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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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo courtesy of endoftheamericandream.com

Colbert says – Always wanted a farm worker job? Now’s your chance

Unfortunately many in America consider the major issues facing our country – high unemployment and undocumented people – as interrelated, so they support inhumane immigration laws to reclaim the low-paying jobs undocumented immigrants have stolen. But, these individuals fail to realize that agriculture, a major low-paying job that gives us the food we all eat, is so dependent on an immigrant workforce that the anti-immigrant platform for economic reform is actually unrealistic and harmful to our livelihood. Farm workers are teaming up with comedian Stephen Colbert to challenge unemployed Americans in a tongue-in-cheek call for immigration reform: Come on, take our jobs.

Labor and political leaders concerned about an adequate labor supply for the crucial agricultural sector, hosted a news conference on Thursday, June 24, to launch the national “Take Our Jobs” campaign aimed at hiring U.S. citizens and legal residents to fill jobs that often go to undocumented farm workers.

This rather bold campaign, sponsored by the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) and immigrant rights advocates, challenges opponents to follow through with their platform and to mobilize unemployed American citizens to willingly walk in the poorly conditioned shoes of these immigrant farmers’ for even a day.

“Our county, our economy, rely heavily on the work of immigrant and unauthorized workers,” said Michael Rubio, supervisor in Kern County, one of the biggest agriculture producing counties in the nation. “I would encourage all our national leaders to come visit Kern County and to spend one day, or even half a day, in the shoes of these farm workers.”

Campaigners believe that they will not take up the opportunity. To highlight how unlikely the prospect of Americans lining up to pick strawberries or grapes, Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report” plans to feature the “Take Our Jobs” campaign on July 8.

“The reality is farm workers who are here today aren’t taking any American jobs away. They work in often unbearable situations,” UFW President Arturo Rodriguez said. “I don’t think there will be many takers, but the offer is being made. Let’s see what happens.”

The effort spotlights the immigrant labor issue and underscores the need for reforms without which the domestic agricultural industry could be crippled, leading to more jobs moving off shore. According to government statistics, three-quarters of all crop workers working in American agriculture were born outside the United States, and at least 50% of the crop workers have not been authorized to work legally in the United States.

“The campaign is being played for jokes, but the need to secure the right to work for immigrants who are here is serious business,” Rubio said.

In a letter to U.S. lawmakers, UFW offers farm workers who are “ready to train citizens and legal residents who wish to replace immigrants in the fields,” and encourages Members of Congress to refer their constituents to vacant farm worker positions. UFW has locations across the country where Members of Congress can direct their constituents willing to do work on large-scale farms. Employers will be on hand at each site to answer questions, meet prospective employees and assist in the application process. All who are interested or unemployed and are legal residents or U.S. citizens are encouraged to apply. Any takers?

Photo courtesy of www.fanpop.com.