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President Obama can resolve the nation’s deportation crisis, with the stroke of a pen

Guest blogger: Thanu Yakupitiyage, Media Relations Associate, The New York Immigration Coalition

The stories keep piling up – Jose Antonio Vargas, Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist who made the stunning revelation last week that he is an undocumented immigrant, Elisha L. Dawkins, a veteran of who served in both Iraq and Gauntanamo Bay, Gaby Pacheco , a young DREAMer who came to this country at the age of 7 and was one of four undocumented youth who walked 1,500 miles from Miami, FL to Washington D.C. to advocate for the DREAM Act.

These are only some of the heart-wrenching realities of everyday heroes who are offered no path to legal status in our broken and unfair immigration system. And while hundreds of thousands of people across the country are demanding that their voices be heard and that just solutions be created, Congress is paralyzed by partisan politics. Meanwhile, President Obama, has taken a disastrous enforcement-only approach that has led to the deportation of nearly 800,000 people in the last two years. We are talking 1,100 people a day. Most of these people have no criminal records and are stopped for misdemeanors as little as a traffic violation or jumping a turnstile, or are simply racially profiling for ‘looking like an illegal immigrant’.

The President who had long been an eloquent supporter of immigration reform. For example, on the campaign trail for the 2008 election, he said: “When communities are terrorized by ICE immigration raids, when nursing mothers are torn from their babies, when children come home from school to find their parents missing, when people are detained without access to legal counsel, when all that is happening, the system just isn’t working and we need to change it.”  - 2008 campaign appearance at National Council of La Raza conference

And as President, he has said, “Today, there are an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants here in the United States…. Regardless of how they came, the overwhelming majority of these folks are just trying to earn a living and provide for their families.” -Excerpts from President Obama’s remarks on immigration, May 10, 2011, in El Paso, TX

And yet, despite these exclamations and promises, his actions reflect an approach with little respect for immigrant communities.

President Obama says he won’t act without Congress, but while Congress remains at a standstill, we know there are steps he can take using his executive authority to bring immigration relief to hardworking immigrants and families.

While the President can’t fix the immigration system alone, he can begin to undo some of the damage his own administration has caused. He can take executive action—with the stroke of a pen — to put an end to the senseless deportations of hard-working immigrants, the very folks he says should be allowed a chance to come out of the shadows.

This is why the New York Immigration Coalition launched the ‘With the Stroke of a Pen’ Campaign in November 2010, an on-going campaign to collect signatures on letters to President Obama asking him to use his executive authority to end unjust deportations. With every letter to be sent to the White House, the campaign is also sending a pen, so that the President can sign an executive action.

These are some of the actions that President Obama has the authority to do:

  • Halt the deportation of students who would be eligible to earn legal status under the DREAM Act and other immigrants currently facing deportation whose removal from the country is not in the public interest.
  • End Secure Communities and similar programs that erode community policing by co-opting local law enforcement officers as immigration agents.
  • Allow immigrants currently in the U.S. to complete the process of becoming legal residents here in the United States; forcing them to go to their home country to obtain the visa for which they are eligible often results in a ten-year bar to re-entry.
  • Expand alternatives to detention nationwide, and requiring detention only after the Department of Homeland Security establishes its necessity;.
  • Focus workplace immigration enforcement on exploitive employers who flout our labor laws and profit from our broken immigration system.

And today, across New York City, from Staten Island to Queens, from Brooklyn to Union Square, on the street and in churches and mosques, volunteers are galvanizing supporters and collecting signatures, in a kick-off to a month-long street and online blitz, demanding that President Obama begin to repair our broken immigration system and provide immediate relief to families.

We invite you to join us in our call to the President: stop the senseless deportations of our community members and be the change you are always talking about, by taking these steps.

Join our campaign and sign the letter now HERE and it will be delivered to the White House on your behalf.


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

Napolitano, Obama, and the Congressional budget favor the DREAM becoming a reality

Almost a decade after it was first introduced, the DREAM Act, a bill that, if passed, would give young undocumented adults who came to the U.S. as children and have lived here for an extended period of time and fulfilled certain criteria, a chance towards citizenship, is in the running to be passed once again.

In an effort to bring the DREAM Act up for a vote before the Senate while the Democrats still have a majority, Senate Majority leader Harry Reid and Majority Whip Richard Durbin filed a new version of the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act late night on Tuesday, November 30th. This new version of the DREAM Act, S.3992, contains revisions to some key points that immigration restrictionists have had issue with in the past, in the hope that the revised version will address these issues and win the support of moderate lawmakers from both parties. An article in the Politico outlines some of these changes-

The latest version…would bar illegal immigrants from receiving in-state college tuition; drops the age of eligibility to 29 from 34; would not grant permanent legal status to anyone for at least 10 years; would restrict eligibility for those who commit certain misdemeanor crimes; and would limit individuals from being able to sponsor family members for U.S. citizenship, among other changes.

While there has been a mixed response to this conservative version of the DREAM Act, it is clear that the major compromises it offers are designed to win the 60 votes necessary to get it passed when it comes up for a vote. According to Jenny Werwa, the outreach and communications manager with the American Immigration Lawyers Association, the passage of this particular iteration of the DREAM Act bill would be a political “win” for immigrants rights advocates-

If they’ve put together this to create a new version, they must think they are going to get votes out of it. So for me, I’m optimistic about that, in terms of politically pushing the ball forward.

Since the first signs began to emerge that Sen. Reid would make good on his election campaign promise to introduce the DREAM Act before the end of the lame-duck session of Congress, a wide variety of people have spoken out in the support of the DREAM Act.

The first major move of support came from the White House, when President Obama, who has always been a supporter of the DREAM Act but has never publicly committed his support, told Democrats that he wanted it approved before the end of the 111th session of Congress. Moreover, he put forth a commitment to work “hand in glove” to ensure that the bill is passed, including a promise to call Senators himself, urging them to vote to pass the bill. Following this important avowal of support, the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan has also been advocating for the passage of the DREAM Act in a number of public appearances. Speaking to the New York Times last Monday, Mr. Duncan said-

I think we are fundamentally wrong on this as a nation. (Undocumented students) have played by all the rules, gone to school, worked hard, full attendance. Then they graduate and the doors of opportunity basically slam shut.

Hundreds of educational institutions and educators from around the country think that the thousands of young adults who were brought here as children, and have been through the school system and want to make something of their lives should be given a chance. They too have extended their support of the DREAM Act.

An extremely important public statement in favor of the DREAM Act came from DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano who said that the implementation of the DREAM Act would actually help the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) enforce immigration law more effectively. Speaking on Thursday at a conference call with the White House, Napolitano urged Republican lawmakers to see the DREAM Act as a complement to enforcement rather than an “amnesty” bill for undocumented immigrants. Emphasizing the DREAM Act’s relationship to smart enforcement, she said-

From where I sit I think it’s important to point out that it fits into a larger strategy of immigration enforcement and complements the Department of Homeland Security plan to prioritize enforcement resources to remove dangerous criminal aliens from the country…The DREAM Act is one thing that Congress can do right now to help the Department of Homeland Security do its job of enforcing immigration laws in the way that makes the most sense for public safety for our national security.

In addition to the thousands of advocates and young people who have taken part in rallies, sit-ins, protests and hunger strikes in all corners of the country, hoping to urge Members of Congress to vote in support of the bill, inter-faiths religious leaders have also raised their voices in support of all the young people who stand to benefit from the DREAM. On Tuesday, leaders from the Jewish, Islamic and Christian faiths banded together for a coordinated day of action, calling on Congressional leaders to pass the DREAM Act.

An important point in favor of the DREAM Act came from the Congressional Budget Office who released the long-awaited cost estimate of S. 3992, the latest version of the DREAM Act. Their findings showed that putting thousands of well educated, young, undocumented immigrants on the path to legalization would reduce the deficit by $1.4 billion over ten years.

Despite the numerous factions and argument in support of the DREAM Act, and the fact that a recent poll conducted throughout the country by First Focus found that 70% of adults were in favor of passing the bill, a number of Republican lawmakers are reluctant to get behind it. Although the DREAM Act has always enjoyed an element of bipartisan support, even those Republicans who supported the DREAM Act in previous years, have now rescinded their support. Jon Kyl (Arizona), John Cornyn (Texas), Bob Bennett (Utah), Sam Brownback (Kansas), Susan Collins (Maine), Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas), and John McCain (Arizona) are some of the Republican Members of Congress who supported the DREAM Act in the past.

The DREAM Act might come up for a vote early next week, and with it, the lives and dreams of about 2.1 million young people in the United States could change for the better. Take action NOW by calling your Members of Congress and urging them to vote for the DREAM!

Photo courtesy of nytimes.com

Give me the DREAM Act in the lame duck session, says Obama

After a year of unfulfilled hopes and promises of immigration reform, it might finally be time for dreams to come true.

Delivering on the promise he made during his hard-fought re-election campaign, Senate Majority leader Harry Reid announced on Wednesday that he will bring the DREAM Act up for vote (as a stand-alone measure) during the final days of the 111th Congress. While this is not the first time that Sen. Reid has made such an commitment, this time the announcement comes with the added backing of President Obama. Obama has always been a supporter of the DREAM Act, but has never publicly or actively worked on pushing for it to be passed. This is why it came as a surprise when he told Democrats on Tuesday that he wanted the DREAM Act passed during the lame duck session of Congress, as a “down payment” on more comprehensive immigration reform.

This announcement came on the heels of a meeting between President Obama and leaders of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, including Sen. Harry Reid, Rep. Nydia Velazquez, New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez and Illinois Rep. Luis Gutierrez, that took place on the morning of Tuesday, November 16th. Gutierrez, who had been in favor of a more comprehensive immigration reform bill up until this point, said that the meeting was both positive and productive-

Passage of the DREAM Act is achievable right now. With the White House, Majority Leader Harry Reid, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and every Democratic Leader in the House and Senate pulling in the same direction, we can pass the DREAM Act before the end of the 111th Congress.

The White House released a statement with the outcomes of the meeting-

The President and the CHC leaders believe that, before adjourning, Congress should approve the DREAM Act. This legislation has traditionally enjoyed support from Democratic and Republican lawmakers and would give young people who were brought as minors to the United States by their parents the opportunity to earn their citizenship by pursuing a college degree or through military service.

In a noticeable departure from the Obama administration’s previous non-committal stance on immigration reform, the President put forth a commitment to work “hand in glove” to make sure the bill is passed, including a promise to pick up the phone and urge Senators to vote on the bill. At the end of the day on Tuesday, Congresswoman Nydia Velasquez announced that Speaker Nancy Pelosi had tentatively set November 29th as the date that the DREAM Act would be voted on.

If passed, the DREAM Act would provide a path to citizenship for approximately 2 million undocumented youth who were brought to the U.S. when they were very young, provided that they go through college or participate in military service. However, in order to prevent another filibuster, at least two Republican Senators would have to support the DREAM Act, something that might prove to be a uphill task given the number of Republicans who have turned their back on it over the past year.

This is the closest that the bill has come to being introduced. It is important that Congress hears from all of us who support the DREAM Act as intrinsic to the future of the country. Send a fax telling your Members of Congress to support the DREAM Act!

Stay tuned for more details!

Photo courtesy of Associated Press Photos

Breaking news – Department of Justice files lawsuit against Arizona law

In a much anticipated move, the Department of Justice has filed a lawsuit against Arizona’s SB1070 today, retaliating against the harsh anti-immigrant law that requires local police to detain suspected of being undocumented. The law, slated to begin on July 29th, is the subject of national controversy coming under fire from civil rights advocates for giving racial profiling the green light.

The Department of Justice accuses the state of Arizona of crossing “the constitutional line” by interfering with the federal government’s authority to create and enforce immigration law. The lawsuit, with Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and the state of Arizona as defendants, argues that “the Constitution and federal law do not permit the development of a patchwork of state and local immigration policies throughout the country”, drawing on the “preemption” doctrine which works off the Supremacy Clause in the U.S. Constitution, a clause that gives federal law precedence over state statues.

In our constitutional system, the federal government has preeminent authority to regulate immigration matters. This authority derives from the United States Constitution and numerous acts of Congress. The nation’s immigration laws reflect a careful and considered balance of national law enforcement, foreign relations, and humanitarian interests… Although states may exercise their police power in a manner that has an incidental or indirect effect on aliens, a state may not establish its own immigration policy or enforce state laws in a manner that interferes with the federal immigration laws…Accordingly, S.B. 1070 is invalid under the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution and must be struck down.

The lawsuit also challenges the anti-immigrant law saying that if enforced it will lead to the diversion of precious resources away from targeting those who have committed serious crimes. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder defended the lawsuit-

Arizonans are understandably frustrated with illegal immigration, and the federal government has a responsibility to comprehensively address those concerns…But diverting federal resources away from dangerous aliens such as terrorism suspects and aliens with criminal records will impact the entire country’s safety… Seeking to address the issue through a patchwork of state laws will only create more problems than it solves.

The brief also calls out the law on humanitarian grounds arguing that making the enforcement of law mandatory for the police will inevitably result in the unjust harassment and detention of foreign visitors, legal permanent citizens, and citizens who might not be able to immediately prove their legal status. Accompanying the lawsuit were declarations from many police chiefs, including from Tucson and Phoenix, who have said that if implemented, SB 1070 will hamper their ability to effectively police their communities.

Late last month Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the Department of Justice was preparing to sue the state of Arizona over SB 1070, sending waves through the media and political networks. President Obama has spoken out against the law.

…the recent efforts in Arizona, which threatened to undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans, as well as the trust between police and their communities that is so crucial to keeping us safe.

The federal lawsuit joins five other lawsuits against SB 1070, including a class action suit field by the American Civil Liberties Union on the grounds that it violates the First Amendment, encourages racial profiling, and interferes with the jurisdiction of the federal government. The government has asked for a preliminary injunction and delay in the enforcement of SB 1070 until the case is resolved. A hearing to decide this will take place on July 22nd in a Federal courthouse in Phoenix.

SB 1070 is a shocking example of what goes wrong when the need for comprehensive immigration reform is not addressed. When we allow our government to deny due process and fairness to some, we put all of our human rights at risk. The Arizona law has already resulted in copycat legislation in other states, which if allowed to continue unchecked will add more chaos to a broken system and further marginalize vulnerable groups.

By filing this lawsuit, the federal government has sent a direct message that they will not tolerate laws like SB1070 that instigate racial stereotyping and interfere with the federal enforcement of immigration law. In an address on immigration last week, President Obama called for bipartisan support to fix the broken immigration system.  Please keep up the momentum and write to President Obama and your Members of Congress to take action on immigration now.

Photo courtesy of politico.com

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President Obama gives immigration reform a boost on Independence Day weekend

How fitting it is that the day after President Obama delivered his first speech devoted entirely to the issue of immigration reform, 150 people are being sworn in as naturalized U.S. citizens on Ellis Island. In an address at American University, President Obama vowed not to “kick the can down the road” on immigration reform, restating his desire to fix a broken immigration system.

In his speech, the President asserted the need for a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million people currently residing in the U.S. who do not have legal status, while stressing that the U.S. government secures the border, and businesses face consequences for hiring undocumented workers and keeping wages depressed. Calling on Congress to pass a comprehensive plan to fix an immigration system that is “fundamentally broken,” President Obama tackled the issue that has been the subject of contentious political debate in these months leading up to the mid-term November elections. He spoke about the “…estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States” and said that “the overwhelming majority of these men and women are simply seeking a better life for themselves and their children.” The President cautioned against rounding up and deporting the undocumented immigrants that are an intrinsic part of American society and economy, and against a blanket amnesty for all that he said would be “unwise and unfair…would suggest to those thinking about coming here illegally that there will be no repercussions for such a decision,” and “could lead to a surge in more illegal immigration. ” Instead, he advocated for a solution that eschewed both polar extremes of the debate in favor of rational middle ground. He said-

Ultimately, our nation, like all nations, has the right and obligation to control its borders and set laws for residency and citizenship.  And no matter how decent they are, no matter their reasons, the 11 million who broke these laws should be held accountable. Now, if the majority of Americans are skeptical of a blanket amnesty, they are also skeptical that it is possible to round up and deport 11 million people. They know it’s not possible. Such an effort would be logistically impossible and wildly expensive. Moreover, it would tear at the very fabric of this nation -– because immigrants who are here illegally are now intricately woven into that fabric.  Now, once we get past the two poles of this debate, it becomes possible to shape a practical, common-sense approach that reflects our heritage and our values.

This speech was influenced by a number of recent developments in the immigration issue. Most notably, Arizona’s harsh anti-immigrant law that has set a precedent for states around the country taking the enforcement of immigration law into their own hands. Since April 23rd, when Arizona Gov. Brewer signed off on the law, its unconstitutional statutes that give a green light to racial profiling, have catapulted the immigration issue and the Federal government’s inaction on it, into center stage. The controversial “show me your papers” law, which is currently under review by the Department of Justice, has “fanned the flames of an already contentious debate,” Mr. Obama said. President Obama acknowledged the frustration that has led to Arizona and the 20 other states that are in the process of implementing similar laws as “understandable,” but stated that it was “ill- conceived” and that it “put huge pressure on local law enforcement to enforce rules that ultimately are unenforceable.” Referring to the police chiefs that have stood in opposition to SB1070, he said that laws such as these make communities less safe by “driving a wedge between communities and law enforcement, making our streets more dangerous and the jobs of our police officers more difficult.” He criticized this “patchwork of local immigration laws” for having “the potential of violating the rights of innocent American citizens and legal residents, making them subject to possible stops or questioning because of what they look like or how they sound.”

In his undeniably political speech, President Obama stressed the necessity for bipartisan support for immigration reform. He took Republicans to task for the lack of movement on immigration reform in Congress, specifically calling out the 11 Republicans Senators who had shown support for a comprehensive reform bill in 2006, and subsequently withdrawn this support, with the Republican party now unanimously calling for a “border security first” approach and balking at a comprehensive reform bill. Obama argued that the process has been “held hostage” by “political posturing, special-interest wrangling and . . . the pervasive sentiment in Washington that tackling such a thorny and emotional issue is inherently bad politics.” Referring to his recent b0lstering of border security by sending 1200 troops to the border, he said that the border was now more secure than it had been in 20 years, and that crime along the border was at a record low. Moreover, he dismissed the “border security first” approach saying that the systemic problems were too vast to be fixed with “only fences and border patrols.”

The President’s speech has been criticized for offering no “new solutions, timetables or points of compromise. Instead, he outlined a longstanding prescription for change that, in addition to having no support from Republicans in Congress, also has failed to unite his fellow Democrats.”

And even as President Obama waits for bipartisan consensus on immigration reform, families continue to be torn apart, immigrant youth live in fear of being deported, violations in detention continue to grow and local and state police armed with immigration powers bring fear to communities. Many of these problems can be tackled be administrative measures, but there was little spoken of in the speech. No action was pledged on any of the bills already in Congress though he did mention support for the DREAM Act that would give undocumented students a chance to live in the U.S. And even with a forum for an announcement on whether the federal government is going to sue the state of Arizona, no mention was made on the issue. Many groups have decided to take action into their own hands.

Following on the heels of President Obama’s address, leading law enforcement officials shared their concerns about programs that require enforcement of immigration laws by state or local law police, a trend that continues in absence of a federal solution. With the country’s foremost police chiefs and sheriffs speaking out against such enforcement that undo decades of progress in community policing, Presente.org in collaboration with the National Day Labor Organizing Network (NDLON) and the Trail of DREAMs is launching an ambitious new campaign calling on the President to use his power to create real change, starting with ending the deeply problematic 287g program.

Reform Immigration for America is asking people to write to Senate Republicans, asking them to”stop holding up the process and hurting families” America’s Voice is asking people to support the DREAM Act, “a stepping-stone to broader reform that we can pass right now” to support “youth who would qualify to earn citizenship under the DREAM Act who are future valedictorians, nurses, computer programmers, and soldiers.”

And Restore Fairness is calling on President Obama and Members of Congress to fix the broken detention and deportation system that traumatizes families and has led to many human rights violations.

While we are encouraged by the President’s speech and commitment to the issue of immigration, and reminded of our nation’s proud immigrant heritage, there is a deep need for bipartisan action as peoples lives hang in the balance.

Photo courtesy of nydailynews.com

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Immigration detention reforms a distant promise as deportations rise dramatically

An astounding 387,790 immigrants have been deported in 2009, indicating an all time high. And for those who justify the record in the name of security, two-thirds of these deportations are of people who have committed non-violent offenses. So it’s not surprising when a little girl asks Michelle Obama why the President is deporting more immigrants than ever, even as the immigration system remains irreparably broken.

But all hope is not lost. Senator Al Franken’s is slated to introduce the HELP Separated Children’s Act which will give special protections to those apprehended by immigration who are parents of a minor in the U.S., aimed at stopping the continuing separation of families that has vast implications on childrens’ emotional and physical well-being. A similar bill was introduced last year but did not pass.

Increasing deportations are accompanied by a deteriorating detention system, even as the administration announced plans for its reform in October 2009. The proposed reforms were to address chronic problems in the system such as overcrowding, inhumane conditions, unchecked detainee transfers and a lack of alternatives to detention. But seven months and many detainees later, it is difficult to be optimistic about the state of immigrant detention.

Such as the recent ruling from the Supreme Court exempting government doctors from personal liability for inadequate medical care of detainees. So what about an immigrant like Francisco Castaneda who was made to wait ten months in detention before getting a biopsy, despite having advanced penile cancer. Just before the results came in Francisco was released from custody so the government would not have to take responsibility for his treatment. Francisco’s case is indicative of-

…exactly what is at stake when detention standards are not only inadequate but unenforceable, and when there is broad immunity enjoyed by the persons responsible for the treatment of immigrants in their charge. With minimal accountability for how they treat people in their own custody, DHS continually fails to provide dignified or tolerable treatment of immigrant detainees.

The lack of adequate medical care and accountability is compounded by the rapid increase of numbers of detainees, resulting in the overburdening of the immigration court system that already has a huge backlog of untried cases. An analysis by TRAC shows the number of immigration cases awaiting resolution by the courts has reached all time record high of 242, 776, with a wait time of 443 days.

Translated into real terms, a recent lawsuit filed by the ACLU in Southern California yielded a list from the administration of 350 immigrant detainees in the Los Angeles area who have been held for periods longer than six months while waiting for their cases to be heard. Many are neither flight risks, nor a danger to their community, but continue to be locked up because of harsh laws and a lack of alternatives to detention. This includes people like Damdin Borjgin, a Mongolian man seeking asylum in the United States who has been in custody since November 2007 and has never had a hearing to decide if his is eligible for release. Detention reforms were supposed to address alternatives to detention for people like Borjgin, but have so far not kicked into effect.

The infinite problems with the immigration detention and deportation system are part of a broken immigration system that continues to deny people basic human rights, due process and justice.

Photo courtesy of immigrationforum.org

Justice Department threatens a lawsuit as states follow Arizona’s cue

Last week we gave you a list of states that are going to great lengths to oppose Arizona’s anti-immigrant legislation and ensure that immigration enforcement remains in the Federal domain. Today, unfortunately, we have very different news. While human rights advocates, musicians, sports people, police officers and media personalities continue to provide us with endless reasons why Arizona’s harsh SB1070 bill needs to be repealed, lawmakers in Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Colorado have already introduced similar bills in their state legislatures. Not to be left behind, similar legislation is being considered in Oklahoma, South Carolina, Idaho, Utah, Missouri, Texas, North Carolina, Georgia, Maryland, and Colorado.

Encouraged by the passage of Arizona’s immigration law, legislators and political candidates in these states are stating their frustration at the Federal government’s inaction in tackling immigration as their reason for introducing bills that increase local immigration enforcement. Pennsylvania state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, a Republican who introduced legislation modeled on the Arizona law last week said that his bill would leave undocumented immigrants with two options, “leave immediately or go to jail.” He said-

With the federal government currently AWOL in fulfilling its constitutional responsibilities to protect American lives, property and jobs against the clear and present dangers of illegal-alien invaders, state lawmakers … are left with no choice but to take individual action to address this critical economic and national security epidemic.

In Minnesota the copycat legislation, drafted by state Rep. Steve Drazkowski and supported by five other state House Republicans, even has the same name as Arizona’s SB1070- “The Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act”. According to the Minnesota Independent, this bill (HF3830)-

…would create a Minnesota Illegal Immigration Enforcement Team and require immigrants to carry an “alien registration” card. The bill uses the same “reasonable suspicion” protocol that has generated criticism against Arizona’s law.

This bill has been introduced in spite of the fact that the mayors of St. Paul and Minneapolis (the areas in Minnesota with the largest concentration of immigrants) banned government travel to Arizona in protest of SB1070. Moreover, the police chiefs of both these cities have denounced the introduction of the bill in Minnesota, on the grounds that increased enforcement of immigration law by local police is detrimental to them carrying out their jobs of protecting the community-

As the police chiefs for Minnesota’s two largest cities, we oppose HF3830, the Arizona-style legislation recently introduced in the Minnesota House of Representatives that pushes local law enforcement officers to the front line on matters of immigration…We believe that mobilizing local police to serve as primary enforcers of federal immigration laws will throw up barriers of mistrust and cause a chilling effect in immigrant communities, impairing our ability to build partnerships and engage in problem-solving that improves the safety of all members of the community. The culture of fear that this bill will instill in immigrant communities will keep victims of crime and people with information about crime from coming forward, and that will endanger all residents.

It is frightening that state legislators are making their decisions in spite of repeated protests from mayors and police chiefs in Arizona and around the country. All we can do is take momentary solace in Attorney General Eric Holder‘s consideration of filing a Federal Government lawsuit against Arizona’s Sb1070. Speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in Washington D.C. on Sunday, Holder said that  he was worried that enforcement of the law would lead down a “slippery slope” where people would be stopped based on their ethnicity rather than a crime they have committed. He said that the Justice Department was “considering of our options,” and could file the lawsuit either on the grounds that the Arizona law “pre-empted” Federal powers, or on the grounds that it violated Federal civil rights statutes.

According to a committee of human rights experts at the United Nations, the Arizona law not only violates Federal civil rights statutes, but possibly goes against international human rights treaties. Yesterday, a committee expressed serious concerns about the ways in which Arizona’s new law affects minorities, indigenous people and immigrants, potentially subjecting them to discrimination by local authorities. Referring to the clauses in the law that makes it a crime to be in the state without documents, and allows police officers to stop and question a person based on “reasonable suspicion” that they are undocumented, as well as the clause that targets day laborers and makes it a crime for them to solicit work, the UN committee highlighted the probability of the law leading to people being profiled based on their “perceived” ethnic characteristics.

The panel, composed of experts in the field of migrant rights and racial discrimination, critiqued the “vague standards and sweeping” language of the law and raised doubts about the law’s compatibility with International Human Rights treaties, which the United States is a part of. Further, they warned against the law as being allowing for a “dangerous pattern of legislative activity hostile to ethnic minorities.”

The rapidly introduction of bills similar to SB1070 is testament to the fact that this “dangerous pattern” is well on its way. We must ensure that the Federal government and the White House take this as an urgent call to enact comprehensive immigration reform. Write a letter to President Obama telling him to denounce SB1070 and repair the broken immigration system now.

Photo courtesy of flickr.org/dreamactivistorg

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Civil disobedience, courage and determination mark May Day rallies in 70 cities

Fueled by anger over Arizona’s harsh new immigration law, more than 200,000 people gathered in 70 cities across the country on May 1st to put pressure on Congress and the Obama administration to act on their long-overdue promise of an immigration overhaul. While people were gearing up to rally for reform across the country, law makers in Arizona decided to re-write one of the more controversial provisions of SB1070 to counteract accusations of racial profiling. While the amendment HB2162 clearly demarcates that police cannot use race and ethnicity to determine whom to question about their immigration status, opponents of the law called the repeal an insufficient “cosmetic” change that does not address the way it offends the civil liberties of the people of Arizona.

Turnout for May Day rallies outdid all expectations with numbers in Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Dallas, New York, Milwaukee, Chicago, Denver, San Francisco and other cities, numbering in the tens of thousands. In Los Angeles, a 100,000 workers, students, activists and families marched through downtown L.A. to City Hall, waving American flags and signs protesting the Arizona law, the largest turnout for a May Day rally since 2006. Marchers included people like Yobani Velasquez, a 32-year-old Guatemala native and U.S. legal resident, who was motivated to head the rally in Los Angeles out of his distaste for SB1070 which he called “racist” and “unfair.”

In Washington D.C., 35 people were arrested at the rally for picketing on the sidewalk of the White House in an act of civil disobedience. Amongst those arrested were the leaders of the national immigration movement including Congressman Luis Gutierrez, Ali Noorani, Chair of Reform Immigration for America, Deepak Bhargava, Executive Director of the Center for Community Change, and Gustavo Torres, Executive Director of CASA de Maryland. The leaders were wearing T-shirts that said “arrest me, not my friends,” and were taken away peacefully after refusing to leave the gate of the White House, with signs that protested the government’s inaction and lack of support for the immigrant community. Speaking at a rally in Lafayette square before the act of civil disobedience, Rep. Gutierrez hearkened back to the civil rights movement of the 1960s saying,

There are moments in which you say, ‘We will escalate this struggle…Today they will put handcuffs on us. But one day we will be free at last in the country we love.’

These arrests were representative of the strength and determination of tens of thousands of people, from labor, civil rights, immigrant rights groups as well as thousands of families that turned out to demonstrate for just and humane reform.

One of the highlights of the D.C. chapter of the May 1st rally were the courageous Trail of Dreams walkers who arrived in the nation’s capital last week after walking 1500 miles over four months, through some of the most conservative states in the country. The four young students, Gaby, Juan, Felipe and Carlos began their journey in Miami, Florida on January 1st, 2010, determined to draw attention to the plight of all the young, undocumented immigrants in this country who, despite having lived here for most of their lives, are unable to live out their dreams because of a broken immigration system. During their journey, they made numerous stops in towns along the way, telling their personal stories and raising awareness about the need for the DREAM Act, legislation that would enable young people who were brought to America, to lawfully live in the U.S. They finally reached D.C. last Wednesday, armed with 30,000 signatures on a petition to tell President Obama to help others like them. Despite their arduous journey, and having their laptops and phones that had been their main contact with the world stolen on arrival in Washington D.C., they joined in the May 1st rallies, unshaken in their determination.

As we wait for what unfolds with the immigration proposal introduced last week, we hope that this is the year for just and humane immigration reform.

Photo courtesy of Michael Ainsworth.

Immigrant women defy odds on International Women’s Day

March is the month where International Women’s Day celebrates the strides women have made, in spite of all they have to endure. Like Rosa Morales, an immigrant woman who turned her life around and went from the brink of being deported, to being awarded a scholarship for her contribution to society.

Two years ago, what started as a 911 call to register a case of domestic violence turned into a deportation case for Rosa. Although her husband was a legal resident, she had been living in the U.S. as an undocumented resident. Rosa, then a 35 year old mother of two boys, was taken to an immigration detention facility where she was held for a month before she was given a deportation hearing and released after her husband paid a bond. While in detention, Morales looked back on her life, realized that she was frustrated with living under extreme financial hardship, and took the decision to turn her life around. Soon after her release, she earned her GED and joined Promotoras, a group of women volunteers who visit schools and churches to provide information on health and education to other women in the community. In spite of continuing financial hardship, both Rosa and her husband have enrolled in college and she aims to follow this up with a social work degree at Arizona University, a job, and then citizenship. Recently, in honor of her commitment to bettering the life of her family and community, Rosa Morales was awarded the Virginia Palmer Memorial Scholarship from the Tucson Branch of the American Association of University Women.

While Rosa’s story is one of hope, we also want to call attention to the hardships faced by many immigrant women as they struggle to provide for their families. From exploitation by employers to the denial of reproductive health, domestic violence to the constant threat of separation from their children, undocumented women face many challenges. Many will be in the March for America on March 21st, calling for just and humane comprehensive immigration reform to reclaim their lives and contribute to society without living in fear.

But not everyone is sympathetic to the cause. In a conference call two days ago, Numbers USA, The John Tanton Network and the Tea Party Movement discussed strategies to counteract the March for America, with the groups advocating an anti-immigration stance that targeted Latina women and even children. From our friends at Campus Progress who listened in.

CALLER 1: I would like to speak out on something. I feel the new welfare queen in America today is women coming from Mexico with a bunch of babies. So I feel they’re all coming over here and having all these babies, they are the new welfare queen in America…

CALLER 3: One piece of information would be, they aren’t babies, they’re dependents. Don’t use babies. It’s emotional to them. They have dependents. We have babies.

And the racist ball didn’t stop rolling, even though the accusations are unfounded and irrational. Callers discussed strategies to flood Congress with phonecalls and faxes “to create the perception that there was a grassroots opposition to immigration reform”. Perceptions are powerful, but so are the actions of hundreds of thousands of workers, families, and women calling for immigration reform. So get your voices out there.