DREAMers Finally Get Relief

Last Friday, in a historic announcement, President Obama used his executive power to do something young immigrant activists have been tirelessly organizing around for years: grant relief to DREAMers.

Meaning that certain undocumented young people will have a two-year period free from fear of deportation, and be allowed to work. This executive initiative applies to: those who arrived in the U.S. when they were under 16 and are currently not over 30, are in school, graduated from high school, or are military veterans, have continuously resided in the U.S. for at least five years, and haven’t been convicted of a crime.

The significance of this cannot be overstated. During the announcement, I was lucky enough to be at an immigration conference and in the company of DREAMers and activists who fought in the trenches to strengthen the undocumented youth movement.

DREAMers react to the news. “It’s not about immigrant justice, it’s about social justice” – Juan, DREAMer.

There were a lot of tears, celebrating…and questions, for there are many important things this action doesn’t address.

The initiative does not guarantee a path to citizenship —  it is, as Obama himself said: “a temporary stopgap measure”. To create a path to legal permanent residence (and eventually, citizenship), we still need to pass DREAM legislation…a bill that Obama has pledged to sign, and which was blocked by Senate Republicans in 2010.

This relief also leaves many individuals out….like Jose Antonio Vargas, a gay Filipino Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who “came out” as undocumented in last year’s New York Times — and a major galvanizing force in the undocumented movement. Vargas is on the current cover of TIME Magazine for its daring (for mainstream media) article. He is also 31 years old.

While many still think of immigration — and “illegal” immigration in particular — as a Latino or Mexican issue, the truth is that undocumented migrants deeply affect our APIA communities:  they are part of us. About 10% of DREAMers are API, and they make up an estimated 45% of the undocumented student population in the University of California system alone (check out these excellent Hyphen articles by Momo Chang here and here).

So while APIs have often been left out of the mainstream immigration narrative, we need to double down to make our voices heard. Not only to advocate for our own communities, but to support our undocumented sisters and brothers regardless of race, ethnicity, sexuality, or any other characteristics that are manipulated to make us into the “Other” and exclude us from fully participating in a democracy we’ve fought to contribute to. Because that is the only way we will win. And when DREAMers win, so does America.


Friday Fuckery: Judge Upholds Alabama’s Extreme Anti-Immigrant Law

photo: Robert Sutton/AP
On Wednesday, federal judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn issued an opinion striking down parts of Alabama’s newly-enacted anti-immigrant law HB 56, which has been dubbed “SB 1070 on steroids”.  The opinion blocked several of the law’s provisions, including one that would have made it a crime for undocumented immigrants to work, a provision that would have made it illegal to house or give a ride to an undocumented immigrant, and a provision that would have prevented lawfully present refugees and asylees as well as undocumented students from enrolling in universities.
Judge Blackburn
However, Blackburn’s ruling rejected the Department of Justice’s challenge to other pieces of HB 56, by upholding a provision of the law requiring K-12 public schools to determine and track the immigration status of public school students, and to report the number of undocumented students in their district to the state.
Blackburn also upheld a portion of the law that makes any business contract held by an undocumented immigrant un-enforceable, and makes it a felony offense for undocumented immigrants to apply for a business license, driver’s license, or license plates. And — this is huge — like Arizona, Alabama law enforcement officers will have the unprecedented power to act as immigration agents and question and detain anyone they “suspect” may be an undocumented immigrant (aka legalized racial profiling).
photo: Campus Progress
Advocates have been fiercely protesting since HB56 was first proposed, and The DOJ filed an appeal to Blackburn’s ruling today. DOJ also requested an injunction to halt the enforcement of HB 56, both on the basis that immigration law is a federal matter that cannot be determined by states.
As it stands, HB 56 is even more harsh and radical than SB 1070, and could create a crisis worse than seen in Arizona last year. Reportedly, Latino and immigrant families are already packing up and leaving the state, which is not only devastating for communities, but bad for business as well.
HB 56 is outright intimidation and harassment against immigrant families and people of color — against educating their children, contributing to the local economy, or even driving and traveling without fear of detention. HB 56 could also encourage even more copycat laws from anti-immigrant politicians trying to get votes, as well as normalizes racial profiling and furthers a culture of hate against immigrants. This is Fuckery and Foolery of the highest order. Is that what we want America to stand for?
source: WHNT 19, Think Progress.org

BREATHIN’: The Eddy Zheng Story

It’s no secret that the US immigration system can be deeply unjust, with one of its major flaws being the deportation of individuals who have already served their time for past offenses  — or committed very minor/no crime at all (check out Sentenced Home to learn how this issue has impacted the Northwest Cambodian American community specifically). Usually, these individuals have deep roots in America and no familial, cultural, or language ties to the “home country” they are being deported to. These punitive immigration policies also go hand-in-hand with American’s expanding multi-billion dollar prison industry, which has a built-in incentive to pack jails with “criminal” immigrants in order to grow profits.

This contemporary human rights issue is well demonstrated in the case of Eddy Zheng, a beloved Bay Area youth advocate and leader who is under threat of deportation, after serving 19 years for a crime committed when he was 16. A documentary called BREATHIN’: The Eddy Zheng Story is being made to raise awareness not only of Eddy’s inspiring history, but around the larger issue of the criminalization of immigrants and people of color. According to the film’s Kickstarter page:

The U.S. currently imprisons over 2.3 million people, making it the world’s leading jailer. Contrary to notions of a “model minority,” the Asian and Pacific Islander American prison population grew 250% between 1990 and 2000.  Unfortunately for many immigrants, all “non-citizen aliens” who commit an aggravated felony or crime of moral turpitude are mandatorily deportable, even if they immigrated to the U.S. legally or with refugee status. Between 1998 and 2006, there was a 61.6% rise in total deportations of people of Asian nationalities. Despite the growing trend of incarceration and deportation for many Asian Americans, these individuals have largely remained invisible in public policy, media, and in their own communities.

Recently released from prison after serving over 20 years for a robbery he committed at age 16, Eddy Zheng is now at risk of deportation to China. By exploring Eddy’s personal journey from incarcerated prisoner to a valued community leader in the Bay Area, BREATHIN’ seeks to uncover important social and political issues concerning the rising number of imprisoned Asian Americans, many of whom will be deported after completing their prison sentences. Using intimate interviews with Eddy and his family, friends and colleagues, the film aims to draw viewers into Eddy’s world and challenge assumptions they may have about immigrants, prisoners, and deportees.

Definitely a worthy project to support. The filmmaker and producers have only 12 days (until Oct 1st) and about $4,000 left to raise towards their goal of $15,000. The film will only be funded if this amount is pledged. Help them reach their goal and tell Eddy’s story here.

Thanks Lanlian!

Senate Denies Rights of Gays in Military & Undocumented Students

Yesterday, the US Senate failed to override a Republican filibuster and reach the 60 votes needed to push forward the DREAM Act, which would have provided permanent residency status to undocumented youth who were brought into the country before the age of 16 and have completed 2 years of college or military service. The DREAM Act was tacked onto the 2010 Defense Authorization Bill as an amendment, because it would have allowed thousands of new recruits to join the military.

The DREAM Act has traditionally enjoyed bipartisan support (including from former General and Secretary of State Colin Powell), and would let young people who were brought into the United States by a family member own embark on a path toward citizenship and the American dream.

Youth like the four Miami-Dade College students (two of which are a gay couple) who courageously outed their immigration status and walked from Miami to Washington DC in a 1,500 mile “Trail of Dreams”, in support of the DREAM Act and humane immigration reform. Youth like the over 230,000 undocumented Korean students in the US.

Trail of Dreams Walk

Additionally, the Defense Authorization Bill contained language to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the law that bans openly gay men and women from serving in the U.S. military. The bill also proposed to increase pay for military service-members and provide them with additional protections on the battlefield.

Army Lt. and Iraq War veteran Dan Choi

The blocking of the bill does nothing to help solve our country’s challenges along the immigration, economic, gay equality, or human rights fronts — and hypocritically denies the contributions undocumented students and LGBTQs have made in all sectors of society, as other citizens continue to benefit from them.

Immigrants and Latinos are the fastest-growing bloc of voters in the US, and preventing this legislation is in direct opposition to the interests of Congress’ constituents.  Hold your elected officials accountable. For a full list of Repubes and Dems who voted against the DREAM Act (or didn’t even bother to vote) go here. And urge your representatives to create another opportunity for a public debate on the merits of the DREAM Act and elimination of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”. You can call Senator Harry Reid and ask him to re-introduce the DREAM Act as a stand-alone bill at 202 224 3542 (anti-immigrant groups are calling to stop the bill right now).

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Happy Citizenship Day!

Today — September 17th — is National Citizenship Day. Amidst anti-immigrant legislation like SB 1070, the anti-mosque and anti-Muslim frenzy (which many feel is being exploited by Republicans to curry votes in the upcoming elections), race-based violence against immigrants, and the dismal failure of Obama and the rest of the Dems to deliver on comprehensive immigration reform…let’s celebrate the positive and crucial contributions immigrants have made to every aspect of American society.

And it should be a two-way street, right? Isn’t it hypocritical of us as a nation to rely upon and benefit from the sweat of immigrants while keeping them in the shadows and denying a path to becoming fully integrated members of our communities? While legalization of undocumented immigrants may not happen this year, we can still do our part to help legal residents become citizens.

When one becomes a citizen, they acquire certain protections and rights, like protections against being deported, being able to reunite with family members overseas, and — incredibly important for the upcoming midterm elections, which are very much in danger of being overtaken by the G.O.P. — THE RIGHT TO VOTE.

Research shows that naturalized immigrants — when registered — vote at higher rates than the native-born. And APIAs tend to vote progressive, which means less Repubes and less racist, anti-immigrant legislation in the long run. But our folks need even more outreach and assistance to successfully register and turn out to the polls.

So whether it’s  talking to someone in your family who may be eligible to naturalize, or volunteering at an ESL or citizenship prep class, we can all do our part to help more immigrants naturalize. For more info and resources go here.

And speaking of APIAs and voting, for those in the LA area, don’t miss this epic voter registration and arts event (featuring my future ex-husbands Quest Crew, aooogaaah!):

More info on the event here. Register to vote here.

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Birthright Citizenship and Chinese Americans

It seems all this “anchor babies” ridiculousness refuses to die, with prominent Republicans like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell calling to rescind all or part of the 14th amendment to the Constitution to prevent some children born in the U.S. from being granted citizenship. I wanted to re-post this excellent article by Jeff Yang at SF Chronicle that outlines the Chinese American community’s ties to the 14th amendment, and why the Chinese Exclusion Act and the inhumane history of Angel Island  (check out this photo gallery) have never held more relevance than today.

Born in the U.S.A.

By Jeff Yang, Special to SF Gate

As right-wing pols call for the elimination of birthright citizenship, the commemoration of Angel Island’s 100th anniversary reminds us what’s at stake for Asian Americans — and the nation as a whole.

On the foggy Saturday morning of July 31, more than a thousand Chinese Americans gathered on San Francisco’s Angel Island to remember a dark and troubled chapter in our nation’s immigration history — a time when the principles we hold dearest as a country were questioned and too often, found wanting.

They, or their parents or grandparents, had been among the hundreds of thousands who’d come through the station fleeing poverty and chaos in China, only to be detained, incarcerated and repeatedly interrogated, sometimes for years.

A detainee interrogation at Angel Island. Interrogations were conducted by two immigration inspectors and a stenographer. Photo Source:  National Archives and Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation.

The reason for the harsh treatment: Chinese had been legally barred from entry to the U.S. by 1882’s profoundly xenophobic Chinese Exclusion Act, still the only law in our history to ban immigration from a single cited country. There was just one means by which most desperate strivers could enter America: By erasing their names — and with them, their cherished family ties and ancestral connections — and adopting false identities claiming to be the overseas offspring of Chinese who already could assert U.S. citizenship.

That any U.S. citizens of Chinese descent even existed was due to the Supreme Court’s landmark 1898 Wong Kim Ark decision, which affirmed that the birthright citizenship clause of the 14th Amendment applied even to the U.S.-born children of Chinese and other foreign nationals who were legally barred from naturalizing.

Of course, the number of authentic Chinese American citizens produced by Wong Kim Ark was small, and most had few if any children. It was a natural disaster that ultimately opened up the loophole used by some 150,000 Chinese over 61 years of legal exclusion: The great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, which burned down City Hall and completely destroyed the municipality’s document archives, including those related to residency, household status and immigrant registration.

This wholesale erasure of the public record allowed thousands of enterprising Chinese in the U.S. to claim birthright citizenship, even if such status could not be proven (because there was nothing disproving it either); most also simultaneously professed to have sired numerous children on visits to the old country — with each declared child opening a crack just wide enough for a so-called “paper son” to squeeze through America’s shuttered door.

Becoming a paper son meant replacing your name and identity with that of a fictitious “parent” already in America. And so as more and more immigrants used paper status to get into the country, Wongs became Ongs, Wus became Chius, and Lims became Gims — mixing the lineages of three generations of Chinese into a kind of genealogical chop suey, with subsequent descendants often unsure of what relations were real and which were fake.

“My father came to the U.S. from Toisan in 1929,” says Corky Lee, whose illustrious career as a visual documentarian has led to his being dubbed Asian America’s “undisputed, unofficial photographer laureate.” “Things were a mess in China and he’d heard there were better economic opportunities here. He got on a boat with $20, but was lured into a gambling match on board and lost half his money. He was so ashamed to show up in America with just $10 in his pocket that he never gambled again.”

Losing money was one thing; losing his identity was another. Upon his arrival, the elder Lee showed papers he’d bought that declared him a blood descendant of the Quoork family, granting him an American birthright at the expense of his Chinese truth.

It was a bittersweet transaction.

Like most in his situation, Lee’s father was grateful to his adopted homeland, but ashamed of the means he got here and wistful about the price he’d paid. And, like many of his peers, he reflected that conflict in the name of his American firstborn: When Corky was born he was named “Lee Quoork,” reflecting both the fact and fiction of his father’s heritage. (Schoolmates quickly dubbed him “Corky” Lee Quoork, granting him a nickname he’d keep for the rest of his life. “I was still better off than my classmate George Crumholtz,” laughs Lee. “He got stuck with ‘Crummy’!”)

Angels on America’s doorstep

The saga of the paper sons underscores the torturous means by which people have fought for the right to become American. At the immigration station at Angel Island, authorities aware of the paper son phenomenon used every means at their disposal to expose detainees’ false status: Interviewing relatives and friends on the mainland, separating family members to compare their responses to esoteric questions — How many steps from the house to the barn? How long ago was the village well dug? — and of course, incarcerating them indefinitely in bleak, crowded, joyless surroundings.

Physical exams at Angel Island. Photo Sources:National Archives and Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation.

“My dad was a paper son from a very poor family in Toisan,” says Eddie Wong, executive director of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation, which directs the site’s curatorial and preservationist activities. “Things were so bad that all of the sons went abroad to work, to send money home to support the family. His turn came up and he bought a piece of paper — he managed to get one with his real name on it, Wong — but loose lips led to him getting caught; he was arrested, held for a month at Angel Island, and then deported back to China.”

Detention at Angel Island meant long days and nights in cramped barracks — typically 100 persons to a 1,000 square foot room — unable to interact with friends or family, and with nothing to do between the repeated hammering of interviews intended to crack the migrants’ paper shield. Inmates inscribed their resentment and misery on the very walls that held them from their goal; much of the resulting graffiti has since been revealed to be poetry, written in classical Chinese style and reflecting astonishing insight on their condition.

“I am distressed that we Chinese are in this wooden building / It is actually racial barriers which cause difficulties on Yingtai Island,” wrote one anonymous detainee. “Even while they are tyrannical they still claim to be humanitarian. / I regret my taking the risk of coming in the first place.”

Li Hai of Nancun, Toisan was one of the few detainees who chose to sign the sonnet he contributed: “It’s been a long time since I left my home village / Who could know I’d end up imprisoned in a wooden building? / I’m heartsick when I see my reflection, my handkerchief is soaked in tears / I ask you, what crime did I commit to deserve this?”

These poems, painstakingly copied and translated by the late historian Him Mark Lai, playwright Genny Lim and U.C.-Santa Cruz professor Judy Yung for the must-own volume “Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940” aptly document the two faces of the Angel Island experience — perseverance and suffering. The former sustained the inmates through many weeks, months and years of the latter — and even led those who were turned away to return and try repeatedly again to gain entrance.

“After getting deported, my dad waited a year, bought another Wong paper, and this time made it through,” says Wong. “The first thing he did was move to Chicago, because, he says, ‘San Franciscans talk too much.'”

My name is a scar

For his part, Wong’s father rarely talked about his paper son status at all. The remembered humiliations of detention and the lasting guilt at having borne false witness had created walls of shame around his Angel Island story, as restrictive as those that had jailed him decades before.

That desire to forget the past comes with its own price, Genny Lim notes. “My mother and father and sister all came through Angel Island, and I never even knew that until I started to do research on the subject,” she says. “My father even accused me of digging up something that shows our community in a very negative light — that we came here illegally, that we violated the law. His psychology is marked by this trauma that we Chinese are unwelcome here, that we are never going to be bona fide Americans. So he and my mother were afraid to participate in politics and in the civic process, because they never felt they had the right to do so, and were afraid that they would be condemned if they did.”

In 1980, Lim was moved by her parents’ plight to write a play about the Angel Island experience, “Paper Angels,” which still stands today as one of the most vivid and important illustrations of this painful era in immigration history. Written as a series of sharply drawn vignettes, it follows a group of detainees of varied background and purpose as they undergo ruthless cross-examinations, attempt to reconcile the bright promises made to them and the miserable reality of their internment, and ultimately, survive or succumb to stress, rage and frustration.

It ends with a resonant moment, as young, pregnant Mei Lai delivers her baby — a son, blessed by accident of geography with the right to U.S. citizenship; this leads the warden to release of Mei Lai and her husband out of “special consideration” for her status as the mother of a newborn American.

It is a hopeful ending to an otherwise bleak narrative, but one that highlights once again the dangerous rhetoric that has entered into recent discourse on immigration. In our contemporary era, Mei Lai’s son Yang would not be seen as a symbol of new hope in a new nation, but an “anchor baby” — an ugly term in an even uglier debate.

There’s little evidence that our borders are being threatened by an invasion of pregnant women, seeking to use their offspring as a tether to America (and the legal reality is that illegals still face deportation even if they have American-born citizen children).

Nevertheless, this alleged phenomenon has inspired leading Republicans like Sen. Lindsay Graham, Sen. Minority Whip Jon Kyl and Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to call for hearings to discuss repealing or altering the 14th Amendment to eliminate jus solis, the standard of citizenship for any and all born on this nation’s soil and under this nation’s laws. It should be noted that without jus solis as laid out in the 14th Amendment and upheld in the Wong Kim Ark decision, some 90 percent of the Chinese American population might not exist today — and nor, in essence, would America.

That’s because birthright citizenship is a quintessential part of what makes our nation what it is — a free and democratic society that abhors tyranny and welcomes its victims; that treats people as individuals and respects their civil and human rights; that does not discriminate based on race, culture or country of origin.

Combined with our relatively liberal naturalization policies, jus solis preserves the open-source, open-ended nature of American identity: It reinforces the notion that America is not a race or a people but a shared idea, and one not defined by a static snapshot of today (or yesterday) but by ongoing reconstruction and evolution, built on transparent, common and fundamental principles.

Modern-day critics of birthright citizenship note that the U.S. and Canada are the only major developed nations that embrace jus solis; that would seem to be an argument for, not against, jus solis in the case of America, which in all other respects, those very same critics proclaim to be an exceptional nation.

It’s that exceptionalism that inspired those early Chinese pioneers to come here in the face of physical risk, personal loss and racist laws and attitudes. What’s sad is that those who are skeptical of America’s ability to transform and integrate — those who question the integrity of the American dream — have begun the process of recapitulating the darkest rhetoric and most abusive legal policies of that era.

“At least for my time on this earth, I’d hope that America would always be the world’s great symbol of opportunity,” says Genny Lim. “Our ideals, when practiced, are incomparable. What our constitution stands for, what we stand for as a people, are really the gold standard for every immigrant living around the world under tyrannical and corrupt regimes. But you look at things like SB1070 in Arizona, and it’s hard not to see it as the seed of a Mexican Exclusion Act — we’re just switching the target from one race to another. And that’s the terribly sad thing about ‘Paper Angels’: It doesn’t just document a moment in history; it’s become a commentary on current-day issues. It’s a cautionary tale that we need to take to heart.”

The July 31 Centennial Commemoration on Angel Island was extremely well attended, and by all accounts, tremendously emotional. “I was amazed at the turnout,” says Monica Lee, whose father, Mon Lee, came to the U.S. as a paper son at the age of 12 toward the end of the exclusion era. “My dad was really eager to have me and my mom see what he went through in his weeks of detention. And you could tell that he was deeply moved; he likes to come across as a tough guy, he’s always boasting how he’s ‘hard-boiled,’ but he was tearing up here. The only other time I’ve seen him cry was at my college graduation.”

The event is just the beginning of the Centennial season: From September 15-17, DirectArts‘ New York City revival of Genny Lim’s “Paper Angels” will be coming to the San Francisco Fringe Festival at Portsmouth Square; tickets to the multimedia production, directed by Victoria Linchong, are absolutely free (but they’d love your support!). Lim is also collaborating with Lenora Lee’s Asian Improv aRts in the work “Passages,” a unique reading/movement performance at Dance Mission Theater (September 24-26, 3316 24th Street). Erika Lee and Judy Yung (co-author of “Island”) are on tour with their new book “Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America,” the most comprehensive history of the place and its period to date. Finally, the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation is throwing its Centennial Gala on October 23 at the Intercontinental Hotel (call 415-262-4429 for details). And if you haven’t yet had the chance to visit Angel Island itself, do it — you won’t regret it.

Thanks Henry!

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Take Our Jobs!

To address that one anti-immigrant sentiment that refuses to die: “Illegal immigrants take away jobs that belong to Americans”, UFW (United Farm Workers – founded by Cesar Chavez) has extended an offer that will make you put your money where your mouth is:

TAKE OUR JOBS! That’s right, if you believe an undocumented immigrant has snatched a job from under your nose that rightfully belongs to you, taking it back is as easy as applying online. UFW not only welcomes you to replace one of their workers, but will hook you up with a farm employer.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

So go on, become a farmworker today and join the three other Americans (now four, including Stephen Colbert) who have taken UFW up on their offer! You can soon be a member of a workforce that supplies the bulk of our nation’s food — from your home to the President’s. Si Se Puede!

** Job may include using hand tools such as knives, hoes, shovels, etc. Duties may include tilling the soil, transplanting, weeding, thinning, picking, cutting, sorting & packing of harvested produce. May set up & operate irrigation equip. Work is performed outside in all weather conditions (Summertime 90+ degree weather) & is physically demanding requiring workers to bend, stoop, lift & carry up to 50 lbs on a regular basis.

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