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Temporary bandage or a real step towards reform and reprieve for DREAMers?

In a desperately needed positive move, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced on August 18 some significant administrative repairs to the country’s broken immigration system. Responding to the tsunami of criticism over their increasingly harsh and unjust immigration policies, including blindly deporting hundreds of thousands of immigrants without due process, the DHS announced a few changes to their policy.

Under the new policy, the DHS and ICE will review and suspend the low-priority deportation cases – around 300,000 of them – that primarily involve younger immigrants and those who are not deemed a threat to public security. This new move especially benefits the DREAMers, who have been fighting tirelessly for their right to remain in the country. The main stipulations of the DHS policy shift, as highlighted by Campus Progress, are the following:

The DHS will create a joint-commission with the Department of Justice (DOJ) to review 300,000 existing deportation cases to identify immigrants that are not high priority cases for removal;

Those that are not high priority individuals for removal —DREAMers, primary caregivers, veterans or relatives of persons in armed services, among others identified in an agency memo (PDF) — will have their cases closed. These individuals should then become eligible to apply for work permits.

This initiative does not provide individuals with an earned path to Legal Permanent Resident (LPR) status or U.S. Citizenship. Work authorization is not guaranteed, either.

These measures have been generally praised by immigration reform activists, DREAMers, organizations and officials that have been fighting for major changes in the immigration system. Representative Luis V. Gutierrez of Illinois, a long time champion for immigration reform – who was also heavily involved in the case with Tony and Janina Wasilewski – reacted positively to the DHS announcement, stating:

This is the Barack Obama I have been waiting for, that Latino and immigrant voters helped put in office to fight for sensible immigration policies.

While the DHS, especially Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, has been guarded about their own policy shift so as not appear to be making a complete turnaround, immigration reform groups have also reacted with some trepidation. Napolitano, during a press conference after the DHS announcement made it clear that “Nobody’s getting a free pass. Nobody’s getting free admission to citizenship or anything like that under this system. Nobody is getting exempted.” Meanwhile, immigration reform groups have commented on the very small percentage of the approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants that will actually benefit from this policy change.

Furthering this stance, Michelle Fei of the Immigrant Defense Project, wrote an op-ed on behalf of the New York State Working Group Against Deportation (NYSGAD) arguing that immigration reform should include new measures for all undocumented immigrants and not just those deemed innocent or harmless. Pointing to a wider flaw in the current immigration policy of the country, Fei writes:

…we cannot accept that people with criminal convictions should be so easily tossed out of our country. They’ve already paid their price in a criminal justice system that seldomly lives up to its promise of fairness and equality – particularly for those from low-income, of color, and immigrant communities. They don’t deserve a harsh second punishment of permanent exile through a deportation system we all know is patently unjust and broken. And no matter what, they still belong with our families and communities.

Fei’s stance on the extents of the the deportation machinery highlight that much more needs to be done until we have a fair and just immigration system in the country. These moves by the DHS are definitely positive and will bring relief to hundreds of thousands of immigrants – many of them young people with a real chance at a great future – who will get another chance to stay in this country. However, the DHS and President Obama must keep this momentum going and really work towards a positive, lasting and effective overhaul of the immigration system. For more information about this policy, read this fact sheet put together by the National Immigrant Justice Center. Add your voice to the immigration reform movement today. Join Restore Fairness.

Photo courtesy of immigrationimpact.com

Two fathers face deportation and separation from their families

Rogelio and Maribel Melgar came to the United States from Guatemala in 1999 with their family. Their son Brayan, then aged 4, had been diagnosed with throat cancer. The Melgars brought him to the U.S., legally, in the hopes of getting him the treatment that was not available in Guatemala. Their initial six-month stay was extended repeatedly as their son’s treatment required more time. The parents couldn’t bear the thought of taking him back to Guatemala to let him die or leaving him in the U.S. while they returned. On May 5, this year, after 12 years of treatment, Brayan passed away, leaving behind his devastated parents and four siblings. Following that tragedy, just over two months later, on July 11, Brayan’s father Rogelio was arrested and is now facing deportation.

The Melgar family is in a particularly complicated situation regarding their status. The parents – Rogelio and Maribel – as well as their older son Hans (16) are all undocumented. Hans is a clear candidate for the DREAM Act. The Melgars’ three youngest children – twin girls (8) and a son (4) – are U.S. citizens by birth. Because of their son Brayan’s prolonged treatment, a family sponsored the Melgars’ stay in the U.S. and arranged for a job at a restaurant for Rogelio. When the restaurant closed in 2004, Rogelio worked as a cook at a care facility until his arrest some weeks ago.

The case of the Melgar family is not unique. There have been countless families that have been fractured as a result of a broken and unfair immigration system that simply doesn’t account for the complexities in each case. The government is denying due process and fairness to communities by enforcing laws that do not allow immigration judges to rule on a case-by-case basis. Laws passed in 1996 eliminate important legal rights that previously enabled immigrants to challenge their detention and deportation. And in a post 9/11 world, these legal rights have been reduced even more dramatically, taking away immigration judges’ ability to consider the circumstances of each individual’s case, leading to mandatory detention and deportation for many.

Over 11% of the population of the U.S is foreign-born (Census Bureau PDF), with a significant number of them being undocumented. According to data released by the Pew Hispanic Center (PDF), undocumented immigrants comprise just over 4% of the adult population of the U.S., while their children make up 8% of the total newborn population and 7% of children (defined as under the age of 18) in this country. Cases of families torn apart, coupled with the numbers demonstrates the need for comprehensive immigration reform that supports basic human rights and ensures due process and fairness for all.

In the meanwhile, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) continues to maintain that the goal of the controversial Secure Communities program is to remove dangerous criminals who don’t have legal status. However, in practice, they have consistently shown otherwise. Numerous immigrants are stopped and checked on minor allegations by local enforcement authorities and their details shared with ICE’s database. This puts these immigrants, in most cases with no criminal record or with minor traffic violations, on the fast track to deportation. And in most cases, their deportation is shattering for the families involved.

Another case of this happening is the story of Salvador Licea of Texas. Licea is a father of two young girls who has lived in Texas for most of his life. He was recently pulled over for a minor traffic violation and then arrested for having an expired license. In a case of blatant racial profiling, he was then told that he was pulled over because his age and skin color matched the description of a ‘drug lord’ or ‘gang banger.’ The authorities took his fingerprints under the jurisdiction of SComm and he is now facing deportation.

Watch the video by The Nation about Licea’s story:

Separation of families is one of the most unfortunate and unjust consequences of our broken immigration system. To learn about the story of yet another family affected by this, watch our Skype interview with Tony Wasilewski, a Polish immigrant whose wife Janina was deported four years ago.

It has now become a widely known fact that the Obama administration has deported more immigrants than the Bush administration, with numbers steadily climbing each year. However, even as President Obama has redirected his immigration efforts to deporting those immigrants who are deemed dangerous and have criminal records, ICE continues to round up people on minor charges. Furthermore, many undocumented immigrants who are trying to live an honest and hardworking life in the U.S. are in complex family situations which are not helped by blanket policies from the authorities. This applies to another set of cases where immigrants are married to U.S. citizens and still face deportation under a harsh 1996 immigration law that deems such immigrants deportable.

In the case of the Melgar family, Rogelio faced a hearing on July 19 in Provo, Utah, where him and his wife met for the first time since he was arrested. In a strange turn of events, the prosecutor, Deputy Utah County Attorney Chard Grunander, admitted that the state wasn’t ready to file charges against Melgar. The judge then released Rogelio’s $5,000 bond and told him he was free to go. However, immediately following this, Rogelio was taken back to Utah County Jail and is now being kept by ICE for a federal investigation.

Rogelio’s wife, Maribel, is still grappling with multiple blows to her family. She is trying to hold on to the memories of a time when her family was together and firmly believes staying in the U.S was the right thing to do:

If we had stayed in Guatemala, my son would’ve been dead at 6 years old…But God gave us a chance to have our son for another 12 years in this country.

It is important to work together to push for comprehensive immigration reform that won’t separate such families and will ensure dignity, respect, and due process for all. Become an ally of Restore Fairness and get involved today. For more information on the separation of families due to deportation and what you can do, go to familiesforfreedom.org

Photo courtesy of Families for Freedom

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

“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)