Promising Harvard sophomore, Eric Balderas, faces deportation

From the Restore Fairness blog.

Until two weeks ago 19 year old Eric Balderas was a sophomore on a full scholarship to Harvard University with a major in molecular biology and the ambition of becoming a cancer researcher. In an instant, he went from representing the promise of the country’s future to being threatened with deportation to Mexico, a country that he has no recollection of.

Eric, who is undocumented, was on his way back to Boston to start a summer research internship after visiting his family in San Antonio, Texas. When he tried to board his flight at San Antonio airport, he found himself being questioned about his immigration status by TSA officials who then alerted Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Eric was immediately handcuffed, fingerprinted and placed in immigration detention for five hours before being given an immigration hearing date and then released. Eric, who usually used his Mexican passport to board domestic flights within the U.S. had recently misplaced it, prompting him to use a Mexican consulate card and his Harvard ID on this present occasion. On a phone interview with the Associated Press he said-

I’d made it through before so I thought this time wouldn’t be any different. But once ICE picked me up I really didn’t know what to think and I was starting to break down…All I could think about was my family…

Eric told the press that he even contemplated suicide as he sat handcuffed. Shook up by his time in detention, Eric is fearful about being forced to drop out of college and return to Mexico. Eric moved to the U.S. at the age of 4, when his mother fled Mexico to escape domestic violence. As far back as he can recall, he has worked hard towards his dream of going to college and working for cancer research. Growing up, his mother worked 12-hour days packing biscuits while he babysat his younger brother and sister and juggled his homework. Speaking about his aspirations he said-

I honestly never thought I’d make it into college because of my status but I just really enjoyed school too much and I gave it a shot. I did strive for this.

Eric’s experience is a tragic example of a broken immigration system that needs fixing so that young people that have been in the country for most of their lives and are working hard to contribute to the country’s future are given a chance. Since he was detained, Eric has engendered wide support from civil rights activists, advocates and an active online community. Over the past ten days, Eric’s story has been covered by major press publications such as NPR, The Wall Street Journal, The Huffington Post, The Associated Press and ABC News, and he has become another poster child for the DREAM Act (Development Relief in Education for Alien Minors Act), an important piece of legislation which would provide a path to citizenship for the thousands of young people like Eric Balderas and Jessica Colotl who were brought to the U.S. as children and know no other country as home.

Universities such as Harvard, Brown and Tufts have been pushing for the passage of the legislation, which has been stalled in Congress since 2001. A year ago, Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust met with Senator Scott Brown to urge him to support the measure. Christine Heenan, Harvard’s vice president of public affairs and communications, spoke of the institution’s complete support for Eric and others like him. She said-

Eric Balderas has already demonstrated the discipline and work ethic required for rigorous university work, and has, like so many of our undergraduates, expressed an interest in making a difference in the world.

Advocates and “Dream Activists” across the country have been pushing their state senators to move the DREAM Act legislation forward. If passed, the DREAM Act would permit those who came here as children (under the age of 16), and have lived here for more than 5 years, to gain legal status after completing the necessary steps such as two years of college or military service.

Eric, who previously participated in DREAM Act actions such as the “Coming out of the Shadows” day in March has taken the opportunity to become vocal about the plight of students like him. In an interview with the Harvard Crimson, he reassured his fellow Dreamers that just as he has received massive support from people around the country, there is strength in solidarity and hope for a just solution. He said-

Just hang in there. Let others know of your problem and try and gain support for the DREAM Act, because that’s ultimately what’s going to save us all.

Let’s hope that Eric is allowed to fulfill his dreams, and that others do not have to endure what he is going through.

Photo courtesy of americasvoiceonline.com

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ICE's misplaced priorities: The numbers speak for themselves and the stories cry out for justice

From the Restore Fairness blog.

Guest Blogger: Azadeh Shahshahani from ACLU of Georgia reposted from The Huffington Post.

This past Wednesday, Jessica Colotl was released from the Etowah Detention Center in Alabama and allowed to reunite with her family back in Cobb County, Georgia. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has granted Jessica deferred action on her deportation case.

Jessica is a 21-year-old smart hard working student at Kennesaw State who has worked nights in order to pay her tuition. She hopes to become a lawyer after graduating in the fall.

So why was Jessica at a detention center all the way in Alabama in the first place? A few weeks ago, as Jessica pulled into her university parking lot, a campus police officer pulled her over, telling her that she was “impeding the flow of traffic.” She could not produce a driver’s license due to her undocumented status and eventually ended up at the Cobb County jail. This is when 287(g) kicked in. Per an agreement between Cobb County and ICE, some Cobb sheriff deputies have been granted certain enforcement powers of an immigration officer. Jessica was placed in deportation proceedings. Before long, she found herself behind bars at the Alabama detention center, awaiting deportation to Mexico, a country she has not lived in for over ten years and which she hardly remembers. Jessica was only released after strongly voiced and sustained demands by the community, including her sorority sisters, and after the ACLU contacted the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Headquarters on her behalf.

Is it unusual for ICE and the localities to waste limited resources meant for targeting perpetrators of the most dangerous crimes by going after individuals with great potential like Jessica?

Unfortunately not. Jessica is just one of the untold numbers of hard-working people who get caught up in the local immigration enforcement programs, including 287(g). In a sense, Jessica’s case is very unusual, as she actually won respite (albeit temporary) from deportation. Most people in her situation, faced with prolonged detention at a jail, oftentimes isolated and hours away from their families, opt to give up their immigration case and are subsequently deported.

An ACLU of Georgia report released in October 2009 recounted stories of 10 community members in Cobb and their families impacted by 287(g). As documented by the report entitled, “Terror and Isolation in Cobb: How Unchecked Police Power under 287(g) had Torn Families Apart and Threatened Public Safety,” mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters are torn apart from their families every day in Cobb County, many with little recourse.

In one case, a husband and father was pulled over for “an incomplete stop” on the way to the bank. Angel subsequently ended up at the Stewart Detention Center. He left behind his wife Sharon, an American citizen who is physically disabled and who “depended on [her] husband for everything.” Sharon and Angel had to “celebrate” their 7-year wedding anniversary apart; their only means of contact was a phone call by Angel from the Stewart Detention Center.

In Cobb, immigrants disappear into detention for violations such as a broken tail light or tinted windows on their car. In 2008, Cobb County turned over 3,180 detainees to ICE for deportation. Of those, 2,180, about 69 percent, were arrested for traffic violations.

But you don’t only have to rely on the ACLU of Georgia report to believe there is something wrong with this picture. A Government Accountability Office investigation of 287(g) released in January 2009 found that ICE was not exercising proper oversight over local or state agencies. And a report released in March 2010 by the DHS Office of the Inspector General (OIG) documents significant lapses in 287(g) priorities and oversight. ICE claims that 287(g)’s mandate is to focus on non-citizens who pose a threat to national security or are dangers to the community. But less than 10 percent of those sampled by OIG were ICE “Level 1″ offenders. Almost half had no involvement in crimes of violence, drug offenses, or property crimes.

This trend of misplaced priorities is shared by other ICE local enforcement programs.

Last week, a piece appeared by John Morton, the head of ICE, in the Atlanta Journal Constitution as well as other papers around the country defending the “Secure Communities” initiative through which arrestees’ fingerprints are checked against DHS databases with information about civil immigration history, rather than just against FBI criminal databases. Morton claims that his agency is prioritizing perpetrators of dangerous crimes for deportation.

Morton’s strongest rebuttal is his own numbers. According to the data ICE released in November 2009, out of 113,000 non-citizen individuals identified in the program during its first year of operation, more than 101,000, or close to 90%, were never charged with or convicted of dangerous crimes. “Secure Communities” is in fact designed to sweep up any foreign-born individual who is arrested by local law enforcement for any reason whatsoever, including traffic infractions, even if that person is never charged with, or convicted of, any crime at all. An alarming 5% of the total number of individuals identified were actually U.S. citizens, testifying to the inaccuracy and incompleteness of the federal agency databases against which fingerprints are matched.

Meanwhile, precious resources are diverted from identifying and removing perpetrators of the most dangerous crimes.

Contrary to Morton’s assertion, the program is also profoundly susceptible to abuse and racial profiling, similar to the misguided 287(g) program. Any police officer or sheriff’s deputy can arrest individuals simply to bring them to the attention of immigration officials. Without federal standards or oversight, this creates an unacceptably high risk of unlawful racial profiling.

The risk of racial profiling through local enforcement programs is compounded in Georgia, as there is no state legislation banning racial profiling and mandating accountability and transparency for law enforcement.

It is past time for ICE to match their rhetoric regarding priorities with action and put an immediate end to the unaccountable outsourcing of immigration enforcement functions. If the numbers weren’t enough proof, Jessica’s story and other accounts cry out for justice.

Photo courtesy of acluga.org

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Will immigration reform pass this year? Olympic medalist hopes so.

From the Restore Fairness blog.

It took courage for 18-year old Olympian bronze medalist Simon Cho to relate the inspirational story of his life as an immigrant in America. Born in Seoul, Simon came to the U.S. with his family at the age of four as an undocumented immigrant. Aspiring to give their children the American Dream, Simon’s parents worked tirelessly, day and night, to ensure that their children got the opportunities they deserved. While Simon’s parents worked hard in their seafood shop 365 days of the year, Simon devoted most of his time to speed skating, a sport he was exceptionally good at. Realizing their son’s talent, Simon’s parents sold their shop and everything they had in order to afford his full-time training with the Olympic team in Salt Lake City. Now a U.S. citizen (due to more relaxed immigration regulations at the time), Simon tried for and made the U.S. Olympic speed skating team as one its youngest athletes, returning from this year’s Vancouver games with a bronze medal for the U.S.

Like Simon, thousands of immigrant youth have the potential to realize the American Dream and make their country pride. Unfortunately, many of them never get the chance to do so, and instead, live in fear despite having lived in America most of their lives. 21-year old Jessica Colotl, a student of Political Science and French at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, is a case in point. A bright, diligent young woman, Jessica worked nights in order to pay her tuition and hopes to continue her education and become a lawyer after graduating in the fall. Sounds like someone you know?

A few days ago, as Jessica pulled into her University parking lot, a campus police officer pulled her over saying she was “impeding the flow of traffic.” She was honest about not having a license and being undocumented, and was immediately detained in Cobb Country, in accordance with their 287(g) program that gives local police the power to enforce federal domain immigration law. An immigration judge denied her bond and ordered that she be deported in 30 days. Is she a danger to society? No. Is she draining the resources of the State? No. Is she a hard-working young student who pays taxes and contributes to the economy and the state. Yes. As you read this, Jessica is sitting behind bars in a detention center in Gadsden, Alabama, awaiting deportation to Mexico, a country she hasn’t lived in for over ten years, a country she barely remembers.

Our country’s immigration system is broken and in dire need of reform so that instead of facing the unjust circumstances that Jessica finds herself in, more people can work towards its collective good, the way Olympian Simon Cho is doing. Yesterday, Senate Democrats Harry Reid, Charles Schumer, Richard Durbin, Dianne Feinstein and Robert Menendez introduced a conceptual framework for immigration reform in the hopes of getting immigration reform passed in 2010.

The enforcement heavy proposal calls for enhanced border security and stronger enforcement, continuing with the current 287(g) programs, and leaving in a biometric Social Security card that will serve as an employment verification card. The new legislative framework also includes provisions for more green cards for highly-skilled immigrants and a detailed process for the legalization of undocumented immigrants that would require them to get extensive background checks, pay fines, be fluent in English and undergo a long waiting period before they achieve complete legalization. Additionally, the framework aims to include much-needed pieces like the DREAM Act, AgJOBS and provisions for same sex partner immigration.

Since its introduction yesterday, the proposal has garnered mixed reactions across the board. While advocacy groups are relieved at a concrete plan to register undocumented immigrants and begin the process of legalization, as well as the proposal’s focus on family-based immigration, its prioritization on enforcement and border security has created discomfort. Groups have condemned the bill for calling for increasing border security and enforcement without undertaking any positive provisions. AILA has critiqued Schumer’s new proposal for the increased detention recommendations that do little to rectify all that is wrong with the existing detention and deportation system. The American Civil Liberties Union is deeply dissatisfied with the inclusion of the Biometric ID card program “Believe,” which they predict will be extremely expensive and inefficient, while “usher(ing) government into the very center of our lives.”

As debate over the proposal continues, one thing everyone agrees on is that we need to fix our broken immigration system. Tomorrow, 80 cities around the country will bring in May Day with rallies, protests and marches demanding just and humane immigration that supports civil rights and family values. Find a march near you and be one step closer to fixing the broken immigration system.

Photo courtesy of www.globalimmigrationcounsel.com

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