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On the 235th birthday of the U.S., how do we “Define American?”

Over the last couple of weeks, developments in the immigration reform movement and the LGBTQI rights movement have opened up discussions of how one movement can learn from the other. New Yorkers celebrated the hard-won passage of the legalization of gay marriage, making the state the largest and most politically influential in the US so far to take the step forward. After the landmark passage of the law, other states (such as New Jersey and Rhode Island) are in the motion of enacting their own versions of the law.

The New York victory for the LGBTQI movement, coinciding with Pride Day and LGBT Pride Month, has sparked a discussion among the immigration reform movement over what can be learned from the successes of the other group. While the socio-political conditions of both movements are different, analysts have identified one major factor that contributed to the recent strides taken by the LGBTQI movement – making the issue personal for the legislators- that could be useful for other movements for human rights.

There are, of course, other, more obvious overlaps between the two groups as well. The recent case of Henry Velandia serves as a key example. Velandia, a Venezuelan salsa dancer, came to the US in 2002 and was legally married to his partner Josh Vandiver, a US citizen, last year in Connecticut. Velandia was then denied legal residency under the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which states that an American citizen can petition for legal residency for a spouse only if the spouse is of the opposite sex. Velandia faced deportation and only after repeated petitioning and opposition to DOMA, did the the immigration authorities cancel his deportation. Velandia and Vandiver’s lawyer, who won them the case, commented on the decision-

This action shows that the government has not only the power but the inclination to do the right thing when it comes to protecting certain vulnerable populations from deportation.

These links between the immigration and gay rights movements was also highlighted at the recent Freedom from Fear Awards that were announced on June 18 at the Netroots Nation conference in Minneapolis. One of the awards was given to Gaby Pacheco, Felipe Matos, Juan Rodriguez and Carlos Roa, the students who walked 1,500 miles from Miami to Washington, DC to move the government into passing the DREAM Act. The four students, two of whom (Matos and Rodriguez) are openly gay, went on the four month journey and garnered tremendous support – and some threats – along the way. Their campaign, called the Trail of DREAMs, caught the attention of President Obama and was also instrumental in the House of Representatives passing the DREAM Act in December 2010 before it was rejected by the Senate.

Freedom from Fear recognized several other, incredibly deserving, individuals for their dogged determination and fearlessness in working towards immigration reform, through grassroots campaigning, fighting discrimination, ending labor exploitation and much more. They also released a video showcasing all the winners from this year. One such worthy award recipient is Erika Andiola (from Phoenix, AZ). An honors student at Arizona State University, Andiola fell victim to Arizona’s draconian immigration laws when her scholarships were withdrawn because of her undocumented status. She has also been unable to find a job because of the same discrimination. Andiola joined Promise Arizona, a grassroots civic engagement group that works to train a new generation of leaders and also registers Latinos to vote. She is also campaigning for the DREAM Act, regularly approaching senior government officials to get her voice heard. Despite losing her scholarships, Andiola completed her degree and hopes to work as a school counselor one day.

The Freedom from Fear Awards give further impetus to the immigration movement, that has of late benefited from increased support and high-profile press coverage. On June 22, The New York Times published a completely unexpected confession from their Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Jose Antonio Vargas titled ‘My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant.’ The article, in which Vargas reveals his background, his unwavering American identity, and criticizes the immigration policy of the country, received widespread attention and gave the immigration reform movement its latest high-profile advocate. Vargas founded the organization, Define American, whose goal is to instigate a conversation around the many facets, including the moral questions, of the immigration debate. Vargas aims to publicize his story in the hope of encouraging the undocumented immigrants in the country to be more vocal and push legislators to pass comprehensive reform.

On June 28, the Senate held its very first hearing on the DREAM Act. In attendance were numerous DREAMers, including those who are now well known – such as Vargas – and those working tirelessly in their communities fighting to be accepted as Americans. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), who authored the original DREAM Act, said in his opening statement-

When I look around this room, I see the future doctors, nurses, scientists, and soldiers who will make this country stronger. I ask my colleagues to consider the plight of these young people, who find themselves in a legal twilight zone through no fault of their own. They are willing to serve our country, if we would only give them a chance.

Opponents of the DREAM Act always say they sympathize with DREAM Act students. They criticize the details of the bill, but they offer no alternative. Do they want these young people to be deported to countries that they barely remember? Or to continue living in the shadows?

The following day, President Obama renewed his promise to work towards comprehensive immigration reform, commenting specifically on the flaws of E-Verify, the mandatory background checking system that is being considered. Watch his remarks here:

Soon after, hundreds of DREAMers and their allies staged a symbolic graduation ceremony on Capitol Hill for the “Deportation Class of 2011.” With the slogan ‘Education, not Deportation,’ the DREAMers called on President Obama to fulfill his promise of getting the DREAM Act passed. Several DREAMers took to the podium to voice their calls for reform. They were also joined by Vargas, who spoke of the urgency to educate ordinary Americans about the cause and to publicize it more widely (an opinion that echoes the reasons for the success of the LGBTQI movement). With a statement that essentially summarizes the undeniable importance of immigration reform to the foundations of this country, Vargas ended with-

Americans don’t hate us…They just don’t know us. We need to show them that immigration is not about us, the 11 million undocumented immigrants. It’s about us, the 300 million Americans.

Photo courtesy of change.org

President Obama can resolve the nation’s deportation crisis, with the stroke of a pen

Guest blogger: Thanu Yakupitiyage, Media Relations Associate, The New York Immigration Coalition

The stories keep piling up – Jose Antonio Vargas, Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist who made the stunning revelation last week that he is an undocumented immigrant, Elisha L. Dawkins, a veteran of who served in both Iraq and Gauntanamo Bay, Gaby Pacheco , a young DREAMer who came to this country at the age of 7 and was one of four undocumented youth who walked 1,500 miles from Miami, FL to Washington D.C. to advocate for the DREAM Act.

These are only some of the heart-wrenching realities of everyday heroes who are offered no path to legal status in our broken and unfair immigration system. And while hundreds of thousands of people across the country are demanding that their voices be heard and that just solutions be created, Congress is paralyzed by partisan politics. Meanwhile, President Obama, has taken a disastrous enforcement-only approach that has led to the deportation of nearly 800,000 people in the last two years. We are talking 1,100 people a day. Most of these people have no criminal records and are stopped for misdemeanors as little as a traffic violation or jumping a turnstile, or are simply racially profiling for ‘looking like an illegal immigrant’.

The President who had long been an eloquent supporter of immigration reform. For example, on the campaign trail for the 2008 election, he said: “When communities are terrorized by ICE immigration raids, when nursing mothers are torn from their babies, when children come home from school to find their parents missing, when people are detained without access to legal counsel, when all that is happening, the system just isn’t working and we need to change it.”  - 2008 campaign appearance at National Council of La Raza conference

And as President, he has said, “Today, there are an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants here in the United States…. Regardless of how they came, the overwhelming majority of these folks are just trying to earn a living and provide for their families.” -Excerpts from President Obama’s remarks on immigration, May 10, 2011, in El Paso, TX

And yet, despite these exclamations and promises, his actions reflect an approach with little respect for immigrant communities.

President Obama says he won’t act without Congress, but while Congress remains at a standstill, we know there are steps he can take using his executive authority to bring immigration relief to hardworking immigrants and families.

While the President can’t fix the immigration system alone, he can begin to undo some of the damage his own administration has caused. He can take executive action—with the stroke of a pen — to put an end to the senseless deportations of hard-working immigrants, the very folks he says should be allowed a chance to come out of the shadows.

This is why the New York Immigration Coalition launched the ‘With the Stroke of a Pen’ Campaign in November 2010, an on-going campaign to collect signatures on letters to President Obama asking him to use his executive authority to end unjust deportations. With every letter to be sent to the White House, the campaign is also sending a pen, so that the President can sign an executive action.

These are some of the actions that President Obama has the authority to do:

  • Halt the deportation of students who would be eligible to earn legal status under the DREAM Act and other immigrants currently facing deportation whose removal from the country is not in the public interest.
  • End Secure Communities and similar programs that erode community policing by co-opting local law enforcement officers as immigration agents.
  • Allow immigrants currently in the U.S. to complete the process of becoming legal residents here in the United States; forcing them to go to their home country to obtain the visa for which they are eligible often results in a ten-year bar to re-entry.
  • Expand alternatives to detention nationwide, and requiring detention only after the Department of Homeland Security establishes its necessity;.
  • Focus workplace immigration enforcement on exploitive employers who flout our labor laws and profit from our broken immigration system.

And today, across New York City, from Staten Island to Queens, from Brooklyn to Union Square, on the street and in churches and mosques, volunteers are galvanizing supporters and collecting signatures, in a kick-off to a month-long street and online blitz, demanding that President Obama begin to repair our broken immigration system and provide immediate relief to families.

We invite you to join us in our call to the President: stop the senseless deportations of our community members and be the change you are always talking about, by taking these steps.

Join our campaign and sign the letter now HERE and it will be delivered to the White House on your behalf.


Tell your Senators to support the DREAM Act

In a historic bipartisan vote, the U.S House of Representatives passed the DREAM Act on December 8th, bringing the hopes of thousands of young people that have built their lives in America, one step closer to being realized. Soon the Senate will bring the House-approved version of the bill to the floor for a vote, and we need you to make sure that your Senators will vote to make the DREAM Act a reality.

If passed, legislation would provide a clear legal pathway for immigrant youth, who have been raised in the United States and who will pursue higher education or serve the United States Armed Forces, to become U.S. citizens and live the American dream.

We need to flood the Senate with phone calls and ensure that we get the 60 votes needed to pass the DREAM Act.

1.  Dial the switchboard 1-866-587-3023
2.

2. Ask the operator for a Senator from the target list

3. When the receptionist picks up leave a message urging the Senator to vote yes on the DREAM Act.

Follow up your phone call with a letter to your Senators telling them why they need to get behind the DREAM Act. Their vote could make the difference between granting or breaking the dreams of thousands. Take action now.

For the first time in history we were able to pass the DREAM Act in the House. Let’s not stop now.

Photo courtesy of dreamactivist.org

Abounding protests kick off the New Year and highlight the pressing need for immigration reform

TrailofDreams 2009 witnessed neither abatement in the numbers of people detained by immigration enforcement, nor in the number of families separated as a result of deportation. And little progress was made towards advancing comprehensive immigration reform, except for the bill introduced by Rep. Gutierrez on December 15th. Consequently, 2010 has begun with a flurry of courageous and provocative protests by immigrant rights advocates calling for just and humane immigration reform ASAP.

On the 1st of January, four young student activists set out on a protest march in which they have committed to walking 1,500 miles from Miami, Florida, across the Southeast, to Washington D.C., arriving on the steps of  the Capitol on May 1st (a day that has become important for immigrant rallies in recent years). The walk, which has been called The Trail of Dreams, is inspired by the idea of non-violent resistance, and aims to strengthen and inspire the immigrant rights movement and help organize the advocate networks across the country to stand together for the passage of the Development Relief in Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM ACT).

About 100 people gathered to see off the four walkers, Juan Rodriguez (20), Carlos Roa (22), Felipe Matos (23), and Gaby Pacheco (24), as they began their journey from the Freedom Tower in Miami. Over the next few months, the four will be chronicling their journey through a blog as often as they can. The walkers are all top students and community organizers at local colleges and expect students and supporters to join them along the way.  Since they are not all here legally, they face a high risk of exposing themselves to immigration agents over the duration of their walk.  “We are aware of the risk,” Felipe said to the New York Times. “We are risking our future because our present is unbearable.”  From an article in the Washington Post:

All say they are willing to take the risks that come with bringing attention to the plight of students who, like themselves, were brought to the U.S. as children and are now here illegally. “I’m tired of coming back to school each semester and hearing about another friend who was picked up and deported,” Juan Rodriguez told a group of supporters during a recent gathering.

Also on the first day of the new decade, after sitting down to their final meal together, another group of brave and committed individuals in Florida began the Fast for Our Families protest, in which they have initiated an indefinite fast in the name of all those people who have lost, and continue to lose, loved ones due to deportation, detention and raids.

The fasters include a Haitian mother who is facing the threat of being separated from her children, a Puerto Rican man whose wife faces deportation, and a female professional truckdriver, the initiator of the fast, who lost her business and her livelihood when she was deported in 2005 after living here for 18 years, when her ex-husband reported her to the authorities. She came back to the country to be with and support her three children, and was subsequently put under surveillance by ICE. Today she wears an electronic bracelet and faces deportation.

One of the fasters is Jon Fried, a 50 year old man who has been involved in social justice and labor movements for 35 years and runs the organization We Count! On day 2 of the fast, he wrote:

Five of us are fasting indefinitely, as long as it takes; our target is President Obama and our goal is to get him to use the legal authority he has, now, without Congress, to suspend the detention and deportation of immigrants with American families, those who have US citizen children and/or spouses…This decision to fast was not taken lightly. I was tired of getting phone calls from a mother, a father, a brother, a sister saying that their loved ones, their family, was taken away by ICE…

Most urgently, the cost is too high. Now. It’s too painful. It’s too horrific. My friends and neighbors shouldn’t be collateral damage in a political scheme. Parents and youth ripped from their families is not an acceptable cost. Thousands of people marked and tracked with electronic shackles, living in fear of being taken away from their loved ones every time they report to ICE or its private contractors, is not an acceptable cost. Young people being deported to homelands they hardly remember is not an acceptable cost. It is time to say to President Obama: This is on your watch.

Together, the participants of the Trail of Dreams and the Fast for Our Families campaigns hope to build momentum and push the current administration towards just and comprehensive immigration reform that asks for:

1) EQUAL ACCESS TO HIGHER EDUCATION
2) A pathway to citizenship
3) An end to the separation of families
4) And a deliberate and radical shift from the federal funding of raids, detentions and deportations to better educational opportunities for ALL the youth of America!

There are a number of ways that YOU can get involved and show your support towards these bold efforts.

For updated information about the Trail of Dreams, click here, and to follow the Fast for Our families, here. Also, join their facebook group to learn more about their personal stories.

Photo courtesy of www.nytimes.com