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A small step for immigration reform is a big step for family unity

Today the Obama administration announced a small but significant change to immigration law that will affect thousands of people and prevent the heartbreaking separation of families that takes place on a daily basis.

Currently, undocumented spouses and children of U.S. citizens have to leave the country before they can apply for visas that they are entitled to– in many cases, they are forced to stay away from their families for up to a decade due to a bar against returning to the U.S. for a minimum of 3 years. The new rule will allow undocumented spouses and children of U.S. citizens who are eligible for applying for adjusting their status to apply for a family unity waiver that will ensure that they can be reunited with their family in the U.S. soon after going to their home country to apply for their visa.

From the New York Times-

Now, Citizenship and Immigration Services proposes to allow the immigrants to obtain a provisional waiver in the United States, before they leave for their countries to pick up their visas. Having the waiver in hand will allow them to depart knowing that they will almost certainly be able to return, officials said. The agency is also seeking to sharply streamline the process to cut down the wait times for visas to a few weeks at most.

“The goal is to substantially reduce the time that the U.S. citizen is separated from the spouse or child when that separation would yield an extreme hardship,” said Alejandro Mayorkas, the director of the immigration agency.

While this is a small tweak to the immigration system and is not expected to go into effect for several months, once it does it will stop the devastating separation of thousands of children from their parents, something that has been taking place for too many years.

You can read more about the waivers at Reform Immigration for America’s blog.

Here’s what CBS and the Huffington Post had to say about the announcement.

Everyone’s talking about this development. Are you?!

Photo courtesy of cbsnews.com

 

For a Pioneering Jurist, Alabama Anti-Immigrant Law Is Spark for a New Civil Rights Struggle

Guestblogger: Vesna Jaksic. Crossposted from the ACLU

U. W. Clemon marched in demonstrations alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., worked on desegregation in Alabama and became the state’s first African-American federal judge. He has seen great advancement of civil rights, but is very concerned about their present state.

“We are at a point in American history where powerful forces are determined to turn back the clock on the tremendous progress we made in civil rights over the last 100 years,” Clemon told me when I visited him recently in Birmingham. “And they’ve come very far in doing so.”

Clemon said that HB 56, Alabama’s anti-immigrant law, exemplifies a new civil rights crisis.

“The Alabama immigration law was designed to be the most severe, the harshest immigration law in the country,” he said. “The design, purpose of it was to drive out people who don’t look like us. In this instance it turned out to be Hispanics. Many of them, unfortunately, are American citizens, just as American as you and I.”

A recent New York Times editorial that quotes Clemon calls HB 56 “the nation’s most oppressive immigration law,” and the accompanying slide show rightly calls the response to the law “a new civil rights movement.”

Parts of the law have been in effect for less than two months, but reports have indicated the legislation has encouraged racial profilingdeterred children from going to schooland turned Alabama into a ‘show-me-your papers’ state. The ACLU and a coalition of civil rights groups have been challenging the law in the courts.

While the legal battle is ongoing, the harm on the ground has continued. Over the last few days, a mother of two told me she sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night in fear of what could happen if she is separated from her children as a result of the law. An immigrant from Mexico told me he now only goes to the grocery once every couple of weeks because he is afraid he will be pulled over due to racial profiling. A high school senior who was brought here as a one-month-old baby said this country is the only home he has ever known, and is scared his family may be forced to leave.

Clemon, now in his late 60s, said the stories emerging now out of Alabama are disturbing. He now works at a law firm after serving nearly 30 years as a federal judge. He was appointed by President Jimmy Carter in 1980, which turned out to be Alabama’s most controversial federal judgeship.

He told me how frustrating it is to see his state pass a law that tramples on civil rights that he and others fought to secure.

“In terms of the basic mean-spirited attitude, it’s pretty much the same now as it was then — first it was against blacks and now it’s against Hispanics,” he said, adding people should speak up against it. “It’s very disturbing and that’s why I can’t go quietly into the night.”

Photo courtesy of the ACLU

Singled Out in Alabama Schools

Guestblogger: Molly Kaplan. Crossposted from the ACLU

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

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

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

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

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

No HB 56: Human Rights for AL(L)

Why are some Alabama parents pulling their children out of school? Why are some Alabama workers afraid to show up to their jobs? Why are some Alabama families fleeing the state altogether?

Because last week Alabama began to enforce one of the harshest immigration laws in U.S. history. HB 56 requires local and state law enforcement to check the status of any person of whom they have “reasonable suspicion” of being undocumented, ostensibly encouraging racial profiling. The law also requires schools to check the immigration status of all new students.

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HB 56 has triggered widespread fear among Alabama’s immigrant communities and set off nothing short of a humanitarian crisis. We need to stand in solidarity with the people of Alabama because when we deny human rights to some we put everyone’s rights at risk.

We will continue to update you as the news happens. We also need your voice in this conversation. Please follow us on Twitter and Facebook and share your news, views and stories about HB 56 with us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Photo courtesy of colorlines.com

New report tells us how S-Comm makes the American Dream a “criminal proposition”

President Obama holds the unflattering distinction of having overseen the most deportations under any American president in history. Since the deeply flawed Secure Communities program (S-Comm) was launched by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in 2008, around 100,000 people have been deported through its unjust policies and enforcement. Furthermore, in fiscal year 2010, almost 400,000 people were deported under various stipulations (including S-Comm), making it one of the worst years for deportation in our country’s history.  The program’s design and implementation flaws have encouraged racial profiling by law enforcement officials and also victimized those convicted of lesser crimes such as traffic violations, etc. Contrary to its name, Secure Communities is a program that makes people feel less safe, hurting the trust that is a cornerstone of an effective law enforcement system in a diverse country such as this.

In a post-9/11 scenario where state paranoia has amplified and hurriedly turned into ineffective and damaging law enforcement policies, the moves made by ICE are not only alienating an aspiring new generation of immigrants, but also gravely affecting the bedrock of this country. Instead of reacting productively to the widespread criticism, ICE has hardened their stance even more. In a shocking development last week, ICE eliminated the Memoranda of Agreement (MOA) that it had signed with some states, thereby enforcing S-Comm without any state or federal agreement at all. It has also vowed to keep extending S-Comm nationally by 2013, regardless of whether individual states disapprove.

On August 16, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), in partnership with Detention Watch Network (DWN) and several other human rights organizations, released a comprehensive report titled ‘RESTORING COMMUNITY: A National Community Advisory Report on ICE’s Failed “Secure Communities” Program.’ (PDF). The report maps out details of how S-Comm has failed as an immigration policy, doing much more irreversible damage than actually fixing the problem at hand. It includes testimony from law enforcement officials, scholars and academics, and organizers and advocates. Criticizing the ineffective program, the report summarizes S-Comm, stating that:

It multiplies laws and enforcement policies that, in effect, make the pursuit of the American Dream a criminal proposition for current generations of immigrants. That such a program should be the showcase policy of an Administration that presents itself asa champion of immigration reform is a betrayal. Multiplying the force of misguided policy and unjust laws is not reform—it is a step backwards.

The report criticizes the entangling of local police in civil immigration law enforcement, and warns agains the “Arizonification” of the country. While highlighting the flaws of S-Comm, the report also stresses on the way forward, strongly pushing for a clear separation of ICE from local police forces. Based on the various testimonies, studies and developments, the report calls for the following:

1. The immediate end, not mending, of the S-Comm program.

2. The completion of the ongoing audit of S-Comm by the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General. Additionally, the Department of Justice Office of Inspector General should begin an investigation into the FBI’s role in Secure Communities.

3. The criticism of S-Comm should be used to amend other ICE programs, and local law enforcement must be untangled from federal civil immigration processes, removing immigration powers from police.

4. States and local jurisdictions should be given the option to participate in or opt out of immigration enforcement programs, including the forwarding of fingerprints and other biometric information to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

The report also highlights the stories of several individuals from across the country who have been victims of S-Comm, facing deportation as a result of simply calling 911 for an emergency, being pulled over while driving or any other arbitrary reason. One of the anecdotes is told by Mercedes, an 18-year old young woman in Nashville, Tennessee. On a normal Sunday afternoon in May, Mercedes was pulled over “for driving less than 10 miles over the speed limit.” After questioning her immigration status, the police officer put her in handcuffs and began filling out the paperwork for the 287(g) program to begin the process of her deportation. When Mercedes asked te officer what would happen to her and if she would make it to her high school graduation the following weekend, the officer “answered me with a smile on his face and told me that I was never going back to school and I would never see my family ever again, I started to cry.”

Mercedes spent 3 days in jail and is now facing deportation. She came to the U.S when she was 11 and qualifies to benefit from the DREAM Act. With aspirations to become a doctor, Mercedes sees herself as American – her life established in Nashville and plans for a future in this country. Reflecting on her experience, Mercedes said,

When this happened to me I realized how sad it is that families have been destroyed just for not having an ID or because of racial profiling. When I was in jail, I felt my dreams were destroyed,that my family was very far from me and I felt afraid that if we don’t stop this now, it will continue to happen.
The release of the ‘Restoring Community’ report coincided with a ‘National Day of Action’ called by various immigration reform activists to protest against the worsening immigration policies of the federal government. Protestors gathered outside President Obama’s campaign headquarters in Chicago on August 16 calling for an end to S-Comm. Several organizations worked together to call for the multi-city protests and delivered petitions to various Democratic party offices in Miami, Atlanta, Houston and Charlotte, demanding that the program be terminated. Gregory Chen, director of advocacy for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, spoke to the New York Times about how the practices of ICE have brought “a flood” of people booked under minor offenses to the immigration attorneys in the organization, calling it “the tip of the iceberg.” Chen added:
Fundamentally, D.H.S. is saying one thing but doing another…[It is] distorting its own mission of focusing on public safety and national security risks.

As the campaigning for the 2012 election ramps up and various candidates are assessing their policies, it is imperative that urgent and comprehensive action be taken by the government to address the violations to human rights and due process that are being enacted due to harsh anti-immigrant laws such as this. S-Comm is a deeply flawed program that has done more damage than good. It encourages racial profiling, separates families, and is enforcing a message that the thousands of immigrants that are working hard and aspiring to the American dream are no longer welcome.

Join the campaign to put an end to Secure Communities at Turn the Tide. You can also add your voice to the Restore Fairness campaign. Become an ally and take action now.

Photo courtesy of vivirlatino.com

Norway killings reveal politics of hate

A 32 year old Norwegian man is behind the brutal killings of 76 people in twin attacks that have shocked the world. We mourn the loss of those that lost their lives in this senseless violence. And as the shock wears off, we are slowly beginning to learn the motives behind the attack, much of which has been linked to a hatred of immigration and multiculturalism.

The man, Anders Behring Breivik, left behind a 1,500 page manifesto where he talks about the need to start a revolution against multiculturalism, fueled by the failure of Norwegian politicians in protecting the country from the influence of outsiders, with a particular focus on Muslim immigrants. The main target of his attacks were government buildings and a youth camp run by the ruling Labour Party, symbols of the government he felt were the largest obstacles to his ideal society- one without any immigrants.

In many ways, the killings have focused attention on the anti-immigrant rhetoric voiced openly in Europe. As a BBC article ‘Norway and the politics of hate’ reports,

Some of Europe’s leaders, from Angela Merkel to David Cameron, have questioned multiculturalism. The danger, of course, is that such statements can encourage extremism. Others say that in Europe the debate needs to be had, openly and transparently about immigration and multiculturalism.

A Reuters article ‘Norway massacre exposes incendiary immigration issue’ explains an even more extreme version of this questioning.

Many far-right European groups have shifted away from overtly racist rhetoric and have instead focused their argument on stressing what they see as the incompatibility of Islam and European values….Anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic parties have gained traction in Nordic and Scandinavian countries in recent years, tapping public anxiety over the relatively recent phenomenon of mass migration, particularly of Muslims, to their region.

It goes on to explain the political scenario in Sweden where the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats, despite having roots in neo-Nazi movements of the last two decades, were elected to Parliament for the first time. And although “there may be no direct link between violence and comments by politicians, the rhetoric creates a fertile environment for ethnically motivated attacks.”

The attacks also spotlight anti-Muslim thought in the U.S. as Breivik’s manifesto credits many American bloggers and writers who talk about the dangers of Islam to the west, with angry posts creating fear and hatred.

His manifesto cited Western writers who shared his view that Muslim immigrants pose a grave danger to Western culture…Marc Sageman, a former C.I.A. officer and a consultant on terrorism, said it would be unfair to attribute Mr. Breivik’s violence to the writers who helped shape his world view. But at the same time, he said the counterjihad writers do argue that the fundamentalist Salafi branch of Islam “is the infrastructure from which Al Qaeda emerged. Well, they and their writings are the infrastructure from which Breivik emerged.”.

There is never an explanation for senseless acts of violence such as this that take the lives of innocent people. While Saturday’s shooting can be seen as an isolated action of an individual, it can also be seen as emblematic of an international landscape that is often angry, divisive and intolerant. As the world churns with change, globalization has led to the shrinking of the world, often placing different cultures together. And yet, while divisive rhetoric thrives, little attention seems to be paid to the importance of diverse societies, the richness offered by immigration, and the necessity of their contributions to growing economies.

As the world reels from this violent tragedy, we must remember that the responsibility for not allowing the politics of hate to spread lies with each and every one of us. If anything, this tragic moment should become a turning point for a more honest conversation that uplifts each other and upholds the rights for everyone to live fairly with dignity and equality and justice.

Photos courtesy of nytimes.com

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

“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)

It shouldn’t take a tragedy to bring people out of the shadows

UPDATE: In a happy ending to Emily Ruiz’s story, her family’s lawyer announced today that she has been flown back to the U.S. and has been reunited with her parents. Emily’s story became the focus of much public outcry and pressure from the media, which led the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to review her case. See photos and a video of the reunion here.

In the early hours of March 12, a bus ferrying passengers from the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut met with a horrific accident on the I-95 expressway in the Bronx, en route to Chinatown in Manhattan. The crash killed 15 of the passengers onboard, and the driver was later accused of being unlicensed as well as falling asleep at the wheel. One of the passengers who died in the crash was Mr. Wang Jianhua, a man who had come to America to escape government persecution and pursue the American dream  for himself and for the family that he had been forced to leave behind in the Fujian province, in China.

Three years ago, Mr. Wang arrived in New York City with the aid of smugglers, having made the conscious decision to seek a better life for his wife, daughter and then unborn son. After raising $75,000 with the help of relatives and numerous creditors to pay for his passage, Mr. Wang left all that was familiar to him and began his journey to the United States. Once in New York, Mr. Wang lived in cramped conditions with several other Chinese immigrants in Chinatown, where he found a job as a delivery-man in a restaurant – a grueling job that earned him approximately $500 a week. His life comprised of work and sleep, with very little respite by way of a social life. He only communicated with his family when he could afford to, and sent home whatever was left of his salary once he was done paying rent and other expenses. In November 2008, shortly after arriving in the United States, he had filed for asylum on the grounds of being targeted by Chinese authorities for trying to have more than one child, a case that was still pending when he was killed in the crash. Following his death, Mr. Wang’s wife and two children are now bereft, in an even more dire state of poverty than they were before.

It is unfortunate that it takes a tragedy such as this to shed light on stories such as Mr.Wang’s. Today, there are millions of hard working immigrants like him in the United States, who are living under hardship, separated from their families, and striving to work towards a better life for their families. Stigma against undocumented immigrants and lack of comprehensive immigration reform negates their valuable contribution to the economy and withholds their right to be a legitimate part of the workforce, as well as their access to basic human rights and services. Moreover, instead of working towards rational and humane immigration reform, the situation the country seems to be pushing for is an enforcement heavy approach that is inefficient, inhumane, and inadequate in addressing the reality of the nearly 12 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S.

The repercussions of a broken immigration system also extend to the children of undocumented immigrants, who are U.S. citizens. In what was a big relief for immigration reform lobbyists, on Thursday, March 17, the Arizona Senate rejected the latest packet of five bills that would have further curtailed the rights of immigrants in the state. The primary bill that had drawn the most opposition aimed at pushing the Supreme Court to strip citizenship rights of the children of illegal immigrants. The four other bills would have removed the rights of such immigrants from attending state universities and driving vehicles in Arizona, and required school districts and hospitals to check the legal status of students and patients. Senator Paula Aboud (D-Tucson) challenged the morality of the bills, calling them “morally reprehensible.” She further stated-

This bill would create a two-tiered system, a system of discrimination that says some children born in this country have different rights than other children born in this country…I do not believe that is the American way.

The double standard that Senator Aboud highlights is unfortunately in practice already. On March 11 (a day before the Bronx bus crash that killed Mr. Wang), immigration authorities at Dulles International Airport (Washington D.C.) deported Emily Ruiz, a 4-year-old girl who was flying back from Guatemala with her grandfather. Despite being a U.S. citizen, Emily was separated from her parents who live in New York and who are undocumented, and sent back to Guatemala. While there are conflicting reports from the immigration authorities and Emily’s family about what led to her being deported from the country of her birth, the fact remains that a 4- year old U.S. citizen was separated from her parents and denied entry into her country. The legislative action that Arizona has been attempting to take towards severely restricting the liberties and rights of immigrants will only lead to more stories such as Emily’s, and more families being separated.

The ramifications of these two events are alarming. Jeanne A. Butterfield, a former executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, spoke to the New York Times-

The case is alarming because it shows what can happen once you start treating kids who are born here whose parents are undocumented with less rights than a full-blown citizen.

The rejection of the packet of anti-immigrant bills in the Arizona state senate is a small but crucial step in the right direction. Recent legislation in Utah is also a positive marker of what comprehensive immigration reform could look like. Last week, Utah ratified a set of immigration bills that provide a balance between enforcement, and developing a program that recognizes the importance of immigrants to the state economy. State Rep. Bill Wright, who authored a part of the laws, commented-

I’m of the opinion that we really don’t have the ability as a society to remove that large a portion of a segment from our society — either the cost, or just the damage it would do…A lot of these people are intertwined in our society. They have financial obligations: They have bank notes; they’ve bought houses; they contribute; they have jobs.

It remains to be seen whether the federal government will use Utah as a model for crafting their own comprehensive immigration reform legislation. Perhaps, then, people like Mr. Wang would have a more legitimate chance at working towards financial stability for their families and U.S. citizens like Emily Ruiz won’t be turned away from their own country.

Image courtesy of extras.sltrib.com