In early 2009, President Obama appointed the governor of border-state Arizona Janet Napolitano, and a supporter of comprehensive immigration reform, as the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). For many, it was a sign that the administration would tackle immigration reform as a priority. In her first week in office, Napolitano ordered a sweeping internal review of DHS, aimed at identifying key areas for reform. March 2010 marks the one year anniversary from that week. So how much has changed for immigration?
We are part of the American family. We believe that in a country where every race and faith and point of view can be found, we are still bound together as one people; that we share common hopes and a common creed; that the dreams of a little girl in Tucson are not so different than those of our own children, and that they all deserve the chance to be fulfilled. That, too, is what sets us apart as a nation…Now, by itself, this simple recognition won’t usher in a new era of cooperation. What comes of this moment is up to us. What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow.
These words, spoken early in the speech, did more than honor Christina Green and the other victims of the tragic shooting that took place in Tucson, Arizona on January 8th. Along with noting the empty chair in the room and saying a prayer for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the President said, in his opening remarks, that the tragedy in Tucson served as a reminder that we were all greater than our parties and political affiliations, and that in order to face the great challenges that lie ahead, it is important to “move forward together.” This emphasis on cooperation between the two parties was symbolized by the fact that, for the first time, Democrat and Republican members of Congress sat together at the State of the Union address, representing a show of unity for Gabrielle Giffords.
In a speech that focused on science, technology, clean energy and education, President Obama chose to avoid specifics in favor of a rhetorical approach that employed storytelling to illustrate points. In addition to invoking the repeal of the contentious “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy in the military, he surprised immigration and human rights advocates by spending some time on the issue of immigration reform. In the spirit of allowing everyone to shape their own destiny and contribute to the future of the country, the President expressed support for immigration reform and the enactment of the DREAM Act that would give an estimated 2 million undocumented youth who have lived in the country since they were children, and gone through the educational system, to be put on a path to citizenship. He said-
Today, there are hundreds of thousands of students excelling in our schools who are not American citizens. Some are the children of undocumented workers, who had nothing to do with the actions of their parents. They grew up as Americans and pledge allegiance to our flag, and yet live every day with the threat of deportation. Others come here from abroad to study in our colleges and universities. But as soon as they obtain advanced degrees, we send them back home to compete against us. It makes no sense…Now, I strongly believe that we should take on, once and for all, the issue of illegal immigration. I am prepared to work with Republicans and Democrats to protect our borders, enforce our laws and address the millions of undocumented workers who are now living in the shadows. I know that debate will be difficult and take time. But tonight, let’s agree to make that effort. And let’s stop expelling talented, responsible young people who can staff our research labs, start new businesses, and further enrich this nation.
The issue of immigration has always been a contentious subject; one on which lawmakers have remained extremely divided. What cannot be disputed, however, is that the current immigration system is broken and desperately needs fixing. Currently, there are approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, people who work hard to seek a better life for themselves and their children. Mostly living in the shadows, a lot of people are forced to work for minimum wage, facing inhumane conditions while being denied basic care. Following 9-11, the government’s harsh policies regarding immigrants have resulted in a denial of human rights and due process, with the government allowing raids and arrests without warrants, holding thousands in inhumane detention centers, and deporting people with a fair trial.
While it is tempting to be optimistic that Congress will heed the President’s advice, put aside their differences, and work on fixing the broken immigration system through fair and humane immigration reform, this is not the first time that President Obama has called upon lawmakers to address some of these problems. In the four times that the President has addressed Congress during his term, he has brought up the issue of immigration reform on three occasions. Further, there has never been any doubt about his support for the DREAM Act.
Due to the President’s support, and the work of Senator Harry Reid and other supporters, the DREAM Act even made it to a vote in the Senate in December of last year, only to be struck down. It is also difficult to ignore the fact that Immigrations and Customs Enforcement deported a record number of people in 2010, and put into place a high number of agreements between federal immigration and local law enforcement agencies. These agreements, like the 287g and Secure Communities program, sanction immigration enforcement at the local level without clear objectives or meaningful oversight, resulting in eroding public trust in the local police, and in racial and ethnic profiling, as well as the unlawful detention of U.S. citizens and permanent residents.
So yesterday, when the President spoke about what an uphill battle immigration reform is for Congress, immigrant rights advocates like Frank Sharry from America’s Voice could not help but wish for a more aggressive approach in which he got on the “offensive” and “challenged the Republicans on comprehensive immigration reform.”
We are the first nation to be founded for the sake of an idea – the idea that each of us deserves the chance to shape our own destiny…We do big things. From the earliest days of our founding, America has been the story of ordinary people who dare to dream. That’s how we win the future.
We need to live in a nation that ensures equal rights, justice and due process to all, irrespective of their national origin, ethnicity, race, or citizenship. We are daring to dream.
Ever since its launch, the Secure Communities program (SComm) has whipped up one storm of controversy after another, continually being criticized by advocates, officials and local law enforcement for its lack of transparency and accountability, the threat to public safety, due process and justice that it poses, and its indirect but obvious encouragement of racial profiling. While the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have denied these implications, the reality on the ground shows otherwise. Already in effect in several counties across the United States, SComm, combined with the draconian anti-immigrant lawsthat have been passed in several states, has contributed to the record-breaking deportation of people who were often stopped for minor violations and traffic offenses, and the separation of thousands of families around the country in the past year.
The immigration reform movement, however, recently marked a series of small victories. The infamous Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa Country, Arizona, has been ordered to pay two men, Julián and Julio Mora, $200,000 in a racial profiling case. On February 11, 2009, Arpaio’s deputies had detained the pair for several hours afterstopping their pickup truck outside a landscaping company they raided in search of identity-theft and fraud suspects. A federal judge determined that Arpaio’s deputies had no grounds on which to stop the men or detain them for so long.
This isn’t the first time Arpaio has come under legal fire for his racially prejudiced actions. However, he has tried recently, all too hard, to break this reputation. On July 11, Arpaio launched a line of Spanish-language pink underwear which reads “Vamos Jose!” For the last 17 years, Arpaio has been forcing his inmates to wear pink underwear that reads “Go Joe!” as a way to discourage theft of the undergarment. In an all too deliberate effort to prove his naysayers wrongs, he launched the Spanish-language version for public sale, that too in a Mexican restaurant in Phoenix. Sarah Palin and Hugh Hefner have reportedly already purchased their own pairs at $15 apiece. In a press release, Arpaio said-
It will raise more money to help at-risk youth and it is a poke in the eye to the critics who for years have called me racist because of my tough stance on illegal immigration.
However, this move hasn’t gone down well with activist groups. Lydia Guzman, of Somos America and Respect Repeto, labeled this “just another publicity stunt,” asking ”Who is he trying to convince? He is trying to too hard to convince us.”
In another move, the Manhattan Federal Court ruled on July 12 that DHS and ICE must furnish documents detailing why they misled state governments and the American public about the extent of SComm, which has recently come under fire for drastically varied interpretations. Reacting to the judgement, Pablo Alvarado, director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), commented-
While the Obama administration boasts of the Secure Communities program to win political points with Republicans, it has kept actual policy details nearly secret from Congress, state partners and the American public. Thankfully, federal courts, not ICE, get the last word…As we’ve seen in states and localities across the country, the more the public learns about Secure Communities, the more they say ‘no thank you’ to its implementation.
As another step that has been hailed by immigration reform activists, Russell Pearce, the president of the Arizone state Senate and the primary sponsor of the racist anti-immigrant SB1070 bill, will face a recall election. This has been the result of a grassroots appeal that collected enough signatures from registered voters to call for the special election. Pearce is the first state official in Arizona to face this kind of election.
Along with these small victories, on June 17 ICE announced a series of reforms to SComm after claiming to heed the criticisms that have come their way. One of the main aspects of the reform package is a training video that explains to local law enforcement officials what SComm entails and what constitutes racial profiling. Watch the ICE training video here:
While the video achieves the goal of explaining SComm to the local enforcement officials, it has also been criticized for being somewhat redundant and repeating racial stereotypes within the visuals of the video. Opponents of SComm have said that the officers should already know racial profiling is against the law. Margaret Huang, executive director of Rights Working Group, argued-
Putting into a video information that law enforcement should not be racially profiling—that is not likely to have a whole lot of impact…Part of the reason it’s become acceptable to use racial profiling in immigration enforcement is because it has been deliberately tied into the national security context.
While the movement against SComm has effectively brought scrutiny on the program and pushed ICE to take note of the criticism that the program has faced from all quarters, the minor tweaks that ICE released have been considered hugely inadequate in their redressal of the program’s flaws. Today at noon, immigrants andadvocates in New York City are gathering to rally against the so-called reforms that has made to SComm. The rally, being held at 26 Federal Plaza, New York, NY, will take place one hour prior to a meeting that ICE has set up with advocates in New York City. This meeting is the third in a series of meetings that advocates have dubbed a “desperate marketing tour” through the states that have withdrawn from the program, Illinois, Massachusetts and New York. Today, protesters will rebuke ICE for excluding from its meetings the very people who are most greatly impacted by “Secure Communities” and call for a nationwide termination of the program, which funnels people directly into the deportation system, jeopardizes trust in the police, and encourages racial profiling.
Join us in our commitment to telling stories, inviting conversation, and inspiring action that will help our nation move even further in the right direction. To take action against Secure Communities, contact your Governor to help your state withdraw from the program.
Rogelio and Maribel Melgar came to the United States from Guatemala in 1999 with their family. Their son Brayan, then aged 4, had been diagnosed with throat cancer. The Melgars brought him to the U.S., legally, in the hopes of getting him the treatment that was not available in Guatemala. Their initial six-month stay was extended repeatedly as their son’s treatment required more time. The parents couldn’t bear the thought of taking him back to Guatemala to let him die or leaving him in the U.S. while they returned. On May 5, this year, after 12 years of treatment, Brayan passed away, leaving behind his devastated parents and four siblings. Following that tragedy, just over two months later, on July 11, Brayan’s father Rogelio was arrested and is now facing deportation.
The Melgar family is in a particularly complicated situation regarding their status. The parents – Rogelio and Maribel – as well as their older son Hans (16) are all undocumented. Hans is a clear candidate for the DREAM Act. The Melgars’ three youngest children – twin girls (8) and a son (4) – are U.S. citizens by birth. Because of their son Brayan’s prolonged treatment, a family sponsored the Melgars’ stay in the U.S. and arranged for a job at a restaurant for Rogelio. When the restaurant closed in 2004, Rogelio worked as a cook at a care facility until his arrest some weeks ago.
The case of the Melgar family is not unique. There have been countless families that have been fractured as a result of a broken and unfair immigration system that simply doesn’t account for the complexities in each case. The government is denying due process and fairness to communities by enforcing laws that do not allow immigration judges to rule on a case-by-case basis. Laws passed in 1996 eliminate important legal rights that previously enabled immigrants to challenge their detention and deportation. And in a post 9/11 world, these legal rights have been reduced even more dramatically, taking away immigration judges’ ability to consider the circumstances of each individual’s case, leading to mandatory detention and deportation for many.
Over 11% of the population of the U.S is foreign-born (Census Bureau PDF), with a significant number of them being undocumented. According to data released by the Pew Hispanic Center (PDF), undocumented immigrants comprise just over 4% of the adult population of the U.S., while their children make up 8% of the total newborn population and 7% of children (defined as under the age of 18) in this country. Cases of families torn apart, coupled with the numbers demonstrates the need for comprehensive immigration reform that supports basic human rights and ensures due process and fairness for all.
In the meanwhile, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) continues to maintain that the goal of the controversial Secure Communities program is to remove dangerous criminals who don’t have legal status. However, in practice, they have consistently shown otherwise. Numerous immigrants are stopped and checked on minor allegations by local enforcement authorities and their details shared with ICE’s database. This puts these immigrants, in most cases with no criminal record or with minor traffic violations, on the fast track to deportation. And in most cases, their deportation is shattering for the families involved.
Another case of this happening is the story of Salvador Licea of Texas. Licea is a father of two young girls who has lived in Texas for most of his life. He was recently pulled over for a minor traffic violation and then arrested for having an expired license. In a case of blatant racial profiling, he was then told that he was pulled over because his age and skin color matched the description of a ‘drug lord’ or ‘gang banger.’ The authorities took his fingerprints under the jurisdiction of SComm and he is now facing deportation.
Separation of families is one of the most unfortunate and unjust consequences of our broken immigration system. To learn about the story of yet another family affected by this, watch our Skype interview with Tony Wasilewski, a Polish immigrant whose wife Janina was deported four years ago.
It has now become a widely known fact that the Obama administration has deported more immigrants than the Bush administration, with numbers steadily climbing each year. However, even as President Obama has redirected his immigration efforts to deporting those immigrants who are deemed dangerous and have criminal records, ICE continues to round up people on minor charges. Furthermore, many undocumented immigrants who are trying to live an honest and hardworking life in the U.S. are in complex family situations which are not helped by blanket policies from the authorities. This applies to another set of cases where immigrants are married to U.S. citizens and still face deportation under a harsh 1996 immigration law that deems such immigrants deportable.
In the case of the Melgar family, Rogelio faced a hearing on July 19 in Provo, Utah, where him and his wife met for the first time since he was arrested. In a strange turn of events, the prosecutor, Deputy Utah County Attorney Chard Grunander, admitted that the state wasn’t ready to file charges against Melgar. The judge then released Rogelio’s $5,000 bond and told him he was free to go. However, immediately following this, Rogelio was taken back to Utah County Jail and is now being kept by ICE for a federal investigation.
Rogelio’s wife, Maribel, is still grappling with multiple blows to her family. She is trying to hold on to the memories of a time when her family was together and firmly believes staying in the U.S was the right thing to do:
If we had stayed in Guatemala, my son would’ve been dead at 6 years old…But God gave us a chance to have our son for another 12 years in this country.
It is important to work together to push for comprehensive immigration reform that won’t separate such families and will ensure dignity, respect, and due process for all. Become an ally of Restore Fairness and get involvedtoday. For more information on the separation of families due to deportation and what you can do, go to familiesforfreedom.org