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Arizona, Wisconsin…Searching for freedom in a sea of hate

Two months into the new year, it looks like the hateful and divisive rhetoric that marked 2010 is continuing to make it’s presence felt. Fueled by frustration over the economic situation, and by the changing racial and ethnic face of the country, ‘hate’ groups espousing extremist views on race, politics and culture are growing at an alarming rate. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s annual investigative report released on February 23rd, the number of hate groups in the country has topped 1000, more than have existed at any point in over 20 years.

A lot of the vitriol is directed at President Obama, who is often seen as a symbol of all that is “wrong” with the country. Any residue anger seems to be directed at minority groups, with a focus on the immigrant population that comprises a significant percentage of the country’s workforce. From previously existing mainly on the fringes of media and politics, this hate and resentment aimed at minorities has now decisively made its way into the mainstream, most visible in the political sphere in the form of countless bills that are being introduced around the country. In addition to the events currently taking place in Wisconsin, it is difficult to ignore the vast array of anti-immigrant legislation and enforcement measures that are on the cards at both the Federal and state levels.

The passage of SB1070 by Arizona’s Gov. Jan Brewer in April of last year set off a wave of harsh anti-immigrant laws that raise concerns of racial profiling and civil rights violations in various states around the country and pose a serious threat to basic American values. State legislative sessions across the country from California to Kentucky, Texas to Rhode Island have witnessed the introduction of immigration enforcement bills that have severe implications for racial profiling. On February 24th, Ohio introduced its own version of  Arizona’s SB1070 in a bill which permits local police officers to enforce federal immigration laws. A bill introduced in the Arkansas state legislature that would deny state benefits to undocumented immigrants except in emergencies was halted yesterday when a House committee voted against the bill by a small majority. On Tuesday , the Indiana Senate voted for a law to allow local police to question people stopped for infractions on their immigration status, in a bill that was similar to 2010′s SB1070.

While many states introduce harsh anti-immgrant laws, Arizona continues to stay two steps ahead of the others when it comes to advancing legislation that curtails basic rights and freedoms. The latest round of legislation that was cleared by the Appropriations Committee in the Arizona Senate on Wednesday illustrates this point best. In addition to SBs 1308 and 1309, the bills that undermine the 14th amendment’s birthright citizenship provision, was a package of immigration bills, led by Senator Russell Pearce (the author of SB1070), that curtail the rights of immigrants in the state of Arizona. These bills mandate that undocumented immigrants would be barred from receiving many public benefits, attending community collage, and be barred from driving motor vehicles and obtaining any state licenses including those required for marriage. The bills mandate that schoolchildren (k-12) would have to show proof of citizenship and run the risk of being reported to local police if there were undocumented, and that hospitals would be required to ask for proof of citizenship from patients demanding non-emergency care. Senator Russell Pearce defended his compendium of anti-immigrant legislation that he said was aimed at stopping the “invasion.” All the above laws were passed by the committee, and are now moving to the Senate floor for approval.

Alessandra Soler Meetze, executive director of the A.C.L.U. of Arizona decried the new measures as working towards a “papers please” society. Speaking to the New York Times, she said-

This bill is miles beyond S.B. 1070 in terms of its potential to roll back the rights and fundamental freedoms of both citizens and noncitizens alike…

And while the bold announcement by the Obama administration and the Department of Justice that they would no longer defend the constitutionality of the the federal Defense of Marriage Act (that bans the recognition of same-sex marriage) comes as good news, the issue of immigration is looking bleak on the Federal level as well. Since the beginning of the 112th session of Congress, the Immigration Subcommittee of the House Judiciary committee has been pushing its strategy for mass deportation, referred to as ‘Attrition Through Enforcement.’ A few weeks ago, America’s Voice released a report exposing the background and strategy behind the Immigration Subcommittee’s current policy on immigration enforcement.

The report, collated by the America’s Voice Education Fund, “uncovers the origin of “attrition through enforcement”; its radical goal to achieve the mass removal of millions of immigrants; and the impact this proposal would have on both our economy and politics.” The report details how this approach, promoted by nativist groups and anti-immigrant hard-liners such as the Center for Immigration Studies, FAIR (Federation for American Immigration Reform) and Numbers USA, is packaged as a program aiming  to create jobs for Americans, but is designed to ramp up enforcement on state and federal levels with a view to forcing the 11 million undocumented immigrants out of the country, despite the monumental cost to taxpayers and the agriculture industry. On a press call mid February, Mark Potok, Director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center; Fernand Amandi, Managing Partner of research organization, Bendixen & Amandi International; and Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice, discussed the strategy of mass deportation and the risks that it poses for the political future of the GOP, for the future of race relations in the U.S., and for the economy.

This long list of events, laws and movements taking place around the nation are working to thwart positive change and drastically affect the values of freedom, equality and justice that are intrinsic to the spirit of this country. At such a time it is important that we look to people that are standing up for what is right, and learn from their example. Over the last week, tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets in Wisconsin to demand that the government renew their commitment to the ‘American dream’ by valuing hard work instead of denying basic public services to those who are the most vulnerable. In a move to stand in solidarity with the people of Wisconsin and spread the “spirit of Madison” to the rest of the country, on Saturday, February 26, at noon local time, groups around the country are organizing rallies in front of every statehouse in all major cities.

Stand together to Save the American Dream. We are all Wisconsin, we are all Americans.

Photo courtesy of endoftheamericandream.com

How is 2011 faring so far? Ethnic studies and the 14th amendment

At this moment it is very hard to focus on anything but the tragic incident that marked the beginning of this year when a man in Tucson, Arizona opened fire on a public meeting killing 6 people and gravely injuring 14 others last Saturday. While this tragedy cannot be undone, there are a number of issues around which we can hope for some positive developments in 2011.

In Arizona, the first week of 2011 saw all classes in the Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican-American ethnic studies program being declared illegal by the State of Arizona, in accordance with a state law came into effect on January 1st. Tom Horne, Arizona’s newly elected Attorney General, declared the program illegal on account of it allegedly teaching Latino students that are being mistreated, and encouraging the students to become activists for their race. In the capacity of State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Horne had written the law challenging the ethnic studies program last year. The bill, HB 2291, was passed by the State Legislature in April and signed into law by Gov. Jan Brewer in May of 2010. Defending his latest action deeming that the Tucson district’s Mexican-American program was not in compliance with state standards, (while allowing similar programs for black, Asian and Native America students to continue) Horne said that “They teach kids that they are oppressed, that the United States is dominated by a white, racist, imperialist power structure that wants to oppress them.” Under the law, Tucson would stand to lose 10 percent of its state education funds if the classes are not discontinued, amounts to nearly $15 million.

According to Augustine F. Romero, director of student equity in Tucson schools, the debate over the ethnic studies program demonstrates the strong anti-Latino sentiment in the state, and highlights the pressing need for such programs to continue to exist, giving the students a chance to be proud of their heritage. Mr. Romero posed the question in an interview with the New York Times-

Who are the true Americans here — those embracing our inalienable rights or those trying to diminish them?

In an even deeper affront to inalienable American values, on January 5th, a coalition of legislators from over 14 states announced a plan to join together in a state compact and deny citizenship rights to the children of undocumented immigrants. The compact, clearly motivated by anti-immigrant feeling, is designed to challenge the 14th amendment to the U.S. constitution which states that those born in the United States will be considered U.S. citizens, irrespective of race, class or creed. This was closely matched by Rep. Steve King’s introduction of legislation H.R. 140 before the new session of Congress, aimed to take away the citizenship of children born in the U.S. to parents who were undocumented.

The state compact is being led by Senator Russell Pearce of Arizona, the state Senator best known for introducing the controversial and harsh anti-immigrant law, SB1070 in 2010. The legislators that introduced the plan unveiled a plan that seeks to take birthright citizenship, which is a Federal issue, into state hands by establishing state citizenship laws that deny citizenship rights to those born to parents who are undocumented, and then developing a compact between the various states by which the laws are upheld in all those states. The group claims that their model state legislation aims to halt the “misapplication of the 14th amendment,” which they say is sapping taxpayers funds and attracting further immigration to the U.S. Ultimately, the goal of the coordinated state-level strategy is to force the Supreme Court to take up the issue.

The plan is a joint effort of anti-immigration legislators like Russell Pearce and Kansas Secretary of State-elect Kris Kobach, and State Legislators for Legal Immigration, an anti-immigration group of lawmakers which had representatives from Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Idaho, Indiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas and Utah. Senator Pearce told the Washington Times-

I’m not stopping until the problem is solved, and clearly the problem is not solved. The cost is destroying this country, and it can no longer be ignored…The 14th Amendment was never intended to be applied to illegal aliens. They [the sponsors] specifically said it didn’t apply to foreigners or aliens. That amendment belongs to the African-Americans of this country. It’s their amendment.

Critics are suggesting that in fact, the proposal is completely unconstitutional and deliberately misunderstands the 14th amendment. By suggesting a two-tiered system of citizenship by which those who are born to parents who are undocumented receive different birth certificates than those who are born in the U.S. to parents who are legal residents, the compact goes against the fundamental values of the constitution. Elizabeth Wydra, writing for Politico, sums it up clearly-

The 14th Amendment, which was drafted and ratified against a backdrop of prejudice against newly freed slaves and various immigrant communities, was added to the Constitution to place the question of who should be a citizen beyond the politics and prejudices of the day. The big idea behind the 14th Amendment is that all people are born equal, and, if born in the United States, are born equal citizens — regardless of color, creed or social status. It is no exaggeration to say that the 14th Amendment is the constitutional embodiment of the Declaration of Independence and lays the foundation for the American Dream. Because of the 14th Amendment, all American citizens are equal and equally American. Whether one’s parents were rich or poor, saint or sinner, an American child will be judged by his or her own deeds.

As long as the Federal government avoids enacting a comprehensive reform of the existing immigration system and dealing with an issue that is in their jurisdiction, restrictionists will continue to introduce laws that threaten the fabric of the United States. At the start of this year, as we hope that Rep. Giffords recovers her health, we must recall the values of equality, dignity and respect that are intrinsic to the strength of this country and remember that when we deny human rights to some, we jeopardize the rights of all.

Photo courtesy of colorlines.com

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Lady Gaga speaks out against SB1070 as Sheriff Arpaio sweeps up protestors

20 minutes from the Monster Ball (Lady Gaga’s concert held in Arizona July 31), the iconic pop star put down her hairbrush backstage and listened curiously to two unexpected political activists. They urged her to stop the show and to join Rage Against the Machine’s Sound Strike of Arizona. The pop-star said that she was not aware of the immigration law, and the men explained in an emotional conversation its human rights violations. She asked that they scribble SB1070 on her arm so she could remember. That moment led Gaga to blast on stage before a crowd of more than 20,000 fans and announce that she received calls from artists personally asking her to cancel the show, but she would not cancel, explaining,

“And I said, you really think that us [ expletive ] pop stars are going to collapse the economy of Arizona? We have to actively protest and the nature of the Monster Ball is to actively protest prejudice and injustice. I will yell and I will scream louder, I will hold you and we will hold each other and we will peaceably protest this state.”

As the movement against Arizona’s anti immigration law SB1070 goes stronger, and in light of Federal Judge Susan Bolton’s decision to place a temporary hold on the law, it seems like there is much to celebrate. But the real trigger to Arizona’s law stemmed from programs that continue to exist today that encourage tie ups between federal immigration and local law enforcement, programs like 287(g) and Secure Communities that enforce immigration laws which deny fairness to many. The most egregious of enforcers – Maricopa County’s Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

Even as Arizona Governor Jan Brewer’s lawyers went to court to overturn the judge’s ruling so they can fight back against what the Republican calls an “invasion” of illegal immigrants, many demonstrations continued across the country, including one outside the Sheriff’s building. Protestors beat on the metal door of the jail and chanted,

Sheriff Joe, we are here. We will not live in fear.

In partnership with federal immigration through a 287(g) agreement, Sheriff Arpaio is infamous for his “reign of terror” against immigrants in Arizona. On the day that Arizona’s law came into effect, Sheriff Arpaio launched a sweep, showing exactly why SB1070 is likely to lead to racial profiling and over zealous local enforcement. The Sheriff’s dragnet led to four arrests, but it wasn’t clear if any of them were undocumented immigrants.

Arpaio routinely carries out sweeps, some in Hispanic neighborhoods, to arrest illegal immigrants. The tactics have made him the undisputed poster boy for immigration enforcement through local police and an example of the dangers of racial profiling. The Justice Department even launched an investigation of his office nearly 17 months ago over allegations of discrimination and unconstitutional searches and seizures.

But the 287(g) program is not the only one to blame. Secure Communities is a rapidly expanding program which identifies undocumented immigrants using fingerprints at the time of arrests, even if they are not convicted of anything. Under the program, the fingerprints of everyone who is booked into jail for any crime are run against FBI criminal history records and Department of Homeland Security immigration records to determine who is in the country without status and whether they’ve been arrested previously.

Many people fear the program will lead to unfair enforcement. Like Sunita Patel, an attorney who filed a lawsuit in New York against the federal government on behalf of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network who says since everyone arrested would be screened, the program could easily deport more people than Arizona’s immigration law. Moreover, because immigrants are screened at the point of arrest even before a conviction, the program could create an incentive for profiling and create a pipeline to deport more people. Other immigrant groups have also begun to speak up, stating in a letter that the initiative will make crime victims reluctant to cooperate with police “due to fear of being drawn into the immigration regime.”

San Francisco has shown resistance to the program with, Eileen Hirst, the chief of staff for San Francisco’s Sheriff Michael Hennessey, saying that Hennessey thought Secure Communities cast too wide a net and worried that it would sweep up U.S. citizens and minor offenders, such as people who commit traffic infractions but miss their court hearings. Joining San Francisco, Washington, D.C.’s police also decided not to pursue the program because the City Council introduced a bill that would prohibit authorities from sharing arrest data with immigration authorities out of concern for immigrants’ civil rights.

After filing lawsuit, Patel flew in from New York to provide legal support for Thursday’s civil disobedience protest against SB 1070 outside Sherrif Arpaio’s building. In an unlikely switch, she became one of Arpaio’s arrestees that day.

The arrest of the Guild Legal Observers is just a continuation of Arpaio’s campaign of harassment, said Carol Sobel, co-chair of the Guild’s Mass Defense Committee.  Apparently, Arpaio thinks that if he arrests the Legal Observers, no one will be there to witness his unlawful actions. We have been arrested, shot with projectiles, hit with batons and pepper-sprayed at protests from Washington, D.C. to Miami to Los Angeles and we are still here to document misconduct.

Legal observers serve as impartial witnesses who help ensure that law enforcement officials do not infringe upon the rights of demonstrators and activists who engage in civil disobedience. Roxana Orell, another legal observer, was standing behind the crowd and videotaping the arrest of Sunita Patel. Arpaio’s deputies spotted Orell and arrested her, as well. Brett Beeler, a UCLA law student standing five feet from Orell and Patel when they were grabbed, said he saw numerous individuals standing closer to the police.  He believes that the deputies targeted Orell and Patel because they were wearing the green Legal Observer hats. The two NLG Legal Observers have been charged with obstruction of a highway and failure to obey a lawful order. Numerous other protesters have also been unjustly arrested.

The Obama administration can do more than just watch. It can reassert the importance of sensible national immigration policies by rethinking two troubling programs — Secure Communities and 287(g). Judge Bolton’s ruling reminded us all of the unacceptable price of the Arizona way. However, the expansion of 287g and Secure Communities will likely lead to more Arizonas. We must urge Obama to listen to the majority of people against harsh immigration enforcement.

Photo courtesy of PuenteAZ on www.flickr.com

Move on Arizona (or be left out)!

It is clear that Arizona’s extreme stance on immigration enforcement has caused a stir across the country- one that can be felt within the political arena, the media, and immigrant rights and human rights groups, in addition to catapulting the immigration debate into the limelight. Arizona’s SB1070, which makes it a crime to be undocumented in Arizona and mandates that local police stop and question people who seem “reasonably suspicious” of being undocumented, is scheduled to be enforced by July 29th unless the numerous legal challenges to the law, including the most recent Department of Justice lawsuit against it, succeed in stopping it in its tracks.

While polls show that a number of people support the state’s intervention in immigration enforcement, as we get closer to d-day for the implementation of SB1070, the boycotts against Arizona continue to pile up. Irrespective of the different ways in which the law is being debated, what is for certain is that the state of Arizona is doing a stellar job of isolating itself in a number of ways, both nationally and internationally.

While Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon has already denounced Arizona’s decision to implement SB1070 on a number of occasions, a recent sign of the adverse impact such a law will have on foreign relations between the U.S. and Mexico and other Latin American countries comes in the form of the U.S.-Mexico Border Governors Conference that takes place every year. This annual conference provides an important arena for the governors of 6 Mexican states and 4 U.S. states to come together and discuss issues that are common to all of them, as well as function as a space to represent the unity of the two nations of border issues. For the first time in the 28 years that this conference has been running, it looks like SB1070 might have put a spoke in its wheel. This year’s conference was scheduled to take place in September and through a rotational system, was to be hosted in Arizona by Gov. Jan Brewer, who has championed the new anti-immigrant state measure. Following the announcement of Gov. Brewer as the chairwoman for the 2010 conference, all six Mexican governors wrote to her expressing their umbrage with the law and their plans to boycott this year’s conference to demonstrate their protest against SB1070. The governors wrote that they would not set foot in the state of Arizona because they considered the law, which Gov. Brewer continues to support, to be “based on ethnic and cultural prejudice contrary to fundamental rights.”

Gov. Brewer expressed her disappointment at the boycott saying-

The people of Arizona and the people of America support what Arizona has done…For them to basically not attend here because of that, I think is unfair.

Based on the governors’ boycott of the conference, Gov. Brewer canceled it this Wednesday. The governor’s of the other border states, some of whom do not support the new law, have questioned Gov. Brewer’s authority to cancel the conference and are looking to move it to a different state. And it looks like this might not be the only thing to be leaving Arizona because of it’s harsh new law.

Some time ago we had written about the ways in which baseball players were taking a stand against SB1070. Given that 27% of baseball players are Latino, there has been growing talk about the 2011 All-Star game, which is currently scheduled to be held in Phoenix, Arizona, being moved to another state as long as the unconstitutional and potentially racist law was in effect. As we come up to the 2010 All-Star game, which is taking place in California next week, civil rights and immigrant rights organizations are putting pressure on Bud Selig, the Major League Baseball Commissioner, to move the 2011 game to a state where the players and the fans do not have to worry that they will be singled out by the police for the color of their skin. A few weeks ago, New York Rep. Jose Serrano sent a letter to Bud Selig urging him to move the All-Star game from Arizona and to take an official stand against the law that many players feel is an affront to civil liberties and to the spirit of baseball, but got no response. Opponents of SB1070 and civil rights groups that are mobilizing support to ‘move the game’ held a protest outside the headquarters of MLB earlier today.

As more and more examples come in of the ways in which this draconian law is adversely impacting all aspects of society and culture, states like Utah, Oklahoma and South Carolina are working on following Arizona’s lead and introducing similar bills in their states. As more states think of taking immigration enforcement into their own hands, it is important to keep in mind that when we deny due process to some and compromise their civil liberties, we compromise the human rights of all.

Photo courtesy of nytimes.com

POLL: Do you think the 2011 All Star game should be moved from Arizona?

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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

POLL: Do you support the Department of Justice's lawsuit against SB1070?

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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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Women and children hardest hit by Arizona law that targets immigrants

As we get dangerously close to the July 29th date of implementation of Arizona’s anti-immigrant legislation SB1070, we become appraised of more and more ways that it will adversely impact different communities in the state of Arizona. Not least of these is the way that it could prove extremely detrimental to women and children.

The new law, by mandating that local police in Arizona enforce immigration law and stop and question anyone that appears “reasonably suspicious” of being undocumented, inevitably creates a climate of fear in the immigrant community and erodes their trust of their local law enforcement officers. While immigration is an issue that impacts both the sexes, it affects men and women in different ways and at times like this, looking at it through a gendered lens is key to understanding its long-term impact on the community. And so, since Governor Jan Brewer signed Senate Bill 1070 into law on April 23rd, there have been a number of articles re-examining the ways immigration is a “women’s issue” and how immigrant women will especially affected by the new law.

According to data from the Census Bureau, 50% of all immigrants are women, and we find that a third of these women are functioning as the primary breadwinners for their families once they arrive in the United States. While immigrant women have been extremely successful in the U.S., working hard and looking after their children, they remain an extremely vulnerable group, being dependent on their husband’s visas, lacking access to adequate reproductive health care, dealing with sexual violence before and after coming to the United States, and being unable to report violence out of fear of local enforcement.  Even without SB1070, we can see the problems that immigrant women have to face. Like the moving story from Gender Across Borders about Blanca-

Blanca had been the victim of domestic violence at the hands of her partner for several years…Blanca never went to the police about the abuse even though she came close to losing her life on several occasions. In many states, including some parts of New York, those who contact the police for help can be questioned about their immigration status. If she had been discovered living in the US without permission, she would have been deported. Her son had been born with a heart defect and received therapy and close monitoring from a doctor in New York. If she had been deported, she would have had to choose between leaving her children in the care of their violent father or bringing them with her and endangering the health, and possibly risking the life, of her son.

And until we get fair and humane comprehensive immigration reform, laws like Arizona’s SB1070 will ensure that immigrant women who are victims and witnesses sexual abuse, partner rape, domestic violence, stalking and assault get pushed further into invisibility as they fear that reporting crimes to the police will result in them being questioned about their immigration status. By requiring that police ask for identification from anyone that comes to their notice that they “suspect” might be here without the right papers, organizations like the National Network to End Violence Against Immigrant Women are extremely concerned that even those that provide services to victims of abuse will now hesitate to extend their services to undocumented immigrants for fear of criminal prosecution. They are working towards halting the implementation of the law by organizing law enforcement opposition to it and collecting stories of those who are already being affected by it.

On May 9th, women’s rights leaders from around the country met to participate in an Emergency Women’s Human Rights Delegation to listen to testimonies about the impact of SB1070 on women and children who were already suffering the repercussions of racial profiling sweeps and raids as a result of 287(g) agreements between Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and local police. Following this, 500 women marched to the State Capitol in Phoenix on Mother’s Day to draw attention to the ways in which they had been affected, including families being separated, physical and psychological abuse from law enforcement officers, racial profiling and deportation without due process.

The testimonies and efforts of organizations such as the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, the National Domestic Worker Alliance, the AFL-CIO, the Family Values at Work Consortium and Jobs with Justice have culminated in an ad-hoc Congressional Hearing of women and children directly affected by SB1070, that will take place in Washington D.C. tomorrow. The hearing will seek to convey the urgency of the situation in which SB1070 has created an environment in which the human rights of women and children are under attack, and will call on President Obama to end immigration enforcement programs that are complicit in such human rights abuses.

When looking at the adverse effects that harsh enforcement practices have on immigrant women, it is impossible to ignore the ways in which they impact the well-being of the millions of children that are implicated in this broken immigration system. These children are our country’s future, and we cannot afford to have our future hang in the balance of a broken system.

Photo courtesy of jezebel.com

Reform versus enforcement – Game on!

Since they began their epic journey at the beginning of the year from Miami to DC to fight for a path for citizenship for undocumented youth, the Trail of Dreams students have continuously inspired us with their unwavering courage and determination. After they delivered their demands for the DREAM Act to President Obama, they walked from Scottsdale to Phoenix last week for the National Day of Action to protest Arizona’s new draconian, anti-immigrant law that authorizes local police with immigration powers. On the way back home, they made a pit-stop in Maricopa County where they met with Sheriff Joe Arpaio, infamous for his “reign of terror” against immigrants in Arizona. In their letter requesting a meeting with the Sheriff, the Dreamers wrote-

We would like to discuss the enforcement measures in your county…We also come to show support for the proud immigrants of the Phoenix area, many of whom live in constant fear of harassment by members of your Sheriff’s Department. We want to share our stories so that you understand what it’s like for the millions of immigrants in this country who are unable to fully participate in society due to our broken immigration system.

Three of the the five students are undocumented and Sheriff Arpaio has made no bones about arresting undocumented people in the past, but the students were determined to confront him with their personal stories and ask him to become their ally in the fight for immigration reform. Sheriff Arpaio recently told reporters during a press conference that “Instead of taking them [the undocumented] to ICE, take ‘em to me. I have plenty of room in the tents.” While a complete change of heart for Arpaio might be a little far-fetched, his 45-minute meeting with the Dreamers was reasonably friendly, down to a hug between Sheriff Joe and Gaby Pacheco, one of the students. When asked why she would want to hug a man who has criminalized and persecuted so many immigrants, Gaby said-

I hugged him because I wanted him to feel the pain that our community has been feeling. But also to tell him that as a human being I don’t fear him. I told him with tears coming down that in his heart he has good, and that he has the ability to come back, you know. He was astray and doing these horrible things to our community, but he has the power in his heart to come back and fight with us against these unjust laws.

Probably aware that being too hostile to the students would lead to a massive media frenzy, the Maricopa C0unty Sheriff told the students (with the press present at the meeting) that while he is compassionate towards the plight of undocumented immigrants, he had to continue to do justice to his job of enforcing the immigration laws as they appear in the law books. The student activists told the Sheriff that they had been brought to the United States as children, had contributed to society and the country, and would not know what to do if deported back to the countries in which they were born. After sharing his own stories about living in Venezuela and Colombia during his time with Drug Enforcement, Sheriff Arpaio told the students that their demand for immigration reform would have to begin at a federal level. He left them with the  words, “You keep fighting the fight, make sure you get to D.C. and talk to the politicians.”

Taking Sheriff Arpaio’s cue, activists in New York City have been fasting to push Congress for immigration reform. On Tuesday, ten undocumented students began a hunger strike on the sidewalk outside Sen. Charles Schumer’s midtown Manhattan office to urge him to pass the DREAM Act. When asked how long they intended to continue, the group’s spokesperson, Gabriel Martinez who recently graduated from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said they would stick it out on their blankets outside Schumer’s office “as long as we can hold.” In addition to the students, 40 activists, including New York politicians and clergy, met at Battery Park to initiate a 3-day fast for comprehensive immigration reform yesterday. Most of these fasters intend to spend the remainder of the strike at the Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village. In New York itself, in the past three weeks, 109 activists have been arrested for blocking traffic in front of the government immigration agencies in downtown Manhattan.

These are the latest in a long series of protests, rallies, marches and boycotts that have been taking place across the country. Spurred on by Arizona’s controversial, anti-immigrant law, immigration advocates and activists have been expressing their frustration over the inaction of the Obama administration and Congress over the issue of immigration reform. Meanwhile, Gov. Brewer, who is responsible for signing off on Arizona’s new law, SB1070, was scheduled to meet with President Obama today. Gov. Brewer requested the meeting to speak to the President about her frustration with the lack of federal action in securing the border. Recently, the same Governor told CNN that she was unconcerned about the possibility of the Department of Justice putting up a legal challenge to the new law. “We’ll meet you in court. I have a pretty good record of winning in court,” she said.

Let’s hope the White house stands its ground. Stay tuned!

Photo courtesy of twitter.com/izofice

Desperate need for oversight as sexual assault is carried out in immigration detention

Despite repeated promises of detention reform from John Morton at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the immigration detention system is under fire once again. A guard at the T. Don Hutto detention facility in Taylor, Texas, has been accused of sexually assaulting female detainees on their way to being deported. As per complaints from the women who had been assaulted, several of them were groped while being patted down on the way to the airport, and one detainee reported being propositioned for sex.

ICE disclosed the information to advocate groups last week. Responding immediately, groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Texas and Grassroots Leadership expressed their outrage at the alleged sexual assault and called on the federal government to take immediate action to reform the broken detention system. The guard has been fired and Corrections Corporation of America, the private for-profit company that manages the facility under contract from ICE is on probation, until the outcome of the investigation is known. ICE has also ordered the company to effect changes such as not allowing female detainees to be left alone with male guards.

When Morton announced a detailed plan for reform of the immigration detention system last October, he attributed the majority of the detention problems, such as inhumane treatment and lack of medical care for detainees, to an over dependence on contractors like the Corrections Corporations of America and the infamous GEO Group, and the lack of federal oversight to monitor the running of the facilities. As part of the long-term plan for overhaul of the system, Morton had mentioned a smaller network of detention facilities that were monitored and managed by federal personnel and ensured appropriate medical care and transportation protocol. While those long-term goals are being implemented, there had been talk of establishing a representative from ICE at each facility to oversee activities.

This most recent incident of mistreatment of detainees drives home the urgent need for these reform plans to be implemented by ICE. Speaking about the sexual assault case, Bob Libal, Grassroots Leadership’s Texas Campaigns Coordinator said-

We are saddened and shocked by this report of abuse. While we were heartened that the administration took on reforming the U.S. detention system a year ago, this incident illustrates the inherent problems in an immigration detention system with no meaningful oversight. We hope that this latest news of misconduct in an immigrant detention facility will spur President Obama to action. His administration should should immediately take steps to scale back its growing and out-of-control detention system.

While such incidents do not receive the media attention they deserve, this is not the first case of sexual abuse in a detention center in Texas. Also at the T. Don Hutto facility, a different CCA guard was fired in 2007 when he was found having sex with a detainee in her cell. In 2008, a guard employed by the GEO Group at the South Texas Detention facility was charged with impregnating a detainee. As recently as April 2010 a guard at the Port Isabel Detention Facility in Los Fresnos, Texas was sentenced to three years in prison for sexually assaulting female detainees who were being kept in medical isolation. Lisa Graybill, Legal Director for the ACLU of Texas, denounced the inability of the facilities to prevent against such abuse saying-

The continued occurrence of sexual assault in immigration detention facilities demonstrates the need for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to move more aggressively in implementing reforms like improving detention standards, strengthening federal oversight of private providers like GEO and CCA, or better yet, eliminating the use of contract providers altogether.

Advocates have repeatedly stressed the various problems associated with immigration detention being managed by groups like private companies like GEO and CCA. In an article posted on our blog in December, ACLU’s Tracey Hayes reported that the GEO Group has witnessed a long and steady rise in its profits while continuing to cut costs on detainee care. According to an article in the Boston Review-

Over the past eight years, the prison giants CCA ($1.6 billion in annual revenue) and GEO Group ($1.1 billion) have racked up record profits, with jumps in revenue and profits roughly paralleling the rising numbers of detained immigrants…Inmates …are technically in the custody of the federal government, but they are in fact in the custody of corporations with little or no federal supervision. So labyrinthine are the contracting and financing arrangements that there are no clear pathways to determine responsibility and accountability. Yet every contract provides an obvious and unimpeded flow of money to the private industry and consultants.

In a disturbing side note that underscores the implications of private prison companies being in charge of immigration detention and deportation, the Phoenix News Times connected the Corrections Corporation of America to Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer’s campaign. The article says that months before signing SB1070, Gov. Brewer accepted hundreds of dollars in “seed money” from CCA executives and others “with a possible stake in Arizona’s “papers please” legislation becoming law.” While the donations did not go beyond the limits of how much “seed money” can be received for a campaign, it is difficult to ignore the ethical implications of a company that stands to gain from the passage of the law, funding the campaign.The ugly truth of the matter is that the more people that get questions and detained as a result of Arizona’s racist and extreme new law, the more the private detention facilities stand to profit.

It is imperative that the federal Government understands how urgent the need for reform is. And while ICE takes its time to implement the long-term goals for an overhaul of the detention system, more and more people are suffering from inhumane conditions, sexual abuse and even facing death.

Photo courtesy of texasobserver.org

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