Posts Tagged ‘detention center’

Cumulative Immigration Reform

January 23, 2010

While the Obama administration vowed to take on comprehensive immigration reform in 2009 and has now shifted its goal to legislation in 2010, several positive changes have recently begun to nudge the broken system towards increased fairness.  On Wednesday, December 16, ICE assistant secretary John Morton stated that asylum seekers would no longer be detained indefinitely as long as they could prove their identity,  that they were not a flight risk, and that they have a credible fear of persecution in their home country. (AILA Leadership Blog).  Although this has been official policy since 1996, Morton’s statement in late 2009 intimated that asylum seekers would be evaluated as soon as they make their claims, rather than sitting in an ill-equipped, makeshift detention center, often with violent criminals serving sentences.  Such a practice would begin to treat asylum seekers as we treat others in judicial proceedings – innocent until proven guilty. The administration also responded to the humanitarian crisis not simply by pledging financial aid and committing troops but by alleviating the immigration laws which were denying Haitians or even deporting them despite the catastrophic conditions of that island.  DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano announced on January 18 that the United States was extending humanitarian parole to Haitian orphans seeking care.  The Department of State and Department of Homeland Security are working to get visas or paroles for these children, and once the unaccompanied minors arrive in the United States they will be in the care of the Department of Health and Human Services.  Some of the children will qualify for permanent immigration status, while others will just be granted a visa, but either way these children will get the care they need in time.  In an area of legislation that often takes decades to move, it is refreshing to see the Obama administration react quickly to the urgent needs of Haitians. (DHS Fact Sheet).

In addition to the humanitarian parole for children, Haitian adults now qualify for temporary protected status (TPS) if they have resided in the United States since January 12, 2010, and maintained a continuous physical presence here.  For all the individuals in removal hearings, for all those awaiting an immigration decision with bated breath, for all those wondering when they would be put on a plane and send back to a country with few to none working airports, this announcement also reinstills hope that this year may be the year when comprehensive immigration reform escapes partisan politics and actually gets implemented.  (Christian Science Monitor). Hopefully comprehensive, rather than cumulative, immigration reform will finally pass in 2010.

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The Tragic Use of Words to Criminalize Human Beings

January 29, 2009

Last Friday, the Minnesota Daily ran an article about the Asylum Law Project at the University of Minnesota.  The headline read, “Law Students Help Illegal Immigrants.” While the main thrust of the article was very pro-immigrant and gave voice to numerous groups involved in immigrant advocacy, the inclusion of the term “illegal” somewhat marred its message. After letters of protest from as near as the East and West Bank and as far as California, the Minnesota Daily Editor-in-Chief Vadim Lavrusik published statement explaining the misunderstanding, reiterating the Daily‘s 2006 commitment to use the term “undocumented,” and the editing of the article.

The Associated Press style book currently prefers “illegal immigrant” over “undocumented worker” or “illegal alien.”  While not as bombastic as the latter, “illegal immigrant” still criminalizes people and implies an overgeneralization.  For example, the cases the Asylum Law Project worked on were asylum seekers, who are neither legal nor illegal.  These people declared to the United States government they were seeking asylum from their home country; as a result, they are kept in detention centers until their case is decided.  To dub people like this “illegal” is to hold individuals guilty until proven innocent, a sad digression of American justice.  It is sad that the AP style book still persists in continuing a journalistic tradition that perpetuates such divisive and alienating terminology.

The common use and acceptance of derogatory terms in mass media track the same public discourse that laid the ground for the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.  Called “Coolies” and “Asiatics” for years, accused of depressing wages and bringing subversive politics, decried as failing to integrate and having “anchor babies,” Chinese-Americans were discriminated against for decades preceding this first racially-based immigration legislation.  Chinese immigrants were effectively barred from citizenship until the act was repealed in 1943 with the Chinese Exclusion Repeal Act.   As has been the case historically, the ways Chinese immigrants were framed in the media affected the way they were viewed nationally.  Associated Press should be pressured to change their practice of using “illegal immigrant” in articles throughout the United States.  Please write a letter or email to the editors, telling them that no human being is illegal and that we are capable of more civil and exact nomenclature for migrants.

Children caught up in an Unresponsive Laws

January 12, 2009

Stepping through the door of this nondescript building which houses young immigrant children awaiting their court dates, I am struck by its diametrically different feel. Whereas the purpose of adult detention centers (euphemistically called “processing centers”) is to keep those inside from getting out, the intent of these children’s homes is to protect children and keep people from getting in. Some of these children are government informants against human traffickers, and others owe thousands of dollars to smugglers who exploited them and their families. Additionally, these children are the most vulnerable people within our borders today – it is good to see the government realize that and do their best to ensure their safety.

Only 5 children were present at the Lutheran Social Services (LSS) children’s home when we arrived at 10:00. These children were going through picture dictionaries, the staff offering them one-on-one assistance as they try to teach some basic literacy during their short stays (averaging 36 days). The other children were on a tour of the Immigration Court in the El Paso Federal Building downtown. LSS makes it a point to introduce the kids to the court room and Judge Hough, so they’re not terrified when they are called to respond to the government’s pleadings against them.

Most of these 5-12 year-old kids leave LSS after 36 days, usually because they are reunified with some family or sponsor. Some are deported prior to that, however. All these kids are placed in temporary foster homes, where they are welcomed into loving Spanish-speaking homes. The foster parents even go so far as to stop serving the traditional Chihuahua fare of tortillas de harina for corn tortillas.

Even after kids are reunified, however, they can still be deported. It is hard to think of children like this being sent back to Guatemala or El Salvador. It is even harder to think of them coming up by themselves, with an aunt, with a younger brother.

LSS does a good job by these kids, and they are excitedly awaiting the time in a few weeks when they can finally move into a bigger facility. There are no signs on the outside of this small building, but they do manage to evaluate children’s academic levels and send progress reports home. The children don’t seem to mind the cramped quarters at all. When we say Adios to the children at LSS, all of us wish them this in its truest sense.

Since children were banned from being detained with adults and their care was transferred from DHS (which contains ICE, the department which has enthusiastically raided workplaces, patrolled streets, and hunted immigrants down the last few years) to human services, these children’s care has improved tremendously. Rather than the drab walls of a prison cell, they are allowed to decorate the walls with their schoolwork and drawings. Instead of waiting impatiently, educational services have been provided to these children so that their detainment time isn’t totally wasted.

After visiting LSS on Friday, Sister Phyllis then took us to Canutillo to visit the Southwest Key children’s home there. This facility got its name because it attempts to be a key in the Southwest to a better life for immigrant children. The Canutillo establishment is much bigger, with capacity for 94, and their children are from 13-17. One of the saddest days in the home is an 18th birthday; on that day, the child is transferred from this warm welcoming environment to the adult detention center down the road.

Since Reno v. Flores established some basic guidelines for the detainment of children (such as their right not just to liberty but also custody), facilities like Southwest Keys have risen to the challenge to nurture the lives of these children for as long as they’re in the United States. The site offers English literacy and math classes, but it also offers some highly-popular vocational classes. I have never seen a cake decorated as nice as the penguin cake the kids decorated just last month, and the murals on every wall in the building showcase that these kids have true talent.

Additionally, this facility has on-site counselors and social workers, to ensure that all their needs are met. Some children come in with chemical dependency, or horror stories from their home country or their long journey north. The staff was incredible at welcoming the children and helping them begin to heal. Looking at them, I am reminded of my own high-school students. Only a paper distinguishes these kids from any others.

Louie, the executive director, finished our tour by reminding us that with the increased militarization of the US border policy, along with the violence of the escalating drug wars in Latin America, more and more kids are stranded in Juarez without access to such facilities as LSS and Southwest Keys. My heart goes out, realizing that a half-mile away kids are wandering the streets wondering about their family back home (if they have any) and hoping for a new life just on the other side of the river. I pray they may find a home somewhere.

Immigration in all its Designs

May 4, 2008

Touring Spain, I am quickly being reminded of immigration in all its designs.  In the United States, we tend to imagine Mexican braceros or refugees, but often ignore or forget the host of reasons people migrate from place to place.  I am reminded of this at a long lunch with Rotarians in Coruña.  Jim, a British expatriate, keeps refilling my wine glass and inviting me to imbibe more alcohol as a fellow hailing from the British Isles (however long ago my Irish ancestors crossed the sea from County Mayo to Penn´s Woods).  Jim was just one of many ex-pats who willingly came to Spain some 40 years ago on business and never left. His friend and fellow Rotarian Richard was born in the heartland of Kansas, and his English still drawls like corn in the rain.  For every immigrant who returns, which historically comprises 30% of immigrants, countless more find much to love in their new country. 

The very idea of Rotary is one of international brotherhood and universal goodwill, and it squares with aglobal and historical view of immigration.  We are still departing from the hateful philosophy of eugenics, but people are coming to an understanding that there are no pure races, that the Irish of our stereotypes are really just descendants of Viking raiders who intermarried with the Gaels who hailed from northwest Spain since migrating all the way from India.  Immigration is not a new phenomenon, nor is it something to be contained or perceived in an epidemiological mindset.  People will inevitably travel, people will seek out lands where they can make the most impact, people will settle and integrate and assimilate because it is necessary for satisfaction.  The nativistic worries about racial blocs and unassimilable immigrant groups are unfounded, for as much as there have been concentrations of immigrant groups, their children undoubtedly grasp the culture which surrounds them in order to attain contentment. 

Though far from perfect, Spain is much closer to realizing a humane and accurate perception of immigration.  There are no deportations in Spain.  Though boats are turned away in the Grand Canary Islands and immigrants are refused from some ports, once those persons are here the Spanish government uses fines to oust extralegal residents who refuse to enter public society through the liberal immigration routes.  Here in Spain, it takes but 3 years for an extralegal worker to attain authorization, which is a significant step en route to full citizenship.  In the United States, similar immigrants must wait in an endless lottery which can take upwards of ten years to never.  Immigrants from Mali, Senegal, Morocco, Romania, Hungary, Brasil, Venezuela, Columbia, Ecuador, Uruguay – all these people are viewed as possible citizens by a system which tends to treat people as assets rather than criminals. 

In conversations with Jim and Richard, they air some criticism about Spanish immigration policies but are quickly silenced when I mention the proposed border wall, detention centers such as Hutto, and the xenophobic talks of massive deportation in the American immigration debate.  Though there is no such thing as a perfect, fully replicable immigration system, we must be moving towards comprehensive, compassionate immigration legislation which supports immigrants of all designs. 

 

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…

What is meant by ‘Real Immigration Reform?’

January 24, 2008

        Yesterday, a good friend of mine in Austin pressed me about my oft-repeated phrase of “real immigration reform.” He was in agreement that there are some social and moral dilemmas with our current immigration system, but he couldn’t honestly see a better, more direct answer than the border wall. I had to thank him for his honesty, and his desire to candidly grapple with the problem and its solution. However, legislation would solve the problems at a much deeper level and in a more sustainable manner.

    One component of transformative immigration reform is prohibitive penalties for companies which employ undocumented workers. We do not need illegal immigrants – we need immigrants who are sponsored here in the United States and who come with a purpose, but we most definitely must not continue our current method of refreshing a grossly under-paid, right-less pool of workers. Stiff penalties for businesses would follow the same trend which has been adopted with corporate white-collar crime (think Enron). If the tremendous resources of the U.S. Border Patrol could be used, instead, to police the businesses which are pulling immigrants from their homeland under false pretenses, the border would be a very different place indeed. Immigrants come either from a push or pull motive – either because of the conditions of their home country or the promises of the new one – and to the extent that we can diminish the false pull of exploitative businesses, illegal immigration could be greatly curtailed. The few workers who might still come across illegally would find it very difficult to get a job, and because of their close proximity to their home country, would return like 1/3 of immigrants.

    A second key piece of meaningful immigration reform is to extend a means to legal citizenship for the 12-14 million extralegal working residents here in the United States. Earned citizenship would necessitate that person have a steady job and a place of residence. The main problem with our current immigration laws is that people migrate here and then are stuck between D.C. and the border checkpoints. Unable to secure legal citizenship, they are caught in a revolving door of underpaid, exploitative work which is both dehumanizing and compounding to their dilemma. Earned citizenship measures would greatly decrease the number of long-term extralegal residents, so that ICE could focus solely on those residents who are not moving towards such legalization. Countless immigrants who simply overstayed their visas could become much more productive members of society, no longer lurking in the shadows, if only they saw hope of citizenship.

    The third crucial element of far-reaching immigration reform would be an overhaul of the current quota system. While many immigrants and refugees come to these United States outside the current quota, this system allotting 26,000 immigrants to each nation, irregardless of its population, still forms the foundation of our current immigration legislation. These quotas, in theory, allow just as many people to immigrate from Vatican City and Luxembourg as from China, India, or Mexico. More egalitarian “quotas” would be relative to a country’s population. American universities already have a complex and accurate system of ranking students coming from schools as divergent as my alma mater Troy High School in Pennsylvania (100 graduates/year) and Philadelphia high schools (2,000 graduates/year). Another possibility, instead of quotas, would be to highlight specific industry vacancies which are prohibitively under-staffed and draw immigrants for these specific fields. This would assure an excellent pool of workers for American businesses, and it would also ensure that immigrants come to the U.S. with steady, well-paid occupations already lined up.

    While these three components are fundamental changes which must be made if we are to change the future of immigration in this country, several other ideas would help to make our nation significantly better for those populations which are so often overlooked. The DREAM Act, which failed to pass last year in Congress, would provide much-needed funds to qualifying immigrant students who have already demonstrated a readiness and dedication to academics. The DREAM Act goes much deeper than simply rewarding immigrants who work; this legislation assures that these young residents will not be stuck in the cycle of underpaid jobs which fail to utilize their contribution potential and talents. Another immigration reform which would greatly aid our current state is speedy deportation. Detention centers like our nation’s largest at Raymondville are a pock on our country in the same vein as Japanese internment camps and Guantanamo Bay. Immigrants who are employed illegally and are slotted for deportation should have the right to a speedy process. Currently, they are stripped of all rights and incarcerated for a month on average (though some are left for years). The companies which hire undocumented workers should receive much stiffer penalties than the workers who were exploited, but if we are to return them to their home country so that they can begin a new life, this must happen speedily. The alternative is what we currently have, an expensive detention process which has not been proven a true deterrent to re-entry but has most definitely been proven to be dehumanizing, unconstitutional, and an affront to basic human rights.

    While immigration should be at the forefront of American thought for the next fifty years or more, the three changes of 1.) prohibitive penalties for law-breaking employers, 2.) paths to earned citizenship, and 3.) a dynamic overhaul of the current quota system, would alleviate the pressure on our borders, dismantle the need for a Secure Fence Act, and provide the most basic American rights to some 12-14 million people who are living in inequality. It is my solemn prayer that one day all residents in these United States will truly be treated equally, that people will receive better treatment and fairer taxation than corporations, and that no group of people will be denied a future because of dehumanizing legislation.