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Communities speaking out against injustice targeted by ICE

On Saturday, September 17, early in the morning, a man in Shelbyville, Tennessee, woke up to find Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents in his bedroom. They had entered his home through an unlocked door and and took him into custody. The residents of Shelbyville are facing an unexpected, alleged, government backlash after a hearing held on September 12 by several nonprofits, where Latino residents testified against federal, state and local law enforcement authorities, accusing them of racial profiling and illegal detention. Representative from the U.S Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) were present at the hearings.

ICE also raided the homes and businesses of at least two people that had organized the hearing, sparking immigrant rights advocates to call for a federal investigation into the misconduct of the local authorities and ICE agents. While ICE denies that the raids were conducted in response to the hearings, Shelbyville residents and community advocates refuse to believe that there is no connection between their speaking out against the authorities and these ICE raids just five days later.

The community has reacted strongly to these developments, claiming that ICE’s goal is to intimidate the residents, especially the undocumented immigrants that live there. Bill Geissler, longtime Shelbyville resident and business owner, commented:

The real problem with these sorts of violations is that everyone needs to follow the law.  If ICE is going after immigrants who they suspect have broken laws, why aren’t they following guidelines that are intended to protect the civil liberties of Shelbyville residents?

Furthermore, the Rights Working Group and the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition have joined forces in sending a formal letter to the Office for Civil Rights and Liberties (OCRL) as well as the DOJ in Washington DC to protest these actions by ICE, and encourage national leaders to do something. In their letter to the OCRL (see PDF here), the advocacy groups state:

..These actions have spread fear throughout the Latino community, which feels targeted and increasingly under siege by law enforcement – whether it be ICE, state or local police. The result has been a severe chilling of speech in the community and increased fear of government agents. The Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties was in attendance at this forum for the purpose of listening to community concerns about civil rights abuses by state and local police and ICE. Days later, this same community was targeted by an immigration enforcement action leading to the chilling of free speech and further civil rights abuses.

The town of Shelbyville has been in the spotlight for some time especially because of director Kim A. Snyder’s compelling documentary, Welcome to Shelbyville. The film looked at the community at a crossroads, as the longtime African-American and White populations adapted to the rapidly growing Latino and Somali immigrant communities moving in. While exploring immigrant integration, the film unravels the interplay between race, religion and identity. As the film’s website states, “Ultimately, the story is an intimate portrayal of a community’s struggle to understand what it means to be American.”

This question of being American and the integration of immigrants is also the theme of Breakthrough’s latest video, Checkpoint Nation? Building Community Across Borders that sheds a light on post-9/11 racial profiling that has been mandated by laws such as Arizona’s SB1070. In particular, it tells the story of Maria, nine months pregnant, who was stopped along with her family by police for no discernable reason. What followed was a nightmarish situation as Maria went into labor and found herself giving birth to her son with immigration agents – and not her husband – by her side.

The video has been highlighted in a Huffington Post feature titled Undocumented Women Forced To Give Birth While Shackled And In Police Custody which looks at the stories of women who have been in similar situations to Maria and the ongoing climate of fear and inhumane conditions that is being perpetuated by law enforcement authorities. Mallika Dutt, president and founder of Breakthrough, said about the issue:

We talk about cops in other parts of the world, and we say ‘Oh, they don’t respect human rights,’ but where are we now? If something as important and sacred as someone giving birth can no longer be treated as human, where are we?

While law enforcement authorities must change their policies to end the unjust treatment of immigrants in communities across the country, some communities are taking their own steps to work towards unity and end discriminatory violence. In 2008, a series of attacks against Latino residents of Patchogue, New York and the murder of Marcelo Lucero, an Ecuadorian immigrant, shattered the community of the small town.

For two years after the murder, the town’s Mayor Paul Pontieri, the victim’s brother, Joselo Lucero, and Patchogue residents worked to heal the community and move forward as a unified and diverse group. This story is told in a poignant documentary, Not In Our Town: Light in the Darkness, that follows the healing process of the community to work towards a a community that respects its own diversity and doesn’t give way to divisive politics. The film premiered on PBS on September 21 and is also available for local screenings.

Comprehensive immigration reform is of utmost importance in our nation now so unjust and discriminatory actions like those committed by ICE and other authorities in Shelbyville and other communities are stopped. We must, as a nation, find a solution that works with immigrants in a dignified and humane way to mend a system that has been broken for a long time.

Join Restore Fairness today and lend your voice to the struggle for dignity, equality and justice.

Photo courtesy of standing-firm.com

Temporary bandage or a real step towards reform and reprieve for DREAMers?

In a desperately needed positive move, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced on August 18 some significant administrative repairs to the country’s broken immigration system. Responding to the tsunami of criticism over their increasingly harsh and unjust immigration policies, including blindly deporting hundreds of thousands of immigrants without due process, the DHS announced a few changes to their policy.

Under the new policy, the DHS and ICE will review and suspend the low-priority deportation cases – around 300,000 of them – that primarily involve younger immigrants and those who are not deemed a threat to public security. This new move especially benefits the DREAMers, who have been fighting tirelessly for their right to remain in the country. The main stipulations of the DHS policy shift, as highlighted by Campus Progress, are the following:

The DHS will create a joint-commission with the Department of Justice (DOJ) to review 300,000 existing deportation cases to identify immigrants that are not high priority cases for removal;

Those that are not high priority individuals for removal —DREAMers, primary caregivers, veterans or relatives of persons in armed services, among others identified in an agency memo (PDF) — will have their cases closed. These individuals should then become eligible to apply for work permits.

This initiative does not provide individuals with an earned path to Legal Permanent Resident (LPR) status or U.S. Citizenship. Work authorization is not guaranteed, either.

These measures have been generally praised by immigration reform activists, DREAMers, organizations and officials that have been fighting for major changes in the immigration system. Representative Luis V. Gutierrez of Illinois, a long time champion for immigration reform – who was also heavily involved in the case with Tony and Janina Wasilewski – reacted positively to the DHS announcement, stating:

This is the Barack Obama I have been waiting for, that Latino and immigrant voters helped put in office to fight for sensible immigration policies.

While the DHS, especially Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, has been guarded about their own policy shift so as not appear to be making a complete turnaround, immigration reform groups have also reacted with some trepidation. Napolitano, during a press conference after the DHS announcement made it clear that “Nobody’s getting a free pass. Nobody’s getting free admission to citizenship or anything like that under this system. Nobody is getting exempted.” Meanwhile, immigration reform groups have commented on the very small percentage of the approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants that will actually benefit from this policy change.

Furthering this stance, Michelle Fei of the Immigrant Defense Project, wrote an op-ed on behalf of the New York State Working Group Against Deportation (NYSGAD) arguing that immigration reform should include new measures for all undocumented immigrants and not just those deemed innocent or harmless. Pointing to a wider flaw in the current immigration policy of the country, Fei writes:

…we cannot accept that people with criminal convictions should be so easily tossed out of our country. They’ve already paid their price in a criminal justice system that seldomly lives up to its promise of fairness and equality – particularly for those from low-income, of color, and immigrant communities. They don’t deserve a harsh second punishment of permanent exile through a deportation system we all know is patently unjust and broken. And no matter what, they still belong with our families and communities.

Fei’s stance on the extents of the the deportation machinery highlight that much more needs to be done until we have a fair and just immigration system in the country. These moves by the DHS are definitely positive and will bring relief to hundreds of thousands of immigrants – many of them young people with a real chance at a great future – who will get another chance to stay in this country. However, the DHS and President Obama must keep this momentum going and really work towards a positive, lasting and effective overhaul of the immigration system. For more information about this policy, read this fact sheet put together by the National Immigrant Justice Center. Add your voice to the immigration reform movement today. Join Restore Fairness.

Photo courtesy of immigrationimpact.com

New report tells us how S-Comm makes the American Dream a “criminal proposition”

President Obama holds the unflattering distinction of having overseen the most deportations under any American president in history. Since the deeply flawed Secure Communities program (S-Comm) was launched by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in 2008, around 100,000 people have been deported through its unjust policies and enforcement. Furthermore, in fiscal year 2010, almost 400,000 people were deported under various stipulations (including S-Comm), making it one of the worst years for deportation in our country’s history.  The program’s design and implementation flaws have encouraged racial profiling by law enforcement officials and also victimized those convicted of lesser crimes such as traffic violations, etc. 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.

In a post-9/11 scenario where state paranoia has amplified and hurriedly turned into ineffective and damaging law enforcement policies, the moves made by ICE are not only alienating an aspiring new generation of immigrants, but also gravely affecting the bedrock of this country. Instead of reacting productively to the widespread criticism, ICE has hardened their stance even more. In a shocking development last week, ICE eliminated the Memoranda of Agreement (MOA) that it had signed with some states, thereby enforcing S-Comm without any state or federal agreement at all. It has also vowed to keep extending S-Comm nationally by 2013, regardless of whether individual states disapprove.

On August 16, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), in partnership with Detention Watch Network (DWN) and several other human rights organizations, released a comprehensive report titled ‘RESTORING COMMUNITY: A National Community Advisory Report on ICE’s Failed “Secure Communities” Program.’ (PDF). The report maps out details of how S-Comm has failed as an immigration policy, doing much more irreversible damage than actually fixing the problem at hand. It includes testimony from law enforcement officials, scholars and academics, and organizers and advocates. Criticizing the ineffective program, the report summarizes S-Comm, stating that:

It multiplies laws and enforcement policies that, in effect, make the pursuit of the American Dream a criminal proposition for current generations of immigrants. That such a program should be the showcase policy of an Administration that presents itself asa champion of immigration reform is a betrayal. Multiplying the force of misguided policy and unjust laws is not reform—it is a step backwards.

The report criticizes the entangling of local police in civil immigration law enforcement, and warns agains the “Arizonification” of the country. While highlighting the flaws of S-Comm, the report also stresses on the way forward, strongly pushing for a clear separation of ICE from local police forces. Based on the various testimonies, studies and developments, the report calls for the following:

1. The immediate end, not mending, of the S-Comm program.

2. The completion of the ongoing audit of S-Comm by the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General. Additionally, the Department of Justice Office of Inspector General should begin an investigation into the FBI’s role in Secure Communities.

3. The criticism of S-Comm should be used to amend other ICE programs, and local law enforcement must be untangled from federal civil immigration processes, removing immigration powers from police.

4. States and local jurisdictions should be given the option to participate in or opt out of immigration enforcement programs, including the forwarding of fingerprints and other biometric information to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

The report also highlights the stories of several individuals from across the country who have been victims of S-Comm, facing deportation as a result of simply calling 911 for an emergency, being pulled over while driving or any other arbitrary reason. One of the anecdotes is told by Mercedes, an 18-year old young woman in Nashville, Tennessee. On a normal Sunday afternoon in May, Mercedes was pulled over “for driving less than 10 miles over the speed limit.” After questioning her immigration status, the police officer put her in handcuffs and began filling out the paperwork for the 287(g) program to begin the process of her deportation. When Mercedes asked te officer what would happen to her and if she would make it to her high school graduation the following weekend, the officer “answered me with a smile on his face and told me that I was never going back to school and I would never see my family ever again, I started to cry.”

Mercedes spent 3 days in jail and is now facing deportation. She came to the U.S when she was 11 and qualifies to benefit from the DREAM Act. With aspirations to become a doctor, Mercedes sees herself as American – her life established in Nashville and plans for a future in this country. Reflecting on her experience, Mercedes said,

When this happened to me I realized how sad it is that families have been destroyed just for not having an ID or because of racial profiling. When I was in jail, I felt my dreams were destroyed,that my family was very far from me and I felt afraid that if we don’t stop this now, it will continue to happen.
The release of the ‘Restoring Community’ report coincided with a ‘National Day of Action’ called by various immigration reform activists to protest against the worsening immigration policies of the federal government. Protestors gathered outside President Obama’s campaign headquarters in Chicago on August 16 calling for an end to S-Comm. Several organizations worked together to call for the multi-city protests and delivered petitions to various Democratic party offices in Miami, Atlanta, Houston and Charlotte, demanding that the program be terminated. Gregory Chen, director of advocacy for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, spoke to the New York Times about how the practices of ICE have brought “a flood” of people booked under minor offenses to the immigration attorneys in the organization, calling it “the tip of the iceberg.” Chen added:
Fundamentally, D.H.S. is saying one thing but doing another…[It is] distorting its own mission of focusing on public safety and national security risks.

As the campaigning for the 2012 election ramps up and various candidates are assessing their policies, it is imperative that urgent and comprehensive action be taken by the government to address the violations to human rights and due process that are being enacted due to harsh anti-immigrant laws such as this. S-Comm is a deeply flawed program that has done more damage than good. It encourages racial profiling, separates families, and is enforcing a message that the thousands of immigrants that are working hard and aspiring to the American dream are no longer welcome.

Join the campaign to put an end to Secure Communities at Turn the Tide. You can also add your voice to the Restore Fairness campaign. Become an ally and take action now.

Photo courtesy of vivirlatino.com

DHS Decision to Rescind MOAs Lacks Legal Authority and Violates Principles of Democratic Government

From the Rights Working Group-

The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency has demonstrated that it has gone completely rogue.  Since rolling out the Secure Communities program in 2008, ICE has signed Memoranda of Agreement (MOAs) with various states and over 1500 jurisdictions have been activated with the program.

On Friday afternoon, ICE announced, shockingly, that it will unilaterally rescind the MOAs and proceed with Secure Communities without the agreement of state and local jurisdictions.

Contrary to the announcement of John Sandweg, Counselor to the DHS Secretary and Deputy Secretary, the federal statute that Sandweg cites as mandating participation in Secure Communities does nothing of the kind. It requires information sharing but does not require states to participate in this initiative, nor does it require the deportation of migrants who have been arrested but not yet convicted of crimes.

ICE insists that Secure Communities is mandatory and will become fully operational in every jurisdiction of the country by 2013.  Rights Working Group denounces ICE’s actions.

“Across the country, local jurisdictions and states have publicly rejected the Secure Communities program and have told the federal government that they do not want Secure Communities destroying their communities, separating families, and encouraging discriminatory police practices such as racial profiling.  For ICE to thumb their nose at the decisions of elected officials to withdraw from the program is without legal basis and offensive,” said Margaret Huang, Executive Director of Rights Working Group.

Due to the public outcry about the program and the dangers it poses to community policing and safety, as well as the program’s violations of long-held principles of due process and fairness, several states and localities have demanded to opt out of Secure Communities.  Most recently, governors of New York, Illinois, and Massachusetts have informed ICE that their states will no longer participate in the program.

Rights Working Group has long denounced the lack of transparency and accountability in the implementation of Secure Communities. Investigative reporters and documents received through a Federal of Information Act lawsuit unraveled ICE’s inaccurate statements and reversals of opinion on these MOAs—leading Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) and Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) to call for an investigation of the initiative.The Congressional Hispanic Caucus has urged the Obama Administration to place an immediate moratorium on Secure Communities.

Said Huang: “Secure Communities keeps local police from fulfilling their core mission of protecting our communities because when local police target people to enforce immigration law, it increases the level of fear and makes it far more difficult to gain community trust.”  The vast majority of undocumented battered women are already reluctant to report their abuse to police for fear of detention and deportation.  Secure Communities and similar programs make it even less likely that migrant witnesses and victims will come forward. “This Administration can no longer continue to stand by Secure Communities,” said Huang. “By continuing to support this program they are sanctioning racial profiling, eroding the trust local law enforcement agencies have built with communities of color and showing the international community that our immigration system does not respect the basic human rights of all persons in our country.”

Rights Working Group urges DHS to:

•    Immediately stop the implementation of Secure Communities and similar programs unless and until meaningful civil rights and civil liberties safeguards are put in place to ensure that racial profiling and other human rights violations are not occurring, including collecting data on the perceived race or ethnicity of the people arrested, the charges that are lodged and the ultimate disposition of the case.

•    Terminate Secure Communities in jurisdictions that have chosen to opt out of the program.

•    Immediately suspend Secure Communities in jurisdictions with a documented record of racial profiling or where DOJ is actively investigating a pattern or practice of discriminatory policing.

Photo courtesy of detentionwatchnetwork.com

Two fathers face deportation and separation from their families

Rogelio and Maribel Melgar came to the United States from Guatemala in 1999 with their family. Their son Brayan, then aged 4, had been diagnosed with throat cancer. The Melgars brought him to the U.S., legally, in the hopes of getting him the treatment that was not available in Guatemala. Their initial six-month stay was extended repeatedly as their son’s treatment required more time. The parents couldn’t bear the thought of taking him back to Guatemala to let him die or leaving him in the U.S. while they returned. On May 5, this year, after 12 years of treatment, Brayan passed away, leaving behind his devastated parents and four siblings. Following that tragedy, just over two months later, on July 11, Brayan’s father Rogelio was arrested and is now facing deportation.

The Melgar family is in a particularly complicated situation regarding their status. The parents – Rogelio and Maribel – as well as their older son Hans (16) are all undocumented. Hans is a clear candidate for the DREAM Act. The Melgars’ three youngest children – twin girls (8) and a son (4) – are U.S. citizens by birth. Because of their son Brayan’s prolonged treatment, a family sponsored the Melgars’ stay in the U.S. and arranged for a job at a restaurant for Rogelio. When the restaurant closed in 2004, Rogelio worked as a cook at a care facility until his arrest some weeks ago.

The case of the Melgar family is not unique. There have been countless families that have been fractured as a result of a broken and unfair immigration system that simply doesn’t account for the complexities in each case. The government is denying due process and fairness to communities by enforcing laws that do not allow immigration judges to rule on a case-by-case basis. Laws passed in 1996 eliminate important legal rights that previously enabled immigrants to challenge their detention and deportation. And in a post 9/11 world, these legal rights have been reduced even more dramatically, taking away immigration judges’ ability to consider the circumstances of each individual’s case, leading to mandatory detention and deportation for many.

Over 11% of the population of the U.S is foreign-born (Census Bureau PDF), with a significant number of them being undocumented. According to data released by the Pew Hispanic Center (PDF), undocumented immigrants comprise just over 4% of the adult population of the U.S., while their children make up 8% of the total newborn population and 7% of children (defined as under the age of 18) in this country. Cases of families torn apart, coupled with the numbers demonstrates the need for comprehensive immigration reform that supports basic human rights and ensures due process and fairness for all.

In the meanwhile, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) continues to maintain that the goal of the controversial Secure Communities program is to remove dangerous criminals who don’t have legal status. However, in practice, they have consistently shown otherwise. Numerous immigrants are stopped and checked on minor allegations by local enforcement authorities and their details shared with ICE’s database. This puts these immigrants, in most cases with no criminal record or with minor traffic violations, on the fast track to deportation. And in most cases, their deportation is shattering for the families involved.

Another case of this happening is the story of Salvador Licea of Texas. Licea is a father of two young girls who has lived in Texas for most of his life. He was recently pulled over for a minor traffic violation and then arrested for having an expired license. In a case of blatant racial profiling, he was then told that he was pulled over because his age and skin color matched the description of a ‘drug lord’ or ‘gang banger.’ The authorities took his fingerprints under the jurisdiction of SComm and he is now facing deportation.

Watch the video by The Nation about Licea’s story:

Separation of families is one of the most unfortunate and unjust consequences of our broken immigration system. To learn about the story of yet another family affected by this, watch our Skype interview with Tony Wasilewski, a Polish immigrant whose wife Janina was deported four years ago.

It has now become a widely known fact that the Obama administration has deported more immigrants than the Bush administration, with numbers steadily climbing each year. However, even as President Obama has redirected his immigration efforts to deporting those immigrants who are deemed dangerous and have criminal records, ICE continues to round up people on minor charges. Furthermore, many undocumented immigrants who are trying to live an honest and hardworking life in the U.S. are in complex family situations which are not helped by blanket policies from the authorities. This applies to another set of cases where immigrants are married to U.S. citizens and still face deportation under a harsh 1996 immigration law that deems such immigrants deportable.

In the case of the Melgar family, Rogelio faced a hearing on July 19 in Provo, Utah, where him and his wife met for the first time since he was arrested. In a strange turn of events, the prosecutor, Deputy Utah County Attorney Chard Grunander, admitted that the state wasn’t ready to file charges against Melgar. The judge then released Rogelio’s $5,000 bond and told him he was free to go. However, immediately following this, Rogelio was taken back to Utah County Jail and is now being kept by ICE for a federal investigation.

Rogelio’s wife, Maribel, is still grappling with multiple blows to her family. She is trying to hold on to the memories of a time when her family was together and firmly believes staying in the U.S was the right thing to do:

If we had stayed in Guatemala, my son would’ve been dead at 6 years old…But God gave us a chance to have our son for another 12 years in this country.

It is important to work together to push for comprehensive immigration reform that won’t separate such families and will ensure dignity, respect, and due process for all. Become an ally of Restore Fairness and get involved today. For more information on the separation of families due to deportation and what you can do, go to familiesforfreedom.org

Photo courtesy of Families for Freedom

Small victory as Sheriff Arpaio penalized, but piecemeal changes to SComm fail to address problems

Ever since its launch, the Secure Communities program (SComm) has whipped up one storm of controversy after another, continually being criticized by advocates, officials and local law enforcement for its lack of transparency and accountability, the threat to public safety, due process and justice that it poses, and its indirect but obvious encouragement of racial profiling. While the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have denied these implications, the reality on the ground shows otherwise. Already in effect in several counties across the United States, SComm, combined with the draconian anti-immigrant laws that have been passed in several states, has contributed to the record-breaking deportation of people who were often stopped for minor violations and traffic offenses, and the separation of thousands of families around the country in the past year.

The immigration reform movement, however, recently marked a series of small victories. The infamous Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa Country, Arizona, has been ordered to pay two men, Julián and Julio Mora, $200,000 in a racial profiling case. On February 11, 2009, Arpaio’s deputies had detained the pair for several hours after stopping their pickup truck outside a landscaping company they raided in search of identity-theft and fraud suspects. A federal judge determined that Arpaio’s deputies had no grounds on which to stop the men or detain them for so long.

This isn’t the first time Arpaio has come under legal fire for his racially prejudiced actions. However, he has tried recently, all too hard, to break this reputation. On July 11, Arpaio launched a line of Spanish-language pink underwear which reads “Vamos Jose!” For the last 17 years, Arpaio has been forcing his inmates to wear pink underwear that reads “Go Joe!” as a way to discourage theft of the undergarment. In an all too deliberate effort to prove his naysayers wrongs, he launched the Spanish-language version for public sale, that too in a Mexican restaurant in Phoenix. Sarah Palin and Hugh Hefner have reportedly already purchased their own pairs at $15 apiece. In a press release, Arpaio said-

It will raise more money to help at-risk youth and it is a poke in the eye to the critics who for years have called me racist because of my tough stance on illegal immigration.

However, this move hasn’t gone down well with activist groups. Lydia Guzman, of Somos America and Respect Repeto, labeled this “just another publicity stunt,” asking “Who is he trying to convince? He is trying to too hard to convince us.”

In another move, the Manhattan Federal Court ruled on July 12 that DHS and ICE must furnish documents detailing why they misled state governments and the American public about the extent of SComm, which has recently come under fire for drastically varied interpretations. Reacting to the judgement, Pablo Alvarado, director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), commented-

While the Obama administration boasts of the Secure Communities program to win political points with Republicans, it has kept actual policy details nearly secret from Congress, state partners and the American public. Thankfully, federal courts, not ICE, get the last word…As we’ve seen in states and localities across the country, the more the public learns about Secure Communities, the more they say ‘no thank you’ to its implementation.

As another step that has been hailed by immigration reform activists, Russell Pearce, the president of the Arizone state Senate and the primary sponsor of the racist anti-immigrant SB1070 bill, will face a recall election. This has been the result of a grassroots appeal that collected enough signatures from registered voters to call for the special election. Pearce is the first state official in Arizona to face this kind of election.

Along with these small victories, on June 17 ICE announced a series of reforms to SComm after claiming to heed the criticisms that have come their way. One of the main aspects of the reform package is a training video that explains to local law enforcement officials what SComm entails and what constitutes racial profiling. Watch the ICE training video here:

While the video achieves the goal of explaining SComm to the local enforcement officials, it has also been criticized for being somewhat redundant and repeating racial stereotypes within the visuals of the video. Opponents of SComm have said that the officers should already know racial profiling is against the law. Margaret Huang, executive director of Rights Working Group, argued-

Putting into a video information that law enforcement should not be racially profiling—that is not likely to have a whole lot of impact…Part of the reason it’s become acceptable to use racial profiling in immigration enforcement is because it has been deliberately tied into the national security context.

While the movement against SComm has effectively brought scrutiny on the program and pushed ICE to take note of the criticism that the program has faced from all quarters, the minor tweaks that ICE released have been considered hugely inadequate in their redressal of the program’s flaws. Today at noon, immigrants and advocates in New York City are gathering to rally against the so-called reforms that has made to SComm. The rally, being held at 26 Federal Plaza, New York, NY, will take place one hour prior to a meeting that ICE has set up with advocates in New York City. This meeting is the third in a series of meetings that advocates have dubbed a “desperate marketing tour” through the states that have withdrawn from the program, Illinois, Massachusetts and New York. Today, protesters will rebuke ICE for excluding from its meetings the very people who are most greatly impacted by “Secure Communities” and call for a nationwide termination of the program, which funnels people directly into the deportation system, jeopardizes trust in the police, and encourages racial profiling.

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 Governor to help your state withdraw from the program.

Photo courtesy of azcentral.com

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.

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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

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.