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Karma’s immigration story: “Life in New York was no crystal staircase”

From our awesome intern, Karma D., from Flushing International High School. See her on our Tumblr and on our I AM THIS LAND story-telling project.

I am a girl from the faraway lost land of Tibet. I ran with my parents, older brother and my small baby brother resting in my mom’s warm womb in search of freedom and a better life. I am a girl who struggled to find her own identity especially after knowing my birth country is now a place that cannot be reached or seen. In search of independence and better opportunity, I came to America with very limited English but with great hope. I also carried the blessings of my grandparents from Tibet and the memories of my loved ones from Nepal and India throughout the journey.

My feet landed in this foreign land of liberty in 2006. It took me years to realize that life in New York was no crystal staircase, that there weren’t trees and leaves made of money, nor was there the easy independence that my fellow Tibetans and I had been searching for. I struggled every morning to wake up because I wasn’t use to the timing, then I would try to get on the yellow bus on time. I made sure my brother and I sat on the front seats, so the other students might not make fun of us. We looked different from them.

For an immigrant like me, whose mom was jobless for three years due to her lack of English, and whose dad worked in a Sushi store for eight years, constantly fearful of not being able to support my two brothers and me, the United States was more struggle than freedom. My life turned 180 degrees. At the age of thirteen, I realized I had to step up and contribute to my family financially, and I’ve been working ever since.

Read the rest of this entry »

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

staff_ellis1

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

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

ranger_bruce

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

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

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

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

President Obama can resolve the nation’s deportation crisis, with the stroke of a pen

Guest blogger: Thanu Yakupitiyage, Media Relations Associate, The New York Immigration Coalition

The stories keep piling up – Jose Antonio Vargas, Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist who made the stunning revelation last week that he is an undocumented immigrant, Elisha L. Dawkins, a veteran of who served in both Iraq and Gauntanamo Bay, Gaby Pacheco , a young DREAMer who came to this country at the age of 7 and was one of four undocumented youth who walked 1,500 miles from Miami, FL to Washington D.C. to advocate for the DREAM Act.

These are only some of the heart-wrenching realities of everyday heroes who are offered no path to legal status in our broken and unfair immigration system. And while hundreds of thousands of people across the country are demanding that their voices be heard and that just solutions be created, Congress is paralyzed by partisan politics. Meanwhile, President Obama, has taken a disastrous enforcement-only approach that has led to the deportation of nearly 800,000 people in the last two years. We are talking 1,100 people a day. Most of these people have no criminal records and are stopped for misdemeanors as little as a traffic violation or jumping a turnstile, or are simply racially profiling for ‘looking like an illegal immigrant’.

The President who had long been an eloquent supporter of immigration reform. For example, on the campaign trail for the 2008 election, he said: “When communities are terrorized by ICE immigration raids, when nursing mothers are torn from their babies, when children come home from school to find their parents missing, when people are detained without access to legal counsel, when all that is happening, the system just isn’t working and we need to change it.”  - 2008 campaign appearance at National Council of La Raza conference

And as President, he has said, “Today, there are an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants here in the United States…. Regardless of how they came, the overwhelming majority of these folks are just trying to earn a living and provide for their families.” -Excerpts from President Obama’s remarks on immigration, May 10, 2011, in El Paso, TX

And yet, despite these exclamations and promises, his actions reflect an approach with little respect for immigrant communities.

President Obama says he won’t act without Congress, but while Congress remains at a standstill, we know there are steps he can take using his executive authority to bring immigration relief to hardworking immigrants and families.

While the President can’t fix the immigration system alone, he can begin to undo some of the damage his own administration has caused. He can take executive action—with the stroke of a pen — to put an end to the senseless deportations of hard-working immigrants, the very folks he says should be allowed a chance to come out of the shadows.

This is why the New York Immigration Coalition launched the ‘With the Stroke of a Pen’ Campaign in November 2010, an on-going campaign to collect signatures on letters to President Obama asking him to use his executive authority to end unjust deportations. With every letter to be sent to the White House, the campaign is also sending a pen, so that the President can sign an executive action.

These are some of the actions that President Obama has the authority to do:

  • Halt the deportation of students who would be eligible to earn legal status under the DREAM Act and other immigrants currently facing deportation whose removal from the country is not in the public interest.
  • End Secure Communities and similar programs that erode community policing by co-opting local law enforcement officers as immigration agents.
  • Allow immigrants currently in the U.S. to complete the process of becoming legal residents here in the United States; forcing them to go to their home country to obtain the visa for which they are eligible often results in a ten-year bar to re-entry.
  • Expand alternatives to detention nationwide, and requiring detention only after the Department of Homeland Security establishes its necessity;.
  • Focus workplace immigration enforcement on exploitive employers who flout our labor laws and profit from our broken immigration system.

And today, across New York City, from Staten Island to Queens, from Brooklyn to Union Square, on the street and in churches and mosques, volunteers are galvanizing supporters and collecting signatures, in a kick-off to a month-long street and online blitz, demanding that President Obama begin to repair our broken immigration system and provide immediate relief to families.

We invite you to join us in our call to the President: stop the senseless deportations of our community members and be the change you are always talking about, by taking these steps.

Join our campaign and sign the letter now HERE and it will be delivered to the White House on your behalf.


“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)

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

This just in from the Irish government – NYC, make St. Patrick’s Day inclusive

From our b-listed blog:

On this, the 250th St. Patrick’s Day in the United States, we look at the symbolism of the holiday and its tremendous significance in current debates around immigration and civil rights in America. While the inclusiveness of the parade has come a long way since it first started, this year the New York City parade received sharp criticism from the Irish government for its continued exclusion of LGBTQ groups. The Irish Foreign Minister, Eamon Gilmore, in a landmark meeting with gay rights leaders and groups at the Irish Consulate in New York, stated-

What these parades are about is a celebration of Ireland and Irishness. I think they need to celebrate Ireland as it is, not as people imagine it. Equality is very much the center of who we are in our identity in Ireland.

This issue of exclusion is not Irish, let’s be clear about it. Exclusion is not an Irish thing. … I think that’s the message that needs to be driven home.

Gilmore was reacting to the open and continued exclusion of LGBTQ groups from participating in the parade in New York City, the world’s oldest civilian parade and the largest in the U.S. This follows another, perhaps even more blunt, reaction from the Irish government late last year when Irish President Mary McAleese turned down an invitation to be the grand marshal of New York City’s 2011 parade. This was reportedly connected to the same issue of LGBTQ exclusion. Several rights groups have openly criticized the city’s parade for promoting “hatred and intolerance,” shunning the stance of the parade’s organizers The Ancient Order of Hibernians that the event is a private, religious procession which justifies the absence of certain groups.

In 2000, the Queens’ neighborhoods of Sunnyside/Woodside began hosting an alternative parade called St. Pats for All, which upholds the theme of “cherishing all the children of the nation equally.” Besides a host of Irish cultural groups, this year’s St. Pats for All parade also included a diverse celebration of groups such as Marriage Equality NY, Dignity USA, NAACP, Tibetan students from the YCC & Himalayan Southeast Asian Club, and many more. Christine Quinn, the council speaker and openly gay Irish American, praised the Sunnyside/Woodside event, hopes that one day gay New Yorkers will also be invited to join the New York City parade, emulating the message sent out by the Queens parade that “there is a place where all people no matter their race, religion or sexual orientation can march.”

Irish immigrants have contributed substantially to the diverse fabric of the American society we live in today, but they too endured plenty of racial prejudice. When the Great Potato Famine struck Ireland in 1845, almost a million poor and desperate Irish migrated to the United States seeking better lives. They were, however, met with much prejudice and ridicule and had trouble finding even menial jobs. The infamously racist employment signs ‘No Irish Need Apply’ eventually pushed the Irish Americans to gather together and demand equal treatment for their community. As Brian O’Dwyer, chairman of the non-profit Emerald Isle Immigration Center, commented-

We learned very quickly that the only way we could combat oppression is by being in and of ourselves, become part of the politics and making sure we took part in the American democracy…

Unfortunately, the prejudice faced by the Irish immigrants back then continues in other forms against various immigrant communities and social groups in the U.S today. This bridging of the Irish experience with that of other groups at a crossroads today has been poignantly expressed in ‘San Patricio,’ a new album from Paddy Maloney of the Irish band the Chieftains. In a true celebration of diversity and history, the album is “thoroughly Mexican yet utterly Irish, carried aloft by tin whistles, skin drums, pipes, harps, guitars and stomping feet.”

As we confront these current issues in our society, let’s take this St. Patrick’s Day to push for the inclusion of all cultural and social groups, regardless of background, gender and sexuality, in our parades and the wider American identity. If on St. Patrick’s Day everyone unofficially becomes Irish for a day, then let’s make sure “everyone” is a truly inclusive term. Whether you celebrated today or not, we leave you with an old Irish blessing:

May love and laughter light your days,
and warm your heart and home.
May good and faithful friends be yours,
wherever you may roam.
May peace and plenty bless your world
with joy that long endures.
May all life’s passing seasons
bring the best to you and yours!

photo courtesy of blog.hotelbook.com

Rally for your rights tomorrow!

In May 2010, New York State signed onto the “Secure Communities” program in which local police 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.

When a state signs onto the Secure Communities program, all local law enforcement in that state has to do is arrest someone on a traffic or other offense, and their fingerprints will be checked against immigration databases during booking. When the fingerprint scan gets a “hit,” immigrants can end up getting carted off by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents to an immigration detention center. If they get out on bond, ICE can take them into custody, leaving their criminal cases unresolved. It doesn’t matter if the person was innocent of a criminal charge or if the arrest was a pretext to check immigration status.

Besides eroding community trust with the police, the program has criminalized the immigration detention system with a majority of those caught identified for minor crimes or U.S. citizens. An FOI found that Secure Communities has “misidentified more than 5,800 arrested U.S. citizens as undocumented workers” since 2008. Available evidence shows little accountability and transparency, yet a whopping $200 million has been allocated to Secure Communities, with an eye toward establishing it nationwide in every jail by late 2012. In addition to adding to the financial burden of the state, this costly program will endanger our communities, encourage racial profiling and separate families.

Join us at a rally tomorrow in New York to demand that Governor Paterson terminate Secure Communities. New York State should not cooperate with immigration in denying people fairness. When we deny fairness to some, we put all of our rights at risk.

Do come and show your support.

When: Thursday, December 9, 2010, 11:00 AM
Where: In front of Governor Paterson’s Manhattan office, 633 3rd Ave (between 40th and 41st streets), New York, NY

In another update, Congress is voting on the DREAM Act today. If passed, it could positively impact the lives of 2.1 million young people in the United States.

Take action now  to help pass this act.

Bloomberg leads U.S. corporations and cities to lobby for immigration reform

It seems fitting that New York City, the crux of the U.S.’s rich immigrant history is leading a new direction in the movement for immigration reform.

In what promises to be an important step towards re-framing the immigration debate in this country, New York City Mayor Bloomberg has formed a coalition of top executives and city mayors to put pressure on Congress and steer the nation towards immigration reform. On Thursday the 24th, Mayor Bloomberg announced the Partnership for a New American Economy, a coalition that includes the chief executives of major corporations such as News Corp., Hewlett-Packard, Disney, Boeing, Morgan Stanley, Marriott International and the NY Mets, and the mayors of Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Antonio and Phoenix.

The coalition argues that immigration reform is the key solution to repairing and rejuvenating the economy. By conducting polls, funding public educational campaigns, convening forums and publishing studies that demonstrate the ways in which a healthy economy thrives on immigrant workers, the coalition aims to “break the legislative stalemate that has taken over Congress.” Rupert Murdoch, a central member of the partnership and chairman of the News Corporation, who is also a naturalized immigrant from Australia, summed up the argument for the New York Times-

This country can and must enact new immigration policies that fulfill our employment needs, provide a careful pathway to legal status for undocumented residents, and end illegal immigration….American ingenuity is a product of the openness and diversity of this society.

The CEO’s who have signed on to the partnership released statements about how their companies rely on immigrants. They mentioned the constant challenge they face in acquiring visas for professional workers whom they want to hire. Walt Disney chairman and CEO, Robert Iger said that the country’s immigrant population was “our great strength as a nation, and …critical for continued economic growth.” His statement went on to say, “To remain competitive in the 21st century, we need effective immigration reform that invites people to contribute to our shared success by building their own American dream.”

While stressing the importance of securing the national borders and preventing further entry of undocumented immigrants, the coalition urges Congress to create a path to legalization for the 12 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S. According to Mayor Bloomberg, in addition to the fact that deporting the existing undocumented immigrants was an impossible task, doing so would ruin the economy as these immigrants are a crucial part of the workforce.

On Thursday morning, Mayor Bloomberg and Rupert Murdoch appeared on Fox News to talk about the ways in which immigration reform would benefit the economy. Bloomberg made his case for a reformed immigration policy which creates a system that allots green cards to those that have been education in the country rather than preventing them from staying on. Bluntly referring to the current system as “national suicide,” the NYC Mayor warned against the pitfalls of the present system in which prohibitive laws, bureaucracy and stiff enforcement prevent hundreds of potential entrepreneurs from staying on and leading to the creation of more jobs. He reiterated that the people who seek to the immigrate to the U.S. were hard working, dynamic, innovative people who want the opportunity to strive for better lives for themselves and their families, and that those are the people that build America in the first place. He said-

I can’t think of any ways to destroy this country quite as direct and impactful as our immigration policy. We educate the best and the brightest, and then we don’t give them a green card.

The business leaders in the coalition that have taken it upon themselves to lead the country towards immigration reform employ more than 650,000 people and make more than $220 billion in annual sales, combined. However it is yet to be announced as to whether the partnership will be a non-profit organization, a political action committee, or a non-standard non-profit. Either way, this bipartisan group’s decision to take on an issue that is of national importance and has been stuck in politics for so long, is deeply encouraging. Let’s get behind them and add to the pressure on President Obama and Congress to pass immigration reform now!

At 0:40 in the Fox News interview Mayor Bloomberg says, “We need to create jobs in this country….and immigrants can come here and create jobs. There’s this belief that immigrants take jobs away and that’s not true.”

Photo courtesy of news.yahoo.com

History comes alive with Immigrant Heritage Week

What is your favorite thing about New York City? Food? Culture? The people? Its unique neighborhoods? New York may have a lot to offer but what really makes it stand out is its identity as a melting pot of cultures from around the world.

So here’s your chance to get the best out of the city’s vibrant immigrant cultures. Starting today, New Yorkers of all ages can enjoy hundreds of affordable events organized in museums, parks, restaurants, theaters and universities across the city through Immigrant Heritage Week. Begun by Mayor Bloomberg in 2004, every year the Mayor’s office for Immigrant Affairs partners with organizations across the city to host a week of general revelry across the five boroughs as a tribute to the city’s immigrants. The theme for this year is “Flavors of the World” so get your gastro-groove on and challenge your palette!

To kick off the celebrations, the Opportunity Agenda hosted a great event yesterday evening. The “Timely Conversation with Artists and Advocates” featured an incredible panel of artists and advocates who explored how integral creative expression is to celebrating diversity and highlighting a common humanity amongst people. Acclaimed director Mira Nair kicked off the event followed by Tony award winning playwright David Henry Hwang, DJ and musician Martín Perna, new media artist Favianna Rodriguez and PBS anchor Maria Hinojosa, among others.

While there are countless things on the Heritage Week calendar that are worth recommending (Dance in Sunset Park, African Folktales at NYPL, and the Cultural  Video festival in the Bronx), one of the special ones is The Maysles Institute, which is hosting  “Shall We Dance“, a program of amazing docs. In “Two Dollar Dance,” the filmmaker looks at dance clubs in Jackson Heights, Queens, where Latino immigrants meet “two-dollar ballerinas,” women who partner them for two dollars a song. One of the other featured films, “The Mist,” follows the filmmaker, Maryam Habiban, as she returns to Iran after 30-years to find that a new culture of art and ideas flourishes alongside the more fundamentalist tradition.

Check out the calendar, and get planning!

Photo courtesy of www.nyc.gov

How many more hate crimes against immigrants will it take?

Quintessentially ‘New York,’ Port Richmond is a diverse and vibrant neighborhood that has been home to most of Staten Island’s Latino community for many years. In incidents that often go unreported, in the past few years this neighborhood has seen more hate crimes against Latino immigrants than one can bear to count. The latest one took place early morning on April 5th when 26 year-old Mexican immigrant Rodulfo Olmedo was attacked by four young men outside his apartment. In this horrifyingly vicious assault, the attackers yelled racial slurs at him, beat him with wooden planks, metal chains and a baseball bat, and took his money, leaving him with a fractured skull.

Although Olmedo is home from the hospital and recovering from his injuries, the entire community is reeling from the psychological and emotional trauma caused by yet another episode of race-based violence in their midst. Last night, there was a combination of sadness and outrage as 150 community members gathered for a candlelight vigil outside the bakery where Olmedo was employed. Led by a local priest, they prayed for an end to the violence that has plagued the immigrant community for years. Speaking about the frequency of hate crimes in the area, Gonzalo Mercado, the director of the Center for Immigrant Families in Port Richmond, said that “the community is living in fear, because these types of situations are not new to this area.”

Rodulfo’s mother, Margarita Olmedo, said that the family is traumatized by the violent attack and is determined to make sure that it does not go unnoticed. She spoke to local press on Rodulfo’s behalf-

He’s under a lot of medication, so he’s resting sleeping…He just wants to make sure that everybody says something about it, that nobody should keep quiet. He does not want this to happen to anybody else.

The attack was captured by two surveillance cameras, and was broadcast on the local television channel (NY1). Following the broadcast the police received a tip, and, after searching their “stop-and-frisk” database, they arrested four suspects on Friday, the 9th of April.  The arrested youth face assault and hate crime charges, and if convicted, could received up to 25 years in prison. The arrest of the suspected perpetrators has given rise to a controversy around the NYPD database that contains information of all the people they stop, question or frisk on grounds of “reasonable suspicion,” as a part of their “stop-and-frisk” policy.

Begun in 2001, the database was started as a safeguard that recorded information of all police stops, thereby ensuring against racially disproportionate action on the part of the police. This case has brought to light the fact that a database that was initiated to prevent against racial profiling, is being used by the police to track down suspects, raising concerns amongst civil liberties advocates like the New York Civil Liberties Union. Speaking about the potential of the database to allow for racial profiling, Chris Dunn, associate legal director of the ACLU said-

The prospect of occasionally finding additional information about suspects already known to the police does not come close to justifying a police database of millions of innocent black and Latino New Yorkers.

While this case received coverage in the press, most of these cases go unreported. On Friday, community leaders in Staten Island gathered to tell people that the only way for concrete action towards putting an end to such violence is if people who are victims or witnesses of hate crimes come forward and report them. The “April 5 bias crime,”as the press has named it, drives home the fact that race-based violence against immigrants has seen a dangerous surge in the past few years.

As the momentum is growing towards just and humane immigration reform, it is important to keep in mind the horrific reality of individual stories like Rodulfo’s, unfolding in our own neighborhoods, right before our eyes.