Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Friendship Park Featured in NYT

A recent New York Times article focuses on the new fencing plans to divide Friendship Park in California. Representative Bob Filner (D-CA) has urged the Department of Homeland Security not to build the fencing in the park, the Times reports. "It’s harmful to the kind of family culture we have at the border," said Rep. Filner.

"We have a friendly country at the border. We have family ties across the border. It is one place, certainly in San Diego, where we talk about friendship at the border,” Filner said.

Please join us in reaffirming the park's mission and calling for a more sensible and humane immigration policy. Contact your Congressperson today. Urge them to "Save Friendship Park."

Thank you for your adding your voice of support for the public park and the basic rights and dignity of all.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Bringing Peace Home

When AFSC staff members in Dayton, Ohio found that their next door neighbors needed help they responded immediately. Who were their neighbors? A family originally from Burundi forced to flee their home due to conflict. This month's issue of Quaker Action focuses on AFSC's work to advocate for the rights of African refugees and bring a community together in difficult times.

Photo Credit: Kinyanjui Migwe (Community Festival for refugee families on World Refugee Day)

AFSC responds to a refugee resettlement crisis in Dayton, Ohio

by Karen Light

This past January, rumors were circulating that the boarded-up house adjacent to the AFSC-Dayton office was being occupied by immigrants. Staff, however, saw no signs of life until the beginning of spring when Migwe Kimemia, the Peace & Immigration Program Director, spotted children playing outside.

Migwe spoke with them in Swahili and learned that the rumors were true: a family of African refugees, including nine children, was, in fact, living there. The stove was broken and there was a gas leak. They were in this dangerous situation because they felt powerless and didn’t know their rights.

“It was shocking for me to discover that a government-funded refugee resettlement program can debase human rights and dignity before my own eyes!” Migwe says.

Grim circumstances

As Migwe learned more, he came to realize that this was a widespread problem. Prior to being resettled, many of these African refugees, originally from Burundi, had been raising families and growing up in Tanzanian refugee camps since 1972 where they had no access to basic education. They were then moved to Dayton where they were supposed to secure work and enroll their children in English-speaking schools upon arrival. Hundreds of other refugees from Liberia, Rwanda, and Sudan had already been resettled in Dayton by the same U.S. resettlement program.

Under the U.S. refugee resettlement policy, refugees have a mere eight months to become self-sufficient, after which all aid is withdrawn. With no skills and little guidance on how to navigate the system, these refugees find themselves dropping out of school, in homeless shelters, or under the grip of slum landlords, jobless, destitute, scared, and isolated.

AFSC-Dayton is working to change this by connecting the refugees with one another and helping them create a community.

> Read the full article in Quaker Action.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

What Financial Crisis? Not at the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration Unit

FY ’09 budget showers more funds to support an antiquated system

No deals, austerity, belt-tightening and accountability have been some of the words heard in the Congressional corridors and the White House as national leaders hear from their frustrated constituents. In the case of the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) unit, public spending doesn't appear to be a concern.

In fact, this past Tuesday Congress passed a Continuing Resolution which while keeping other government agencies in operation -- at least through March 6th -- provides the Department of Homeland Security a $39.98 billion budget for the 2009 fiscal year.

A cursory review of the Department's budget shows expenditures that continue the White House's relentless campaign of sweeping raids, detentions and deportations. The slowdown in the nation’s construction industry has had no impact on DHS. Indeed, DHS will continue its southern border buildup by constructing fences, adding personnel and the ongoing makeover of the Mexico-U.S. border into a militarized and hostile spread of land.

Moreover, in an attempt to respond to news reports, media coverage and a public outcry about the treatment and deaths of detainees while held in ICE custody, a small sliver of the bill places contractors squarely responsible if they fail to comply with the Department’s "detention standards." In this case, contractors may have their contracts canceled. Monitoring of the medical care of detainees will also be done by independent experts.

Detain and deport, a band-aid solution that won’t work

Yet, there is little – if any – interest in the promotion of fundamental policy shifts or in addressing the geopolitical and economic realities that propel a steady stream of immigration to the United States. A summary review of the DHS FY ’09 budget indicates:

  • 4,361 new hires at Customs and Border Protection
  • $775 million for border fencing
  • An increase in the ICE budget to nearly $5 billion (this is an increase of $254 million)
  • An additional 1400 detention beds

"This budget does not address the existing backlog of applicants, efforts to integrate immigrants or defend the labor rights of exploited and abused immigrant workers, instead it further criminalizes workers," concludes Gabriel Camacho, AFSC regional organizer in Boston. He has been working with communities throughout Massachusetts to train community members in what to do in case of a raid, and how to protect their constitutional and human rights.

Amy Gottlieb, director of AFSC’s Immigrant Rights Program (Newark, NJ) comments, “This windfall for the Department of Homeland Security allows ICE to send fugitive teams into immigrant neighborhoods and worksites, creating havoc in entire communities that are already living on the edge, feel the daily tension and where residents are fearful of even walking out their front door. These are communities in which children ask their parents, ‘Are we next?’ What can a parent say to a child? We don't need increased force and might."

Funds also will be used to support enforcement-only programs. Specifically, states will be provided funds for the implementation of the Real ID Act ($50 million), and the participation of local and state police in the 287(g) program ($5.4 million). Public dollars to the tune of $2.4 billion will go to the Office of Detention and Removal and the short-term approval of $100 million for the E-verify program. The E-verify program targets employers and requires them to ‘verify’ the employment documentation of their workers.

However, research has shown that the E-verify system is terribly flawed and inaccurate, and has also led to other problems, including the racial profiling of workers and other reported abuses. "Warehousing people in detention centers may be profitable for private industries but it also separates family members, disrupts the quality of life of entire communities, and the social fabric that imbues economic vitality. An outdated system requires fair and humane policy remedies, and taking corrective measures to address what is now obviously not working," concurs Gottlieb.

Spirit of Hope prevails despite spending spree and election year dance

Once again the opportunity to move toward substantive and humane immigration polices has been thwarted. It will take forceful public pressure for legislators to continue the public policy discussion, and to engage in a bipartisan effort that brings the present immigration system into the 21st century.

In spite of this climate, community-based organizations, nonprofits, non-governmental organizations, faith institutions, labor, neighborhood clubs and mutual aid societies, and grassroots leaders continue their work of supporting and training immigrant and refugee communities on constitutional rights, due process and civil liberties. Actions range from visits, calls and letters to legislators, to support and emergency assistance to families who have been impacted by raids, detention or the deportation of loved ones. In addition, several national organizations have undertaken public education campaigns to increase public awareness and challenge the anti-immigrant climate, and to mobilize for long-term, constructive and fair immigration policies.

Alice Perry, AFSC staff member in Portland, Oregon opines, “Our communities are not going to give up. Many of these men and women have sacrificed their lives to be here, to work here, to rear their children here, and to contribute what they can in their new country, now their new home. They are parents, neighbors, homeowners, taxpayers, and more. Their deep-rooted sense of justice and relentless hope continues to prevail over the hatred and disparagement they have experienced. AFSC's role is to affirm this spirit, promote dialogue, support family members and encourage humane changes to obsolete laws that no longer make sense and are impractical."

Friday, October 03, 2008

Extension of Benefits a Temporary Lifeline for Refugees

After years of public advocacy and testimonies, letter writing campaigns, and visits to elected officials, "refugees and other humanitarian immigrants" will now be able to receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits for at least two additional years.

The SSI Extension for Elderly and Disabled Refugees Act is effective October 1, 2008 and impacts humanitarian immigrants, refugees and others whose SSI was cut off or who were denied SSI due to the expiration of the allotted time period. Moreover, the law provides for a third year of benefits for humanitarian immigrants who have a naturalization application pending at the end of the two-year extension.

Humanitarian refugees include refugees, asylees, persons granted withholding of deportation or removal, Cuban and Haitian Entrants, Amerasians, and victims of trafficking in persons; they are one of the few groups eligible to receive SSI.

Ruben Chandrasekar, AFSC's Project Voice regional organizer in Baltimore shares, "I am particularly happy for the refugee families we have been supporting for the past years who had their SSI terminated but who never stopped struggling for a fair change and process.

One family member was also part of a class action that secured some relief for a group of humanitarian immigrants who were cut off from SSI while waiting for their citizenship applications to be processed. He was affected by the 7-year time limit but last year testified in DC – along with other AFSC Project Voice constituents. I had the good fortune of speaking with the family today.
They are quite happy that they will be able to avail themselves of SSI benefits which will help improve their quality of life as they settle into their new country. They are ready to continue advocacy efforts so that time limits for receiving SSI for humanitarian immigrants and refugees are eliminated."
Under a sunset provision in the new law the extensions of SSI eligibility expire in 2011. SSI is often the primary source of income for poor and low-income seniors and persons with disabilities. Congress placed time limits as an incentive to encourage humanitarian immigrants to move quickly and seek naturalization; however, the naturalization application process has experienced troubling delays and lengthy waits (years) for lawful permanent residency -- the prerequisite for the submission of a naturalization/citizenship application.

Still, advocacy groups continue to press for flexibility and consideration of extenuating factors. In a recent commentary, the National Immigration Law Center (NILC) noted, "While the new law will help many very vulnerable immigrants, advocates will continue to seek legislation that repeals the time limits altogether. Naturalization is unattainable for persons who cannot pass the citizenship test because of their age, disability or other factors. The United States has invited refugees to come, and has offered safe haven to other humanitarian immigrants. Our laws do not force indigent seniors or persons with disabilities who are citizens into destitution at the end of an arbitrary time period."

Individuals who have lost their SSI benefits due to the imposed time limits should contact the Social Security Administration beginning October 10, 2008 as they are still establishing policy guidelines for implementing the new law. Requests to extend SSI benefits can be facilitated by visiting the local SSA office or by calling 1-800-772-1213.

> Click here for a fact sheet on the SSI Extension (NILC).

AFSC will continue to work with partners in the nation's refugee community and urge legislators to rescind the current time limits and to keep in mind age, disability, the mental health and environmental factors that have impacted refugees in their journey for a safe haven and a new home.