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Soy poderosa because I can lend my voice in solidarity

Guest Blogger: Karen Guzman, Policy Intern, National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health

Karen Guzman tells the story about when she realized she was poderosa – when she found out her cousin was undocumented, and could lend her voice in solidarity.

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Every time I hear the word poderosa or powerful, a particular experience in my life strikes me immediately. The details are all incredibly vivid and I begin to remember this particular moment that completely changed my life. I was 18 years old the first time I ever felt empowered to create positive social change. At the time, I was applying for colleges and universities and immigration started to play a huge role in my life.  During this time I was lucky to have 2 of my cousins go through the college application process with me since we were all the same age. It was an exciting time for us because we were all about to be the first ones in our families to go to a college or university. After years of waiting and asking others for advice on how to apply and what scholarships to look for, we were finally going to achieve one of the biggest goals we had set for ourselves: to be professionals in the United States. To my surprise, it was while filling out one of those applications that I found out that one of my cousins was undocumented. The blank after “SSN:”  on an application — that I had quickly filled out and overlooked — was the only thing standing in the way of her dreams. Never mind the fact that she wanted to be a doctor and was incredibly smart, or that she was on the honor roll every quarter in high school. It felt as if her shot of going to a four-year university was shot down instantly. The day I found out about my cousin’s immigration status, I felt hopeless and disempowered because I knew that nothing I could say to her would bring the light back to her eyes when she talked about her future.

My cousin, who was once so hopeful about her life and her future, now felt trapped and betrayed by the American Dream and, even worse, she felt alone. I don’t know what exactly happened to me after that day, but something struck inside of me and I knew I had to do something for my cousin and for the thousands of people like her. A couple of months later, the perfect opportunity showed up as I found out about a rally in Washington, DC right by the mall on a sunny summer day. This rally would be the first one I ever participated in, but certainly not the last. I decided to go with my mom because I was terrified of going by myself and since she knew how much this meant to me, I knew she would be a great supporter. Together we went to the rally for immigration reform, which was hosted by the campaign to Reform Immigration for America where hundreds of individuals and organizations came out to express their thoughts on our broken immigration system and possible solutions to fix it. Amongst the advocates and supporters there that day were grandparents, fathers, mothers, and lots of youth. The diversity of the people really struck me and I felt at home. Between chants and marching, I eventually found myself next to about 15 DREAMers from Texas. They were holding up a huge American flag with the word “DREAM” on top of the red and white stripes. Their motivation and energy was contagious so my mom and I decided to join them. While we marched, we each exchanged stories and in each one of them I saw my cousin and I knew she wasn’t alone. Their courage and resilience really touched me and I still remember feeling like I could actually do something about the immigration system in America—right then and there I felt poderosa—powerful and almost invincible. I realized that my words and my actions do have meaning and purpose and that I could be a catalyst for social change in my community.

Years after that rally, I created several events and programs at the University of Maryland to raise awareness on immigration and have been actively supporting the Marlyand DREAMers. I am continuously finding ways to engage my community to fight for justice by being a support and resource for them, after all that’s when I feel that I am a poderosa.  My cousin, who was my main motivation for my activism ended up getting permanent residency and is now in the process of completing her nursing degree. Thank you primita for letting me find my passion and helping others realize just how poderosas y poderosos they truly are!

Photo Courtesy of The New York Immigration Coalition

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.


More Confusion Over Secure Communities: Did NY Make a Special Deal with Washington?

Guest blogger: Catalina Jaramillo from Feet in 2 Worlds

Immigrant advocates are increasingly worried about New York’s participation in the controversial fingerprint-sharing program Secure Communities.

Chung-Wha Hong, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition said that 79% of the people placed in detention facilities or deported under Secure Communities were convicted of minor crimes or had no charges filed against them at all.

“We are fine with violent criminals being deported,” said Hong. “That is not the problem. This program is supposed to do that.” But she said that’s not what’s happening. “The vast majority of people who are caught in this program are innocent, have no criminal background, or have minor violations where people do not deserve to get deported.”

The New York State Division of Criminal Justices Services and Governor David Paterson assert that New York has a special agreement with the Department of Homeland Security regarding Secure Communities. In an interview with Telemundo47, Governor Paterson said that local jurisdictions within the state can choose whether or not to participate in the program, which would automatically transfer the fingerprints of anyone arrested by local law enforcement to a Department of Homeland Security database to check the person’s immigration status.

This program that the Federal Government asked us to be a part of, in which municipalities have a choice of whether or not they can opt in or not — which is what New York State was able to receive as opposed to other states — guarantees that this is only high level security threats whose information will be transferred.

Yet, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano said on October 6 that the program was not optional.

On the other hand, John M. Caher, director of public information for the Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS), told El Diario that there was “a pledge made to this state by the Department of Homeland Security” that no community in New York will be forced to activate Secure Communities.  However, Caher said this is not discussed in the Memorandum of Agreement between New York and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). That document was signed by the Acting Commissioner of DCJS Sean Byrne.
Asked about other jurisdictions such as San Francisco and Santa Clara, California and Arlington, Virginia, who are trying to opt out unsuccessfully, Caher said he was not aware if those states received such a condition, so he was not sure if their experiences were relevant.

Ángela Fernández, executive director of the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights and a strong critic of Secure Communities, said she hasn’t been able to confirm that New York State has a special deal with DHS.

“We said, can you show us another contract that says that New York is going to get special treatment on this issue, and they haven’t been able to produce it,” said Fernandez.  “They say there’s an email from the Department of Homeland Security that says that local jurisdictions can opt out. But we don’t feel confident with that.”

Attorney General Andrew Cuomo talked about Secure Communities while introducing the urban agenda for his gubernatorial campaign on Thursday.

The federal government is going to put out guidance on Secure Communities, and how they believe the states have to follow the law, obviously federal law would be the law and the state would ultimately follow the federal law. I think they have to be very careful in Secure Communities, because you don’t want to create a situation where people are afraid to report a crime, or afraid to testify, it could actually interfere with law enforcement and with public safety, so I think the federal government should tread very carefully.”

Asked if there was a real possibility for local jurisdictions in New York to opt out of the program after Napolitano’s statement, Cuomo said “well that’s what we have to review.”

A statement sent to El Diario by Brian Hale, director of public affairs for ICE, established that if a county doesn’t want to activate Secure Communities they must ‘formally notify’ the state and ICE. Hale declined to elaborate further or explain exactly what that means. Hale added:

Secure Communities agreements are generally reached at the state level and activated locally on a set schedule. ICE seeks to work with local law enforcement agencies to address any concerns and determine next appropriate steps. If a jurisdiction does not wish to activate on its scheduled date in the Secure Communities deployment plan, it must formally notify both its state identification bureau and ICE.

Because of what advocates call ‘total confusion’ over whether it’s possible for local jurisdictions to opt-out, they are asking Governor Paterson to rescind the Memorandum of Agreement. It states that either party — the state or ICE — can terminate the agreement at any time on 30 days notice.

Comparing it to the stop-and-frisk database he limited the use of this summer, Paterson also told Telemundo47 reporter Luis Medina that advocates have to prove that Secure Communities affects low level offenders before he makes a decision. “I think there’s some confusion here. These organizations have to come forward and show us definitively that they have proof that the information was sent to INS (sic) on low level offenders, which is not what the intent of the memorandum of understanding is. If they can establish it, I will be happy to reconsider,” said Paterson.

Advocates say they are gathering evidence to send to the governor as soon as possible, but some say the facts have already been demonstrated.

“That’s ridiculous,” said Chung-Wha Hong of the New York Immigration Coalition. “There’s the New York Times editorial and there are cases. All he has to do is look at the cases that were submitted to the pardon panel. This is something that’s proven. So the ball is in his court, he needs to just make the decision.”

Photo courtesy of news.feetintwoworlds.org

Religious leaders of all faiths come together in the “immigrant capital of America”

A few days ago we told you about the many events taking place across New York City to mobilize support for immigration reform, building up to the nationwide march in DC on March 21st. Today we attended one of these events – an inter-faith convocation in which religious leaders of all faiths came together to talk about the pressing need for  just and human immigration reform in 2010.

The minute I walked in to the hall at the majestic Riverside Church, I could feel the energy in the room. There was a feeling of community, emerging from people united with the same purpose with a sense of hope and excitement as they look forward to change on the immediate horizon. Hosted by the Riverside Church and organized by the New York State Interfaith Network for Immigration Reform and the New York Immigration Coalition, the line-up of speakers was impressive in its variety and scope. In addition to a Member of Congress and representatives from the different immigration activist groups, the speakers represented various Christian denominations, and Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, Muslim and Buddhist faiths.

Kicking off the event, Rev. Robert Coleman welcomed everyone, alluding to the strength and responsibility of New Yorkers as citizens of the “immigrant capital of America.” He established concepts of equality of all before God, access to human rights for all, and the principle of hospitality as intrinsic to the Christian faith. These ideas were echoed by all the speakers from the different faiths as they referenced their scriptures and called for comprehensive immigration reform that respects due process and ensures the safety and unity of immigrants and their families. Referring to sections from the Torah, Rabbi Noam Marans spoke about the duty of people to look after those who were less privileged and stated that the greatness of a nation is judged not on how its most privileged are treated, but on how it supports its “weakest links.”

Rep. Charles Rangel, the New York Congressman who was instrumental in initially deferring the deportation of Jean Montrevil and eventually contributing to reuniting him with his family, gave his support to the convocation and praised the faith-based groups for uniting on the issue of immigration reform, one that he said was crucial to the growth, stability, and moral integrity of the country.  Rep. Rangel said that he believed that immigration reform would benefit the economy as well as national security, and assured the group that he was committed to ensuring that the reform bill introduced by Rep. Gutierrez and Sen. Schumer would be passed in the Senate and the House this year.

In addition to the idea that all humans must treat each other with respect and dignity irrespective of their language, nationality or status, there was a second trope that ran through the speeches that jumped out at me; the notion of the United States as a nation that was built on the hard work and contribution of immigrants from all over the world. A number of the speakers mentioned the ways in which a path to legalization for the nation’s 12 million immigrants would benefit the economy, as well as the ways in which the current situation was allowing for immigrant workers to be exploited and paid less than minimum wage. Anindita Chatterjee Bhaumik, the Hindu Clergy Liason for the NYPD, for example, quoted from the Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita, and spoke of how the country cannot progress without access to human rights for all. Bishop Jeremiah Park of the United Methodist Church told his own story as a first generation immigrant from South Korea in search of the American dream, and invoking the values inherent in the Statue of Liberty, urged President Obama and Congress to build bridges and allow immigrants to be productive and healthy members of the country that they were already a part of. “We, as people of faith, cannot be passive,” he urged.

As communities across the country have been coming out in support of immigration reform, the faith community has remained one of the strongest forces in this fight for immigration reform. We hope that their united front, combined with their commitment to the cause and dedication to their faiths will encourage more people to join the movement and see that this issue affects everyone in one way or another.

Be a road tripper for our future

New York City is gearing up for immigration reform so make sure you don’t get left behind. Starting this week, calendars are marked with events to mobilize our elected officials behind immigration reform in 2010.

As we speak, a group of dedicated advocates, students and volunteers are kicking off a five day multi-city caravan across the State of New York organized by the New York Immigration Coalition and Reform Immigration for America. The 12 hopefuls set out on President’s Day, sleeping bags and all, and will travel to ten cities, taking advantage of the Congressional Recess to rally support for immigration reform in every corner of the state. Osmán Canales, 21, of Long Island, a green card holder who is on the trip said,

We want to send a message to our government that we cannot wait any longer. There is too much suffering, too many families torn apart, too many kids who can’t get an education. I have the opportunity to go to college, and I want other students to have the same right.

Check out WNYC’s interview with one of the ‘road trippers’, Kevin Kwok. If you can’t join the road trip, follow it virtually on the Road Trip for Our Future blog.

And while you keep up on Facebook, take some time out of your week this Ash Wednesday to join Pax Christi NJ and people of faith as they walk from Ellis Island to the Elizabeth Detention Center to draw attention to the moral failings of the U.S.’s immigration and detention policies. The organizer for the event, Kathy O’Leary said,

Today’s immigrants are no different from my great-grandparents in that they come here to work and make a better life for their families. However, for them the ‘golden door’ has been nailed shut.  There is no ‘line’ for unskilled workers.”

Fired up by the 10 mile walk through Jersey? Join the New York State Interfaith Network for Immigration Reform at a convocation taking place at the historic Riverside Church. Religious leaders, elected officials, and community leaders, including people from the Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, Hindu and Sikh faiths will come together to raise the moral call for immigration reform to move forward this year.

Together, the events of this week and next mark a nationwide escalation towards a March 21st mobilization in Washington D.C. Hundreds of thousands of people will gather in D.C. in the March for Freedom/March for America to drive home the message to the President and Congress to ACT NOW. We need YOU to join us there. Sign up here for updates.

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