rights protests around the country have been doing and which we must keep advocating until real change is made-

Broken down gods survive
in the crevasses and mudpots
of every beleaguered city
where it is obvious
there are too many bodies
to cart to the ovens
or gallows
and our uses have become
more important than our silence
after the fall
too many empty cases
of blood to bury or burn
there will be no body left
to listen
and our labor
has become more important
than our silence.

Our labor has become
more important
than our silence.

Photo courtesy of seiu.org

Fox News’ awkward reaction to SNL’s “Fox & Friends” spoof

“Fox News: Coffee, smiles, fear and terror!”

On April 9, NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” (SNL) actors Taran Killam, Vanessa Bayer and Bobby Moynihan played the presenters of Fox News’ morning talk show ‘Fox & Friends’ Steve Doocy, Gretchen Carlson and Brian Kilmeade, respectively. The cast discussed several current issues starting with the federal budget showdown last week to Mexican immigration and the issue of anchor babies. They barreled through the topics with humorous irony, proving that these issues are very much pertinent. As recent events around the country regarding anti-immigrant laws and challenges to birthright citizenship indicate, the opinions they spoofed do in fact exist in our country.

In one of the many digs at Fox News and their conservative alignment, Moynihan as Kilmeade talks about how close the U.S. government came to a shutdown last week, with: “We almost had the first government shutdown in the history of this country!” When his co-host Carlson asks if that’s true, Kilmeade gleefully responds, “Oh I just assumed.” At another point Carlson, expressing her strong objections to Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign, asserts that “When American kids get too skinny, chubby Mexicans will take American acting jobs. Just look at the kid on ‘Modern Family’!” With this skit, the SNL team joins a growing number of mainstream media that are explicitly addressing the issue of immigration, with another recent example being ABC’s ‘The Good Wife’ that broke stereotypes when representing an immigrant Latina nanny. The SNL team takes this further by spoofing the attitude of Fox News towards this issue, with a particularly spirited appearance by Helen Mirren as a “border war expert” who shares her fears about “undercover Mexicans in America, you know, known as A-merx-icans.”

The following Monday, April 11, the real ‘Fox & Friends’ reacted to the SNL spoof by very carefully steering clear of any of the issues that NBC’s cast had addressed. The hosts discussed the impersonations done by the SNL cast but avoided any mention of how the spoof challenged Fox News’ stance on many pertinent issues. Gretchen Carlson (the real one), then concluded their discussion on the spoof by saying-

“Thank you, SNL, for saying that we mean something in this business. After being number one all this time, why not do a skit on us?”

While SNL’s spoof is timely and a much needed take on the issues in the mainstream pop culture space, it’s also an indication that immigration debates (as well as other socio-cultural topics that were raised) are intensifying. The perspectives that the SNL team mocked do exist, which makes it all the more important that we keep pushing to raise awareness around the issues at hand. The SNL spoof also plays along the lines of Good Day Every Day, the news/curriculum element of Breakthrough’s groundbreaking new human rights Facebook game, America 2049 (”Like” the Facebook page here to learn more). Watch the host of the future – Fox Williams – discuss a range of issues including immigration, sex trafficking, religious intolerance and racial profiling, and discover how the discussions tie into the mission of the game.

We look forward to the next major mainstream take on these issues. Until then, play America 2049 and watch SNL’s take on “Fox & Friends” here (our readers in the US can watch it in its original version on the NBC site):

Photo courtesy of rawstory.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watch the film ‘A Look Inside SB1070′ here:

Photo courtesy of news.change.org