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Let Children Learn — In Alabama and Beyond

Guestbloggers: Azadeh Shahshahani, National Security/Immigrants’ Rights Project Director with the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia,  and Daniel Altschuler, a political scientist and free-lance journalist.

True or false: No child in this country can be denied a public education. The answer is true, thanks to the Supreme Court’s 1982 Plyler v. Doe decision, which held that schools could not exclude children based on their immigration status. This is settled law, but not for Alabama legislators, who passed an anti-immigrant law (HB 56) with a provision requiring elementary and secondary schools to determine students’ and parents’ citizenship status.

With a federal district court refusing to enjoin this provision, families with an undocumented family member are already keeping their children, including U.S. citizens, out of school. And, though an appellate court last month temporarily blocked the K-12 reporting requirement, the right to primary education access for all in our country remains in jeopardy.

This summer, civil and immigrant rights groups, religious institutions and the Department of Justice challenged HB 56 in federal court. Alabama’s law contains many troubling provisions contained in anti-immigrant laws in other states, such as Arizona and Georgia, which were blocked by federal courts. But it goes much further, including the requirement in Section 28 that K-12 school officials determine their students’ and parents’ immigration status. Although the district court blocked certain sections of the law, it allowed this piece to stand.

As with Georgia’s HB 87, proponents of HB 56 claim they are removing the drain on state resources. But, in truth, officials like Governor Robert Bentley are scapegoating immigrants for political gain at a time of economic insecurity. They have confessed their desire to expel undocumented immigrants from the state.  HB 56 sponsor Micky Hammon asserted, “This [bill] attacks every aspect of an illegal immigrant’s life… [T]his bill is designed to make it difficult for them to live here so they will deport themselves.”

The law is so extreme that Wade Henderson, President and CEO of the Leadership Council on Civil and Human Rights,  concluded that Alabama’s “draconian initiative is so oppressive that Bull Connor himself would be impressed.” Birmingham’s former sheriff, you may recall, once used attack dogs and fire-hoses on African-American children.

Even those skeptical of immigration’s well-documented economic benefits should be appalled by Alabama officials’ willingness to target children. In addition to violating the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection clause, Section 28 is morally repugnant. It uses state power to keep immigrant children, who bear no responsibility for their status, out of school. Moreover, while so many Alabama public schools are failing, the law unconscionably redirects scarce education resources towards immigration policing.

Finally, as the Court held in Plyler, “It is difficult to understand precisely what the State hopes to achieve by promoting the creation and perpetuation of a subclass of illiterates within our boundaries, surely adding to the problems and costs of unemployment, welfare, and crime.”

Sadly, HB 56 may reflect a larger national trend. In May, the Department of Justice issued a memo reaffirming the illegality of asking students about their immigration status. This followed illegal reporting requirements and efforts in other states to pass education provisions similar to HB 56. Recent reports by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for instance, found that roughly 20 percent of New York and New Jersey public school districts requested information from students that would indicate their immigration status. Similar practices abound in Arizona, where fully half of school districts surveyed by the ACLU sought such information.

The Department of Justice was right to issue its memo, and to seek data from Alabama school districts in the wake of HB 56′s passage to investigate potential violations of civil rights statutes which protect educational opportunities for schoolchildren. It must be even more vigilant about illegal school reporting policies across the country, which may rise as restrictionist officials seek to copy HB 56.

It is encouraging that the appellate court temporarily blocked the education provision of HB 56. But beating Section 28 in court, while essential, will not by itself ensure that all American children can go to school without fear.  Legislators and education officials around the country must take heed: our classrooms are no place for the refrain, “Papers, please.”

Crossposted from the Huffington Post.

A version of this article first appeared in the Fulton County Daily Report. Reprinted with permission from the October 28, 2011 issue of the Daily Report © 2011 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.

Photo courtesy of 12uspost.com

Singled Out in Alabama Schools

Guestblogger: Molly Kaplan. Crossposted from the ACLU

A New York Times editorial this weekend calls out Alabama’s attorney general, Luther Strange, for stonewalling the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) attempt to look into possible civil rights violations since Alabama’s anti-immigrant law went into effect. The DOJ, following up on reports that students were being bullied in the classroom and that parents were keeping their children out of school, asked 39 superintendents for information on student absences and withdrawals since the start of the academic year. To this, Strange said no, challenging the DOJ’s legal authority to investigate.

While the DOJ starts its investigation, the ACLU has been on the ground since September when the law went into effect, tracking the impact of the law on farms, families and schools. What we’re finding, particularly in schools, is evidence of racial profiling and discrimination.

In a video released today, Cineo Gonzales, a Birmingham taxi driver, recounts how — in front of the entire class — his daughter, along with one other Latino student, received a Spanish-language pamphlet explaining the law. When Gonzales asked why the teacher gave the document to his daughter, the principal told him that they only gave the document to children who looked like weren’t from there.

Gonzales’ daughter was born in Alabama. She follows Alabama college football, is an A student and dressed up as a good witch for Halloween. Gonzales’ daughter was racially profiled — an occurrence that has become too common in the wake of this law.

We will continue to report our observations and findings on the ground in Alabama. For further resources and information on the impacts of HB 56 in Alabama, check  www.aclu.org/crisisinAL.

Stories from the ground: Life after Alabama’s anti-immigrant law for an American family named Gonzales

Crossposted from the American Civil Liberties Union-

Cineo Gonzales is a married father of two who has lived in Birmingham for more than 10 years. He chose to live in Alabama because he wanted a safe community in which to raise his 6-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son. A lawfully present immigrant, Gonzales works as a taxi driver.

Before the enactment of H.B. 56, Gonzales mostly drove people between their homes and the airport. Since the law took effect on Sept. 28, families who are fleeing the state in fear of H.B. 56 have been asking him to drive them as far as New York and Indiana. These families have no other choice but to flee by car, because air and rail travel identification requirements might ensnare undocumented families with law enforcement. Gonzales likened these out-of-state trips to the Underground Railroad, saying many families are heading north because there’s more acceptance of immigrants there.

Gonzales told me one family called him at 2 a.m. asking him to pick them up from the side of the road. Carrying only two suitcases and plastic garbage bags filled with belongings, the father wanted to leave immediately because he feared he was being followed by police. Enforcement of the law has led to this kind of widespread paranoia and panic. One woman in Russellville told me that she feels like she’s being watched every time she walks down the street or goes into the grocery store. She feels her lawful presence is constantly questioned by those around her.

Shortly after the law went into effect, Gonzales’s daughter and another Latino student in her 1st grade class were singled out by the school as targets of the new law. In front of the entire class, they were handed know-your-rights documents to give to their parents. In other classes, Latino children were pulled out of class and given the document. This kind of racial profiling is rampant throughout the Alabama school system.

The next day, when Gonzales asked a school official why his daughter was given the paper, she explained they were giving it to “all children who aren’t from here.”

Mr. Gonzales’s daughter was born in Alabama. When I visited the family, the first question she asked me was, “Are you an Auburn or a “Bama fan?” (asking my preference of college football teams). She loves to play soccer, is a star student and can’t wait to be a Good Witch for Halloween.

Photos courtesy of aclu.org

Alabama’s “counterproductive cruelty-” HB56 – threatens the right to education and triggers exodus from the state

It’s been looming for months like a dark, ominous cloud over Alabama. After almost five months since it was first enacted and then pondered over by U.S. District Judge Sharon Blackburn, Alabama’s shocking HB 56 law went into effect on September 28, officially making the state the most regressive and cruel in its attitude towards immigrants. If the supporters of the law aimed to create the nation’s most hostile environment for immigrants, they have succeeded. The news of the passage of HB 56 triggered widespread panic across immigrant communities in Alabama, prompting numerous families to pull their children out of the local schools and many others to move out of the state altogether.

Among its several stipulations, HB 56 requires police to investigate the immigration status of those pulled over for routine traffic stops. This measure ostensibly lends itself to racial profiling since it mandates that police make judgments on who to stop for “reasonable suspicion” based on their appearance. Moreover, the law will also make it a felony for an undocumented migrant to do business with the state and make it a misdemeanor for an undocumented resident to be without immigration documents if stopped and checked. In addition to permitting police to ask for documents from anyone they suspect of being undocumented, the law also invalidates contracts with undocumented immigrants, which could keep them from finding housing.

Perhaps the biggest blow from the law is to the right to public education for all children. Under HB 56, elementary and secondary schools are now required to check the immigration status of incoming students. This unconstitutional crackdown in the education sector goes against a 1982 Supreme Court ruling that all children living in the United States have the right to a public education, regardless of their immigration status. In the case, Plyler vs. Doe in Texas, the justices had struck down a state statute that denied funding for education to undocumented students and charged such students $1000 annual fee to compensate for the lost state funding. The judgement was formed on the rationale  that an uneducated immigrant community was not beneficial for the country.

That reasoning, it seems, was lost on the Alabama state government that just passed HB 56. The law’s damage to the state economy is already evident. The Associated Press reported in the days following the ruling, only handfuls of farm workers showed up for work. According to an article in the The New York Times on the sudden exodus of immigrants from the state-

Critics of the law, particularly farmers, contractors and home builders, say the measure has already been devastating, leaving rotting crops in fields and critical shortages of labor. They say that even fully documented Hispanic workers are leaving, an assessment that seems to be borne out in interviews here. The legal status of family members is often mixed — children are often American-born citizens — but the decision whether to stay rests on the weakest link.

Within just a week of the law going into effect, schools across the state of Alabama have witnessed a dramatic drop in attendance by Hispanic students, with many of them even withdrawing completely. In Montgomery County alone, over 200 Hispanic students stayed home the morning after HB 56 went into effect. Other counties and school districts also reported numerous students either absent or withdrawn over the week, prompting the superintendent in Huntsville to go on a Spanish-language TV channel in an attempt to calm the widespread worry. While authorities claim that they only want schools to report numbers and not names, communities are not convinced, fearing a likely situation where children will be targeted for their status.

This Associated Press video outlines some of the devastating elements that make HB 56 harsher than some of the anti-immigrant laws previously enacted in Arizona and Georgia-


The reactions from within the community have been those of shock, fear and hurt. Victor Palafox, a resident of Birmingham who was brought to the U.S from Mexico when he was six, commented, “Younger students are watching their lives taken from their hands.” The devastating effect this law will have on the education of immigrant children is already very visible. Legal residents such as Cuban-born Annabelle Frank expressed her fear of sending her six-year-old son to school: “I’m actually considering home-schooling. Because I don’t want him involved in all this that’s going on. I know, because he is Hispanic, in some way he’s going to be singled out, you know? I’m really afraid of that.”

HB 56 unapologetically sanctions racial profiling and in doing so, has countless repercussions on various aspects of life in Alabama. While the negative impact on education and the state economy is already becoming clear, the law will instill a climate of fear and mistrust between communities and local police and law enforcement. A New York Times editorial questions the “counterproductive cruelty” of HB 56, asking “Do Alabamans want children too frightened to go to school? Or pregnant women too frightened to seek care? Whom could that possibly benefit?”

The passage of this law could result in the isolation and ghettoization an entire section of the population. HB 56 doesn’t present any sort of solution to the issue of undocumented immigration. It only throws the entire state into jeopardy in the long run, with the immigrant communities and children bearing the absolute worst of the damage.

Laws such as Alabama’s HB 56 and Arizona’s SB 1070 are unconstitutional and against the grain of basic American values of dignity, and respect for everyone. Education is a human right. Living without fear of racial profiling is a human right. When we deny human rights to some, we put all of our rights at risk. If you think Alabama’s HB 56 is unjust, please sign this petition to the Department of Justice asking them to block the law from going into effect. To rally for Alabama’s future, click here.

Photo courtesy of colorlines.com

Reflecting on our loss and reclaiming our rights- new report and video on racial profiling post 9/11

From the Rights Working Group-

Last week, the Rights Working Group released a new report, Reclaiming Our Rights: Reflections on Racial Profiling in a Post-9/11 America at a press conference. The report offers a variety of perspectives on the expansion of racial profiling in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and how the federal government’s increased powers of surveillance, detention and access to private information impacted people of Arab, Muslim, Middle Eastern, and South Asian descent along with migrants and people thought to be migrants.  The report also discusses how the issue of racial profiling – a longtime problem in black, Native American and Latino communities – became more widespread and far-reaching after 9/11 and how the broad congressional support for passing the End Racial Profiling Act (ERPA) in the summer of 2001 diminished. The report makes recommendations to the Obama Administration, the Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security, and Congress – among them is passage of ERPA – that would seek to not only prohibit racial profiling but provide greater oversight of law enforcement with regard to civil rights protections. [Read Report Here]

As a complimentary multimedia piece to the report, Breakthrough and Rights Working Group released Checkpoint Nation?  Building Community Across Borders last week. Filmed in Arizona, the documentary is about racial profiling, multiracial solidarity, and immigration enforcement at the border.

Early one morning, Maria—then nine months pregnant—and her family were stopped by the police for no discernible reason. A special breakfast outing became a nightmare—and at one of the most intimate moments of her life, Maria found a team of immigration agents—not her husband—by her side.

Maria’s chilling story is the centerpiece of “Checkpoint Nation?” a documentary that depicts the reality of post-9/11 racial profiling — as mandated by laws such as SB 1070 in Arizona, which are now being imitated and implemented nationwide — along with the new and strengthening alliances of diverse groups committed to racial justice.

Set in the U.S./Mexico border area near Tucson, Arizona, a region that sees more and more migrant deaths every year, the video explores the idea that the way to move forward is to find connections and build coalitions among between diverse groups of allies — including Muslim-, South Asian-, African-, and Latino-Americans; civil rights lawyers and media activists — that have identified with each other’s histories and united in the common goals of justice, equality, and respect for all.

Ten years after 9/11, there is an urgent need to pass federal legislation to ban all forms of racial profiling, and to end programs and policies that result in racial profiling.  If you haven’t already, sign the petition to tell President Obama that it is time to end racial profiling.  [Sign the Petition Here]

Here’s what you can do to join the chorus calling for an end to racial profiling:


Watch the new Restore Fairness documentary, “Checkpoint Nation? Building Community Across Borders”

Early one morning, Maria—then nine months pregnant—and her family were stopped by the police for no discernible reason. A special breakfast outing became a nightmare—and at one of the most intimate moments of her life, Maria found a team of immigration agents—not her husband—by her side.

Maria’s chilling story, which Breakthrough captured on a trip to the Mexico/Arizona border, is the centerpiece of “Checkpoint Nation? Building Community Across Borders,” a powerful new documentary that depicts the reality of post-9/11 racial profiling — as mandated by laws such as SB 1070 in Arizona, which are now being imitated and implemented nationwide — along with the new and strengthening alliances of diverse groups committed to racial justice.

Set in the U.S./Mexico border area near Tucson, Arizona, a region that sees more and more migrant deaths every year, the video explores the idea that the way to move forward is to find connections and build coalitions among between diverse groups of allies — including Muslim-, South Asian-, African-, and Latino-Americans; civil rights lawyers and media activists — that have identified with each other’s histories and united in the common goals of justice, equality, and respect for all.

“Checkpoint Nation?” was produced to complement the release of  a new report and Week of Action around the 10th anniversary of September 11th spearheaded by Rights Working Group, a  national coalition of more than 300 civil liberties, national security, immigrant rights and human rights organizations committed to restoring due process and human rights protections that have been eroded in the name of national security. The report, “Reclaiming Our Rights: Reflections on Racial Profiling in a Post-9/11 America,” will be released September 14th.

The groups that are featured in the video are ACLU of ArizonaAlliance for Educational JusticeBlack Alliance for Just ImmigrationDerechos HumanosDRUM (Desis Rising Up and Moving)Funding ExchangeVAMOS Unidos

Denying fairness and justice to some puts all of our freedoms at risk. Ten years after September 11th, we must challenge ourselves to unite across our differences and reaffirm the real American values of pluralism, democracy, and dignity for all.

Watch the video and take action to stop racial profiling in your community.

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

BREAKING: DHS announces investigation of the misnamed “Secure Communities” program

In a move that has been widely welcomed by advocates for fair immigration policies, the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office of Inspector General announced this week that they plan to carry out an investigation of ICE’s Secure Communities program. Since the introduction of this program, ICE has faced criticism for many aspects of it, most importantly the lack of transparency and clarity with which ICE has executed the program. Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose), who has been instrumental in demanding the review of the highly controversial “Secure Communities” program, called on DHS to launch the investigation immediately following allegations that ICE had disseminated misleading information over the specifics of the program.

In a joint press release from the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), the CCR attorney Sunita Patel said-

“The worst part of ICE’s lack of transparency and accountability in the development and deployment of S-Comm is that every day S-Comm tears families apart and spreads fear in immigrant communities across the nation. ICE’s conduct belies a fundamental lack of respect for democracy and the people that are impacted by its harsh policies.”

Established in 2008, the Secure Communities program is DHS’s latest attempt to use local law enforcement to push people into the immigrant detention system. As per the program, all local law enforcement has to do is arrest someone on an offense, minor or major–  and before the person is even convicted of the offense – their fingerprints are checked against federal immigration databases. If the fingerprint scan gets a “hit,” immigrants can end up getting carted off by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to an immigration detention center, putting them in for deportation proceedings. The lack of due process sets the stage for racial profiling without any proper training or real consequences for police agents. Many local law enforcement officials and counties have sought to opt-out of the program on the grounds that it leads to mistrust between the community and law enforcement, in addition to being an inefficient way of enforcing immigration laws.

Moreover, recent data about the program, released by ICE in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, Center for Constitutional Rights and the Kathryn O. Greenberg Immigration Justice Clinic of the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law, contradicts ICE’s claim that the program is targeting high-level, dangerous criminals.

Based on a recent analysis of this data, Bridget Kessler of Benjamin Cardozo School of Law said-

Nationally, 1 in 4 people deported under S-Comm haven’t been convicted of any crime. That ratio jumps to over 50% in Boston, certain areas of California, and in multiple examples across the country.Those numbers raise questions about how S-Comm may allow local police to cover up profiling and circumvent due process.

The latest data analysis,  ICE’s lack of accountability and transparency around the program, along with the slew of critiques of the program from law enforcement officials, local government officials and immigration advocates indicates that, contrary to its name, Secure Communities is a program that makes people feel less safe, hurting the trust that is a cornerstone of an effective law enforcement system in a diverse country such as this.

This storm of objections over ICE and its Secure Communities program comes at a time when the U.S demographics are evolving rapidly and highlighting the ever pressing need for fair and just immigration reform that acknowledges the vastly diverse immigrant population of this country. The 2010 Census pointed to a significant increase in the minority (non-white) populations in the U.S., up from 31% in 2000 to 39% according to the latest numbers. Four states – California, Hawaii, New Mexico and Texas – now have minority populations that exceeded 50%, with Texas being the latest addition in this census. Painting a picture of the rapidly evolving demographic of our country, the Census results highlighted a dramatic increase in the Latino and Asian populations. While the Latino group grew by 3.1% to 48.4 million becoming the largest minority, the Asian population went up by 2.5% to 13.7 million. The African-American population grew less than 1% to 37.7 million, becoming the second-largest minority. Perhaps more interestingly, the fastest growing demographic was of those who identified themselves as “two or more races.” The Census reported that 9 million Americans identified as being multiracial, comprising 2.8% of the US population, a 3.2% increase since the last time. However, some estimate that the actual number is much higher, owing to people who picked one race over another or are simply unaware that they are multiracial.

Since the 1967 Supreme Court decision that repealed anti-miscegenation laws across several states, deeming them unconstitutional, there has been a considerable increase in the number of interracial couples and mixed-race children. The increase has also been spurred, in a large part, by the stream of immigrants that have made this country their home. It is time that the government makes sweeping changes to its policies towards immigrant populations, and ensure an end to harsh enforcement practices that break down the trust between communities and law enforcement, and endanger the safety and security of families. To lend your voice to ending the Secure Communities program, sign the NDLON petition at change.org.

For a lighter take on this issue, watch a segment on immigration reform from ‘The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.’ Stewart introduced Al Madrigal, a Mexican-American comedian who debuted as their new “Señior” Latino Correspondent. For his first report, Madrigal chose to focus on immigration reform:

Photo courtesy of soaw.org/presente

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)