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Singled Out in Alabama Schools

Guestblogger: Molly Kaplan. Crossposted from the ACLU

A New York Times editorial this weekend calls out Alabama’s attorney general, Luther Strange, for stonewalling the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) attempt to look into possible civil rights violations since Alabama’s anti-immigrant law went into effect. The DOJ, following up on reports that students were being bullied in the classroom and that parents were keeping their children out of school, asked 39 superintendents for information on student absences and withdrawals since the start of the academic year. To this, Strange said no, challenging the DOJ’s legal authority to investigate.

While the DOJ starts its investigation, the ACLU has been on the ground since September when the law went into effect, tracking the impact of the law on farms, families and schools. What we’re finding, particularly in schools, is evidence of racial profiling and discrimination.

In a video released today, Cineo Gonzales, a Birmingham taxi driver, recounts how — in front of the entire class — his daughter, along with one other Latino student, received a Spanish-language pamphlet explaining the law. When Gonzales asked why the teacher gave the document to his daughter, the principal told him that they only gave the document to children who looked like weren’t from there.

Gonzales’ daughter was born in Alabama. She follows Alabama college football, is an A student and dressed up as a good witch for Halloween. Gonzales’ daughter was racially profiled — an occurrence that has become too common in the wake of this law.

We will continue to report our observations and findings on the ground in Alabama. For further resources and information on the impacts of HB 56 in Alabama, check  www.aclu.org/crisisinAL.

Alabama’s “counterproductive cruelty-” HB56 – threatens the right to education and triggers exodus from the state

It’s been looming for months like a dark, ominous cloud over Alabama. After almost five months since it was first enacted and then pondered over by U.S. District Judge Sharon Blackburn, Alabama’s shocking HB 56 law went into effect on September 28, officially making the state the most regressive and cruel in its attitude towards immigrants. If the supporters of the law aimed to create the nation’s most hostile environment for immigrants, they have succeeded. The news of the passage of HB 56 triggered widespread panic across immigrant communities in Alabama, prompting numerous families to pull their children out of the local schools and many others to move out of the state altogether.

Among its several stipulations, HB 56 requires police to investigate the immigration status of those pulled over for routine traffic stops. This measure ostensibly lends itself to racial profiling since it mandates that police make judgments on who to stop for “reasonable suspicion” based on their appearance. Moreover, the law will also make it a felony for an undocumented migrant to do business with the state and make it a misdemeanor for an undocumented resident to be without immigration documents if stopped and checked. In addition to permitting police to ask for documents from anyone they suspect of being undocumented, the law also invalidates contracts with undocumented immigrants, which could keep them from finding housing.

Perhaps the biggest blow from the law is to the right to public education for all children. Under HB 56, elementary and secondary schools are now required to check the immigration status of incoming students. This unconstitutional crackdown in the education sector goes against a 1982 Supreme Court ruling that all children living in the United States have the right to a public education, regardless of their immigration status. In the case, Plyler vs. Doe in Texas, the justices had struck down a state statute that denied funding for education to undocumented students and charged such students $1000 annual fee to compensate for the lost state funding. The judgement was formed on the rationale  that an uneducated immigrant community was not beneficial for the country.

That reasoning, it seems, was lost on the Alabama state government that just passed HB 56. The law’s damage to the state economy is already evident. The Associated Press reported in the days following the ruling, only handfuls of farm workers showed up for work. According to an article in the The New York Times on the sudden exodus of immigrants from the state-

Critics of the law, particularly farmers, contractors and home builders, say the measure has already been devastating, leaving rotting crops in fields and critical shortages of labor. They say that even fully documented Hispanic workers are leaving, an assessment that seems to be borne out in interviews here. The legal status of family members is often mixed — children are often American-born citizens — but the decision whether to stay rests on the weakest link.

Within just a week of the law going into effect, schools across the state of Alabama have witnessed a dramatic drop in attendance by Hispanic students, with many of them even withdrawing completely. In Montgomery County alone, over 200 Hispanic students stayed home the morning after HB 56 went into effect. Other counties and school districts also reported numerous students either absent or withdrawn over the week, prompting the superintendent in Huntsville to go on a Spanish-language TV channel in an attempt to calm the widespread worry. While authorities claim that they only want schools to report numbers and not names, communities are not convinced, fearing a likely situation where children will be targeted for their status.

This Associated Press video outlines some of the devastating elements that make HB 56 harsher than some of the anti-immigrant laws previously enacted in Arizona and Georgia-


The reactions from within the community have been those of shock, fear and hurt. Victor Palafox, a resident of Birmingham who was brought to the U.S from Mexico when he was six, commented, “Younger students are watching their lives taken from their hands.” The devastating effect this law will have on the education of immigrant children is already very visible. Legal residents such as Cuban-born Annabelle Frank expressed her fear of sending her six-year-old son to school: “I’m actually considering home-schooling. Because I don’t want him involved in all this that’s going on. I know, because he is Hispanic, in some way he’s going to be singled out, you know? I’m really afraid of that.”

HB 56 unapologetically sanctions racial profiling and in doing so, has countless repercussions on various aspects of life in Alabama. While the negative impact on education and the state economy is already becoming clear, the law will instill a climate of fear and mistrust between communities and local police and law enforcement. A New York Times editorial questions the “counterproductive cruelty” of HB 56, asking “Do Alabamans want children too frightened to go to school? Or pregnant women too frightened to seek care? Whom could that possibly benefit?”

The passage of this law could result in the isolation and ghettoization an entire section of the population. HB 56 doesn’t present any sort of solution to the issue of undocumented immigration. It only throws the entire state into jeopardy in the long run, with the immigrant communities and children bearing the absolute worst of the damage.

Laws such as Alabama’s HB 56 and Arizona’s SB 1070 are unconstitutional and against the grain of basic American values of dignity, and respect for everyone. Education is a human right. Living without fear of racial profiling is a human right. When we deny human rights to some, we put all of our rights at risk. If you think Alabama’s HB 56 is unjust, please sign this petition to the Department of Justice asking them to block the law from going into effect. To rally for Alabama’s future, click here.

Photo courtesy of colorlines.com

The fight for fairness: never off-duty

Last night, while much of the U.S. — and the world — kept vigil over the fate of Troy Davis, Ishita and I co-hosted a screening of  “Checkpoint Nation? Building Community Across Borders,” Breakthrough’s latest video depicting the reality of post-9/11 racial profiling. The video (shot by Ishita and me) comes of out of a Border Solidarity Tour that was held this August in Tucson, Arizona by Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM)VAMOS Unidos, and Coalicion de Derechos Humanos. The 100+ community members in the audience gathered to learn about our trip to the Arizona border wall, and discuss what they should do with the information the delegation learned while crossing the border. While the sound of numerous languages filled the room — Urdu, Bengali, Hindi, English, Spanish, and more — every one there shared one goal: uniting in solidarity for immigrant justice. And at the end of the evening, the community took this collective vow: that laws and policies that grants rights to some at the expense of others will not be accepted. Reform for some is reform for none.

When Ishita and I walked out of the screening — onto a side street and into the rain — we were sure we’d never find a cab. But out of nowhere we spotted an off-duty taxi, and ran after it — only to find that the driver was Osman Chowdhury, a member of DRUM. Osman had spoken at the meeting about his struggle being the same as the Mexican migrant’s struggle, underscoring that everyone must know what is happening at the American border. Osman kindly drove us all the way to Brooklyn before he started his 11 pm shift, with his meter off. He refused to let us pay him a dime.

An hour later, as I was still processing the night’s events, my girlfriend lit a candle for Troy Davis, who had been executed by the state of Georgia moments before. After hours of debate, the Supreme Court chose not to act on a petition to stay the execution; a man, most likely innocent, was put to death by his government. A global network of organizers who started fighting for Troy weeks, months, and years ago describe his execution as an “international symbol of the battle over the death penalty and racial imbalance in the justice system.” They are speaking out, not compromising — like the members of DRUM and VAMOS. And our cab driver, so generous in both thought and deed.

Troy Davis remains in the forefront of my mind today, as he seems to for many of my friends and colleagues. But when I think of him today, I will also think of Osman. Of those of us that keep working for equality every day, speaking out in the face of injustice. Because we all deserve dignity, equality, and justice. And when you deny due process to one of us, you deny it for all of us.

“I want to thank all of you for your efforts and dedication to Human Rights and Human Kindness, in the past year I have experienced such emotion, joy, sadness and never ending faith.” -Troy Davis, 1968-2011.

As if SB1070 isn’t bad enough, here comes the “anchor-baby” bill

In an interesting new take on Arizona’s anti-immigrant law, Arizona attorneys Maria V. Jones and Kara Hartzler give us a glimpse into just how flawed and impractical the law is. Once it gets implemented on July 29th, the lawyers claim that it has the potential to completely overwhelm the state’s court system. Jones, chairwoman of the bar association’s Immigration Law Section, referred to the law’s ambiguous and “legally onerous” clauses and said that “SB 1070′s implementation will create the legal-system equivalent of stepping into a minefield.”

The lawyers said that once enforcement of SB1070 begins, the number of civil and criminal cases in the courts could triple overnight, and while they were quick in passing the law, the government has done very little to prepare for it by way of additional funds and staff for a state court system that “already has a backlog of cases.” The Arizona attorneys were especially critical of the provision in the law that allows local residents to sue the authorities for not enforcing it properly. If they are cautious about detaining people, they could open themselves up to lawsuits claiming they failed to execute it. On the other hand, if they enforce it too aggressively, as the law enables them to do, then police could end up detaining a number of U.S. citizens, which could lead to “wrongful-arrest lawsuits,” Hartzler says. Either way, it places local law enforcement in a no-win situation that could be costly, complicated and quite counter-productive.

By placing U.S. citizens who look “reasonably suspicious” of being undocumented in danger of being detained, the implications of SB1070 would be reminiscent of the terrible consequences of the “Chandler Round-Up” of 1997, when police officers spread out across Phoenix looking for undocumented immigrants. In a terrifying 5-day crackdown that involved questioning children while they were walking home from school, dozens and dozens of legal residents and U.S. citizens were detained for speaking Spanish or looking Mexican.

This time around, we still have no guarantee that SB1070 will not lead to racial profiling. In an extremely disturbing defense of the law by Iowa Congressman Steve King, he stood by the aspects of the law that could lead police to stop people based on their appearance saying that racial profiling is an “important component” of law enforcement. Reminding us of Senator Bilbray’s comments about how trained officers could identify undocumented people based on their clothes and shoes, Rep. King said-

Some claim that the Arizona law will bring about racial discrimination profiling. First let me say, Mr. Speaker, that profiling has always been an important component of legitimate law enforcement. If you can’t profile someone, you can’t use those common sense indicators that are before your very eyes. Now, I think it’s wrong to use racial profiling for the reasons of discriminating against people, but it’s not wrong to use race or other indicators for the sake of identifying that are violating the law…It’s just a common sense thing. Law enforcement needs to use common sense indicators…what kind of shoes people wear, what kind of accident they have, um, the, the type of grooming they might have, there’re, there’re all kinds of indicators there and sometimes it’s just a sixth sense and they can’t put their finger on it.

A law that calls for police officers to detain people based on their shoes, their “grooming, what type of “accidents” they have and the officer’s “sixth sense.” Can it get worse than this? Well it just did. Arizona Republican state representative John Kavanagh announced his plans for introducing a bill that will disallow children born to undocumented parents in the United States from automatically gaining citizenship. Referred to as the “anchor baby” bill, Kavanagh’s bill has already come under direct criticism for contradicting the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The 1868 amendment that allowed for citizenship for freed slaves, accords citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States.” Not surprisingly, Russell Pearce, who is the main author of Arizona Senate Bill 1070, is a key sponsor on the new legislation, which Arizona Republicans intend to introduce in this fall. According to Pearce and Kavanagh, this law only serves to preserve the 14th amendment by ensuring that it does not continue to be “hijacked” by immigrants.

It is becoming more and more apparent that these new pieces of anti-immigrant legislation are functioning as conduits for hate and racism in ways that are extremely disturbing. In the face of these developments, we must remember the core tenets of the Declaration of Independence, equality, freedom and dignity, that enable us to strive for values of fairness and due process for all, regardless of our national origin, race, religion, or citizenship.

Photo courtesy of aolnews.com

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