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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

Georgia Is Not a “Show Me Your Papers” State

Guest blogger: Azadeh N. Shahshahani, National Security/Immigrants’ Rights Project Director, ACLU Foundation of Georgia.

Co-authored with Omar Jadwat, ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project. Cross-posted from Huffington Post.

This week the ACLU and ACLU of Georgia along with a coalition of other civil rights groups filed a class action lawsuit challenging Georgia’s discriminatory anti-immigrant law inspired by Arizona’s notorious S.B. 1070. The Georgia law authorizes police to demand “papers” demonstrating citizenship or immigration status during traffic stops and makes it unjustifiably difficult for individuals without specific identification documents to access state facilities and services. The lawsuit charges the extreme law endangers public safety, invites the racial profiling of Latinos, Asians, and others who appear foreign to a police officer, and interferes with federal law.

The Georgia law criminalizes everyday folks who have daily interactions with undocumented individuals in their community, making people of faith and others vulnerable to arrest and detention while conducting acts of charity and kindness.

Paul Bridges is one such person. Mr. Bridges, one of our clients in the case, is a long-time supporter of the Republican Party and is the mayor of Uvalda, Georgia, a town of approximately 600 people in Montgomery County. Because he speaks Spanish and is a well-known presence in the community, Mr. Bridges often assists with interpretation in schools, doctors’ offices, court and other settings. He also provides transportation to undocumented individuals so they can go to church, the grocery store, doctors’ appointments and soccer tournaments in nearby towns. If the Georgia law goes into effect, Mr. Bridges and the undocumented individuals traveling with him will be at risk of criminal prosecution.

Paul J. Edwards is another plaintiff in our case who believes strongly in helping all individuals in his community regardless of their immigration status. Mr. Edwards is a devout Christian, and as part of his religious commitment, he transports people, including those who are undocumented, to places of worship and to locations which provide medical assistance. Under the Georgia law, he would be subject to criminal liability for assisting, transporting and harboring these undocumented individuals.

In the words of Anton Flores, Executive Director of Alterna, a faith-based organization that provides a variety of social services to the Latino immigrant community, under Georgia’s law: “we will be forced to wrestle with the new law that contradicts the mandates of our faith tradition as well as having to fear religious persecution and social pressures because of our programs and activities.”

The criminalization of these acts of hospitality, faith, and conscience is misplaced and poses an undue burden on Georgians’ every day interactions with their friends and community.

Georgia is not a “show me your papers” state nor one that believes in making certain people “untouchables” that others should be afraid to assist, house, or transport. We expect that the courts will block this fundamentally un-American law from implementation.

Photo courtesy of immigrationtruthsquad.com.

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.

Fictional ban on interracial unions and abortion in America 2049 becoming all too real today

Games, it turns out, imitate life — sometimes eerily so — just as history so often threatens to repeat itself. This week, Breakthrough’s ongoing Facebook gaming event, America 2049, tackles two major issues that become linked within the narrative of the game: interracial unions and abortion. During gameplay, players encounter the story of Bonnie, a privileged white Southern woman who is pregnant with the child of a black man: the product, that is, of an illegal relationship. But that’s not the only reason she’s in hiding; she’s also at risk of being forced to abort her baby as a “mercy” (”A baby like that wouldn’t know who its own kind is,” her father says), even though abortion too is illegal in this scenario. That’s where class comes in, too: it’s made clear that while families like hers have access to skilled abortion care, women less fortunate — and forced to seek out back-alley providers — die at a rate of 180,000 per year.

Sounds a lot like our pre-Roe v. Wade past, but also, more and more, like our near future. Last month, a Public Policy Polling survey (PDF) found that a majority of Republican voters in Mississippi would support a ban on interracial marriage. Meanwhile, on May 4, all House Republicans and 16 Democrats voted to pass H.R.3, the so-called “No Tax Payer Funding for Abortion Act,” which Ms. Magazine has called “misleading and punitive.” (For one thing, there is no federal funding of abortion.)

The bill will now go to the Senate, which is Democrat-controlled, leading many to believe that it will likely not pass. The Obama administration has also promised to veto the bill if it comes across the President’s desk.

The Mississippi poll results and the H.R.3 passage in the House happened independently, but their timing is apt. The scenario explored in America 2049 connects back to our country’s history of anti-miscegenation laws, which were not repealed until 1967. The story of Bonnie, the character in the game, echoes that of an interracial married couple Richard and Mildred Loving, whose fight for equality led to the historic 1967 decision to legalize interracial unions.

The Lovings are the subject of the new documentary The Loving Story that screened recently at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York and will air on HBO in February 2012. Richard Loving, a white man, met Mildred Jeter, a woman of African and Native American ancestry, in 1951 in a small town in Virginia. When Mildred was 18, she became pregnant. She and Richard went to nearby Washington, D.C. and got married, since Virginia laws at the time prohibited interracial marriage. A few weeks later, back in Virginia, the Lovings were arrested for their union and banished from the state for 25 years. The Lovings reached out to legislators and advocates in Washington, D.C. and, after a long fight, they won their right to be together. On June 12, 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down all remaining state anti-miscegenation laws and the Lovings returned to Virginia to live out the rest of their lives. The anniversary of the date, June 12, is now celebrated as “Loving Day“ by some interracial couples and increasing numbers of same-sex couples, who are currently fighting for their own right to marry.

Watch a testimonial by Bonnie, a character in America 2049, who speaks about the danger she is in for being in an interracial relationship and being pregnant with an interracial child:

The right to choose whom to love or marry; the right to control one’s body and future: they’re intimately linked. And at present — with H.R.3 only one of numerous legislative attacks on women’s human rights today — the latter truly hangs in the balance.

As Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, commented:

”True to form, the House majority has cast a wide net in its attack on women’s health and rights — this time, trying to use the tax code to eradicate all insurance coverage for abortion. This move is the height of hypocrisy, because politicians who regularly rail against big government today voted to raise taxes on millions of families and small businesses — merely to stop them from purchasing insurance plans that cover abortion.”

Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, added:

”Despite facing intense public backlash for bringing the government to the brink of shutdown over defunding Planned Parenthood, Speaker Boehner and his allies have resumed their war on women with the passage of H.R.3. This bill is so extreme that it manipulates the tax code to advance anti-choice policies and could spur the IRS to audit rape and incest survivors who choose abortion care.”

The H.R.3 bill also affects the rights of physicians and their freedom to properly care for their patients. While women’s rights are greatly affected by this potential piece of legislation, the providers who would administer the abortions safely will be even more restricted and possibly at greater risk. The Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health (PRCH) is one such group of providers who have committed to providing reproductive medical care, especially to those who with limited financial means. The organization supports the right of their doctors to deliver such care without becoming a target. Last night in New York, the PRCH Abortion Provider Awards recognized the dedication, compassion and tenacity of Dr. Eleanor Drey and Dr. Curtis Boyd. Said Dr. Boyd: “We are now facing the most repressive and aggressive legislation against women that we’ve seen since the 1950s.” How will we treat women and families of all sorts in the 2050s? You decide.

Photo courtesy of america2049.com

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Tax day, Passover week: labor, migration & justice, now…and in 2049

On this year’s Tax Day that has just passed, several organizations including the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), MoveOn, Daily Kos and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) joined forces for ‘Tax Day: Make Them Pay.’ The groups organized peaceful protests around the country outside the offices of big corporations and millionaires that have evaded paying taxes for last year, mostly due to government-mandated tax breaks. According to the site, “In 2009, after helping crash the American economy, Bank of America paid $0 in taxes. GE had a tax bill of $0 in 2010. Republicans want to give a $50 billion tax bailout to big oil companies…” These protests came at the heels of news that corporations such as General Electric paid no federal taxes in 2010, something that has infuriated the millions of workers around the country who work hard and are expected to dutifully pay their taxes on time.

The tax break issue is the latest in a series of developments that have recently charged the country’s politics around the issues of immigration and labor rights, with them coming together in the case of migrant workers. Last month, the country witnessed a major standoff in the Wisconsin state government between Governor Scott Walker (and his Republican-led state assembly) and thousands of labor groups and workers in the state as the Governor pledged to enact a bill to severely curtail collective bargaining. After three weeks of fierce debates, Gov. Walker managed to push the bill through. The Ohio state assembly soon followed suit, with other states such as Tennessee and Iowa heading in a similar direction. This steady erosion of worker rights presents an increasing risk not just to the economy of this country but also to its social fabric. It also echoes a past where worker rights were often ignored, especially in the case of immigrant workers.

Last month, several labor groups and organizations marked the centennial anniversary of an incident that highlights the lack of protection of workers – the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of March 28, 1911, in which 146 mostly immigrant workers died. To mark the centenary of the tragedy, many labor rights groups amplified their push for pro-labor rights legislation to challenge the spate of anti-union labor bills that were passed recently. The 1911 tragedy brings to light the plight of immigrant workers and the exploitation that still continues today. At a rally commemorating the tragedy, one union member, Walfre Merida, described the similarities between the condition of migrant workers today and those that perished in the fire a hundred years ago. Merida stated-

I see that a hundred years since this terrible accident that killed so many people, things have really not changed at all…Safety conditions, none. Grab your tool and go to work, no more. And do not stop. When we worked in high places, on roofs, we never used harnesses, one became accustomed to the dangers and thanked God we weren’t afraid of heights. One would risk his life out of necessity.

As stories of worker rights violations continue to proliferate, we must take heed from our past mistakes in order to avoid a degradation of these conditions in the future. This week – just as Jews around the world gather at the Passover table to recount their liberation from migrant slave labor in Egypt – Breakthrough’s Facebook game, America 2049, immerses players into discussions around labor rights, especially with regards to the rights of immigrant workers. The game utilizes several events and artifacts from the past to highlight the continued struggles of migrant workers in the United States. In the game’s world in which everyone has an embedded chip to mark their identity, players are given the mission to investigate a counterfeiting ring that helps indentured workers – primarily immigrants, though also citizens who have succumbed to crushing credit debt – to escape their unjust contracts and inhumane living conditions, and begin new lives. The game references the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire as a lesson from the past about the respect and rightful treatment of workers. It also suggests a future that is even bleaker because we as a country have failed to recognize the importance of immigrant workers and worker rights to the success of the country as a whole.

Watch a testimonial by a character in the game, Ziyad Youssef, a Syrian man who was lured into a job with promises of good pay and easy hours, but found himself in slavery-like conditions, unable to look after his sick daughter or provide basic amenities to his family:

The United States is currently grappling with an issue that will inevitably affect our national economy and social conditions in the years to come. The denial of legitimacy and basic rights to immigrant workers will only hamper the nation’s growth on the world stage. In a special report on global migration published in 2008, The Economist argued for the widespread acceptance of migrant workers by the richer countries that so desperately need them. Speaking about the United States, the report stated-

Around a third of the Americans who won Nobel prizes in physics in the past seven years were born abroad. About 40% of science and engineering PhDs working in America are immigrants. Around a third of Silicon Valley companies were started by Indians and Chinese. The low-skilled are needed too, especially in farming, services and care for children and the elderly. It is no coincidence that countries that welcome immigrants—such as Sweden, Ireland, America and Britain—have better economic records than those that shun them…Americans object to the presence of around 12m illegal migrant workers in a country with high rates of legal migration. But given the American economy’s reliance on them, it is not just futile but also foolish to build taller fences to keep them out.

Players in America 2049 will discover valuable artifacts from our country’s past that highlight an ongoing struggle for worker rights and have the agency to join the discussion and save the country’s future from the dystopic scenario the game depicts. One of the artifacts in the game is a poem titled ‘A Song for Many Movements,’ written in 1982 by Audre Lord, a black feminist lesbian poet. The poem articulates the connection between suffering and speaking out against injustices, which is what the workers rights protests around the country have been doing and which we must keep advocating until real change is made-

Broken down gods survive
in the crevasses and mudpots
of every beleaguered city
where it is obvious
there are too many bodies
to cart to the ovens
or gallows
and our uses have become
more important than our silence
after the fall
too many empty cases
of blood to bury or burn
there will be no body left
to listen
and our labor
has become more important
than our silence.

Our labor has become
more important
than our silence.

Photo courtesy of seiu.org

How ‘Un-American’ are Peter King’s Congressional hearings?

On Friday, March 4, two elderly Sikh men were gunned down without provocation while they were out for a casual stroll in a suburb of Sacramento. One of them, Surinder Singh (67), died immediately while his friend Gurmej Atwal (78), who was shot twice in the chest, is said to be in critical condition. The police who are investigating the attack have called on any witnessed to come forward and said that while they are still searching for evidence, there is a high probability that the there was a “hate or bias motivation for the crime.” This unfortunate attack took place just days before Rep. Peter King (R-NY) began his controversial House Homeland Security Committee hearings on the “The Extent of Radicalization” among American Muslims. With the upcoming 10th year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and the endless spate of hate crimes against minority groups, it is difficult to ignore the implications that this Congressional hearing will have on the future of this country.

In the aftermath of 9/11,  heightened national security measures and increased suspicion of immigrant communities have placed a harsh spotlight on Muslim Americans as well as the wider South Asian and Arab American communities, deeply impacting the ways in which these communities are perceived and damaging their sense of national identity.

The first of the King hearings took place in Washington D.C. yesterday. Rep. Peter King said that he initiated these hearings in response to a string of arrests in 2010 concerning Muslim Americans who were connected to intercepted plots against American targets. In an interview with the Associated Press, King stated-

There is a real threat to the country from the Muslim community and the only way to get to the bottom of it is to investigate what is happening.

The committee yesterday heard from a panel of witnesses that argued for and against the premise of the hearings. Those who argued that the country needs to be more vigilant about the “radicalization” of the Muslim community included Dr. M Zuhdi Jasser, a doctor and Navy veteran who called on his fellow Muslims to be more outspoken against radical Islam, and Abdirizak Bihi, a Somali American activist whose nephew joined a militant group in Somalia and was subsequently killed in 2009. During the hearing, the most pointed questions against the premise came from Representatives who raised concerns over why other extremist groups – affiliated with various religions – were not even being considered by King and his committee. Speaking to the press after the hearing yesterday, King called it a success, emphasizing that the purpose was to “inform, not to inflame.”

The run-up to the hearings saw a very polarized response, with groups like Fox News expressing substantial support for them, while human rights advocates consistently condemned them. The greatest criticism of the hearings was not that extremist acts of terror pose a threat to national security and need to be investigated, but that King’s approach is biased and isolationist. The criticism holds that by scapegoating a community based on their religious affiliation, the King hearings will have widespread repercussions on how American Muslims will be perceived by the wider public. For a community that is already the subject of suspicion and profiling, the Congressional hearings, by calling for greater accountability for American Muslims above any other group, has very real implications for community identity, public perception, integration and collective healing.

One of the most vocal opponents of the hearings is the country’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a group that Peter King has accused of conspiring with radical Islamist groups. In addition to asserting their identity as a peaceful organization, CAIR said that they would have supported the hearings if they were “balanced and fair.” Also opposing King’s approach to the issue is the civil rights organization, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), that stated in their 2010 annual report on “hate and extremism” that the “radical right in America expanded explosively in 2010,” as the number of hate groups topped 1,000.

A number of critics also held that this kind of focalized criticism of a specific community could result in the loss of trust these groups have towards law enforcement agencies and the government, impeding the work of law enforcement and thus work against ensuring the safety of all communities. At the hearing, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), the first Muslim member of Congress, gave an emotional testimony about Mohammad Salman Hamdani, a NYPD cadet who was under suspicion for being involved with the attacks even as died trying to help victims on September 11, 2001. Breaking into tears, Ellison described -

After the tragedy…some people tried to smear his character … solely because of his Islamic faith. Some people spread false rumors and speculated that he was in league with the attackers because he was a Muslim. But it was only when his remains were identified that these lies were exposed. Mohammad Salman Hamdani was a fellow American who gave his life for other Americans. His life should not be identified as just a member of an ethnic group or just a member of a religion, but as an American who gave everything for his fellow Americans.

This anecdote, from an event still fresh in public memory, highlights the deeply damaging impact that continued demonization of an entire religious group can and does have on people’s lives. Moreover, by coming from an institutionalized source such as the House of Representatives (despite a marked distance by the Obama administration), the hearings put out a very strong message to the American public, and need to be understood for the authority that they wield. Even after Rep. King diluted his more aggressive original agenda, the hearings signal and amplify a deep sense of suspicion towards one group of Americans. Especially when ratified by the political leaders of the country, such trends pose a threat to the fundamental American principles of dignity and respect towards everyone. And that, perhaps, is a bigger threat to national security, especially in these testing times.

For a lighter, yet insightful take on King’s track record and alleged hypocrisy in this issue, watch Jon Stewart’s analysis of the hearings here:

Photo courtesy of www.upi.com

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This Thanksgiving, dream a little dream for youth around the country

Young people like Noemi Degante and Fredd Reyes deserve the opportunity to contribute to the country they have called home for most of their lives. Instead, they will spend this Thanksgiving under arrest and in detention for demanding a chance to complete college and strive for successful careers and fulfilling lives.

After a long night of studying for an exam at Guilford Technical Community College, Fredd Reyes was rudely awakened by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials at 5am on a morning in September. He was handcuffed and taken from his home in North Carolina to the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia, a place that has been the subject of recent critiques and protests for it’s inhumane immigration detention practices.

Fredd, who was brought to the U.S. from Guatemala when his parents were fleeing persecution and death threats, has spent the 22 years that he has lived in this country working hard to be a model student and create the life that his parents envisioned for him. The reasons for Fredd’s detention are the same as those holding back the 2.1 million undocumented young people around the United States who were brought here as children by their parents. For all these young people, the DREAM Act (The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act) is the only hope for the chance to make the most out of the k-12 education that they have received and follow their aspirations. If passed, the DREAM Act would make undocumented people like Fredd eligible for a green card and a path to citizenship, as long as they came to the U.S. before the age of 16 (and are below the age of 35 when the law is passed), have been in the country for more than 6 years, and once they have completed at least two years of a college degree or military service. The DREAM Act, which will be coming up for a vote in the Senate before the end of the lame duck session, has received bipartisan support a number of times in the past, but has always stopped short of being passed.

Following Senate majority leader Harry Reid’s announcement that he would reintroduce the DREAM Act in Congress after Thanksgiving, DREAM Activists around the country have upped the anti to urge Congress to work together to make sure that it is passed this time around. Two weeks ago a dozen students at the University of Texas in San Antonio began a hunger strike to urge Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who has supported the DREAM Act in the past but refused to vote for it in September, to agree to vote for the bill when it is reintroduced in Congress. This week, another 30 students from University of Texas campuses in Austin, Dallas, Arlington, Brownsville and Edinburg, as well as the University of North Texas in Denton, joined the hunger strike to drive the message home. The strike is being led by DREAM Act NOW, a group that is part of the national coalition called United we DREAM, which brings together DREAM Activists in all the states. Lucy Martinez, who is a second year at UT San Antonio and one of the leaders of strike said that the strike is their last resort since they “have tried everything else. We have done lobbying, legislative visits, marches, sit-ins. We are tired of it.” Martinez likened the hunger strike to “what we go through in our everyday lives — starving without a future.”

Also trying to convince a Republican who has gone from supporting the DREAM Act to taking a stand against it, Noemi Degante in Arizona was arrested and charged with ‘unlawful conduct and demonstrating in a building in the Capitol complex’ after staging a sit-in outside Sen. Jon McCain’s office on November 17th. She, and five other “dreamers” had waited all day to see him, only to be denied a conversation with him he was finally spotted. When they told him that they wanted a chance to serve the country the same way that he did, he replied, “Good, go serve.” Noemi returned to waiting after that, and was arrested when she refused to leave after the office closed.

Frank Sharry, who is the Executive Director of the advocacy organization, America’s Voice, hosted a press conference on the DREAM Act on November 18th at which he stated that the majority of the lobbying efforts are currently being directed at the Republican Senators who have voted for previous versions of the DREAM Act in the past and have since reversed their positions. As the Senate vote on the DREAM Act approaches, it is imperative that Congress men and women are made aware that beyond the political realm, this bill would have a tremendous impact on the on the well-being of countless families, and on the future of this country, it’s youth and it’s economy. The national DREAM Act campaign, United we DREAM, has designated November 29th and 30th as National Dream Days of Action. So as you sit down to give thanks and enjoy your family this Thanksgiving, make sure you think of all the families that have been separated and all the young people that need the chance to dream. Pick up the phone and call your Senators to demand the DREAM Act. Happy Thanksgiving!

Watch these young dreamers and be inspired!

Photo courtesy of blog.nj.com

Are you voting tomorrow?

Tomorrow is voting day, so make sure you get out there and vote. Here are some things that might motivate you to make your vote count and have your voice heard in the 2010 elections-

Our friends at Colorlines have been running a blog section on their website called ’2010 Elections’ that keeps you up to date with all news, events, and information pertaining to the mid-term elections. Their latest entry features Senator Harry Reid’s interview with Univision in which he promised Univision reporter Jorge Ramos that he would bring the DREAM Act up for a vote again, regardless of whether he won or lost tomorrow’s election. Reid’s opponent is a Tea Party supporter Sharron Angle, who’s election campaign centered around a series of racist, anti-immigrant ads. Another article on ’2010 Elections’ illustrates the hypocrisy of Republican strategist Robert de Posada, the man who created the ad that advised the Latino community not to vote in this election. Colorlines tells us that after creating this ad that told Latinos not to vote, it turns out that he himself voted by absentee ballot in Virginia earlier this month. The ad says-

Democratic leaders must pay for their broken promises and betrayals…If we go on supporting them this November, they will keep playing games with our future and keep taking our vote for granted…If they didn’t keep their promise on immigration reform then, they can’t count on our vote…Don’t vote this November. This is the only way to send them a clear message. You can no longer take us for granted. Don’t vote.

It is exactly this sort of voter suppression that we need to fight by voting tomorrow. Our friends at Presente.org told us about this and other voter suppression tactics that have been seen impacting the Latino community and their allies around the country. In Texas, a voter registration group called Houston Votes has been the victim of a systematic suppression campaign, including baseless allegations of fraud by the local registrar, and a string of threatening emails strewn with racist insults. The result: registrations have dropped from 1,000 per day to under 200. In Arizona, Senator Russel Pearce — the same man who authored SB 1070 — is accusing organizations like Mi Familia Vota of “voter fraud” in a thinly veiled effort to hamper their registration activities and scare Latino voters from the polls.

A number of radicals are resorting to fear-mongering and scare tactics to ensure that certain communities are denied a voice in this election. In addition to voting tomorrow, get involved with an important project called Video the Vote, a national network of everyday people on who watch out for problems on Election Day. The project helps people report things they see when voting and also document incidents that occur in their area. Started in 2006, Video the Vote volunteers have helped raise national awareness of voting problems by recording over 1,000 videos that have been broadcast on networks like CBS, CNN, and ABC and viewed over 1 million times online.

It’s essential that voter suppression problems get reported right away and that their full story is told by the media on Election Day. Video the Vote urgently needs more volunteers, so if you want to help protect the right to vote, join today and tell your friends about the program as well.

And one last thing. Did you know that thousands of people didn’t cast in 2008 because they didn’t know where to vote? Luckily, for the first time in American history, every voter can now look up their polling place. All you have to do is enter your address to find out which polling station is yours. And make sure to share this handy tool with your friends through Facebook and Twitter.

Happy voting!

Photo courtesy of colorlines.com

Will Latino enthusiasm color the mid-term vote?

In these weeks leading up to the mid-term elections, the competition for voter support is intense and the tension is most palpable in the sphere of the media where candidates are vying for support from specific voter groups. Looking specifically at the constituency of Latino voters, research conducted by America’s Voice and the Latino Decisions team has found that in spite of, or possibly even as a direct consequence of the rabid anti-immigrant campaigning on the part of right wing members of the Republican party, there has been an steady increase in numbers of Latinos who will vote Democrat in the mid-term elections.

From the standpoint of the immigration issue, it is interesting to note that while researchers were seeing a strong sense of disillusionment with the Democrat party amongst Latinos and other immigrants over the last few months, currently, this trend seems to be changing. Latinos, who voted predominantly Democrat in the 2008 Presidential election, had begun to wane in their support for the Democratic party as a result of the party’s failure to deliver on promises of immigration reform made during the 2008 electoral campaign.

As announced by America’s Voice and Latino Decisions on a call yesterday though, recent tracking polls reveal that there has been a significant increase in the number of registered Latino voters, and that a majority of them are voting Democrat. One of the key criteria by which Latino Decisions measure their data is “degree of enthusiasm.” Yesterday’s tracking poll showed a much greater deal of enthusiasm for next week’s election amongst Democrat leaning Latino voters than amongst the (smaller) Republican leaning Latino population. Most importantly, this is a huge change from a month ago- this week, 61% of Latino voters said they were “very enthusiastic” about voting on November 2nd, as compared to only 40% on September 6th. The research shows-

For the fourth straight week, we find an increase in the percentage of Latino registered voters who report being very enthusiastic about voting in November 2010.  Four weeks ago just 40.3% of Latinos said they were very enthusiastic, and today that figures reaches 58.3%.  Self-reported turnout certainty remained constant at 75.1% from one week ago, up 10 point from four weeks ago.  As election day draws near, and early voting is in full swing, Latinos are reportedly showing more and more interest and enthusiasm.

According to Matt Barreto of Latino Decisions, this increase in enthusiasm is largely due to the anti-immigrant and blatantly anti-Latino campaigns that a lot of Republican candidates have run. In the past weeks, Senator Harry Reid’s opponent in Nevada, Republican candidate Sharron Angle, has released a series of ads that, along with demonizing Harry Reid for his support of immigration reform, are extremely anti-immigrant, anti-Latino and even blatantly racist. Calling Reid “The Best Friend An Illegal Alien Ever Had,” one of the ads juxtaposes images of aggressive looking Latino fence skulking alongside a fence with images of an innocent white family. Her second ad shows a group of “gang-like” Latino men threatening white college students. Continuing to pit the “dangerous” brown people against the “innocent” white people like her and her family, the most recent ad might be the one to tip the Senatorial race in Nevada against Sharron Angle, given that Latinos are said to play a prominent role in the tight race between Reid and Angle.

Watch the offensive ad below-

Foolhardy anti-immigrant campaigns are not the only reason that Latinos seem more keen to vote next week. In addition to a mammoth effort on the part of civic and community groups and labor unions such as the Services Employees Workers Union working on the ground to encourage people to vote, President Obama himself seems to be focusing his energy on winning back the support of the immigrant community and driving them to the polls.

In an interview for Univision yesterday, President Obama defended his unsuccessful attempt at securing immigration reform. Making an analogy to the civil rights movement, he urged that change takes time, and reassured the community that he would push for immigration reform as soon as he could. In his interview, he sought to convince listeners that it was Republicans who were responsible for blocking the passage of immigration reform, making a pointed reference to Sen. John McCain as one of the 11 Republicans who support immigration reform a few years ago only to back away from the issue over the past year. Today, the President is holding a conference call along with actress Eva Longoria, to highlight the actions he has taken that benefit the Latino community and drive home the point that a refusal to vote in the mid-term elections could mean a death knell for immigration reform.

Whatever your reasons, it’s really important to get your voice out there, so make sure you vote!

Breaking news: Senate filibuster leaves DREAM Act in limbo

When Sen. Harry Reid announced last week that he would be adding the DREAM Act and a repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ as amendments to the Defense Authorization Bill that was being put before the Senate, it sent waves of excitement and hope through the immigration world and around the nation, especially with respect to the 800,000 youth that have a lot at stake with the passage of the DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act). The DREAM Act, which is a very crucial first step towards much needed immigration reform in the United States, would allow current, former and future undocumented high-school graduates a pathway to citizenship through college or the Armed Forces.

Today, as people waited to see how the Senate vote on the Defense Authorization Bill would proceed, the excitement mounted. Although Sen. Reid had put the DREAM Act up as an amendment, it could only come up for vote once the Democrats had the 60 votes needed to begin debate on the $726 billion Defense Authorization Bill. Unfortunately, at 2.15 pm today, the Republicans led a successful filibuster of the Defense Authorization Bill in the Senate, killing the chance of a vote and passage of the DREAM Act this time around. While all Democrats voted to bring the bill to the floor, they were unable to win the support of enough Republicans to move the bill forward. The Senate filibuster on the Defense Authorization Bill has also held up passage of a repeal of the ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ policy of gays in the military.

Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change, expressed his frustration at the Senate vote saying-

Today’s vote should have been a simple one. This wasn’t going to change any laws, but merely allow the DREAM Act a chance to be fully debated. The Republicans couldn’t even allow that. Unfortunately, it’s not surprising considering they’ve held steadfast to their adopted role as obstructionists. Their behavior today was appalling. They failed the youth of America; they failed the country. Many of these venerable senators will say they support the DREAM Act but opposed the procedure…The GOP shut down debate on the DREAM Act because they hope the incredible and unprecedented activism seen all across the U.S. this past week will disappear. It won’t. Activists showed how quickly a movement can coalesce and be a driving a force…The GOP can’t filibuster this energy and enthusiasm. We are a powerful movement, and our movement will be felt come November.

The story is far from over. While it is hugely disappointing that just a few Republican votes kept the DREAM Act from being brought to the floor, today’s vote signaled a momentous step in the progress of the “dream.” Over the last few weeks, hundreds of thousands of people around the nation have worked tirelessly to get the “dream” passed. They have signed petitions, held vigils and made countless calls to Senators, urging them to support the DREAM Act. Now more than ever, it is important that we keep the pressure on Senators and those in positions of leadership so that they show their support for the DREAM Act so that the next time that it is brought to the floor of the Senate, we have a very different outcome.

Photo courtesy of nytimes.com