Racial profiling: Degrading, unconstitutinal and ineffective

From the Restore Fairness blog-

Observations by Restore Fairness’ Zebunnisa Burki:

Have you ever been told that you don’t look like an American? Have you ever been stopped and searched by police just for driving around in a neighborhood? Or felt discriminated at airports? I have. It might be difficult for most people to know what its like to feel singled out. But this is what a lot of people of African-American, Hispanic, Arab and Asian and South Asian descent face when going about their lives in the US.

Using this as the premise, Breakthrough partnered with Rights Working Group, Network of Arab-American Professionals (NAAP) and Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ) on Tuesday, December 7th, at the NYU School of Law, for a screening of two documentaries: Face the Truth, produced by Breakthrough and the Rights Working Group, and Americans on Hold: Profiling, Prejudice and National Security, produced by CHRGJ. The screenings were part of the Rights Working Group’s “conversations on racial profiling” and were followed by an engaging Q&A session with filmmakers and activists, Madhuri Mohindar from Breakthrough, Nadine Wahab from the Rights Working Group, and Amna Akbar from CHRGJ, NYU.

Face the Truth, produced in September 2010, narrates the story of Karwan Abdul Kader, a Kurdish immigrant, who was stopped and stripped by law enforcement officials just because he was in the wrong neighborhood and looked “different.” Through his story and those of Juana Villegas and Lena Masri, Face the Truth serves as a reminder that even the land of opportunity doesn’t always support diversity. The film also makes an honest attempt to understand the divide between immigrants and local law enforcement by interviewing police officials and civil society activists.

Americans on Hold, the second documentary that screened that evening, follows a similar structure, narrating the personal stories of Anila Ali, a Pakistani immigrant community organizer and Zuhair Mahd, a visually challenged Jordanian immigrant. The film’s focus is immigration, citizenship and race in the US, especially when looked at in light of recent counter terrorism legislation and policies.

As is well-documented, post 9/11 America saw an increase in racial profiling against people of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent, mostly due to new counter-terrorism measures. These include the now infamous FBI name check and National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, better known as NSEERS, which allows authorities to target individuals from 25 specific countries, of which almost all are Muslim.

According to Nadine Wahab, domestic law in the US is often ambiguous on racial profiling. Policies such as NSEERS, along with the TSA’s recently tightened “counter terrorism” measures; Section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), the Secure Communities program, and the general atmosphere of racial bias by law enforcement, have led to extreme distrust among immigrant and other vulnerable/minority communities.

What is most disturbing is the encouragement and support for policies such as full body scans and pat downs by TSA, especially by mainstream media, politicians and political movements. A good example would be an editorial in the Wall Street Journal that does its best to highlight the “benefits” of TSA’s stricter security measures.

The films (and the discussion after) served as a reminder that racial profiling and bias are not the lot of any one community. This is an issue that continues to affect different communities. Black/Latino/Arab/South Asian/Asian- these targeted communities all face the same discrimination but often remain cocooned in their own niche spaces, finding it difficult to reach out to each other.

In the Q&A that followed the screening, there was a strong consensus on the need for all targeted communities to stand united and work for legislation such as End Racial Profiling Act (ERPA) and the DREAM Act. To do this, it is important to look at the “war on terror”, and the “war on drugs” through the intersectional lenses of race and class. Linda Sarsour of AACP rightly pointed out that immigrant communities that were most affected were those who were also financially less well off than others. Is the race issue then also an issue of class?

During the conversations/dialogue, there was an almost palpable sense of empowerment engendered as a result of sharing stories of racial injustice, further highlighting the need for our different communities to work together on the many unresolved issues related to immigrants’ rights and racial bias. Issues such as stop and frisk policies, class, race and national legislation dominated the discussion.

The audience, representing a number of different racial backgrounds, did not hesitate from commenting, sharing personal stories, or asking questions. The most interesting part of the evening was the personal accounts of racial profiling shared by a number of audience members. From stories of stop and frisk by police to informants tracking down and interrogating Muslim men in mosques to horrifying stories of entrapment by the FBI, the cathartic energy of the stories became apparent as time went by.

As someone who is used to the natural fear that one feels traveling in and out of the US, to me, the evening was an exercise in building confidence and hope. To see people with Hispanic, Arab Muslim, African American, and South Asian backgrounds coming together and discussing ways to collaborate on immigration and race issues with a unified voice, is an encouraging sign. It felt like the beginning of an understanding that racial prejudice and bias touches more than one community, nationality and ethnicity—the beginning of something better.

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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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