Creative activism: when arts meet immigration reform

As the nation continues to grapple with the effects of a broken immigration system, artists across the country are doing their part to highlight the issue. Art can be a powerful medium to address many socio-political issues and artists often react to the circumstances around them. Art has also been a supportive space for people facing violations to tell their stories. And it's also a great medium to raise awareness and make an impact. We were excited to look at a few examples of how artists have been contributing to the immigration reform movement, inspiring action and change.

One such artistic movement came in the form of The Sound Strike, a coalition of artists that are using their music and reach to work towards repealing Arizona's controversial SB1070 law. The artists, which include M.I.A, Maroon 5, Rodrigo y Gabriela, Rage Against The Machine, Kanye West and many more, have pledged to work together to raise awareness and oppose the unjust treatment of immigrants in Arizona. Besides their aim of repealing SB 1070, The Sound Strike also works towards "galvanizing a new generation of ideas that reject the old ways of thinking while affirming that we are all equal." (A similar movement of writers, called WordStrike, calls on writers to boycott the state of Arizona on the same grounds.) The Sound Strike has been assisting with fundraising for immigration reform organizations, raised awareness around the issue through their performances, and conducted press interviews to build opposition and engage fans in dialogue about moving towards a more just and equal society that treats immigrants fairly. Speaking about the movement as a "cultural interruption," Gabriela (of Rodrigo y Gabriela) stated:

"As a band we consist of all immigrants and we know each other’s stories really well…we can’t really be down with any fear-creating laws…we have many songs about brutality of immigration process…these issues are not new, they have always been there."

Check out a piece by Sound Strike titled 'Evil Arpaio', from the Sound Strike Radio:

Another artist using his work to fight the injustice of SB 1070 and the ongoing mistreatment of immigrants is Intikana, a Hip Hop/Spoken Word artist, activist and educator from the Bronx, New York. Intikana's work with the immigration issue was most powerfully manifested in his music video titled "Arizona," which he made in collaboration with fellow rapper Navegante. Made in response to SB 1070, Intikana and Navegante collaborated to make a video that combines a 5-minute short documentary about the life of Benito and Carmela, Mexican farm laborers in Immokalee, Florida and their deplorable working conditions. Working long hours without breaks and in inhumane conditions, the couple pick tomatoes in the fields to support their family. In their work, Intikana and Navegante point out the hypocrisy in the treatment of immigrants today considering the fact that the country was built by immigrants.

Watch the full video - Benito and Carmela's story followed by the song by Intikana and Navegante:

Keeping with a similar theme of farm laborers, Shine Global, a film production company that focuses on ending the abuse and exploitation of children around the world, recently released and critically acclaimed documentary feature title 'The Harvest.' Directed by U. Roberto Romano and backed by executive producer, philanthropist and "Desperate Housewives" star Eva Longoria, the film tells "the story of the children who feed America." These are the children of immigrants. According to the synopsis on the film's website:

Every year more than 400,000 migrant child farmworkers in the US journey from their homes traveling from the scorching sun of the Texas onion fields to the winter snows of the Michigan apple orchards, from the heat of the Florida tomato fields to the damp cherry trees in Oregon. These children are American citizens. All are working to help their families survive while sacrificing the birthright of childhood: play; stability; school.

Watch the trailer for "The Harvest" here and visit the website to learn more about the film and the issues.

Besides spoken word, music and film, other forms of art are equally powerful in immigration activism. Favianna Rodriguez is a well known printmaker and digital artist from Oakland, California. Rodriquez has come to be known for her high-contrast and vivid artwork that depict "literal and imaginative migration, global community, and interdependence." Her work deals with war, immigration, globalization and social movements in an impressive portfolio of stylized posters for events and much more personal artwork. One of her most striking pieces is titled "El Reencuentro" (pictured above) from 2001. Describing the inspiration for the piece, Rodriguez says:

This piece is a very personal piece for me because it narrates the story of my mother's experience as an immigrant. In 1970, only months after she had arrived from Peru, my mother became pregnant by an abusive alcoholic. Because she was homeless, the Department of Social Services took away her child at birth to turn him over to an adoption agency. With the language and cultural barrier, my mother could do very little. 31 years later, my brother came searching for his birth family and writes a letter to my mother requesting to meet her. They are reunited in 2003.

Like with Rodriguez's work, the many tribulations faced by immigrants in the recent past over ever-toughening immigration laws have triggered a slew of artistic movements. Artists have been inspired to use their talents to call for change. Movements such as Alto Arizona provide a forum for artists to showcase their work in relation to fighting unjust immigration laws. Similarly, various artists have also reacted to the campaign to get the DREAM Act passed, combining art and activism to make potent images.

We end with a short rap by Humble the Poet, a Sikh rap and spoken word artist from Toronto, Canada. His music addresses a wide range of social issues, from immigration to religion to sexual abuse. He, just like all the other artists and work we have profiled here, as well as the many others that continue to blend art with activism, lends a strong voice to the movement for comprehensive immigration reform. We need a major overhaul of the system now more than ever, and these artists are able to reach out and raise awareness for this crucial issue confronting our nation today.

Watch the video for the rap titled 'Life of an Immigrant' by Humble the Poet or listen to the full track, with music (and expletives):

What does a world without civil liberties look like?

From the Restore Fairness blog-

There are many examples of the steady dissolution of human rights in this post-9/11, “War on Terrorism” age in the United States. Racial profiling and the practice of preventive prosecution have disillusioned many who have traditionally seen the U.S. as a place where civil liberties thrive and the justice system is fair. Racial and religious profiling have become major causes for concern, and that is just one aspect of the web of increasingly stringent laws and security practices that have proliferated life in America since 9/11. The tragedy of that ill-fated day has translated into a continued state of paranoia, where basic values are ignored in the face of a potential or assumed threat.

One such story is that of Syed Fahad Hashmi, a U.S. citizen who has been through the worst of the American detention system after being accused of conspiring to provide material support to terrorism. This “material support” involved letting an acquaintance stay with him, an acquaintance who later delivered winter clothing to Al Qaeda.

Hashmi’s story was recently retold in a compelling piece by his former Brooklyn College (CUNY) professor Jeanne Theoharis for The Chronicle of Higher Education. According to the account, Hashmi was a devout Muslim and very politically active, regularly voicing his criticisms of American policies in the Muslim world. While pursuing his master’s in London, Hashmi hosted an acquaintance – Mohammed Junaid Babar – who had brought luggage that he later handed over to an Al Qaeda leader in South Waziristan, in Pakistan. Hashmi was arrested on June 6, 2006 and held in custody for 11 months until his extradition to the United States. Hashmi was then placed in solitary confinement in the Metropolitan Correctional Center in lower Manhattan, at first with some facilities. However, five months later, he was put under Special Administrative Measures (SAMs), a measure that severely restricts a prisoner’s contact with the outside world and removes all sense of privacy. Under SAMs, Hashmi’s detention was described as follows-

[Hashmi] was allowed no contact with anyone outside his lawyer and, in very limited fashion, his parents—no calls, letters, or talking through the walls, because his cell was electronically monitored. He had to shower and relieve himself within view of the camera. He was allowed to write only one letter a week to a single member of his family, using no more than three pieces of paper. One parent was allowed to visit every two weeks, but often would be turned away at the door for bureaucratic reasons. [Hashmi] was forbidden any contact—directly or through his lawyers—with the news media. He could read only portions of newspapers approved by his jailers—and not until 30 days after publication. Allowed only one hour out of his cell a day, he had no access to fresh air but was forced to exercise in a solitary cage.

The government cited Hashmi’s “proclivity for violence” as a justification for the measures, even though he did not have a criminal record, did not exhibit any signs of violence or have a demonstrated reach outside of the prison. Over the next three years, Hashmi’s lawyers appealed the SAMs over 30 times, being rejected each time for one implausible reason after another. On April 27, 2010, Hashmi agreed to a plea bargain, with the government, of one count of conspiring to provide material support to terrorism. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison not just for luggage that someone else had brought into his apartment, but also because of his “anti-American jihadist ideology,” according to Judge Preska. Hashmi made his first public statement in four years, thanking everyone, both Muslims and non-Muslims, for their support. Hashmi was later transferred to the federal high-security prison in Florence, Colorado and in March this year moved into its Supermax ADX facility, the most draconian prison in the federal system. Meanwhile, his once acquaintance Babar, who was the one to physically deliver winter clothing to Al Qaeda, was sentenced to “time served” (four and a half years out of a possible 70) for his “exceptional” service and because he “began co-operating even before his arrest.

While Hashmi’s true intentions – i.e. whether he was aware of his acquaintance’s Al Qaeda connection or if he had ever considered that route himself – are unknown, the outcry against his detention is more about the authorities completely denying him his right to basic human rights and civil liberites. This becomes even more deplorable especially since he is a U.S. citizen imprisoned in his own country. Hashmi’s case echoes other stories of racial and religious profiling that received much media coverage in the aftermath of 9/11. One of the stories was of Mohammed Salman Hamdani, who went missing on 9/11. Widespread speculation labeled him as a terrorist and an accomplice to those who carried out the attacks. However, a few months later, his remains were found near the World Trade Center wreckage and it became clear that he had died while being part of the rescue efforts.

Institutionalized racial and religious profiling deeply impacts the community at large and influences the public perception of specific groups that have been targeted by government and national security. In the ten years since 9/11, Arab-Americans and South Asians have increasingly become the targets of hate crimes around the country. In a recent instance, two elderly Sikh men were gunned down in a suburb of Sacramento without any provocation. The police indicated that there was a high chance of hate motivation for the crime.

Representative Peter King (R-NY), who had recently triggered much uproar about his Congressional hearings targeting Islam in the United States, has now added ethnic profiling to his earlier agenda. In a public television appearance on April 5, King stated that “a person’s religious background or ethnicity can be a factor, one of the things to look at.” This blatant push for religious and racial profiling instead of behavioral profiling is a foreboding sign that the issue will not be going away anytime soon. Until there is a change in this position, unfortunate stories of extreme incarceration, wrongful accusations and hate crimes will continue.

Hashmi’s former professor, Theoharis, sums up her thoughts on America’s tenuous handling of the terrorism threat, stating-

…Seeing that humanity is at odds with the political zeitgeist, where endless searches and small bottles of shampoo and fear-mongering subway posters have become the currency of national security. Where a growing obsession with homegrown terrorism means that we are again willing to chisel away the Bill of Rights in the name of protecting America.

This disintegration of the Bill of Rights for the sake of “national security” points to a future where the state of paranoia may quite likely run every facet of our lives. Such a dystopic future, where basic American values and human rights have been compromised, is the subject of Breakthrough’s ground-breaking new Facebook game, America 2049. In this alternate reality game, the player is tasked with the capture of a presumed terrorist and pushed to ask the question- What if? How close have we already come to America 2049? How can we work together—in real life—to build a better future? The game addresses issues such as racial profiling, religious intolerance, and sexual discrimination by presenting a scenario where wrong choices made today will adversely affect our future. And if the widespread cases of racial profiling and complete removal of civil liberties continue, as with the case of Hashmi, the virtual world of the future in America 2049 might come upon us much sooner than we think.

Photo courtesy of racism.conocimientos.com.ve

How 'Un-American' are Peter King's Congressional Hearings?

From the Restore Fairness blog-

On Friday, March 4, two elderly Sikh men were gunned down without provocation while they were out for a casual stroll in a suburb of Sacramento. One of them, Surinder Singh (67), died immediately while his friend Gurmej Atwal (78), who was shot twice in the chest, is said to be in critical condition. The police who are investigating the attack have called on any witnessed to come forward and said that while they are still searching for evidence, there is a high probability that the there was a “hate or bias motivation for the crime.” This unfortunate attack took place just days before Rep. Peter King (R-NY) began his controversial House Homeland Security Committee hearings on the “The Extent of Radicalization” among American Muslims. With the upcoming 10th year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and the endless spate of hate crimes against minority groups, it is difficult to ignore the implications that this Congressional hearing will have on the future of this country.

In the aftermath of 9/11,  heightened national security measures and increased suspicion of immigrant communities have placed a harsh spotlight on Muslim Americans as well as the wider South Asian and Arab American communities, deeply impacting the ways in which these communities are perceived and damaging their sense of national identity.

The first of the King hearings took place in Washington D.C. yesterday. Rep. Peter King said that he initiated these hearings in response to a string of arrests in 2010 concerning Muslim Americans who were connected to intercepted plots against American targets. In an interview with the Associated Press, King stated-

There is a real threat to the country from the Muslim community and the only way to get to the bottom of it is to investigate what is happening.

The committee yesterday heard from a panel of witnesses that argued for and against the premise of the hearings. Those who argued that the country needs to be more vigilant about the “radicalization” of the Muslim community included Dr. M Zuhdi Jasser, a doctor and Navy veteran who called on his fellow Muslims to be more outspoken against radical Islam, and Abdirizak Bihi, a Somali American activist whose nephew joined a militant group in Somalia and was subsequently killed in 2009. During the hearing, the most pointed questions against the premise came from Representatives who raised concerns over why other extremist groups – affiliated with various religions – were not even being considered by King and his committee. Speaking to the press after the hearing yesterday, King called it a success, emphasizing that the purpose was to “inform, not to inflame.”

The run-up to the hearings saw a very polarized response, with groups like Fox News expressing substantial support for them, while human rights advocates consistently condemned them. The greatest criticism of the hearings was not that extremist acts of terror pose a threat to national security and need to be investigated, but that King’s approach is biased and isolationist. The criticism holds that by scapegoating a community based on their religious affiliation, the King hearings will have widespread repercussions on how American Muslims will be perceived by the wider public. For a community that is already the subject of suspicion and profiling, the Congressional hearings, by calling for greater accountability for American Muslims above any other group, has very real implications for community identity, public perception, integration and collective healing.

One of the most vocal opponent of the hearings is the country’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a group that Peter King has accused of conspiring with radical Islamist groups. In addition to asserting their identity as a peaceful organization, CAIR said that they would have supported the hearings if they were “balanced and fair.” Also opposing King’s approach to the issue is the civil rights organization, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), that stated in their 2010 annual report on “hate and extremism” that the “radical right in America expanded explosively in 2010,” as the number of hate groups topped 1,000.

A number of critics also held that this kind of focalized criticism of a specific community could result in the loss of trust these groups have towards law enforcement agencies and the government, impeding the work of law enforcement and thus work against ensuring the safety of all communities. At the hearing, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), the first Muslim member of Congress, gave an emotional testimony about Mohammad Salman Hamdani, a NYPD cadet who was under suspicion for being involved with the attacks even as died trying to help victims on September 11, 2001. Breaking into tears, Ellison described -

After the tragedy…some people tried to smear his character … solely because of his Islamic faith. Some people spread false rumors and speculated that he was in league with the attackers because he was a Muslim. But it was only when his remains were identified that these lies were exposed. Mohammad Salman Hamdani was a fellow American who gave his life for other Americans. His life should not be identified as just a member of an ethnic group or just a member of a religion, but as an American who gave everything for his fellow Americans.

This anecdote, from an event still fresh in public memory, highlights the deeply damaging impact that continued demonization of an entire religious group can and does have on people’s lives. Moreover, by coming from an institutionalized source such as the House of Representatives (despite a marked distance by the Obama administration), the hearings put out a very strong message to the American public, and need to be understood for the authority that they wield. Even after Rep. King diluted his more aggressive original agenda, the hearings signal and amplify a deep sense of suspicion towards one group of Americans. Especially when ratified by the political leaders of the country, such trends pose a threat to the fundamental American principles of dignity and respect towards everyone. And that, perhaps, is a bigger threat to national security, especially in these testing times.

For a lighter, yet insightful take on King’s track record and alleged hypocrisy in this issue, watch Jon Stewart’s analysis of the hearings.

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What happens when we give up the ideals that define us?

From the Restore Fairness blog-

Incidents around the country continue to undermine the principles of equality, justice and dignity for all that have played an important role in making America the strong nation it is today. In a story reported by the New York Times, a Brazilian man, Genesio Oliveira, is facing deportation and separation from his husband, Tim Coco, an American citizen and resident of Massachusetts, soon after federal officials allowed him to be reunited with his husband earlier this year.

The current situation is reminiscent of the ordeal the couple went through 3 years ago when they were forced to live apart after Genesio was denied asylum on claims of being raped as a teenager in Brazil. The judge deciding the case said he found Genesio’s fear of returning to Brazil “genuine” but denied him asylum on the grounds that he was never physically harmed by the rape. This ruling received a lot of attention from civil rights and immigrant rights groups around the world who criticized U.S. officials for separating a couple that was legally married. Following a request from Senator Kerry in June this year Genesio Oliveira was allowed back into the country on humanitarian grounds. He fervently hoped that this would induce the Attorney General to reverse the initial ruling that forced him back to Brazil, but even on Sen. Kerry’s urging, Eric Holder is refusing to reverse the earlier decision in a way that would allow Genesio to apply for permanent residency and stay with his husband.

Laws that interfere with civil rights and liberties are making their presence felt on a national level, as is evident in the constantly evolving TSA (Transportation Security Administration) regulations regarding security screenings in airports around the country. Three of the largest Sikh advocacy groups in the country are opposing screening measures at airports that require hand searches of all people wearing turbans, even if they agree to undergo full body scans using Advanced Imaging Technology. Representatives from the Sikh Coalition, United Sikhs and the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund announced their opposition to screening policies that they say unfairly target members of the Sikh community.

Hansdeep Singh, a senior staff lawyer for United Sikhs based in New York, told the New York Times about a meeting that took place with TSA officials some weeks ago, in which members of Sikh groups had hoped to hear that with the introduction of Advanced Imaging Technology, there would be less hand and wand searches of turbans in airports. Instead, what they were met with was news of the development of “a patchwork of airport security policies… in which all turbans are searched.” Amardeep Singh, the Sikh Coalition’s director of programs, told the Associated Press, “The TSA told us, point blank, that turbans will now be screened 100 percent of the time.” Referring to the racial profiling and hate crimes that Sikh Americans have been faced with post September 11, 2001, Singh said, “Sikh Americans are already looked at differently in this country. Once you start pulling Sikhs aside for extra screening, it sends a message that the government is suspicious of them for the same reasons [other passengers] are suspicious of them.”

While TSA officials have not confirmed the introduction of a blanket policy, they reiterated Security procedures introduced in 2007 that included provisions for all “bulky” headwear to be searched. National Sikh organizations are urging their constituents to lobby Congress to overturn a blanket TSA policy that calls on all Sikhs wearing turbans to undergo a hand search of their turbans in spite of the Advanced Imaging Technology screening that screens metallic, plastic and ceramic through items of clothing.

In the midst of these incidents and policies that strike at the heart of this nation’s diversity, we did get wind of a heartening story that evidences a positive stance towards minority communities. Today, New Haven officials announced their plans for New Haven Promise, a new program that grants college tuition to high school students from public and charter school, provided that they maintain a 3.0 grade point average and 90% attendance rate.  The program, financed by Yale University, will pay up to 25% of the tuition for qualifying seniors who go on to public colleges or universities in Connecticut next year, up to 50% for the class after that, up to 75%for the following class; and up to 100% for the Class of 2014. According to Mayor John DeStefano, Jr., the program is like a “contract that says to kids: If you work hard, you demonstrate academic achievement and display appropriate behaviors, we’ll give you the tools to go to college and therefore inject choice and opportunity in your lives.”

Most importantly, the Promise will be open to all New Haven residents irrespective of their immigration status, and that includes those young adults who are undocumented and would be eligible for the DREAM Act, were it to be passed. Right now, students have to be legal residents or citizens in order to be eligible for in-state tuition rates and undocumented students are charged out-of-state tuition, which is about $10,000 at the state universities and $24,500 at University of Connecticut.

This is just one more step in the right direction for New Haven officials who are supportive of the immigrant communities that are an integral part of the city. From the New Haven Independent-

State legislators, including New Haven Sen. Martin Looney, have been pushing for a statewide version of the DREAM Act that would allow Connecticut residents who are undocumented immigrants to get in-state tuition. DeStefano said he will urge the state legislature to pass such a bill; he also said he’s working with various in-state colleges to work out an arrangement concerning the issue. Until such a change is made, he said, Promise will pay “full tuition” for each eligible student, even if that student is an immigrant who must pay out-of-state tuition.

It is important that we work together to honor the diversity that is the strength of this nation. As long as we continue to deny equality, justice, dignity and liberty to some, we cannot guarantee human rights for anyone.

Photo courtesy of blogs.cnn.com

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