Annette Fuentes

Should Kids Go To Jail for Skipping School?

This story was originally posted on the Atlantic. 

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Miami-Dade Leaning Democratic as Cubans Age

Early voters in Miami-Dade County, Fl., have come out strongly for Democratic candidate Sen. Barack Obama. This is surprising news in this traditional Republican stronghold where the majority Latino electorate is now sharply divided among Latino voters by generation and country of origin.

A poll of Miami-Dade residents who have already cast their ballots found that an overwhelming majority of all groups--61 percent--voted for Obama and 31 percent voted for Republican candidate Sen. John McCain.

But in a county where 55 percent of the electorate is Latino, there were major differences among voters based on their country of origin. Overall, 53 percent of Latinos surveyed voted for McCain and 47 percent for Obama, reflecting the strength of the Cuban vote in Miami-Dade, which comprises almost two-thirds of all Latino voters. Cuban-born voters, a historically solid Republican base, backed McCain with 69 percent of their votes. Venezuelans at 80 percent and Nicaraguans at 70 percent also went for the Republican candidate.

But among Latinos born in the United States, 72 percent voted for Obama. Voters born elsewhere in Latin America, including Mexico, Honduras, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Columbia, also back Obama by 70 percent to 30 percent for McCain.

Voters also showed significant differences based on their age, with 72 percent of all voters under age 30 backing Obama and 64 percent of those 65 and older backing MCain.

Poll director Sergio Bendixen said the results were evidence of a coming sea change in the Florida electorate as the Cuban exile community grays.

"The biggest surprise was this great differential between the generations here in Miami and the Cuban community," he said. "People are talking about how the sons and daughters of exiles would vote and they thought they would be more liberal. But this is first time there has been enough of a sample of Cuban Americans born in the United States. And it shows them overwhelmingly becoming Democratic. That is the future of Miami's Hispanic community."

The poll's results point to a likely Obama victory in Miami-Dade on Nov. 4 as well as to a strong chance of him winning the state, Bendixen said.

"What we're seeing in Florida is that the most Republican county is breaking for Obama," he said. "The chances are that in Broward, Palm Beach and Osceola Obama has a chance to win the state.

"It's hard to see how Republicans will win if they are getting no advantage in Hispanic precincts."

The poll was based on interviews conducted between Oct. 20 and 29 by Bendixen & Associates. It surveyed 8,683 voters at 18 of 20 early-voting sites in Miami-Dade County.

Tuition Becomes Battleground in Immigration Fight

Editor's note: AB540 is a law designed to offer the lower tuition at all three Californian state college and university systems to undocumented immigrants. It is now being challenged in the Yolo County Superior Court. Annette Fuentes is a New York journalist who writes on education and health care.

Anti-immigrant activists celebrated September 15 when the Court of Appeal in Sacramento issued its ruling in a suit challenging a California law granting in-state tuition rates to students who are undocumented immigrants. Called AB540, the law was passed by the state legislature in 2001 to offer the lower tuition to students in all three state college and university systems. The difference in dollars is substantial: for the UC system, in-state tuition is about $18,000 less; for the state universities, it's $8,000 less, and community colleges charge over $100 less per credit for the in-state rate.

The ruling by a three-judge panel doesn't settle the lawsuit, though. It merely sends the matter back to the Yolo County Superior Court, where the suit was originally filed back in 2005, for further litigation. The core issue is whether AB540 conflicts with federal law that prohibits states from granting undocumented immigrants just such educational benefits, if those benefits are based on residency.

Supporters of AB540, including the state's university systems, say they believe that the law as written does not violate that federal dictate. To qualify for the in-state tuition rate, a student must spend at least three years in, and graduate from, a California high school. "The legislature tried to fashion a set of criteria that were not based on residency," said Chris Patti, the UC attorney involved in the litigation. "It thought it had done that, and this one court of appeal disagreed."

As defendants in the lawsuit, UC, CSU and CC are weighing their legal options. Patti says UC is considering two options. "One is to file a petition for rehearing, which means asking the Court of Appeal to reconsider, or in this case clarify, what a portion of its ruling was," Patti said. "The other is to file a petition of review with the California Supreme Court." And should those options fail to protect AB540, an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court is possible, he said.

There is more at stake here than California's law, too. Nine other states -- Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and Washington-have similar tuition policies at their public universities. Kansas was actually the first target for legal challenge back in 2004,when the Immigration Reform Law Institute, the legal arm of the virulently anti-immigrant Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), filed suit on behalf of out-of-state student plaintiffs. The Institute's lead attorney, Kris W. Kobach, is also leading the challenge to California's law. Kobach, a law professor at the University of Missouri, has a prominent place in anti-immigrant litigation and policy. He represented Hazelton, Pennsylvania, which adopted ordinances designed by the mayor to make the town the most "hostile" place in America for undocumented immigrants.

Unfortunately for Kobach and his Hazelton clients, a federal court ruled the town's ordinances unconstitutional in 2007. That same year, Kobach also lost his challenge to Kansas' in-state tuition benefit for undocumented immigrants. But the California Court of Appeal ruling keeps this anti-immigrant effort alive.

The argument against AB540 and its analogues in other states is that U.S. citizens are cheated by having to subsidize the educations of undocumented immigrant students who are breaking the law by being here. And out-of-state students are cheated by not benefiting from the lower in-state tuition-even though they are citizens or legal residents. But as is often the case with anything related to immigrants, there is much heat and little light brought to the facts. The benefit of lower tuition under AB540 is not granted only, or even primarily, to undocumented immigrants.

Eligibility extends to students who may have moved out of California after graduating high school as well as to immigrants who have legal residency. The precise number of undocumented students receiving the in-state rate is not known but it isn't very high. In the UC system, 1,639 students were eligible for in-state tuition rates under AB540 in the 2006-2007 school year, according to UC spokesman Ricardo Vasquez. Of those, 1,200 students were permanent residents or citizens. The CSU system doesn't collect data on the legal status of students who are eligible for AB540, according to a spokeswoman, and doesn't know how many might be undocumented. But she said an "educated guess" would put the total at about twice what the UC system has.

Of course, for those who believe that undocumented immigrants don't contribute but only drain resources from this country, even one student benefiting from AB540 would be too many. It is ideology over rationality. If rationality prevailed, the clear advantages to society in making higher education as affordable as possible to anyone motivated to achieve would win the day. But for now, it will be up to the legal defenders of rational educational and immigrant policy to continue the fight in court.

Stories on Undocumented students.

Undocumented Asian Students Speak Out.

Asian Americans Rally in Support of Undocumented Students.

Claiming a Public Space -- Undocumented Youth Come Out of the Closet.

Whose Homeland Is It?

A week after the 9/11 attacks, I spoke to my nearest neighbor on our sparsely populated road in rural upstate New York. John is a city transplant with a Queens accent and the coffee-colored complexion of his Lebanese parents. He's a plumber and a tough guy who has been tossed from several local saloons for his fisticuffs, but now fear was in his voice. "Right after the attacks, this asshole at work came up to me and said, 'You people did it again!'" he recalled. "I looked at him and was about to tell him to go fuck off and then I thought, no, I better keep my mouth shut."

Racist stereotyping, harassment and self-censorship all played out in that brief encounter. John thinks of himself as American, but one hate-filled man in one moment could challenge his identity and sense of security. I wondered at the time how many other such scenarios were unfolding in communities around the country in this tense, overheated climate.

Homeland, the newest work by journalist Dale Maharidge, answers that question and raises many more about the impact 9/11 had on the psyche of a nation already divided by race, class, religion and, most fundamentally, by different understandings of what it means to be American.

In the years since, publishers have cranked out hundreds of books about 9/11. But where was the reporting on the real and perceived changes in communities far from New York and the Pentagon?

In Homeland, Maharidge breaks new ground in the genre of 9/11 journalism by heading into heartland America, his old stomping grounds from three earlier books with photographer Michael Williamson.

For two years, Maharidge traveled the country, from Chicago to West Virginia to Maine, practicing what he calls "Star Trek journalism" – going where no journalists have gone before. He reports the stories that the news media ignored while Williamson documents the story with photos that are poignant and frightening evidence of America's pulsing heart of darkness.

On September 11, 2002, while the herd produced predictable flag-waving and maudlin reportage, Maharidge went to a Chicago suburb where ethnic whites staged a violent rally in an Arab neighborhood. "It seemed every journalist and writer and producer in America was working on a 9/11 anniversary story that day," he writes. "I was no different. But where I was going there was no national press, no bands, no politicians working a crowd, no emotional tales of heroism or loss."

The tales Maharidge relates expose the synergy between economics and racism in Rust Belt communities, whose residents are the victims of post-industrial collapse and what he describes as a "30-year war against the working class." Maharidge aims to "draw back the curtain" on the anger of white working-class people like Nancy and Jim, a mother and son from Oak Lawn, Illinois. Behind their flag-waving and anti-Arab pronouncements are real financial fears. Jim, 35, had two heart attacks and has $200,000 in medical bills he can't pay because he is uninsured and hasn't held a job in two years. Nancy, 56, needs a knee operation but her HMO won't cover it. They are riled up, believing Arab immigrants get "the best medical care" free.

September 11 didn't transform the United States from a nation of tolerant, freedom-loving citizens into one seething with the brand of racial intolerance Jim and Nancy display. It uncorked the genie. "People had hate, they had anger," Maharidge says in an interview. "But it was directionless. After 9/11, it had direction. George Bush was channeling the anger." To what extent are economics and what Maharidge documents as a deepening depression in most of the country responsible for the currents of racism and xenophobia? That is an important question.

As Homeland came out, Harvard's Samuel P. Huntington arrived in bookstores with Who Are We? The Challenges to America's National Identity, the intellectual equivalent of the nativism expressed by Jim and Nancy. Huntington posits that Americans faced with a growing immigrant population need to protect Anglo-Protestantism as a shared culture. He writes that during economic downturns "white nativist movements are a possible and plausible response to these trends." But if Huntington sees nativism as "plausible" and hence defensible because of his own identification with its basic tenets, Maharidge sees nativism and racism as fundamentally anti-democratic, the curdled byproducts of a failed economic system and the betrayal of working-class people, whatever their color or creed.

Maharidge finds historical precedents in post-World War I Weimar Germany for what he found as he traveled post-9/11 America "harvesting" stories of reaction and rage. Germany's political and economic fall from power and the accompanying nationalism fed Hitler's rise to power. Maharidge sees in today's America the awful possibilities of a similar angry nationalism. "Many Americans long for a nation that is powerful – at least in economic terms. Americans may not be lugging bushel baskets of money to buy bread, but they are trying to live on Wal-Mart wages paying Silicon Valley-level prices for mortgages and rents in the hinterlands. These Americans want back the America they remember." Conservative talk radio, Maharidge writes, is "a virtual beer hall" where right-wing thugs like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly whip up their listeners with inflammatory racist and anti-immigrant – not to mention homophobic and sexist – blather.

But all is not darkness in heartland America. Maharidge also tells stories of courage and conviction. Chief among them is how 15-year-old Katie Sierra faced down the thugs in Sissonville, West Virgina, "a community that relished being redneck" and waved the Confederate flag as "a talismanic symbol that guards the town and announces: no minorities. No gays. No pinkos. No 'other' of any kind." In fall 2001, Sierra became an outcast in her school and the town of Sissonville for opposing the bombing of Afghanistan and trying to organize an anarchist club whose manifesto opposed hate or violence. Maharidge followed Sierra as she went to court to challenge school authorities and, indeed, the very definition of civil liberties and democracy in one small town. For Sissonville's residents, being patriotic Americans means conformity and obeisance to authority. To Katie Sierra and her civil liberties attorneys, patriotism includes and encourages dissent and individual expressions of unpopular views.

Who will get to define patriotism and democracy in post-9/11 America? Will it be, as Maharidge describes them, the "thousand mini-Ashcrofts scattered around the country – 0n school boards, in newspaper publishers' offices, among some college administrators, on local police departments" – or will it be the Katie Sierras? Homeland poses this fundamental question. It is one that all of us who are committed to social and economic justice must ultimately answer.

A Quiet Victory in Iowa

With little fanfare or national media attention, Iowa Gov. Thomas J. Vilsack on May 14 signed into law a state ban on the use of thimerosal, a mercury preservative used in vaccines. Iowa becomes the first state in the country to ban thimerosal, which is at the center of medical and legal debates over the cause of autism disorders, now affecting as many as 1 in 250 children. Similar bills are pending in the legislatures of Missouri and Nebraska, and in April, a bill to ban thimerosal was introduced in Congress.

Iowa's action opened a new political front in a parent-led movement to establish a link between thimerosal and autism and to hold accountable pharmaceutical companies and the federal health agencies that permitted its use since the '40s. Only in 1999, after mounting scientific concerns about possible toxicity to children of mercury-laced vaccines, did the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issue a recommendation that vaccine makers remove thimerosal. The CDC still has not issued an outright ban on thimerosal, and some vaccines, including flu shots, still contain trace amounts.

"It is an important milestone that it was passed," says Sallie Bernard, co-founder of SAFE Minds, an autism advocacy and research organization. "Once you have one state going in that direction, other states are more likely to follow along."

Iowa's anti-thimerosal action came four days before a panel of the federal advisory Institute of Medicine (IOM) issued its final report on thimerosal in vaccines. That May 18 report, which received widespread press attention, concluded that no evidence supported this conclusion. While the IOM report sought to resolve the controversy over thimerosal, Bernard says the debate is far from over. "The IOM report makes things more difficult for us in terms of convincing the wider medical community that this is a problem," she says. "We don't want the IOM to shut down the science or the debate so the legal system doesn't have anything to work with." Bernard says many new research efforts on thimerosal and autism were under way, including some funded by SAFE Minds.

In Missouri, a thimerosal ban was approved in the House in March. But in the closing session of the Senate last month, state Sen. Ken Jacob launched a filibuster that prevented the bill from coming to a vote. According to Missouri campaign finance records, Jacob received a $500 contribution in December 2003 from GlaxoSmithKline and $500 from Novartis Pharmaceuticals in March 2004. Both drug companies manufacture vaccines. A similar bill banning use of mercury preservatives in vaccines was introduced in the Nebraska legislature in January 2004.

Iowa state Sen. Ken Veenstra, author of the thimerosal ban, says he saw no direct pressure from the pharmaceutical companies, but their influence was nonetheless felt in the wrangling over the thimerosal ban. "They have influence over the medical profession in general, and they have consistently sent the message, 'This stuff is OK, don't worry about it,' " Veenstra says. "As a result, the people we rely on -- the medical practitioners -- believe the message and it's hard to combat that notion. We had to overcome that obstacle."

Parent activists with Biological Education for Autism Treatment in Iowa, or BEAT-Iowa, worked with Veenstra to shape the legislation. Dana Halverson, a BEAT-Iowa founder, is the parent of a 5-year-old girl who is autistic and has a range of intestinal and autoimmune disorders that Halverson believes were triggered by thimerosal in her vaccines. "The biggest problems are we've had to go through so much financial and emotional stress -- the financial stress creates so much emotional stress," Halverson says. Last year, she and her husband incurred $40,000 in medical expenses for their daughter, with only $10,000 covered by insurance.

Establishing the thimerosal-autism link is the ultimate goal of advocates because it also would affix liability for the financial and emotional burdens suffered by thousands like the Halversons. But Iowa's ban won't immediately change the legal playing field for those seeking compensation for their autistic children, according to Houston trial lawyer Andrew Waters. "As far as impact on litigation, it will be relatively minimal for the time being," Waters says. "It would have more effect on a case in Iowa." Waters filed the country's first thimerosal lawsuit against Eli Lilly, inventor of thimerosal, and other drug companies on behalf of an autistic boy and his parents. He now represents the Halversons and many other parents. "As things stand, thimerosal hasn't been banned by the federal government although there is evidence that some people think it's dangerous enough to ban," he says.

Meanwhile, on April 5, Reps. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.) and Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) introduced a bill, shaped by SAFE minds advocates, that would eliminate thimerosal from vaccines. Bernard said activists are focusing on building support in the House to make sure the bill doesn't languish in committee. "We're optimistic," she says, "but a lot depends on how the issue is seen in the next couple months.

Annette Fuentes is a New York-based journalist who writes frequently on health and social policy issues. A contributing editor of In These Times, she is co-author with Barbara Ehrenreich of Women in the Global Factory.

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