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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

 

Today’s the day to take a stand against immigrant detention: Watch films on PBS and CNBS

The government is denying due process and fairness in our communities by detaining immigrants who pose no danger and are not a flight risk to the community in inhumane and unregulated detention centers. In the last two years, we have seen more people detained by the ever-expanding, profit-making detention system that ever before, followed by the deportation of a record 1 million people. Moreover, the stories of people who suffer physical and sexual assault, medical negligence, and even death in detention continue to abound.

Tonight, mainstream television will showcase two different investigative exposés of the flagrant violation of human rights that is taking place through the criminalization of immigrant communities, the prison industry and mass immigration detention and deportation system in the U.S.

- Lost in Detention, will air on PBS’s ‘Frontline’ at 9pm EST tonight (check local listings).

In partnership with American University’s Investigative Reporting Workshop, Frontline correspondent Maria Hinojosa takes a penetrating look at Obama’s vastly expanded immigration net, explores the controversial Secure Communities enforcement program and goes inside the hidden world of immigration detention. This feature length documentary uncovers some of the most controversial aspects of the detention system under the Obama administration, looking at police involvement in deportations, as well as abuses and deaths in detention centers. Speaking to Colorlines about the documentary, Maria Hinojosa said- “I would just hope that maybe this documentary helps people engage with their neighbors and their friends. Maybe we can just have this conversation.” Speaking about the abuses in detention she said-

As a journalist, I’m concerned about this. As an American, I’m concerned about this. Because we believe that there’s some kind of legal recourse that we all have, because we have basic rights in our country. Now all of a sudden, you’re encountering a population that’s being told, “Actually you don’t have any legal recourse.” If abuses happen, well, if the abused is an immigrant then they just deport that person and the abuse case goes away.

Join NDLON and the Detention Watch Network for an twitter chat during documentary with the hashtag #altopolimigra. Watch the trailer and tune in for the entire film tonight-

Watch Lost in Detention Preview on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

- Billions Behind Bars: Inside America’s Prison Industry, which is a CNBC original documentary series about the profits and inner workings of the multi-billion dollar corrections industry , will air on CNBC starting tonight, for a week.

With more than 2.3 million people locked up, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world. One out of 100 American adults is behind bars – while a stunning one out of 32 is on probation, parole or in prison. This reliance on mass incarceration has created a thriving prison economy. The states and the federal government together spend roughly $74 billion a year on corrections, and nearly 800,000 people work in the industry.

Also today, the Detention Watch Network launched a national campaign, ‘Dignity not Detention,’ calling for an end to mandatory detention laws, which are significantly responsible for the explosion of the detention system. A wide range of faith, immigrant rights, and community-based organizations joined Detention Watch Network to call on Congress and the Obama Administration to:

  • Repeal all laws mandating the detention of non-citizens.
  • Put an end to all policies and programs that use the criminal justice system to target people for detention and deportation.
  • Bring the U.S. into compliance with its obligations under international human rights law, which prohibits arbitrary detention.
Watch the video, End Mandatory Detention and endorse the campaign here- 

Alabama’s HB56 shows racism still part of state culture

Guest blogger: Keith Rushing, Communications Manager, Rights Working Group. Crossposted from The Huffington Post.

Last week, a federal court’s decision allowed parts of a law to go into effect that essentially requires police to racially profile people while criminalizing undocumented migrants for being without immigration documents. The law and the decision upholding it shows that Alabama — in passing the harshest anti-immigration law in the nation — is still mired in its racist, segregationist past.

The message Alabama sent to brown people by passing this law — especially those thought to be migrants — is a simple one: Get out of Alabama. We don’t want your kind here.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, Alabama was a place of intense racial hatred. Montgomery, Ala., central to the Civil Rights Movement, is the city where, in 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested after sitting in the whites-only section of a city bus, leading to a massive and ultimately successful boycott of the city’s public bus system. A year later, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned segregation on public buses nationwide finding that the Alabama law allowing seating according to skin color was unconstitutional.

Despite that success, much of Alabama’s white residents were determined to defend their segregated way of life through brutal violence.

In 1961, some 200 white men in Anniston, Ala attacked the Freedom Riders, a racially integrated group of activists on a bus trip through the South. The bus was firebombed and the activists were beaten with pipes and bats.

Alabama is also the state where four little black girls were killed in 1963 in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.

After years of people putting their lives on the line and going to jail and the help of federal civil rights legislation, Alabama ended legalized oppression of African Americans that barred them from voting, from attending better resourced all-white schools and from many jobs that had been reserved for whites.

But a cursory look at the state’s history shows how Alabama was dragged kicking and screaming into accepting desegregation. It took enormous courage, self-sacrifice and the power of the federal government to force change. But by passing Alabama’s harshest anti-immigration law, the state has shown that while Jim Crow laws may not exist anymore, the spirit of Jim Crow, which is defined by white supremacy, is alive and well.

Alabama’s H.B. 56 requires police to investigate the immigration status of those pulled over for routine traffic stops, if they have a “reasonable suspicion” that a person is undocumented. It’s obvious that police will make these judgments of who to investigate based on appearance, including skin color.

The law will also allow undocumented migrants to be held without bond; make it a felony for an undocumented migrant to do business with the state; make it a misdemeanor for an undocumented resident to be without immigration documents; and require elementary and secondary schools to check the immigration status of incoming students.

The enforcement of the nation’s immigration law has primarily been a responsibility of the federal government. But by making it a state law to be without immigration papers, undocumented immigrants are subject to a whole range of new state laws and penalties.

By treating someone different based on skin color or appearance, this law, which violates the constitution in my view, institutionalizes inequality. It’s clear that white Americans will be given a pass and people who are thought to be immigrants will be forced to prove they have the documentation to reside in the United States legally. Since the majority of migrants come form Latin America, people who are brown-skinned, Latino, or thought to be Latino, will likely bear the brunt of this law.

By making it a felony for an undocumented migrant to do business with the state, which could mean applying for a driver’s license or applying for a license to operate a business, Alabama will isolate and ghettoize people who came to the United States to pursue the American Dream and are simply trying to survive.

And by requiring that schools check the immigration status of students, many migrant parents will avoid sending their children to school out of fear that sending them to school will lead to arrest and deportation. The only reason that Alabama lawmakers would want undocumented migrants to keep their kids out of school is because they don’t care about the children’s welfare. In all honesty they could only back such laws if they simply want a group of people gone.

This hateful law has already had a horrible effect. Hundreds of children have already reportedly been absent from schools in some Alabama cities.

The anti-immigrant climate was already causing migrant workers to leave the state, the Christian Science Monitor reported last week.

Racism in the United States often increases during tough economic times and is reflected in scapegoating. That’s what seems to have happened in Alabama. Passing H.B. 56 allowed lawmakers to claim that they’re keeping undocumented migrants from taking jobs that should go to those born in the United States. However the Alabama Farmers Federation indicates that they have not been able to find legal residents to fill the agricultural jobs that must be filled.

The Obama administration is right to have filed an appeal of the federal court decision. And civil rights groups, including the ACLU and Southern Poverty Law Center have asked the federal court to block last week’s decision form taking effect, pending their appeal.

Rights Working Group Executive Director Margaret Huang had it right last week when she said: “People of conscience across Alabama and the United States should send the message that the human rights of all people should be respected regardless of their race, nationality, ethnicity, religion or immigration status.”

We must all speak out against this law.

Photo courtesy of uprisingradio.org

Approaching the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Alabama set to pass the “nation’s cruelest immigration law”

It’s been in the works for over three months, but the debate surrounding Alabama’s threatening new anti-immigration law just got louder and more serious. Just when we thought Arizona’s SB 1070 law was the worst hit to the nation’s crumbling immigration policy, Alabama has managed to deliver perhaps an even bigger shock. Enacted back in June by the Alabama House and Senate, H.B. 56 had also been signed by Governor Robert Bentley. Now, with the stamp of approval from the entire Alabama state government, the law was set to take effect on September 1. However, a federal judge has stepped in to temporarily block it. U.S. District Judge Sharon Blackburn has blocked the implementation of the law until September 29 while she deliberates on the constitutional consequences of such a law.

The law’s extremely harsh stipulations state the following:

  • It would be a state crime to be an undocumented immigrant in Alabama.
  • Law enforcement would be given the powers to detain those they have “reasonable suspicion” of being in the country illegally.
  • Businesses would be subject to non-criminal sanctions for knowingly hiring undocumented immigrants.
  • It would also be a crime to harbor or transport undocumented immigrants, including giving them rides to workplaces.
  • All contracts made with undocumented immigrants will be made null and void.
  • Renting property to undocumented immigrants will be forbidden.

The law’s details are inhumane to say the least, essentially restricting those with undocumented status from living freely at all. Judge Blackburn’s block was the result of various groups and organizations suing the state of Alabama over the passage of this law. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), together with other advocacy groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Immigrants’ Rights Project, filed a suit against the Alabama state government on July 8. The law is facing opposition on several other fronts as well. The Department of Justice, with the support of the Obama administration, has also filed a lawsuit against the state claiming states cannot interfere to this extent in federal policy. A New York Times editorial scathingly labeled HB 56 as the “nation’s cruelest immigration law.” The editorial discusses the reaction to the law from the religious community in Alabama.

In a surprising first for reactions to stringent anti-immigration laws, four church leaders from across Alabama have joined forces to sue the state (see full lawsuit here) for passing a law that criminalizes the church’s duty to be show compassion to everyone. The church leaders – an Episcopal bishop, a Methodist bishop and a Roman Catholic archbishop and bishop – call the law inhumane and that it would terrorize undocumented immigrants and make criminalize those who show kindness to them. Archbishop Thomas Rodi of Mobile added that “the law attacks our core understanding of what it means to be a church.”

The news of this law getting close to enforcement has also triggered a flurry of debate among the public, especially in online forums as comments on the various news articles reporting the story. One such comment on the editorial published in The New York Times, is by a reader named ‘MT’:

…we are ALL immigrants or have descended from them. by these xenophobic definitions, unless you are a native american descended from those who had their land stolen from columbus, then maybe you are not a “real American.” immigrants, legal or illegal, don’t take people’s jobs away. plus, i doubt that “real americans” would want to work the wages in the conditions that undocumented workers face daily. i doubt that “real americans” are prepared to pay more for the food that undocumented workers pick for them. has anyone ever stopped to think that one reason so many “unskilled” americans find themselves without the jobs is a symptom of our failing educational system and a product of our anti-intellectual culture?

Another reader, going by the name of “toomuchcoffeeguy” commented further on an article in the Montgomery Advertiser:

This idea that these people are somehow taking jobs relies on a false premise, which is that there is a finite number of jobs in Alabama, but the labor market doesn’t actually work that way. Cheap labor can only strengthen an economy, by making job creation more accessible to small businesses, thus expanding both jobs and our GDP. A good example would be Texas & California, who have the highest illegal immigrant populations and also have the highest GDP’s….

As we approach the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, it is even clearer that the ill-fated day tested our nation’s ability to respond to the situation in a meaningful way. Unfortunately, the immigration reform that was on the horizon before 9/11 was quickly dismissed for harsh, punitive measures to clamp down on undocumented immigration. The physical damage of the 9/11 attacks may have been repaired, but the massive effect the day had on security policy, law enforcement and our national attitudes towards tolerance and freedom has left our country at a tricky crossroads. America’s biggest issues are now no longer international. We face serious situations at home, where short-sighted and rushed “solutions” to the issue of undocumented immigration is in fact sawing away at our future, an attitude that further hurts the economy, standard of living and most of all, socio-cultural fabric of this country.

We urge the federal government and Judge Blackburn to recognize the tremendously damaging consequences of Alabama’s HB 56 and stop the law completely. Such laws make the need for comprehensive immigration reform even more dire than ever before. Immigrants form the backbone of this country and criminalizing them as a blanket policy will hurt the country in ways that perhaps these officials and politicians fail to foresee. Join Restore Fairness today to lend your voice to the call for comprehensive immigration reform.

Photo courtesy of hispanicallyspeakingnews.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

NY and Massachusetts suspend SComm; Alabama passes harsh anti-immigrant bill

In a bold move, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on June 1 announced that the state will suspend its participation in the “Secure Communities” Program (SComm) until further review. His decisive announcement was a result of the culmination of hard work on the part of New York legislators, advocates and religious leaders to urge the state’s withdrawal from the program

The program, launched in Texas in 2008 with the goal of nationwide deployment of SComm being complete by 2013, has become increasingly controversial. Initially pitched as a voluntary program that would focus on apprehending those who were guilty of serious “crimes,” the program has faced a slew of criticism from local law enforcement, state officials and advocates for its lack of transparency and oversight, its detrimental impact on the safety of communities as a result of the breakdown of trust of local law enforcement, and its failure to fulfill its original goal of targeting those guilty of serious offenses. This costly program threatens to reduce trust between local law enforcement and communities, encourage racial profiling and separate families. For all the above reasons the Department of Homeland Security announced an investigation of the program at the end of last month.

Explaining his decision to pull New York out of SComm, Gov. Cuomo said-

“There are concerns about the implementation of the program as well as its impact on families, immigrant communities and law enforcement in New York…As a result, New York is suspending its participation in the program.”

The move has been welcomed by local officials, law enforcement and advocates, including some members of Congress. Expressing his support for Governor Cuomo’s decision, Congressman Jose E. Serrano said-

Governor Cuomo has taken a brave and necessary step in suspending New York State’s participation in the flawed ‘Secure Communities’ program, and he deserves great praise. He is firmly in line with our state’s pro-immigrant tradition and on behalf of the immigrants and their friends in our community, I would like to thank him. Having New York State pull back from this unfair and aggressive program should be a wake-up call to the Department of Homeland Security. It is time to end this program and I am glad my home state will no longer take part.

New York joins a small but significant group of states that have pulled out of the SComm program recently. Last month, Illinois was the first state to do so, and faced much resistance from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for the decision. A few days after New York’s exit from the program, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick also announced that his state would not sign on to the Secure Communities initiative. Gov. Patrick, in a statement justifying his decision to pull Massachusetts out of SComm, said-

We run a serious risk of ethnic profiling and frankly fracturing incredibly important relationships in communities that are important for law enforcement…I don’t think that the Obama administration is satisfied that the implementation of this program has been very effective.

In the absence of federal movement on immigration reform, the states are taking matters into their own hands. In the case of Secure Communities, this has resulted in three states with significant immigrant populations withdrawing their support of a program that they think is ineffective and unjust, sending a clear message to the Obama administration and ICE to review the program and take action to ensure accountability and security, as well as justice and due process for all. Inspired by the actions of Illinois, New York and Massachusetts, there are growing calls in other states, such as California, to pull out of Secure Communities as well.

In spite of these positive steps, the need for federal action on immigration reform is evident in cases such as that of Alabama, where a sweeping anti-immigrant bill that, much like Arizona’s infamous SB1070, mandates local law enforcement to stop people based on the “reasonable suspicion” that they are undocumented, enabling the profiling of people based on their appearance. Alabama’s H.B. 56 was passed in the Alabama House and Senate last week and now awaits the signature of Governor Bentley. This bill goes beyond the Arizona law- it mandates that public schools check the status of all students; bars undocumented students from enrolling in public college; makes it a crime to knowingly rent housing to those who don’t have documents etc. If enacted, this bill may well lead to unconstitutional racial profiling and a breakdown of trust between police and the communities they protect. We can only hope that like in the case of Arizona’s SB1070, the values of our Constitution will be upheld, but we wish that such laws could be averted by concrete federal action to repair the broken immigration system.

It is at this time that advocates of fair immigration and the numerous families that have been unfairly affected by SComm and other ICE enforcement  initiatives look to the Obama administration to take swift action. There are steps that his administration can take, without necessary involvement from Congress, to push towards immigration reform:

  • The SComm program should be terminated since it has proven to be highly ineffective. Designed to focus on dangerous criminals, the program has instead been responsible for unjustly deporting a large number of people with no convictions.
  • End partnerships between local police and ICE, and return immigration law firmly to federal control. Local police are usually not trained in the sensitivity of immigration law, which often leads to people being arrested based on racial profiling or for minor offenses and eventually being deported.
  • While President Obama has already reiterated his stance against the harsh anti-immigrant laws being enacted in several states such as Arizona, Georgia and Indiana, his administration can be much more publicly critical of these laws. This would hopefully put pressure on the state legislatures to reconsider before taking such drastic steps.
  • The President can exercise his power to grant relief from deportation to the young people who can qualify for the DREAM Act, calling for “deferred action.”
  • Many undocumented immigrants already qualify for green cards but are hesitant to leave the country (and their immediate relatives who are American citizens) due to the risk of not being allowed back into the country. To ease this, the Obama administration can order the citizenship agency to allow these applicants to stay in the country, and with their families, while they are processed.
  • Finally, the President can also push for immediate reforms to improve the conditions of those in immigration detention, ensuring the safety and dignity of those being processed through the system.

In his May 10 speech on Immigration and Border Security in El Paso, Texas, President Obama showed an awareness for the “broken immigration system” in America-

Today, the immigration system not only tolerates those who break the rules, it punishes the folks who follow the rules.  While applicants wait for approval, for example, they’re often forbidden from visiting the United States.  Even husbands and wives may have to spend years apart.  Parents can’t see their children.  I don’t believe the United States of America should be in the business of separating families.  That’s not right.  That’s not who we are.

We only hope that such sentiments are translated – quickly and effectively – into major policy and legislative shifts that would in fact stop the racial profiling that is masked as immigration law enforcement in its current state. When we deny fairness to some, we put all of our rights at risk. Join us in our commitment to telling stories, inviting conversation, and inspiring action that will help our nation move even further in the right direction. To take action against Secure Communities, contact your state Governor to help your state withdraw from the program.

Photo courtesy of wnyc.org

Momentum is building for immigration reform

Could the conversation about immigration finally be changing?

Following the Obama administration’s determination in February that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutionally discriminates against same-sex couples, Attorney General Eric Holder last week requested that the immigration appeals court consider granting legal residency to an Irishman in a civil union with an American man. A Newark judge also suspended the deportation of Henry Velandia of Venezuela– who is married to  American, Josh Vandiver– in order to allow time for the court and the Department of Justice to determine under what circumstances a gay partner might be eligible for residency. These recent steps are a welcome indication that the Obama administration is working toward a fair and just policy towards bi-national same-sex couples.

In 2009, Restore Fairness used the power of documentary to tell the story of one such family, who was facing separation because their domestic partnership wasn’t recognized under DOMA. The video gives a voice to Shirley Tan, who came from the Philippines decades ago and built a life with her partner Jay, giving birth to twin boys and becoming a full-time mother. When we spoke to her, Shirley faced the biggest challenge of her life as she fought to stay on in the United States, crippled by laws that do not allow gay and lesbian couples to sponsor their partners.

Watch the Restore Fairness video of Two Moms Fighting to Stay Together:

In another positive step for immigration, the state of Illinois last week became the first state to entirely opt out of the so-called “Secure Communities,” which requires local police to 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. This costly program threatens to reduce trust between local law enforcement and communities, encourage racial profiling and separate families. However, despite Illinois Gov. Quinn’s decisive announcement, and increased resistance from states and police departments across the country, the Department of Homeland Security has said that they will not allow Illinois to withdraw. In another indication that partnerships between ICE and local law enforcement are on the increase, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal signed into law on May 13, an immigration bill that would give local police the authority to question suspects about their immigration status. This law, which is being compared to Arizona’s SB1070, could lead to decreased trust between local police and communities, and increase the occurrence of racial profiling. The law has been met with much criticism already. Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, reacted-

Today is a dark day for Georgia. Our concern stems from the very serious economic repercussions that will be felt against our state on numerous fronts and the very serious civil and human rights abuses that will also likely follow…

This trend of states being given greater control of immigration policies, which is actually a federal issue, signals a threat to the otherwise positive momentum in the immigration movement. Joining the opposition to the “Secure Communities” program 38 lawmakers earlier this week sent a letter to New York Governor Cuomo urging him to terminate Secure Communities in New York State. Religious leaders from many faiths, joined by advocates and community members, yesterday held a vigil outside Governor Cuomo’s Manhattan office, to request him to stop unjust deportations. Speakers at the vigil applauded Illinois for withdrawing from Secure Communities and urged New York to protect New York’s immigrant communities by doing the same. You too can take action against Secure Communities, contact your state Governor to help your state withdraw from the program.

In another update, Senator Durbin (D-IL) and Senator Reid (D-NV) yesterday introduced the DREAM Act in the 112th session of Congress. If passed, it could positively impact the lives of 2.1 million young people in the United States. Despite the regained impetus of the DREAM Act this year, the movement lost the support of its third and final Republican politicians. Senator Dick Lugar (R-IN) abandoned his previous support for the DREAM Act and joins Representative Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Senator John McCain (R-AZ) who have already denounced their support. Senator Lugar blamed President Obama’s increased politicization of the issue for his withdrawal, even though it seems he has made the decision because of a rising Tea Party challenger in the Primary. However, many feel optimistic about the renewed chances of the bill this year. The DREAM Act’s failure in Congress last December was a huge disappointment, but the movement, supported by President Obama, is only getting stronger. And with your support, we can take this step forward in ensuring that young people who have worked tirelessly to build their lives in America- and contribute to the society- enjoy the rights they deserve.

The passage of the DREAM Act would benefit people like Emilio, a young man who was brought to the U.S. by his parents at the age of six. Speaking about his American identity, the only one he has ever really known, Emilio said-

“I went through elementary, middle, and high school in North Carolina, and it is the only place that I call home.  I graduated from high school in 2010 as one of the top ten students in my class, as an honor student, an AP scholar with hundreds of hours of community service, and I was awarded a full-ride scholarship to my first choice university.  However, unless the broken immigration system is fixed, when I graduate from college in four years I won’t be able to use my college degree.  My dream is to give back to my community.”

Immediately prior to the re-submission of the DREAM Act in Congress came a speech by President Obama to border communities in El Paso, Texas earlier this week. Obama reiterated his commitment to fair and just comprehensive immigration reform. He expressed his support for the DREAM Act, for keeping families together, and for visa reform. While this is not the first time we have heard these commitments, there is no denying the positive momentum that is building toward preventing the injustices caused by a broken immigration system. When we deny fairness to some, we put all of our rights at risk. Join Restore Fairness in our commitment to telling stories, inviting conversation, and inspiring action that will help America move even further in the right direction.

We strongly believe in the power of using culture to change culture. We’re using our new Facebook game, America 2049, to weave human rights issues– especially racial justice and immigration– into each week of game play. As we continue to tell these stories in the hope of changing the conversation, we ask that you play America 2049, and join the dialogue and action that will move us forward.

“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)

President Obama gives immigration reform a boost on Independence Day weekend

How fitting it is that the day after President Obama delivered his first speech devoted entirely to the issue of immigration reform, 150 people are being sworn in as naturalized U.S. citizens on Ellis Island. In an address at American University, President Obama vowed not to “kick the can down the road” on immigration reform, restating his desire to fix a broken immigration system.

In his speech, the President asserted the need for a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million people currently residing in the U.S. who do not have legal status, while stressing that the U.S. government secures the border, and businesses face consequences for hiring undocumented workers and keeping wages depressed. Calling on Congress to pass a comprehensive plan to fix an immigration system that is “fundamentally broken,” President Obama tackled the issue that has been the subject of contentious political debate in these months leading up to the mid-term November elections. He spoke about the “…estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States” and said that “the overwhelming majority of these men and women are simply seeking a better life for themselves and their children.” The President cautioned against rounding up and deporting the undocumented immigrants that are an intrinsic part of American society and economy, and against a blanket amnesty for all that he said would be “unwise and unfair…would suggest to those thinking about coming here illegally that there will be no repercussions for such a decision,” and “could lead to a surge in more illegal immigration. ” Instead, he advocated for a solution that eschewed both polar extremes of the debate in favor of rational middle ground. He said-

Ultimately, our nation, like all nations, has the right and obligation to control its borders and set laws for residency and citizenship.  And no matter how decent they are, no matter their reasons, the 11 million who broke these laws should be held accountable. Now, if the majority of Americans are skeptical of a blanket amnesty, they are also skeptical that it is possible to round up and deport 11 million people. They know it’s not possible. Such an effort would be logistically impossible and wildly expensive. Moreover, it would tear at the very fabric of this nation -– because immigrants who are here illegally are now intricately woven into that fabric.  Now, once we get past the two poles of this debate, it becomes possible to shape a practical, common-sense approach that reflects our heritage and our values.

This speech was influenced by a number of recent developments in the immigration issue. Most notably, Arizona’s harsh anti-immigrant law that has set a precedent for states around the country taking the enforcement of immigration law into their own hands. Since April 23rd, when Arizona Gov. Brewer signed off on the law, its unconstitutional statutes that give a green light to racial profiling, have catapulted the immigration issue and the Federal government’s inaction on it, into center stage. The controversial “show me your papers” law, which is currently under review by the Department of Justice, has “fanned the flames of an already contentious debate,” Mr. Obama said. President Obama acknowledged the frustration that has led to Arizona and the 20 other states that are in the process of implementing similar laws as “understandable,” but stated that it was “ill- conceived” and that it “put huge pressure on local law enforcement to enforce rules that ultimately are unenforceable.” Referring to the police chiefs that have stood in opposition to SB1070, he said that laws such as these make communities less safe by “driving a wedge between communities and law enforcement, making our streets more dangerous and the jobs of our police officers more difficult.” He criticized this “patchwork of local immigration laws” for having “the potential of violating the rights of innocent American citizens and legal residents, making them subject to possible stops or questioning because of what they look like or how they sound.”

In his undeniably political speech, President Obama stressed the necessity for bipartisan support for immigration reform. He took Republicans to task for the lack of movement on immigration reform in Congress, specifically calling out the 11 Republicans Senators who had shown support for a comprehensive reform bill in 2006, and subsequently withdrawn this support, with the Republican party now unanimously calling for a “border security first” approach and balking at a comprehensive reform bill. Obama argued that the process has been “held hostage” by “political posturing, special-interest wrangling and . . . the pervasive sentiment in Washington that tackling such a thorny and emotional issue is inherently bad politics.” Referring to his recent b0lstering of border security by sending 1200 troops to the border, he said that the border was now more secure than it had been in 20 years, and that crime along the border was at a record low. Moreover, he dismissed the “border security first” approach saying that the systemic problems were too vast to be fixed with “only fences and border patrols.”

The President’s speech has been criticized for offering no “new solutions, timetables or points of compromise. Instead, he outlined a longstanding prescription for change that, in addition to having no support from Republicans in Congress, also has failed to unite his fellow Democrats.”

And even as President Obama waits for bipartisan consensus on immigration reform, families continue to be torn apart, immigrant youth live in fear of being deported, violations in detention continue to grow and local and state police armed with immigration powers bring fear to communities. Many of these problems can be tackled be administrative measures, but there was little spoken of in the speech. No action was pledged on any of the bills already in Congress though he did mention support for the DREAM Act that would give undocumented students a chance to live in the U.S. And even with a forum for an announcement on whether the federal government is going to sue the state of Arizona, no mention was made on the issue. Many groups have decided to take action into their own hands.

Following on the heels of President Obama’s address, leading law enforcement officials shared their concerns about programs that require enforcement of immigration laws by state or local law police, a trend that continues in absence of a federal solution. With the country’s foremost police chiefs and sheriffs speaking out against such enforcement that undo decades of progress in community policing, Presente.org in collaboration with the National Day Labor Organizing Network (NDLON) and the Trail of DREAMs is launching an ambitious new campaign calling on the President to use his power to create real change, starting with ending the deeply problematic 287g program.

Reform Immigration for America is asking people to write to Senate Republicans, asking them to”stop holding up the process and hurting families” America’s Voice is asking people to support the DREAM Act, “a stepping-stone to broader reform that we can pass right now” to support “youth who would qualify to earn citizenship under the DREAM Act who are future valedictorians, nurses, computer programmers, and soldiers.”

And Restore Fairness is calling on President Obama and Members of Congress to fix the broken detention and deportation system that traumatizes families and has led to many human rights violations.

While we are encouraged by the President’s speech and commitment to the issue of immigration, and reminded of our nation’s proud immigrant heritage, there is a deep need for bipartisan action as peoples lives hang in the balance.

Photo courtesy of nydailynews.com

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Reform versus enforcement – Game on!

Since they began their epic journey at the beginning of the year from Miami to DC to fight for a path for citizenship for undocumented youth, the Trail of Dreams students have continuously inspired us with their unwavering courage and determination. After they delivered their demands for the DREAM Act to President Obama, they walked from Scottsdale to Phoenix last week for the National Day of Action to protest Arizona’s new draconian, anti-immigrant law that authorizes local police with immigration powers. On the way back home, they made a pit-stop in Maricopa County where they met with Sheriff Joe Arpaio, infamous for his “reign of terror” against immigrants in Arizona. In their letter requesting a meeting with the Sheriff, the Dreamers wrote-

We would like to discuss the enforcement measures in your county…We also come to show support for the proud immigrants of the Phoenix area, many of whom live in constant fear of harassment by members of your Sheriff’s Department. We want to share our stories so that you understand what it’s like for the millions of immigrants in this country who are unable to fully participate in society due to our broken immigration system.

Three of the the five students are undocumented and Sheriff Arpaio has made no bones about arresting undocumented people in the past, but the students were determined to confront him with their personal stories and ask him to become their ally in the fight for immigration reform. Sheriff Arpaio recently told reporters during a press conference that “Instead of taking them [the undocumented] to ICE, take ‘em to me. I have plenty of room in the tents.” While a complete change of heart for Arpaio might be a little far-fetched, his 45-minute meeting with the Dreamers was reasonably friendly, down to a hug between Sheriff Joe and Gaby Pacheco, one of the students. When asked why she would want to hug a man who has criminalized and persecuted so many immigrants, Gaby said-

I hugged him because I wanted him to feel the pain that our community has been feeling. But also to tell him that as a human being I don’t fear him. I told him with tears coming down that in his heart he has good, and that he has the ability to come back, you know. He was astray and doing these horrible things to our community, but he has the power in his heart to come back and fight with us against these unjust laws.

Probably aware that being too hostile to the students would lead to a massive media frenzy, the Maricopa C0unty Sheriff told the students (with the press present at the meeting) that while he is compassionate towards the plight of undocumented immigrants, he had to continue to do justice to his job of enforcing the immigration laws as they appear in the law books. The student activists told the Sheriff that they had been brought to the United States as children, had contributed to society and the country, and would not know what to do if deported back to the countries in which they were born. After sharing his own stories about living in Venezuela and Colombia during his time with Drug Enforcement, Sheriff Arpaio told the students that their demand for immigration reform would have to begin at a federal level. He left them with the  words, “You keep fighting the fight, make sure you get to D.C. and talk to the politicians.”

Taking Sheriff Arpaio’s cue, activists in New York City have been fasting to push Congress for immigration reform. On Tuesday, ten undocumented students began a hunger strike on the sidewalk outside Sen. Charles Schumer’s midtown Manhattan office to urge him to pass the DREAM Act. When asked how long they intended to continue, the group’s spokesperson, Gabriel Martinez who recently graduated from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said they would stick it out on their blankets outside Schumer’s office “as long as we can hold.” In addition to the students, 40 activists, including New York politicians and clergy, met at Battery Park to initiate a 3-day fast for comprehensive immigration reform yesterday. Most of these fasters intend to spend the remainder of the strike at the Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village. In New York itself, in the past three weeks, 109 activists have been arrested for blocking traffic in front of the government immigration agencies in downtown Manhattan.

These are the latest in a long series of protests, rallies, marches and boycotts that have been taking place across the country. Spurred on by Arizona’s controversial, anti-immigrant law, immigration advocates and activists have been expressing their frustration over the inaction of the Obama administration and Congress over the issue of immigration reform. Meanwhile, Gov. Brewer, who is responsible for signing off on Arizona’s new law, SB1070, was scheduled to meet with President Obama today. Gov. Brewer requested the meeting to speak to the President about her frustration with the lack of federal action in securing the border. Recently, the same Governor told CNN that she was unconcerned about the possibility of the Department of Justice putting up a legal challenge to the new law. “We’ll meet you in court. I have a pretty good record of winning in court,” she said.

Let’s hope the White house stands its ground. Stay tuned!

Photo courtesy of twitter.com/izofice