Posts Tagged ‘Latino’

Plainview Migrant Fest

June 16, 2009

In a little Minnesota town of 3,000, more than 100 people gathered on a Friday evening for Migrant Fest.  Hosted by the Incarnation Church, this local festival in Plainview has been running for several years now to welcome the migrant farmworkers back to their summer home.  They come to work for Lakeside Foods, by far the largest employer in this small rural hamlet in southeastern Minnesota.

I had the privilege to man an information booth for legal services, speaking with immigrant families about everything from employment and immigration to domestic violence and housing questions.  Being a legal assistant, I couldn’t give them legal advice, but I was able to chat it up in Spanish, set appointments, and hand out alertas which provided them with more information.  Although it was difficult to keep los ninos from taking all my candy and “colors” (the border word for crayons), it was great to speak with families who had traveled all the way from Mission, Pharr, and Brownsville just this week.

The Plainview Migrant Fest boasted numerous other immigrant agencies.  Some were Migrant Health Services, AAA (Aging), Mayo Clinic Diversity Research Unit, Olmsted County Medical Center, San Joachim Church, MET, Tri-Valley Action Council, and Three Rivers Community Action Center. I learned right alongside the immigrant families, as I hadn’t known about many of these organizations previously.  I look forward to working with them to help aid and protect these migrant farmworkers in their vulnerable position as transient denizens of Minnesota.

While we were disseminating information to the migrant families, Latino reggaeton and rancheros were playing in the background, courtesy of DJ Armando.  It was refreshing to hear the children laughing and running around with musical chairs and sack races.  I even got the chance to run in the sack race, though I lost to Christina Gonzalez, the representative from Mayo Clinic Diversity Research Unit, a program designed to increase minority participation in research so as to increase the data’s accuracy.

At this festival, I learned that many of these families are in a bad way this summer.  A nearby meat processing plant in Chatfield burned down on April 17 (NPR.org), and many of those workers came to Plainview looking for work while the plant rebuilds.  As a result, the migrant farmworkers’ awaited jobs have dwindled, and several of the families don’t have the money to return to Texas, even if there was the promise of work there.  This year particularly, farmworkers are going to struggle to find work for a living wage.

Leaving Plainview with the taste of a taco still in my mouth and Latino pop songs ringing in my ears, the Lakeside Foods plant stands just a hundred yards from the road, a beacon which has drawn whole families more than 1000 miles north for a four-month stint.  Though it doesn’t look like much, some of these families’ savings from their work this summer will have to last them until the next.

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Postville: The Difference a Year Makes

May 13, 2009

Yesterday, immigrant rights advocates marched down the tiny streets of Postville, IA. They marched to remind the nation that workplace raids cause ongoing devastation, that immigrants deserve basic human rights, and that Obama must live up to his promise to tackle immigration reform in the next year. [Martin, Liz. “Postville story, a year later, told in photos”]

Local businessman Gabay Menahem joined the march and commented on the economic difference a year makes.  “A year ago it was impossible to buy a house in Postville. Now there are 228 houses for sale out of 700 total.”  More than 30% of the Jewish community left after the raid, and much of the Latino community was either deported after entering guilty pleas or fled in fear.  [Love, Orlan] Some still remain, wearing transponders on their ankles more than a year later.  Children still remain [local school attendance has only dropped about 3%], but they are in increasing need of mental health services, and many of them are missing at least one parent.

Father Ouderkirk and St. Bridget’s Church continue to minister to the Latino community of Postville.  They currently care for 30 affected families, aiding them with housing and food and counseling as they seek to be reunited with their family members or as they wait for their day in court.

Most of the 389 workers arrested pled guilty last May.  They were housed in a cattle-barn, expedited through a trailer-home courthouse ten at a time, and threatened with years in prison unless they pled guilty on the spot.  Many of them were from Guatemala, and few of them spoke English.  The majority of them had no idea what a Social Security number was, or why the leading prosecutor Stephanie Rose thought that they had used fake ones.  Many of them had received fake numbers from their employer, Agriprocessor’s Inc., the largest kosher meatpacking plant in the nation.

Last week, the Supreme Court issued its ruling on Flores-Figueroa, ruling that to be convicted of aggravated identity theft, the person must know they are using another person’s identification.  While this ruling does little for the 389 workers, most of whom pled guilty and have since been deported, but it is resulting in dropped charges against some of Agriprocessor’s administration.  Last Tuesday, federal prosecutors dropped aggravated identity theft charges [a mandatory 2 years imprisonment] against human resources manager Laura Althouse, who was allowed to rescind a guilty plea she entered last year. [Preston, Julia. “Dismissal of Guilty Pleas is Sought for Immigrants”]

As the Supreme Court’s decision affects the sentencing of this dubious employer’s administrative staff, many are calling upon Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. to order a case-by-case investigation into the almost 300 guilty pleas entered last May in Postville. “The federal prosecutors used the law as a hammer to coerce the workers,” said David Leopold, vice president of American Immigration Lawyers Association.  Others went farther, including Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-California), chairwoman of the House immigration subcommittee.  She is calling on the Justice Department to start over, since these cases didn’t comport with the law. [Preston, Julia. “Dismissal of Guilty Pleas is Sought for Immigrants”]

Today marks the day after Postville’s raid last year.  Postville no longer represents the largest ICE raid [Laurel, MS, now holds that dubious title].  This tiny town in northern Iowa has largely been forgotten by politicians and lawmakers, if not the general public.  As life goes on and our courts begin to follow the new Flores-Figueroa ruling, it is vital that we make sure it is evenly applied.  There is an unpleasant aroma of injustice when the immigrants who worked in subhuman conditions were imprisoned five months and deported, while the employers were never made to stand accountable for their numerous employment violations [child labor laws, safety protocols, and pay] and look to walk on some of the harsher sanctions of identity theft and employing undocumented workers.

April Showers bring May Flores Decision from the Supreme Court

May 4, 2009

Having spent much of this past semester writing and researching my Legal Writing brief at the University of Minnesota Law School, I became intimately acquainted with the aggravated identity theft statute 18 USC 1028A.  Today, almost a year since it was used to deport nearly 400 Latino immigrants after the ICE raid in Postville, the Supreme Court issued its decision on Flores-Figueroa vs. United States. Justice Breyer authored the opinion which explained that for aggravated identity theft, the defendant must have known they were misappropriating an actual person’s identity.  All too often in the past, 1028A was used as a catch-all statute to compound the sentences of unwitting immigrants who were given papers and had no knowledge that their Social Security numbers belonged to a real person.[Stout, David. “Supreme Court Rules Against Government in Identity-Theft Case”]

In Postville, for example, local sources state that the management of Agriprocessors actively provided such false documents for the immigrant workers from Central America.  Within a week of that raid in May of 2008, chained groups of immigrants were brought before a judge holding court in a trailer. They were told that they had stolen people’s Social Security numbers [a word few of them knew], and that they should accept the government’s offer of 6 months and then deportation.  Most took the deal, though they understood little English and even less about the complex American immigration system.[Stout, David. “Supreme Court Rules Against Government in Identity-Theft Case”]

Ignacio Flores-Figueroa was a Mexican immigrant working in an Illinois steel facility.  Unbeknownst to him, the papers he had procured bore the name and number of an actual person. When he was caught, Ignacio pled guilty to the immigration charges but refused to accept the aggravating sentence of identity theft.  While the 8th Circuit upheld the conviction, the Supreme Court’s decision today means that Ignacio will serve less time before he is deported.  However, this case, argued by Stanford University Law Professor Kevin Russell, will hopefully change, if not eliminate, ICE employer raids in the future. [Stout, David. “Supreme Court Rules Against Government in Identity-Theft Case”]  While real identity thieves will still be subject to the compounding sentencing of 1028A, vulnerable immigrants will no longer be forced to spend extra time in prison before returning to their families.  As Postville prepares for its first anniversary march of last year’s ICE raid, one can only think Flores-Figueroa came a year too late.

Fear: The Bane of the Beloved Community

April 4, 2009

“There is another element that must be present in our struggle that then makes our resistance and nonviolence truly meaningful. That element is reconciliation. Our ultimate end must be the creation of the beloved community.” (Martin Luther King, 4/15/1960, Raleigh, NC)

41 years after his assassination, Martin Luther King’s dream of a fully integrated and reconciled society, his Beloved Community, still remains largely unfulfilled for the marginalized in America. Specifically, fear seems to reign in the lives of our nation’s most vulnerable group – immigrants are afraid to go to school, go to work, report crimes, visit anything but an Emergency Room. Immigrants, to a large extent, have been the object of laws designed to keep them segregated and silent and invisible.

Thursday’s joint subcommittee hearings brought national attention to the injustices inherent in the United State’s 287(g) program which deputizes local cops to become federal immigration enforcers. Sheriff Joe Arpaio from Maricopa County, Arizona, is a prime example of how certain jurisdictions are using this federal program to strike fear into the hearts of all immigrants. With his inhumane treatment of prisoners, his nativist focus on immigration enforcement over his other law enforcement duties, and his sensationalism and victimization of the immigrant community, both legal and not, Arpaio has succeeded in creating in Maricopa County (the fourth largest county in the U.S., with 4 million inhabitants) a community of distrust and fear. Maryland community advocate Antonio Ramirez, seconded by Rep. Conyers and others, testified at the subcommittee hearings on April 2, 2009, that the policies born of 287(g) lead to a drastic loss of trust and cooperation with authorities.  (Staff, Greg and Jackie Mahendra. America’s Voice)

Furthermore, Police Foundation President Hubert Williams stated that funding for this program takes away from money for smart community policing initiatives which are far more successful in preventing crime. In Sheriff Joe’s Maricopa County, for instance, Arpaio’ tactics seem to have backfired, with violent crime skyrocketing over 69% from 204-2007 (a statistic not echoed in nearby Phoenix or Mesa). When a large population of immigrants live in fear and are excluded from the Beloved Community, crime goes unreported and unchecked. (Bolick, Clint. “Mission Unaccomplished: The Misplaced Priorities of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office”)

The subcommittee hearings also brought to light the rampant racial profiling that has accompanied 287(g) programs across the country. UNC Chapel Hill Law School Professor Deborah Weissman highlighted the lack of sufficient training and the resulting civil rights abuses. Her recent report, “The Politics and Policies of Local Immigration Enforcement Laws,” illustrates that most “unwelcome” immigrants are stopped under the pretense of traffic violations; in Gaston County, NC, 83% of immigrants arrested by ICE had been cited first under a petty traffic violation.

Sadly, certain members of the subcommittee were insistent that 287(g) was marginally successful in the less than 5% of counties in which it is currently employed. It is hard to ascribe any motivation more flattering than unfettered xenophobia to such committee members. Rep. Steve King, a ranking member on the Immigration Subcommittee, questioned 19-year-old Julio Mora repeatedly about whether his father had taught him about rule of law (a.k.a. reporting undocumented immigrants). Mora, who had been detained and harassed because he’s Latino, responded eloquently, “My father taught me to respect everyone.” Rep. King and others seemed to intimate that racial profiling of American citizens was little more than an inconvenience or a slight embarrassment.

These joint subcommittee hearings’ decision on 287(g) is vitally important for creating a Beloved Community in the United States. Programs like 287(g) encourage fear, silence, and marginalization. The effects of this are chilling. Yesterday, a shooter opened fire on immigrants taking citizenship and language classes at an immigrant center in Binghamton, NY. 14 were found dead in the American Civic Association (an immigrant organization founded in 1939 and with support from United Way). The shooter, Jiverly Wong, is believed to have been a naturalized citizen who attended classes at ACA years before. While there are no clear answers and no explanations for such a tragedy, the fear 287(g) generates discourages crime reporting; we are left to speculate if this would have happened had Wong’s immigrant community felt empowered, rather than marginalized, by our nation’s laws.(CNN)

Similarly, Father Paul Ouderkirk gave a presentation at Pax Christi Church in Rochester, MN, on April 2. Much of his presentation focused on the fears in his community of Postville (where an ICE raid in May arrested 289 immigrants, closed the town’s largest employer, and crippled the town of 2400). Ouderkirk spoke of the psychological trauma felt by families after fathers were deported to Guatemala. He disparaged the fact that many women are still required to wear ankle bracelets. He discussed the fear of the citizen children, many of whom were terrified to return to school for fear that they would be arrested or they’d come home to find the rest of their family gone. (Valdez, Christina Killion. “Priests say Immigration Laws Need Reform.”)

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The ICE raid at Postville and 287(g) both serve to strike fear into our nation’s 12 million undocumented immigrants. Far from creating a Beloved Community, fear breeds distrust, un-cooperation, division, and hate. Additionally, this terror is not limited to extralegals in America; rather, it extends to most minorities. When Latinos are followed by police officers simply for looking Latino, fear reigns. When Somalis are interrogated at bus stops simply for being Muslim, fear reigns. When jaywalking Hmong citizens are detained because of their ethnicity, fear reigns. Our nation, our Beloved Community, demands comprehensive immigration reform to end the fear and begin an era of trust.

Please consider adding your name and voice to the letter going out to Chairman Conyers of the joint subcommittee. You can do so here.

Medicine and Migration in Minnesota

April 3, 2009

In this snowy city where once Norwegians and Swedes had their own hospitals, the 446-bed Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC) currently spends $3 million on interpreters fluent in 50 languages to translate over 130,000 times a year. Minneapolis is home to the largest Somali community in the United States, some 35-40,000. The Twin Cities also have large Hmong and Latino communities, in addition to Liberian, Sudanese, Russian, and most recently Bhutanese immigrants. HCMC has adjusted its practice to better meet the needs of the diverse immigrant population it serves, a community that comprises 20% of its patient base. (Grady, Denise. “Foreign Ways and War Scars Test Hospital”)

Catering to its patient mix, HCMC’s obstetrics unit is now predominantly female, since Muslim women cannot have their children delivered by male doctors. Imams are often consulted prior to medical procedures, such as drawing blood during the month of Ramadan. No questions are asked about immigration status, and indigent patients are offered a sliding-scale fee, though not all can afford even this. Many of these immigrants are refugees from war-torn countries, and their medical care often includes the surgical removal of shrapnel and more difficult treatment of buried pain. Some 47% of women and 25% of men in the Somali community experienced torture (a number extremely high even for refugees), and their care necessarily includes counseling and holistic treatment. (Grady, Denise. “Foreign Ways and War Scars Test Hospital”)

HCMC’s dedication to its immigrant patient population is surely to be lauded. In an economic climate that has hospitals seriously worried about budgets, this Minneapolis hospital is noteworthy in its continued efforts to better serve its community. It is refreshing to see such a positive community response to the new challenges immigration brings; the impact of these efforts at integration and outreach can be seen in the faces of fellow passengers every time one steps on a bus or the Light Rail in this Silver City.



High Time for Social Uplift

February 24, 2009

If a local law enforcement agency incarcerated 81 innocent people for every 19 criminals it caught, we would say it was violating civil rights and was wildly inept. When that same jurisdiction continued to hold those innocent 81, sometimes for a year, the media would run an expose and the public would be crying out for resignations.

This scenario is currently being played out through America’s immigration strategy of massive deportation over the last 15 years. Last week the Pew Hispanic Center revealed that Latinos make up 40% of those sentences in federal courts in 2008 while comprising only 13% of the adult population. It went on to state that Latinos are 1/3 of federal prison inmates as of 2007. With our prisons facing massive overcrowding and public defender’s offices around the nation facing debilitating budget cuts, one would assume that this prison population was all dangerous felons, but in fact, 81% of them did nothing more than cross an imaginary line in a desert or overstay a student visa. (“Enforcement Gone Bad. New York Times)


Earlier this month, the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute published findings that while the Department of Homeland Security’s budget went from $9 million in 2003 to $218 million last year, it ceased to arrest the undocumented felons and “terrorists” it was charged with capturing and instead shifted its focus to families, workers, children, women – none of whom had a previous record or anything besides an overstayed visa or lack of documentation. Of the 72,000 arrested through February 2008, 73% had no criminal record. (“Enforcement Gone Bad. New York Times)


As Homeland Security USA continues to run on ABC, the reality is that since 2006, DHS has shifted its focus to more “easily apprehended” targets. The raids on factories like Postville, Iowa, and on homes netted few criminals but a myriad of working families. Catchy names like “Operation Return to Sender” fail to mask the fact that while there were more than ½ million immigrants with removal orders in 2006, ICE raids honed in on families and workers rather than criminals and terrorists. According to the Migration Policy Institute’s report, internal directives in 2006 set quotas for operatives in the National Fugitive Operations Program but disbanded the standard that 75% of apprehended individuals be criminals. Fugitives with criminal records dropped to 9% of those captured, while immigrants without deportation orders increased to account for 40%. The 2006 directive sent by acting director John P. Torres raised each team’s goal to 1,000 a year, from 125. (Bernstein, Nina. “Target of Immigrant Raids Shifted”)

An author of the report, Yale Law Professor Michael Wishnie stated that random arrests of extralegal immigrants in such residential raids was “dramatically different from how ICE has sold this program to Congress,” not to mention the civil and human rights issues it raises where ICE agents enter private homes without consent and/or warrants. From New Haven to Brownsville, from Maricopa County to San Diego County, ICE abused its power by passing legislation in one form and then enforcing it in a completely different format. As she reviews the agency, Janet Napolitano must take this into account, realizing that our resources must be spent on legalizing our workforce and apprehending our criminals, and never the twain shall meet. (Bernstein, Nina. “Target of Immigrant Raids Shifted”)


DHS recently released statistics of the last decade’s deportations, and of the 2.2 million immigrants deported from 1997-2007, 108,000 of them were parents of legal American citizens. If these immigrants even had two children [a low estimate], then more than 200,000 children were affected. And if they took their children with them when they were removed, then essentially the United States was deporting two legal citizens for every undocumented one. Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies, Mark Krikorian, revealed a calloused, nativist sentiment when he responded, “Should those parents get off the hook just because their kids are put in a difficult position? Children often suffer because of the mistakes of their parents.” Mr. Krikorian seems to have a firm grasp on the Old Testament principle that Yahweh will punish “the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation” [Exodus 34:7], though he seems to have stopped his reading of the Torah just before 2 Chronicles 25:4 which repeals this vengeful promise [“Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers; each is to die for his own sins.”] (Falcone, Michael. New York Times). Children are not acceptable collateral damage.

In the spirit of reform under the new administration, one would hope that high on Attorney General Eric Holder’s agenda would be reversing Mukasey’s January ruling that immigrants lack the Constitutional rights to effective representation as secured by the Due Process Clause and the 5th and 14th Amendments. Mukasey’s eleventh-hour statement overruled a twenty-year standard. Because immigration cases are civil cases rather than criminal, there is no requirement for representation [a single day in immigration court drives home the fact that this default to pro se representation is manifestly unfair for the majority of immigrants who cannot speak English yet]. (“Deportation and Due Process. New York Times)

In 2009, the United States stands as a country in an economic depression which is poring vast amounts of money into detaining its workforce, deporting its own citizens, and constructing a 700-mile during peacetime. As Dr. King warned, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” It’s high time we renounced our declaration of war against the 12 million extralegal people within our borders and instead moved towards a nonpartisan, comprehensive immigration reform which affirms the humanity of all.

Silence of Good People

February 18, 2009

In the nation’s fifth-largest city, more than 200 men were humiliatingly marched past video cameras to a tent-city where they will await deportation. Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, “star” of a Fox reality television show, was simply continuing his long abuse of power in cruelly and unusually punishing prisoners in his jail system. While he makes convicted offenders wear pink underwear and has been cited as serving green bologna to prisoners, he has particularly situated himself as “hard on immigration,” teaming up with the federal policing program 287(g) which partners the U.S. government with local law enforcement. (Garcia, Carlos)

In theory, federal-state cooperation makes the whole system work better. However, local law enforcement officials in 287(g) are given little guidance and engage primarily in basic racial profiling, which results in a myriad of pretextual traffic stops, “jaywalking” violations, and general harassment of Latinos in Phoenix and other like communities throughout the United States. (New York Times)

As new Secretary of Homeland Security (and former Arizona governor) Janet Napolitano seeks to reform the broken Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Department, surely Arpaio should be high on her list. Napolitano’s investigations into the 287(g) should probe into the abuses, both local and federal, and seek to craft an alternative which doesn’t criminalize people based on race or appearance.

On March 7, the 44th anniversary of the famous Bloody Sunday March from Selma to Montgomery which so galvanized the civil rights movement, a march will be held in Phoenix to protest the civil rights abuses perpetrated by Joe Arpaio. While this march’s purpose states it wants Arpaio sent to jail, more generally it will be a march against 287(g) and all the abuses it has invited. Dr. King had Bull Connor; America’s immigrants have Sheriff Arpaio. (Garrido, Jon. Hispanic News)

This past week, as California Border Patrol officers accused their superiors of setting quotas for apprehended immigrants, we must all question our current immigration system which permits and perpetuates such abuses. The Migration Institute recently revealed a chilling report that ICE shifted its goals from apprehending “the most dangerous” undocumented immigrants to deporting anyone – women, children, factory workers – anyone to highlight the agency’s success (Garcia, Carlos). In changing their role from Homeland Security to Heartland Insecurity, our immigration system has struck fear in the hearts of families and terrorized immigrants both legal and otherwise. It is vital we note that America’s immigration issues are bigger than Sheriff Joe Arpaio, larger than ICE, and deeper than the flawed quota system – at its heart, our current immigration system reflects the complicit silence of America. As Dr. King wrote in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail, We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.” He goes on to write, though, that “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God.” This chance is there for all of us in this 21st century civil rights issue in the United States.

In this Together

February 1, 2009

On January 23, Nashville 43% of Nashville voters voted in favor of a bill touted as being able to unite their city and save it money in these difficult economic times. Had it passed, this Tennessee city would have become the nation’s largest to enact such legislation. In 1780, John Adams proposed similar legislation to the Continental Congress, stating it would help to “purify, develop, and dictate usage of” English; his proposal was rejected as undemocratic. Still, some 30 states and a dozen cities have made English their official language, showing not only intolerance to immigrants and international travelers but also a Pollyanna longing for the bygone days before globalization. (Cousins, Juanita)  It is truly scary that only 57% of Nashville voters weighed in against this “English First” proposal. Mayor Karl Dean said, “The results of this special election reaffirms Nashville’s identity as a welcoming and friendly city, and our ability to come together as a community,” but the nation’s largest Kurdish community must have felt more than a little terrified that the vote had been so close. If the economy continues on its downward trend and politicians look to scapegoat, immigrant communities around the States may be faced with similar nativist proposals. (Cousins, Juanita)

Already, immigrants and refugees throughout the nation are struggling to make ends meet. Always the most vulnerable community in any country, refugees arrive in the United States with about $450 of federal aid and a little temporary financial help from private agencies for 3 months. After that, they are on their own. While Nashville proposed English First legislation to help that city’s budget, Utah is answering the cries of low-income families in a different way. Beginning this month, Utah will provide recently arrived families rent subsidies for a period of 2 years. The money, drawn from unspent federal welfare reserves, will mean a world of difference for refugees living with the heat off this winter. Utah will disburse this money through refugee aid organizations like International Rescue Committee and Catholic Community Services. Utah’s compassionate new legislation will mean a world of difference for 1,000 new refugees each year, but for the other 59,000 the United States accepted last year, 2009 looks bleak. (Eckholm, Erik)

An editorial in the New York Times yesterday detailed the horrors xenophobia and its self-defeating nature. According to the article, the American Cause spoke at the National Press Club in Washington, declaring that the GOP’s November defeats were due to Republicans being too soft on immigrants, rather than too harsh. The author points out anti-amnesty and anti-immigrant thinking like this cost House and Senate seats in 2006 and 2008. Xenophobes like Lou Barletta of Hazleton, PA, or former congressman J.D. Hayworth of Arizona both lost due to their harsh stance toward immigrants and diversity. (New York Times) After Latinos’ huge showing in the polls this past election, this author correctly states that any political party which bases its success on the exclusion of immigrants risks deserved irrelevance.

Historically, nativist groups have flourished in troubled times. The Know-Nothings came to power in the 1840s and 1850s on a platform of anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant policies. Their rise to power coincided with the disintegration of the 2-party system, the increasing resistance to slavery, and the influx of Irish immigrants. Similarly, the revival of the Klu Klux Klan in 1915 coincided with the Great Migration of Africa-Americans and low-income whites from the South to the North, as well as a large number of immigrants from southern and Eastern Europe. The influence of this anti-minority, nativist organization eventually faded, but not before Calvin Coolidge signed the Immigration Act of 1924 which limited immigrants based on their national origin (severely restricting Asian and Eastern European immigration). (http://www.historicaldocuments.com/ImmigrationActof1924.htm)

This latest economic situation could instigate the same. However, it also could be a time when the United States grows closer together, seeking to integrate the immigrants within its borders and to become a nation that lives up to its moral responsibility toward refugees. As bank accounts shrink and jobs disappear over the coming months, we must be vigilant to ensure that no one is scapegoated. We are truly all in this thing together.

* Editor’s Note: Monday night’s edition of “The O’Reilly Factor” declared war on the New York Times because of the editorial mentioned in this article.  Pointedly, Bill O’Reilly took offense at the editorial’s mention of his statement that the Times wanted “…to break down the white, Christian, male power structure, which you’re a part, and so am I, and they want to bring in millions of foreign nationals to basically break down the structure that we have.”  Hurrah for such an article, Editorial Director Andrew Rosenthal.


Immigrants did not cause the Economic Crisis, but they can help us rebuild

December 14, 2008

The Anti-Defamation League recently published a thoughtful article warning all of us to be careful in assigning blame to any one group of people (Nathan, Martin. Houston Chronicle)  The ADL’s article focused on Susan Carroll’s Houston Chronicle series which highlighted problems in our criminal system.  While study after study like that of Harvard Sociology Professor Robert Sampson has shown that recent immigrants are far less likely to commit crimes (45% less likely than 3rd generation Americans in his study), xenophobic rhetoric abounds on blogs, comments, and media posts concerning immigrants.

What’s more alarming, yet inextricably linked to such polarizing rhetoric of hate and “otherness,” are the increasing hate crimes against Latinos and other immigrant groups. The Houston Chronicle article highlighted FBI statistics that show from 2005-2007 hate crimes against Latinos grew from 475 to 595.  Indeed, several high-profile hate crimes against immigrants have occurred in New York City alone, that emblematic heart of the American melting pot.  Ecuadorean brothers Jose and Romel Sucuzhanay were brutally beaten in Bushwick, Brooklyn, on Sunday, December 7, by three men shouting obsenities which were “ugly, anti-gay and anti-Latino” (McFadden, Robert. New York Times).  On November 7 in Patchogue, NY, seven teenagers fatally stabbed 37-year-old Marcelo Lucero, an Ecuadorean returning from his late shift (Finn, Robin. New York Times).

And so, as the economy continues its downspin and people, unable to wreak justice on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, scan the nation for a proper scapegoat, preferrably one without a voice and lacking human rights.  It is this nativism fueled by the economic crisis which propels hate speech and hate crimes, as well as xenophobic legislation like New IDEA (Immigrant Deduction Enforcement Act), an attempt to massively expand the role of the IRS in aiding the Department of Homeland Security to crack down not on employers but primarily on unauthorized immigrants. Iowa Congressman Steven King, seemingly unfazed by the destruction the Postville ICE raid has caused his own small-town constituents, touts this bill he introduced as a means of wresting jobs from the immigrants holding 7 million jobs (as per the PEW Hispanic Research Center) and distributing them to the 9.5 million jobless Americans. While his Robin-Hood techniques may sound appealing in a time of economic depression, we cannot forget that immigrants are people too; this is not merely redistributing wealth or opportunity – this is redistributing people.

As we head into the New Year, looking back on our mistakes of 2008 and crafting new resolutions to see us through 2009, blame-shifting will help none of us.  No, we must turn from this simple scapegoating and look at real solutions which can help us all rather than profiting some at the expense of the most vulnerable (isn’t this the sort of predatory business model that caused the economic crisis in the first place?).  Immigrants didn’t cause the economic crisis, but they can sure help us rebuild.  Why? Because they are us and we are them; we are all in this thing together.

The Challenge of Integration

December 5, 2008

Walking from the U of M West Bank to the Cedar-Riverside Lightrail station, one is awed by the looming towers affectionately dubbed the “Crack Shacks” (I am told the name dates back to their former use as college dorms).  Awe may  not be the right word to describe what one feels looking up at these misshapen Eastern European towers distinguished only by their refusal to blend and their randomly-positioned multicolor panels.  These Riverside Plaza towers, once highlighted as the residence of Mary Richards from the Mary Tyler Moore Show, are now home to almost 3500 people, predominantly immigrant families, and they give this portion of Minneapolis a distinct multicultural feel.  Somali cafes, Thai restaurants, the Cedar Cultural Center, Halal groceries, Ethiopian eateries – all of these are a welcome change to the gentrified Seven Corners just down the street.

As I continue walking the 15 minutes to the LightRail stop, I pass the Brian Coyle Community Center (BCCC).  Often crowds of teenagers are outside playing basketball or catching up on gossip.  Some stand, heads together, listening to the latest tunes.  Somali elders walk the sidewalk with canes, and an old woman in a hijab flosses her teeth with a twig.  This Community Center is always alive, always full of laughter and shouting and life.  It is sobering to think that just a few months ago a 22-year-old Somali man was shot to death right where I am standing.

By all accounts, this Augsburg College student had big dreams of achieving great things and contributing to his Somali community.  He chose to work at BCCC because he hoped to have an impact on Somali youth.  It is unfathomable to think that he was shot at 5 p.m., in broad daylight, after finishing his routine volunteer shift; it is similarly shocking to think that five young Somalis have been murdered in the past 12 months.

Prior to the Somali Civil War beginning in 1991, about 20-30 Somalis called Minnesota home.  Local Somali historian Saeed Osman Fahia, executive director of the Somali Community in Minnesota, now estimates that number at nearly 60,000. While this past month saw the United States refuse to accept any more Somali refugees due to suspected fraudulent papers, the Somali community here in Minnesota is a well-established and vibrant ethnic community. (Carlyle, Erin CityPages)

Fahia says it all began as young Africans tried to fit in to American schools.  Feeling ostractized, they formed ganges called the Rough Tough Somalis and the Hot Boyz to defend themselves and carve out a community niche for themselves.  The No Child Left Behind Act, which placed significantly stricter laws on foreign language instruction, shook the very core of the Somali academic community.  In reaction to what Somali youth saw as a disrespect and ignorance of their culture, some youth formed gangs called the Murda Squad, the Riverside Riders, the Somali Mafia, and Madhibaan With Attitude.  These informal “gangs” never really achieved widespread popularity (Minneapolis police estimate 150 out of the 60,000 Somalis belong to a gang), but their sheer existence denotes a growing discontent in the Somali youth community following the turn of the millenium. ((Carlyle, Erin CityPages)

Police are still investigating Ahmednur Ali‘s murder.  It is frustrating for everyone to see an ethnic group like the Somalis struggle with this inter-cultural conflict.  Sadly, this is the expression of far too many disadvantaged or discriminated immigrant communities.  Lacking a viable way to address the root of their problems, often the worst violence is directed within the community.  The rise in gang violence and tribalism in the Somali community coincided with the downsizing of foreign language and international appreciation programs in American schools.  As the economy tightens and Latino immigrants struggle over the same jobs as Somali refugees, both groups have tended to blame each other rather than the industries and employers who deliberately hire unauthorized workers and then keep then undocumented as long as possible. (Relerford, Patrice The Star Tribune)

People acculturate.  People change.  The only reason immigrant communities fail to integrate is because the community they join refuses to be responsible for their integration.  While some Minnesota schools have risen to this challenge, other ESL departments and core curriculum courses have not given a good-faith effort to ensure these first-generation Somali youths have a decent chance in America. It is all too easy to write off these gang murders as echoes of the lawlessness and piracy of current Somalia.  However, a true look at these tragic killings reveals our own failure to advocate for integration of ALL.  America has always been a land of immigrants, and as international conflicts and nation-state boundaries create a growing number of refugees, America must live up to its responsibility to integrate these refugees and asylum-seekers into our nation.  The Beloved Community Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke about so often at the end of his life has yet to be fully realized.  Integration is the last civil rights issue – economic crisis or not, this must be one of the most pressing issues for us all.