Posts Tagged ‘ACLU’

The End of Hutto, The Beginning of Something New

August 11, 2009

Although programs like 287(g) are still being expanded by the Obama administration, last week saw a positive shift in immigrant detention policy. The administration announced that it hopes to create a “truly civil detention system,” which, if achieved, would be a much-needed change indeed.

The plan announced by the Department of Homeland Security, stipulated that it would be reviewing the detention of the 400,000 immigrant detainees that come through the system annually. The review will focus on the mistreatment of detained individuals and families, as well as the medical care, or lack thereof, received by immigrants in these centers. [Bernstein, Nina. New York Times]

Marking this noticeable shift from the Bush-era DHS operations is the closing of the T. Don Hutto Center north of Austin, Texas. This 512-bed center was a for-profit jail run by the Corrections Corporation of America, one which netted $2.8 million per month. Opened in 2006, it is one of two such family detention centers in the United States, the other being in Berks County, Pennsylvania. Its closing comes at the end of years of lawsuits by the ACLU and protests by immigrant advocates like Jay Johnson-Castro, as well as a scathing expose by the New Yorker in 2008.

The conditions at Hutto were deplorable. According to Vanessa Gupta, the lead ACLU attorney on the case, before the 2007 lawsuit some children under 10 stayed longer than a year, were confined to cells with open toilets, and received only 1 hour of schooling a day. Now, children are allowed to have crayons in cells and pajamas for the evenings.

While DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano said last week that she expects the number of detainees to remain constant or increase over the coming years, assistant secretary of homeland security and head of Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) John Morton stated that ICE will be exploring alternative options to monitor non-dangerous immigrants awaiting trial dates. [Talbot, Margaret. The New Yorker]

Hutto will not be used for family detention from now on; instead, it will be used to house women. While the family detention center in Berks County will still remain open for the time being, new alternatives are being explored such as the Intensive Supervision Appearance Program. This program utilizes electronic monitoring bracelets, curfews, and regular contact with caseworkers while the immigrants live in the greater community. The pilot program has been established in 12 cities and reports more than 90% attendance in court. This seems like a much more cost-effective and humane way to treat immigrants awaiting their day in court.

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From where I stand, I can see wall ending

January 12, 2009

Judy Ackerman and me at Rio Bosque

Judy Ackerman and me at Rio Bosque

This morning I was picked up in front of the Gardner Hotel in El Paso by the only person who has engaged in civil disobedience against the border wall. Texas, once a center of the Chicano movement, the site of the Alice student walkouts and state-wide protests against segregated schools, hasn’t seen such civil disobedience in a long time. For an issue as appalling to border residents as the Secure Fence Act of 2006, however, it’s been a long coming.

Judy Ackerman was fifteen minutes early, waiting for me on Franklin Avenue in an unassuming sedan. We talked the 15 minutes to the Rio Bosque Wildlife Refuge, but I can’t remember much of what was said. I do remember the way the border wall seemed to extend forever, farther still than the Rocky Mountains or the Sierra Madre, both of which end in this bi-national border community of almost 2 million. For years there has been a wire fence snaking along the Rio Grande, but lawmakers unfamiliar with the history of El Paso del Norte deemed it fit to separate Texas from the river and Mexico from its neighbor.

As we bounced and jounced toward Rio Bosque along the potholes containing some road, Judy seemed surprised that Diewitz workers were not already at work this Friday morning. Sadly, their work has progressed rapidly since Mrs. Ackerman first delayed the excavation on December 17. The wall now bounds most of the park, although many more miles are planned. In parts, it completely obscures the beautiful dun-brown mountains.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, the enormity of the sadness that border fence evinces, Judy instead told me about an old cottonwood tree. “This border wall has really brought the community together. Take that old tree there,” she said, pointing proudly to a cottonwood with a perfect crown and brown leaves still holding onto its branches. “The Border Patrol came through and chopped down two others just like that, because they extend in part onto their service roads. John Souse stopped them just in time. He quickly mobilized the local activists, and pretty soon the media was calling the Border Patrol wanting to interview them about their part in the killing of the last great cottonwood. By that time, the Border Patrol changed their tune and denied ever having entertained such an idea.” Ah, behold the power of people.

Few other trees in this Rio Bosque wildlife refuge, or in the El Paso area in general, are native originals. About eleven years ago, Souse graded this land and rerouted the Rio Grande to recreate its once wild trajectory. It was this capriciousness which earned the river its Mexican name, “Rio Bravo.” Now, cottonwoods and the invasive salt cedar fill the refuge, providing ample habitat for a variety of animals and birds.

As John Souse drove Judy and I through the small refuge (the only of its kind for miles and miles), I was astounded at the number of hawks. Harrier hawks sat atop cottonwoods, flicking their striped tail and looking too heavy to balance on so tenuous a perch. Cooper’s hawks cut through the morning air, chasing each other in the joy of it all. Harris hawks and red-tailed hawks flew over the duck pond, artfully weaving and dipping like stunt pilots.

The duck ponds highlight one of the major problems posed by the border wall. With a border wall cutting the refuge off from the Rio Grande, the animals have no way to access the river. Ducks have been reported to fly into the mesh wiring of the fence as well. Additionally, with no access to the river, Rio Bosque has to fight for its water rights. Since it is not a “money-making” enterprise such as agriculture or industry, the refuge only receives water in the off-season – November through January. The new well which was installed to pump groundwater into the canal and pond just fell into the ground on account of the contractor’s poor craftsmanship. Without this water, particularly during the stifling dry months, Rio Bosque would dry up and leave this valley without a treasure trove of nature.

“When I was standing in front of the bulldozer, I kept remembering what the ACLU told me – ‘Don’t ask if you are arrested; ask if you are free to leave.’ So, as the Texas Rangers, local police, DHS agents, and county sheriffs bickered about whose jurisdiction my civil disobedience fell under, that was all I could think to say. ‘Am I free to leave?’” Judy laughed, “Their response was always, ‘Yes, please! We’ve been waiting all day.’”

Judy’s military training prepared her well for keeping cool in such a hot situation. She executed civil disobedience in near perfect fashion, contacting authorities before and remained calm, cool, and collected during the demonstration. Judy had been well advised of the consequences of her action, and show she exhibited no fear. More importantly, she showed no anger toward the individuals on site. “I wasn’t mad at them,” she reminded me more than once. “I was protesting the idea of this wall.”

While she remembers all the authorities being civil and respectfully during the civil disobedience, sadly some spectators across the canal yelled out taunts and jibes at the officials. Judy remembers the Texas Ranger getting particularly peeved at that. “She’s not risking anything, but she keeps yelling at us and trying to get you [Judy] into deeper trouble.” Thankfully, Judy and her composure ruled the day, and it was clear that this was about more than an “Us vs. Them” scenario.

I walked down to the river, marveling at its relative freedom. I have seen where this river empties into the Gulf, broad and flowing at Boca Chica. Here, a few good strokes would get me across to Ciudad Juarez. Upstream, it is dammed and controlled meticulously. Farms and industries sap its strength as well, using as much as 99% of its water before it reaches the Gulf of Mexico. Climbing back up the steep riverbank, the border wall comes into sharp focus again. Franklin Mountain barely shows its peak above the wall, and the free-roaming tumbleweed country of this old Wild West Town seems all but a memory in the shadow of these steel girders. Would John Dillinger know the Gardner Hotel and downtown El Paso today? Would Marilyn Monroe recognize the Kentucky Club in a Juarez robbed of most its customers? Will anyone remember the time before this wall?

Looking back east, I can make out where the wall ends. That sight still gives me hope. Perhaps we’ll see our folly before it’s too late and this history is already written. I thank God that the history written by man is never penned in permanent ink.

Border Wall on Rio Bosque

Border Wall on Rio Bosque

Arizona: Land of Snowbirds & Coyotes

December 16, 2008

At this time of year when many Midwesterners head down to the balmier climes of Arizona (like my own grandparents-in-law), it is important to think about this state which has the harshest immigration laws in the U.S.

While immigration enforcement has traditionally always been under the sole control of the federal government (and, in fact, is likely Constitutionally exclusive to the Federal Branch under the Dormant Commerce Clause of Article 1), Arizona has done its best to “help” the Department of Homeland Security. Joe Arpaio, self-proclaimed “America’s Toughest Sheriff,” man who makes his inmates wear pink underwear and sleep outside in tents year-round just to make their incarceration more retributive, is first and foremost a man who hates unauthorized immigrants. Contrary to state and national practice, Arpaio has arrested more than 7,000 extralegal immigrants a year because every single person the police question is asked their social security number and citizenship status. The Maricopa County police force partners with ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), though they are only supposed to ask the citizenship status of prisoners arrested on other charges. While the ACLU reminds immigrants in border towns like Brownsville, Texas, that it is their civil right to refuse to answer such questions without their attorney, Arpaio has taken advantage of these immigrants’ lack of legal expertise, often using his technique to incarcerate passengers of speeding cars and jaywalking pedestrians. (Robbins, Ted. NPR)


Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas has also seized on Sheriff Arpaio’s xenophobia. The Arizona state law, passed in 2005, made it a federal crime to be involved in human smuggling. While the statute was intended to protect extralegal immigrants from the dangers of border-crossing with coyotes, Thomas has used the law to convict some 200 immigrants of “smuggling conspiracy,” turning this law back on the people it was arguably designed to protect. (Kiefer, Michael. The Arizona Republic)

And so, when Governor Janet Napolitano replaces Michael Chertoff and is confirmed as Obama’s Secretary of Homeland Security, she will leave Arizona in the hands of men like Joe Arpaio, Andrew Thomas, and the rogue Minutemen taking vigilante justice into their hands on the southern border. Where Napolitano resisted most of Arizona’s more nativist and radical immigration legislation, her successor Jan Brewer is expected to be more deferential to these xenophobic influences (New York Times). Hopefully, Napolitano will be able to work a top-down shift in national immigration enforcement, cutting the 287(g) program that allows such dangerous collaboration with local officials like Arpaio on federal issues of immigration. Here’s hoping!

Something there is that doesn’t Love a Wall – Part 3

April 16, 2008

Often deemed one of the worst failures in military history, this line of fortifications extended from along much of the Franco-German border. Rather than a continuous wall, the Maginot Line was composed of 500 forts and buildings stretching hundreds of miles. The idea was to stockpile defense and militarize the border with Germany in preparation for their inevitable revenge after the Treaty of Versailles. Having lost over 4 million men in WWI, the French government feared another invasion from Germany, a country twice its size. Charles De Gaulle advocated for an offensive strategy of mobile military and mechanized vehicles, but Andre Maginot, among others, convinced the administration that a wall was the best defense. The Maginot Line was built in stages from 1930-40 and cost $3 billion francs. Conspicuously, it did not pass through the Ardennes Forest, believe to be impenetrable; this is where Germany would land its first strike in its swift month-long victory.

Along America’s 2,000-mile border with Latin America, walls in Arizona and California have already begun to funnel border-crossers away from urban areas and into dangerous deserts. A document signed by the ACLU and drafted by the Human Rights National Commission of Mexico puts the death toll of border-crossers over the last 13 years near 5,000, and many more will die if they are continually routed into inhospitable places like the Sonoran Desert. The Secure Fence Act proposes some 700 miles of border barriers, which will reroute even more immigrants through dangerous sections of Texas, Arizona, and California.

One of the Maginot Line’s most salient characteristics was its 100 miles of interconnecting tunnels. This underground infrastructure facilitated a quick and covert response to any attack along the Maginot Line. These tunnels though, along with the line of fortifications, did not extend into the Belgian border because it was a neutral nation. When the German troops flanked the Maginot Line and flew over it with their Luftwaffe, the Maginot Line still remained largely indefatigable, though the country it was built to protect was forced to surrender.

In the 14 miles of border wall south of San Diego, more than 24 tunnels have already been found. According to some estimates, there are more than 50 tunnels subverting the border wall already. A border wall, if not coupled with an immigration reform which will help immigrants, employers, and Border Patrol agents, will only force immigration issues underground.

While the border wall, past and proposed, is supposed to block would-be Americalmosts from immigrating illegally to the United States, it does nothing to solve the issue of almost 6 million undocumented residents who came here legally, nor does it begin to grapple with the push/pull factors of immigration which highlight the weaknesses of an outdated quota system and an inhumane lottery system for citizenship. Lacking diplomacy or reform, a border wall without better laws is another Maginot Line costing an inexcusable amount of money merely to sidestep instead of solve immigration issues.

Burden of Action

April 3, 2008

“A BORDER WALL SEEMS TO VIOLATE a deep sense of identity most Americans cherish. We see ourselves as a nation of immigrants with our own goddess, the Statue of Liberty, a symbol so potent that dissident Chinese students fabricated a version of it in 1989 in Tiananmen Square as the visual representation of their yearning for freedom.”

(Bowden, Charles. “U.S.-Mexico Border: Our Wall.” National Geographic.)

    This past Tuesday, April 1, the United States Homeland Security Secretary waived 30 laws in order to expedite the controversial construction of a border wall. This has become a standard procedure with the Secure Fence Act ever since the passing of the REAL ID ACT which gives a non-elected government official the authority to waive an unlimited number of laws passed by elected officials. In Arizona, 19 different laws were waived in the construction of the wall, unbeknownst to most Americans.

    The same legal trickery occurred during the Civil Rights Movement. Often, local government officials would abuse their power, pitting an unjust law against the federal mandate of integration. During the Birmingham Boycott in 1963, for example, King served a seven-day sentence for violating a court injunction disallowing “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing.” It was here he would write his seminal work, “Letter from a Birminham Jail.” The sinister thing about the REAL ID ACT, though, is that it works in the reverse; no matter how good the local laws are or how necessary the environmental laws may be, the a single federal official is allowed to waive all laws without so much as a study.

    Where are we to go when the federal government seems to ignore our pleas for justice on the border and hope for immigrants? We must appeal to higher powers, and one overarching authority organization we must beseech is the United Nations. On March 8, the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) openly critiqued the U.S. government’s human rights record and effectively tied the border wall to civil rights. In 1994, the United States ratified an international treaty to end racial discrimination, and in keeping with this treaty, the U.N. has urged the United States to:

  • Protect non-citizens from being subjected to torture and abuse by means of transfer or rendition to foreign countries for torture;   

  • Address the problem of violence against indigenous, minority and immigrant women, including migrant workers, and especially domestic workers; and
  • Pass the Civil Rights Act of 2008 or similar legislation, and otherwise ensure the rights of minority and immigrant workers, including undocumented migrant workers, to effective protection and remedies when their employers have violated their human rights.

These three recommendations are key to a lasting solution to immigration and civil rights, whereas a wall is a devastating and divisive gesture which, at best, only treats a symptom not a system. Although Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants Jorge Bustamente was denied access to Texas’s Hutto immigrant detention center (an internment camp which currently detains children and families), the United Nations still came out very strongly for the case of the immigrant within our borders.

    The ACLU was represented at the United Nation’s meeting in Geneva. Lisa Graybill, Legal Director for the Texas ACLU, stated that, “it has been made clear that the U.S.’s responses, especially with regard to the potential seizure of indigenous land for the construction of the wall and the conditioning of basic services on proof of immigration status are in direct violation of the treaty agreed to by the U.S. in 1994.” (http://www.aclutx.org/projects/article.php?aid=557&cid=31) As citizens of the United States and as residents of a global world, we must hold our government to this high standard if we truly wish to see the Beloved Community Dr. King envisioned. Chandra Bhatnagar, an ACLU staff attorney who recently visited Cameron Park to instruct Brownsville immigrants about their legal rights, challenged the United States government to “…match its soaring rhetoric on the importance of human rights globally with a renewed commitment to protecting the rights of vulnerable immigrants here at home.” We must overcome the destructive distraction of this border wall and return to the nonpartisan dialogue on comprehensive immigration reform which began in 2006. (http://www.aclutx.org/projects/article.php?aid=557&cid=31)

    And so, the people of these United States are left with the burden of action. The burden of action has fallen on us, because our elected officials have largely ignored their responsibility to apply the laws for which they voted and which we elected them to protect. The burden of action has fallen on us to remind our nation that it is a nation of people bound together by certain inalienable rights and protected by just legislation. The burden of action has been passed onto us; may we consider it a mantle of activism, a call to bring the morality, the economy, the environmental, the political, and the social aspects of immigration to light in lieu of the blight of a border wall. The burden of action is ours, but it is also an opportunity  – what will we choose to do about it?

Humansarehumansarehumans…

March 27, 2008

“People in the detention centers are treated as things,” an ACLU attorney stated to me at tonight’s meeting at San Felipe de Jesus Church in Brownsville. “In Raymondville, they referred to people as ‘bodies’ and their quarters as ‘pods.’ It is the most dehumanizing thing.”

As Martin Luther King, Jr., began moving outside of the realm of segregation and began working on the integration he envisioned as a Beloved Community, he quickly realized that the United States was moving in a direction where people were devalued assets and machines or things were becoming increasingly prized. He wrote,

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing- oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered. (Autobiography of Martin Luther King, 340)

40 years ago, Dr. King could very well have been envisioning the current immigration stagnation of our nation today.

    Racism, materialism, and militarism are all occurring in our nation around the issue of immigration. There is a racism inherent in a border wall that only keeps out people from certain countries rather than an immigration reform which would begin positively impacting individuals of all races and backgrounds. There is a racial bias apparent when legal Latinos are stopped and searched because the police see their skin as “probable cause.” In today’s thing-centered world, racism exists in our schools and our communities and our national policies because people are taken out of the picture. Instead of human rights issues, these are simply “dollars and cents” issues.

    Materialism exists in a thing-centered society where people can be terrorized by talk-show hosts and media sources so that they clamor for the deportation of 12 million people working and residing within our nations borders (an action which would cost almost $100 billion). Materialism drives companies like CCA (Corrections Corporation of America) to run for-profit immigrant detention centers at places like Hutto and Raymondville. Thankfully the ACLU and other organizations have been legally opposing these organizations, gaining considerable rights for children detained in the Hutto detention center this past year. However, detention centers like Raymondville are adding more tents and facilities every year, and therefore treating more and more people like things.

    Militarism is one of the worst effects of a thing-centered society. When peace is a word instead of people, a wall might seem like a logical idea. If a border were only a line on a map instead of a living river or a fertile Valley or a child’s backyard, then a border wall might make sense. If people were not inherently good, if immigrants did not give so much to a thankless U.S., if walls actually worked, then maybe the Secure Fence Act of 2006 would not be the unconscionable legislation it is. The fact is that our borders are militarized since 2006. I have had a gun pulled on me as I jogged legally on the border. The gun was not held by a drug smuggler or an immigrant; no, it was held by a Border Patrol agent. If this is how people are being treated all along la frontera, it is obvious that our increasingly militarized borders are becoming decreasingly humanized.

    Amidst the rhetoric about a border wall and immigration reform, it is all too easy to get distracted by numbers or logistics and forget the human element. Joseph Stalin once said, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” We have come to a point where the 400 reported deaths of immigrants attempting to cross the desert is merely a statistic; in fact, we are willing to sentence more to die by building walls which will only reroute people to more dangerous border-crossing zones. We are to a point where we have forgotten that, at its heart, immigration legislation is affecting real souls in real time.

    We must not forget that the Secure Fence Act of 2006 was not being discussed as a solution to drugs or terrorism at first. No, it was being discussed alongside several other immigration reforms which would have positively impacted people’s lives. Legislation like the DREAM Act, a bill which would have given students like my own the opportunity to utilize the scholarships they have already earned at some of the best universities in the country. Mcain’s proposal for a path to earned citizenship (dubbed amnesty) was also on the docket, a law which would have given hope to thousands and thousands of working immigrants hoping to one day “earn” their place as the Americans they already are.

    As we campaign against the border wall and advocate for true immigration reform, we must never lose sight of the fact that this is important because it will change people’s lives. Yes, immigration legislation will affect the environment, the economy, our society, our politics, our consumerism, our language base, our schools, and our communities, but more importantly it will change the lives of people like Yadira, Celina, Mayra, Alexa, Daniel, Jesus, Perla…