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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

CNN and ABC stories show impact of unfair immigration laws

As the countdown to Arizona’s SB1070 law draws nearer (July 29th), and Congress continues to skirt the issue of immigration reform, a number of excellent stories have emerged from the news on our broken immigration system. A shocking story on CNN reveals how every day, Americans are wrongfully deported because of a broken system, and many worry the problem could get worse. They interview one such U.S. citizen who was wrongfully deported to Jamaica in 1999 and finally able to return ten long years later. And even though he knew was a citizen, he was given a deadly choice – stay in detention indefinitely and fight your case, or leave and gain your freedom. Laws like SB1070 will only suck more U.S. citizens into the deportation pipeline, just like in this case, denying adequate due process to many.

On ABC, a 10 part special series “Out of the Shadows” illustrates the constant struggle of 10 undocumented immigrants and their impact on America. In the first of the series, Mohammad Abdollahi, an undocumented Iranian immigrant comes bravely forward, arrested after staging a sit-in in Arizona to persuade Senator John McCain to support the DREAM Act. Mohammad is gay, and faces deportation to Iran, a country where homosexuality is a capital crime. If he doesn’t gain asylum, he could face real danger in the country he barely knows as home. Stay tuned for more stories.

So what is Congress doing about the broken immigration system. We got to hear a few of their thoughts at Netroots Nations, a large gathering of progressive bloggers, non profits and filmmakers mobilizing the online space for good. An impressive line up of speakers included House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Most everyone spoke of the difficulty of passing immigration reform in an election year, but with more stories like these coming to the fore, maybe Congress will realize the ramifications of our broken immigration system on the ideals we hold dear, due process, fairness, and justice. Because when we deny due process to some, we put all of our freedoms at risk.

Immigration reform was a strong theme at Netroots Nation and Restore Fairness was on some excellent panels. Presenting with some other incredible films, Restore Fairness screened at the Immigration Screening Series alongside Speaking in Tongues, a film on language and its importance at breaking down barriers between ourselves and our neighbors, and Not In Our Town, focusing on the murder of a 37-year-old Latino immigrant Patchogue, New York. A lively discussion on race, immigration and pluralism followed. Restore Fairness was also on a distinguished panel with other immigration advocates – “Crimmigration Under Obama: Pushing back against the “enforcement-only” immigration regime”. Immigration enforcement under the Obama administration has continued almost unchanged from the Bush administration even as Department of Homeland Security officials have promised to reform the immigration detention system. A growing collaboration between local police and immigration enforcement is being encouraged, its worst manifestation seen in Arizona’s SB1070. And despite moving away from massive workplace raids, the agency has continued home and business raids under the radar. All in all – overall levels of deportation have actually increased under President Obama. Meanwhile, legislative reform is stalled in Congress. Watch it here.

As July 29th approaches, the state of Arizona is ill prepared for the consequences of SB1070 which will likely include many due process violations, racial profiling and an even more broken immigration system.

Restore Fairness at progressive gathering Netroots Nation 2010 in Vegas

Restore Fairness is presenting two panels on immigration at Netroots Nation in the last week of July . Netroots Nation is an annual convention that amplifies progressive voices online and in-person and provides space for discussing ways to improve the use of technology to influence the public debate.

On Friday, July 23 (3:00 p.m.-5:45 p.m.), we will be screening Breakthrough’s 9-minute video Restore Fairness, which calls for the U.S. government to bring back due process and fairness to the immigration system. The screening also encompasses other films on immigration, race and the need for reform from across the country including Speaking in Tongues, a film on language and its importance at breaking down barriers between ourselves and our neighbors, and Not In Our Town, focusing on the murder of a 37-year-old Latino immigrant Patchogue, New York. Screening info is available here:  http://www.netrootsnation.org/node/1499

On Saturday, July 24 (10:15 a.m.-11:30 a.m.), we will be presenting within a panel on “Crimmigration Under Obama: Pushing back against the “enforcement-only” immigration regime” along with . Immigration enforcement under the Obama administration has continued almost unchanged from the Bush administration. While Department of Homeland Security officials have promised to reform the immigration detention system after dozens of deaths in detention, the effort has been cosmetic and designed to forestall more rigorous oversight. Despite moving away from massive workplace raids, the agency has continued home and business raids under the radar, with the result that overall levels of deportation have actually increased under President Obama. Meanwhile, legislative reform is stalled in Congress. Find panel info here: http://www.netrootsnation.org/node/1407

The fifth annual Netroots will be held July 22–25 at the Rio Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. Netroots Nation 2010 will include panels led by national and international experts, prominent political, issue and policy-oriented speakers; a progressive film screening series, and the most concentrated gathering of progressive bloggers to date. Speakers include Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Minnesota Senator Al Franken and Congressman Raul Grijalva.

To learn more about our broken immigration system and to take action visit Restore Fairness.

Progressive bloggers and advocates set the stage for immigration reform in 2010

Next Up, Comprehensive Immigration Reform “Not the usual suspects-” This is how Nico Pitney, National Editor for the Huffington Post and moderator on a panel discussion about the prospect of immigration reform, introduced his fellow panelists. Organized by the Center for American Progress, Netroots Nation, and America’s Voice, the panel featured some of the leading voices for comprehensive and just immigration reform, including Markos Zúñiga, founder and editor of Daily Kos, Andrea Nill, immigration blogger for Think Progress, and María Elena Durazo from the AFL-CIO.

Using the context of Rep. Luis Gutierrez‘s progressive CIR ASAP immigration reform bill introduced in mid December, the recent election of Sen. Scott Brown in Massachusetts (and the obvious question of how this will affect the progressive agenda including immigration reform), President Obama’s campaign promise to address immigration reform with his election, a lively discussion ensued on what makes the present time ripe for the passage of immigration reform legislation. Unlike the harsh and divisive debates of failed reform in 2007, the overall outlook amongst the panelists was positive, as they approached the topic from the point of view of electoral vote politics, the economy, and the labor movement.

Using Rep. Gutierrez’s bill as a solid base, Andrea Nill began by clarifying the fundamentals of Comprehensive Immigration Reform which would include,

An earned path to legalization for undocumented immigrants, including registering with the government, a background check, paying taxes, and ensuring their integration into society.

Creating flexible channels for the future legal flow of immigration which could adjust itself to the ebb and flow of the economy.

Smart enforcement policies including moving resources away from spending money trying to detain and deport immigrants and “chasing busboys and nannies through the desert” into addressing problems such as drug and human trafficking at the border.

Markos Zuniga made the distinction between the political climate around immigration in 2007 and now by talking about today’s polls that show 66% of voters (an equal percentage of Democrats and Republicans) support reform making it a truly bipartisan issue. With Latino groups reaching a plurality in 2050 and Asian and other minority communities growing rapidly, the co-relation between electoral votes and reform is clear. For many Republicans, falling back onto nativist rhetoric and hate-mongering like in 2007, could mean a significant loss in votes from Latino and other immigrant communities.”President Bush won 40% of the immigrant vote in 2004, John McCain only got 28% in 2008, so the long term health of republican party is in jeopardy if they can’t appeal to immigration groups.”

Andrea Nill added that while there are three groups largely responsible for the nativist rhetoric – FAIR, NumbersUSA and the Center for Immigration Studies, there is also division between the anti-immigration movement, including within the Republican party between moderates willing to engage with immigration reform, and hardliners such as  Rep. Joe Wilson and Rep. Brian Bilbray and other members of the House Immigration Reform Caucas.

Speaking on behalf of  the labor movement, Maria Durazo said there is high expectations from the administration and Congress to deliver on its promise of reform.”These are people who harvests our crops, build our buildings and work in our restaurant…they do services for us but then when we need to respond to their need to bring them out of the shadows we call them names – law breakers, illegals…we want to make sure any immigration legislation has protections for workers, both native born and undocumented immigrants who will come out of the shadows – because we will all lose if we don’t work together.”

In terms of Sen. Scott Brown’s recent victory, the panelists felt that it has little effect since immigration reform has and always will be a bipartisan issue. But on a larger scale, the election felt emblematic of the waning of Democrat popularity due to their lack of engagement with many issues, including immigration, and while voters are looking for the ‘hope’ and ‘change’ that they were promised, immigration reform is an opportunity for both Democrats and Republicans to work together towards a viable solution.

But there is also an economic argument for reform. According to a recent Center for American progress report, immigration reform will be crucial for the economy, with mass deportation causing a loss of $2.6 trillion as opposed to a growth of approximately $1.5 trillion over a ten-year period if reform passes. And since the economy, like healthcare,  is a foremost priority of the Obama administration, this is an opportunity to address both issues simultaneously.

The panelists were unanimous on the fact that the present situation is highly favorable towards immigration reform and highlighted the expanse, width and strength of the present coalitions, which today include faith-based groups, LGBT groups, ethnic groups, immigrant rights advocates and immigrant communities in general.

Looking ahead, while Rep. Gutierrez‘s progressive immigration bill which has 90 co-sponsors would serve as the progressive conscience, everyone is waiting for the bill that Sen. Charles Schumer is working on with Sen. Lindsey Graham is introducing for debate in the Senate. It will then move to the House where it will be written by Rep. Zoe Lofgren.

The penultimate point of the discussion centered around ensuring that the mainstream media begin to report on the issue and mobilize around reform. Maria Elena pointed out the importance of providing people with honest information about the implications of enforcement actions such as raids and detention to families and the economy. Markos Zuniga pointed out that Latino and Asian communities are virtually invisible to the mainstream media, thus removing one side of the immigration story. Stressing the importance of building a pro-immigration story into the media narrative, the speakers highlighted the essential role of online journalism, blogging and networking in building knowledge and momentum for the movement.

Drops Dobbs and Stop Hate Politics

It was inevitable. Drop Dobbs. A coalition of 14 partner organizations including some of our Restore Fairness partners, National Council of La Raza, Reform Immigration FOR America, Southern Poverty Law Center and Netroots Nation have come together to demand that CNN drop Lou Dobbs.

Many feel that Dobbs has a long history of promoting hate and ethnic and racial division. Among some of Dobbs more outrageous claims are the idea that “the invasion of illegal aliens” who carry leprosy is threatening Americans’ ‘”health.”

Jason Linkins from The Huffington Post reports:

Dobbs calls himself an “advocacy journalist,” but he doesn’t even live up to that ambiguous standard. Good journalism enhances the discussion of serious topics, but Dobbs helps to undermine and debase that discussion, routinely infusing it with misinformation and fear. And when it comes to issues like immigration, he has more in common with birther Orly Taitz than with Anderson Cooper.

The website comes on the heels of Dobbs scheduled radio show as a leading voice for the annual rally sponsored by the anti-immigrant organization Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR).

Drop Dobbs is asking people to sign onto a petition calling on advertisers to drop their sponsorship of Lou Dobbs and to stop sponsoring hate.