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Race, Migration and the Environment: The Anti-immigrant Movement’s Greening of Hate

Guest blogger: Imagine 2050 from The Center for New Community

The Center for New Community, a national civil rights organization, today released a report entitled “Race, Migration and the Environment.”The report comes amid Earth Day celebrations, and counters the false notions that immigrants are a cause of environmental degradation in the United States.

“It is especially important on Earth Day to take on the kind of anti-immigrant arguments explained in this paper,” said Center for New Community Field Organizer Rebecca Poswolsky, “in order for environmentalists to work toward positive and concrete solutions to address climate change.”

Contemporary anti-immigrant groups focus on unfounded connections between population, immigration, and damage to nature. They claim that immigrants harm the environment by contributing to urban sprawl, congestion, pollution, waste generation, water consumption, land conversion and loss of biodiversity.

John Tanton seeded the contemporary anti-immigrant movement in this country, and has been instrumental in its growth since 1979 when he founded the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). He also founded or financially supported a myriad of other anti-immigrant groups – NumbersUSA, Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), and Immigration Reform Law Institute (IRLI) to name just a few.

In a feature on Sunday, April 17, The New York Times dedicated the front-page to exposing Tanton and his network – paying special attention to his efforts to win over environmentalists.

In its report, the Center for New Community argues that to address climate change is to address the social structures that have created it. The report also reveals that in order to tackle the serious crises at hand, environmental movements need to reject the historically dangerous understanding that nature is separate from society.

The Center for New Community encourages environmentalists to take a stand against arguments made by the anti-immigrant movement meant to pollute their movement with hatred and fear.

Photo courtesy of imagine2050.newcomm.org

Bloodshed in Arizona turns spotlight on political landscape of anger and hate

As Democratic Representative Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona battles for her life after an assassination attempt, the nation is trying to grapple with the violent tragedy that took the lives of 6 and wounded 14 people on Saturday morning, casting a dark shadow on the start of this year. On the morning of January 8th, while U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was meeting with constituents at a ‘Congress on Your Corner’ event at a local shopping center in Tuscon, a gunman opened fire on the gathering. Within seconds, Congresswoman Giffords was shot in the head at point blank range, along with 19 others including Christina Green, a 9-year old girl, Phyllis Schneck, a grandmother from New Jersey and 76-year old Dorwan Stoddard, who lived a mile from the grocery store.

A suspect was apprehended at the scene after two men pinned him to the ground and waited for the police to arrive. The suspect, 22-year old Jared Lee Loughner, has been charged with five federal counts on Sunday, including the attempted assassination of a Member of Congress, and the killing and attempted killings of four other government employees including John M. Roll, the chief federal judge in Arizona, who was killed, Gabriel Zimmerman, a Congressional aide, who was also killed, and Pamela Simon and Ron Barber, Congressional aides who were wounded. Mr. Loughner could face the death penalty if convicted.

Investigators found evidence at Jared Loughner’s residence in Southern Arizona to show that he had planned the attack on Gabrielle Giffords, including an envelope on which the words “I planned ahead,” “My assassination” and “Giffords” were written. In addition to a website linked to his name which contains anti-government writings, Mr. Loughner’s motives for committing the crime remain unclear. In spite of indications that Mr. Loughner is mentally ill, the tragic incident has quickly focused attention on the degree to which a political climate increasingly characterized by hate, fear and vitriolic rhetoric might be complicit in leading to a tragedy of this nature.

In a New York Times editorial written after the Arizona shootings, Paul Krugman refers to an internal report brought out by the Department of Homeland Security in April 2009 that warned of the violence that could accompany the growth of extremist rhetoric that was apparent in the political landscape. The last few years have also seen a growth in the numbers of threats against government officials. In 2010, following the health-care overhaul, Capitol Security officials had said that threats of violence against Congress officials, including death threats, harassment and vandalism, had tripled from the previous year. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a strong and vocal supporter of heath-care reform had her district office door smashed with a bullet following the health-care vote. Judge John Roll, who was killed on Saturday, had received thousands of threatening messages and phone calls after he had allowed undocumented immigrants to proceed with a case in which a rancher had assaulted 16 Mexicans who had crossed through his land.

While it would be misguided to directly attribute the Loughner’s violent actions to the surge of inflammatory language characterizing politics and media, it is important to understand that there are real consequences to framing political discourse through violent rhetoric. The extent to which hateful and angry rhetoric has made its way into mainstream politics was evident in 2010, during the debate around Arizona’s harsh anti-immigrant law, SB1070, and during the 2010 mid-term elections, where campaign ads openly promoted hate and divisive sentiments. In March 2010, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin announced a target list of Congressional candidates to be defeated in the 2010 midterm election. Launched through her personal profile on Facebook, Palin’s “Don’t get Demoralized. Get Organized. Take Back the 20” campaign was symbolized by a map of the country which had crosshairs over the districts represented by candidates that she wanted defeated. Ms. Giffords, who was among the candidates marked on this map, had expressed her concern about it at the time-

We’re on Sarah Palin’s targeted list. But the thing is the way that she has it depicted has the cross hairs of a gun sight over our district. When people do that, they’ve got to realize there’s consequences to that.

At a press conference about the shootings on Saturday, Pima County Sheriff Clarence W. Dupnik spoke about the “vitriol” that characterized political discourse. Saying that it was time for the country to do a little “soul-searching” he said-

The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous. And unfortunately, Arizona, I think, has become sort of the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry.

There is never an explanation for senseless acts of violence such as this that take the lives of innocent people. While Saturday’s shooting can be seen as an isolated action of a mentally ill individual, it can also be seen as emblematic of a political landscape that is angry, divisive, intolerant and eliminationist. Can this tragic incident become the pivotal turning point towards a more humane and peaceful political discourse?

Photo courtesy of examiner.com

Federal Judge rules racism out of Arizona’s controversial immigration law

Yesterday, a federal judge issued a temporary injunction on some of the toughest portions of Arizona’s anti-immigration law SB1070 including the power for police to detain anyone “suspected” of being in the country illegally.

Federal Judge Susan Bolton’s ruling came hours before the law was to take effect in response to a lawsuit filed by the Obama administration and to nationwide protests.

Her amendments block the portion of the law that requires an officer to make an attempt to determine the immigration status of a person stopped, detained or arrested if there’s reasonable suspicion he is in the country illegally. They block the portion that creates a crime of failure to apply for or carry “alien-registration papers,” as well as the portion that makes it a crime for illegal immigrants to solicit, apply for or perform work. (This does not include the section on day laborers.) This ruling also obstructs the portion of the law that allows for a person’s arrest without warrant whenever there is a probable cause to believe he has committed a public offense that makes him removable from the U.S.

Bolton’s decision marks a victory for many in the movement who feel that the law would lead to racial profiling and fear mongering.

Many praise her amendments which significantly weaken “reasonable suspicion” as the basis for presuming someone is in the country unlawfully, and for stopping, detaining, or arresting him or her. Like Bolton, many opponents point to America’s fundamental principle that avers that everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty, and argue that the original SB 1070 had turned the presumption of innocence on its head.

Bolton’s decision to eradicate “reasonable suspicion” removes the original bill’s form of discrimination, which invited racial profiling from officers who are likely to rely on the way people look in forming any “suspicion” that they are not in this country legally. Many argue that such vague and undefined enforcement policies called for U.S. citizens and non-citizens alike to carry papers on them at all times. These tactics are the hallmarks of a “police state,” more often associated with totalitarian regimes. Opponents to SB1070 claim that the injustices of racial profiling were evident in the police departments’ massive sweeps of Latino neighborhoods and the targeting of Latinos for minor, misdemeanor offenses, often with no follow-up prosecution under those minor offenses. They expressed that the original bill did not present legitimate grounds for forming such suspicion, so they refused to refer to it as a workable standard in Arizona. Bolton has responded to these arguments with her amendments, leaving many satisfied.

She, a Clinton appointee, articulated in her decision:

Requiring Arizona law enforcement officials and agencies to determine the immigration status of every person who is arrested burdens lawfully-present aliens because their liberty will be restricted while their status is checked.

Many top law enforcement officials, including the Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police, had also acknowledged that the original SB 1070 would significantly harm the public trust which law enforcement officials need in order to protect the people of Arizona and would alienate police officers from the communities they serve. Last week, we reported on Arizonan officer Paul Dobson’s recorded confession of his own similar concerns for the law. Officials argued that the original law would force police officers to devote scarce resources to investigating false threats rather than solving serious crimes. They further asserted that the original law had compromised the criminal justice system because crime victims were more vulnerable, and therefore, unwilling to report crimes, and because witnesses were afraid to cooperate out of fear that they would be targeted. Local cops said that the original bill had placed officers and victims alike in a difficult position.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security Deputy Press Secretary Matt Chandler issued the following statement yesterday in response to Bolton’s decision. He said:

The court’s decision to enjoin most of SB1070 correctly affirms the federal government’s responsibilities in enforcing our nation’s immigration laws. Over the past eighteen months, this Administration has dedicated unprecedented resources to secure the border, and we will continue to work to take decisive action to disrupt criminal organizations and the networks they exploit. DHS will enforce federal immigration laws in Arizona and around the country in smart, effective ways that focus our resources on criminal aliens who pose a public safety threat and employers who knowingly hire illegal labor, as well as continue to secure our border.

ICE works every day with local law enforcement across the country to assist them in making their communities safer and we will continue do so in Arizona. At the same time, we will continue to increase resources in Arizona by complementing the National Guard deployment set to begin on Aug. 1 with the deployment of hundreds of additional Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, Border Patrol agents and other law enforcement personnel that will aid in our continuing efforts to conduct outbound inspections, patrol challenging terrain, and interdict illicit smugglers. We are focused on smart effective immigration and border enforcement while we work with Congress toward the type of bipartisan comprehensive reform that will provide true security and establish accountability and responsibility in our immigration system at the national level.

Even as debates about the law in Arizona continue, the death toll for those immigrants crossing the desert soars. According to an article in The New York Times, the bodies of 57 border crossers have been brought in during July so far, putting it on track to be the worst month for such deaths in the last five years. A record of 150 people suspected of being illegal immigrants have been found dead since the first of this year.

Human rights groups confirm that it is the government’s sustained crackdown on human smuggling that has led to more deaths. Tougher enforcement measures have pushed smugglers and illegal immigrants to take their chances on isolated trails through the deserts and mountains of southern Arizona, where they must sometimes walk for three or four days before reaching a road. Omar Candelaria, the special operations supervisor for the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector, said the surge in discoveries of bodies this year might also owe something to increased patrols.

The more that you militarize the border, the more you push the migrant flows into more isolated and desolate areas, and people hurt or injured are just left behind, said Kat Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for the Coalición de Derechos Humanos in Tucson.

Breakthrough is encouraged by the temporary hold on Arizona’s law but believes much more needs to be done to restore fairness to the immigration system. The opposition is already planning efforts to overturn Bolton’s injunction.

The time is now. We DO NOT want Arizonas do not sprout all over the country.  Write to President Obama and your Members of Congress to take action on immigration now.

Photo courtesy of www.thehindu.com

This Memorial Day join Kayne West and thousands of others to protest unjust Arizona law

Leave it to four students to stand as role models of determination against unjust laws such as Arizona’s anti-immigrant law, SB1070. Gaby, Felipe, Juan and Carlos walked 1500 miles from Miami to Washington D.C. over four months, to draw attention to the plight of the thousands of undocumented students around the country who, despite having lived here most of their lives, are unable to contribute and follow their dreams because of a broken immigration system. Walking through some of the most conservative states in the country, the Trail of Dreams students collected signatures from 50,000 people, demanding humane and just immigration reform. Despite their efforts, matters went from bad to worse as Arizona passed the controversial anti-immigrant law, SB1070. Rather than be discouraged, the Dreamers have set off once again walking from Scottsdale to Phoenix to join the National Day of Action against SB1070 on Saturday, May 29th.

In the five weeks since Gov. Brewer signed off on SB1070, legislators in 10 other states around the country are pushing for similar bills, even as immigrant rights advocates and human rights activists around the world have condemned the law that criminalizes undocumented immigrants and allows local police to question anyone who they think looks “reasonably suspicious” of being undocumented, effectively mandating racial profiling and creating fear and distrust within communities. While there has been great national and international pressure against the law and the human rights crisis that will occur if SB1070 is implemented, the vigils, rallies, boycotts, fasts and acts of civil disobedience have been met with inaction on the part of President Obama and his administration, who, besides initially denouncing the law, have done nothing to halt its progress.

Tomorrow, on May 29th, tens of thousands of people from Arizona and around the country will take part in over 60 actions of protest and civil disobedience to send a clear message to the federal government that unjust laws like SB1070 cannot exist in light of of fundamental human rights and the tenets of the Constitution. The National Day of Action against the draconian Arizona law will culminate in a huge protest march at the State Capitol in Phoenix, Arizona with thousands of students, teachers, workers, families, immigrant and indigenous people participating.

THE ASKS: The National Day of Action demands that President Obama wakes up on the right side of history this May 29th and takes  a decision to-

- Reassert the federal government’s exclusive control over immigration law by making clear that state and local police do not have the inherent authority to enforce immigration law. Arizona’s law is a result of the federal government’s failure to maintain control of immigration enforcement and its inaction regarding elimination of all forms of racial profiling.

- Immediately suspend and terminate all police-ICE partnerships, including 287(g) agreements and Secure Communities which have actively transferred federal immigration authority to the states, setting the stage for laws like SB 1070 to pass.

-Direct the Department of Homeland Security to refuse to take custody of anyone charged with violating provisions of SB 1070.

A culmination of all the diverse acts of resistance that have been taking place already, tomorrow’s Phoenix protests will also be echoed in all corners of the country in cities like Washington D.C., New York, Chicago, San Francisco and many places in between. Those who cannot make it to Phoenix can take part in a virtual march to demand intervention and express their outrage at the President’s inaction on SB1070 and comprehensive immigration reform.

Leading the way, a diverse group of artists and musicians have announced a boycott of all performances in Arizona until the new law is revoked. In a campaign called the Sound Strike, organized by Zack de la Rocha, the lead singer of Rage Against the Machine, artists like Massive Attack, Michael Moore, Kanye West, Sonic Youth, Joe Satriani, Tenacious D and Los Tigres De Norte have taken a stand against the law and called on their fans to sign a petition demanding an end to the draconian law. De La Rocha’s initiating words -

Fans of our music, our stories, our films and our words can be pulled over and harassed every day because they are brown or black, or for the way they speak, or for the music they listen to. Some of us grew up dealing with racial profiling, but this law (SB 1070) takes it to a whole new low.

So on this Memorial Day Weekend, get yourself to Phoenix at your “disobedient ” best, and join in this massive mobilization for human rights and reform. If you can’t be there, show your support wherever you are. Inspired to do something now? Send a letter to President Obama telling him just how high the stakes are, and demanding that the federal Government restore fairness NOW.

Photo courtesy of altoarizona.com

Which states are going to great lengths NOT to be Arizona?

Outraged over Arizona’s new law that will inevitably lead to racial profiling and civil rights issues, the Washington D.C. City Council has introduced two bold bills that counter Arizona’s SB1070, both of which have been met with unanimous approval from Council members.

In the first one, the Council sponsored a (non-binding) bill that encourages all businesses in the state to boycott Arizona by cutting off business with it as long as the harsh legislation continues to be implemented. The bill introduced by Councilman Michael A. Brown also calls on the D.C. government to divest themselves of any Municipal bonds issues by Arizona and to not participate in any conferences held in the state. The move to boycott the state of Arizona is not unique to D.C. but has been carried out by many other City Councils including those of Hollywood, San Diego, San Francisco, Oakland and Boston. The City Council’s of New York and Los Angeles are considering similar measures against Arizona to protest the bill that has caused so much controversy in the past few weeks.

The second bill, introduced in Washington D.C. by Council members Phil Mendelson and Jim Graham is called the “Secure Communities Bill of 2010″ and is a much more aggressive measure aimed at the federal government’s Secure Communities program. This bill, also unanimously supported by the Council, is groundbreaking as it prohibits D.C. Metropolitan police from sharing information with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Secure Communities Program. The Secure Communities program enlists local law enforcement to collaborate with immigration authorities by providing them with all identity and fingerprint information pertaining to anyone that is arrested by the local police. Washington D.C. became a part of the Secure Communities Program last November, but now police won’t be allowed to co-operate with ICE. In a statement made yesterday, Council member Mendelson, the bill’s main author said-

Contrary to its name, the Secure Communities program makes the public less safe by creating fear and mistrust of the police and undermining community policing…I’m proud that so many of my colleagues are joining me in introducing this bill to offer a strong counter-statement to the one recently made in Arizona.

Stressing that immigration enforcement was a federal issue, Phil Mendelson expressed his reservations for the Secure Communities program, saying that it often led to racial profiling by allowing police to conduct an immigration check on person even before they had been found guilty of a crime.

The “Uncover the Truth” campaign brings to light the ways in which collaborations between federal immigration and local police, carried out through the 287(g) and Secure Communities programs have become notorious for racial profiling and misuse by local police, in addition to providing precedents for legislation like that recently introduced in Arizona. Led by the The National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), the campaign gets local groups to question collaborations between immigration and local police and hold lawmakers accountable through press conferences, community forums, reports, vigils and discussions. Speaking about the legislation introduced in the D.C. Council, Sarahi Uribe of NDLON hoped that other City Councils would follow suit and blamed Secure Communities for the “disaster in Arizona.”

Not to be left far behind in the battle against inhumane and unjust immigration policy, New York City Governor David A. Paterson announced that he was considering setting up a “Special Immigration Board of Pardons” to review cases of New York immigrants who are facing deportation based on minor criminal convictions. In this path-breaking move, Gov. Paterson has said that the board will consider the cases on an individual basis, distinguishing major offenses from major convictions. Gov. Paterson said that he was motivated to rectify a system that was “embarrassingly and wrongly inflexible” in deporting people without discretion or consideration of their families and specific circumstances. At present there are only a few such cases pending, but once the panel is set up, they are expecting hundreds of petitions for pardon.

Inspired by the case of Qing Hong Wu, a 29-year-old man, who despite living in the U.S. since age five, faced deportation to China because of a minor infraction he committed when he was a teenager, Gov. Paterson decided to do his bit to restore fairness into immigration policy in New York. Speaking on Monday at the Court of Appeals he said-

To be sure, there are some individuals whose crimes are egregious or who pose a threat to public safety. And they are justly removed from the United States. But there are others for whom the situation is far less clear. For them, our national immigration laws leave no room to consider mitigating circumstances. But in New York, we believe in rehabilitation. And we believe in renewal. And we believe in second chances.

Attributing Gov. Paterson’s timing to a general critique of harsh immigration laws and even harsher enforcement, a New York Times editorial compares it to Arizona’s new law-

Mr. Paterson has shown courage and common sense at a time when the national debate about immigration shows little of either. His move was unconnected to the radicalism in Arizona, which just passed a law making criminals of every undocumented person within its borders, and greatly empowering the police to arrest people they suspect are here illegally. But it inevitably calls to mind the bad example of Arizona.

It is heartening to know that lawmakers and leaders in different parts of the country are engaging in the pressing issue of immigration, and making use of their authority to take a stand against laws like Arizona’s SB1070 that attack the fundamental rights and dignity of residents of this country. We only hope that continued pressure will put an end to the law, so that the people of Arizona can go about their daily lives without constant fear of being harassed.

Photo courtesy of nbcwashington.com

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Arizona experiences “Largest immigrant smuggling raid in U.S. history”

While Arizona’s harsh anti-immigrant bill SB 1070 awaits its fate in the hands of Governor Brewer who will decide to sign it into law on Monday, the immigration enforcement spotlight turns once again to Arizona. Led by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), with the full cooperation of Mexican police agencies, more than 800 agents and officers from federal, state and local law enforcement agencies carried out a massive search and arrest operation yesterday on border crossings located on either side of the border.

In what the New York Times has called the largest immigrant smuggling raid in U.S. history, the operation focused on privately run shuttle vans used to transport people across the border, resulting in the arrest of 47 people across four cities in Arizona. The raid formed the culmination of what ICE says has been a “comprehensive year-long investigation” entitled “Operation In Plain Sight.” John Morton, the director of ICE, who has come under a lot of fire in the last month, said that this was sweep was an example of a concerted effort to push immigration enforcement in the direction of going after the umbrella organizations, networks and businesses that lead smuggling efforts. The New York Times quoted John Morton -

What we are trying to do is rip this thing out by the roots…We are taking out the whole industry and giving such a shock to individuals that they won’t recover as they have in the past.

The suspects taken into custody from the cities of Phoenix, Tucson, Nogales and Rio Rico face a number of charges against them, including money laundering, smuggling and conspiracy. Given the current pressure to see immigration reform introduced into Congress, and the very recent upheaval caused by the passage of SB 1070 in Arizona’s State legislature that expands police powers to detain individuals for not having proper identification, this large-scale ICE operation has already come under a lot of criticism. From the New York Times-

Immigrant advocacy groups on Thursday denounced what they called a climate of fear and criticized the ICE operation for coming at the same time as the legislation. A handful of protesters outside the United States attorney’s office here chanted, “We are going to beat back John Morton’s attack.”

In a press release from the Arizona-based advocacy group Coalition de Derechos Humanos, they talk about the atmosphere of panic and fear that is palpable through Arizona’s immigrant community, given the threat of SB1070 coupled with yesterday’s raid. Talking about border enforcement and immigration reform, Derechos Humanos co-chair Isabel Garcia stressed the need for debates around immigration to focus on economic and political forces that motivate it, rather than framing it as a threat to national security. Decrying the impending legislation in Arizona, Garcia told Democracy Now that the state had been turned into a “laboratory of anti-immigrant measures”and that the answer lay in “real reform” rather than increased enforcement and an atmosphere of fear.

Immigrant advocates are concerned by the fact that instead of ending the Bush-era policy of “enforcement now, enforcement forever”, immigration enforcement is as harsh as ever. Moreover, the Obama administration has been critiqued for giving “mixed messages” on the issue of immigration reform and enforcement. Advocates such as Fernando Garcia, the executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights, are calling on President Obama to take a clear stand on the issue, and lead an approach to enforcement that is humane and efficient.

Photo courtesy of nytimes.com

Government abdicating responsibility on deaths in detention

No one doubts the immigration system is broken. But with the dilly dallying that seems to have enveloped any immigration reform legislation, families continue to be broken up and lives continue to be lost in the vast immigration detention and deportation network.

At a cost of $1.7 billion a year, the immigration detention system is a vast network of federally run detention centers and about 300 state and county jails that detain 32,000 detainees every night or 370,000 in the year. Many of these facilities are privately run. The New York Times ran a shocking expose of desperate attempts by immigration officials to conceal the death and mistreatment of immigrants. But the real icing on the cake came yesterday.

When the Obama administration vowed to overhaul immigration detention last year, its promise of more humane treatment and accountability was spurred in part by the harrowing treatment of two detainees who died in the Bush years….But on Wednesday, the administration argued in federal court that the government had no liability for neglect or abuse by private contractors running the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility in Central Falls, R.I.

It’s a shocking way to cast off blame and responsibility. Both Hiu Lui Ng (34) and and Francisco Castaneda (36) were treated awfully in detention, denied treatment for cancer even when in agonizing pain. Advocates have consistently asked for legally binding standards for detention facilities as well as community based alternatives to detention. Many promises have been put forth to reform the system but ground realities seem to tell a different story. And  now the administration is trying to abdicate its responsibility to those whom it detains.

Detention reform remains an essential part of any larger immigration reform. With increasing pressure from the community, the LA Times reported,

Despite steep odds, the White House has discussed prospects for reviving a major overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws, a commitment that President Obama has postponed once already. Obama took up the issue privately with his staff Monday in a bid to advance a bill through Congress before lawmakers become too distracted by approaching midterm elections.

Public pressure is strong for reform. Editorials in the the Washington Post and the New York Times have angrily accused President Obama and Congress of not fulfilling their responsibilities. It seems an ever growing cycle – with no one wanting to take blame and responsibility, just like the “it’s not my problem” attitude towards detention. But the outcome of this is a loss of lives, broken communities and ever growing despair with unkept promises.

Be inspired and be inspiring. Human rights can start with YOU.

There’s nothing better than a real-life inspirational story. Last week we brought you the amazing story of New York’s favorite District Attorney, 90 year old Robert Morganthau, and his commitment to equal justice for all. Today, we are happy to bring you another story confirming that New York stalwarts of justice are on a roll.

A New York Times article tells the story of Ex-Judge Michael A. Corriero and his commitment to supporting Qing Hong Wu, a man who he sentenced as a juvenile 15 years ago, for misdemeanors on the “mean streets” of New York. Motivated by Wu’s reputation as a stellar student, and intent on creating a juvenile criminal system that promised a chance for reform, Corriero promised Wu that if he got educated, worked hard, and reformed his life, he would stand behind him if ever he needed it. Today Wu desperately needs Corriero’s help and Corriero, long-retired, is doing everything he can to ensure justice.

Qing Hong Wu moved to the U.S. with his parents when he was 5 years old. With his parents working long hours to make ends meet, he got mixed-up in some bad company at the age of 15. At his trial, the teenager pleaded guilty, saying, “I’m sorry and I really hope that you will forgive me for all the pain and trouble I made them go through.” Court transcripts show that Judge Corriero called the case a tragedy and gave Wu the following advice,

This is not the end, this is really the beginning of a new period for you. I want you to educate yourself. Continue to read, follow the rules. You will want to get a job and become a meaningful, constructive member of society to help your family. I will be there to make sure that you can.

A model inmate, Wu took Judge Corriero’s advice very seriously. He was released from his nine year reformatory sentence in three years and worked towards turning his life around; he studied hard and supported his mother by working his way up to the position of Vice-President of IT at a management company, and is now engaged to be married. Inspired by the example of his mother, sister and fiance becoming U.S. citizens, he applied for citizenship last November, 15 years after having served his time. Immediately, Wu became subject to 1996 laws that make no allowance for those who have rehabilitated their lives and earned a place in society. He was locked up by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement in a detention center in New Jersey and is facing deportation to China, a country that he has not lived in for 25 years.

At the time that Mr. Wu pleaded guilty, he was not made aware of the consequences to his immigration future that could be a direct result of his sentence. Currently, the only way that Mr. Wu’s deportation can be stayed is if he is granted a pardon that erases his criminal record. While in detention, Wu wrote a letter to Judge Corriero, reminding him about the promises that they had made to each other 15 years ago. Amongst the many appeals for his release from employers, friends and family is the strong appeal that Judge Corriero, now 67 and retired, has made to Governor David Paterson, saying that Mr. Wu has earned his second chance and should be allowed to remain in the country.

Judge Corriero is of the strong opinion that while on the one hand the justice system aims to rehabilitate those accused of crimes, especially juveniles, so as to prevent against the trap of them repeatedly re-entering the criminal system, a parallel law enforcement system is working directly against this by ignoring the details of individual cases and blindly enforcing old laws. In his book, “Judging Children as Children: A Proposal for a Juvenile Justice System”, Judge Corriero envisages a more flexible justice system that supports and nurtures those who have committed mistakes and learnt from them, allowing them to change their lives rather than perpetuating a vicious cycle.

Now the Executive Director of Big Brothers, Big Sisters of New York City, the judge is going to great lengths to do something for Mr. Wu. We always believe that human rights begins with an individual. Judge Corriero has made a personal effort, and we really hope that this, combined with all the support that Mr. Wu has received, will make a difference.

In the mean time, if you want to be an inspiration, join SAALT’s new video project, “Say it Loud: Share Your Story for Immigration Reform”, As Congress and the Administration debate immigration reform this Spring, SAALT is collecting video testimonials from individuals who have a personal story to tell about how they might have been affected by the broken immigration system and what immigration reform would mean to them. These stories of personal experience will serve as powerful and inspiring tools in the mobilization towards immigration reform, so if you have something to say, then create a video with your personal take on this question, “Why do you believe the U.S. immigration system needs to change”. Send it to SAALT and join the likes of Morgenthau and Judge Corriero by taking a step for human rights!

UPDATE: We are very pleased to tell you that this story has a happy ending. As a result of Judge Corriero’s personal appeal for justice and all the support that Mr. Wu has received since he was detained in November, Governor Patterson announced his pardon on Saturday. Gov. Patterson said that based on the exemplary way the Qing Wu served time, and rose from his mistakes by turning his life around, he has been pardoned for the misdemeanors he was charged with in his youth. The full and unconditional pardon that Mr. Wu received should prevent the Federal Government from deporting him, but should also allow him to be eligible for citizenship, the application that got this entire process started in the first place. A statement released by the Governor said that in his mind, Wu’s case was a chance to draw attention to “the harsh inequity and rigidity of the immigration laws.” We are with Judge Corriero in hoping that this does not remain one family’s happy ending, and is, instead, a signal of change for the criminal justice system and the immigration system so that they work together to allow people to recover from their mistakes and reclaim their lives.

Photo courtesy of www.nytimes.com

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Immigration detention reforms urgently needed in light of “all hell breaking loose” at Varick facility in New York

Picture 1Immigration detention is once again revealing fatal flaws, reaffirming the need to not only superficially reform the system as has been promised by the Obama administration, but completely overhaul it by reducing reliance on a penal system of punishment. As a New York Times opinion piece stated,

Americans have long known that the government has been running secretive immigration prisons into which detainees have frequently disappeared…..what we did not know, until a recent article in The Times by Nina Bernstein, was how strenuously the government has tried to cover up those failings.

Yesterday, reports came in of an ongoing hunger strike at Varick Federal Detention Facility in downtown New York, counteracted by immigration agents in riot gear who used pepper sprays and beat detainees.

A Jamaican detainee in one dorm said “all hell broke loose” after about 100 inmates refused to go to the mess hall on Tuesday morning and gave guards a flier declaring they were on a hunger strike to protest detention policies and practices. The detainee, who asked that his name not be published for fear of retaliation, said a SWAT team used pepper spray and “beat up” some detainees, took many to segregation cells as punishment and transferred about 17 to immigration jails in other states.

A detention center that sees 11,000 undocumented immigrants, asylum seekers, and legal permanent residents with convictions pass through every year, Varick has been in the news recently as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced they will be shutting it down and transferring detainees to a county jail in Hudson County, Jersey. An ICE press release stated,

As part of its major overhaul of the detention system, ICE will suspend operations at the Varick Facility….a commitment to prioritizing health, safety, and uniformity among facilites.

No doubt Varick has had its share of problems. A petition sent by a 100 men from Varick talking of constant transfers to remote locations and lack of access to lawyers spurred an investigation by the New York City Bar Association which eventually led them to start a volunteer lawyers program for the facility. But many advocates and detainees alike feel that ICE has decided to shift responsibilities to other facilities rather than fix conditions at Varick, especially given the focus on misconduct in the facility in recent times. Many are worried that closing Varick would negatively impact detainees’ due process rights, including lack of access to both attorneys and families in Hudson because of the long distance from New York City and issues around visitation hours. Still others feel that the move comes to avoid all of those protests that have been happening outside of Varick lately. Activists have been protesting the deportation of Jean Montrevil, housed in Varick, that has led to traffic stops and multiple arrests outside the center. The New York Times reports,

Nancy Morawetz, a professor at the New York University School of Law and director of its Immigrant Rights Clinic, said, “There is probably no detainee at Varick Street who, despite the problems at Varick, wouldn’t prefer to be at Varick. This is really just moving away the problems where they’re not going to be seen.”

Senator Charles Schumer has written a letter urging that Varick stay open.

“They didn’t have a concept of New York — most people New York don’t have cars, whether they be lawyers or immigrant families, ” he said, noting that the agency had not consulted with him or any immigrant groups.

ICE has countered that at Hudson, detainees will have access to outdoor recreation space. But the jail is just a step up from Varick and is required to to treat immigration detainees the same as its criminal inmates, even though they have committed no crime.

The general mess around Varick is showing not only the challenges around reforming the detention system, but also the crucial need for legally enforceable standards for immigration detention, so that agencies can be held accountable, and the need for humane alternatives to immigration detention that ensures moving away from a reliance on a penal, punishment oriented system, neither of which are being addressed by the reforms. Take action now.

Update: The transfer of detainees from Varick to Hudson County has happened as planned but its consequences, as many advocates and detainees have predicted, have made conditions worse for detainees. From the New York Times.

Detainees have sent appeals for help to the American Bar Association and have threatened a hunger strike. They cite exorbitant telephone costs as their central grievance, but also complain of poor health care, confiscation of legal documents and mistreatment by guards at the jail, the Hudson County Correctional Center in Kearny….Officials of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal agency that pays jails to house detainees, have said improvements are in the works. But for detainees shifted from the New York jail, the Varick Federal Detention Facility, the possibilities for communication with the outside world have shrunk.

Photo courtesy of ICE.

Shocking New York Times article uncovers efforts to conceal immigrant deaths in detention

A New York Times article has revealed scathing information about grave abuses of power by immigration officials desperate to conceal the deaths and mistreatment of immigrants in detention. This includes covering up evidence of gross mistreatment, undercounting the number of detention deaths, discharging patients right before they die, and major efforts to avoid scrutiny from the news media.

The article states,

Behind the scenes, it is now clear, the deaths had already generated thousands of pages of government documents, including scathing investigative reports that were kept under wraps, and a trail of confidential memos and BlackBerry messages that show officials working to stymie outside inquiry.

In one case, it was found jail personnel had made a fake entry to show painkiller medication had been given to an inmate, when in actuality the log showed that the drug had been administered once the inmate had died, driven to suicide by unbearable pain. In another case, officials justified an inmates lengthy detention despite his poor medical condition by mischaracterizing his criminal record.

Perhaps the most shocking example is that of Boubacar Bah, a 52-year-old tailor from Guinea who suffered a head injury and was put into solitary confinement for 12 hours before an ambulance was called.The article says,

“In the agency’s confidential files was a jail video showing Mr. Bah face down in the medical unit, hands cuffed behind his back, just before medical personnel sent him to a disciplinary cell. The tape shows him crying out repeatedly in his native Fulani, ‘Help they are killing me!’”

The video, shot by detention officials as a policy when force is used on a detainee, was obtained along with thousands of documents on the 107 deaths in immigration custody, through Freedom of Information Acts filed by the New York Times and the ACLU. These documents clearly show how Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have covered up examples of abuse and neglect, withheld important information regarding detainee abuse and deaths, and desperately tried to deflect media scrutiny.

Bah’s story was the basis for our End Homeland Guantamos campaign, where visitors assume the role of an undercover journalist doing an investigative series on what actually happened to Boubacar Bah.

Many, including the news media, advocacy groups and Members of Congress have been calling for reform in the immigration detention system. And while the Obama Administration has vowed to overhaul immigration detention, it seems somewhat meaningless unless there is a shift in the way the agency operates – away from an environment of secrecy to one government by enforceable standards and oversight. But the administration has rejected the idea of standards, arguing that “rule-making would be laborious, time-consuming and less flexible” than its own overhaul.

That’s why we need real public pressure. STOP THE SENSELESS DEATHS NOW by urging your Congressional members to support Rep. Luis Gutierrez’s Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America’s Security and Prosperity Act of 2009 (CIR ASAP) which provides secure alternatives and the codification of standards to ensure humane detention conditions.