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Prison companies’ profit motive sheds new light on Arizona’s immigration law

For months after Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed off on the draconian immigration law, SB1070, protestors raged about the repercussions of a law that made it mandatory for police to stop and check the papers of anyone that they deemed “reasonably suspicious” of being undocumented. Human rights activists protested the inevitable implication of racial profiling that the law brought with it, while supporters of the law argued that it would be an effective solution to the immigration issue. When analyzing how the law came to be, the progressive media went to great lengths to highlight the direct links between those who drafted the law and “hate” groups the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FIRM) and white supremacist organizations. In all this, little was said about how the law came about in the first place.

A breaking investigation conducted by NPR and released today reveals that there is a more insidious motive behind the drafting of the Arizona law; one that leaves passionate rhetoric behind and focuses purely on profit. Based on the analysis of hundreds of thousands of campaign finance reports of people like Senator Russell Pearce, the legislator that was responsible for introducing SB1070 before the House of Representatives, as well as the corporate records of numerous prison companies, NPR has found deep financial ties between the drafting and introduction of the bill, and the private prison industry, that stands to benefit millions of dollars from increased immigrant detention.

The NPR investigation found that the seeds of the immigration bill were sown at a meeting of a group called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a semi-secret group that comprises of state legislators like Pearce, as well as the heads of big private corporations such as ExxonMobil and the National Rifle Association, and billion dollar companies like Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private prison company in the United States. All of the 50 members present for the meeting in December, 2009 where Pearce first presented his idea for SB1070, voted to support it, and the exact “model bill” that he presented at the meeting became the law that Jan Brewer passed in April, 2010.

Once SB1070 was introduced in the House in January by Senator Pearce, it was backed by thirty six sponsors, most of whom had been present at the December meeting of ALEC. Almost immediately, thirty of the thirty-six sponsors received generous donations from all the big private prison companies, GEO Group, Corrections Corporation of America, and Management and Training Corporation. Further, it was clear that, if executed, this law would be hugely profitable for the prison companies. The records of CCA showed that prison executives were relying on immigration detention as their next big market.

Ties between the massive expansion of immigrant detention and the subsequent growth and profit for the largely privately run prison system are not new. What is even more disturbing is the concrete evidence that points to the lack of accountability that comes with this prison system that is increasingly dysfunctional, as well as a detention system that denies due process and fairness to hundreds of men, women and children.

Advocate groups such as the NDLON have called for a further investigation into the collaboration between private corporations and conservative politicians. Pablo Alvarado, the Executive Director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network released a statement today saying-

We have done much to confront the hate within the recent immigration debate…but what this report brings to light is that behind the odious rhetoric there are corporations cashing in…These corporations and the politicians they fund are less concerned with borders than they are profit margins. We call on Russell Pearce to fully disclose his ties with those who may benefit financially from his initiatives and we ask that a deeper investigation be launched into the private interests gaining from the human rights crisis in Arizona.

Photo courtesy of npr.org

Join Angelina Jolie in her plea for World Refugee Day

From our b-listed blog-

Please remember the millions of people around the world forced from their homes, whose only hope of return is to not be forgotten,” says Angelina Jolie, a Goodwill Ambassador with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.  She has released a 30-second World Refugee Day video.  For this day, June 20th, she speaks on thousands who “flee from conflict and persecution [and] might be prevented from returning home for years — or forever.”

We must think of stories like those of John – the volatile North Kivu province stole the lives of this fifteen-year-old Congolese refugee’s family last year.  He says he now only dreams of a mattress and the chance to learn English. With the help of the UNHCR, he has applied for an asylum in Kenya and he now lives just that much closer to a dream come true. John is one of around 50,000 registered refugees and asylum-seekers in Nairobi, Kenya, including 951 unaccompanied minors, who have escaped from the conflict in North Kivu.

There are more than 40 million uprooted people around the world. The theme, this year is “home.” John says he has no desire to return to North Kivu, where the violence has driven more than 1 million from their homes. UNHCR says, “Help us help them to find a place to call home.” It is time for us to think about what it means to be one of those millions of individual human beings.  UNHCR helps John and others find new homes and new futures through resettlement, voluntary repatriation and local integration. According to the UNHCR, most refugees prefer to return to their home countries despite continuing or escalating conflict, which makes the search for homes and the return to normal living increasingly difficult.

In honor of World Refugee Day the International Detention Coalition (IDC) is urging governments to stop the detention of refugees and asylum seekers and to work together with UN and civil society to ensure their protection. They say-

There has been a disturbing and growing trend in the past year of industrialized countries funding, pressuring and providing incentives to neighboring countries to detain asylum seekers…There is evidence that detention is not an effective deterrent of asylum seekers. Punitive detention policies fail to consider the conditions that force people to flee their homes. They further traumatize refugees fleeing persecution, torture and conflict. Deterrence policies shift the burden to neighboring countries. It encourages harsh and harmful border policies that do not resolve the issue of irregular migration and people fleeing for protection. These issues must be tackled through international, regional and national cooperation, within a framework of refugee protection.

From June 18-20, the UNHCR is planning World Refugee Day events around the world to highlight the plight of refugees under its care and to advocate for the help they need. Get involved in soccer games, film festivals, photo exhibitions, food bazaars, fashion shows, concerts and sports competitions, workshops, speeches, poetry recitals and more.  In addition, you can participate in the following upcoming major events: A Historic Refugee Discussion,” with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and NPR Senior News Analyst Daniel Schorr; and “World Refugee Day performance by Marta Gomez”, which is free and open to the public. You can also organize an event in your area.  In honor of World Refugee Day, the Empire State Building in NYC will light up in UNHCR blue.

Photo courtesy of oxfam.org.uk

Amid Oil Spill Crisis, U.S. Authorities Search for Undocumented Immigrant Cleanup Workers

Talk about misplaced priorities. In the midst of a national crisis over the gargantuan BP oil spill that is destroying the water, marine eco-systems, and coastal livelihoods along the Gulf Coast, Federal immigration officials have decided to focus their resources on checking the immigration status of the people that BP has finally employed to begin cleaning up the massive destruction that the oil is causing along the coast.

Check out this amazing exclusive report co-produced by Feet in Two Worlds (English) and El Diario (Spanish)-

Federal immigration officials have been visiting command centers on the Gulf Coast to check the immigration status of response workers hired by BP and its contractors to clean up the immense oil spill.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Louisiana confirmed that its agents had visited two large command centers—which are staging areas for the response efforts and are sealed off to the public—to verify that the workers there were legal residents.

“We visited just to ensure that people who are legally here can compete for those jobs—those people who are having so many problems,” said Temple H. Black, a spokesman for ICE in Louisiana.

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, thousands of Hispanic workers, many of them undocumented, flocked to the region to help in the reconstruction of Louisiana’s coastal towns.  Many stayed, building communities on the outskirts of New Orleans or finding employment outside the city in oil refineries and in the fishing industry.

These Hispanic workers have been accused of taking away jobs from longtime Louisiana residents, and the tension has grown as fishing and tourism jobs dry up, leaving idle workers to compete for jobs on the oil spill clean-up effort.

Black explained that ICE and Border Patrol began to monitor the response efforts shortly after job sites were formed following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that began on April 20 and has yet to be contained.

ICE, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security, visited two command centers, one in Venice and the other in Hopedale, twice in May. ICE agents arrived at the staging areas without prior notice, rounded up workers, and asked for documentation of their legal status, according to Black.

The command centers, located in the marshes a few hours east of New Orleans, are among the largest, with hundreds of workers employed at each site.

“We don’t normally go and check people’s papers—we’re mostly focused on transnational gangs, predators, drugs. This was a special circumstance because of the oil spill,” said Black.

“We made an initial visit and a follow-up to make sure they were following the rules,” he said.

“These weren’t raids—they were investigations,” he added.

There were no arrests at either site, according to the ICE spokesman. But he said if undocumented workers had been discovered, they “would have been detained on the spot and taken to Orleans Parish Prison.”

Etanisla Hernandez is a response worker at the Hopedale Command  Center - Photo: Annie Correal

BP and one of the companies that holds a large contract in Hopedale, Oil Mop, did not return calls requesting comment. A high-level employee for another contractor in Hopedale, United States Environmental Services, who did not give her name, said, “I just got a phone call. I heard they were visiting.”

St. Bernard Parish, where the Hopedale site is located, assured that the local government had nothing to do with the checks and had no knowledge of them.

The ICE agents who visited the sites reminded subcontractors of immigration laws and their obligation to use programs including E-verify, an electronic system run by the Department of Homeland Security which checks workers’ immigration status.

An Oil Mop subcontractor called Tamara’s Group has hired more than 100 Hispanic workers from the region to work at the Hopedale site. The owner of Tamara’s Group, Martha Mosquera, said that when ICE came in the first week of May, “they gathered them all in the tents and they asked for their papers.”

One of the workers in this group, a 61-year-old Mexican woman named Cruz Stanaland, rememberes ICE’s visit: “They were civilians, they weren’t wearing uniforms and they were driving in cars that didn’t have the Immigration logo…dark cars with tinted glass.”

Another worker from the same group, Etanlisa Hernández, who is 30 and from the Dominican Republic, said, “There were five or six men. They were very polite.”

Although Mosquera said her company had no problems because all of her employees were legally employed, some pro-immigrant leaders criticized the government’s quickness to enforce immigration requirements during a crisis.

“It’s like, ‘round everybody up and leave the oil on the beach,’” said Darlene Kattan, Director of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Louisiana. “In a catastrophic situation like this, I think we should be more well-reasoned.”

“People are desperate for jobs,” she added, “And they think that if someone looks like an undocumented immigrant they’re taking the food from their mouth.”

Clarissa Martinez de Castro, Director of Immigration and National Campaigns at the National Council of La Raza, an advocacy group in Washington DC, said, “the clean-up effort is a gargantuan effort and we have to ensure that the crews are working in a way that protects their health and safety, and that should be the priority.” She added, “if ICE thinks that there are bad apple employers, they should go directly to them instead of harassing clean-up crews that we all know are doing a crucial job.”

Despite the visits by ICE, some undocumented workers have been hired by BP contractors. One fisherman from El Salvador, who didn’t want to reveal his name because he was afraid of being deported, has been laying down boom alongside the marshes for a week.

“You’re always afraid Immigration is coming,” he said.

He explained that although he didn’t feel safe doing the clean-up work, he took the risk because the job pays $360 a day. “I came because I have a wife, and kids, I came to give them a better life. My uncle’s family lent me money to come here. Maybe this will help me pay them back.”

Listen this week to NPR’s Latino USA for Annie Correal’s report on the latest from the Gulf Coast.

Photos courtesy of news.feetintwoworlds.org

Hadn’t we decided on equal education for all?

It was like discovering gold.

When she was in college, Sandra Mendez discovered something about her past that changed the way she looked at her parents forever. An American of Mexican-Puerto Rican descent, Sandra grew up unaware that her brave immigrant parents had been responsible for paving the path to racial desegregation in schools.

65 years ago, this month, Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez joined four other families to fight a lawsuit against Orange County, California because their Mexican-American children were not allowed to attend white schools. They won the case, Mendez vs. Westminster, which then set the stage for the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case of 1954. Although Sandra had not been born at the time, her elder sister Sylvia remembers it well:

I remember being in court every day. They would dress us up really nice…And I’d be there sitting very quietly, not really understanding what was going on….

It was only later that she began to understand that she would have to continue fighting even after her parents had won the case. In a conversation between Sylvia and Sandra which was recorded as a part of the StoryCorps Historias project, Sylvia describes the vivid memory of having a white boy at school tell her that she did not belong there and that “they shouldn’t have Mexicans here.” When she cried to her mother that she didn’t want to be at that school her mother would have none of it. “Don’t you realize that this is what we fought for? Of course you’re going to stay in that school and prove that you’re just as good as he is.”

The Mendez’s never really spoke about their monumental victory to anyone, so much that Sandra herself didn’t hear about it till she was in college. She came across her father’s name in a coursebook, and shocked at the coincidence, asked her mother about it. Her mother nonchalantly said, “Oh yeah, that was us. We did that”. Her reason for not mentioning it before – whenever they spoke about it they could be accused of bragging.

The Mendez’s story is like so many other moments in history that have been silenced or forgotten over the years, denying people a sense of shared heritage and community history. One of the largest oral history projects of the time, StoryCorps has launched the StoryCorps Historias, an initiative to record the diverse experiences of Latinos in the United States, capturing the stories and memories for generations to come.

While education has come a long way from 1945 when the Mendez’s won their case, and 1954 when racial segregation in schools came to an end, it is important to note that even today we face a number of problems with immigration education. Those opposed to immigration use the argument that bilingual educational programs hamper a child’s academic development, and that by allowing school children to retain their foreign language in school, the system is posing a threat to the future of English in the country. The controversial No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which promotes English-only instruction, is based on this skepticism at bilingual learning and has resulted in the nation’s 5 million immigrant children being left behind.

In her new book, “True American: Language, Identity, and the Education of Immigrant Children”, Professor Rosemary Salomone counters these myths about bilingual education. She argues that in fact, bilingualism increases mental dexterity, creative thinking and problem solving. And as in the case of Europe, a push towards multilingualism would benefit the nation in the long run, politically, economically and socially. Isn’t it time that our lawmakers started embracing the strength of our diversity rather than burying their heads in the sand?

Photo courtesy of npr.org

Have we taken the first step toward immigration reform?

4009782434_0a1273591bBuses, vans and cars carrying more than 3,000 activists from at least 17 states descended on Washington D.C. to call for immigration reform, cheering when Rep. Luis Gutierrez’s (D-IL) introduced his blueprint for reform that will form the basis of an immigration reform bill to be introduced in November.

As Rep. Luis Gutierrez said, “We need a bill that says if you come here to hurt our communities, we will not support you; but if you are here to work hard and to make a better life for your family, you will have the opportunity to earn your citizenship. We need a law that says it is un-American for a mother to be torn from her child, and it is unacceptable to undermine our workforce by driving the most vulnerable among us further into the shadows.”

The blueprint is an exciting step forward to bring reform that respects due process and fairness – calling on workable solutions that will take the American people forward and hold true to our values as a nation. Its highlights include a pathway to legalization for undocumented workers, effective border enforcement, a need to ensure future flows of workers

, and family unity as a cornerstone of the immigration system. It also talks of the need for smart and humane interior enforcement stating, “Inside the country, my plan will promote fair immigration proceedings, humane treatment of immigration detainees and policies that respect the tenets of community policing.”

This is a key point for the Restore Fairness campaign, which calls for immigration reform legislation that must address due process failures embodied in current immigration law, including ending the prolonged detention of people who pose no risk or danger, creating legally enforceable standards for detention, and restoring discretion so immigration judges can consider individual circumstances when rendering deportation decisions. Although we are heartened to see the administration move forward with detention reform, a recent interview on NPR with the assistant secretary for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the Department of Homeland Security, John Morton reveals that “this reform effort is not about whether or not we detain people; it’s about how we detain them,” thus not fundamentally addressing the heightened enforcement tactics that have led to an overburdened system in the first place.

60% of detainees are now arriving from state and local enforcement programs that enforce immigration law, but most of these detainees are low level offenders or have no crime, very unlike the main aim of the programs which are to catch serious and violent offenders. That’s why any immigration reform must include an end to raids and legislation that gives state and local authorities a role in enforcing federal civil immigration laws – a policy which has been ineffective, led to racial and ethnic profiling and created an environment of fear that discourages immigrant communities from cooperating with the police.

These are tough challenges and need collective support so we can celebrate the fair and diverse land of opportunity that America is.

Image courtesy of www.reformimmigrationforamerica.org