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DESERTED: The Human Rights Crisis On Our Soil

When I traveled to Arizona with Ishita to create Checkpoint Nation, I wrote:

It was the first time I had experienced the overwhelming size of the desert sky. The sunset was magnificent, and the endless stretch of cacti and desert rocks were lit up with the last pink moments of twilight. But the sunset’s beauty was overpowered by what I had seen in the rest of Arizona: men and women in shackles (feet chained to waist, waist chained to wrists), a morgue filled twice-over with John & Jane Does, a wall that divides families and ancient lands. From this view, the sunset had a whole different meaning: it marked the beginning of one more cold, waterless night for so many migrants forced to hide in the militarized desert.
Our video camera could hardly capture all that we saw, but we knew that this footage had to be shared with the world.

There is a human rights crisis on our soil that no one is talking about. Migrant men, women, and children are driven by extreme poverty to cross the U.S.-Mexico border — and dying for it. One one side of our border wall: flood lights, empty desert, and countless human remains. On the other: discarded water jugs, and empty desert. The border wall now stretches across Arizona in the easiest places to cross, so that migrants are purposefully funneled into the most treacherous conditions. The remains of over 6,000 human bodies have been found in the desert since militarized immigration policies started in the mid 1990s. And for every body discovered, there are many more not found — and innumerable families who will never know what happened. No matter your opinion on immigration reform, this is a crisis that all of us, as humans, are responsible for addressing — and ending. Join with Breakthrough: WATCH. SHARE. ACT.

For information on how to end this crisis on our border, visit Coalición de Derechos Humanos and No More Deaths.

VIDEO CREDITS: Directed, filmed and edited by Dana Variano with Ishita Srivastava; music by Denver Dalley; post-production audio by Hobo Audio. Produced by Breakthrough.

The fight for fairness: never off-duty

Last night, while much of the U.S. — and the world — kept vigil over the fate of Troy Davis, Ishita and I co-hosted a screening of  “Checkpoint Nation? Building Community Across Borders,” Breakthrough’s latest video depicting the reality of post-9/11 racial profiling. The video (shot by Ishita and me) comes of out of a Border Solidarity Tour that was held this August in Tucson, Arizona by Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM)VAMOS Unidos, and Coalicion de Derechos Humanos. The 100+ community members in the audience gathered to learn about our trip to the Arizona border wall, and discuss what they should do with the information the delegation learned while crossing the border. While the sound of numerous languages filled the room — Urdu, Bengali, Hindi, English, Spanish, and more — every one there shared one goal: uniting in solidarity for immigrant justice. And at the end of the evening, the community took this collective vow: that laws and policies that grants rights to some at the expense of others will not be accepted. Reform for some is reform for none.

When Ishita and I walked out of the screening — onto a side street and into the rain — we were sure we’d never find a cab. But out of nowhere we spotted an off-duty taxi, and ran after it — only to find that the driver was Osman Chowdhury, a member of DRUM. Osman had spoken at the meeting about his struggle being the same as the Mexican migrant’s struggle, underscoring that everyone must know what is happening at the American border. Osman kindly drove us all the way to Brooklyn before he started his 11 pm shift, with his meter off. He refused to let us pay him a dime.

An hour later, as I was still processing the night’s events, my girlfriend lit a candle for Troy Davis, who had been executed by the state of Georgia moments before. After hours of debate, the Supreme Court chose not to act on a petition to stay the execution; a man, most likely innocent, was put to death by his government. A global network of organizers who started fighting for Troy weeks, months, and years ago describe his execution as an “international symbol of the battle over the death penalty and racial imbalance in the justice system.” They are speaking out, not compromising — like the members of DRUM and VAMOS. And our cab driver, so generous in both thought and deed.

Troy Davis remains in the forefront of my mind today, as he seems to for many of my friends and colleagues. But when I think of him today, I will also think of Osman. Of those of us that keep working for equality every day, speaking out in the face of injustice. Because we all deserve dignity, equality, and justice. And when you deny due process to one of us, you deny it for all of us.

“I want to thank all of you for your efforts and dedication to Human Rights and Human Kindness, in the past year I have experienced such emotion, joy, sadness and never ending faith.” -Troy Davis, 1968-2011.

Watch the new Restore Fairness documentary, “Checkpoint Nation? Building Community Across Borders”

Early one morning, Maria—then nine months pregnant—and her family were stopped by the police for no discernible reason. A special breakfast outing became a nightmare—and at one of the most intimate moments of her life, Maria found a team of immigration agents—not her husband—by her side.

Maria’s chilling story, which Breakthrough captured on a trip to the Mexico/Arizona border, is the centerpiece of “Checkpoint Nation? Building Community Across Borders,” a powerful new documentary that depicts the reality of post-9/11 racial profiling — as mandated by laws such as SB 1070 in Arizona, which are now being imitated and implemented nationwide — along with the new and strengthening alliances of diverse groups committed to racial justice.

Set in the U.S./Mexico border area near Tucson, Arizona, a region that sees more and more migrant deaths every year, the video explores the idea that the way to move forward is to find connections and build coalitions among between diverse groups of allies — including Muslim-, South Asian-, African-, and Latino-Americans; civil rights lawyers and media activists — that have identified with each other’s histories and united in the common goals of justice, equality, and respect for all.

“Checkpoint Nation?” was produced to complement the release of  a new report and Week of Action around the 10th anniversary of September 11th spearheaded by Rights Working Group, a  national coalition of more than 300 civil liberties, national security, immigrant rights and human rights organizations committed to restoring due process and human rights protections that have been eroded in the name of national security. The report, “Reclaiming Our Rights: Reflections on Racial Profiling in a Post-9/11 America,” will be released September 14th.

The groups that are featured in the video are ACLU of ArizonaAlliance for Educational JusticeBlack Alliance for Just ImmigrationDerechos HumanosDRUM (Desis Rising Up and Moving)Funding ExchangeVAMOS Unidos

Denying fairness and justice to some puts all of our freedoms at risk. Ten years after September 11th, we must challenge ourselves to unite across our differences and reaffirm the real American values of pluralism, democracy, and dignity for all.

Watch the video and take action to stop racial profiling in your community.

Breakthrough’s media team returns from eye-opening trip at Mexico/AZ border

Post written by Dana Variano, Breakthrough’s newest media team member

It was the first time I had experienced the overwhelming size of the desert sky. The sunset was magnificent, and the endless stretch of cacti and desert rocks were lit up with the last pink moments of twilight. But the sunset’s beauty was overpowered by what I had seen earlier in the week in Arizona: men and women in shackles (feet chained to waist, waist chained to wrists), a morgue filled twice-over with John & Jane Does, a wall that divides families and ancient lands. From this view, the sunset had a whole different meaning: it marked the beginning of one more cold, waterless night for so many migrants forced to hide in the militarized desert.

I’ve just returned from Tucson, where Ishita Srivastava (part of Breakthrough’s media team) and I were part of the National Border Justice and Solidarity Delegation. Made up of a group of organizers from DRUM (Desis Rising Up and Moving)Vamos Unidos, and Coalicion de Derechos Humanos, the delegation spent five days learning about the struggles of migrants and people of color in Arizona, first-hand. Ishita and I filmed the delegation for a documentary to be released on the tenth anniversary of September 11th. The video camera could hardly capture all that we saw.

Arizona is everywhere in the news. Sheriff Joe ArpaioSB 1070Secure Communities: up here in New York, these problems loom large, but also appear fuzzy and distant. So our delegation came together in a place where the struggle is immensely urgent- in Tucson, Arizona- to show solidarity, and bring back what we’ve learned to our peers in New York.

The delegation spent the first day with Isabel Garcia, (Co-Founder of Coalición de Derechos Humanos) learning of the realities of howNAFTA crushed Mexico’s economy, and forced families to leave their homes for the north in order to survive. We watched an Operation Streamline (PDF download) court proceeding, and witnessed first-hand as 60+ migrants were denied due process, and sentenced to felonies and months in prison. If they come back again (which most do), they will be facing up to 30 years in jail. The men were brought up and sentenced in groups, having no chance to do more than answer “si” or “no” to questions they did not understand.  As they were paraded out of the court and into the jails, one man looked as if he was going to pass out. He had been in the desert for days, his lawyer told us, with no food and too little water. “When you get to the facility, tell them you’re sick,” said the judge in an irritated manner. “Be proactive.” Proactive. It was all we could do not to yell out at the irony.

And yell we did, a few hours later, outside Police Chief Villaseñor’s precinct, calling for him to resign for his participation in the racist Secure Communities Taskforce. Our “honk for justice” sign got a heartening amount of love, and that strengthened us enough for facing the desert.

The next day, we walked across the border in Nogales, Mexico and drove across in Sasabe, Mexico: these excursions were crucial in understanding how militarization feels. The highway was empty, except for the white border patrol trucks which passed us by every 2-3 minutes. Buses with tinted windows and bars inside lay hidden by the sides of the road, waiting in the brush to be filled with migrants and driven to American prisons. Border Patrol stopped and searched our van three times that day, even once when we were leavingthe U.S. and entering Sasabe. That time, four patrols eyed us as one checked our passports and green cards: between them they had eight guns, three semi-automatic. They were not happy to see us, a group of 17 American citizens, each a different color, focused on justice.

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Once we crossed into Sasabe, a town which has been taken control of by the cartels, an air of stress lifted from our van- children waved at us, men drank sodas in the shade. The van let out a collective sigh. We weren’t being watched anymore. The Mexican border employees let us into their private building to use their bathrooms. We were greeted with smiles and cheers directed at the football game on the TV, as the US Border Patrol watched from down the street grudgingly. The juxtaposition was stunning.

And then we were at the border wall, made of recycled tanks from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, dividing the countryside in two. On one side: flood lights, border patrol, and empty desert. The other: a litter of discarded black water jugs, and empty desert. The wall now stretches across Arizona in the easiest places to cross, so that migrants are purposefully funneled into the most treacherous conditions. As a result, death counts have risen to record breaking numbers: the human remains of 183 men, women and children were recovered on the Arizona-Sonora border in the fiscal year 2006-2007 alone. And for every body discovered, there are many more not found. The most surprising thing about the wall? How it suddenly ends, leaving a gaping whole- one vast desert land- showing how imagined these “borders” are, and how American policy is literally dividing communities.

Arizona is a testing ground for policies that could be enforced across the United States. Racial profiling laws, unjust treatment by the police and court systems, the belief that one human is not equal to another: these are all things for which we must speak out, before these poisonous policies spread. To learn how you can help the crisis on the border, from anywhere, visithttp://www.derechoshumanosaz.net/get-involved/ and our immigration and racial justice campaign - Restore Fairness.  Breakthrough’s film, which will focus on the issue of racial profiling, will premiere on September 11th’s tenth anniversary.  Stay tuned.