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What happens when we give up the ideals that define us?

Incidents around the country continue to undermine the principles of equality, justice and dignity for all that have played an important role in making America the strong nation it is today. In a story reported by the New York Times, a Brazilian man, Genesio Oliveira, is facing deportation and separation from his husband, Tim Coco, an American citizen and resident of Massachusetts, soon after federal officials allowed him to be reunited with his husband earlier this year.

The current situation is reminiscent of the ordeal the couple went through 3 years ago when they were forced to live apart after Genesio was denied asylum on claims of being raped as a teenager in Brazil. The judge deciding the case said he found Genesio’s fear of returning to Brazil “genuine” but denied him asylum on the grounds that he was never physically harmed by the rape. This ruling received a lot of attention from civil rights and immigrant rights groups around the world who criticized U.S. officials for separating a couple that was legally married. Following a request from Senator Kerry in June this year Genesio Oliveira was allowed back into the country on humanitarian grounds. He fervently hoped that this would induce the Attorney General to reverse the initial ruling that forced him back to Brazil, but even on Sen. Kerry’s urging, Eric Holder is refusing to reverse the earlier decision in a way that would allow Genesio to apply for permanent residency and stay with his husband.

Laws that interfere with civil rights and liberties are making their presence felt on a national level, as is evident in the constantly evolving TSA (Transportation Security Administration) regulations regarding security screenings in airports around the country. Three of the largest Sikh advocacy groups in the country are opposing screening measures at airports that require hand searches of all people wearing turbans, even if they agree to undergo full body scans using Advanced Imaging Technology. Representatives from the Sikh Coalition, United Sikhs and the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund announced their opposition to screening policies that they say unfairly target members of the Sikh community.

Hansdeep Singh, a senior staff lawyer for United Sikhs based in New York, told the New York Times about a meeting that took place with TSA officials some weeks ago, in which members of Sikh groups had hoped to hear that with the introduction of Advanced Imaging Technology, there would be less hand and wand searches of turbans in airports. Instead, what they were met with was news of the development of “a patchwork of airport security policies… in which all turbans are searched.” Amardeep Singh, the Sikh Coalition’s director of programs, told the Associated Press, “The TSA told us, point blank, that turbans will now be screened 100 percent of the time.” Referring to the racial profiling and hate crimes that Sikh Americans have been faced with post September 11, 2001, Singh said, “Sikh Americans are already looked at differently in this country. Once you start pulling Sikhs aside for extra screening, it sends a message that the government is suspicious of them for the same reasons [other passengers] are suspicious of them.”

While TSA officials have not confirmed the introduction of a blanket policy, they reiterated Security procedures introduced in 2007 that included provisions for all “bulky” headwear to be searched. National Sikh organizations are urging their constituents to lobby Congress to overturn a blanket TSA policy that calls on all Sikhs wearing turbans to undergo a hand search of their turbans in spite of the Advanced Imaging Technology screening that screens metallic, plastic and ceramic through items of clothing.

In the midst of these incidents and policies that strike at the heart of this nation’s diversity, we did get wind of a heartening story that evidences a positive stance towards minority communities. Today, New Haven officials announced their plans for New Haven Promise, a new program that grants college tuition to high school students from public and charter school, provided that they maintain a 3.0 grade point average and 90% attendance rate.  The program, financed by Yale University, will pay up to 25% of the tuition for qualifying seniors who go on to public colleges or universities in Connecticut next year, up to 50% for the class after that, up to 75%for the following class; and up to 100% for the Class of 2014. According to Mayor John DeStefano, Jr., the program is like a “contract that says to kids: If you work hard, you demonstrate academic achievement and display appropriate behaviors, we’ll give you the tools to go to college and therefore inject choice and opportunity in your lives.”

Most importantly, the Promise will be open to all New Haven residents irrespective of their immigration status, and that includes those young adults who are undocumented and would be eligible for the DREAM Act, were it to be passed. Right now, students have to be legal residents or citizens in order to be eligible for in-state tuition rates and undocumented students are charged out-of-state tuition, which is about $10,000 at the state universities and $24,500 at University of Connecticut.

This is just one more step in the right direction for New Haven officials who are supportive of the immigrant communities that are an integral part of the city. From the New Haven Independent-

State legislators, including New Haven Sen. Martin Looney, have been pushing for a statewide version of the DREAM Act that would allow Connecticut residents who are undocumented immigrants to get in-state tuition. DeStefano said he will urge the state legislature to pass such a bill; he also said he’s working with various in-state colleges to work out an arrangement concerning the issue. Until such a change is made, he said, Promise will pay “full tuition” for each eligible student, even if that student is an immigrant who must pay out-of-state tuition.

It is important that we work together to honor the diversity that is the strength of this nation. As long as we continue to deny equality, justice, dignity and liberty to some, we cannot guarantee human rights for anyone.

Photo courtesy of blogs.cnn.com

Department of Justice vs. Arizona

In the short time since Arizona passed SB 1070 into law, it has become one of the strongest and most controversial symbols of our nation’s debate on immigration. SB 1070 requires the police to stop anyone that has a “reasonable suspicion” of being undocumented but once enacted, it is believed that may well lead to unconstitutional racial profiling and a breakdown of trust between police and the communities they protect. But SB 1070 is also emblematic of the frustration that many have with our broken immigration system, a sign that states have decided to take immigration into their own hands as Congress remains in a deadlock over immigration reform. The latest catalyst for this debate -  a lawsuit filed by the Department of Justice brought against the state of Arizona and SB1070 on July 6th, 2010.

Analysis over the implications of the lawsuit are rife in the media. Many are looking at the lawsuit and its potential for setting a new precedent with regards to the tussle between the federal government and state laws around immigration. Previous precedent shows a tendency for federal courts to side with the federal government on cases when states and cities pass laws that conflict with federal immigration law. An article in the Wall Street Journal traces this precedent back to laws in the 1880s aimed at limiting Chinese immigration. While the dispute could go either way, some analysts hold that that the federal court could only block sections of the law, while allowing some others to be enforced.

By bringing a lawsuit against the state of Arizona, the Obama administration (via the Justice Department) has taken a strong stand against the law. But an article in the Washington Post discusses further implications of this stand. The article quotes the Democratic strategist who spoke about the implications of the lawsuit for the Democrat party -

There is probably some short term pain politically given how popular the law is…But considering the demographic changes the country is undergoing, long term, there is a lot of upside in advocating for Latinos and comprehensive immigration reform.

While the Obama administration is advocating for comprehensive immigration reform, the Democrat party has continued to play safe so as not to alienate the large electoral base that supports the Arizona law and other enforcement heavy approaches to immigration. On the other hand, many Republicans, who support the law and an enforcement heavy approach, continue to emphasize a secure border-then reform approach, a rhetoric that leads to little progress on the issue. Republicans such as Senator John McCain,who previously argued for comprehensive reform, have abandoned their support of an immigration overhaul in the face of resentment and anger from within the party as well as from anti-immigrant groups such as the Tea Party Movement.

In the midst of all these actions are ordinary people suffering disruptions to their everyday lives on account of an immigration system that remains unjust and broken.

Photo courtesy of americasvoiceonline.org

Breaking news – Department of Justice files lawsuit against Arizona law

In a much anticipated move, the Department of Justice has filed a lawsuit against Arizona’s SB1070 today, retaliating against the harsh anti-immigrant law that requires local police to detain suspected of being undocumented. The law, slated to begin on July 29th, is the subject of national controversy coming under fire from civil rights advocates for giving racial profiling the green light.

The Department of Justice accuses the state of Arizona of crossing “the constitutional line” by interfering with the federal government’s authority to create and enforce immigration law. The lawsuit, with Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and the state of Arizona as defendants, argues that “the Constitution and federal law do not permit the development of a patchwork of state and local immigration policies throughout the country”, drawing on the “preemption” doctrine which works off the Supremacy Clause in the U.S. Constitution, a clause that gives federal law precedence over state statues.

In our constitutional system, the federal government has preeminent authority to regulate immigration matters. This authority derives from the United States Constitution and numerous acts of Congress. The nation’s immigration laws reflect a careful and considered balance of national law enforcement, foreign relations, and humanitarian interests… Although states may exercise their police power in a manner that has an incidental or indirect effect on aliens, a state may not establish its own immigration policy or enforce state laws in a manner that interferes with the federal immigration laws…Accordingly, S.B. 1070 is invalid under the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution and must be struck down.

The lawsuit also challenges the anti-immigrant law saying that if enforced it will lead to the diversion of precious resources away from targeting those who have committed serious crimes. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder defended the lawsuit-

Arizonans are understandably frustrated with illegal immigration, and the federal government has a responsibility to comprehensively address those concerns…But diverting federal resources away from dangerous aliens such as terrorism suspects and aliens with criminal records will impact the entire country’s safety… Seeking to address the issue through a patchwork of state laws will only create more problems than it solves.

The brief also calls out the law on humanitarian grounds arguing that making the enforcement of law mandatory for the police will inevitably result in the unjust harassment and detention of foreign visitors, legal permanent citizens, and citizens who might not be able to immediately prove their legal status. Accompanying the lawsuit were declarations from many police chiefs, including from Tucson and Phoenix, who have said that if implemented, SB 1070 will hamper their ability to effectively police their communities.

Late last month Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the Department of Justice was preparing to sue the state of Arizona over SB 1070, sending waves through the media and political networks. President Obama has spoken out against the law.

…the recent efforts in Arizona, which threatened to undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans, as well as the trust between police and their communities that is so crucial to keeping us safe.

The federal lawsuit joins five other lawsuits against SB 1070, including a class action suit field by the American Civil Liberties Union on the grounds that it violates the First Amendment, encourages racial profiling, and interferes with the jurisdiction of the federal government. The government has asked for a preliminary injunction and delay in the enforcement of SB 1070 until the case is resolved. A hearing to decide this will take place on July 22nd in a Federal courthouse in Phoenix.

SB 1070 is a shocking example of what goes wrong when the need for comprehensive immigration reform is not addressed. When we allow our government to deny due process and fairness to some, we put all of our human rights at risk. The Arizona law has already resulted in copycat legislation in other states, which if allowed to continue unchecked will add more chaos to a broken system and further marginalize vulnerable groups.

By filing this lawsuit, the federal government has sent a direct message that they will not tolerate laws like SB1070 that instigate racial stereotyping and interfere with the federal enforcement of immigration law. In an address on immigration last week, President Obama called for bipartisan support to fix the broken immigration system.  Please keep up the momentum and write to President Obama and your Members of Congress to take action on immigration now.

Photo courtesy of politico.com

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False hype about crime in border cities has tragic implications

On June 7th, a Border Patrol agent allegedly shot and killed Sergio Adrián Hernández Huereca, a 14- year old Mexican boy in El Paso, Texas. While exact details of the incident remain murky, the FBI said that the shooting was prompted when border patrol agents were assaulted by rock throwers across the Mexican border. Even though no border patrol agent was injured, T.J. Bonner, the president of the union representing Border Patrol agents released a statement saying that given the common occurrence and potential danger of rock throwing incidents at the border, he classified it as a “deadly force encounter” that “justifies the use of deadly force.” Susan Lee, American director of Amnesty International condemned the shooting of the young boy saying-

This shooting across the border appears to have been a grossly disproportionate response and flies in the face of international standards which compel police to use firearms only as a last resort, in response to an immediate, deadly threat that cannot be contained through lesser means

Following condemnation from the Mexican President and government and from civil rights groups in the US, the FBI has launched a full scale investigation into the shooting. At this point it is still not known whether the boy was even involved in the rock throwing. This incident comes only weeks after Anastacio Hernandez, a 32- year old father of five U.S. born children, was hit in the stomach with a baton and then shocked with a stun gun fired by a Customs and Border Protection officer at the San Ysidro border crossing when he resisted being deported. Once again, the officers involved were completely unharmed and insisted that their use of force was necessary given the situation. Last week, the San Diego County coroner ruled his death a homicide.

Speaking to CNN, State Department spokesperson P.J. Crowley acknowledge that the death of the young Mexican boy is not an isolated incident and committed to a fully transparent, large-scale investigation. He said that the only long-term solution to tragic incidents like these was the passage of comprehensive immigration reform.

Instead of working towards comprehensive immigration reform, the White House has succumbed to political pressure to increase immigration enforcement. This tragic incident occurs in the wake of the White House decision to add $500 million to border enforcement and send 1200 more troops to “secure the border” against so-called waves of violence at the border. Bipartisan members of Congress wrote to President Obama about the “urgent” need for increased border enforcement saying-

Violence in the vicinity of the U.S.-Mexico border continues to increase at an alarming rate. We believe that this violence represents a serious threat to the national security of the United States as well as a serious threat to U.S. citizens that live along the 1,969-mile long border.

In spite of numerous reports that constantly disprove such hype about increased border crime rates, politicians continue to take recourse to it time and again. As politicians like John McCain and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer insist on the need for increased enforcement at the border to protect U.S. citizens from crime committed by immigrants, a recent FBI report obtained by the Associated Press on the basis of the Freedom of Information Act has found that the top four safest big cities in the U.S. are all in the border states. According to the new FBI report, San Diego, Phoenix, El Paso and Austin are big cities that have the lowest rates of violent crime in the U.S. With respect to killings at the hands of U.S. Border Patrol it is important to note a Customs and Border Protection report that shows that Border agents face far less danger than local law enforcement in most U.S. cities. From the Associated Press:

The Customs and Border Protection study, obtained with a Freedom of Information Act request, shows 3 percent of Border Patrol agents and officers were assaulted last year, mostly when assailants threw rocks at them. That compares with 11 percent of police officers and sheriff’s deputies assaulted during the same period, usually with guns or knives. In addition, violent attacks against agents declined in 2009 along most of the border for the first time in seven years.

In the face of concrete research, evidence and admissions from U.S. Border and Customs personnel themselves stating that the southern U.S. “border is safer now than it’s ever been,” is it astonishing that politicians and lawmakers continue to use the myth of the “immigrant threat” to safety as justification for increased immigration enforcement. Arizona Gov. Brewer, who signed off on the draconian anti-immigrant law, SB1070, made numerous statements justifying the law that relied on the myth of widespread crimes being perpetrated as a result of immigration at the border. Before her meeting with President Obama to express her frustration at the Federal Government’s lack of action in securing the border, Gov. Brewer told the press-

We are out here on the battlefield getting the impact of all this illegal immigration, and all the crime that comes with it.

A few days ago we brought you concrete statistics proving that Arizona’s “crime wave” is nothing but racist hype and fear-mongering. Research released by the Immigration Policy Center proves that immigrants are, in fact, less likely to commit crime than non-immigrants, with crime rates being lowest in cities with El Paso, Texas, with a high population of undocumented immigrants. El Paso, where 14-year old Sergio Adrián Hernández Huereca was killed, is one of the poorest and safest cities in the United States.

It would be useful if lawmakers and politicians took note of police chiefs from around the country who have taken a stance against the implementation of SB1070, Arizona’s new law. 8 police chiefs, including two from Arizona, met with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on May 27 to urge the Department of Justice to put a stop to SB1070, which they believe will make their jobs harder by diverting resources away from policing actual crime and eroding the trust between the community and local police; trust that is necessary for effective law enforcement. It is surprising that more local law enforcement officials have not spoken out against laws such as SB1070. On June 10th, 55 organizations in NYC, including us at Breakthrough, signed a letter to NYPD chief Raymond Kelly urging him to break his silence and publicly condemn SB1070 just as New York Mayor Bloomberg and the New York City Council has done.

With states like Arizona taking immigration law into their own hands, and the Federal Government pushing an enforcement only approach appeases politicians and invests in border security and partnerships between Federal immigration officials and local law enforcement, valuable time and energy is being diverted away from the only sustainable solution- humane and comprehensive immigration reform.

Photo courtesy of the elpasotimes.com

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Despite scorching heat, tens of thousands march for justice against SB1070

On Saturday, May 29th, while the hot Arizona sun seared with temperatures in the high 90s, Phoenix saw the largest demonstration against SB1070 since Gov. Brewer signed the controversial bill into law on April 23rd. Ten of thousands of protesters marched down a five mile stretch in central Phoenix, wearing white shirts, waving American flags, chanting, singing, beating drums and carrying umbrellas to shield them from the unrelenting sun.

The diverse crowd of marchers who had flown in from states as far as Rhode Island and Louisiana, as well as Wisconsin, Texas, Illinois, Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles and San Diego, made do with whatever sleeping arrangements they could find. Justin Akers Chacon, for example, a college professor from San Diego who, with 100 other people, reached Phoenix on Friday night, slept on sleeping bags provided by the organizers at a warehouse in downtown Phoenix. “There is a seriousness and confidence that we’re all here for the right reasons,” he said.

Just before 10am on Saturday morning, the marchers set off from Steele Indian School Park, with the first group of protesters reaching the Capitol at 12. 30pm. Along the way, organizers handed out bottles of water while people chanted and held up signs that read “We are not criminals, we are humans,””Si Se Puede,””Heroes against racism,””We are all Arizona,””Legalization or no re-election,” and the ubiquitous “Do I look Illegal.”While a number of people took breaks along the way to get some shelter from the heat, there were no arrests or untoward encounters with the police. Although police declined to give an official estimate of the size of the march, organizer’s estimates ranged from 50,000 to a 100,000 people.

A Los Angeles Times article covering the May 29th National Day of Action mentions the diversity of the crowd of protesters that included families and people of all ages. 68 year old Dennis DuVall, a retired bus driver, drove 100 miles from Prescott, Arizona to be there and show his support. He said-

It’s my civic duty. It shows commitment. People are willing to come out and walk five miles in 100 degrees. It’s important.

The Baez family, including Juan and Guadalupe Baez, their six children between age 2 and 18, and Guadalupe’s mother had driven down from San Diego the previous night. They all wore T-shirts that said-

We are hard workers, not criminals! We believe in USA justice. Arizona’s SB 1070 is not justice.

At the rally, Rev. Warren Stewart of the First Institutional Baptist Church in Phoenix called upon President Obama saying, “”God put you in the White House. You are a person of color. Stand with us.” Echoing the basic asks that Alto Arizona had listed before the National Day of Action, most of the speeches at the rally were directed at President Obama, demanding that he reassert the Federal Government’s control over immigration law by revoking all partnerships between local law enforcement and ICE, and put an immediate end to Arizona’s law, SB1070, which effectively makes it a crime to be undocumented, and, by allowing police to question anyone who looks “reasonably suspicious” of being undocumented, effectively mandates racial profiling.

While the thousands of opponents of the harsh new law marched down Phoenix’s avenues in the height of the day’s heat, those in favor of the law waited till the sun had gone down to hold a smaller rally at a stadium in the suburbs. Predictably, this crowd was mostly middle-aged and white, holding signs saying “Illegals out of America,” while speakers repeatedly insisted that there was nothing racist about their rhetoric. This rally had been organized by Tea Party groups from St. Louis and Dallas who aimed to support the state against boycotts protesting the law by states like San Francisco and Seattle.

As it stands, the law is slated to come into effect on July 29th, unless it is overturned in the courts before that. At the moment, the state is expecting a possible litigation from the United States Justice Department, which, under the leadership of Attorney General Eric Holder, is considering challenging the law on the grounds that it has “pre-empted” Federal powers, and violated Federal civil rights statutes. In preparation for this, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer has made it very clear that she does not want Arizona attorney general, Terry Goddard (who is a Democrat that has expressed his opposition to SB1070) to be defending the state in the event of the lawsuit from the Justice Department. She has made her decision to remove the attorney general from this case, and said that the legislature has given her the power to use outside counsel “because of its lack of confidence in the Attorney General’s willingness to vigorously defend” the law. Terry Goddard, who is a possible challenger in Gov. Brewer’s bid for re-election, told the New York Times that he was “definitely defending the state” in any legal challenges to the law.

We can only hope that the commitment and determination of all the students, workers, families and activists who showed up to protest the draconian SB1070, pays off, and that by channeling all our frustration and anger at the inhumanity of this law, the events on May 29th are translated into direct action against the implementation of such a harsh measure.

Photo courtesy of the New York Times

Justice Department threatens a lawsuit as states follow Arizona’s cue

Last week we gave you a list of states that are going to great lengths to oppose Arizona’s anti-immigrant legislation and ensure that immigration enforcement remains in the Federal domain. Today, unfortunately, we have very different news. While human rights advocates, musicians, sports people, police officers and media personalities continue to provide us with endless reasons why Arizona’s harsh SB1070 bill needs to be repealed, lawmakers in Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Colorado have already introduced similar bills in their state legislatures. Not to be left behind, similar legislation is being considered in Oklahoma, South Carolina, Idaho, Utah, Missouri, Texas, North Carolina, Georgia, Maryland, and Colorado.

Encouraged by the passage of Arizona’s immigration law, legislators and political candidates in these states are stating their frustration at the Federal government’s inaction in tackling immigration as their reason for introducing bills that increase local immigration enforcement. Pennsylvania state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, a Republican who introduced legislation modeled on the Arizona law last week said that his bill would leave undocumented immigrants with two options, “leave immediately or go to jail.” He said-

With the federal government currently AWOL in fulfilling its constitutional responsibilities to protect American lives, property and jobs against the clear and present dangers of illegal-alien invaders, state lawmakers … are left with no choice but to take individual action to address this critical economic and national security epidemic.

In Minnesota the copycat legislation, drafted by state Rep. Steve Drazkowski and supported by five other state House Republicans, even has the same name as Arizona’s SB1070- “The Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act”. According to the Minnesota Independent, this bill (HF3830)-

…would create a Minnesota Illegal Immigration Enforcement Team and require immigrants to carry an “alien registration” card. The bill uses the same “reasonable suspicion” protocol that has generated criticism against Arizona’s law.

This bill has been introduced in spite of the fact that the mayors of St. Paul and Minneapolis (the areas in Minnesota with the largest concentration of immigrants) banned government travel to Arizona in protest of SB1070. Moreover, the police chiefs of both these cities have denounced the introduction of the bill in Minnesota, on the grounds that increased enforcement of immigration law by local police is detrimental to them carrying out their jobs of protecting the community-

As the police chiefs for Minnesota’s two largest cities, we oppose HF3830, the Arizona-style legislation recently introduced in the Minnesota House of Representatives that pushes local law enforcement officers to the front line on matters of immigration…We believe that mobilizing local police to serve as primary enforcers of federal immigration laws will throw up barriers of mistrust and cause a chilling effect in immigrant communities, impairing our ability to build partnerships and engage in problem-solving that improves the safety of all members of the community. The culture of fear that this bill will instill in immigrant communities will keep victims of crime and people with information about crime from coming forward, and that will endanger all residents.

It is frightening that state legislators are making their decisions in spite of repeated protests from mayors and police chiefs in Arizona and around the country. All we can do is take momentary solace in Attorney General Eric Holder‘s consideration of filing a Federal Government lawsuit against Arizona’s Sb1070. Speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in Washington D.C. on Sunday, Holder said that  he was worried that enforcement of the law would lead down a “slippery slope” where people would be stopped based on their ethnicity rather than a crime they have committed. He said that the Justice Department was “considering of our options,” and could file the lawsuit either on the grounds that the Arizona law “pre-empted” Federal powers, or on the grounds that it violated Federal civil rights statutes.

According to a committee of human rights experts at the United Nations, the Arizona law not only violates Federal civil rights statutes, but possibly goes against international human rights treaties. Yesterday, a committee expressed serious concerns about the ways in which Arizona’s new law affects minorities, indigenous people and immigrants, potentially subjecting them to discrimination by local authorities. Referring to the clauses in the law that makes it a crime to be in the state without documents, and allows police officers to stop and question a person based on “reasonable suspicion” that they are undocumented, as well as the clause that targets day laborers and makes it a crime for them to solicit work, the UN committee highlighted the probability of the law leading to people being profiled based on their “perceived” ethnic characteristics.

The panel, composed of experts in the field of migrant rights and racial discrimination, critiqued the “vague standards and sweeping” language of the law and raised doubts about the law’s compatibility with International Human Rights treaties, which the United States is a part of. Further, they warned against the law as being allowing for a “dangerous pattern of legislative activity hostile to ethnic minorities.”

The rapidly introduction of bills similar to SB1070 is testament to the fact that this “dangerous pattern” is well on its way. We must ensure that the Federal government and the White House take this as an urgent call to enact comprehensive immigration reform. Write a letter to President Obama telling him to denounce SB1070 and repair the broken immigration system now.

Photo courtesy of flickr.org/dreamactivistorg

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Mentally disabled detainees denied due process

Photo courtesy: The New York Times

When a government decides to deprive someone of their liberty, that government is responsible for ensuring that all of that person’s health care needs are met, including mental health needs.

In a shocking expose, The New York Times has published an article focusing on the plight of immigrants with mental illness who face deportation. Xiu Ping Jiang is an immigrant from China seeking asylum in the U.S.

For a year and a half Ms. Jiang, a waitress with no criminal record and a history of attempted suicide, was locked away in an immigration jail in Florida. Often in solitary confinement, she sank ever deeper into mental illness, relatives say, not eating for days, or vomiting after meals for fear of being poisoned.

Mental illness in U.S. prisons and immigration detention is a growing problem. This problem is especially acute when torture survivors and asylum seekers who arrive in the U.S. already traumatized are then placed in detention ill-equipped to handle their mental health needs.

Given their vulnerability, its easy to see how immigrants with mental disabilities can be denied a fair hearing. One of the major reasons for this is also that immigrants are not entitled a right to a lawyer. Although emerging international standards favor a right to counsel, the U.S. does not agree, and as a result, many immigrants are unable to afford counsel and represent themselves.

Like Ms. Jiang who languished in detention for many months. Other cases have documented U.S. citizens with mental disabilities unlawfully deported.

All of this has prompted a group of 77 mental health experts, civil rights lawyers and immigration advocates to send a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. asking for protections. Many advocates have also pinned their hopes on an upcoming Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on september 15th on ‘Mental Illness in U.S. Prisons and Detention Facilities’.

Ms. Jiang was finally released from detention because the New York Times publicized her case. She is awaiting a final decision. Not everyone is so lucky.

Photo courtesy of www.nytimes.com