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Approaching the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Alabama set to pass the “nation’s cruelest immigration law”

It’s been in the works for over three months, but the debate surrounding Alabama’s threatening new anti-immigration law just got louder and more serious. Just when we thought Arizona’s SB 1070 law was the worst hit to the nation’s crumbling immigration policy, Alabama has managed to deliver perhaps an even bigger shock. Enacted back in June by the Alabama House and Senate, H.B. 56 had also been signed by Governor Robert Bentley. Now, with the stamp of approval from the entire Alabama state government, the law was set to take effect on September 1. However, a federal judge has stepped in to temporarily block it. U.S. District Judge Sharon Blackburn has blocked the implementation of the law until September 29 while she deliberates on the constitutional consequences of such a law.

The law’s extremely harsh stipulations state the following:

  • It would be a state crime to be an undocumented immigrant in Alabama.
  • Law enforcement would be given the powers to detain those they have “reasonable suspicion” of being in the country illegally.
  • Businesses would be subject to non-criminal sanctions for knowingly hiring undocumented immigrants.
  • It would also be a crime to harbor or transport undocumented immigrants, including giving them rides to workplaces.
  • All contracts made with undocumented immigrants will be made null and void.
  • Renting property to undocumented immigrants will be forbidden.

The law’s details are inhumane to say the least, essentially restricting those with undocumented status from living freely at all. Judge Blackburn’s block was the result of various groups and organizations suing the state of Alabama over the passage of this law. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), together with other advocacy groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Immigrants’ Rights Project, filed a suit against the Alabama state government on July 8. The law is facing opposition on several other fronts as well. The Department of Justice, with the support of the Obama administration, has also filed a lawsuit against the state claiming states cannot interfere to this extent in federal policy. A New York Times editorial scathingly labeled HB 56 as the “nation’s cruelest immigration law.” The editorial discusses the reaction to the law from the religious community in Alabama.

In a surprising first for reactions to stringent anti-immigration laws, four church leaders from across Alabama have joined forces to sue the state (see full lawsuit here) for passing a law that criminalizes the church’s duty to be show compassion to everyone. The church leaders – an Episcopal bishop, a Methodist bishop and a Roman Catholic archbishop and bishop – call the law inhumane and that it would terrorize undocumented immigrants and make criminalize those who show kindness to them. Archbishop Thomas Rodi of Mobile added that “the law attacks our core understanding of what it means to be a church.”

The news of this law getting close to enforcement has also triggered a flurry of debate among the public, especially in online forums as comments on the various news articles reporting the story. One such comment on the editorial published in The New York Times, is by a reader named ‘MT’:

…we are ALL immigrants or have descended from them. by these xenophobic definitions, unless you are a native american descended from those who had their land stolen from columbus, then maybe you are not a “real American.” immigrants, legal or illegal, don’t take people’s jobs away. plus, i doubt that “real americans” would want to work the wages in the conditions that undocumented workers face daily. i doubt that “real americans” are prepared to pay more for the food that undocumented workers pick for them. has anyone ever stopped to think that one reason so many “unskilled” americans find themselves without the jobs is a symptom of our failing educational system and a product of our anti-intellectual culture?

Another reader, going by the name of “toomuchcoffeeguy” commented further on an article in the Montgomery Advertiser:

This idea that these people are somehow taking jobs relies on a false premise, which is that there is a finite number of jobs in Alabama, but the labor market doesn’t actually work that way. Cheap labor can only strengthen an economy, by making job creation more accessible to small businesses, thus expanding both jobs and our GDP. A good example would be Texas & California, who have the highest illegal immigrant populations and also have the highest GDP’s….

As we approach the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, it is even clearer that the ill-fated day tested our nation’s ability to respond to the situation in a meaningful way. Unfortunately, the immigration reform that was on the horizon before 9/11 was quickly dismissed for harsh, punitive measures to clamp down on undocumented immigration. The physical damage of the 9/11 attacks may have been repaired, but the massive effect the day had on security policy, law enforcement and our national attitudes towards tolerance and freedom has left our country at a tricky crossroads. America’s biggest issues are now no longer international. We face serious situations at home, where short-sighted and rushed “solutions” to the issue of undocumented immigration is in fact sawing away at our future, an attitude that further hurts the economy, standard of living and most of all, socio-cultural fabric of this country.

We urge the federal government and Judge Blackburn to recognize the tremendously damaging consequences of Alabama’s HB 56 and stop the law completely. Such laws make the need for comprehensive immigration reform even more dire than ever before. Immigrants form the backbone of this country and criminalizing them as a blanket policy will hurt the country in ways that perhaps these officials and politicians fail to foresee. Join Restore Fairness today to lend your voice to the call for comprehensive immigration reform.

Photo courtesy of hispanicallyspeakingnews.com

Unlike the woman in the DSK story, most immigrant women are afraid to report sexual assault

Among the numerous unique and compelling stories of immigration that our nation has witnessed in its rich history comes another one; one that is disturbing and moving in equal part. On May 14, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK), was arrested as he was about to catch a flight from New York’s JFK Airport to Paris. A 32-year-old housekeeper had courageously come forward to report that she was sexually assaulted by DSK during his stay in the midtown Manhattan Sofitel hotel. As the media storm around DSK’s scandal and his political future intensified, the woman (her identity is being kept secret) who accused him remained well away from the media glare, protecting her identity and dignity amidst an increasingly messy situation. However, as a recent New York Times portrait of her life revealed, her story is extremely unique- in an environment that is increasingly hostile towards immigrants, it is rare that immigrant women who are victims of sexual and physical abuse (and there are many), are able to find the courage to report the crimes they face.

The woman was born in a tiny hamlet in the West African country of Guinea, a 13-hour drive from the nation’s capital Conakry. While she was in her early teens, she was married off to a distant cousin, gave birth to her daughter, and was widowed soon after. While in her early 20s, she immigrated to the United States, seeking a better life for herself and her daughter, and began working at a small African restaurant in the Bronx. In 2008, she got a job as a maid at the Sofitel New York, a high-end hotel in the heart of Manhattan. Her lawyers confirmed that by this time she had documentation and legal status. Then on May 14, her world was suddenly thrust into the public eye as she became the center of an international scandal involving high-level diplomacy.

Her brother, Mamoudou, commented on her character-

She is a village girl who didn’t go to school to learn English, Greek, Portuguese, what have you…All she learned was the Koran. Can you imagine how on earth she is suffering through this ordeal?…Before she left here, nobody even knew if she could speak up for herself. She never got into any arguments, with anybody.

While DSK has been charged with the crime, the trial is still underway and no verdict has yet been reached. However, the story of his alleged victim highlights the rapidly growing issue of sexual assault among immigrant women, and indirectly points to the fact that undocumented women remain the most vulnerable to abuse, as they are especially afraid to report the crime for fear of being pulled into the detention and deportation dragnet. The housekeeper in DSK’s case has legal status, not to mention incredible courage, that enabled her to report the crime to the local police. But her courage seeks to remind us that there are many women who face violence, both at home and in their work, who continue to be exploited and are unable to seek help because of immigration status and their fear of being criminalized themselves.

Last week, many women – mostly hotel housekeeping staff from around the city – gathered outside DSK’s court hearing to protest against his alleged crime, claiming that many of them have been victims in similar incidents but are often afraid to speak out. One of the protesters, Ada Vélez Escalera, a housekeeper at the Hilton who had moved from Puerto Rico when she was 16, said-

A lot of us don’t speak up. You’re embarrassed or have a family to support and you know if it will be you or the guest who’s believed. In this case she was brave enough to scream for help…I’m proud of being a room attendant and when guests come to our hotels they need to respect us and know we are there to make their rooms clean and comfortable, not for private service…I had to leave my education because I had a sick child. But the money I’ve earned as a room attendant helped me have a house, a decent life and put my son and daughter through college.

The issue raised by the housekeepers is a growing concern among the immigrant community. It is worsened further by damaging statements made by political officials that essentially discourage the reporting of sexual assault crimes by immigrant women. In Massachusetts, State Rep. Ryan Fattman (R-Sutton) has been part of a group of regional GOP representatives uniting against Governor Deval L. Patrick’s decision not to join the controversial Secure Communities program (S-Comm). When asked if he would be concerned if a woman with undocumented status is raped and then is afraid to report the crime for fear of deportation, Fattman replied, “My thought is that if someone is here illegally, they should be afraid to come forward…If you do it the right way, you don’t have to be concerned about these things.” His comment brought him sharp criticism, and when contacted for further clarification, Fattman attempted to contextualize it with an even more troublesome allegory-

If someone got into a car accident, it’s obviously a tragic event. But if they’re drunk and they crash, it’s a crime. If that person was drunk and survived the accident they would be afraid to come forward. I think if someone is here illegally they should be afraid to come forward because they should be afraid to be deported…But if you weren’t here, the crime wouldn’t happen.

Such brash disregard for basic human rights, such as the right to be safe from harm and the right to due process and justice, is alarming. Rep. Fattman’s statements signal a dangerous situation in the country if victims of violence and sexual assault are afraid to report the crime for fear of being deported instead. This roundabout way of blaming the victim is incredibly damaging to our society, encouraging violent crime and making our communities less secure.

The harsh anti-immigrant enforcement laws that are being enacted in states around the country only seek to add to the environment of hostility and fear that makes it harder for local law enforcement to effectively protect communities. Last week Alabama Governor Bentley signed into law HB 56, the harshest anti-immigrant bill to be passed by any state thus far. The bill, inspired by Arizona’s notorious SB 1070, imposes even stricter requirements on virtually all institutions in the state to conduct immigration checks. In a statement reacting to the bill, Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, said-

Today, Alabama effectively turned state workers, peace officers, and school teachers into de facto immigration agents.  Immigrants and people of color will be subjected to additional, unconstitutional scrutiny when they take their children to school or interact with local law enforcement officers.  Friends and family members of undocumented immigrants will face criminal charges simply for driving them to church or to the grocery store. By passing HB 56, Alabama’s legislators have deemed an entire class of people not worthy of the most fundamental rights, which were carefully prescribed to all people by our Founding Fathers.  This law effectively makes immigrants the latest group of people to suffer a legalization of discriminatory behavior against them, and threatens to turn back the clock on our hard-won civil rights.

Alabama’s HB 56 adds to the growing number of states that have set in motion some sort of harsh anti-immigrant laws (see PDF map from the National Immigration Law Center for the latest Arizona-inspired legislation). These sweeping anti-immigrant legislations are not only unconstitutional and in violation of basic human rights, but they will also negatively impact the economies of the states that implement them. Most of all, communities will lose faith in their local law enforcement, always living in the fear of being racially profiled and arrested for deportation under the pretense of a minor offense.

With less than 18 months until the next presidential election, Democrats and Republicans are busy shaping their immigration policies to woo voters. At this time it is important that they focus on preventing draconian state-level anti-immigration laws from being enacted and instead, working towards comprehensive immigration reform that is enacted on a federal level. Statements such as those by Rep. Fattman only undermine the principles of freedom, justice and due process upon which our country is built. Victims of violence, such as sexual assault and rape, must be supported and made to feel safe and secure and given the justice they deserve, instead of being intimidated into silence. Denying basic human rights to one group will inevitably affect all our freedoms.

Sign the petition asking for Mass. Rep. Fattman to apologize for his comments and for the State House to publicly denounce his stance.

Show your support for due process. Become an ally of the Restore Fairness campaign today.

Photo courtesy of nij.gov.

POLL: Should all victims of abuse and violence have recourse to justice, regardless of their immigration status?

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NY and Massachusetts suspend SComm; Alabama passes harsh anti-immigrant bill

In a bold move, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on June 1 announced that the state will suspend its participation in the “Secure Communities” Program (SComm) until further review. His decisive announcement was a result of the culmination of hard work on the part of New York legislators, advocates and religious leaders to urge the state’s withdrawal from the program

The program, launched in Texas in 2008 with the goal of nationwide deployment of SComm being complete by 2013, has become increasingly controversial. Initially pitched as a voluntary program that would focus on apprehending those who were guilty of serious “crimes,” the program has faced a slew of criticism from local law enforcement, state officials and advocates for its lack of transparency and oversight, its detrimental impact on the safety of communities as a result of the breakdown of trust of local law enforcement, and its failure to fulfill its original goal of targeting those guilty of serious offenses. This costly program threatens to reduce trust between local law enforcement and communities, encourage racial profiling and separate families. For all the above reasons the Department of Homeland Security announced an investigation of the program at the end of last month.

Explaining his decision to pull New York out of SComm, Gov. Cuomo said-

“There are concerns about the implementation of the program as well as its impact on families, immigrant communities and law enforcement in New York…As a result, New York is suspending its participation in the program.”

The move has been welcomed by local officials, law enforcement and advocates, including some members of Congress. Expressing his support for Governor Cuomo’s decision, Congressman Jose E. Serrano said-

Governor Cuomo has taken a brave and necessary step in suspending New York State’s participation in the flawed ‘Secure Communities’ program, and he deserves great praise. He is firmly in line with our state’s pro-immigrant tradition and on behalf of the immigrants and their friends in our community, I would like to thank him. Having New York State pull back from this unfair and aggressive program should be a wake-up call to the Department of Homeland Security. It is time to end this program and I am glad my home state will no longer take part.

New York joins a small but significant group of states that have pulled out of the SComm program recently. Last month, Illinois was the first state to do so, and faced much resistance from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for the decision. A few days after New York’s exit from the program, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick also announced that his state would not sign on to the Secure Communities initiative. Gov. Patrick, in a statement justifying his decision to pull Massachusetts out of SComm, said-

We run a serious risk of ethnic profiling and frankly fracturing incredibly important relationships in communities that are important for law enforcement…I don’t think that the Obama administration is satisfied that the implementation of this program has been very effective.

In the absence of federal movement on immigration reform, the states are taking matters into their own hands. In the case of Secure Communities, this has resulted in three states with significant immigrant populations withdrawing their support of a program that they think is ineffective and unjust, sending a clear message to the Obama administration and ICE to review the program and take action to ensure accountability and security, as well as justice and due process for all. Inspired by the actions of Illinois, New York and Massachusetts, there are growing calls in other states, such as California, to pull out of Secure Communities as well.

In spite of these positive steps, the need for federal action on immigration reform is evident in cases such as that of Alabama, where a sweeping anti-immigrant bill that, much like Arizona’s infamous SB1070, mandates local law enforcement to stop people based on the “reasonable suspicion” that they are undocumented, enabling the profiling of people based on their appearance. Alabama’s H.B. 56 was passed in the Alabama House and Senate last week and now awaits the signature of Governor Bentley. This bill goes beyond the Arizona law- it mandates that public schools check the status of all students; bars undocumented students from enrolling in public college; makes it a crime to knowingly rent housing to those who don’t have documents etc. If enacted, this bill may well lead to unconstitutional racial profiling and a breakdown of trust between police and the communities they protect. We can only hope that like in the case of Arizona’s SB1070, the values of our Constitution will be upheld, but we wish that such laws could be averted by concrete federal action to repair the broken immigration system.

It is at this time that advocates of fair immigration and the numerous families that have been unfairly affected by SComm and other ICE enforcement  initiatives look to the Obama administration to take swift action. There are steps that his administration can take, without necessary involvement from Congress, to push towards immigration reform:

  • The SComm program should be terminated since it has proven to be highly ineffective. Designed to focus on dangerous criminals, the program has instead been responsible for unjustly deporting a large number of people with no convictions.
  • End partnerships between local police and ICE, and return immigration law firmly to federal control. Local police are usually not trained in the sensitivity of immigration law, which often leads to people being arrested based on racial profiling or for minor offenses and eventually being deported.
  • While President Obama has already reiterated his stance against the harsh anti-immigrant laws being enacted in several states such as Arizona, Georgia and Indiana, his administration can be much more publicly critical of these laws. This would hopefully put pressure on the state legislatures to reconsider before taking such drastic steps.
  • The President can exercise his power to grant relief from deportation to the young people who can qualify for the DREAM Act, calling for “deferred action.”
  • Many undocumented immigrants already qualify for green cards but are hesitant to leave the country (and their immediate relatives who are American citizens) due to the risk of not being allowed back into the country. To ease this, the Obama administration can order the citizenship agency to allow these applicants to stay in the country, and with their families, while they are processed.
  • Finally, the President can also push for immediate reforms to improve the conditions of those in immigration detention, ensuring the safety and dignity of those being processed through the system.

In his May 10 speech on Immigration and Border Security in El Paso, Texas, President Obama showed an awareness for the “broken immigration system” in America-

Today, the immigration system not only tolerates those who break the rules, it punishes the folks who follow the rules.  While applicants wait for approval, for example, they’re often forbidden from visiting the United States.  Even husbands and wives may have to spend years apart.  Parents can’t see their children.  I don’t believe the United States of America should be in the business of separating families.  That’s not right.  That’s not who we are.

We only hope that such sentiments are translated – quickly and effectively – into major policy and legislative shifts that would in fact stop the racial profiling that is masked as immigration law enforcement in its current state. When we deny fairness to some, we put all of our rights at risk. Join us in our commitment to telling stories, inviting conversation, and inspiring action that will help our nation move even further in the right direction. To take action against Secure Communities, contact your state Governor to help your state withdraw from the program.

Photo courtesy of wnyc.org

Momentum is building for immigration reform

Could the conversation about immigration finally be changing?

Following the Obama administration’s determination in February that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutionally discriminates against same-sex couples, Attorney General Eric Holder last week requested that the immigration appeals court consider granting legal residency to an Irishman in a civil union with an American man. A Newark judge also suspended the deportation of Henry Velandia of Venezuela– who is married to  American, Josh Vandiver– in order to allow time for the court and the Department of Justice to determine under what circumstances a gay partner might be eligible for residency. These recent steps are a welcome indication that the Obama administration is working toward a fair and just policy towards bi-national same-sex couples.

In 2009, Restore Fairness used the power of documentary to tell the story of one such family, who was facing separation because their domestic partnership wasn’t recognized under DOMA. The video gives a voice to Shirley Tan, who came from the Philippines decades ago and built a life with her partner Jay, giving birth to twin boys and becoming a full-time mother. When we spoke to her, Shirley faced the biggest challenge of her life as she fought to stay on in the United States, crippled by laws that do not allow gay and lesbian couples to sponsor their partners.

Watch the Restore Fairness video of Two Moms Fighting to Stay Together:

In another positive step for immigration, the state of Illinois last week became the first state to entirely opt out of the so-called “Secure Communities,” which requires local police to send fingerprints of all arrestees to federal immigration databases, with immigrants who are found “deportable” being directly pushed into the deeply flawed detention and deportation system. This costly program threatens to reduce trust between local law enforcement and communities, encourage racial profiling and separate families. However, despite Illinois Gov. Quinn’s decisive announcement, and increased resistance from states and police departments across the country, the Department of Homeland Security has said that they will not allow Illinois to withdraw. In another indication that partnerships between ICE and local law enforcement are on the increase, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal signed into law on May 13, an immigration bill that would give local police the authority to question suspects about their immigration status. This law, which is being compared to Arizona’s SB1070, could lead to decreased trust between local police and communities, and increase the occurrence of racial profiling. The law has been met with much criticism already. Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, reacted-

Today is a dark day for Georgia. Our concern stems from the very serious economic repercussions that will be felt against our state on numerous fronts and the very serious civil and human rights abuses that will also likely follow…

This trend of states being given greater control of immigration policies, which is actually a federal issue, signals a threat to the otherwise positive momentum in the immigration movement. Joining the opposition to the “Secure Communities” program 38 lawmakers earlier this week sent a letter to New York Governor Cuomo urging him to terminate Secure Communities in New York State. Religious leaders from many faiths, joined by advocates and community members, yesterday held a vigil outside Governor Cuomo’s Manhattan office, to request him to stop unjust deportations. Speakers at the vigil applauded Illinois for withdrawing from Secure Communities and urged New York to protect New York’s immigrant communities by doing the same. You too can take action against Secure Communities, contact your state Governor to help your state withdraw from the program.

In another update, Senator Durbin (D-IL) and Senator Reid (D-NV) yesterday introduced the DREAM Act in the 112th session of Congress. If passed, it could positively impact the lives of 2.1 million young people in the United States. Despite the regained impetus of the DREAM Act this year, the movement lost the support of its third and final Republican politicians. Senator Dick Lugar (R-IN) abandoned his previous support for the DREAM Act and joins Representative Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Senator John McCain (R-AZ) who have already denounced their support. Senator Lugar blamed President Obama’s increased politicization of the issue for his withdrawal, even though it seems he has made the decision because of a rising Tea Party challenger in the Primary. However, many feel optimistic about the renewed chances of the bill this year. The DREAM Act’s failure in Congress last December was a huge disappointment, but the movement, supported by President Obama, is only getting stronger. And with your support, we can take this step forward in ensuring that young people who have worked tirelessly to build their lives in America- and contribute to the society- enjoy the rights they deserve.

The passage of the DREAM Act would benefit people like Emilio, a young man who was brought to the U.S. by his parents at the age of six. Speaking about his American identity, the only one he has ever really known, Emilio said-

“I went through elementary, middle, and high school in North Carolina, and it is the only place that I call home.  I graduated from high school in 2010 as one of the top ten students in my class, as an honor student, an AP scholar with hundreds of hours of community service, and I was awarded a full-ride scholarship to my first choice university.  However, unless the broken immigration system is fixed, when I graduate from college in four years I won’t be able to use my college degree.  My dream is to give back to my community.”

Immediately prior to the re-submission of the DREAM Act in Congress came a speech by President Obama to border communities in El Paso, Texas earlier this week. Obama reiterated his commitment to fair and just comprehensive immigration reform. He expressed his support for the DREAM Act, for keeping families together, and for visa reform. While this is not the first time we have heard these commitments, there is no denying the positive momentum that is building toward preventing the injustices caused by a broken immigration system. When we deny fairness to some, we put all of our rights at risk. Join Restore Fairness in our commitment to telling stories, inviting conversation, and inspiring action that will help America move even further in the right direction.

We strongly believe in the power of using culture to change culture. We’re using our new Facebook game, America 2049, to weave human rights issues– especially racial justice and immigration– into each week of game play. As we continue to tell these stories in the hope of changing the conversation, we ask that you play America 2049, and join the dialogue and action that will move us forward.

“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)

Dept. of Homeland Security ends biased and ineffective immigrant registration & tracking system

On April 27, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) made a long overdue announcement indefinitely suspending the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), a framework that has been fraught with controversy and inefficiency since it was launched in the wake of 9/11. Several advocacy organizations have welcomed the move but have also called for the DHS to repair the damage that NSEERS has done over the years.

Over the past six years, the NSEERS required individuals from primarily Arab countries to register with the government on arrival and departure from the United States. These countries included Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Egypt, Eritrea, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, North Korea, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Individuals who fell under the critera were required to undergo around 30 minutes of additional inspection at a port of entry if  entering the U.S on nonimmigrant visas. Visitors had to register again when exiting the country. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) justified the existence of the system stating that it was implemented “to keep track of those entering and leaving our country in order to safeguard U.S. citizens and America’s borders.”

The DHS and ICE have been criticized for their overt racial profiling of Arab visitors or those who appear Arab in an effort to preserve national security. The almost exclusive focus on visitors from the Arab countries showed that an institutional typecast was established, a move that received much flak from advocacy groups. The NSEERS impacted a lot of innocent people . In 2003, Abdulameer Yousef Habeeb, a refugee from Iraq was traveling on an Amtrak train from Seattle to Washington, DC to start a new job at an Arabic-language newspaper. While the train had stopped for a 30-minute break in Havre, Montana, Habeeb was singled out by two border patrol agents and then subsequently interrogated, arrested, imprisoned and set up for deportation back to Iraq. This was all because Habeeb hadn’t registered with the NSEERS even though his status didn’t require him to do so. In March 2005, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit on behalf of Habeeb, seeking compensation and damages for his losses and suffering as a result of the erroneous arrest and imprisonment. Finally, in June 2007, the U.S. government apologized to Habeeb for their misconduct and offered compensation. The message from U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Sullivan for the Western District of Washington giving Habeeb a formal statement said-

The United States of America acknowledges that, by not registering under NSEERS, you did nothing wrong. The United States of America regrets the mistake.

In what seems like an extension of their acceptance that Habeeb “did nothing wrong,” the DHS is now saying the same thing with regard to the entire community their NSEERS program had targeted. In their official announcement, the DHS gave the following reason for the cessation of NSEERS-

Over the past six years, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has implemented several new automated systems that capture arrival and exit information on nonimmigrant travelers to the United States, and DHS has determined that recapturing this data manually when a nonimmigrant is seeking admission to the United States is redundant and no longer provides any increase in security. DHS, therefore, has determined that it is no longer necessary to subject nationals from these countries to special registration procedures.

Cases such as Habeeb’s indicate that the NSEERS mistreated several nonimmigrant visitors to the U.S. from Arab countries. Therefore, while the suspension of the NSEERS is a much welcomed move, we must also not forget the damage to people and families that was caused by the program’s implementation over nine years. The mistrust of Arabs in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 branched out into the profiling of other ethnic communities such as Sikhs and other South Asian groups as well as the wider community of Muslims in America. The recent congressional hearings lead by Peter King on the “radicalization of Islam” are another testament to this deep mistrust and societal damage. Several advocacy groups such as the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), and South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), along with the Arab American Institute (AAI), the National Immigration Forum (NIF) and the Rights Working Group (RWG), have praised the end of NSEERS, jointly stating-

The NSEERS program was a counter-productive response in the wake of September 11, 2001…One controversial aspect of the NSEERS program was a “domestic call-in” component that solicited registrations from more than 80,000 males who were inside the United States on temporary visas from predominantly Arab, South Asian, or Muslim-majority countries. The specific parameters of NSEERS revealed it to be a system that was a clear example of profiling: discriminatory, arbitrary, and, as DHS itself has stated, an ineffective national security measure…It is critical that DHS view this rule as a starting point for granting relief retroactively for those affected by NSEERS. Ultimately, these groups believe that NSEERS must be repealed in its entirety.

The steady erosion of basic human rights after the tragedy of 9/11 has affected numerous Americans and visitors to this country. In our current state of paranoia, we as a country have singled out and alienated specific groups, and programs such as NSEERS have added to this damage to the social and cultural fabric of our country. The suspension of the program is definitely a positive step by the DHS, which should be furthered by the full elimination of the program and a reform of the DHS policies and functioning to become unbiased and effective. The unfortunate cases of racial profiling, such as that of Habeeb, should not be repeated. As we approach the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy, we must strive towards an America that cherishes its diversity and doesn’t needlessly suspect those who are different. The time is right for us to re-embrace one of our greatest strengths as a nation – our diversity.

Photo courtesy of dhs.gov

Mainstream media take note, “The Good Wife” breaks stereotypes

From the b-listed blog-

CBS has been in the news as of late about the troubled Charlie Sheen. While fascinating, we’re more excited when mainstream media is used to shed light on important issues our country is facing today. But when CBS announced that ‘Ugly Betty’ star and Emmy and Golden Globe winner America Ferrera had temporarily joined the cast of their courtroom drama ‘The Good Wife’ as a nanny, we became curious and a little skeptical. And thankfully, we were pleasantly surprised. The creators of the show not only break free of common racial stereotypes about Latinos in the media, but they also shed light on the very pertinent DREAM Act issue that is a hot-button issue within the immigration debate.

Ferrera plays Natalie Flores, an undocumented immigrant who works as a nanny for Wendy Scott-Carr, a prominent politician on the show. Much unlike widespread negative stereotypes of Latina nannies as often uneducated, older women with little knowledge of English, Ferrera’s character on ‘The Good Wife’ is portrayed as a sharp young woman who is working as a nanny simply to finance her graduate studies in economics, while at the same time trying to become a citizen. Ferrera, in her first TV role since the ABC comedy ‘Ugly Betty’ ended last year, says she feels close to this role. In an interview with TV Guide, Ferrera commented-

[Natalie] is sort of the anti-stereotype of what people imagine when they hear those labels. It felt like the Kings [the show's creators] would be really great people to explore that world in ways that could show their audience an alternative to general preconceived notions about illegal immigrants.

On the show, Ferrera’s character even admits that she was not born in the U.S, but came here with her parents at the age of 2. The character sketch seems to be a realistic portrait of the millions of young DREAMers across the country fighting for U.S citizenship. The National Hispanic Media Coalition (NHMC), who have praised ‘The Good Wife’ , stated-

America’s character on ‘The Good Wife’ captures the struggles of a generation of young, Latino men and women in our country who face obstacles because their parents brought them into this country as infants, in search of a better life. These men and women, who work so hard to better themselves and become productive members of the only society that they have ever known, are precisely the type of people that would have their lives changed by the passage of the DREAM Act.

Ferrera’s character first appears in Episode 15 – titled ‘Silver Bullet’ – of the current season and her storyline has been continued since, including an episode where her father is wrongly arrested based on racial profiling for a crime he didn’t commit, leading to the risk of him being deported by ICE. We won’t give too much of the storyline away in case you plan to watch it, but such a narrative in a popular mainstream TV drama is a very positive sign and we applaud that. Here’s hoping other major networks and TV shows follow suit.

Photo courtesy of daemonstv.com

N.Y. State bill and new student film aim to revive the DREAM

Last week week the U.S. Census Bureau announced that there had been an unanticipated spike in the Hispanic population of the country over the last decade. Hispanics now form the country’s second-largest group, having crossed the 50 million mark, or 16.3% of the national population. This announcement comes at a significant moment in our country as debates around the treatment of undocumented immigrants intensify. The Hispanic population now forms a much bigger portion of the electorate and, with much of the immigration debate (including the DREAM Act) focusing on this group, the need for comprehensive immigration reform is becoming even more pressing.

Also in the same week the New York State Youth Leadership Council (NYSYLC) announced the introduction of the first ever state version of the DREAM Act (S.4179), led by state senator Bill Perkins. If passed, this will be a major accomplishment for immigration reform advocates and will hopefully spark similar changes at the federal level. The N.Y. state version of the DREAM Act incorporates many of the same benefits as the federal version of the legislation that was defeated in the Senate in December of last year. According to the NYSYLC-

“The benefits include access to financial aid for higher education, access to driver’s licenses, work authorization and access to health care. In order to qualify for these benefits, the young person must have arrived to the United States before the age of 16, be under the age of 35, have resided in New York State for at least two years, have obtained a high school diploma or GED equivalent from an American institution and have good moral character.”

While the outcome of this bill remains to be seen, some are also skeptical of what such legislation, if passed, would actually accomplish. Steven Thrasher of the Village Voice expressed concerns that since immigration falls under federal jurisdiction, even after such legislation, New York State would have no power to halt raids by Immigrations Customs Enforcement (ICE) or to help the immigrant youth work towards U.S. citizenship. However, there is no doubt that this incarnation of the DREAM Act is a positive indication that this is a matter of national importance and that the efforts of the movement are paying off. If passed, this bill would benefit many undocumented youth such as Sonia Guinansaca, a 21-year-old young woman who is also a member of the NYSYLC. Reacting to the introduction of the state bill, Guinansaca stated-

We’re very excited, this is one of the most progressive bills particularly when we’re surrounded by failure of the federal DREAM Act and other anti-immigrant bills around the country…We’re making a statement that we are here, undocumented, unafraid, unapologetic and we’re going to work to resolve this issue. That is what this New York State campaign has meant for many of us and we’re not going to give up.

The anti-immigrant bills Guinansaca mentions are the other face of the current immigration debate around the country. While reform advocates continue to stress the urgent need for just and fair immigration reform, state legislatures around the country are vying for increased restrictions against the rights of immigrants. In addition to having adverse implications for the economic and social stability of the states in which they are enacted, these harsh anti-immigrant laws often call for state law enforcement to distinguish between people based on their appearance, a factor that goes against the constitutional fabric of the country.

A new short documentary released today by the Center for New Community explores the highly controversial SB1070 law passed in Arizona from a new angle. The poignant film, titled ‘A Look Inside SB1070′ (see below), follows a delegation of university students, from Washington D.C., New York, Chicago and Colorado, who visited the border regions of Arizona to learn more about the enactment of the draconian anti-immigration law. The film was screened on college campuses across the United States last week to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. For the students in the film, the experience was eye-opening and, in some cases, infuriating as they were privy to the conditions of immigrant communities along the border areas. One of the students who filmed the trip, President L. Davis, remarked-

Getting behind the camera to capture this story of the immigrant Hispanic population of Arizona and the American reaction will remain one of the greatest experiences of my life. One that I believe will help inspire another generation of freedom fighters determined to see freedom and justice prevail.

Youth-led efforts like this documentary and the New York state version of the DREAM Act signal the continued vigor with which advocates are pushing for immigration reform. The bill’s fate in the N.Y. State senate is yet unknown, but supporters can sign the petition to Governor Cuomo to urge him to support S.4179. Meanwhile, films such as ‘A Look Inside SB1070′ will hopefully further raise awareness around the human impact of harsh anti-immigration laws such as SB1070 and help to highlight that fact that with ever-increasing immigrant populations, the call for comprehensive immigration reform simply cannot be ignored.

Watch the film ‘A Look Inside SB1070′ here:

Photo courtesy of news.change.org

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo courtesy of www.nytimes.com

Government report verifies claims of lack of fairness for immigration detainees

immigrant-detention-480x329In August 2008, 33 year old Alexandro Sibaja was picked up in Houston on a bad check warrant and turned over to immigration officials. Having moved to the U.S. from Mexico at the age of 12, Sibaja was put into removal proceedings by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. Over the next 15 months, he was transferred six times from Houston to Conroe, from Conroe to Mississippi, then back to Houston before being transferred to Amarillo and then to Big Spring. Eventually, he ended up in Haskell, Texas, and his case was assigned to the immigration court in Dallas. On November 25th, the immigration judge granted him a green card based on his seven-year long marriage to Lopez-Sibaja, a U.S. citizen, and the trauma that deportation would cause for his two children.

While the judgment came as a huge relief to Alexandro and his wife, the ordeal of the past 15 months is one that will haunt them for some time to come. By the end of the 15 months, Alexandro’s wife, Iris, barely visited him once every two months because she could not afford to drive seven hours to see him while working and looking after their children. Iris spent a large part of the past year trying to keep track of her husband’s whereabouts through the immigration detention network, since the information provided to her accompanying his transfers was patchy and inconsistent. Alexandro’s frequent transfers had the decided effect of delaying his proceedings. His original attorney, Steven Villarreal, had to stop representing him when he was transferred since it would have been too expensive once he factored in the costs of the flights and hotels. “I had to refer him to another attorney up there…This happens all the time,” Villareal said about the transfers.

Alexandro’s case is symptomatic of the gaping flaws in the detainee transfer system that were highlighted in separate reports brought out last Wednesday. In addition to the reports by the non-profit group, Human Rights Watch and the data analyzed by TRAC (discussed last week on Restore Fairness), The Constitution Project published a review of ICE policy entitled, ‘Recommendations for Reforming our Immigration System and Promoting Access to Counsel in Immigration Proceedings‘. These findings were corroborated by an investigation that was carried out by the Office of Inspector General (OIG) for the Department of Homeland Security, and released in a document called ‘Policies and Procedures Related to Detainee Transfers‘.

The objective of the OIG investigation was to determine “whether ICE detention officers properly justify detainee transfers according to ICE’s standards,” and their findings verify the criticisms of the system offered by the other reports. The OIG found that the detainee transfer procedures regularly failed to comply with the tenets of the ICE National Detention Standards; they were random, they resulted in a loss of access to necessary evidence and witnesses, and to legal counsel itself, and in increased time spent in detention. Further, most people were transferred without the requisite photo and security classification. From the report:

Transfer determinations made by ICE officers at the detention facilities are not conducted according to a consistent process. This leads to errors, delays, and confusion for detainees, their families, and legal representatives…ICE National Detention Standards outline the policy, applicability, standards, and procedures for the transfer of a detainee. ICE must consider the detainee’s security requirements, medical needs, legal representation, and requests for a change in venue for the removal proceeding.

Responding to the delays, confusion and errors caused by the numerous transfers of detainees, not to mention the resultant denial of due process for the detained and their families, the OIG review and that drafted by The Constitution Project list a series of recommendations for corrective action to be taking by ICE. The recommendations outlined by the OIG address the disjointed network of private and county detention centers and the lack of a clear and centralized system of communication between them. They require ICE to establish:

A national standard for reviewing each detainee’s administrative file prior to a transfer determination, and that it develop protocols with EOIR (Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review) court administrators for exchanging hearing and transfer schedules.

The Constitution Project issued a review that called for large-scale amendments to immigration law and ICE policy, including access to legal counsel appointed by the government for those facing deportation. The Constitution Project, whose members include Asa Hutchinson, a former secretary of Homeland Security, called for measures that lead to shrinking the use of detention, making it easier for people to avoid detention while fighting deportation. According to the New York Times, the Constitution Project:

recommended a significant easing in the burden of proof, and a hardship waiver from mandatory detention for lawful permanent residents…Mr. Hutchinson said that the immigration agency could make many other changes immediately, including some that would “correct some potential unfairness in the system” unintentionally left by his own efforts when he was in office.

ICE responded with a statement on Wednesday announcing that they are in the process of overhauling the immigration detention system, and will work to reduce the number of detainee transfers. Working towards a “truly civil detention system” with more centralized agency control, the agency promised a re-issuing of the National Detention Standards that would require a review of the detainee’s file prior to a transfer, ensuring a more efficient and human approach to immigration detention.

Photo courtesy of www.washingtonindependent.com