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DESERTED: The Human Rights Crisis On Our Soil

When I traveled to Arizona with Ishita to create Checkpoint Nation, I wrote:

It was the first time I had experienced the overwhelming size of the desert sky. The sunset was magnificent, and the endless stretch of cacti and desert rocks were lit up with the last pink moments of twilight. But the sunset’s beauty was overpowered by what I had seen in the rest of Arizona: men and women in shackles (feet chained to waist, waist chained to wrists), a morgue filled twice-over with John & Jane Does, a wall that divides families and ancient lands. From this view, the sunset had a whole different meaning: it marked the beginning of one more cold, waterless night for so many migrants forced to hide in the militarized desert.
Our video camera could hardly capture all that we saw, but we knew that this footage had to be shared with the world.

There is a human rights crisis on our soil that no one is talking about. Migrant men, women, and children are driven by extreme poverty to cross the U.S.-Mexico border — and dying for it. One one side of our border wall: flood lights, empty desert, and countless human remains. On the other: discarded water jugs, and empty desert. The border wall now stretches across Arizona in the easiest places to cross, so that migrants are purposefully funneled into the most treacherous conditions. The remains of over 6,000 human bodies have been found in the desert since militarized immigration policies started in the mid 1990s. And for every body discovered, there are many more not found — and innumerable families who will never know what happened. No matter your opinion on immigration reform, this is a crisis that all of us, as humans, are responsible for addressing — and ending. Join with Breakthrough: WATCH. SHARE. ACT.

For information on how to end this crisis on our border, visit Coalición de Derechos Humanos and No More Deaths.

VIDEO CREDITS: Directed, filmed and edited by Dana Variano with Ishita Srivastava; music by Denver Dalley; post-production audio by Hobo Audio. Produced by Breakthrough.

Communities speaking out against injustice targeted by ICE

On Saturday, September 17, early in the morning, a man in Shelbyville, Tennessee, woke up to find Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents in his bedroom. They had entered his home through an unlocked door and and took him into custody. The residents of Shelbyville are facing an unexpected, alleged, government backlash after a hearing held on September 12 by several nonprofits, where Latino residents testified against federal, state and local law enforcement authorities, accusing them of racial profiling and illegal detention. Representative from the U.S Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) were present at the hearings.

ICE also raided the homes and businesses of at least two people that had organized the hearing, sparking immigrant rights advocates to call for a federal investigation into the misconduct of the local authorities and ICE agents. While ICE denies that the raids were conducted in response to the hearings, Shelbyville residents and community advocates refuse to believe that there is no connection between their speaking out against the authorities and these ICE raids just five days later.

The community has reacted strongly to these developments, claiming that ICE’s goal is to intimidate the residents, especially the undocumented immigrants that live there. Bill Geissler, longtime Shelbyville resident and business owner, commented:

The real problem with these sorts of violations is that everyone needs to follow the law.  If ICE is going after immigrants who they suspect have broken laws, why aren’t they following guidelines that are intended to protect the civil liberties of Shelbyville residents?

Furthermore, the Rights Working Group and the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition have joined forces in sending a formal letter to the Office for Civil Rights and Liberties (OCRL) as well as the DOJ in Washington DC to protest these actions by ICE, and encourage national leaders to do something. In their letter to the OCRL (see PDF here), the advocacy groups state:

..These actions have spread fear throughout the Latino community, which feels targeted and increasingly under siege by law enforcement – whether it be ICE, state or local police. The result has been a severe chilling of speech in the community and increased fear of government agents. The Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties was in attendance at this forum for the purpose of listening to community concerns about civil rights abuses by state and local police and ICE. Days later, this same community was targeted by an immigration enforcement action leading to the chilling of free speech and further civil rights abuses.

The town of Shelbyville has been in the spotlight for some time especially because of director Kim A. Snyder’s compelling documentary, Welcome to Shelbyville. The film looked at the community at a crossroads, as the longtime African-American and White populations adapted to the rapidly growing Latino and Somali immigrant communities moving in. While exploring immigrant integration, the film unravels the interplay between race, religion and identity. As the film’s website states, “Ultimately, the story is an intimate portrayal of a community’s struggle to understand what it means to be American.”

This question of being American and the integration of immigrants is also the theme of Breakthrough’s latest video, Checkpoint Nation? Building Community Across Borders that sheds a light on post-9/11 racial profiling that has been mandated by laws such as Arizona’s SB1070. In particular, it tells the story of Maria, nine months pregnant, who was stopped along with her family by police for no discernable reason. What followed was a nightmarish situation as Maria went into labor and found herself giving birth to her son with immigration agents – and not her husband – by her side.

The video has been highlighted in a Huffington Post feature titled Undocumented Women Forced To Give Birth While Shackled And In Police Custody which looks at the stories of women who have been in similar situations to Maria and the ongoing climate of fear and inhumane conditions that is being perpetuated by law enforcement authorities. Mallika Dutt, president and founder of Breakthrough, said about the issue:

We talk about cops in other parts of the world, and we say ‘Oh, they don’t respect human rights,’ but where are we now? If something as important and sacred as someone giving birth can no longer be treated as human, where are we?

While law enforcement authorities must change their policies to end the unjust treatment of immigrants in communities across the country, some communities are taking their own steps to work towards unity and end discriminatory violence. In 2008, a series of attacks against Latino residents of Patchogue, New York and the murder of Marcelo Lucero, an Ecuadorian immigrant, shattered the community of the small town.

For two years after the murder, the town’s Mayor Paul Pontieri, the victim’s brother, Joselo Lucero, and Patchogue residents worked to heal the community and move forward as a unified and diverse group. This story is told in a poignant documentary, Not In Our Town: Light in the Darkness, that follows the healing process of the community to work towards a a community that respects its own diversity and doesn’t give way to divisive politics. The film premiered on PBS on September 21 and is also available for local screenings.

Comprehensive immigration reform is of utmost importance in our nation now so unjust and discriminatory actions like those committed by ICE and other authorities in Shelbyville and other communities are stopped. We must, as a nation, find a solution that works with immigrants in a dignified and humane way to mend a system that has been broken for a long time.

Join Restore Fairness today and lend your voice to the struggle for dignity, equality and justice.

Photo courtesy of standing-firm.com

National award honors three Arizona winners for immigrant rights

From our B-listed blog:

This came across our desk – check out this event today!

On Wednesday, September 28th, the Freedom From Fear Award will hold a reception from 5:30 to 6:30 pm at the Sheraton Downtown Phoenix to celebrate Arizona’s three winners of the award, which honors “15 ordinary people who have committed extraordinary acts of courage on behalf of immigrants and refugees—individuals who have taken a risk, set an example, and inspired others to action or awareness.” Arizona has more winners than any other state and was also represented on the Selection Committee by State Senator Kyrsten Sinema. Arizona’s winners are:

Erika Andiola, Leader of the Arizona DREAM Coalition (Mesa)
Jack Harris, Former Police Chief of Phoenix
Gene Lefebrve and Sarah Roberts of No More Deaths (Tucson)

The awards, produced by Public Interest Projects, were originally announced on June 18th at the Netroots Nation conference in Minneapolis. This is the first regional event to recognize winners. More information about the award and all the winners is available at www.FreedomFromFearAward.com.

TODAY join Rights Working Group and Melissa Harris-Perry on Twitter to discuss profiling and rights after 9/11

Crossposted from Rights Working Group

Rights Working Group and renown progressive scholar Melissa Harris-Perry will hold a Twitter Chat, TODAY from 3-4 pm ET, about racial profiling and ways to reclaim and expand rights lost after 9/11.

Why? Ten years ago, in June 2001, the End Racial Profiling Act was first introduced in Congress with strong bi-partisan support.  After 9/11, significant support for ending racial profiling took a backseat to unethical national security policies that expanded racial profiling to other groups.  The federal government began targeting people of Arab, Middle Eastern, South Asian and Muslim backgrounds for extra scrutiny, launching the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System that required more than 80,000 men to register and undergo interrogations, detentions and deportations.  In addition, we experienced restrictions on privacy rights, due process and the expansion of the government’s powers of surveillance and detention.

Under the newly formed Department of Homeland Security, immigration law and policies were conflated with national security laws and practices, resulting in an increase in resources devoted to detentions and deportations of immigrants, worksite raids, home raids and collaborations with local law enforcement to enforce federal immigration law.

While profiling broadened and became more frequent among some communities of color, the racial profiling impacting African Americans and Latinos that expanded during the War on Drugs in the 1970s and 80s continued.

We will talk about how, together, we can combat these forms of oppression to restore and expand democracy in our nation. We will share resources, ideas and reach a broader audience. Join us TODAY from 3-4 pm! Tell a friend! To promote and join the twitter chat Use hashtag: #reclaimrights #p2

To RSVP, tweet this: @RightsWorking I’ll be at the #reclaimrights #tweetchat on 9/7!

Promote the Chat using your own or a sample tweet:

Let’s fight for rights lost after 9/11 Join @rightsworking for Reclaim Our Rights Twitter Chat, Sept. 7, 3-4 p.m., ET. Use #reclaimrights #p2

Spread the word! End Post 9/11 racial profiling! Join @rightsworking Twitter Chat, Sept. 7, 3-4 p.m., ET. Use #reclaimrights #p2

Chat with Melissa Harris-Perry and @rightsworking about rights lost post-9/11. Sept. 7, 3-4 pm, ET,. #reclaimrights, #p2, #mharrisperry

Join in on the *National Week of Action* :Reflecting on Our Loss and Reclaiming Our Rights – September 11-17, 2011

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

America 2049 special agent (who is also our summer intern) on the history of Ellis Island and July 4th

staff_ellis1

Guest blogger: Maya Bhattacharjee, Breakthrough’s summer intern.

A couple of weeks ago, members of the Breakthrough team visited Ellis Island for an interactive tour for the final level of our human rights Facebook game, America 2049. (But remember, though it was the last level of our launch, the game lives on Facebook and may be played at any time!) Interning with the team at Breakthrough has been an extremely enlightening experience for me, and our trip to Ellis Island was nothing short of eye-opening and memorable. On the ferry, our Operations Manager, Julie Griff, recalled upon the team’s visit to Ellis Island exactly a year ago when America 2049 was still in its early stages, and here we were amidst the launch of its final level. As the ferry pulled into the dock and we set foot on the island, a woman beside me whispered to her son, “I can’t believe that Grandma Rose took this same step.” With that, I set foot on the island that twelve million immigrants came through in hopes of a better life in America.

ranger_bruce

We were met warmly by Ranger Bruce as we entered the Main Building, who brought us to the entrance of Ellis Island to help us re-live the immigrants’ experience. We first learned that those who arrived on Ellis Island were members of the “steerage class,” many of whom would be packed shoulder-to-shoulder into the steamships for sometimes up to eight days. First and second class passengers were processed on board on the ship, and thus it must be remembered that the count of twelve million processed on Ellis Island represents only members of the steerage class. Ranger Bruce reminded us that most immigrants were garbed in layers and layers of clothing, as they could only bring a small amount of luggage to their new life, and many of them received minimal food and sustenance on their exhausting journey. In John F. Kennedy’s A Nation of Immigrants he wrote: “There were probably as many reasons for coming to America as there were people who came.” Whether these immigrants were escaping religious persecution, political strife, unemployment, or simply trying to make a new life for their families, there were countless circumstances that lead to the greatest migration of modern history.

Ranger Bruce then described the “processing” that immigrants experienced upon entering the building. Doctors would watch the immigrants as they climbed the stairs leading to the Registry Room and if they witnessed a limp, labored breathing, or suspected any other troubles, they would perform further medical exams. I could not help but ask: after standing on a packed ship for up to ten days, how could one not limp or breathe heavily? Ranger Bruce reminded me that immigrants were determined to live their new lives in America, and this alone would perpetuate their drive and energy to compose their exhaustion no matter their age or size. He then described the brief medical exam that each immigrant would experience, including an eye hook that would be used to pull back their eye-lids in search of eye-disease. If the doctors suspected an illness, they would send them to a nearby hospital before entering the country. Once in the Registry Room, inspectors then questioned each individual with 29 questions.Imagine days with over 2,000 people in the room to question!  They were asked where they were from, what they did for a living, where they were headed, the amount of money they were carrying, and if they suspected somebody to be a, as they called, “moron,” they would refer them to a psychiatric hospital. One of the hardest parts of the experience was hearing some of the case studies of immigrants who did not make it through– families who were separated. Ranger Bruce shared that they were deported—often back to lands where their lives were put in risk.  The judges, (inspectors chosen at random from the registry room,) would have a few minutes to make their decision, and much personal discretion was used.  He did share that the majority of immigrants did make it through and only two percent were denied entry.

As we recently celebrated our land of freedom and opportunity this past July 4th, I couldn’t help but think about what it means to be American today. We learned that America was an incredibly welcoming countryellis_exterior1 during this point in history, and now while we represent opportunity and the freedom to begin a new life, “welcoming” seems far from our description. In the 1920’s, federal laws set immigration quotas based on national origin and in 1924, U.S. consulates took over immigration inspection.  This was the beginning of a much more rigid immigration system. In later years, Ellis Island became a deportation center, a Public Health and Service hospital, and a Coast Guard station. For us, Ellis Island is now a memorial to all who have made this nation their adopted home, and the meeting point of the old world and the new.

This July 4th was a new one for me after our experience on Ellis Island. I can’t help but to think of everything that our country represented for those who came to Ellis Island, and to celebrate exactly what makes America so special. Yet, I reflect on the many struggles and obstacles that we still must surpass, and what freedom in America represents today. What does July 4th and our immigrant history mean to you? What does freedom in the United States really mean, and what can we do to uphold everything that we stand for? Please let us know your thoughts in our comments section below, on our Facebook page here, or on our twitter here!

Unlike the woman in the DSK story, most immigrant women are afraid to report sexual assault

Among the numerous unique and compelling stories of immigration that our nation has witnessed in its rich history comes another one; one that is disturbing and moving in equal part. On May 14, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK), was arrested as he was about to catch a flight from New York’s JFK Airport to Paris. A 32-year-old housekeeper had courageously come forward to report that she was sexually assaulted by DSK during his stay in the midtown Manhattan Sofitel hotel. As the media storm around DSK’s scandal and his political future intensified, the woman (her identity is being kept secret) who accused him remained well away from the media glare, protecting her identity and dignity amidst an increasingly messy situation. However, as a recent New York Times portrait of her life revealed, her story is extremely unique- in an environment that is increasingly hostile towards immigrants, it is rare that immigrant women who are victims of sexual and physical abuse (and there are many), are able to find the courage to report the crimes they face.

The woman was born in a tiny hamlet in the West African country of Guinea, a 13-hour drive from the nation’s capital Conakry. While she was in her early teens, she was married off to a distant cousin, gave birth to her daughter, and was widowed soon after. While in her early 20s, she immigrated to the United States, seeking a better life for herself and her daughter, and began working at a small African restaurant in the Bronx. In 2008, she got a job as a maid at the Sofitel New York, a high-end hotel in the heart of Manhattan. Her lawyers confirmed that by this time she had documentation and legal status. Then on May 14, her world was suddenly thrust into the public eye as she became the center of an international scandal involving high-level diplomacy.

Her brother, Mamoudou, commented on her character-

She is a village girl who didn’t go to school to learn English, Greek, Portuguese, what have you…All she learned was the Koran. Can you imagine how on earth she is suffering through this ordeal?…Before she left here, nobody even knew if she could speak up for herself. She never got into any arguments, with anybody.

While DSK has been charged with the crime, the trial is still underway and no verdict has yet been reached. However, the story of his alleged victim highlights the rapidly growing issue of sexual assault among immigrant women, and indirectly points to the fact that undocumented women remain the most vulnerable to abuse, as they are especially afraid to report the crime for fear of being pulled into the detention and deportation dragnet. The housekeeper in DSK’s case has legal status, not to mention incredible courage, that enabled her to report the crime to the local police. But her courage seeks to remind us that there are many women who face violence, both at home and in their work, who continue to be exploited and are unable to seek help because of immigration status and their fear of being criminalized themselves.

Last week, many women – mostly hotel housekeeping staff from around the city – gathered outside DSK’s court hearing to protest against his alleged crime, claiming that many of them have been victims in similar incidents but are often afraid to speak out. One of the protesters, Ada Vélez Escalera, a housekeeper at the Hilton who had moved from Puerto Rico when she was 16, said-

A lot of us don’t speak up. You’re embarrassed or have a family to support and you know if it will be you or the guest who’s believed. In this case she was brave enough to scream for help…I’m proud of being a room attendant and when guests come to our hotels they need to respect us and know we are there to make their rooms clean and comfortable, not for private service…I had to leave my education because I had a sick child. But the money I’ve earned as a room attendant helped me have a house, a decent life and put my son and daughter through college.

The issue raised by the housekeepers is a growing concern among the immigrant community. It is worsened further by damaging statements made by political officials that essentially discourage the reporting of sexual assault crimes by immigrant women. In Massachusetts, State Rep. Ryan Fattman (R-Sutton) has been part of a group of regional GOP representatives uniting against Governor Deval L. Patrick’s decision not to join the controversial Secure Communities program (S-Comm). When asked if he would be concerned if a woman with undocumented status is raped and then is afraid to report the crime for fear of deportation, Fattman replied, “My thought is that if someone is here illegally, they should be afraid to come forward…If you do it the right way, you don’t have to be concerned about these things.” His comment brought him sharp criticism, and when contacted for further clarification, Fattman attempted to contextualize it with an even more troublesome allegory-

If someone got into a car accident, it’s obviously a tragic event. But if they’re drunk and they crash, it’s a crime. If that person was drunk and survived the accident they would be afraid to come forward. I think if someone is here illegally they should be afraid to come forward because they should be afraid to be deported…But if you weren’t here, the crime wouldn’t happen.

Such brash disregard for basic human rights, such as the right to be safe from harm and the right to due process and justice, is alarming. Rep. Fattman’s statements signal a dangerous situation in the country if victims of violence and sexual assault are afraid to report the crime for fear of being deported instead. This roundabout way of blaming the victim is incredibly damaging to our society, encouraging violent crime and making our communities less secure.

The harsh anti-immigrant enforcement laws that are being enacted in states around the country only seek to add to the environment of hostility and fear that makes it harder for local law enforcement to effectively protect communities. Last week Alabama Governor Bentley signed into law HB 56, the harshest anti-immigrant bill to be passed by any state thus far. The bill, inspired by Arizona’s notorious SB 1070, imposes even stricter requirements on virtually all institutions in the state to conduct immigration checks. In a statement reacting to the bill, Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, said-

Today, Alabama effectively turned state workers, peace officers, and school teachers into de facto immigration agents.  Immigrants and people of color will be subjected to additional, unconstitutional scrutiny when they take their children to school or interact with local law enforcement officers.  Friends and family members of undocumented immigrants will face criminal charges simply for driving them to church or to the grocery store. By passing HB 56, Alabama’s legislators have deemed an entire class of people not worthy of the most fundamental rights, which were carefully prescribed to all people by our Founding Fathers.  This law effectively makes immigrants the latest group of people to suffer a legalization of discriminatory behavior against them, and threatens to turn back the clock on our hard-won civil rights.

Alabama’s HB 56 adds to the growing number of states that have set in motion some sort of harsh anti-immigrant laws (see PDF map from the National Immigration Law Center for the latest Arizona-inspired legislation). These sweeping anti-immigrant legislations are not only unconstitutional and in violation of basic human rights, but they will also negatively impact the economies of the states that implement them. Most of all, communities will lose faith in their local law enforcement, always living in the fear of being racially profiled and arrested for deportation under the pretense of a minor offense.

With less than 18 months until the next presidential election, Democrats and Republicans are busy shaping their immigration policies to woo voters. At this time it is important that they focus on preventing draconian state-level anti-immigration laws from being enacted and instead, working towards comprehensive immigration reform that is enacted on a federal level. Statements such as those by Rep. Fattman only undermine the principles of freedom, justice and due process upon which our country is built. Victims of violence, such as sexual assault and rape, must be supported and made to feel safe and secure and given the justice they deserve, instead of being intimidated into silence. Denying basic human rights to one group will inevitably affect all our freedoms.

Sign the petition asking for Mass. Rep. Fattman to apologize for his comments and for the State House to publicly denounce his stance.

Show your support for due process. Become an ally of the Restore Fairness campaign today.

Photo courtesy of nij.gov.

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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.