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America 2049 special agent (who is also our summer intern) on the history of Ellis Island and July 4th

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Guest blogger: Maya Bhattacharjee, Breakthrough’s summer intern.

A couple of weeks ago, members of the Breakthrough team visited Ellis Island for an interactive tour for the final level of our human rights Facebook game, America 2049. (But remember, though it was the last level of our launch, the game lives on Facebook and may be played at any time!) Interning with the team at Breakthrough has been an extremely enlightening experience for me, and our trip to Ellis Island was nothing short of eye-opening and memorable. On the ferry, our Operations Manager, Julie Griff, recalled upon the team’s visit to Ellis Island exactly a year ago when America 2049 was still in its early stages, and here we were amidst the launch of its final level. As the ferry pulled into the dock and we set foot on the island, a woman beside me whispered to her son, “I can’t believe that Grandma Rose took this same step.” With that, I set foot on the island that twelve million immigrants came through in hopes of a better life in America.

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We were met warmly by Ranger Bruce as we entered the Main Building, who brought us to the entrance of Ellis Island to help us re-live the immigrants’ experience. We first learned that those who arrived on Ellis Island were members of the “steerage class,” many of whom would be packed shoulder-to-shoulder into the steamships for sometimes up to eight days. First and second class passengers were processed on board on the ship, and thus it must be remembered that the count of twelve million processed on Ellis Island represents only members of the steerage class. Ranger Bruce reminded us that most immigrants were garbed in layers and layers of clothing, as they could only bring a small amount of luggage to their new life, and many of them received minimal food and sustenance on their exhausting journey. In John F. Kennedy’s A Nation of Immigrants he wrote: “There were probably as many reasons for coming to America as there were people who came.” Whether these immigrants were escaping religious persecution, political strife, unemployment, or simply trying to make a new life for their families, there were countless circumstances that lead to the greatest migration of modern history.

Ranger Bruce then described the “processing” that immigrants experienced upon entering the building. Doctors would watch the immigrants as they climbed the stairs leading to the Registry Room and if they witnessed a limp, labored breathing, or suspected any other troubles, they would perform further medical exams. I could not help but ask: after standing on a packed ship for up to ten days, how could one not limp or breathe heavily? Ranger Bruce reminded me that immigrants were determined to live their new lives in America, and this alone would perpetuate their drive and energy to compose their exhaustion no matter their age or size. He then described the brief medical exam that each immigrant would experience, including an eye hook that would be used to pull back their eye-lids in search of eye-disease. If the doctors suspected an illness, they would send them to a nearby hospital before entering the country. Once in the Registry Room, inspectors then questioned each individual with 29 questions.Imagine days with over 2,000 people in the room to question!  They were asked where they were from, what they did for a living, where they were headed, the amount of money they were carrying, and if they suspected somebody to be a, as they called, “moron,” they would refer them to a psychiatric hospital. One of the hardest parts of the experience was hearing some of the case studies of immigrants who did not make it through– families who were separated. Ranger Bruce shared that they were deported—often back to lands where their lives were put in risk.  The judges, (inspectors chosen at random from the registry room,) would have a few minutes to make their decision, and much personal discretion was used.  He did share that the majority of immigrants did make it through and only two percent were denied entry.

As we recently celebrated our land of freedom and opportunity this past July 4th, I couldn’t help but think about what it means to be American today. We learned that America was an incredibly welcoming countryellis_exterior1 during this point in history, and now while we represent opportunity and the freedom to begin a new life, “welcoming” seems far from our description. In the 1920’s, federal laws set immigration quotas based on national origin and in 1924, U.S. consulates took over immigration inspection.  This was the beginning of a much more rigid immigration system. In later years, Ellis Island became a deportation center, a Public Health and Service hospital, and a Coast Guard station. For us, Ellis Island is now a memorial to all who have made this nation their adopted home, and the meeting point of the old world and the new.

This July 4th was a new one for me after our experience on Ellis Island. I can’t help but to think of everything that our country represented for those who came to Ellis Island, and to celebrate exactly what makes America so special. Yet, I reflect on the many struggles and obstacles that we still must surpass, and what freedom in America represents today. What does July 4th and our immigrant history mean to you? What does freedom in the United States really mean, and what can we do to uphold everything that we stand for? Please let us know your thoughts in our comments section below, on our Facebook page here, or on our twitter here!

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 gives immigration reform a boost on Independence Day weekend

How fitting it is that the day after President Obama delivered his first speech devoted entirely to the issue of immigration reform, 150 people are being sworn in as naturalized U.S. citizens on Ellis Island. In an address at American University, President Obama vowed not to “kick the can down the road” on immigration reform, restating his desire to fix a broken immigration system.

In his speech, the President asserted the need for a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million people currently residing in the U.S. who do not have legal status, while stressing that the U.S. government secures the border, and businesses face consequences for hiring undocumented workers and keeping wages depressed. Calling on Congress to pass a comprehensive plan to fix an immigration system that is “fundamentally broken,” President Obama tackled the issue that has been the subject of contentious political debate in these months leading up to the mid-term November elections. He spoke about the “…estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States” and said that “the overwhelming majority of these men and women are simply seeking a better life for themselves and their children.” The President cautioned against rounding up and deporting the undocumented immigrants that are an intrinsic part of American society and economy, and against a blanket amnesty for all that he said would be “unwise and unfair…would suggest to those thinking about coming here illegally that there will be no repercussions for such a decision,” and “could lead to a surge in more illegal immigration. ” Instead, he advocated for a solution that eschewed both polar extremes of the debate in favor of rational middle ground. He said-

Ultimately, our nation, like all nations, has the right and obligation to control its borders and set laws for residency and citizenship.  And no matter how decent they are, no matter their reasons, the 11 million who broke these laws should be held accountable. Now, if the majority of Americans are skeptical of a blanket amnesty, they are also skeptical that it is possible to round up and deport 11 million people. They know it’s not possible. Such an effort would be logistically impossible and wildly expensive. Moreover, it would tear at the very fabric of this nation -– because immigrants who are here illegally are now intricately woven into that fabric.  Now, once we get past the two poles of this debate, it becomes possible to shape a practical, common-sense approach that reflects our heritage and our values.

This speech was influenced by a number of recent developments in the immigration issue. Most notably, Arizona’s harsh anti-immigrant law that has set a precedent for states around the country taking the enforcement of immigration law into their own hands. Since April 23rd, when Arizona Gov. Brewer signed off on the law, its unconstitutional statutes that give a green light to racial profiling, have catapulted the immigration issue and the Federal government’s inaction on it, into center stage. The controversial “show me your papers” law, which is currently under review by the Department of Justice, has “fanned the flames of an already contentious debate,” Mr. Obama said. President Obama acknowledged the frustration that has led to Arizona and the 20 other states that are in the process of implementing similar laws as “understandable,” but stated that it was “ill- conceived” and that it “put huge pressure on local law enforcement to enforce rules that ultimately are unenforceable.” Referring to the police chiefs that have stood in opposition to SB1070, he said that laws such as these make communities less safe by “driving a wedge between communities and law enforcement, making our streets more dangerous and the jobs of our police officers more difficult.” He criticized this “patchwork of local immigration laws” for having “the potential of violating the rights of innocent American citizens and legal residents, making them subject to possible stops or questioning because of what they look like or how they sound.”

In his undeniably political speech, President Obama stressed the necessity for bipartisan support for immigration reform. He took Republicans to task for the lack of movement on immigration reform in Congress, specifically calling out the 11 Republicans Senators who had shown support for a comprehensive reform bill in 2006, and subsequently withdrawn this support, with the Republican party now unanimously calling for a “border security first” approach and balking at a comprehensive reform bill. Obama argued that the process has been “held hostage” by “political posturing, special-interest wrangling and . . . the pervasive sentiment in Washington that tackling such a thorny and emotional issue is inherently bad politics.” Referring to his recent b0lstering of border security by sending 1200 troops to the border, he said that the border was now more secure than it had been in 20 years, and that crime along the border was at a record low. Moreover, he dismissed the “border security first” approach saying that the systemic problems were too vast to be fixed with “only fences and border patrols.”

The President’s speech has been criticized for offering no “new solutions, timetables or points of compromise. Instead, he outlined a longstanding prescription for change that, in addition to having no support from Republicans in Congress, also has failed to unite his fellow Democrats.”

And even as President Obama waits for bipartisan consensus on immigration reform, families continue to be torn apart, immigrant youth live in fear of being deported, violations in detention continue to grow and local and state police armed with immigration powers bring fear to communities. Many of these problems can be tackled be administrative measures, but there was little spoken of in the speech. No action was pledged on any of the bills already in Congress though he did mention support for the DREAM Act that would give undocumented students a chance to live in the U.S. And even with a forum for an announcement on whether the federal government is going to sue the state of Arizona, no mention was made on the issue. Many groups have decided to take action into their own hands.

Following on the heels of President Obama’s address, leading law enforcement officials shared their concerns about programs that require enforcement of immigration laws by state or local law police, a trend that continues in absence of a federal solution. With the country’s foremost police chiefs and sheriffs speaking out against such enforcement that undo decades of progress in community policing, Presente.org in collaboration with the National Day Labor Organizing Network (NDLON) and the Trail of DREAMs is launching an ambitious new campaign calling on the President to use his power to create real change, starting with ending the deeply problematic 287g program.

Reform Immigration for America is asking people to write to Senate Republicans, asking them to”stop holding up the process and hurting families” America’s Voice is asking people to support the DREAM Act, “a stepping-stone to broader reform that we can pass right now” to support “youth who would qualify to earn citizenship under the DREAM Act who are future valedictorians, nurses, computer programmers, and soldiers.”

And Restore Fairness is calling on President Obama and Members of Congress to fix the broken detention and deportation system that traumatizes families and has led to many human rights violations.

While we are encouraged by the President’s speech and commitment to the issue of immigration, and reminded of our nation’s proud immigrant heritage, there is a deep need for bipartisan action as peoples lives hang in the balance.

Photo courtesy of nydailynews.com

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