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As the specter of SB1070 haunts Nebraska, the case for dropping the I-word becomes stronger

This summer, while the nation was in the throes of the debate around Arizona’s harsh immigration law SB1070, the small town of Fremont, Nebraska, decided to take immigration law into its own hands,  passing a law banning landlords and employers from renting and hiring people without adequate documentation.

It’s a precursor to the the anti-immigration dialogue running through the state of Nebraska, despite bring sparsely populated, enjoying relative economic stability, and not being positioned on the border. Dave Heineman, currently in the running for a second term as Governor of Nebraska, has been pushing for stricter immigration laws since he first ran for Governor four years ago. After an unexpected victory the first time around, the Republican Governor has made his opposition to immigration the central issue of his second campaign. Poised for re-election, he recently announced that a law closely modeled on Arizona’s SB1070 would be the first item on his agenda, were he to be elected as Governor again.

Following the support he received from Nebraskans over the Fremont law, and the sharp increase in his popularity ratings following his focus on immigration, Heineman is determined to push for a law that makes it easier for local law enforcement to arrest undocumented immigrants. He told the New York Times about his commitment to the issue-

I’m very adamant about this — the federal government has failed to solve the immigration issue…Next January I believe in every state in America there will be an Arizona-type law introduced.

Ironically, it was after two Republican officials – Chuck Hagel and Mike Johannes – worked to ensure that Federal authorities did not impede the hiring of undocumented people in Nebraska ten years ago that the state saw a rapid influx of foreign born residents, most of whom came to find work in the numerous meat-packing plants across the state. Although the state’s immigrant population grew by 40% since 2000, it was only after Heineman became Governor in 2005 that the negative discourse around immigrants began to gather momentum. In addition to the Fremont law, Heineman has been pushing to revoke in-state tuition rates for those college students who grew up in Nebraska but are undocumented. He been successful in his efforts to end prenatal support for pregnant women who do not possess adequate documentation, as well as put in a system of mandatory checks that ensures against benefits for those who might be undocumented.

While human rights groups, politicians, lawyers, and the Presidential administration itself, not to mention thousands of activists, athletes, artists, and individuals around the country worked hard to prove that laws such as SB1070 are unconstitutional, inhumane, and detrimental to the overall stability and success of the country, there are still people such as Governor Heineman who think otherwise.

It is important that we put an end to divisive politics and favor respect and human rights for all. The Applied Research Center is countering anti-immigrant discourse through Drop the I-Word, a national public education campaign focused on eradicating the racial slur “illegals” from media use and public discourse. The ‘I-word’ is a damaging term that divides and dehumanizes communities and is used to discriminate against immigrants and people of color. It is shorthand for “illegal alien,” “illegal immigrant” and other racially charged terms. The campaign redefines how we treat each other through a cross-generational, multiracial initiative aimed at raising the commitment to human rights, dignity and racial justice for all people.

It’s time to Drop the I-Word as a designation for our neighbors, children and families. Are you listening, Nebraska?

Let’s get real about harsh anti-immigrant laws and their implications

The small town of Fremont, Nebraska is the latest in a series of U.S. towns that have decided to take immigration law into their own hands. On Monday, the 21st of June, 57% of the town’s 25,000 residents voted in favor of a law that would ban landlords from renting to people that were undocumented, and ban employers from hiring people without the correct immigration documents. The measure will require city officials and employers to verify people’s immigration status before taking them on as employees or tenants.

The arguments in support of this measure are similar to those heard in Arizona from those that support SB1070, the Arizona law that makes it a misdemeanor to be undocumented in Arizona and sanctions local law enforcement to stop people who appear reasonably suspicious of being undocumented. In Fremont, those in favor of the anti-immigrant ordinance attribute it to the Federal government’s inaction on the issue of immigration. A resident of Fremont, Trevor McClurg thinks that it is a fair measure. He said, “I don’t think it’s right to be able to rent to them or hire them. They shouldn’t be here in the first place.”

Speaking to the Associated Press, 56 year old Alfredo Velez, who runs a general store in Fremont and is an American citizen, has a very different opinion. Surprised by the law, he was only certain about one thing. “We’re not welcome here,” he said, expressing concern about the future of the town’s Hispanic population and his store, Guerrero, which sells products from Central America and Mexico. The town, about 35 miles northwest of Omaha, has seen its Latino population grow in leaps and bounds in the last decade due to the availability of jobs at the nearby Fremont beef and Hormel factories. Velez, who is the father of four and has lived in the town for 12 years, considers it home and has no plans of leaving, but was incredibly hurt by the high percentage of residents that voted to get the anti-immigrant ordinance passed. An owner of a building downtown, he is certain that if passed, this law will scare people away from the town, chasing away many potential renters.

The probable implications of a law like this are huge, and can run much deeper than deterring immigrants from settling in the town. In addition to inciting racial discrimination and racist sentiments, laws like this often result in length legal battles, the costs of which have to be filled by town taxes. In Fremont, the American Civil Liberties Union has already planned to file a lawsuit opposing the new measure. Explaining the motivation behind such bills, Amy Miller, ACLU Nebraska’s legal director said-

I’m afraid this is part of a larger, nationwide trend, most obviously typified by what has happened in Arizona,”There is no rational reason for Fremont to be worried about protecting our border. But it is a community, like many in rural Nebraska, where the only population growth has been in new immigrants, many of them people of color.

ACLU Nebraska has two main problems with the bill. She feels that in addition to immigration policy being a federal function, the measure violates the14th amendment of the constitution, which guarantees due process to everyone in the U.S., not just American citizens. Other cities with similar ordinances such as Hazelton, PA and Riverside, NJ, have faced lawsuits that have kept the laws tied up in the courts, preventing them from being implemented and resulting in extremely high legal costs for the cities. City officials in Fremont are estimating up to $1 million dollars as the cost of the ordinance, including legal fees, employee overtime and computer software, not taking into account the deduction in city taxes that will take place as a result of the law driving away people who fear being targeted by it.

And it isn’t just small towns that are passing laws such as this. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 5 other states (South Carolina, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Michigan) are looking at copycat legislation, and as per a Washington think tank, NDN, 17 other states had expressed interest in similar laws. Lawmakers in cities such as Fremont should learn a lesson or two from Arizona when executing harsh anti-immigrant measures such as this.

Even before Arizona’s SB1070 has been implemented,it has been responsible for sizable numbers of people, especially Latinos, leaving their homes in Arizona and moving to other states. Although there is no official data tracking the numbers of people leaving, piecemeal information from businesses, schools and health centers indicates that since Gov. Brewer signed SB1070 on April 23rd, the populations of Hispanic neighborhoods is dwindling. Latino families that are frightened about the repercussions of the law for their children and community, are pulling their children from schools, leaving their jobs and uprooting their lives to move elsewhere, in moves that are highly risky given the current economy. According to Alan Langston, president of the Arizona Rental Property Owners & Landlords Association in Phoenix, landlords and realty companies will be hard hit by the new law. In Phoenix’s Belleview street, home to a large Latino population, now more than half of the properties have “for rent” signs hanging outside them.

Additionally, dozens of healthcare clinics in Arizona are concerned because people are too afraid of being questioned about their immigrations status to show up to their appointments. Tara McCollum Plese, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Association of Community Health Centers, which oversees 132 facilities said that people are either moving away or too afraid to turn up, and the health care workers are worried about the implications of people resisting treatment. “We’re actually worried about communicable diseases,” said Tara, speaking to the Washington Post. Educators are worried that with so many children being pulled out of schools, they may be forced to cut programs and lay off teachers, since lower enrollment means funding cuts for schools. According to the Washington Post-

Parents pulled 39 children out of Balsz Elementary, which has a 75 percent Hispanic student body, since April 23…In the small, five-school district, parents have pulled out 111 children, said district Superintendent Jeffrey Smith, who cites the new law as the leading factor. Smith said each student represents roughly $5,000 in annual funding to the district, so a drop of 111 students would represent roughly a $555,000 funding cut.

Small businesses like grocery stores and car washes are already feeling the impact of the law as well, having lost up to 30% of their business in the last two months. Most recently, Phoenix’s police chief released an estimate saying that once implemented, the enforcement of SB1070 would cost the city of Phoenix up to $10 million per year, as a result of the clause that makes it a criminal, rather than civil offense to be in the state without the correct documents.

State legislatures taking immigration law into their own hands can have a potentially devastating impact on the economies and communities of their states. It is imperative that the Federal government acts to pass immigration reform before more states follow suit. Take action now and write to Congress and President Obama to pass comprehensive immigration reform that upholds due process.

Photo courtesy of dsnews.com

“Barack Obama is taking everybody away” says little girl to the first lady

Sometimes it’s about keeping it real. As President Obama welcomed the Mexican President Felipe Calderón to the White House for the first series of official talks between the two countries, Michelle Obama and Mexico’s first lady Margarita Zavala met a little girl who put a human face to the diplomatic talks about immigration that were taking place in the White House.While the two Presidents were to discuss a number of issues including the economy, climate change and drug wars, given President Calderón’s vehement condemnation of Arizona’s new law, immigration was likely to take center stage. Meanwhile, the first ladies stopped off at a elementary school in Silver Spring which is two-thirds Hispanic students and has a large proportion of students below the poverty line to promote Michelle Obama’s campaign for healthy eating. But a little girl changed all that with a powerful question.

Student: “My mom … she says that Barack Obama is taking everybody away that doesn’t have papers.”

Mrs. Obama: “Yeah, well that’s something that we have to work on, right? To make sure that people can be here with the right kind of papers, right? That’s exactly right.”

Student: “But my mom doesn’t have any …”

Mrs. Obama: “Well, we have to work on that. We have to fix that, and everybody’s got to work together in Congress to make sure that happens.”

The abstract issue of immigration was brought into human focus by the little girl’s question, prompted by the fear that her mother would be taken away from her. In the midst of the pomp of diplomatic state visits and lawmaker’s efforts to appease their electorates, a little girl’s honest fears about her family summed up the massive problem that the country currently faces.

Addressing this volatile issue, President Obama concurred with President Calderón on the pressing need for immigration reform and joined him in denouncing Arizona’s harsh new immigration enforcement measure, SB1070. President Obama said-

We also discussed the new law in Arizona, which is a misdirected effort – a misdirected expression of frustration over our broken immigration system, and which has raised concerns in both our countries.. Because in the United States of America, no law-abiding person – be they an American citizen, a legal immigrant, or a visitor or tourist from Mexico – should ever be subject to suspicion simply because of what they look like.

While the President reaffirmed his commitment to work with Congress to pass bipartisan, comprehensive reform, the truth is that the Obama administration has already surpassed the Bush administration’s deportation levels. And enforcement continues to be a problem. Former New York City District Attorney Robert Morgenthau lashed out against programs that promote collaboration between federal officials and local law enforcement on immigration, including Arizona’s new law.

Morgenthau drew on his personal experience as district attorney in Manhattan to criticize the Criminal Alien program which enables federal immigration officials to be stationed in local jails and issue “detainers” to foreign born inmates, many of whom are unaware of what is happening to them. In addition to increasing the burden of cost on New York, programs such as these mostly trap people who have committed minor crimes (or sometimes none at all). But for the former D.A., the most dangerous consequence of such programs is that by blurring the distinction between federal officials and local law enforcement, they severely impair the relationship that local police have with the public. Speaking of New York he explains-

When immigrants perceive the local police force as merely an arm of the federal immigration authority, they become reluctant to report criminal activity for fear of being turned over to federal officials. Given that immigrants (legal and illegal) currently comprise 36% of the city’s population, this unwillingness to cooperate with local law enforcement presents an obstacle to stemming crime in the city as a whole. That’s why during the 35 years I was district attorney in Manhattan, I made it a policy never to turn over names of individuals involved with the criminal justice system to immigration authorities until after they were convicted of a serious crime.

It is not surprising then that police chiefs across Arizona have spoken out in opposition to Arizona’s anti-immigrant law. Following this, police chiefs from Nevada, California and Maryland have also opposed Arizona’s law on the grounds that it would lead to racial profiling and breed fear of the police within Hispanic communities. Maryland Police Chief Thomas Manger said that taking on federal enforcement responsibilities would result in local police losing much more than they would gain and would prevent them from doing their jobs. But lawmakers seem oblivious to this advice. Similar bills are in the works in 10 states including Nebraska and Rhode Island.