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Meet Mansimran

Meet Mansimran. He’s an 18 year old all-American guy who likes Starbucks, hoops, and robotics. He’s a student, an older brother, and an active member of his Sikh religious community. Sometimes, when strangers see his turban, and the color of his skin, they lean out their car window and call him a “terrorist.”

He’s not alone: especially since September 11, Sikh Americans and other communities have become targets of discrimination, racial profiling and bullying, and hate crimes. Counterterrorism measures have inflamed fear, fostered an atmosphere of distrust and even violated human rights. Ten years later, members of many immigrant communities continue to be viewed as suspects by law enforcement, to encounter hatred and violence, and be subjected to bias at the workplace and bullying in schools. One survey found that, even 6 years after the events of 2001, 75% of Sikh male schoolchildren in New York had been teased or harassed on the basis of their religious identity.

How does Mansimran respond? “My response is, ‘Come over here, sit down, I’ll tell you about Sikhism, I’ll tell you who I am,” he explains. He says in the video, “If I see somebody being mean to somebody else, I would protect that person. I would go up to the bully and be like, ‘Why are you doing this? What are you doing?’ I’m obliged by my religion..and my family — you know, don’t do the wrong thing, and stand up for the right thing.”

In 2011, Mansimran represented his community at the United Sikhs summit in Washington D.C, where he spoke to members of Congress about supporting Sikh human rights and dignity and respect across cultures.

Mansimran totally takes it in stride — but it shouldn’t be that way in the first place. We are all on the same team, after all — and we should take a page from Mansimran’s playbook by standing up against racial profiling and bullying, reaching out across differences, upholding human rights, and treating everyone around us with the American — and human-rights — values of dignity, equality, and respect.

You can stand with him — and against racist bullying — by getting to know him and sharing his video profile.

How to ACT:

SHARE this video with 10 friends on Facebook and Twitter to speak out for diversity and stand up against bullying. Post on Facebook, Twitter, and your other favorite social networking spaces.

LEARN about racial profiling and racial justice by visiting our ‘about’ section and following the hashtag #rfair.

DOWNLOAD and share the song “turBAN” by G.N.E. (It’s in the video, it’s awesome, and it’s free!).

Why? Because by sharing the video you are speaking out for racial justice and standing up to bullying.

Because we’re all on the same team.

(And because you won’t be able to get the song out of your head.)

Today’s the day to take a stand against immigrant detention: Watch films on PBS and CNBS

The government is denying due process and fairness in our communities by detaining immigrants who pose no danger and are not a flight risk to the community in inhumane and unregulated detention centers. In the last two years, we have seen more people detained by the ever-expanding, profit-making detention system that ever before, followed by the deportation of a record 1 million people. Moreover, the stories of people who suffer physical and sexual assault, medical negligence, and even death in detention continue to abound.

Tonight, mainstream television will showcase two different investigative exposés of the flagrant violation of human rights that is taking place through the criminalization of immigrant communities, the prison industry and mass immigration detention and deportation system in the U.S.

- Lost in Detention, will air on PBS’s ‘Frontline’ at 9pm EST tonight (check local listings).

In partnership with American University’s Investigative Reporting Workshop, Frontline correspondent Maria Hinojosa takes a penetrating look at Obama’s vastly expanded immigration net, explores the controversial Secure Communities enforcement program and goes inside the hidden world of immigration detention. This feature length documentary uncovers some of the most controversial aspects of the detention system under the Obama administration, looking at police involvement in deportations, as well as abuses and deaths in detention centers. Speaking to Colorlines about the documentary, Maria Hinojosa said- “I would just hope that maybe this documentary helps people engage with their neighbors and their friends. Maybe we can just have this conversation.” Speaking about the abuses in detention she said-

As a journalist, I’m concerned about this. As an American, I’m concerned about this. Because we believe that there’s some kind of legal recourse that we all have, because we have basic rights in our country. Now all of a sudden, you’re encountering a population that’s being told, “Actually you don’t have any legal recourse.” If abuses happen, well, if the abused is an immigrant then they just deport that person and the abuse case goes away.

Join NDLON and the Detention Watch Network for an twitter chat during documentary with the hashtag #altopolimigra. Watch the trailer and tune in for the entire film tonight-

Watch Lost in Detention Preview on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

- Billions Behind Bars: Inside America’s Prison Industry, which is a CNBC original documentary series about the profits and inner workings of the multi-billion dollar corrections industry , will air on CNBC starting tonight, for a week.

With more than 2.3 million people locked up, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world. One out of 100 American adults is behind bars – while a stunning one out of 32 is on probation, parole or in prison. This reliance on mass incarceration has created a thriving prison economy. The states and the federal government together spend roughly $74 billion a year on corrections, and nearly 800,000 people work in the industry.

Also today, the Detention Watch Network launched a national campaign, ‘Dignity not Detention,’ calling for an end to mandatory detention laws, which are significantly responsible for the explosion of the detention system. A wide range of faith, immigrant rights, and community-based organizations joined Detention Watch Network to call on Congress and the Obama Administration to:

  • Repeal all laws mandating the detention of non-citizens.
  • Put an end to all policies and programs that use the criminal justice system to target people for detention and deportation.
  • Bring the U.S. into compliance with its obligations under international human rights law, which prohibits arbitrary detention.
Watch the video, End Mandatory Detention and endorse the campaign here- 

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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NY and Massachusetts suspend SComm; Alabama passes harsh anti-immigrant bill

In a bold move, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on June 1 announced that the state will suspend its participation in the “Secure Communities” Program (SComm) until further review. His decisive announcement was a result of the culmination of hard work on the part of New York legislators, advocates and religious leaders to urge the state’s withdrawal from the program

The program, launched in Texas in 2008 with the goal of nationwide deployment of SComm being complete by 2013, has become increasingly controversial. Initially pitched as a voluntary program that would focus on apprehending those who were guilty of serious “crimes,” the program has faced a slew of criticism from local law enforcement, state officials and advocates for its lack of transparency and oversight, its detrimental impact on the safety of communities as a result of the breakdown of trust of local law enforcement, and its failure to fulfill its original goal of targeting those guilty of serious offenses. This costly program threatens to reduce trust between local law enforcement and communities, encourage racial profiling and separate families. For all the above reasons the Department of Homeland Security announced an investigation of the program at the end of last month.

Explaining his decision to pull New York out of SComm, Gov. Cuomo said-

“There are concerns about the implementation of the program as well as its impact on families, immigrant communities and law enforcement in New York…As a result, New York is suspending its participation in the program.”

The move has been welcomed by local officials, law enforcement and advocates, including some members of Congress. Expressing his support for Governor Cuomo’s decision, Congressman Jose E. Serrano said-

Governor Cuomo has taken a brave and necessary step in suspending New York State’s participation in the flawed ‘Secure Communities’ program, and he deserves great praise. He is firmly in line with our state’s pro-immigrant tradition and on behalf of the immigrants and their friends in our community, I would like to thank him. Having New York State pull back from this unfair and aggressive program should be a wake-up call to the Department of Homeland Security. It is time to end this program and I am glad my home state will no longer take part.

New York joins a small but significant group of states that have pulled out of the SComm program recently. Last month, Illinois was the first state to do so, and faced much resistance from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for the decision. A few days after New York’s exit from the program, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick also announced that his state would not sign on to the Secure Communities initiative. Gov. Patrick, in a statement justifying his decision to pull Massachusetts out of SComm, said-

We run a serious risk of ethnic profiling and frankly fracturing incredibly important relationships in communities that are important for law enforcement…I don’t think that the Obama administration is satisfied that the implementation of this program has been very effective.

In the absence of federal movement on immigration reform, the states are taking matters into their own hands. In the case of Secure Communities, this has resulted in three states with significant immigrant populations withdrawing their support of a program that they think is ineffective and unjust, sending a clear message to the Obama administration and ICE to review the program and take action to ensure accountability and security, as well as justice and due process for all. Inspired by the actions of Illinois, New York and Massachusetts, there are growing calls in other states, such as California, to pull out of Secure Communities as well.

In spite of these positive steps, the need for federal action on immigration reform is evident in cases such as that of Alabama, where a sweeping anti-immigrant bill that, much like Arizona’s infamous SB1070, mandates local law enforcement to stop people based on the “reasonable suspicion” that they are undocumented, enabling the profiling of people based on their appearance. Alabama’s H.B. 56 was passed in the Alabama House and Senate last week and now awaits the signature of Governor Bentley. This bill goes beyond the Arizona law- it mandates that public schools check the status of all students; bars undocumented students from enrolling in public college; makes it a crime to knowingly rent housing to those who don’t have documents etc. If enacted, this bill may well lead to unconstitutional racial profiling and a breakdown of trust between police and the communities they protect. We can only hope that like in the case of Arizona’s SB1070, the values of our Constitution will be upheld, but we wish that such laws could be averted by concrete federal action to repair the broken immigration system.

It is at this time that advocates of fair immigration and the numerous families that have been unfairly affected by SComm and other ICE enforcement  initiatives look to the Obama administration to take swift action. There are steps that his administration can take, without necessary involvement from Congress, to push towards immigration reform:

  • The SComm program should be terminated since it has proven to be highly ineffective. Designed to focus on dangerous criminals, the program has instead been responsible for unjustly deporting a large number of people with no convictions.
  • End partnerships between local police and ICE, and return immigration law firmly to federal control. Local police are usually not trained in the sensitivity of immigration law, which often leads to people being arrested based on racial profiling or for minor offenses and eventually being deported.
  • While President Obama has already reiterated his stance against the harsh anti-immigrant laws being enacted in several states such as Arizona, Georgia and Indiana, his administration can be much more publicly critical of these laws. This would hopefully put pressure on the state legislatures to reconsider before taking such drastic steps.
  • The President can exercise his power to grant relief from deportation to the young people who can qualify for the DREAM Act, calling for “deferred action.”
  • Many undocumented immigrants already qualify for green cards but are hesitant to leave the country (and their immediate relatives who are American citizens) due to the risk of not being allowed back into the country. To ease this, the Obama administration can order the citizenship agency to allow these applicants to stay in the country, and with their families, while they are processed.
  • Finally, the President can also push for immediate reforms to improve the conditions of those in immigration detention, ensuring the safety and dignity of those being processed through the system.

In his May 10 speech on Immigration and Border Security in El Paso, Texas, President Obama showed an awareness for the “broken immigration system” in America-

Today, the immigration system not only tolerates those who break the rules, it punishes the folks who follow the rules.  While applicants wait for approval, for example, they’re often forbidden from visiting the United States.  Even husbands and wives may have to spend years apart.  Parents can’t see their children.  I don’t believe the United States of America should be in the business of separating families.  That’s not right.  That’s not who we are.

We only hope that such sentiments are translated – quickly and effectively – into major policy and legislative shifts that would in fact stop the racial profiling that is masked as immigration law enforcement in its current state. When we deny fairness to some, we put all of our rights at risk. Join us in our commitment to telling stories, inviting conversation, and inspiring action that will help our nation move even further in the right direction. To take action against Secure Communities, contact your state Governor to help your state withdraw from the program.

Photo courtesy of wnyc.org

Native American identity & rights – past, present and 2049

“Nothing is as sweet as self-determination.” – Zia, a character in Breakthrough‘s America 2049.

This week, in Breakthrough’s Facebook game America 2049, players continue their mission in the fictional country, Independent Pueblo Nation, that has seceded from America. Players meet Zia, the Secretary of State for the Pueblo Nation, and discover the plight of the Native Americans historically as well as in the future. Zia is fighting for the right to self-determination of the Native American peoples.

The theme stems from the very foundations of our country and the periodic mistreatment of Native American tribes since then. The future in America 2049 may be dystopic, but it synthesizes our past with a potential future where history not only repeats itself but is also reversed. The Independent Pueblo Nation in America 2049 forms in what is now the American southwest and enforces strict immigration regulations against Americans trying to enter the newly formed republic. Among the many artifacts of Native American struggles in the past, a painting depicting ‘The Trail of Tears’ provides the most notable bridge to history. Starting in 1838, the Cherokee nation was forced to relocate from their home in southeastern United States to internment camps and Indian Territory, which is present-day Oklahoma. Their treacherous march over such a long distance and through harsh conditions claimed the lives of an estimated 4,000 people. In 1987, Congress designated the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, and since 1993, the National Park Service (NPS) and the Trail of Tears Association have been working together to remember and commemorate the struggles of the Cherokee people.

Watch a message from ‘M,’ a character in America 2049, as she speaks about the historical treatment of Native Americans and their condition in America of the future:

Native American rights have come a long way today and the various tribes and communities proudly contribute to the diverse fabric of America. Most recently, the Chahta tribe in St. Tammany Parish, New Orleans, have received an award from the U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Census, for its support in “raising awareness of and inspiring participation in the 2010 census.” Chief Elwin ‘Warhorse’ Gillum of the Tchefuncta Nation was happy with the outcome of the 2010 Census, and emphasized the importance of allowing Native Americans to be self-identify their tribal affiliations. Gillum emphasized that more work still needs to be done, in time for the next census, so even more Native Americans can be identified in the count. Stressing the importance of holding on to American Indian heritage and identity, Gillum said-

If a chicken laid an egg, I don’t care if a duck sat on it, it’s still going to hatch a chicken. My grandmother was Indian, I am still an Indian today…If they can change a chicken into another bird before it hatches, I’ll let them change my race… People have fought all their lives to tell their children who they are. We are not altering history, we are confirming it. We’re eliminating racial barriers [to document all the Native American tribes].

It is important that we maintain the progress on the rights of Native Americans in our country, to avoid a return to the past or an even more troublesome future, such as the one America 2049 alerts us to. Despite many positive moves towards ensuring equal rights for these communities, some incidents do threaten this progress. In a recent development in New Mexico, for example, members of a Navajo group are claiming that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s granting of a uranium mining license on land surrounded by the Navajo Reservation is tantamount to human rights violations. The Navajo group claims that the mining will contaminate their water supply, causing them long term health problems. Such issues hint at a past where Native American rights were regularly infringed upon for the sake of development. In an ongoing climate where the situation is considerably better than it was in the past, such incidents must be addressed swiftly and fairly to ensure an even better future ahead.

We leave you with a Pueblo Indian prayer that speaks of faith and resolve, a sentiment that applies to each one of us as we work towards a future of equality, dignity and justice-

Hold on to what is good, even if it’s a handful of earth.
Hold on to what you believe, even if it’s a tree that stands by itself.
Hold on to what you must do, even if it’s a long way from here.
Hold on to your life, even if it’s easier to let go.
Hold on to my hand, even if someday I’ll be gone away from you.”

Photo courtesy of The Granger Collection, New York.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What does the State of the Union hold for immigration reform?

Delivered to Congress last night, President Obama’s second State of the Union address was one that looked squarely into the future, and was charged with optimism, hope and the spirit of cooperation-

We are part of the American family. We believe that in a country where every race and faith and point of view can be found, we are still bound together as one people; that we  share common hopes and a common creed; that the dreams of a little girl in Tucson are not so different than those of our own children, and that they all deserve the chance to be fulfilled. That, too, is what sets us apart as a nation…Now, by itself, this simple recognition won’t usher in a new era of cooperation. What comes of this moment is up to us. What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow.

These words, spoken early in the speech, did more than honor Christina Green and the other victims of the tragic shooting that took place in Tucson, Arizona on January 8th. Along with noting the empty chair in the room and saying a prayer for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the President said, in his opening remarks, that the tragedy in Tucson served as a reminder that we were all greater than our parties and political affiliations, and that in order to face the great challenges that lie ahead, it is important to “move forward together.” This emphasis on cooperation between the two parties was symbolized by the fact that, for the first time, Democrat and Republican members of Congress sat together at the State of the Union address, representing a show of unity for Gabrielle Giffords.

In a speech that focused on science, technology, clean energy and education, President Obama chose to avoid specifics in favor of a rhetorical approach that employed storytelling to illustrate points. In addition to invoking the repeal of the contentious “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy in the military, he surprised immigration and human rights advocates by spending some time on the issue of immigration reform. In the spirit of allowing everyone to shape their own destiny and contribute to the future of the country, the President expressed support for immigration reform and the enactment of the DREAM Act that would give an estimated 2 million undocumented youth who have lived in the country since they were children, and gone through the educational system, to be put on a path to citizenship. He said-

Today, there are hundreds of thousands of students excelling in our schools who are not American citizens. Some are the children of undocumented workers, who had nothing to do with the actions of their parents. They grew up as Americans and pledge allegiance to our flag, and yet live every day with the threat of deportation. Others come here from abroad to study in our colleges and universities. But as soon as they obtain advanced degrees, we send them back home to compete against us. It makes no sense…Now, I strongly believe that we should take on, once and for all, the issue of illegal immigration. I am prepared to work with Republicans and Democrats to protect our borders, enforce our laws and address the millions of undocumented workers who are now living in the shadows. I know that debate will be difficult and take time. But tonight, let’s agree to make that effort. And let’s stop expelling talented, responsible young people who can staff our research labs, start new businesses, and further enrich this nation.

The issue of immigration has always been a contentious subject; one on which lawmakers have remained extremely divided. What cannot be disputed, however, is that the current immigration system is broken and desperately needs fixing. Currently, there are approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, people who work hard to seek a better life for themselves and their children. Mostly living in the shadows, a lot of people are forced to work for minimum wage, facing inhumane conditions while being denied basic care. Following 9-11, the government’s harsh policies regarding immigrants have resulted in a denial of human rights and due process, with the government allowing raids and arrests without warrants, holding thousands in inhumane detention centers, and deporting people with a fair trial.

While it is tempting to be optimistic that Congress will heed the President’s advice, put aside their differences, and work on fixing the broken immigration system through fair and humane immigration reform, this is not the first time that President Obama has called upon lawmakers to address some of these problems. In the four times that the President has addressed Congress during his term, he has brought up the issue of immigration reform on three occasions. Further, there has never been any doubt about his support for the DREAM Act.

Due to the President’s support, and the work of Senator Harry Reid and other supporters, the DREAM Act even made it to a vote in the Senate in December of last year, only to be struck down. It is also difficult to ignore the fact that Immigrations and Customs Enforcement deported a record number of people in 2010, and put into place a high number of agreements between federal immigration and local law enforcement agencies. These agreements, like the 287g and Secure Communities program, sanction immigration enforcement at the local level without clear objectives or meaningful oversight, resulting in eroding public trust in the local police, and in racial and ethnic profiling, as well as the unlawful detention of U.S. citizens and permanent residents.

So yesterday, when the President spoke about what an uphill battle immigration reform is for Congress, immigrant rights advocates like Frank Sharry from America’s Voice could not help but wish for a more aggressive approach in which he got on the “offensive” and “challenged the Republicans on comprehensive immigration reform.”

As many states seek to introduce harsh ant-immigrant legislation that threatens the security and freedom of thousands around the country, we will wait to see whether the Congress heeds his advice, and works together towards a solution to the immigration system, it is poignant to invoke President Obama’s words-

We are the first nation to be founded for the sake of an idea – the idea that each of us deserves the chance to shape our own destiny…We do big things. From the earliest days of our founding, America has been the story of ordinary people who dare to dream. That’s how we win the future.

We need to live in a nation that ensures equal rights, justice and due process to all, irrespective of their national origin, ethnicity, race, or citizenship. We are daring to dream.

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Harsh SB1070 copycat laws on the horizon in 2011

Following the tragic shooting in Arizona, there has been a call for greater civility and tolerance in the political and public spheres with the hope that a more reasonable path would be favored by all. However, news of  numerous states introducing legislation similar to Arizona’s harsh, anti-immigrant law, SB1070, doesn’t bode well for the new year.

On Tuesday, the Mississippi Senate passed SB 2179, a copy cat SB 1070 legislation that allows local law enforcement officers in Mississippi to demand proof of citizenship from drivers whom they have pulled over for traffic violations. The bill will now make it’s way to the House for consideration.

From the Clarion Ledger-

“The bill would authorize local law enforcement officers to check a person’s immigration status if “reasonable suspicion” exists that the person may be in the country illegally during any “lawful stop, detention or arrest.”

The bill’s chief backer is Sen. Joey Fillingane, a Republican in a chamber that is predominantly Democrat. Reports by the Clarion-Ledger indicate that Fillingane considers SB 2179 an improvement on SB 1070 because, according to him, SB 2179 only allows officers to inquire about a person’s citizenship status as part of a secondary search, once they have already been stopped for a different, ‘primary’ offense, such as a traffic violation. The issue remains, however, that a significant percentage of racial profiling takes place when people are stopped for minor traffic violations, during stops that are at the officer’s discretion, often without accountability on the part of the officer. Further, in addition to the ways in which this law can lead to racial profiling, it is important to note that the legislation will also cost the state additional costs of housing, transportation, and hiring experts.

Following in the footsteps of Mississippi, states like Florida, Iowa, Oregon, Nevada, Georgia, Tennessee and Kentucky are all contemplating Arizona-style immigration laws, with conservative legislatures and governors responding to the lack of federal action on immigration by taking immigration enforcement into their own hands. There are also concerns in Oklahoma, Nebraska and New Mexico, all of which are slated to usher in anti-immigration legislation.

In Virginia a group of House Republicans recently announced plans to put forward at least sixteen bills aimed at undocumented immigrants including bills that would ensure that children without documentation could not attend public schools and colleges. Del. L. Scott Lingamfelter, who is taking the lead on these bills said that state action was called for in such areas where the federal government had “completely failed.” The bills that they unveiled on Tuesday included legislation that would require authorities to check the immigration status of anyone “taken into custody,” and to ensure that the check would apply even to those who were arrested and released on bail or bond before being taken to jail. Virginia already denies driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants and all taxpayer-paid services except those expressly required by law such as education and emergency medical care. The  laws proposed by this group seek to challenge even those by denying public education to children who are undocumented.

When questioned by the Washington Post, David B. Albo said that while this package of anti-immigrant bills was motivated by Arizona’s SB1070 law introduced in 2010, they were of the opinion that the laws they propose were moderate in comparison to SB1070 and hence had a chance at passing where SB1070 did not.

A consideration for lawmakers on laws similar to SB1070 are the costs involved. For example, the Senate Bill 6, Kentucky’s Arizona copy cat law, is estimated to cost the state $40 million a year in expenses.

According to the Lexington Herald Leader:

“…..A 2008 study estimated that, if Kentucky successfully removed all of its undocumented immigrants, it would lose $1.7 billion in economic activity, $756.8 million in gross state product, and approximately 12,059 jobs. Meanwhile, Arizona’s Hotel and Lodging Association reported a combined loss of $15 million in lodging revenue due to meeting cancellations just four months after its immigration bill’s passage due to an economic boycott that was waged against the state”.

Skeptics of Arizona style immigration laws are also looking at the issue purely from the point of view of business and how such laws are detrimental for the economic prosperity of the state in question. Lawmakers opposing the bills argue that states proposing such legislation are being “fiscally irresponsible.“For example, in just four months after passing SB 1070, Arizona lost an estimated $141 million in visitor spending.

While debates around the politics, efficacy, economics and constitutionality of laws such as SB 1070 continue to rage, it is easy to forget that eventually it is individuals and their families that are most adversely affected by these laws. As more states think of taking immigration enforcement into their own hands, it is important to keep in mind that when we deny due process to some and compromise their civil liberties, we compromise the human rights of all.

Photo courtesy of the Associated Press/Al Behrman

Bloodshed in Arizona turns spotlight on political landscape of anger and hate

As Democratic Representative Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona battles for her life after an assassination attempt, the nation is trying to grapple with the violent tragedy that took the lives of 6 and wounded 14 people on Saturday morning, casting a dark shadow on the start of this year. On the morning of January 8th, while U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was meeting with constituents at a ‘Congress on Your Corner’ event at a local shopping center in Tuscon, a gunman opened fire on the gathering. Within seconds, Congresswoman Giffords was shot in the head at point blank range, along with 19 others including Christina Green, a 9-year old girl, Phyllis Schneck, a grandmother from New Jersey and 76-year old Dorwan Stoddard, who lived a mile from the grocery store.

A suspect was apprehended at the scene after two men pinned him to the ground and waited for the police to arrive. The suspect, 22-year old Jared Lee Loughner, has been charged with five federal counts on Sunday, including the attempted assassination of a Member of Congress, and the killing and attempted killings of four other government employees including John M. Roll, the chief federal judge in Arizona, who was killed, Gabriel Zimmerman, a Congressional aide, who was also killed, and Pamela Simon and Ron Barber, Congressional aides who were wounded. Mr. Loughner could face the death penalty if convicted.

Investigators found evidence at Jared Loughner’s residence in Southern Arizona to show that he had planned the attack on Gabrielle Giffords, including an envelope on which the words “I planned ahead,” “My assassination” and “Giffords” were written. In addition to a website linked to his name which contains anti-government writings, Mr. Loughner’s motives for committing the crime remain unclear. In spite of indications that Mr. Loughner is mentally ill, the tragic incident has quickly focused attention on the degree to which a political climate increasingly characterized by hate, fear and vitriolic rhetoric might be complicit in leading to a tragedy of this nature.

In a New York Times editorial written after the Arizona shootings, Paul Krugman refers to an internal report brought out by the Department of Homeland Security in April 2009 that warned of the violence that could accompany the growth of extremist rhetoric that was apparent in the political landscape. The last few years have also seen a growth in the numbers of threats against government officials. In 2010, following the health-care overhaul, Capitol Security officials had said that threats of violence against Congress officials, including death threats, harassment and vandalism, had tripled from the previous year. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a strong and vocal supporter of heath-care reform had her district office door smashed with a bullet following the health-care vote. Judge John Roll, who was killed on Saturday, had received thousands of threatening messages and phone calls after he had allowed undocumented immigrants to proceed with a case in which a rancher had assaulted 16 Mexicans who had crossed through his land.

While it would be misguided to directly attribute the Loughner’s violent actions to the surge of inflammatory language characterizing politics and media, it is important to understand that there are real consequences to framing political discourse through violent rhetoric. The extent to which hateful and angry rhetoric has made its way into mainstream politics was evident in 2010, during the debate around Arizona’s harsh anti-immigrant law, SB1070, and during the 2010 mid-term elections, where campaign ads openly promoted hate and divisive sentiments. In March 2010, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin announced a target list of Congressional candidates to be defeated in the 2010 midterm election. Launched through her personal profile on Facebook, Palin’s “Don’t get Demoralized. Get Organized. Take Back the 20” campaign was symbolized by a map of the country which had crosshairs over the districts represented by candidates that she wanted defeated. Ms. Giffords, who was among the candidates marked on this map, had expressed her concern about it at the time-

We’re on Sarah Palin’s targeted list. But the thing is the way that she has it depicted has the cross hairs of a gun sight over our district. When people do that, they’ve got to realize there’s consequences to that.

At a press conference about the shootings on Saturday, Pima County Sheriff Clarence W. Dupnik spoke about the “vitriol” that characterized political discourse. Saying that it was time for the country to do a little “soul-searching” he said-

The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous. And unfortunately, Arizona, I think, has become sort of the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry.

There is never an explanation for senseless acts of violence such as this that take the lives of innocent people. While Saturday’s shooting can be seen as an isolated action of a mentally ill individual, it can also be seen as emblematic of a political landscape that is angry, divisive, intolerant and eliminationist. Can this tragic incident become the pivotal turning point towards a more humane and peaceful political discourse?

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