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SR Hears Testimony on Anti-Immigrant Ordinances, 9/11 Backlash

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May 14, 2007

I’m unsure whether I should feel really optimistic, or incredibly depressed.

I’ll begin with the glass-half-full perspective. On Saturday, I testified before Dr. Bustamante on the struggles faced by immigrants living in the United States. I was joined by representatives from more than a dozen organizations.

Why do I feel optimistic? The Special Rapporteur is charged with making recommendations on how to remedy violations of the human rights of immigrants. From my own experience testifying before Dr. Bustamante, I know that he takes this mandate seriously. As representatives from the Workplace Project, United Day Laborers of Freehold, Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, the ACLU and NYCLU testified about the struggles that immigrants face today, Dr. Bustamante listened attentively, asked questions, and appeared genuinely concerned about the status of the rights and freedoms of immigrants in the United States.

But the glass also seems half empty. The stories I heard yesterday were heartbreaking: testimony about detention conditions in Massachusetts where immigrant inmates spend 23 hours in confinement, with overhead lights kept on 24 hours a day; stories about detention centers in New Jersey that are freezing cold in the winter, and steaming hot in the summer.

Several individuals testified about the post-9/11 backlash, including the experiences of the September 11 detainees, the designation given to the hundreds, if not thousands, of Arab, Muslim, and South Asian men detained by the FBI, immigration authorities, and local police in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, often simply because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The government eventually charged the detainees with immigration violations, but continued to hold them as terrorism suspects. A Justice Department report about the “September 11 detainees” found a pattern of abuse that included the denial of access to counsel and physical and verbal abuse. For example, the DOJ report found, prison guards slammed some of the detainees against a wall hung with an American flag reading “these colors don’t run.” The September 11 detainees, according to the DOJ report, were eventually cleared of terrorism charges, but only after being detained for months.

My testimony focused on the growing movement in towns, cities, and counties to pass anti-immigrant ordinances that attempt to drive out immigrants and deputize local government officials, and even residents themselves, to become immigration enforcement agents. These ordinances target anyone who speaks with an accent or looks foreign, and prevent innocent individuals from finding employment, housing or even receiving vital government services.

When I listened to these stories, it was hard not to feel that human rights advocates had too much to tackle. Even Dr. Bustamante at one point interjected to remind the audience that his hands were tied, and that he had to deal with a United Nations structure that at times stifled proactive change.

But now I remember where this hearing took place: an auditorium in Cooper Union, just steps away from the Great Hall at Cooper Union. The Great Hall is the birthplace of the NAACP and the women’s suffrage movement. In 1860, Abraham Lincoln, before he became president, delivered a stirring speech at the Great Hall about the need to abolish slavery.

Are we in a similar movement today? Maybe future generations will remember our current struggles as an inspiring story of overcoming injustice?

So, maybe the glass is half full?

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