Monday, July 30, 2007

Immigrant Dynamics Today: What Would Woody Guthrie Sing?

"This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land is made for you and me."

The well-known folk song, "This Land Is Your Land" was written by Woody Guthrie more than 60 years ago. Guthrie's verses were wrapped in spirited lyrics embodying his personal perspective, and his sense of a nation with rich and vibrant communities, with individuals from all walks of life, each contributing to the nation's future.

Today, schoolchildren can be heard singing the song at school assemblies and performances, or it can be heard at marches and holiday events. Guthrie borrowed the melody from a Baptist hymn in what could be perceived as his nod to a common human and spiritual energy. In more recent times, George H.W. Bush used the song during his presidential campaign.

While much has changed since Guthrie wrote the song, the desire to make this a land -and country - embodying the song's spirit has not. From this perspective,it is troubling to hear talk show hosts, media pundits, elected officials and others stoke the anti-immigrant fire.

Despite the recent defeat of Hazleton, Pennsylvania's proposed ordinances, which targeted the town's small undocumented immigrant population, the shrill call for increased enforcement, walls and deportations has not abated. Restrictionist and nativist thinking continue, and these voices have made it their task to avoid the facts, bend the facts and pursue the fiction side in this difficult debate. And so they are demanding new resolutions, ordinances and punitive local measures in their townships and cities.

While purportedly designed to distinguish between those who followed the 'legal' migration process to the United States and those who did not, the proposed local and state ordinances have already had a negative impact on the quality of life of immigrant and non-immigrant communities alike.

In fact, an estimated 40 to 50% of the nation's undocumented population entered the country with a work or tourist visa and overstayed their time here, many opting not to return to extremely difficult economic, political and social conditions in their homelands. In the meantime, they have settled here, found jobs, married and formed families as well. These estimated 12 million persons have been waiting for a solution to their immigration limbo; they also worry about the future, the knock-on-the-door that might send their lives into a full tailspin, and the possible break up of their families. Still, concrete solutions to this dilemma have not yet surfaced. As they wait, increased anti-immigrant energy has created new tensions and hostilities toward them.

For example, at a recent immigration rally held in Morristown, New Jersey, the tension was quite palpable. One sign read, "Deport Them All," while the town's Mayor Donald Cresitello, rallied those present to urge New Jersey's Governor Corzine to deputize local police officers as immigration agents. It would not be far-fetched to assume that the community's common unity has been ruptured, neighborliness in the town has nearly disappeared, and degrading stereotypes have surfaced.

Unfortunately, whether in Morristown or other parts of the nation, what is evident is that calls for local efforts have led to increased racial profiling, the abuse of basic civil and human rights, and side-stepped the bigger picture of a comprehensive solution to the problem. Immigration is the purview of the federal government, and while local mayors and other officials may think that increased enforcement will solve the situation, the unspoken message is that these actions are shaped by misguided perceptions that have also ignored changing global forces, succumbed to stereotypes and increasing hostility toward newcomers, in this case, immigrants.

A more practical and prudent step for municipalities and state governments to take would be to urge Congressional leaders to create fair solutions and concrete legislation. Yet another positive step would be to follow the example of other cities (e.g., Portland, New Haven). Leaders in these communities have opted to enter into dialogue between immigrants and non-immigrants, and identify opportunities and common ground that engage every person in community betterment and positive growth.

Taking actions which eviscerate the basic rights and freedoms of undocumented immigrants is not the solution; these actions do not embody the basic principles of an inclusive, democratic nation, nor do these address the structural reforms that the nation's immigration system desperately needs.

As a singing troubadour Guthrie often traveled throughout the nation and occasionally followed migrants across the Great Plains. Guthrie sang about justice, democracy and the rights of workers. It is highly likely that he would now take up his guitar and in a prophetic call for justice, sing out:

As I go walking this ribbon of highway
I see above me the endless skyway
And all around me the wind keeps saying:
This land is made for you and me.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Anti-Immigrant Act Struck Down in Hazleton, Pennsylvania

"The genius of our Constitution is that it provides rights even to those who evoke the least sympathy from the general public. In that way, all in this nation can be confident of equal justice under its laws. Hazleton, in its zeal to control the presence of a group deemed undesirable, violated the rights of such people, as well as others within the community. Since the United States Constitution protects even the disfavored, the ordinances cannot be enforced." - U.S. District Judge James Munley in a 206-page ruling on Hazleton's Illegal Immigration Relief Act - 7/26/07

In a ruling which challenged the substance and content of proposed anti-immigrant ordinances, a federal judge struck down the town of Hazleton's Illegal Immigration Relief Act (IMRA). IMRA was fostered by Hazleton's Mayor Lou Barletta (Republican-PA), and called for imposing fines on homeowners renting to undocumented immigrants, deny business permits to local businesses hiring them, and required tenants to register at City Hall and pay a rental permit. In addition, IMRA would have declared English the town's official language.

A bench trial and subsequent hearings on IMRA was presented before U.S. District Judge James Munley. The legal challenge to the Hazleton Act was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund and Cozen O'Connor, a private law firm.

Judge Munley also ruled that Hazleton City Council's proposed Act interfered with federal law which is charged with regulating the nation's immigration laws. He also ruled that the Act violated the due process rights of employers, landlords and undocumented immigrant tenants.

Hazleton, approximately 100 miles from Philadelphia, is an old mining town experiencing economic and social shifts and regional changes. The town's rich history reflects the migration of German and Irish laborers, and later Italian, Polish and Russian immigrants. The town's population now stands at 30,000 of which an estimated 2,000-3,000 are thought to be undocumented immigrants. The town's Mayor has contended that undocumented immigrants have wrought crime, and gangs to the area, and negatively impacted the city's infrastructure and quality of life.

At a press conference held shortly after the decision was made public, the Mayor assured those present that the City of Hazleton would appeal the decision to the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals. Mayor Barletta commented, "Hazleton isn't going to back down..."

Others contend that this is a unique opportunity for Hazleton's leaders to promote dialogue and build understanding between newly arrived immigrants and the town's long-term residents. Hazleton can now model humane actions which engage in future-thinking about the town and help identify mutually beneficial opportunities for all, while also respecting the rich diversity of people that now call Hazleton their home.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Border Deaths Continue: Tucson Desert Claims Two Mothers

"The Border Patrol has recovered at least 17 bodies in the Tucson Sector in July, bringing its fiscal-year total to at least 133. From October 1 through June, the agency had reported 116 border deaths in the Tucson Sector. The number of border deaths is higher, according to records kept by the Pima and Cochise County medical examiners." (Source: Arizona Daily Star, 7/20/07)

Nearly a month after the demise of the Senate bill, some Congressional leaders have re-grouped to press forward the idea of a tightened southern border and increased enforcement measures. The idea of comprehensive immigration reform appears to have faded from the legislative calendar. Indeed, House Judiciary Immigration Subcommittee Chairperson, Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) recently commented,"We are not going to do comprehensive immigration reform."

The troubling reality is that while legislators largely ignore or dance around the possibility of substantive immigration policies, horrific deaths continue on the nation's southern border. Just last week an Arizona newspaper reported the death of a mother while trying to cross the border with her ten-year-old son. This marked the second death of a woman crossing the border with her son within a one-week period. In this instance, the son was found by a Border Patrol agent who informed the agent that his mother had died.

Last week as well, the body of Maria Resendiz Perez (33) of Queretaro, Mexico was found 70 miles west of Tucson. Her body was found with four other survivors in her travel group, including her 10-year-old son. Tucson has experienced 90-plus degree temperatures in the past month, and dehydration is suspected in the death of Resendiz-Perez.

In the meantime, the Mexican Consulate reports that just in the month of July, 28 undocumented immigrants have already died, that is, an average of one person per day.

Since the start of the current fiscal year (October 1, 2006), Tucson's border patrol unit has uncovered the bodies of 116 undocumented immigrants in the Arizona desert. Several local immigrant rights groups contend, however, that 147 bodies have been recovered and that this is a more accurate figure of the deaths for the fiscal year reporting period.

"Whether it is 1 or 100, no one should die. Desperation and hope are two strong emotions that cannot be ignored. Any parent will go to great lengths to create better conditions for their children," comments Sebastian Quinac, a staff member of AFSC's Tucson office.

He concludes, "This is what both these mothers were trying to do. Enforcement will lead people to try to enter through the most dangerous desert terrain and this will surely lead to more deaths. How many more will die before legislators decide to squarely and humanely address the horrendous crisis we now face?"

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Dispatch from California: From the Grand Bargain to the Fair Bargain

"It is so hard to see what is happening to us. I feel pain for myself and for the people who work with me. I have been here for 15 years, following crops to different states. I have picked cherries, apples, pears and other fruits. When did I become a criminal? All I want to do is work."- Day Laborer, Stockton, California

The post-mortem on the failed Senate bill is nearly complete. Both political parties have blamed each other for the death of the bill, while the White House has also been accused of pushing too hard by some, and not pushing hard enough by others.

What is certain is that the current immigration system remains broken, out-dated and still in need of substantive structural repairs. What is also certain is that there are 12 million undocumented workers in the United States who will continue to live in the most difficult of conditions, without a real opportunity to adjust their immigration status, and increasingly facing inordinate anti-immigrant measures.

At a recent gathering of farm workers and day laborers in Stockton, California, a participant commented:

"If those who hate us would spend one day or at least one hour with us in the fields, picking fruits or in the factories with us, they would understand our situation and why we are here. We have always tried to do our jobs and earn enough just to support our families. Our hands, our backs and our bodies show the hard work that we have done for decades in this country."

Throughout the past year, AFSC worked with a multitude of local and national allies to change the course and context of the debate. AFSC opposed the restrictive and punitive measures of the proposed legislation, calling on Congressional leaders to design humane policies rather than succumbing to calls for harsher levels of enforcement including increased build-up of the southern border and an additional 25,000 detention beds.

Congressional leaders were unwilling to make bold and visionary policy decisions in what proved to be a difficult and not so kind debate. The backlash has begun but our work must continue. Raids and recent actions in townships and counties raise the alarm that immigrant communities will see the onslaught of heinous measures that exclude them from seeking employment, housing, health or other social services.

In this emerging panorama AFSC will steadfastly continue to provide training, educational resources and organizing tools which help immigrant communities defend their basic human rights, and in their journey for justice and equality in this nation.