Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Counterpunch: The Unspoken Backdrop to Immigration Reform -- Color-Coded Citizenship


The Unspoken Backdrop to Immigration Reform

Color-Coded Citizenship


Now that health care reform passed, the drum for immigration reform is starting to beat. It’s a toss up as to whether to be terrified or thrilled. Terrified because the debate on health care was nasty and fraught with misinformation, and that does not bode well for a lightning-rod issue like immigration. Terrified also because the immigration reform blueprint put forth by Senators Charles Schumer and Lindsey Graham (The Right Way to Mend Immigration, Washington Post, March 19, 2010) is setting the legislative debate to the tune of enforcement and punishment, instead of rights and equality.

Thrilled, though, because the ultimate success of health care reform shows that change as ambitious as overhauls to a long-standing system is possible. Perhaps also the terror can be assuaged by the reality of reform—the more (louder, fiercer, uglier) the opposition fights, the closer the likelihood of winning change. Think Mahatma Gandhi: First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.

That being said, we cannot let the fight from the opposition go un-responded to, not in the name of political expediency or for any other reason. At least not the “we” advocating for immigrants’ rights, marching and writing and working for progressive immigration reform. Let’s leave political expediency to the politicians. Our focus should be broadcasting why reforming the immigration system is a civil and human rights issue.

To do this, one lesson from health care to apply here is that we need to name and tackle the underlying reason for why changing the status quo is so hard. Frank Rich recently made the case that the extreme reactions to the health care bill were grounded in anxieties about change in the very identity of America (The Rage is Not About Health Care, N.Y. Times March 28, 2010). The change Rich refers to is about those in power—a Black president and a female Speaker of the House, to name the top two. For immigration reform, add to this the fact that 90 percent of the undocumented immigrants in the United States are people of color. 1/ If we are going to reform a broken system to confer these and future immigrants the equal right to citizenship, we need to challenge the narrow, homogenous idea of the American identity.

We have a problematic history of defining who is American along racial lines. First there was the Naturalization Act of 1790, which restricted American citizenship to free White persons. Then there was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which suspended the immigration of Chinese nationals to the United States because, in the words of the Senate, “the coming of Chinese laborers to this country endanger[ed] the good order of certain localities…” 2/

Quotas created by the Immigration Act of 1924 favored Northern and Western European (i.e. White) immigration, drastically limited Southern and Eastern European immigration, and prohibited Asian immigration. The quotas were influenced by the isolationist political climate following World War I: A sociologist from the period, Jerome Dowd, wrote that the war showed that “America was not a melting pot into which every kind of human ingredient could be poured without spoiling the broth.” 3/

Explicitly discriminatory immigration policy finally ended with the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965, which repealed the 1924 immigration quotas and created a path to immigration without discrimination based on country of origin. It makes poetic sense that immigration reform would be an outgrowth of the civil rights movement—who knew better about color-coded citizenship rights than African Americans? The link between this historic immigration reform and the more general advances for racial justice in the U.S. cannot be underestimated, or overlooked. It was a blip in time when the rights of people of color across citizenship lines were unified.

So for centuries immigration policy was explicitly set according to race, and this ended when the civil rights movement gained significant achievements toward equality for African Americans. But let’s be candid—immigrants have not, generally, been aligned with African Americans; in fact, their sought-after American identity often is antagonistic to African Americans. Nobel-prize author Toni Morrison has commented on this phenomenon: “It is no accident and no mistake that immigrant populations (and much immigrant literature) understood their Americaness as an opposition to the resident Black population…Deep within the word ‘American’ is its association with race.” 4/ The notion of White as virtually synonymous with American is deep rooted if you consider that the concept of a White race originated in the United States, by the lumping of various European ethnicities into this new racial classification. 5/

Our history of defining who is American along racial lines, and how this has impacted the relationship between immigrants and African Americans, bears heavily on the immigration reform debate to come. We cannot let it be the 800-pound elephant in the room, for we already have witnessed the cost of silence: African-American spokespeople for anti-immigrant views, “reform” proposals like the Schumer-Lindsey mandatory national ID card for every person seeking work in the United States, borders that are like war zones while temporary worker programs sanction the exploitation of an entire workforce.

Addressing the relationship between race and rights—and between immigrants and African Americans—will help create a climate for real reform of a broken immigration system. Hopefully, it will also push us to have a more honest, dignified debate this time around.

Anita Sinha is a senior attorney with Advancement Project, an innovative civil rights law, policy, and communications “action tank” based in Washington, DC. Anita has been a student of and lawyer and policy reform advocate for immigrant rights since 1999.

1. Migration Information Source, Unauthorized Migrants Living in the United States: A Mid-Decade Portrait (Sept. 2005), available at (Of those living the U.S. as undocumented immigrants, 57% are from Mexico, 24% are from Latin America, and 9% are from Asia).

2. United States. Cong. Senate. 47th Congress, 1st Session. Chinese Exclusion Act. [passed 6 May 1882], available at

3.Dowd, Jerome. The Protection of National Culture as the Proper Basis of Immigration Restriction. The Scientific Monthly, Vol. 23, No. 3 (Sept. 1926), p. 206.

4. Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Vintage Books: New York (1992), pp. 46-47.

5.Ignatiev, Noel. How the Irish Became White. Routledge Books: New York (1995), p. 12.


To read “Color-Coded Citizenship,” click here:


Friday, March 26, 2010

Immigrant Rights News: Deported After Being Counted

Down for the Count

The profitable game of including immigrants in the census, then deporting them.


by Kevin Sieff

Published on: Thursday, March 25, 2010


Henry Arroliga lives in South Texas’ Port Isabel Detention Center, one of the nation’s largest immigration detention facilities. After 17 years of living illegally in the United States, he’s bracing himself to return to his native Nicaragua. Although Arroliga could very well be deported within the next month, the 2010 U.S. Census will count him as a resident of Los Fresnos, in Cameron County. His short stint at Port Isabel will pay dividends to the city, county, and state for the next decade.


Arroliga is one of more than 30,000 immigrant detainees who will be counted in this year’s census. Four hundred billion dollars in federal funding over the next 10 years will be distributed based on the count, making detainees worth thousands of dollars to cities, counties, and states where they are briefly detained. The government will allocate more than $100 million in additional funds to places where immigrants are detained.


More than funding is at stake: The composition of legislative districts, county board districts, and city council districts could be skewed by soon-to-be-deported prisoners. Census data are used on the state and national levels to determine the sizes and shapes of these districts. The inclusion of detainees in the count means fewer eligible voters per elected official in places like Cameron County. It also violates the principle of “proportional representation.”


For decades, the government has included prisoners in the census, regardless of their immigration status. In the past, the impact of immigrant detainees has been slight. This is the first decennial census since the re-organization of immigrantion agencies and the subsequent boom in immigration detention. Immigration prisons have expanded from 7,500 beds in 1995 to more than 30,000 in 2010. About one-third of the nation’s immigrant detainees are held in Texas.


That doesn’t count undocumented immigrants in the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service awaiting deportation proceedings—thousands in Texas alone. Carl Caulk, the U.S. Marshals assistant
director for prisoner operations, says that recent Border Patrol crackdowns like Operation Streamline have sent the number of immigrants in Marshals’ custody through the roof. Operation Streamline mandated that charges be filed against virtually every person caught crossing the border illegally. Like ICE detainees, these immigrants will be counted in the 2010 census.


The Census Bureau’s inclusion of immigrant detainees has received little notice. It comes at a tense time in the immigration debate, with reform advocates facing a challenging political climate. This year’s population count points to an often ignored irony: The country’s detention facilities are concentrated in districts represented by some of Congress’ most outspoken advocates of reform—including several South Texas congressmen who will benefit from counting immigrant detainees.


U.S. Rep. Solomon Ortiz, a Corpus Christi Democrat, introduced a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the House this spring. Yet with about 5,000 beds for immigrant detainees, his South Texas district stands to see millions of additional tax dollars allocated on the basis of the census.


In response to questions from the Observer, Ortiz issued a statement reading: “The U.S. Census Bureau is mandated by the United States Constitution to count every resident regardless of citizenship status. I can assure you that it is in everybody’s best interest to get as many people as possible counted.”


Until this census, the count had never identified exactly where “group quarters” like prisons are and how many people occupy them. For the first time, this census will let states decide whether to count detainees in local populations. By excluding prisoners, states would get a more accurate population count and would ensure that funds are not distributed according to locations of large detention centers. The amount of federal funding directed to the state would not change.


Counting prisoners—residents or immigrants—is against Texas state law. “A person who is an inmate in a penal institution or who is an involuntary inmate in a hospital or eleemosynary institution does not, while an inmate, acquire residence at the place where the institution is located,” reads Texas Election Code Section 1.015. Nevertheless, the census counts them as residents.


“There’s a clear discrepancy between state law and the Census Bureau’s methodology,” said Peter Wagner of the Prison Policy Initiative, a Massachusetts-based research group.


Congressman Ortiz had no comment on how detainees could affect federal funding and redistricting. Some of his former supporters see his willingness to profit from his district’s immigrant detainees as evidence of hypocrisy.


“I can’t think of anything more two-faced,” said the Rev. Miguel Rivera, president of the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, and an advocate for immigration reform.


To the Census Bureau’s dismay, Rivera has urged undocumented immigrants not to fill out the census forms. “It’s our greatest bargaining chip,” he said. “The states and counties want the funding, and we want the legalization.” Rivera’s campaign has received considerable attention, and while many Latino leaders disagree with his approach, he is convinced that threatening to withhold the instruments of federal funding is the way to attract politicians to the table.


Within facilities like Port Isabel, detainees likely won’t be able to opt out of the census. According to Census Bureau officials, for the last month detention center employees have been completing census forms on behalf of inmates like Henry Arroliga.


“They’re using them to secure federal funding and political power, and then they’re shipping them out of the country,” Rivera said. “It’s an insult.”


The issue has made Rivera and U.S. Sen. David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican, unlikely bedfellows. Vitter, along with several other conservatives in Congress, supported an unsuccessful effort last fall to exclude noncitizens from apportionment and redistricting counts. “I don’t believe noncitizens should be counted in congressional reapportionment,” Vitter told Congress last fall. “I don’t think states which have particularly large noncitizen populations should have more say and more clout in Congress, and that states like Louisiana that don’t should be penalized.” Or, if you follow the logic, that states like Texas should be rewarded.



In Raymondville, a rural city 100 miles south of Corpus Christi, the census count is buzzing along. The Census Bureau has a booth outside City Hall. Local TV stations are advertising the importance of filling out the forms. People have been hired to distribute forms, part of a 1.2 million temporary work force nationwide that will make up the largest civilian mobilization of Americans in history.


In Raymondville, the conversation isn’t about the scale of the government’s undertaking. It’s about the Willacy Detention Center, the country’s largest detention facility, holding up to 3,000 prisoners. When the census came up at the last City Council meeting, a councilman asked city secretary Eleazar Garcia: “What about the detainees? Do we get to count them?”


If its population exceeds 10,000 in the census, Raymondville would be in the running for a panoply of state grants. The only way that could happen is if the city’s immigrant detainees are included in the count. “Overall, we would benefit if we could hit that mark,” Garcia said.


So would La Villa, just north of McAllen. The 2000 census found its population to be 1,305. Just a year later, the Louisiana-based private prison company LCS Corrections Services Inc. opened the East Hidalgo Detention Center, which houses up to 990 immigrant detainees. According to its warden, the facility is almost always full.


After the 2010 Census is tallied, the detention center will nearly double La Villa’s population on paper, potentially doubling its federal funding allocation distributed by the state according to population. (The facility, run by the U.S. Marshals, is already a boon to the local government, which receives $2 per prisoner per day.)


The distribution of funds based on immigrant detainee populations “points to a flaw in the way the population counts are used,” said Audrey Singer, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank. “The fact that ICE detainees are geographically concentrated will have an effect on the count.”


In Washington, there appears to be confusion about the inclusion of immigrant detainees in the census. Congressman Henry Cuellar, a Laredo Democrat, represents a district that includes the 1,900-bed South Texas Detention Center and the 450-bed Laredo Contract Detention Facility. He defended the inclusion of immigrant detainees: “Vitally important funding that supports these facilities relies, in part, on census data.”


Experts say Cuellar is wrong. “Immigration prisons are funded by the Department of Homeland Security, not formula grants” based on census data, said Wagner of the Prison Policy Initiative.  
Like Rep. Ortiz, Cuellar is a longstanding advocate of immigration reform. His attitude about immigrant detainees in the census has disturbed immigration-reform advocates in his district.


One reason Texas’ congressmen and state representatives might be looking the other way is that 375,000 Texans were not counted in 2000, according to a Census Bureau study. That cost the state a huge amount of federal dollars. The main culprit, experts agree, was the difficulty of getting undocumented immigrants—including an estimated 150,000 in the Rio Grande Valley alone—to participate.


This year, the Census Bureau has spent millions on a campaign to convince minorities, including undocumented immigrants, to get themselves counted. Still, community organizers and activists along the border say the effort faces considerable challenges.


“The census worker shows up and expects people to be compliant,” said Michael Seifert of the Equal Voice for America’s Families Network. “Much laughter is heard in the cantina around that idea.” During the 2000 census, Seifert said some immigrants distrusted and feared the government—a fear then inspired by President Bill Clinton’s 1996 immigration enforcement bills.


“I find it so sweetly ironic that those who have been caught up in the biggest dragnet of a civilian population in American history—the detainees—will be included in the census count, and therefore serve as a ‘corrective’ to all of those people who will ignore the census request,” Seifert said.


The issue could be resolved if Texas decides to remove immigrant detainees from the count before distributing state funds and addressing redistricting. The Census Bureau has agreed to release data on inmate populations earlier than usual to let states and localities consider it in apportioning districts for 2011 and 2012 races. It’s an issue that could be broached in the 2011 legislative session. Bills to make such adjustments are already pending in New York, Maryland, Illinois, Florida and Wisconsin. So far, including immigrant detainees in Texas’ census count has been a non-issue.


“It’s hard to believe that the victims of our inhumane immigration detention system are being used like this,” Rivera said, “like pawns in a game of state and national politics.”


Kevin Sieff, an Observer contributing writer, lives in Washington, D.C.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Point of No Return. With thousands of legal residents locked up indefinitely, far from home, Texas' immigrant detention centers are boiling over.

Point of No Return

With thousands of legal residents locked up indefinitely, far from home, Texas’ immigrant detention centers are boiling over.

by Melissa del Bosque

Published on: Thursday, March 18, 2010


Inside the Port Isabel Detention Center.

Inside the Port Isabel Detention Center. photo by Jazmine Ulloa

On March 10, 2008, 39-year-old RamA Carty, who’d lived in the United States since he was a year old, became Alien #A30117515 in America’s booming immigrant detention system. At the time, Carty never imagined he’d be shipped to seven detention facilities around the country. or that he’d help organize hunger strikes in South Texas’ Port Isabel Detention center, 2,000 miles from his Boston home. Or that he would inspire an Amnesty International investigation into human rights abuses by the Federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But immigrant justice in the U.S. is full of surprises.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

NNIRR: Immigration Blueprint Reveals Challenges for Immigration Fairness

For Immediate Release
March 20, 2010

Immigration Blueprint Reveals Challenges for Immigration Fairness

Hard Work, Commitment Needed to End Trauma of Current Policies, Ensure Human Rights

For more information, contact:

Catherine Tactaquin 510.459.4457 (mobile)
510.465.1984 ext. 302 (office)

OAKLAND, CA: The "blueprint" for immigration reform recently released by Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) points to a difficult road ahead for decent, fair immigration reform. The National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights is very concerned that the provisions described by the senators would extend and deepen harsh enforcement practices that have caused trauma and separation for immigration families, fostered racial profiling and led to tragic deaths at the U.S.-Mexico border of migrants seeking a better life.

Surely, the thousands of people who will rally in Washington tomorrow and in local areas in the coming days want immigration legislation that treats immigrants fairly, that recognizes their dignity and rights. Unfortunately, the blueprint outlined by the senators and praised by President Obama is not an outline for bold and enlightened legislation. As a "starting point" for real congressional engagement, it sets a low bar for the debate, placing harsh and failed enforcement strategies at its heart in hopes of drawing conservative support, regardless of the human rights consequences of such policies.

While still vague and without many details, the blueprint emphasizes increases in worksite and border enforcement as an apparent trade off for a "tough but fair" legalization program. It promises green cards for the "best and the brightest" -- more of the "brain drain" scenario -- and refers to so-called "circular migration" as a rationale to provide temporary worker visas to lower-skilled immigrants to work in the U.S. These workers would presumably save their earnings, send remittances home, and then return to their home countries. This is a recipe for disaster, and merely sets up the prospect of more exploited migrant workers with fewer rights, including workers with little access to green cards and who could eventually become undocumented.

The senators acknowledged that Americans support legal immigration, but did not mention changes needed in our core legal immigration program. Instead, they mention that in "20 years" Americans "will embrace more welcoming immigration policies" after the tide of undocumented has apparently been contained. We hope this does not mean that they are not prepared to support important changes to the current legal immigration program, emphasizing family unity, as part of the immigration package.

It's bad enough that the "tough but fair" legalization program they describe would further criminalize the undocumented and would create unnecessary barriers to eligible applicants.

When President Barack Obama took office in January 2008, we sent him an Open Letter joined by thousands of community members, rights advocates and allies in faith, labor and civil rights communities. We urged the new President to commit to principles of human rights. We asked him to end the raids, detentions and deportations that have caused so much hardship in our communities as a prerequisite to a genuine commitment to provide the undocumented with access to legal status.

We continue to urge the Administration and members of Congress to focus on core reforms:

  • Suspend detentions and deportations while humanitarian policy alternatives are in place, and to reinstate due process;
  • Support legalization without the onerous hurdles of past proposals that will limit applications;
  • Uphold family reunification as a core principle of immigration policy, and expand and expedite legal immigration;
  • End guestworker programs -- provide access to green cards;
  • End the criminalization of immigrants, by repealing employer sanctions, and stopping the militarization of the border and local police collaboration programs;
  • Strengthen labor law enforcement for all workers, regardless of citizenship or immigration status;
  • Ensure immigrant access to services.
Immigration is not just a domestic policy issue; it is tied to policies that create displacement and forced migration. In committing to tackle immigration reform this time around, policymakers also need to ensure that U.S. foreign and economic policies promote global sustainable economic development and environments, job creation, and peace, so that migration is an option and not a last resort for economic survival.

Despite the President's and the senators' promises to move forward on immigration reform, we have no illusions about the difficult road ahead. But there is an important step that can be taken now. We urge the Administration to act swiftly to support immigrant community participation in this critical Census 2010. Suspend immigration enforcement activities so that immigrants, many fearful and unaware of the Census, are encouraged to complete and return their Census forms. This also affects their lives and the lives of us all over the next 10 years. (Read our letter to President Obama and DHS Secretary Napolitano on enforcement and the census here.)


National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights
Red Nacional Pro Derechos Inmigrantes y Refugiados
310 8th Street Suite 303
Oakland, CA 94607
Tel (510) 465-1984
Fax (510) 465-1885

Share NNIRR's latest human rights report, click here Guilty by Immigration Status

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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Letter to Pres. Obama to Suspend All Immigration Enforcement Activities During the Census 2010/Carta al Presidente Obama exigiendo la suspension del control migratorio durante el Censo del 2010

President Obama:

To ensure all communities, including immigrants, are counted

Suspend Immigration Enforcement for the Census 2010


Carta al Presidente Barack Obama y la Secretaria del Departamento (DHS) de Seguridad Nacional Janet Napolitano

Exigiendo la suspensión de operativos y actividades policiacas de control migratorio durante el Censo del 2010


Para leer la carta haga clic aquí


Letter to President Barack Obama and Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano

To Suspend All Immigration Enforcement Activities during Census 2010


To read the letter, click here:




The letter to Pres. Obama is signed by over 200 hundred organizations.


La carta al Presidente Obama está firmada por más de 200 organizaciones.




To sign the letter to President Obama, as an individual, click here.


Para firmar la carta al Presidente Obama, como individuo, haga clic aquí.


For more information, contact:

Catherine Tactaquin, NNIRR Director, (510) 465-1984 ext. 302