Racial justice, Native rights and immigration.
President Obama speaks at Morehouse College commencement in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
First lady Michelle Obama and President Barack Obama were the respective featured commencement speakers this year at Bowie State University and Morehouse College—two historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) founded nearly 150 years ago. While the Obamas could have taken the opportunity to inspire black graduates entering an uncertain future, both chose, instead, to pepper their remarks with problematic and unobliging stereotypes about black youth. While doing so, both also conveniently neglected to call attention to the policy changes that President Obama could have enacted to help alleviate the insurmountable odds that young people of color—and blacks in particular—face in the United States.
When the first lady addressed Bowie graduates last Friday, she summoned the likes of Dr. King, Thurgood Marshall and Fredrick Douglass to help weave a brief history of the school—founded in Maryland just as the Civil War was coming to an end. And yet, as she talked about a long tradition of black students’ hunger for education, she added that about 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation and more than fifty years after Brown v. Board, “too many of young people just can’t be bothered” to pursue an education. Michelle Obama said that rather than walk miles to school everyday, black students sit “on couches for hours playing video games, watching TV.” And the stereotypes didn’t stop there. “Instead of dreaming of being a teacher or a lawyer or a business leader,” proclaimed the first lady, “they’re fantasizing about being a baller or a rapper.”
Michelle Obama’s banal descriptions come at a time when many of us are waiting with bated breath for the Supreme Court’s decision on affirmative action, which could reverse the positive—and still developing—results of Brown v. Board. Although the first lady pointed out that one in three black students drops out of high school, and that only one in five between the ages of 25 and 29 have a college degree, her remarks appear to put the onus not on a system designed to ensure black failure but on lazy individuals.
Forget that Chicago Mayor and former White House Chief of Staff under Obama, Rahm Emanuel, is backing the closing more than fifty schools, which will disproportionately affect black students—as violence rages on and is literally killing black and Latino youth. Forget the ways in which Obama has made “painful cuts” to Pell Grants—benefits available to students whose families cannot otherwise afford to pay for college (read: black, brown and Native families who have fared worse under Obama, and can never seem to catch up to the wealth that white families have secured after centuries of inequities). Michelle Obama’s remarks reserve blame not for an entire structure that betrays black students at multiple levels, but on black students themselves whom she condemns for wasting time in front of television sets. The first lady’s remarks about black youth fantasizing about “being a baller or a rapper” might cut extraordinarily deep for those youth who essentially learn literary criticism by close readings of rap lyrics. Those youth are grasping rhyme, metaphor and syntax before the concepts are even introduced in their public school. And there is innately nothing wrong with—and, in fact, much to be celebrated about—the art of hip-hop, or learning to survive as a so-called baller when other avenues have systemically been closed to you.
Perhaps more problematic were the president’s remarks to Morehouse graduates on Sunday—after all, perhaps the first lady can and should be spared the most egregious consequences of this administration’s decisions on communities of color. It will be Barack Obama, and not his better half, who will inherit the legacy of continued criminalization schemes that secure the inordinate number of blacks in jails and prisons, along with increased deportation schemes that secure a record number of immigrant removals. The outrageous bounty placed on Assata Shakur, the flawed use and defense of drone strikes that result in extrajudicial killings—these are some of the ways in which this president will inevitably be remembered.
During his address, the president, too, evoked Dr. King, Thurgood Marshall and Fredrick Douglass, and included personal observations such as the times when he used to write off his “own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down.” But that conviction was swayed after learning that “there’s no longer any room for excuses.” While Barack acknowledged the legacies of slavery and segregation, and the continued practices of racism and discrimination, he stressed the need to overcome these barriers because of an increasingly competitive global market in which “nobody is going to give [black graduates] anything that [they] have not earned.” He could have added that even earned rewards can quickly evaporate once race mediates the situation. Like his partner, the president stressed individual responsibility—dangerous and impractical guidance at a time when an undying system of white supremacy continues to dictate not only access to wealth and education, but also continues to determine matters of life and death.
Graduation is often a time for inspiration, not attacks—although that may have been lost on the first couple. Still, neither Michelle Obama nor Barack Obama could possibly fail to grasp that their words echo beyond commencement services and to audiences far and wide. In that respect, the speeches they’ve shared were written for all of us, and perhaps for black youth in especially, who are at once being bombarded with insulting stereotypes, and being blamed for a reality they haven’t constructed or can easily benefit from. As the president is being rocked by a right-wing-manufactured scandal, he might consider searching for support from the imaginative movements that helped bring him to power—movements that recognize that it’s not black people who are failing to succeed, but that a long-entrenched power structure fails to fully recognize the value of its entire people.
The Obama adminstration could take executive action to ensure better jobs for workers paid by government contracts and subsidies. Read Josh Eidelson’s report on today’s strike action.
President Obama meets with Jan Brewer in the Oval Office, June 2010. (Wikimedia Commons/CC, 2.0)
President Obama announced his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) memo late into last year’s election season, which allows certain undocumented immigrant youth to apply and obtain renewable two-year work permits. While some lawmakers responded favorably, others reacted with vitriol. In Arizona, Governor Jan Brewer made clear that DACA youth would not be eligible for driver’s licenses. A federal court has now ruled there’s no rational basis for her decision—but refused to issue an injunction as the case moved forward.
DACA isn’t all-encompassing for undocumented youth. Those who arrived in the United States before they were 16, have resided here without interruption since June 15, 2007, are in high school, have graduated or otherwise obtained an equivalent certificate of completion, or have served in the military with an honorable discharge are eligible for the program, which is administrated by the Department of Homeland Security. However, those who arrived in the United States as children but turned 31 before June 15, 2012, are not allowed to apply; the same applies for anyone who arrived in the United States after the age of 16. Those who have been convicted of felonies or even certain misdemeanors are also ineligible.
Still, nearly half a million youth have applied, and so far about 200,000 have been approved. Once DACA youth receive approval and work permits, many naturally look to obtain a driver’s license as well. Arizona Governor Brewer called the entire program a “backdoor amnesty,” while simultaneously drawing attention to the fact that because DACA doesn’t provide permanent relief, she would not allow DACA recipients to obtain Arizona driver’s licenses. DACA youth and their allies organized to challenge Brewer in federal court.
The plaintiffs demanded an injunction against what they say is Brewer’s discriminatory decision. In order to grant that, Judge David Campbell wanted attorneys to show evidence that there is irreparable damage being caused against those DACA youth who are unable to apply for licenses. In yesterday’s ruling, Judge Campbell stated that he hasn’t been persuaded that that kind of damage is being cause—but he also wasn’t convinced to throw the case out, as Arizona’s attorneys wanted. Further, he indicated that Brewer’s basis for denying driver’s licenses was simply her fundamental disagreement with Obama. The judge also chided Brewer for referring to DACA youth as “illegal people,” indicating that the plaintiffs’ broader arguments about discrimination may stand in the final ruling.
Dulce Matuz, a 28-year-old activist who’s organized against Brewer’s decision, respectfully disagreed with the judge’s ruling around irreparable damage—citing that her colleagues are being denied opportunities because they cannot obtain a license. But she’s confident that her side will emerge victorious over Brewer and her backers. “They wanted to dismiss our dreams—even our dream to have driver’s licenses,” she said. “But this lawsuit continues, and I’m confident that justice will prevail.”
The final decision on whether those driving dreams will soon become a reality will be handed down after a yet unscheduled hearing on the matter, which will likely be heard in the coming weeks.
Are millennials really lazy, tired narcissists? Read Emily Crockett’s analysis.
A man awaits deportation. (Reuters)
Congress has a long road ahead on immigration reform. The Senate Judiciary Committee has started to consider some 300 amendments challenging the nearly 900-page bill crafted by the Gang of Eight. Lawmakers are hopeful that legislation will pass both houses by the end of summer. But from now until then, the detention and deportation of undocumented immigrants may continue full force. A group of advocates is now making a renewed call on President Obama to suspend deportations of those people who would gain status in the bill’s final version later this year.
Senator Chuck Grassley filed seventy-seven amendments to the bill—more than any other legislator—amid suggestions that hundreds of amendments will make the bill insurmountable in committee. The bill already includes a potentially problematic trigger that stipulates that no undocumented immigrant will be eligible to apply for provisional status until there’s a certain measure of border security. Grassley submitted an amendment to require the southern border be secure for six months before the application process began. Senator John Cornyn argued that migrants “wearing some form of turban” were regularly crossing at the southern border—indicating not only some lawmakers’ anxiety about the presence of people of certain perceived religions and ethnicities but also the profound confusion about the kinds of people that migrate north seeking work. The amendment was ultimately defeated, but demonstrates the will on the part of some lawmakers to drag out the legalization process as long as possible.
As legislators hammer away at what the final proposal will look like, the current bipartisan bill already defines those people who will qualify to remain in the United States once a bill is signed. Advocates are now calling on Obama to issue an executive order to stop ongoing deportations of those who would be eligible under a new bill. The detention and deportation of undocumented immigrants often gets lost in numbers, rather than highlighted as individual stories—and some advocates say that’s part of the problem. Pablo Alvarado, who heads the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) says that when immigration is debated at the Capital, it gets divorced from what’s happening to communities on the ground. “Suspended deportations would ground the debate in reality,” says Alvarado.
That reality is typified by people like Carmen Yvette Martinez, who was driving with her husband Roger Tabora Martinez in Boston in February when they were pulled over. The police officer informed them that he believed there was a warrant on the car. When Carmen—who is a US citizen—tried to explain that the car was in her name and there was no warrant, the officer asked both husband and wife to show proof of identification, and began to inquire about their immigration status. Upon learning Roger was undocumented, the officer took him in to custody. Although he has a clean criminal record and helps support his wife and stepson, Roger was held in immigrant detention for nearly three months before being deported to Honduras last week because of an immigration order stemming from nearly a decade ago.
Under the bipartisan immigration proposal, Roger would be eligible to apply for relief and gain provisional status as he started his thirteen-year journey towards finally becoming a US citizen. But because Congress is taking its time to debate amendments in committee, he was deported instead. His wife, Yvette, says that she became a single mom overnight, and that both her and her son have been deeply affected by Roger’s deportation. “It doesn’t make any sense to take away a good person,” she says. “I don’t want any other family to go through what we have.”
Yvette and Roger’s story is one of twenty-five featured on a website tracking deportation cases, started just about one month ago. Fourteen cases are ongoing; seven have resulted in a stay and four have resulted in deportation. NDLON, along with the AFL-CIO, MALDEF and United We Dream, is also asking people who represent organizations invested in immigration reform to sign a petition on the site to urge Obama to suspend the deportations.
Obama met with representatives from more than a dozen progressive unions and business leaders in February, and declined a similar request to halt deportations at that time. Advocates point out that this time is different, because the bipartisan Gang of Eight has moved forward, and the move to suspend deportations would work around the current proposal. In February, Obama stated that he didn’t want to start a controversy that could derail the bill in Congress. But by his not heeding the voices of the families whose loved ones have been removed, the controversy of record high deportations continues.
Immigrant detainees are patted down at a detention center in Broadview, Illinois. (AP Photo/Brian Kersey)
As lawmakers begin to offer largely draconian amendments to the Gang of Eight’s proposed immigration reform legislation, Vice President Biden has announced that he hopes the bill will pass by the end of the summer. Because deportations haven’t been suspended, that means that some one million people may be deported between January and August of this year—the time between which the bill was introduced and may finally be endorsed by Congress. All of those deportees will first make their way through immigrant detention, where some will face death before deportation.
Arizona houses five immigrant detention centers—and illustrates the conglomeration of public and private interests that make up this detention system. Four of those centers are located in Florence, with another about a half-hour drive away in Eloy. One is run by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, another is managed in a jail by a local sheriff’s office and three are privately owned and operated by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). Because immigrant detainees are facing civil—not criminal—cases, detention centers are, by definition, not punishment. But conditions suggest that this particular type of captivity is indeed penalizing.
CCA’s Eloy Detention Center has long been under scrutiny for what human rights advocates say are conditions that lead to nearly a dozen deaths in less than a decade. Suicide is not a new phenomenon in this facility, but two recent apparent suicides in the course of just three days are once again drawing attention to Eloy. Twenty-four-year-old Elsa Guadalupe González, originally from Guatemala, had been detained at Eloy since March 20. Authorities say that on April 28, a fellow detainee found that she hanged herself. Forty-year-old Jorge Mario García Mejía, also originally from Guatemala, arrived at Eloy on March 22, and authorities said he also hanged himself, on April 30. ICE says it’s looking into the apparent suicides.
Guatemala is demanding an exhaustive investigation. Spanish language press is reporting that foreign affairs officials have stated that two people dying two days apart in apparent suicides in one detention center sounds a serious alarm. And although the US has responded that it will take the apparent suicides seriously, not everyone is convinced. One Guatemalan government official, Alejandra Gordillo, says that she’s worried that the deaths won’t be investigated, and that what may appear to be two suicides may in fact be “racist acts against Guatemalan migrants.” But whether the deaths are the result of coincidental suicides or something more sinister is unclear, since Eloy operates without independent supervision and federal authorities have not been very forthcoming about previous dubious deaths at the center.
Two of the eight authors of the Senate’s immigration bill hail from Arizona—where, aside from targeting immigrants through the use of racial profiling, the hodgepodge system of detention puts people’s lives in jeopardy at an unnecessarily high cost. Detention Watch is calling for Senators McCain and Flake to shut down Eloy and release detainees before more tragedy strikes.
A shot from inside La Ruta. (Credit: Lia Chang)
I got lost outside of New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine this past weekend, eager to attend The Working Theater’s La Ruta—a play created in collaboration with the Magnum Foundation that dramatizes the plight of border crossers and their smugglers on a cargo truck headed from Mexico to the United States. Laminated signs outside the church pointed to a dimly lit driveway, where a woman pointed a flashlight on me, making it impossible for me to see ahead. Audience members were crammed into a tent where Raula, a smuggler played by Sheila Tapia, quickly unsettles whatever comfort you might find. Raula previews some of the potential dangers as the audience learns that we, too, are migrants on this road—but reminds us that everything on this trip happens on a need to know basis.
The audience is then rushed over to a large white truck, boarding through a side door while Raula barks orders. Any hesitation is corrected—while taking seats on cardboard boxes, I switched with someone while Raula immediately shouted, “What is this? Musical chairs? Figure it out already!” If it wasn’t already clear a few minutes into the performance, feeling disoriented and ill-at-ease about what’s happening is exactly the point.
As lawmakers prepare to mark up the massive comprehensive immigration bill in a little less than two weeks, everyone seems to be talking about immigration, or at least have an opinion about it. While some have been thoughtful in their approach, others have indicated how little they know about what it might mean to cross the border.
At last week’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Arizona’s Jeff Flake joked about a woman he saw being apprehended as she attempted to cross the southern border during a recent trip with some of the Gang of Eight lawmakers authoring the comprehensive immigration bill. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano laughed—but the bad joke didn’t end there. New York’s Chuck Schumer revived it during a breakfast conference about the bill, recalling that “The lady that we saw at the border heard my New York accent, thought she was already in New York.” If the bill’s leading Democrat can trivialize something as harrowing as crossing the border, and demean a migrant’s ability to distinguish a place like the desert from a skyscraper city into a crude joke, it might mean that the public has a long way to go in understanding how and why people cross.
La Ruta has created a space in which to do that. Thirty audience members pack into the truck, while three more—who we soon learn are actors—enter through the back, to find another migrant who’s already asleep on board. For the next hour or so, we learn a little about them and their motivations. They’re not all immediately the most sympathetic characters. We find out, for instance, that Francisco, played by Gerardo Rodriguez, is technically a gang member from El Salvador—the kind of person that the current immigration bill would make immediately deportable. But La Ruta illustrates that Francisco has a story that also needs to be heard. Like everyone else on board, he’s a human being first and foremost. And this is the story about everyone on a truck trying to get to the United States by the Fourth of July.
As time progresses, so does the audience’s sense of anxiety. Some try to prop themselves up and stretch their arms and legs. Others remove scarves and jackets as the temperature heats up in the back of the truck. Others still stand up at some points, trying to relieve a sense of desperation, coupled with claustrophobia. La Ruta works because of its creative staging and superb acting—and it succeeds because it makes the audience physically uncomfortable and mentally estranged from a topic we all think we know something about. It reminds the audience that their silence around immigration might make them complicit in an unjust system. Even as we quickly learn to despise the smugglers and their co-conspirators, we remember that there are policies behind these stories that often mark the difference between life and death.
Those of us who are lucky enough to make it out of the cargo truck alive are somberly given blue passports that explain the ins and outs of the immigration debate, which include campaigns and resources to plug into. Audience members, many visibly shaken from the play, wander out to an interactive exhibit. Schumer’s disposable “lady at the border” becomes a person with a story on La Ruta—and the audience might walk away knowing a little more about the basic humanity of migrants than the senators who sometimes make a living belittling them.
La Ruta is showing in two more New York boroughs through May 12. Tickets are $23, $25.
Immigrant rights advocates are leading this year’s May Day charge—under the FBI’s watch. Read Allison Kilkenny’s analysis.
A protest in Maricopa County against racial profiling and immigrant crackdowns. (Reuters/Joshua Lott)
Three days of the Senate’s judiciary hearing on proposed immigration legislation were dominated by questions over the Boston bombing. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano testified on Tuesday, and Senator Chuck wasted no time in his opening remarks and subsequent questioning to tie the hearing to the bombing. The topic is an unfortunate distraction that doesn’t reflect the reality of the estimated 11 million that could attain some form of status through the bill.
During Tuesday’s hearing, Senator Grassley inquired, “with regard to the Saudi student, was he on a watch list, and if so, how did he obtain a student visa?” Grassley was referring to the 22-year-old Abdulrahman al-Harbi, who was injured during last week’s blast during the Boston marathon, ran away from the explosions—as did most bystanders, fearing for their safety—and was then hunted and then tackled down by a mob before being turned over to the police. Police then handed al-Harbi over to federal authorities, who interrogated him and searched his apartment before determining he wasn’t involved. Napolitano answered that al-Harbi simply “was in the wrong place at the wrong time.” What she neglected to mention was that the young man was guilty of being Saudi while injured, and that his appearance was what deemed him suspicious.
Grassley’s questions about al-Harbi were unnecessary in connection to the immigration bill, as were other questions about the alleged Boston brothers. The Tsarnaev brothers arrived to the US as refugees. The older Tamerlan obtained a green card, and the younger Dzhokhar is a naturalized citizen. Proposed immigration legislation is meant to address the status of some 11 million people—most of whom did not enter as refugees from war. Yet three days of hearings often focused on the Tsarnaevs and the Boston bombings.
Tuesday’s hearing, however, held certain decorum that Monday’s hearing lacked. Mark Krikorian, who heads the nativist Center for Immigration Studies, wondered what Boston “says about our broken patriotic assimilation system,” only after a long diatribe in which he awkwardly accused Senator Chuck Schumer of taking Krikorian’s “name in vain.” Soon after, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who’s the intellectual author behind anti-immigrant legislation across the country, almost immediately testified that “an alien who has a terrorist background can call himself ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ without having to prove that that is his real name.’ ” Kobach, who used the hearing to press that a path to legalization will only make the country less secure, invoked a logic that’s informed much of his voter suppression work throughout the states.
The hearings have centered on security, with many lawmakers and witnesses suggesting that regularizing the status of the nation’s undocumented immigrants would place the United States in harm’s way. Yet undocumented immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than their native-born counterparts—notwithstanding a criminal justice system that racially profiles and targets perceived immigrants. During three days of hearings, only one undocumented immigrant, United We Dream’s Gaby Pacheco, bravely testified about her reality, and why she decided to walk from Miami to DC three years ago for immigration reform. Pacheco was only one of more than two dozen witnesses who spoke from her actual experience; while many pro-immigrant advocates also testified, several others provided misguided and distracting testimony.
There’s a fear that the immigration bill will not only be more conservatively amended, but that it may even be scrapped because of the Boston bombings. The concentration on one incident last week, over the status of million people who want to come out of the shadows, couldn’t come at a worse time.
What happened last week? Read Richard Kim’s take in this week’s issue of The Nation.
Last Tuesday, I was looking forward to a lecture at Riverside Church featuring Sohail Daulatzai on black, Muslim, South Asian, Latino and Third World international movements. Daulatzai teaches at UC Irvine, and his new book, Black Star, Crescent Moon: The Muslim International and Black Freedom Beyond America, frames the black freedom movement in an international context, deeply linked with what he terms the Muslim Third World. The Boston bombing had happened the day previously, and by Tuesday, the media were spinning in high gear and demonizing Muslims—and I could think of no better time to hear Daulatzai respond to the moment with a historical analysis. But regrettably, the event was postponed to quell any potential backlash. Since I couldn’t hear Daulatzai speak, I decided to engage him in a conversation that might help us understand why it’s critical for people of color to remain vigilant of all that’s transpired the past week.
Aura Bogado: First of all, I wanted to talk to you about the postponement of Tuesday’s event. It’s not at all isolated; I suspect we’ll start to hear more about the ways in which Muslims have had to take cover, and even think twice about attending prayer service, for example. Can you talk about the climate that essentially demands that some of us modify our behavior—which is really another way of demanding we modify our politics?
Sohail Daulatzai: The postponement of Tuesday’s event here in New York was deeply unfortunate, but it reflects how for many of us, for Muslims, immigrants, black folk, communities of color doing grassroots work and trying to make global connections, the pressures that we’ve been feeling have been very real, and they serve to silence debate. Just at the moment when we need to be having these conversations, we’re silenced once again, whether it’s those doing work in the mainstream, or others doing more critical work. It’s deeply disturbing, but unfortunately it’s not new, because the root sources of violence endure.
How do think that this will play out for communities of color in the short run and in the long run?
For communities of color, in terms of how we imagine ourselves, I think some of us fail to see ourselves in relationship to racist state practices. For many communities of color in the mainstream, in the left-of-center and even also in the far-left, we can’t pretend to be immune to these racist state practices, and think that by buying into the logic of “antiterrorism” or “anticrime,” that we’re part of the solution. We can’t fool ourselves, because by doing that we become part of the problem, and ultimately mouthpieces and ventriloquists for white supremacy, imperial war and the crackdown on communities of color.
I feel like there’s a fundamental misunderstanding about race at this point—race as a social construct, and the way that Muslims have been assigned this new racial category. It’s certainly been easier to spot in the media this past week, but how has it existed in everyday life before the Boston bombings?
This anxiety over the presence of Islam or Muslims in the West goes back centuries; it’s nothing new. Just think about Edward Said’s book Orientalism. The modern concept of race emerges out of the expulsion of Moors from Spain in 1492, when whiteness and Christianity were defined in opposition to the Moor. So this anxiety here in the West around Islam and Muslims is not new—it’s been present, and it endures.
Specific to how the United States understands race, the Muslim has almost become a racial category unto itself, and you can see that with the Boston bombings. For these white immigrants coming from Eastern Europe, the narrative around them is that they didn’t assimilate, as they would expect all white immigrants to do, and the reason why is because they were Muslim. In other words, being Muslim excludes one from whiteness, trumps all other categories of difference and marks one as a fundamental threat to humanity. So it’s no surprise that he hasn’t been Mirandized and that many are pushing for him to be tried as an “enemy combatant” and subject to more draconian legal frameworks.
This is part and parcel of a whole way of thinking particularly after 9/11, when the fear of the Muslim was reinvigorated. Being Muslim became not only a way of defining those who are from the so-called Muslim world, or who practice, or who are believers, but also those who even look the part. So you have Sikhs who were attacked in their temple in Wisconsin. You have other non-Muslim South Asians and Arabs who have been attacked. You even have Latinos who potentially look the part and have come under further suspicion. You have Texas Representative Louie Gohmert arguing that “radical Islamists,” as he called them, are crossing through the US-Mexico border and “trained to act Hispanic.” So you can see how the figure of the Muslim and “terrorism” has been expanded to include any threat to the state, as the ruling paradigm of security now dominates US statecraft.
There’s a history here that your last book focuses on, in terms of solidarity politics, and the narrative of assimilation, right?
Absolutely. As I mentioned, this fear of Islam and Muslims goes back centuries. But more recently in the US, for me, it emerges out of the presence of a figure like Malcolm X. As I talk about in my book, a Pew poll conducted in August 2010, two years after he was first elected, found that 61 percent of Americans thought Obama was Muslim or that he might be. And for me, this was indicative of a national anxiety over the legacy of Malcolm, the relationship between blackness and Islam, and black internationalism. As my book illustrates, there is a deep influence of Islam and also the politics of the Muslim Third World in shaping black politics and culture. It helped black communities to define themselves not as national minorities, but as part of a global majority as they struggled against white supremacy, and US militarism. The relationship and solidarity between blackness and the Muslim Third World here is deep, and I reveal this prehistory to 9/11. Unlike how it’s presented today, Islam and the Muslim Third World have been a vital part of social justice movements in this country historically, and that’s what I try to recover in my book.
I think that a lot of us have largely been at a point of paralysis for a good part of the last week, of debilitated action against really clear Islamophobia in both mass media and social media. So what’s next? How do move forward, out of that fear and towards decisive solidarity?
For me, I think there’s a lot of work that needs to be done on multiple fronts, and I think it starts with understanding the root of the problem, and not dealing with its symptoms. I’m really wary of normalizing this idea of terrorism, because I think that becomes a dangerous thing. But that’s been the typical response that many have had to what happened in Boston and other incidents, which is “don’t judge all Muslims by the actions of a few radicals.” What this really does is names something as terrorism, and when you can name something as terrorism, what it ultimately does is sanctions the state to crack down and to narrow the scope of dissent, to violate civil liberties, to torture, to detain, to deport, to invade, to bomb, to kill and to do a whole host of things because there’s a thing called terrorism that everyone accepts as threatening.
But also, by normalizing this thing as terrorism, it creates these divides between good Muslims and bad Muslims, citizens and terrorists. And because white supremacy doesn’t deal with communities of color as individuals, once we claim that not all Muslims are terrorists—only a few are—we’ve just opened the floodgates for the state to be suspicious of, and profile, an entire group of people. And so we ultimately reinvigorate the very forces that we think we’re challenging. We see the poverty in this thinking when the perpetrator is white, for example, like Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma, or Adam Lanza in Connecticut, or Wade Michael Page, who attacked the Gurdwara in Wisconsin. The responses varied, but many Muslims and their allies came out and said, “See? They’re terrorists too!” But this not only misses the point, it creates a false equivalence, because when the attacker is white, white folks in general aren’t profiled, their countries of origin aren’t bombed or invaded, their suburbs or rural areas—as Tim Wise argued—aren’t bombed and overtaken. They’re dealt with as troubled individuals, exceptions to a white norm.
So we have to be aware of these forces, and recognize that in taking this limited approach we’re actually complicit in the very process that we think we’re challenging. And in creating that awareness, we need to understand the roots of violence. This is what many, including Malcolm X, Angela Davis and Dr. King late in his life have borne witness to, as they understood that the systemic sources of violence are white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy and empire. If this recognition doesn’t happen, the country will continue to deal with the symptoms and not the problem, like a dog chasing its own tail.
The fight starts now to ensure next year’s Boston Marathon isn’t a nightmare for civil liberties. Read Dave Zirin’s take.
Senator Marco Rubio speaks on a bipartisan agreement on the principles of legislation to rewrite the nation's immigration laws. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
There could be a lot to celebrate about the Senate’s new comprehensive immigration reform bill. There’s a lot to already be cautions about as well—especially since lawmakers have already indicated they’ll want additional hearings and expect amendments that will likely make the bill more draconian. But what we do know is that nearly any move forward on regularizing status for most currently undocumented immigrants hinges on border security.
The 844-page bill is a lot to get through. Prerna Lal has outlined some valuable points on the bill’s good, bad and ugly provisions for undocumented immigrants. Of note, she refers to “RPI,” the new Registered Provision Immigrant status defined in the bill—a sort of second-class non-citizens status.
Most undocumented immigrants that can demonstrate their presence in the US before December 31, 2011, will qualify for RPI if they can also demonstrate a clean criminal record and pay a $500 fine and back taxes. That alone can sound an alarm for essential, low-wage workers who may find it difficult to come up with such funds. Those immigrants able to do so will then be authorized to live and work in the US, and even travel outside the country. An additional $500 fine will apply after six years. After ten years, RPI status immigrants will finally be able to apply for legal permanent residency—but only if they can speak English and pay an additional $1,000 fine. That residency status can eventually be turned into citizenship after three years.
In sum, the pathway to citizenship for many undocumented immigrant is, at minimum, a $2,000, thirteen-year process—although it’s accelerated for students and agricultural workers. As Seth Freed Wessler points out at Colorlines.com, the bill also expands criminalization and shuts out LGBT couples, but will allow for reunification for those families who have been torn apart by deportation. All in all, there’s a growing consensus that this is a very mixed bill.
But what’s most troubling about it is that RPI status is contingent on border security triggers. As we’ve illustrated in the past, net migration on the southern border is at zero. Yet the bill would establish a new Southern Border Security Commission, and RPI applications will not be considered until the implantation of what’s called the Southern Border Security Strategy and the Southern Border Fencing Strategy. The border security strategy will greatly expand surveillance on the US-Mexico border, especially through the use of drones, which will patrol the border “24 hours per day and 7 days per week.” Legal permanent residency and eventual citizenship would be conditional on these expanded border security triggers—which are complex and difficult to measure.
As it stands now, the bill reads more like massive border security measures than anything else—because before anyone’s status is examined for adjustment, the federal government will begin to pour in billions of dollars for drones, reinforced border patrols and extended fencing at the southern border. These measures are being pushed at time when net migration is at zero, and after Obama has created legacy of mass deportations. As Congress hammers through the bill, it’s not unlikely that border security measures will gain even more ground.
Young people were among the thousands who marched on DC last week for comprehensive immigration reform. Read more in this week's Dispatches From the US Student Movement.
When I spoke with Claudia Muñoz two weeks ago, she said she was tired of fearing the moment when authorities might arbitrarily place her in detention. Because she arrived in Texas from Mexico at the age of 16, the 27-year-old is ineligible for Obama’s deferred action for students—and that means it might be easier for her to be deported. So Muñoz decided to take the matter into her own hands, and infiltrate a detention facility. “I’m the one who’s going to determine the moment when I’m detained, and the moment when I’m released,” she said.
Muñoz was apprehended a week-and-a-half ago by customs agents near the US-Canada border, and has been working to document the stories of immigrant women housed at the Calhoun County Correctional Facility near Detroit, Michigan. She works with the National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA), which has infiltrated detention centers in the past with the aim of organizing with detainees on the inside. The facility holds just thirteen undocumented women—among non-immigrant inmates held for more serious charges.
Since her detention, Muñoz has managed to call me collect several times to explain what she’s found. Each of those collect calls costs $9.99—paid to a private contractor that specializes in jailhouse communications services—and ends at exactly five minutes, with several precious seconds lost in the one-minute warning message. Muñoz says she was prepared for the rather deplorable conditions: it’s often cold, and the food is often inedible, so inmates and detainees go hungry.
What she didn’t expect were the daily lockdowns. Two or three times daily, immigrant detainees and inmates accused of varying crimes are locked into cells for a few hours at a time. Early on, Muñoz says her cellmate explained the solicitation charges she was facing, and asked her why she was in. When Muñoz told her it was because she didn’t have papers, her cellmate didn’t seem to get it. “But what did you do?” she questioned. Muñoz says she had to explain that simply being undocumented has landed her in jail.
Since her arrival at Calhoun, she’s been in contact with NIYA, which last week highlighted the imminent removal of Everlida Calvo Sanchez—a woman who is the primary caretaker of three children who feared being deported to Guatemala, where her own sister was murdered just two years ago. Although she was set to be deported last Friday, immigration authorities opted to allow her stay after a barrage of phone calls and petition emails demanded a halt to her deportation.
Now, NIYA is focused on more cases. Wanda Rivas Rivas was detained after a traffic stop for a broken taillight revealed she had an expired driver’s license. Rivas does have an old deportation order, but fears returning to El Salvador because of extreme violence there. Members of her entire family in the US have temporary protected status to shield them from such a circumstance.
Muñoz met Gustavo Vargas when she was first detained, and although the two are now housed in a separate facility, NIYA is brining attention to his case. Vargas, a local entrepreneur and the father to four US citizen children, was deported more than a dozen years ago but returned in order to take care of his family. The group hopes that phone calls and petition emails will make immigration authorities reconsider all of these cases.
Muñoz has had little face-to-face contact with the outside world—undocumented immigrants are not allowed to visit her in jail. But a visit from Steve Pavey changed that last week. Pavey, an applied anthropologist who works with the One Horizon Institute, become involved with undocumented youth in 2010 during a bus ride with some seventy undocumented youth from Kentucky to Washington, DC.
Pavey says he was surprised when he saw the jail—which he says looks more like a corporate business office complex than anything else. Once inside, Pavey and Muñoz shared horrific stories about women in detention. At Calhoun, nine of the thirteen women there have children under the age of ten at home. But Pavey says that what might seem like the last stop before deportation has changed with Muñoz’s presence. After Calvo Sanchez was released last week, women began to have hope about making their stories public. “Claudia Muñoz has come in on her own will, in one sense,” explains Pavey. “And that’s shining hope for other women in that space in the midst of the awful despair of family separation.”
Activists are now calling for an immediate investigation into Michigan Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Field Director Rebecca Adducci, and corrections officer J. Jolin, who acts as an ICE liaison. They say Adducci has willfully ignored federal directives to release those detainees with low-priority cases. Jolin, meanwhile, is a local deputy who Muñoz says has verbally harassed detainees—including threatening long prison sentences for those who don’t sign voluntary departure agreements. Jolin is also married to the federal deportation officer in charge at the jail, which may signal a conflict of interest.
Despite the conditions as she approaches two weeks into her detention, Muñoz says she’s doing fine, and it’s the other women and men being unfairly held that worry her the most.
After SB 1070, Arizona is on the offensive again—this time against students. Read Maxwell Love's analysis.
Spoiler alert: Do yourself a favor and watch La Santa Cecilia’s new video before you read any further.
Done wiping that tear from your eye now? All right. We’re good to go.
When the band La Santa Cecilia and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network approached filmmaker Alex Rivera to create a new music video a few months ago, he jumped at the chance. “El Hielo” translates to “The Ice” in English—and references the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, also known as ICE, and its actions that split families apart.
Rivera, whose brilliant sci-fi 2008 film Sleep Dealer imagines a future United States that relies on migrant labor without the migrants, says that he’s always been aware of the potential and promise of creating documentaries—but that documentary work inevitably creates a power dynamic, since subjects are being examined by a filmmaker from a distance. “But working collaboratively and collectively with a group of people to tell a story can change those dynamics a bit,” explains Rivera.
Aside from featuring people who live through the horrors of an immigration system that pivots on instilling fear, Rivera also took the unusual step of choosing to humanize an ICE agent in the video. “ICE agents are not phantoms—they’re making decisions, and they’re complicit in a violent system,” says Rivera. He wants to challenge the viewer to accept that some people who work to support their families make a living by splitting other families apart. “It’s provocative to highlight their humanity,” adds Rivera. “It tears apart at the heart in a way that demonization and characterization never can.”
If you’re a frequent reader here, you might already be familiar with the stories behind some of the actors featured in the video. Isaac Barrera, who surprises us when we learn he plays ICE agent, worked with the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, and was the first person to infiltrate an ICE detention center in order to organize from the inside in 2011. He now works with the Los Angeles Immigrant Youth Coalition, which organizes undocumented immigrants, and works to put an end to deportations. Erika Andiola, who plays the restaurant worker caught in the raid, is a well-known immigration activist from Arizona. Her mother in real life, Maria Arreola, was nearly deported less than three months ago. In the music video, Arreola herself is left behind, breaking down as she watches a raid on television.
If living through the reality of raids and detention is difficult, it can also be a challenge to blur that line and depict it with cameras rolling. “It was really hard to do it, to reenact what I went through in real life,” says Andiola, whose mother is now under an order of supervision that allows her to remain in the US for another year. Andiola says that although she knew what was happening for the cameras was fiction, the shoot was fraught with emotions. “There’s that scene at the end where my mom is crying,” she remembers. “Well, she was crying for real.”
Pepe Carlos is a founding member of La Santa Cecilia, and his undocumented status has meant his band mates have had to literary take longer routes on tours, avoiding immigration checkpoints. “It took us an extra day of driving to get to Texas, but I’m so grateful that I have band member who are like family to me. They never gave up on my dream,” says Carlos. When La Santa Cecilia traveled to tour in Mexico, Carlos had to stay behind, because his status bars him from visiting the country of his birth.
Carlos says La Santa Cecilia wrote El Hielo in order to humanize the problem that’s affecting the immigrant community in the US, and usually understood in numbers. In Spanish, the lyrics tell the stories of three undocumented immigrants—a domestic worker, a gardener and a student. Part of the chorus reminds listeners, “ICE is loose in the streets, we never know when it will be our turn.” Carlos says that he and his family have lived with the constant fear of being detained and deported at any time, and he hopes the song and video will inspire people to declare their undocumented status and stop living with that fear.
Of course, this isn’t the first time that a director has opted to use everyday people acting out their reality. When Salt of the Earth was produced 60 years ago, most of the actors in that film—which remains the only film to ever be blacklisted—were striking miners and their family members, who lived out the risks of mining and striking against intimidating bosses in a company town. Rosaura Revueltas, who played the lead, was deported to Mexico before the film was completed.
As we learn at the end of Rivera’s video, Isaac Barrera and Maria Arreola are already in deportation proceedings. They put a face on the more than one million people who have been deported under Obama’s tenure. As we await a comprehensive immigration reform bill that will likely be unveiled sometime this week, NDLON is asking that Not One More person be deported under an unjust immigration system that easily forgets that these are human beings.
High schoolers, welfare applicants and the unemployed are a well of profit for the drug-testing industry. Read Isabel Macdonald's story in the April 22 issue of The Nation.