Friday morning on NPR, a segment featured Sandra Mendez Duran and her sister, Sylvia Mendez discussing the court case their parents brought against the school district in Orange County, California in 1945 that was a critical building block in the legal foundation that lead to the landmark Supreme Court desegregation decision, Brown v. Board of Education. The NPR story, part of the Story Corps special project on Latino oral history, Story Corps Historias, included the sisters reminiscing about their parents, Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez, and the court case that bears their name, Mendez v. Westminster:
I remember being in court every day. They would dress us up really nice and we'd be there, sitting very quietly - not really understanding what was going on. And it wasn't until I was 10 years old that I really discovered what they were fighting. And I remember this so vividly.
Sylvia goes on to describe what happened when she was allowed to attend a previously all-white school after the Ninth Circuit found (in 1947) in favor of the Mendez family and the other four families who were plaintiffs. Her younger sister, Sandra, who was not born until after the decision, describes how she learned about the case as a college student years later.  Her parents never said anything about it and her teacher – a Chicano Studies Professor – didn’t seem all that interested. Earlier this week, the Immigration Policy Center of the American Immigration Council released a paper in their series Perspective on Immigration that will help explain the significance of Mendez to Sylvia, Sandra, Sandra’s professor, and you. Maria Blanco, Executive Director for the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute at Berkeley Law, authored the short, readable paper that lays out how the federal circuit court’s 1947 decision that found segregation of Mexican American school children in California unconstitutional, contributed to both the legal precedents and legal strategy at play in Brown about a decade later:
From a legal perspective, Mendez v. Westminster was the first case to hold that school segregation itself is unconstitutional and violates the 14th Amendment. Prior to the Mendez decision, some courts, in cases mainly filed by the NAACP, held that segregated schools attended by African American children violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause because they were inferior in resources and quality, not because they were segregated. From a strategic perspective, Thurgood Marshall’s participation in Mendez paid critical dividends for years to come. Marshall, who later would successfully argue the Brown v. Board of Education case before the U.S. Supreme Court and eventually become the first African American Justice on the Supreme Court, participated in the Mendez appeal. His collaboration throughout the case with the Mendez attorney, David Marcus, helped ensure that the case would be an important legal building block for Marshall’s successful assault on the “separate but equal” doctrine. Although Marshall and Marcus differed in aspects of their legal approach to the segregation involved in the Mendez case, their exchanges about the stigma attached to segregation and the psychological damage caused by it undoubtedly played a large role in the Mendez litigation.
The six-page paper is available here as a pdf. The NPR Story Corps Historias story is here with a link to the audio.
The March for America is shaping up to be the biggest immigration reform gathering of the Obama era. Just to make sure you are there, the Reform Immigration for America campaign organizers are announcing headliners and speakers. Playing in Traffic Records recording artists “Los Lonely Boys,” are coming to rock the National Mall Texas/Tejas style. Representative Luis V. Gutierrez (D-IL) will speak. Piolín Por La Manaña’s Eddie "El Piolín" Sotelo, just about the biggest radio host and DJ in the country, will be there. Ben Jealous (NAACP), Janet Murguía (NCLR), Deepak Bhargava (CCC), Andy Stern (SEIU) and Marc Morial of the National Urban League - among many others -will inspire. And the weather is expected to cooperate (65 degrees; 30% chance of a “few showers”). Frank Sharry, Founder and Executive Director or America’s Voice tells why he thinks the march is “a moment of truth for immigration reform” at Huffington Post and Maurice Belanger, a writer for the ImmPolitic blog lays out the case for why the march will be “a game changer” (cross posted here at AlterNet). But if you really need reasons to come, check out Moses’ story on why he’s marching.  Or Don Alberto’s story.  Or Wooten’s. Or Cynthia’s. Or Lucia’s.  Or Susan’s. Or Lauren’s. Or Youth Pastor Ian’s
On the same day that President Obama was holding a series of meetings with lawmakers and community leaders about moving immigration reform legislation forward, his administration was sending a very different signal.  Just up the road in Anne Arundel and Baltimore Counties in Maryland, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers were conducting immigration raids on two restaurants and rounding up immigrants at their homes. The Baltimore Sun reported Friday:
Twenty-nine people were taken into custody by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials in simultaneous raids Thursday morning in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties at two restaurants, several residences and an office. One of the raids focused on the Timbuktu Restaurant…and several nearby homes where restaurant workers were housed, according to Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold. Eighteen Anne Arundel County police officers assisted federal agents.
Was it just bad timing for an administration trying to show a different face on immigration?  This wouldn’t be the first time the left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing on immigration since Obama took office.  Some think it might be worse and that cowboys in ICE are undermining the President’s overture on immigration or are sending a signal before the big March For America on the National Mall on March 21. In response to a scathing press conference this week outlining how enforcement of immigration laws has escalated under the Obama administration, community-based advocates were meeting with the President to explain the impact these policies are having on local communities.  Almost 400,000 people have been deported since the President took office, they said, sewing fear in immigrant families and neighborhoods. The Obama administration argues they are targeting serious criminals and security threats with their enforcement resources.  But as County Executive Leopold indicates above, this raid – like so many other enforcement actions – seems to have targeted plain old hourly wage workers to send a signal that anyone at anytime can be deported.  It is not the kind of targeted enforcement against criminals the President claims to support or which could actually make American communities safer. Then, late Thursday, El Universal and other news outlets in Mexico City reported that the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Carlos Pascual, told Mexican senators that he was ruling out chances of immigration reform in the United States in the short term because of the climate of political confrontation in the U.S. in advance of the November elections. He may be right.  He may even be speaking more honestly and bluntly than the President, but he is decidedly “off message.” On Thursday, the President told the press in a statement:
I told both the senators and the community leaders that my commitment to comprehensive immigration reform is unwavering, and that I will continue to be their partner in this important effort.
The President was clearly trying to indicate his intention to do more on immigration and the support of lawmakers in both parties was on display this week, which is encouraging.  But if armed federal officers and local police are going into people’s homes to arrest restaurant workers for being here illegally and your Ambassador to the country that is the largest source of immigrants to the U.S. is saying it ain’t gonna happen, then maybe we need more than “unwavering support” from the President to get this done.
The first of the President’s three meetings today on immigration is in the books, and this one was a little unexpected. This afternoon at the White House, a group of pro-reform immigrant advocates were slated to meet with senior White House staff regarding the need for immigration reform, but the President showed up to chair the meeting himself. The President is scheduled to meet with Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) about the bipartisan immigration bill they have been crafting and are expected to introduce shortly. President Obama also has a meeting with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus on his schedule this evening to discuss immigration and health care. The advocates were expecting perhaps a courtesy drop-by from the President and were prepared to push back on any niceties or the President’s famous charm. Earlier in the week, religious, union, ethnic, and immigrant advocates got the White House's attention with a sharply worded press conference at the National Press Club highlighting how the lack of immigration reform – and the continued enforcement of the old, bad system – is devastating immigrant communities and hurting the economy. The advocates – many of whom are helping to organizing the March For America on the National Mall on March 21 – want the President’s personal commitment to push hard for immigration reform. By this they mean more than just talk. They want to see him rolling up his sleeves and expending political capital to sell it to Democrats, Republicans, and the American people. Ali Noorani, Executive Director of the National Immigration Forum and one of the key leaders of the Reform Immigration for America campaign that is sponsoring the March For America, issued a statement after the meeting:
We had a lively and straightforward meeting with the President and his staff. We made clear that we expect him to keep his promise to overhaul our broken immigration system. We need a system that is fair, just, humane, and that serves our nation's interests. The President indicated that his administration is committed to driving a bill forward in the spring of 2010. Based on our conversation, we are optimistic and expecting aggressive and urgent action from the White House on comprehensive immigration reform before March 21st.
As one person who was in today’s meeting characterized it, it was a good, lengthy, and substantive exchange. The President made some opening remarks but did not deliver a speech. Rather he engaged in a dialogue. More than 387,000 people were deported from the United States in 2009, the advocates said, and if anything, immigration enforcement has gotten worse for immigrant communities since President Bush left office. The Obama administration has tried to reorder priorities so that enforcement resources are targeted towards deporting violent criminals and others who pose a threat to society -- not just average workers and family members who are in the country illegally. Regardless of the administration’s intentions, the reality is that the fear of deportation persists and the uncertainty that that creates in families is palpable, advocates said. Clarissa Martinez de Castro, Director of Immigration and National Campaigns for the Latino civil rights group NCLR, said she is waiting to see what happens in the President’s later meetings with the Senators and Representatives and what the President does in the coming days, before pronouncing the meeting a success or failure. "We want the President to be specific, we want him to be passionate, and we want him to be persistent in his pursuit of reform this year. Our communities are suffering, the American people want progress, and the economy needs all the help it can get and immigration reform is part of that," she said. In a statement before the meeting, Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice, a pro-reform advocacy group, said,
Our broken immigration system is not serving the interests of Americans, yet we have within our grasp the ability to solve this problem in a way that reduces illegal immigration dramatically, while creating millions of new taxpayers that will generate billions in new revenue.
If the President hopes to make a public commitment to immigration reform before the March for America on March 21, he doesn’t have much time. He is leaving the country next week for Indonesia and Australia.
Roll Call and others are reporting that the White House meeting President Obama and Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) had scheduled for Monday afternoon was rescheduled. Apparently, Senator Graham's flight was cancelled.
“Senator Graham’s meeting with President Obama and Senator Schumer to discuss immigration reform has been postponed,” Graham’s communications director Kevin Bishop said in a statement. “Senator Graham was scheduled to fly to Washington this afternoon but his US Air flight from South Carolina was cancelled. The meeting will be rescheduled.”
The meeting, news of which began leaking out last week, seems to be a reaction to widespread complaints in pro-immigration reform circles that the President has not lived up to his promise to address the issue (See examples from advocacy groups blog posts: America's Voice's post reposted here at AlterNet and NCLR's post at Huffington Post). No word yet on when the meeting will be rescheduled, but the clock is ticking. The March for America, planned for March 21, would seem to be a hard deadline for the President and Congress to demonstrate some progress, an event not likely to be postponed because of flight delays.
The Los Angeles Times had the story Thursday evening that the Obama administration – including the President himself – was beginning to stir on immigration reform:
Despite steep odds, the White House has discussed prospects for reviving a major overhaul of the nation's immigration laws, a commitment that President Obama has postponed once already. Obama took up the issue privately with his staff Monday in a bid to advance a bill through Congress before lawmakers become too distracted by approaching midterm elections.
Friday, Suzanne Gamboa of the Associated Press advanced the story by confirming that the President would meet with the two key Senators crafting a bipartisan immigration bill that could be the Obama administration’s legislative vehicle:
White House spokesman Nicholas Shapiro said Obama will meet with Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina on Monday. The president is "looking forward to hearing more about their efforts toward producing a bipartisan bill," Shapiro said Friday. The meeting will be the first Obama has had with Schumer and Graham on the proposal they are developing since they began focusing on it last year.
The pressure has been growing on President Obama, who as a candidate made repeated specific promises to Latino voters that he would address the immigration issue in his first year in office. Videotape of him making those promises was turned into an ad by the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) released this week reminding Latino voters in Spanish and English of the President’s words and urging them to hold him and the Democratic-controlled Congress accountable. The Reform Immigration For America campaign is organizing the March for America for March 21 in Washington, DC and advocates – including advocates from the President’s hometown of Chicago – are ratcheting up the rhetoric and the pressure. The meeting on Monday would appear to be a response to this mounting impatience. We will see if anything concrete comes out of the President’s meeting with Senators Schumer and Graham and whether a timetable for reform emerges. It won’t call off the marchers, but if a clear plan for achieving reform is articulated, it may help channel the energy of the marchers into calling on the Congress to act rather than targeting the White House for inaction.
This could turn into a very big story.  According to this Associated Press story written by Suzanne Gamboa Saturday, every person with a Puerto Rican birth certificate will need to get a new one this year.  A law passed in December invalidates all birth certificates issued by the Commonwealth as of July 1 of this year. About a third of the 4.1 million Americans of Puerto Rican descent could be affected, AP reports. The odd thing is, despite the fact that Puerto Ricans are born U.S. citizens, the reason for the new law relates to immigration.  Documents, especially identity documents that have Spanish-sounding names and confer automatic citizenship, are a hot property on the black market.
Puerto Ricans on average get about 20 copies of their birth certificates over their lifetimes, said Kenneth McClintock Hernandez, the commonwealth's secretary of state. This is because they are regularly asked to produce them for such events as enrolling children in school or joining sports leagues. Schools and other institutions have typically kept copies, a practice prohibited under the new law since January, McClintock said. As much as 40 percent of the identity fraud in the U.S. involves birth certificates from Puerto Rico, McClintock said he was told by the State Department. "It's a problem that's been growing and as the need in the black market for birth certificates with Hispanic-sounding names grew, the black market value of Puerto Rican birth certificates has gone into the $5,000 to $10,000 range," McClintock said.
Puerto Ricans are already getting greater scrutiny because of America’s vexing and often hysterical immigration debate.  As motor vehicle departments have gotten into the business of checking people’s immigration status – especially people with Spanish surnames and/or accents – Puerto Ricans are often asked for “green cards” they, of course, don’t have. With GOP political strategists thinking up new ways each year to erect barriers to voting – especially for people they think may vote against them – the deadline for resolving this identity issue could have electoral implications in important states with large populations of citizens born in Puerto Rico. But so far, AP reports, the word has not spread widely:
Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., has been getting a steady stream of calls about the law at his district office. Serrano — who must replace his birth certificate, too — said he is trying to provide answers without triggering a panic. "No one has thought about what effect this could have, if any, on those of us born in Puerto Rico who now reside in the 50 states," Serrano said.
Here’s an idea: What if the United States had a functioning legal immigration system that allowed people to come to the U.S. with visas within reasonable limits and within reasonable time frames?  What if that were combined with a tightly regulated system to get the millions of immigrants in the U.S. illegally into the system and legal?  Maybe then we wouldn’t have such a huge black market for false documents and wouldn’t have to twist ourselves in knots with workarounds like invalidating millions of birth certificates.  That’s what immigration reform is for, but the President and Congress don’t seem to be moving forward very quickly. Read Gamboa’s AP story, but I suspect we’ll be hearing more about this…
In Arizona and Texas, policies popular with the anti-immigration wing of the GOP are running into sharp criticism from a group of experts who know a thing or two about law and order: cops. Russell Pearce, the head Republican restrictionist in the Arizona Senate is pimping bills to allow everyone to sue public officials who don't report immigrants suspected of being in the country illegally to federal authorities. According to the Arizona Capitol Times, the Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police aren't too happy:
John Thomas, a lobbyist for the Association of Chiefs of Police, said rural communities would be harmed disproportionately if residents are allowed to file lawsuits against cities or counties that do not enforce of federal immigration law. Many of those communities are small and do not have the ability to defend the suits, much less pay court costs and hefty fines if they lose. They may not have an attorney,” he said. “They barely have (enough) police.” He suggested changing the bill to allow such suits to only be filed by county attorneys or the attorney general.
[The always entertaining Phoenix New Times takes an even harsher look at Pearce's actions here]. Over in Houston, a new policy in the jails to report suspected undocumented immigrants to federal authorities is also running afoul of the local constabulary.  Since the new policy was announced, Houston PD have had a harder time getting witnesses and victims of crime to come forward and work with them to get bad guys off the streets. The Houston Chronicle reported:
HPD officials do not track crime reported by illegal immigrants, but Acting Chief Charles McClelland said that, anecdotally, he has heard of cases involving victims who come forward only after being repeatedly victimized, and then report the crimes only after someone reassures them that their immigration status won't become an issue in the investigation. HPD officials say they have met with leaders in Houston's immigrant communities and have launched public outreach campaigns aimed at explaining the agency's policy — namely that officers and detectives do not report the immigration status of witnesses and victims to ICE agents. HPD also is considering a more coordinated public information campaign targeting foreign-language media, Assistant Chief Dan Perales said.
So the side of the immigration debate that likes to wrap itself in the cloak of law and order is pursuing policies that ACTUAL law and order professionals find troubling. It's another example of the policy and political knots we tie ourselves into because we have failed to address immigration reform head on.