Momentum is building for immigration reform

From our Restore Fairness blog-

Could the conversation about immigration finally be changing?

Following the Obama administration's determination in February that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutionally discriminates against same-sex couples, Attorney General Eric Holder last week requested that the immigration appeals court consider granting legal residency to an Irishman in a civil union with an American man. A Newark judge also suspended the deportation of Henry Velandia of Venezuela-- who is married to  American, Josh Vandiver-- in order to allow time for the court and the Department of Justice to determine under what circumstances a gay partner might be eligible for residency. These recent steps are a welcome indication that the Obama administration is working toward a fair and just policy towards bi-national same-sex couples.

In 2009, Restore Fairness used the power of documentary to tell the story of one such family, who was facing separation because their domestic partnership wasn't recognized under DOMA. The video gives a voice to Shirley Tan, who came from the Philippines decades ago and built a life with her partner Jay, giving birth to twin boys and becoming a full-time mother. When we spoke to her, Shirley faced the biggest challenge of her life as she fought to stay on in the United States, crippled by laws that do not allow gay and lesbian couples to sponsor their partners.

Watch the Restore Fairness video of Two Moms Fighting to Stay Together.

In another positive step for immigration, the state of Illinois last week became the first state to entirely opt out of the so-called "Secure Communities," which requires local police to send fingerprints of all arrestees to federal immigration databases, with immigrants who are found "deportable" being directly pushed into the deeply flawed detention and deportation system. This costly program threatens to reduce trust between local law enforcement and communities, encourage racial profiling and separate families. However, despite Illinois Gov. Quinn's decisive announcement, and increased resistance from states and police departments across the country, the Department of Homeland Security has said that they will not allow Illinois to withdraw. In another indication that partnerships between ICE and local law enforcement are on the increase, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal signed into law on May 13, an immigration bill that would give local police the authority to question suspects about their immigration status. This law, which is being compared to Arizona's SB1070, could lead to decreased trust between local police and communities, and increase the occurrence of racial profiling. The law has been met with much criticism already. Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, reacted-

Today is a dark day for Georgia. Our concern stems from the very serious economic repercussions that will be felt against our state on numerous fronts and the very serious civil and human rights abuses that will also likely follow...

This trend of states being given greater control of immigration policies, which is actually a federal issue, signals a threat to the otherwise positive momentum in the immigration movement. Joining the opposition to the "Secure Communities" program 38 lawmakers earlier this week sent a letter to New York Governor Cuomo urging him to terminate Secure Communities in New York State. Religious leaders from many faiths, joined by advocates and community members, yesterday held a vigil outside Governor Cuomo's Manhattan office, to request him to stop unjust deportations. Speakers at the vigil applauded Illinois for withdrawing from Secure Communities and urged New York to protect New York's immigrant communities by doing the same. You too can take action against Secure Communities, contact your state Governor to help your state withdraw from the program.

In another update, Senator Durbin (D-IL) and Senator Reid (D-NV) yesterday introduced the DREAM Act in the 112th session of Congress. If passed, it could positively impact the lives of 2.1 million young people in the United States. Despite the regained impetus of the DREAM Act this year, the movement lost the support of its third and final Republican politicians. Senator Dick Lugar (R-IN) abandoned his previous support for the DREAM Act and joins Representative Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Senator John McCain (R-AZ) who have already denounced their support. Senator Lugar blamed President Obama's increased politicization of the issue for his withdrawal, even though it seems he has made the decision because of a rising Tea Party challenger in the Primary. However, many feel optimistic about the renewed chances of the bill this year. The DREAM Act's failure in Congress last December was a huge disappointment, but the movement, supported by President Obama, is only getting stronger. And with your support, we can take this step forward in ensuring that young people who have worked tirelessly to build their lives in America- and contribute to the society- enjoy the rights they deserve.

The passage of the DREAM Act would benefit people like Emilio, a young man who was brought to the U.S. by his parents at the age of six. Speaking about his American identity, the only one he has ever really known, Emilio said-

“I went through elementary, middle, and high school in North Carolina, and it is the only place that I call home.  I graduated from high school in 2010 as one of the top ten students in my class, as an honor student, an AP scholar with hundreds of hours of community service, and I was awarded a full-ride scholarship to my first choice university.  However, unless the broken immigration system is fixed, when I graduate from college in four years I won’t be able to use my college degree.  My dream is to give back to my community.”

Immediately prior to the re-submission of the DREAM Act in Congress came a speech by President Obama to border communities in El Paso, Texas earlier this week. Obama reiterated his commitment to fair and just comprehensive immigration reform. He expressed his support for the DREAM Act, for keeping families together, and for visa reform. While this is not the first time we have heard these commitments, there is no denying the positive momentum that is building toward preventing the injustices caused by a broken immigration system. When we deny fairness to some, we put all of our rights at risk. Join Restore Fairness in our commitment to telling stories, inviting conversation, and inspiring action that will help America move even further in the right direction.

We strongly believe in the power of using culture to change culture. We're using our new Facebook game, America 2049, to weave human rights issues-- especially racial justice and immigration-- into each week of game play. As we continue to tell these stories in the hope of changing the conversation, we ask that you play America 2049, and join the dialogue and action that will move us forward.

Learn. Share. Act. Go to restorefairness.org.

“With Osama Bin Laden dead, can we have our rights back?” – How the effects of 9/11 could lead to America 2049

From the Restore Fairness blog-

On Sunday, May 1, President Obama announced the death of Al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, the notorious terrorist who spearheaded the 9/11 attacks against the U.S. While the predominant reaction from around the world has been one of relief and joy, bin Laden’s death reminds us of just how big an impact the 9/11 attacks had on us and the way we perceive and treat each other.

While the U.S. was already grappling with the immigration issue, 9/11 triggered a major overhaul of legislation that imposed stringent restrictions on immigration and gave the government much greater power to infringe on the rights of citizens and visitors to this country. The U.S had essentially gone into lock-down mode domestically, and U.S. foreign policy became more aggressive. At the time of the attacks, Barack Obama was an local politician only known in Chicago, and largely unknown to the world. He wrote a short article for his local newspaper, the Hyde Park Herald, in which he reacted to the tragic events of that day and suggested a cautious approach to its repercussions. He stated-

The essence of this tragedy, it seems to me, derives from a fundamental absence of empathy on the part of the attackers: an inability to imagine, or connect with, the humanity and suffering of others. Such a failure of empathy, such numbness to the pain of a child or the desperation of a parent, is not innate; nor, history tells us, is it unique to a particular culture, religion, or ethnicity….

We will have to make sure, despite our rage, that any U.S. military action takes into account the lives of innocent civilians abroad. We will have to be unwavering in opposing bigotry or discrimination directed against neighbors and friends of Middle Eastern descent. Finally, we will have to devote far more attention to the monumental task of raising the hopes of embittered children across the globe—children not just in the Middle East, but also in Africa, Asia, Latin American, Eastern Europe, and within our own shores.

Obama's emphasis on steering clear of blind rage and discrimination, as a way of blaming certain groups for the attacks, seems prophetic now. Over the last ten years, we have witnessed increasingly stringent immigration enforcement, and a steady dissolution of civil rights and attitudes towards immigrant communities, especially Muslim-Americans and South Asians. This view was echoed by Chris Hedges, a senior journalist and war correspondent who witnessed 9/11 and was plunged into its aftermath. In an address at a fundraising event on Sunday night as news of bin Laden's death was creeping in, Hedges remembered-

When I was in New York, as some of you were, on 9/11, I was in Times Square when the second plane hit. I walked into The New York Times, I stuffed notebooks in my pocket and walked down the West Side Highway and was at Ground Zero four hours later. I was there when Building 7 collapsed. And I watched as a nation drank deep from that very dark elixir of American nationalism … the flip side of nationalism is always racism, it’s about self-exaltation and the denigration of the other.

The risks and backlash that both Obama and Hedges referenced have materialized over the last decade and placed the U.S. at a crucial crossroads where the decisions we take now will significantly impact the America of the future. In its fifth week, Breakthrough's human rights Facebook game America 2049 takes players to their mission in Phoenix, Arizona, which has been in someway the epicenter of the immigration debate.  In Phoenix, players confront heightened debates around severely restricted immigration policies. Players are also confronted with a scenario where ethnic celebrations and festivals have been outlawed for fear that "they promote dissent and unnecessarily emphasize differences between populations." The game presents players with choices for how to address such a situation in the future, and by referencing historical artifacts, shows how our present could very well lead to the dytopic future that the game depicts. One example of this historical reference is a 1920s songbook - "O! Close the Gates." (see photo) - that demonized immigrants in popular culture.

In Level 5 of America 2049, players also meet Cynthia Espinoza. Watch her testimonial about the need to preserve America's multicultural heritage:

America 2049 addresses the rights of immigrants, including forced immigrant workers, in a country that has struggled to reach a rational solution to the "foreign threats" amplified by the attacks of 9/11. The attacks changed the immigration issue in America dramatically, sparking off a wave of new legislation or a tightening of existing ones. In an intriguing article, the Southern California Public Radio (SCPR) outlined five ways in which Osama bin Laden -- and the 9/11 attacks he masterminded -- altered the immigration landscape in the U.S. These include, perhaps most notoriously, the establishment of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which has been responsible for a growing number of deportations each year, as well as the now-canceled Secure Border Initiative network (SBInet) or the "virtual fence" that was planned for the entire stretch of US-Mexico border. The erosion of basic rights accelerated with the Patriot Act, which considerably expanded the government's ability to conduct surveillance over Americans.

The calls for comprehensive immigration reform have intensified over the past few years, making it even more pressing to address the rights of immigrants who have no criminal records and are working hard to become part of American society. Another aspect of the immigration debate that is brought up in America 2049 is the degradation of immigrant worker rights and forced migration. While the tragedy of 9/11 caused the government to enforce stricter anti-immigrant legislation, one of the side effects has been the neglect of immigrant worker conditions. In America 2049, players discover an actual account by a Puerto Rican laborer at Camp Bragg, Rafael F. Marchan, who protested against his deplorable working conditions in the early 1900s. Unfortunately, such situations still exist today, as reported by the New York Times about a story of "500 Indian men hired by Signal International of Alabama for rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina were confined in squalid camps, illegally charged for lodging and food, and subject to discrimination and abuse." The fact that such forced servitude of immigrant workers continues a hundred years on from the example in America 2049 proves that prompt action must be taken to restore basic human rights for everyone.

So while the world celebrates the end of a tyrant, we must remember that more than celebrating a death, we must take this opportunity to work towards lasting peace and respect for basic rights for everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or background. Osama bin Laden caused much havoc around the world and claimed countless innocent lives, but letting his actions be used as a reason for the dissolution of respect and rights for hard working, innocent people can simply not be justified. As a statement that circulated virally soon after bin Laden's death was announced said- “If Osama Bin Laden is dead, can we have our rights back?” Ten years on, let's make that our main goal.

Photo courtesy of Norton, et. al., A People and a Nation (5th ed., 1998)

Shackled no more: Justice for Juana

From the Restore Fairness blog-

We’re pleased to announce that the Nashville, TN Sheriff’s office has been found guilty of violating the Constitutional rights of Juana Villegas, a pregnant immigrant woman who was inhumanely shackled during labor and denied proper treatment after a traffic stop, of which she was later cleared.

Back in 2008, through documentary and our interactive experience, Homeland Guantanamos, we put a face to Juana Villegas’s story. Because of an agreement between local police and federal immigration authorities, called 287g, she was picked up, detained and shackled during labor. She was not allowed to use a breast pump to nurse her newborn child. Villegas said, “The nurse brought me a breast pump… she asked permission for me to take it to jail… again the sheriff said, no.”

Our friends at Colorlines wrote about this historic verdict and about the nationwide effort against shackling incarcerated women while they’re in labor. From Colorlines-

In 2009, former New York Governor David Paterson signed a bill to outlaw the practice. Former California Governor Arnold Swarzenegger vetoed a similar measure. According to the Rebecca Project for Human Rights, so far only ten states have legislation regulating the use of restraints on pregnant women. Because of the criticism that has stemmed from her case, the sheriff’s office has changed its policy such that “pregnant women are shackled only during transport if there is a credible threat that they may try to escape.

Watch our first interview with Juana here.

While she has won the case, Juana Villegas faces the threat of deportation once again as the U.S. 6th District Court of Appeals has denied a request that would allow her to stay. Villegas’s case sheds light on the grave injustices in our broken immigration system.  As we continue to tell these stories, in the hope of similar successes, we ask that you play our new Facebook game, America 2049, which weaves human rights issues into each week of game play. Next week, the game explores the struggles of Latino immigrants.

This ruling against the Nashville Sheriff’s office is a historic step. We will continue to tell stories, invite conversation, and inspire action that will help America move even further in the right direction.

Learn. Share. Act. Go to restorefairness.org

 

 

 

Georgia “Show Me Your Papers” Legislation Will Endanger Survivors of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault

From the Restore Fairness blog-

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

April is Sexual Assault Awareness month. In observation, Georgia lawmakers should reject legislation that attacks immigrant women, including H.B. 87 , a bill currently pending in the Georgia legislature that is a copycat of Arizona’s S.B. 1070 racial profiling law. H.B. 87 would endanger victims of domestic violence and sexual assault by creating more fear and distrust of local law enforcement in communities across the state, much like 287(g) has done. Similar to 287(g) agreements, which are agreements between Immigration and Customs Enforcement and local police/sheriff departments, H.B. 87 would charge local law enforcement with enforcing federal immigration law.

As the ACLU of Georgia’s reports on Cobb and Gwinnett counties detail, 287(g) agreements have made members of immigrant communities fear and distrust local law enforcement and ultimately more hesitant to report crime.

According to Alyse López-Salm, Community Outreach Advocate for Partnership Against Domestic Violence (PADV) , “287(g) has ensured that many survivors of domestic violence remain in the shadows—terrified to call the police or even reach out to organizations like Partnership Against Domestic Violence for help.” Alyse says that when survivors of domestic violence finally come into contact with PADV, they say they were afraid that seeking help would have a negative effect on their immigration status.

As “Jenny’s” account illustrates, this perception is far from groundless. On July 29, 2009, Jenny called 911 to stop her partner from assaulting her. But instead of protecting Jenny from the man who had been hitting and kicking her, the Cobb County police officers who responded to her call relied upon her abusive domestic partner’s account of what prompted Jenny’s 911 call, as she speaks little English. Her abuser’s side of the story was, not surprisingly, far from honest.

According to attorney Erik Meder, who represents Jenny in her deportation case, as a direct consequence of seeking help from the police, Jenny was herself arrested; physically separated from her infant daughter; spent five days in the Cobb County jail; and placed in immigration removal proceedings.

Jenny’s experience and that of others like her are likely to have a negative ripple effect, because as word gets around, similarly situated survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault in Cobb and other 287(g) counties may be dissuaded from seeking help in the first place.

The legislation now under consideration in Georgia would create a similar atmosphere of terror throughout the state. H.B. 87 would authorize the police to investigate individuals’ immigration status in the course of an offense, including traffic stops, if they fail to provide one of the select identification documents.

If passed, all Georgians will have to carry ID on them at all times in order to avoid being detained while police try to determine their status. Despite language that purports to prohibit investigation of immigration status for victims of a crime, in reality, the legislation will have a chilling effect for crime victims who will be even more scared of calling the police.

In a friend-of-the-court brief filed in the ACLU lawsuit challenging Arizona’s S.B. 1070 , Legal Momentum, a women’s rights group, points to how S.B. 1070 will endanger immigrant women:

Immigration status significantly affects the willingness of immigrant women to seek law enforcement help. Rape and sexual assault already have low reporting rates. Immigrants who are victims or witnesses of sexual assault will be even less likely to report and aid in the prosecution. Immigrants with stable permanent immigration status are more than twice as likely as women with temporary legal immigration status to call police for help in domestic violence cases (43.1% vs. 20.8%). This rate decreased to 18.8% if the battered immigrant was undocumented. These reporting rates are significantly lower than reporting rates of battered women generally in the United States (between 53% and 58%).

As we observe Sexual Assault Awareness Month, Georgia legislators should heed the call of women’s rights advocates and reject the Arizona copycat legislation that is sure to further drive underground survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.

Photo courtesy of nmu.edu

Learn. Share. Act. Go to restorefairness.org

 

 

 

It shouldn't take a tragedy to bring people out of the shadows

From the Restore Fairness blog-

In the early hours of March 12, a bus ferrying passengers from the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut met with a horrific accident on the I-95 expressway in the Bronx, en route to Chinatown in Manhattan. The crash killed 15 of the passengers onboard, and the driver was later accused of being unlicensed as well as falling asleep at the wheel. One of the passengers who died in the crash was Mr. Wang Jianhua, a man who had come to America to escape government persecution and pursue the American dream  for himself and for the family that he had been forced to leave behind in the Fujian province, in China.

Three years ago, Mr. Wang arrived in New York City with the aid of smugglers, having made the conscious decision to seek a better life for his wife, daughter and then unborn son. After raising $75,000 with the help of relatives and numerous creditors to pay for his passage, Mr. Wang left all that was familiar to him and began his journey to the United States. Once in New York, Mr. Wang lived in cramped conditions with several other Chinese immigrants in Chinatown, where he found a job as a delivery-man in a restaurant - a grueling job that earned him approximately $500 a week. His life comprised of work and sleep, with very little respite by way of a social life. He only communicated with his family when he could afford to, and sent home whatever was left of his salary once he was done paying rent and other expenses. In November 2008, shortly after arriving in the United States, he had filed for asylum on the grounds of being targeted by Chinese authorities for trying to have more than one child, a case that was still pending when he was killed in the crash. Following his death, Mr. Wang’s wife and two children are now bereft, in an even more dire state of poverty than they were before.

It is unfortunate that it takes a tragedy such as this to shed light on stories such as Mr.Wang's. Today, there are millions of hard working immigrants like him in the United States, who are living under hardship, separated from their families, and striving to work towards a better life for their families. Stigma against undocumented immigrants and lack of comprehensive immigration reform negates their valuable contribution to the economy and withholds their right to be a legitimate part of the workforce, as well as their access to basic human rights and services. Moreover, instead of working towards rational and humane immigration reform, the situation the country seems to be pushing for is an enforcement heavy approach that is inefficient, inhumane, and inadequate in addressing the reality of the nearly 12 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S.

The repercussions of a broken immigration system also extend to the children of undocumented immigrants, who are U.S. citizens. In what was a big relief for immigration reform lobbyists, on Thursday, March 17, the Arizona Senate rejected the latest packet of five bills that would have further curtailed the rights of immigrants in the state. The primary bill that had drawn the most opposition aimed at pushing the Supreme Court to strip citizenship rights of the children of illegal immigrants. The four other bills would have removed the rights of such immigrants from attending state universities and driving vehicles in Arizona, and required school districts and hospitals to check the legal status of students and patients. Senator Paula Aboud (D-Tucson) challenged the morality of the bills, calling them “morally reprehensible.” She further stated-

This bill would create a two-tiered system, a system of discrimination that says some children born in this country have different rights than other children born in this country…I do not believe that is the American way.

The double standard that Senator Aboud highlights is unfortunately in practice already. On March 11 (a day before the Bronx bus crash that killed Mr. Wang), immigration authorities at Dulles International Airport (Washington D.C.) deported Emily Ruiz, a 4-year-old girl who was flying back from Guatemala with her grandfather. Despite being a U.S. citizen, Emily was separated from her parents who live in New York and who are undocumented, and sent back to Guatemala. While there are conflicting reports from the immigration authorities and Emily’s family about what led to her being deported from the country of her birth, the fact remains that a 4- year old U.S. citizen was separated from her parents and denied entry into her country. The legislative action that Arizona has been attempting to take towards severely restricting the liberties and rights of immigrants will only lead to more stories such as Emily's, and more families being separated.

The ramifications of these two events are alarming. Jeanne A. Butterfield, a former executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, spoke to the New York Times-

The case is alarming because it shows what can happen once you start treating kids who are born here whose parents are undocumented with less rights than a full-blown citizen.

The rejection of the packet of anti-immigrant bills in the Arizona state senate is a small but crucial step in the right direction. Recent legislation in Utah is also a positive marker of what comprehensive immigration reform could look like. Last week, Utah ratified a set of immigration bills that provide a balance between enforcement, and developing a program that recognizes the importance of immigrants to the state economy. State Rep. Bill Wright, who authored a part of the laws, commented-

I'm of the opinion that we really don't have the ability as a society to remove that large a portion of a segment from our society — either the cost, or just the damage it would do…A lot of these people are intertwined in our society. They have financial obligations: They have bank notes; they've bought houses; they contribute; they have jobs.

It remains to be seen whether the federal government will use Utah as a model for crafting their own comprehensive immigration reform legislation. Perhaps, then, people like Mr. Wang would have a more legitimate chance at working towards financial stability for their families and U.S. citizens like Emily Ruiz won’t be turned away from their own country.

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