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Hate Campaigns Can’t Block Overdue Steps Toward Fair Treatment of Immigrants

Resource type: News

Gara LaMarche |

Barack Obama’s campaign gave hope to millions of immigrants and their leading advocates. Atlantic has been proud to support and stand with these groups in the long campaign for comprehensive immigration reform. But that hope has been strained of late, and it is time to raise our voices more insistently.

The President has made repeated assurances that comprehensive immigration reform – including a path to citizenship for the 12 million undocumented workers – remains an administration priority and we have taken him at his word. Few have been inclined to fault him for dealing first with other urgent and hotly contested priorities, like health care, financial reform and energy policy. The Administration’s welcome leadership earlier this year secured the addition of coverage for legal immigrant children in the Children’s Health Insurance Plan legislation, so there was early cause for optimism that change was indeed coming.

But that optimism has given way to some anxiety as some concessions have been made in crafting landmark health care legislation that capitulate to the myths perpetuated by xenophobic zealots, and as many immigration enforcement practices have continued, despite the change in administrations, that have torn families apart, terrorised communities and caused breakdowns in relations between the most disenfranchised communities and law enforcement.

The Yale Daily News just this week ran a two-part series about the raid that took place in New Haven as part of Operation Return to Sender – a series of raids in 2006 and 2007 that resulted in the arrest of more than 23,000 immigrants in San Francisco, Miami, Boston and other cities. Unlike the raids in other cities, New Haven law enforcement agents violated constitutional protections against search and seizure when they went into people’s homes and dragged them away. People were terrorised and mistreated and parents were separated from their children. To read the deeply moving articles, click here and here.

While the Obama Administration has put a stop to high-profile military style workplace raids, not enough has been done by the Administration to stem other abuses. In some cases, unacceptable activities have actually increased.

For instance, local law enforcement agents and agencies have been authorised to co-ordinate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), leading to racial profiling and unfair treatment of citizens and legal immigrants, as well as undocumented immigrants. Frequently immigrants have been stopped or detained by local law enforcement agencies on account of their appearance or accent, and in numerous cases citizens and legal immigrants have been wrongfully detained. The Obama Administration’s affirmation of these agreements, in the face of extensive documentation and media reports of extraordinary abuses by local law enforcement, is unacceptable. But it doesn’t stop there.

There are a number of reports of improper conditions, lack of medical access and mistreatment of people being held in detention facilities. In August 2009, the ACLU announced that federal authorities have admitted 104 deaths of detainees since 2003, and there have been even more deaths that have gone unreported.

In the workplace, two enforcement activities have resulted in a significant number of job losses for both authorised and unauthorised workers. There has been an increase in the number of federal audits of firms to confirm the immigration status of their workers; this often results in employers preemptively dismissing their employees regardless of their actual status. The use of E-verify – an electronic system to verify a worker or applicant’s immigration status though DHS and Social Security Administration databases – has also been expanded. All federal contractors are required to use E-verify, and private and local government employers are also encouraged to use it, even though the federal system is rife with errors. As a result, there is the risk of misidentification and, more broadly, the risk that employers will choose to avoid hiring any candidates whose backgrounds suggest that verification issues could later arise.

The New York Times on Wednesday reported on the layoff of 1,800 immigrant employees at American Apparel in Los Angeles. The company was forced to do so under the pressure of the Department of Homeland Security, following an investigation that began under the Bush Administration. Its CEO Dov Charney told the Times, these firings “will not help the economy, will not make us safer.”

It’s possible that a calculation has been made by the Administration that if it toughens enforcement now, it will strengthen its credibility to move reform legislation later. But on the ground, this looks like more of the same for immigrant communities.

Beyond the immigration enforcement issue, there are troubling developments with respect to immigrant access to health care. Representative Joe Wilson’s notorious “You lie!” outburst has led Congressional Democrats to cave in by proposing to deny access by undocumented immigrants not just to government health subsidies, but to participation in the proposed insurance exchange. This shift, now reflected in the Senate Finance Committee bill being voted on this week, means that undocumented immigrants will be prohibited from purchasing health insurance through the exchange – even with their own money.

In the current health care legislation pending before Congress, legal immigrants will still be subject to a five-year waiting period and other restrictions before they can get Medicaid. U.S. citizens and legal immigrants will be unfairly denied access to tax credits intended to make health insurance more affordable if they have a householder who is an unauthorised immigrant; yet, they will be required to purchase insurance without the tax credits designed to help them afford coverage. Other amendments under consideration could impose such harsh verification provisions that eligible people will be kept from enrolling in health insurance.

Atlantic grantees are working on a number of fronts – litigation, legislative advocacy, policy development, and grassroots mobilisation – to challenge existing enforcement and detention practice and to pressure the Obama Administration to fulfil its moral and legal obligations to ensure a just and humane immigration system.

The ACLU’s Immigrant Rights Project and the Chicago-based National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) are challenging the Department of Homeland Security’s detention and deportation practices, through class action litigation on behalf of immigrants who have been detained for more than six months without receiving bond hearings, and have brought multiple challenges over medical and housing conditions in detention centres to light disturbing conditions faced by families and children in these prison-like conditions.

In addition to litigation, NIJC and other members of the Atlantic-supported Rights Working Group are working closely with members of Congress to forward legislation enacting better safeguards within the system.

Over the past year our policy grantees, such as the Center for American Progress and the Immigration Policy Center have developed briefs and policy dialogues examining the currently broken system and proposing administrative and legislative fixes that would better protect due process and the rule of law.

Finally, as the health care debate continues, the groups such as the National Council of La Raza, Center for Community Change, National Immigration Forum, and numerous state and local coalitions around the country, have pressed for health care legislation that includes immigrants as they gear up for the coming debate on immigration reform legislation.

As you know, Atlantic supports those working to protect the rights of immigrants in four of the countries in which we are active. As I was preparing this column, I learned of a victory by one of our grantees in Ireland, the Migrant Rights Centre, when Justice Minister Dermot Ahern announced the creation of a “bridging visa” to enable work by migrants who have become undocumented through no fault of their own. As Minister Ahern put it, “now that we are in more difficult economic times, we cannot simply discard law-abiding migrant works who have been living and working legally in Ireland for years” when they become unemployed.

Ireland’s immigration policies are far from perfect, and indeed xenophobia is a regrettably global phenomenon. But how non-citizens are treated is a key barometer of the decency of a society. As Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne wrote after Rep. Wilson’s outburst: “How mean-spirited will we allow ourselves to become? How coarsened has our political culture made us? We like to see ourselves as a generous, caring and welcoming nation. Are we losing that part of our character?”

I have no doubt the Obama Administration wants to do better, and it is up to those of us who care about justice and fairness for immigrants to hold it accountable to its promises and uphold the best aspects of the American character.

Gara LaMarche

Links to organisations mentioned in this column: