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A small step for immigration reform is a big step for family unity

Today the Obama administration announced a small but significant change to immigration law that will affect thousands of people and prevent the heartbreaking separation of families that takes place on a daily basis.

Currently, undocumented spouses and children of U.S. citizens have to leave the country before they can apply for visas that they are entitled to– in many cases, they are forced to stay away from their families for up to a decade due to a bar against returning to the U.S. for a minimum of 3 years. The new rule will allow undocumented spouses and children of U.S. citizens who are eligible for applying for adjusting their status to apply for a family unity waiver that will ensure that they can be reunited with their family in the U.S. soon after going to their home country to apply for their visa.

From the New York Times-

Now, Citizenship and Immigration Services proposes to allow the immigrants to obtain a provisional waiver in the United States, before they leave for their countries to pick up their visas. Having the waiver in hand will allow them to depart knowing that they will almost certainly be able to return, officials said. The agency is also seeking to sharply streamline the process to cut down the wait times for visas to a few weeks at most.

“The goal is to substantially reduce the time that the U.S. citizen is separated from the spouse or child when that separation would yield an extreme hardship,” said Alejandro Mayorkas, the director of the immigration agency.

While this is a small tweak to the immigration system and is not expected to go into effect for several months, once it does it will stop the devastating separation of thousands of children from their parents, something that has been taking place for too many years.

You can read more about the waivers at Reform Immigration for America’s blog.

Here’s what CBS and the Huffington Post had to say about the announcement.

Everyone’s talking about this development. Are you?!

Photo courtesy of cbsnews.com

 

Stories from the ground in Alabama – Standing Strong Against Discrimination

Guest blogger: Janet Murguia. President, National Council of La Raza. Crossposted from the Huffington Post. (Original blog was published on 12/22/11)

Last Saturday it was my privilege to speak to the thousands of participants at the “One Family, One Alabama: HB 56 Hurts All Alabamians” rally held on the steps of the state capitol in Montgomery, Alabama. The rallygoers were a rich mosaic of Alabamians from all walks of life representing every community in the state, as well as national immigrant and labor leaders. The rally was held to support the embattled Latino community in Alabama in the wake of the nation’s harshest anti-immigrant law, HB 56, and call for its repeal.

But just as importantly, what the speakers and attendees helped others to recognize that day was that HB 56 is not an immigration solution, but an all-out assault on the civil rights of every resident in the state of Alabama. That message was underscored by the presence of thousands of African Americans, including elected leaders, members of the clergy, and my good friend and colleague, NAACP President Ben Jealous.

I have been deeply moved by the support and commitment of the African-American community throughout our fight against HB 56. No community knows better than they do that HB 56 represents a serious leap backward to a dark time in Alabama’s past. Speaker after speaker made that point, not only with eloquence but also with knowledge born out of tragic experience.

Yet these speakers were also full of a hope that was born out of experience. State Senator Bill Beasley, a much respected legislator and a key leader in the opposition to HB 56, came up to me during the event and said that my remarks, “things can change, things will change,” resonated with him.

He told me not to give up hope by reminding me of Alabama’s own history. He noted that we were at that very moment standing on the same steps where the then immensely popular Governor George Wallace proclaimed in 1963, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” which catapulted him to national folk hero status among those who opposed civil rights. Alabama at that time did much to shake, if not shatter, the hope of many in the civil rights movement that there would ever be progress.

But Senator Beasley has also witnessed that things can and do change. Just two blocks from where we were standing is the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where 30 years after his infamous speech, former Governor Wallace went to ask the African-American community for forgiveness. And just recently, Mark Kennedy, Wallace’s son-in-law and the head of the Alabama Democratic Party, helped redeem his family’s legacy by unequivocally stating “justice now, justice tomorrow, justice forever,” in his swearing-in speech.

If George Wallace and his family could change their minds on the issue of civil rights and discrimination, so can the legislature and the current governor of Alabama on HB 56. There is no turning back from justice. With this in mind and with the unity that was on full display on Saturday, there is no doubt in my mind that we will prevail.

Photo courtesy of America’s Voice

 

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.


“With Osama Bin Laden dead, can we have our rights back?” – How the effects of 9/11 could lead to America 2049

On Sunday, May 1, President Obama announced the death of Al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, the notorious terrorist who spearheaded the 9/11 attacks against the U.S. While the predominant reaction from around the world has been one of relief and joy, bin Laden’s death reminds us of just how big an impact the 9/11 attacks had on us and the way we perceive and treat each other.

While the U.S. was already grappling with the immigration issue, 9/11 triggered a major overhaul of legislation that imposed stringent restrictions on immigration and gave the government much greater power to infringe on the rights of citizens and visitors to this country. The U.S had essentially gone into lock-down mode domestically, and U.S. foreign policy became more aggressive. At the time of the attacks, Barack Obama was an local politician only known in Chicago, and largely unknown to the world. He wrote a short article for his local newspaper, the Hyde Park Herald, in which he reacted to the tragic events of that day and suggested a cautious approach to its repercussions. He stated-

The essence of this tragedy, it seems to me, derives from a fundamental absence of empathy on the part of the attackers: an inability to imagine, or connect with, the humanity and suffering of others. Such a failure of empathy, such numbness to the pain of a child or the desperation of a parent, is not innate; nor, history tells us, is it unique to a particular culture, religion, or ethnicity….

We will have to make sure, despite our rage, that any U.S. military action takes into account the lives of innocent civilians abroad. We will have to be unwavering in opposing bigotry or discrimination directed against neighbors and friends of Middle Eastern descent. Finally, we will have to devote far more attention to the monumental task of raising the hopes of embittered children across the globe—children not just in the Middle East, but also in Africa, Asia, Latin American, Eastern Europe, and within our own shores.

Obama’s emphasis on steering clear of blind rage and discrimination, as a way of blaming certain groups for the attacks, seems prophetic now. Over the last ten years, we have witnessed increasingly stringent immigration enforcement, and a steady dissolution of civil rights and attitudes towards immigrant communities, especially Muslim-Americans and South Asians. This view was echoed by Chris Hedges, a senior journalist and war correspondent who witnessed 9/11 and was plunged into its aftermath. In an address at a fundraising event on Sunday night as news of bin Laden’s death was creeping in, Hedges remembered-

When I was in New York, as some of you were, on 9/11, I was in Times Square when the second plane hit. I walked into The New York Times, I stuffed notebooks in my pocket and walked down the West Side Highway and was at Ground Zero four hours later. I was there when Building 7 collapsed. And I watched as a nation drank deep from that very dark elixir of American nationalism … the flip side of nationalism is always racism, it’s about self-exaltation and the denigration of the other.

The risks and backlash that both Obama and Hedges referenced have materialized over the last decade and placed the U.S. at a crucial crossroads where the decisions we take now will significantly impact the America of the future. In its fifth week, Breakthrough‘s human rights Facebook game America 2049 takes players to their mission in Phoenix, Arizona, which has been in someway the epicenter of the immigration debate.  In Phoenix, players confront heightened debates around severely restricted immigration policies. Players are also confronted with a scenario where ethnic celebrations and festivals have been outlawed for fear that “they promote dissent and unnecessarily emphasize differences between populations.” The game presents players with choices for how to address such a situation in the future, and by referencing historical artifacts, shows how our present could very well lead to the dytopic future that the game depicts. One example of this historical reference is a 1920s songbook – “O! Close the Gates.” (see photo) – that demonized immigrants in popular culture.

In Level 5 of America 2049, players also meet Cynthia Espinoza. Watch her testimonial about the need to preserve America’s multicultural heritage:

America 2049 addresses the rights of immigrants, including forced immigrant workers, in a country that has struggled to reach a rational solution to the “foreign threats” amplified by the attacks of 9/11. The attacks changed the immigration issue in America dramatically, sparking off a wave of new legislation or a tightening of existing ones. In an intriguing article, the Southern California Public Radio (SCPR) outlined five ways in which Osama bin Laden — and the 9/11 attacks he masterminded — altered the immigration landscape in the U.S. These include, perhaps most notoriously, the establishment of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which has been responsible for a growing number of deportations each year, as well as the now-canceled Secure Border Initiative network (SBInet) or the “virtual fence” that was planned for the entire stretch of US-Mexico border. The erosion of basic rights accelerated with the Patriot Act, which considerably expanded the government’s ability to conduct surveillance over Americans.

The calls for comprehensive immigration reform have intensified over the past few years, making it even more pressing to address the rights of immigrants who have no criminal records and are working hard to become part of American society. Another aspect of the immigration debate that is brought up in America 2049 is the degradation of immigrant worker rights and forced migration. While the tragedy of 9/11 caused the government to enforce stricter anti-immigrant legislation, one of the side effects has been the neglect of immigrant worker conditions. In America 2049, players discover an actual account by a Puerto Rican laborer at Camp Bragg, Rafael F. Marchan, who protested against his deplorable working conditions in the early 1900s. Unfortunately, such situations still exist today, as reported by the New York Times about a story of “500 Indian men hired by Signal International of Alabama for rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina were confined in squalid camps, illegally charged for lodging and food, and subject to discrimination and abuse.” The fact that such forced servitude of immigrant workers continues a hundred years on from the example in America 2049 proves that prompt action must be taken to restore basic human rights for everyone.

So while the world celebrates the end of a tyrant, we must remember that more than celebrating a death, we must take this opportunity to work towards lasting peace and respect for basic rights for everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or background. Osama bin Laden caused much havoc around the world and claimed countless innocent lives, but letting his actions be used as a reason for the dissolution of respect and rights for hard working, innocent people can simply not be justified. As a statement that circulated virally soon after bin Laden’s death was announced said- “If Osama Bin Laden is dead, can we have our rights back?” Ten years on, let’s make that our main goal.

Photo courtesy of Norton, et. al., A People and a Nation (5th ed., 1998)

Re-enactment of Chinese immigrant exclusion and recent quelling of protests show a future without diversity and freedom

“The only way to make sure people you agree with can speak is to support the rights of people you don’t agree with.”
- Eleanor Holmes Norton, civil rights activist and Democrat Delegate to Congress representing the District of Columbia.

The freedom to disagree forms the bedrock of a thriving democratic society. Today, as we witness numerous incidents of suppressed protests and dissent around the world, the call for this freedom becomes even more pertinent. It also reminds us of America’s fortunate position as a society where considerable disagreement is allowed to foster healthy debates on issues. This freedom of speech and debate is inextricably linked to our nation’s fabric as a confluence of immigrants. This week, Breakthrough‘s ongoing Facebook game America 2049 addresses the issue of quelling dissent in the future, reminding us that the freedoms we have today can easily be restricted for the sake of supposed national security. On Saturday, April 30, Breakthrough is also partnering with the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation (AIISF) in San Francisco to host the Interrogation Reenactment Event,* an opportunity for visitors to witness a historical scenario and learn about its repercussions today. From the event organizers-

…actors in period costumes will reenact an actual interrogation of Chinese immigrants attempting to overcome the Chinese Exclusion Acts [of 1882], the first American legislation to exclude a specific race or nationality from immigration to this country. We will see what these intended immigrants went through at the island’s Administration Building, and the outcome of their ordeal. Following that, well-known professors Judy Yung, professor emerita at UC Santa Cruz, and Bill Ong Hing, law professor at the University of San Francisco, and a recent immigrant who is a college student will participate in a panel discussion relating the Angel Island experience to what immigrants face today.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 provided a 10-year absolute moratorium on Chinese labor immigration. It was then extended in the form of the Geary Act, which added further restrictions on Chinese immigrants already in the United States. Chinese immigration was stringently regulated until 1943, when all these exclusionary acts were repealed in favor of more rational quotas on immigration for each nationality. The targeting of specific immigrant groups (based on their ethnic background) in the U.S. exists in other forms even today with some states passing stringent immigration acts that tend to affect the Latino communities primarily.

Harsh immigration laws affect our country to this day. The diversity of opinion that comes with healthy immigration forms the unique social, cultural and political fabric of our country. Today, as the people of several Arab nations are rising to claim their rights for equality and fair governance, some of their own governments are actively halting their protests. While the future of the ‘Arab Spring’ remains to be seen, this moment in history points to the greater issue of freedom of speech. Americans are fortunate to have much greater freedoms in protesting and dissent, but we must remain aware of this and not take it for granted.

In America 2049 this week, players are confronted with a situation where the authorities have sanctioned the use of a chemical agent in the water supply, SerennAide, that would pre-emptively quell any dissenting activity, making the population completely passive. Whether fictitious, as shown in Joss Whedon’s 2005 space western film Serenity (in which a chemical agent was added to the air processors of a planet to calm the population), or the very real new “calming” drink ‘Just Chill’ from a California-based company, a SerennAide-like scenario is not too far from reality. Most importantly, SerennAide is also a symbol for institutional measures that have sought to prevent dissent or difference of opinion for the sake of national good throughout our history. In the bleak future of America 2049, the situation is at an extreme, raising awareness for the value of diversity of opinion.

A society that is so heavily based on immigration and diversity, such as the United States, must remain aware of its uniqueness and strengths. We must learn from our past, from decisions we made then to actively prohibit specific groups of immigrants, and understand how such practices today or in the future will only damage our social framework.

Watch a message from ‘M,’ the masked leader of Divided We Fall, the presumed terrorist group in America 2049. ‘M’ speaks about the the importance of dissent and difference of opinion to nurture a healthy democracy, especially as authorities in 2049 sanction the use of SerennAide:

*Be sure to check out the ferry schedule to allow for more time to arrive to the Immigration Station. For more information on ferry, tickets and schedule, visit AIISF’s event page.

Click here to “Like” the America 2049 Facebook Page.

Photo courtesy of guardian.co.uk

Tax day, Passover week: labor, migration & justice, now…and in 2049

On this year’s Tax Day that has just passed, several organizations including the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), MoveOn, Daily Kos and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) joined forces for ‘Tax Day: Make Them Pay.’ The groups organized peaceful protests around the country outside the offices of big corporations and millionaires that have evaded paying taxes for last year, mostly due to government-mandated tax breaks. According to the site, “In 2009, after helping crash the American economy, Bank of America paid $0 in taxes. GE had a tax bill of $0 in 2010. Republicans want to give a $50 billion tax bailout to big oil companies…” These protests came at the heels of news that corporations such as General Electric paid no federal taxes in 2010, something that has infuriated the millions of workers around the country who work hard and are expected to dutifully pay their taxes on time.

The tax break issue is the latest in a series of developments that have recently charged the country’s politics around the issues of immigration and labor rights, with them coming together in the case of migrant workers. Last month, the country witnessed a major standoff in the Wisconsin state government between Governor Scott Walker (and his Republican-led state assembly) and thousands of labor groups and workers in the state as the Governor pledged to enact a bill to severely curtail collective bargaining. After three weeks of fierce debates, Gov. Walker managed to push the bill through. The Ohio state assembly soon followed suit, with other states such as Tennessee and Iowa heading in a similar direction. This steady erosion of worker rights presents an increasing risk not just to the economy of this country but also to its social fabric. It also echoes a past where worker rights were often ignored, especially in the case of immigrant workers.

Last month, several labor groups and organizations marked the centennial anniversary of an incident that highlights the lack of protection of workers – the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of March 28, 1911, in which 146 mostly immigrant workers died. To mark the centenary of the tragedy, many labor rights groups amplified their push for pro-labor rights legislation to challenge the spate of anti-union labor bills that were passed recently. The 1911 tragedy brings to light the plight of immigrant workers and the exploitation that still continues today. At a rally commemorating the tragedy, one union member, Walfre Merida, described the similarities between the condition of migrant workers today and those that perished in the fire a hundred years ago. Merida stated-

I see that a hundred years since this terrible accident that killed so many people, things have really not changed at all…Safety conditions, none. Grab your tool and go to work, no more. And do not stop. When we worked in high places, on roofs, we never used harnesses, one became accustomed to the dangers and thanked God we weren’t afraid of heights. One would risk his life out of necessity.

As stories of worker rights violations continue to proliferate, we must take heed from our past mistakes in order to avoid a degradation of these conditions in the future. This week – just as Jews around the world gather at the Passover table to recount their liberation from migrant slave labor in Egypt – Breakthrough’s Facebook game, America 2049, immerses players into discussions around labor rights, especially with regards to the rights of immigrant workers. The game utilizes several events and artifacts from the past to highlight the continued struggles of migrant workers in the United States. In the game’s world in which everyone has an embedded chip to mark their identity, players are given the mission to investigate a counterfeiting ring that helps indentured workers – primarily immigrants, though also citizens who have succumbed to crushing credit debt – to escape their unjust contracts and inhumane living conditions, and begin new lives. The game references the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire as a lesson from the past about the respect and rightful treatment of workers. It also suggests a future that is even bleaker because we as a country have failed to recognize the importance of immigrant workers and worker rights to the success of the country as a whole.

Watch a testimonial by a character in the game, Ziyad Youssef, a Syrian man who was lured into a job with promises of good pay and easy hours, but found himself in slavery-like conditions, unable to look after his sick daughter or provide basic amenities to his family:

The United States is currently grappling with an issue that will inevitably affect our national economy and social conditions in the years to come. The denial of legitimacy and basic rights to immigrant workers will only hamper the nation’s growth on the world stage. In a special report on global migration published in 2008, The Economist argued for the widespread acceptance of migrant workers by the richer countries that so desperately need them. Speaking about the United States, the report stated-

Around a third of the Americans who won Nobel prizes in physics in the past seven years were born abroad. About 40% of science and engineering PhDs working in America are immigrants. Around a third of Silicon Valley companies were started by Indians and Chinese. The low-skilled are needed too, especially in farming, services and care for children and the elderly. It is no coincidence that countries that welcome immigrants—such as Sweden, Ireland, America and Britain—have better economic records than those that shun them…Americans object to the presence of around 12m illegal migrant workers in a country with high rates of legal migration. But given the American economy’s reliance on them, it is not just futile but also foolish to build taller fences to keep them out.

Players in America 2049 will discover valuable artifacts from our country’s past that highlight an ongoing struggle for worker rights and have the agency to join the discussion and save the country’s future from the dystopic scenario the game depicts. One of the artifacts in the game is a poem titled ‘A Song for Many Movements,’ written in 1982 by Audre Lord, a black feminist lesbian poet. The poem articulates the connection between suffering and speaking out against injustices, which is what the workers rights protests around the country have been doing and which we must keep advocating until real change is made-

Broken down gods survive
in the crevasses and mudpots
of every beleaguered city
where it is obvious
there are too many bodies
to cart to the ovens
or gallows
and our uses have become
more important than our silence
after the fall
too many empty cases
of blood to bury or burn
there will be no body left
to listen
and our labor
has become more important
than our silence.

Our labor has become
more important
than our silence.

Photo courtesy of seiu.org

State must enact anti-profiling laws

Guest blogger: Azadeh Shahshahani from the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia

When I testified before the Special Joint Committee on Immigration Reform, a committee of 14 Republicans convened to draft legislative proposals for the upcoming legislative session, I reminded them about the continued obligation of Georgia under international human rights law to protect and preserve the human dignity of all people regardless of immigration status.

As documented by the ACLU of Georgia, racial profiling and other human rights violations against immigrants or those perceived to be noncitizens continue in Georgia. In Gwinnett County, many Latinos have been stopped without reasonable suspicion or probable cause by the police in their cars or on the street.

Juan Vasquez, a legal permanent resident who lives in Sugar Hill, reports having been stopped and harassed by police on multiple occasions for no apparent reason. On one occasion, rather than tell Vasquez why he was pulled over, the officers screamed at him for asking questions before releasing him without any citation. Vasquez now avoids certain areas of Sugar Hill where he has come to expect harassment by the police.

Prompt action by the state is necessary to combat racial and ethnic profiling in Gwinnett and Georgia. The Legislature should pass anti-racial profiling legislation to give law enforcement agencies, policymakers and the public the tools necessary to identify and address the problem of racial profiling in the state. Data collection about traffic stops is an important supervisory tool. You can’t manage what you don’t measure. Annual training for law enforcement regarding racial profiling will also help ensure that stops and arrests are undertaken in a fair manner.

The Georgia Legislature should also carefully consider all the proposed bills in the upcoming session to ensure that they are consistent with the Constitution and our international human rights obligations, as reaffirmed by both Republican and Democratic administrations. In February 2008, the Bush administration told the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination that “United States is in profound agreement with the committee that every state must be vigilant in protecting the rights that noncitizens in its territory enjoy, regardless of their immigration status, as a matter of applicable domestic and international law.”

Last month, the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC) issued a set of recommendations for the U.S. to bring its policies and practices in line with international standards. The recommendations are the result of the first-ever participation by the U.S. in the Universal Periodic Review process, which involves a thorough assessment of a nation’s human rights record. State and local laws, such as Arizona’s SB 1070, that aim to regulate immigration and lead to racial profiling were examined and decried by the Human Rights Council.

One of the recommendations issued by HRC was for the United States to end racial and ethnic profiling by law enforcement, especially with respect to immigration. Harold Koh, the U.S. State Department legal adviser, stated in response to this recommendation that “we will leave no stone unturned in our effort to eliminate racial profiling in law enforcement.”

Georgia legislators should be wary of any measure similar to Arizona’s racial profiling law that would encourage law enforcement to stop people on the street based on how they look, rather than based on individualized suspicion or evidence of criminal activity.

Laws that promise to turn the state into “show me your papers” territory would violate the Constitution and human rights commitments and tarnish Georgia’s reputation as a state welcoming to new immigrants.

Photo courtesy of epier.com

Will Latino enthusiasm color the mid-term vote?

In these weeks leading up to the mid-term elections, the competition for voter support is intense and the tension is most palpable in the sphere of the media where candidates are vying for support from specific voter groups. Looking specifically at the constituency of Latino voters, research conducted by America’s Voice and the Latino Decisions team has found that in spite of, or possibly even as a direct consequence of the rabid anti-immigrant campaigning on the part of right wing members of the Republican party, there has been an steady increase in numbers of Latinos who will vote Democrat in the mid-term elections.

From the standpoint of the immigration issue, it is interesting to note that while researchers were seeing a strong sense of disillusionment with the Democrat party amongst Latinos and other immigrants over the last few months, currently, this trend seems to be changing. Latinos, who voted predominantly Democrat in the 2008 Presidential election, had begun to wane in their support for the Democratic party as a result of the party’s failure to deliver on promises of immigration reform made during the 2008 electoral campaign.

As announced by America’s Voice and Latino Decisions on a call yesterday though, recent tracking polls reveal that there has been a significant increase in the number of registered Latino voters, and that a majority of them are voting Democrat. One of the key criteria by which Latino Decisions measure their data is “degree of enthusiasm.” Yesterday’s tracking poll showed a much greater deal of enthusiasm for next week’s election amongst Democrat leaning Latino voters than amongst the (smaller) Republican leaning Latino population. Most importantly, this is a huge change from a month ago- this week, 61% of Latino voters said they were “very enthusiastic” about voting on November 2nd, as compared to only 40% on September 6th. The research shows-

For the fourth straight week, we find an increase in the percentage of Latino registered voters who report being very enthusiastic about voting in November 2010.  Four weeks ago just 40.3% of Latinos said they were very enthusiastic, and today that figures reaches 58.3%.  Self-reported turnout certainty remained constant at 75.1% from one week ago, up 10 point from four weeks ago.  As election day draws near, and early voting is in full swing, Latinos are reportedly showing more and more interest and enthusiasm.

According to Matt Barreto of Latino Decisions, this increase in enthusiasm is largely due to the anti-immigrant and blatantly anti-Latino campaigns that a lot of Republican candidates have run. In the past weeks, Senator Harry Reid’s opponent in Nevada, Republican candidate Sharron Angle, has released a series of ads that, along with demonizing Harry Reid for his support of immigration reform, are extremely anti-immigrant, anti-Latino and even blatantly racist. Calling Reid “The Best Friend An Illegal Alien Ever Had,” one of the ads juxtaposes images of aggressive looking Latino fence skulking alongside a fence with images of an innocent white family. Her second ad shows a group of “gang-like” Latino men threatening white college students. Continuing to pit the “dangerous” brown people against the “innocent” white people like her and her family, the most recent ad might be the one to tip the Senatorial race in Nevada against Sharron Angle, given that Latinos are said to play a prominent role in the tight race between Reid and Angle.

Watch the offensive ad below-

Foolhardy anti-immigrant campaigns are not the only reason that Latinos seem more keen to vote next week. In addition to a mammoth effort on the part of civic and community groups and labor unions such as the Services Employees Workers Union working on the ground to encourage people to vote, President Obama himself seems to be focusing his energy on winning back the support of the immigrant community and driving them to the polls.

In an interview for Univision yesterday, President Obama defended his unsuccessful attempt at securing immigration reform. Making an analogy to the civil rights movement, he urged that change takes time, and reassured the community that he would push for immigration reform as soon as he could. In his interview, he sought to convince listeners that it was Republicans who were responsible for blocking the passage of immigration reform, making a pointed reference to Sen. John McCain as one of the 11 Republicans who support immigration reform a few years ago only to back away from the issue over the past year. Today, the President is holding a conference call along with actress Eva Longoria, to highlight the actions he has taken that benefit the Latino community and drive home the point that a refusal to vote in the mid-term elections could mean a death knell for immigration reform.

Whatever your reasons, it’s really important to get your voice out there, so make sure you vote!

More Confusion Over Secure Communities: Did NY Make a Special Deal with Washington?

Guest blogger: Catalina Jaramillo from Feet in 2 Worlds

Immigrant advocates are increasingly worried about New York’s participation in the controversial fingerprint-sharing program Secure Communities.

Chung-Wha Hong, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition said that 79% of the people placed in detention facilities or deported under Secure Communities were convicted of minor crimes or had no charges filed against them at all.

“We are fine with violent criminals being deported,” said Hong. “That is not the problem. This program is supposed to do that.” But she said that’s not what’s happening. “The vast majority of people who are caught in this program are innocent, have no criminal background, or have minor violations where people do not deserve to get deported.”

The New York State Division of Criminal Justices Services and Governor David Paterson assert that New York has a special agreement with the Department of Homeland Security regarding Secure Communities. In an interview with Telemundo47, Governor Paterson said that local jurisdictions within the state can choose whether or not to participate in the program, which would automatically transfer the fingerprints of anyone arrested by local law enforcement to a Department of Homeland Security database to check the person’s immigration status.

This program that the Federal Government asked us to be a part of, in which municipalities have a choice of whether or not they can opt in or not — which is what New York State was able to receive as opposed to other states — guarantees that this is only high level security threats whose information will be transferred.

Yet, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano said on October 6 that the program was not optional.

On the other hand, John M. Caher, director of public information for the Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS), told El Diario that there was “a pledge made to this state by the Department of Homeland Security” that no community in New York will be forced to activate Secure Communities.  However, Caher said this is not discussed in the Memorandum of Agreement between New York and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). That document was signed by the Acting Commissioner of DCJS Sean Byrne.
Asked about other jurisdictions such as San Francisco and Santa Clara, California and Arlington, Virginia, who are trying to opt out unsuccessfully, Caher said he was not aware if those states received such a condition, so he was not sure if their experiences were relevant.

Ángela Fernández, executive director of the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights and a strong critic of Secure Communities, said she hasn’t been able to confirm that New York State has a special deal with DHS.

“We said, can you show us another contract that says that New York is going to get special treatment on this issue, and they haven’t been able to produce it,” said Fernandez.  “They say there’s an email from the Department of Homeland Security that says that local jurisdictions can opt out. But we don’t feel confident with that.”

Attorney General Andrew Cuomo talked about Secure Communities while introducing the urban agenda for his gubernatorial campaign on Thursday.

The federal government is going to put out guidance on Secure Communities, and how they believe the states have to follow the law, obviously federal law would be the law and the state would ultimately follow the federal law. I think they have to be very careful in Secure Communities, because you don’t want to create a situation where people are afraid to report a crime, or afraid to testify, it could actually interfere with law enforcement and with public safety, so I think the federal government should tread very carefully.”

Asked if there was a real possibility for local jurisdictions in New York to opt out of the program after Napolitano’s statement, Cuomo said “well that’s what we have to review.”

A statement sent to El Diario by Brian Hale, director of public affairs for ICE, established that if a county doesn’t want to activate Secure Communities they must ‘formally notify’ the state and ICE. Hale declined to elaborate further or explain exactly what that means. Hale added:

Secure Communities agreements are generally reached at the state level and activated locally on a set schedule. ICE seeks to work with local law enforcement agencies to address any concerns and determine next appropriate steps. If a jurisdiction does not wish to activate on its scheduled date in the Secure Communities deployment plan, it must formally notify both its state identification bureau and ICE.

Because of what advocates call ‘total confusion’ over whether it’s possible for local jurisdictions to opt-out, they are asking Governor Paterson to rescind the Memorandum of Agreement. It states that either party — the state or ICE — can terminate the agreement at any time on 30 days notice.

Comparing it to the stop-and-frisk database he limited the use of this summer, Paterson also told Telemundo47 reporter Luis Medina that advocates have to prove that Secure Communities affects low level offenders before he makes a decision. “I think there’s some confusion here. These organizations have to come forward and show us definitively that they have proof that the information was sent to INS (sic) on low level offenders, which is not what the intent of the memorandum of understanding is. If they can establish it, I will be happy to reconsider,” said Paterson.

Advocates say they are gathering evidence to send to the governor as soon as possible, but some say the facts have already been demonstrated.

“That’s ridiculous,” said Chung-Wha Hong of the New York Immigration Coalition. “There’s the New York Times editorial and there are cases. All he has to do is look at the cases that were submitted to the pardon panel. This is something that’s proven. So the ball is in his court, he needs to just make the decision.”

Photo courtesy of news.feetintwoworlds.org