Monday, October 29, 2007

Racism And The Law Still Intertwined: Will Equal Rights Ever Be Attainable?

Inequality under the legal system was supposed to be non-existent after the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement, culminating with the civil rights act. This act outlawed discrimination of any kind based on ethnicity, gender or religious orientation. Dishearteningly, an act almost fifty years old has yet to take full effect; as the Martin Lee Anderson(his image on the left) case demonstrates, discrimination still lingers within American courtrooms. The verdict of the case on October 12 of this year reaffirms the notion that the judicial system continues to be riddled with bias. The courts acquitted seven camp guards and a nurse of manslaughter after fourteen-year old inmate Martin Lee Anderson died under their supervision. Caught on tape was a thirty-minute video of the seven camp guards dragging, choking and beating Anderson as the nurse watched; all of this abuse ensued solely because Anderson collapsed after a routine run. Fortunately “after Anderson's death, the Legislature dismantled the military-style youth boot camps,” but the death of a child was necessary to prompt the end of these camps in Florida. Regardless of the Legislature’s delayed actions, the sequence of events ignited outrage within the Florida community; as a result of the verdict, the local NAACP sponsored a protest on October 23, gathering an estimated 700 protestors.

Defendants of the seven camp guards and nurse argued that Anderson died from internal bleeding as a result of undiagnosed sickle-cell anemia, “a blood disorder that can hinder blood cells’ ability to carry oxygen during physical stress.” "An initial autopsy said he died from a genetic blood disorder, sickle-cell trait, while a second autopsy said he suffocated when guards clamped his mouth shut and held ammonia capsules under his nose for several minutes.” In response to Anderson’s passing out, the guards claimed they “handled what they thought was a juvenile offender faking illness to avoid exercising on his first day in the camp.” Defense attorneys even argued that “camp workers were using acceptable tactics”, but the video footage shows otherwise. The term “acceptable” is used loosely by the defense; choking and shoving pills down a semi-conscious adolescent’s throat does not constitute “acceptable” under any circumstances. If anything, these actions indicate excessive force and a violation of civil rights.

Included in these civil rights is the right to a fair trial. The fairness of the case has been called into question because of the jury composition, which consisted of only white people. “A pool of 1,400 people was initially called to find six jurors and four alternates. Defense attorneys asked that four black potential jurors be disqualified from service, while prosecutors eliminated one black potential juror themselves before a final jury and alternates, none of them black, was chosen.” Chuck Hobbs, a legal counsel for the NAACP said treat African-Americans differently from white people. Executive director for the Florida State Conference NAACP he “was surprised to learn that prosecutors removed a black woman from the jury that the defense wanted.” Creating an impartial jury is important in upholding the law, and the fact that there were no ethnic minorities in the jury does give cause for speculation. Whether or not the removal of all potential black jurors was intentional will be difficult to prove, and does not address the main issue within the case. The fact still remains that the police and the judicial system generally Beverlye Neal claims, “in 2007, we’re still dealing with blatant racism and no concern for black life.” Martin Lee Anderson was deprived of medical attention after he passed out, and instead, he was offered a series of pushes and kicks. The most visible illustration of the unfair ruling is described by Hobbs. He reports, “The jurors also acquitted them (the camp guards and nurse) of manslaughter, child neglect and culpable negligence.” Employees at the boot camp had a responsibility to Anderson, a child under their watch and care. The verdict of the case illustrates the devaluing of an African-American’s life. Regardless of Anderson’s history and criminal record, there is no excuse for beating an incapacitated person. Discouragingly, the Anderson verdict is just one example out of many that conveys the immense disparity between African-Americans and white people in the criminal law system. Capital punishment statistics affirm the notion that a black life is worth less than a white person’s. Based on statistics from 1983 to 1993, the figure on the middle right indicates that in Philadelphia alone, blacks were thirty-eight percent more likely than whites to be sentenced to death for similar crimes. Based on values from 1976 to 1994, “nearly 40% of those executed since 1976 have been black, even though blacks constitute only 12% of the population.” The chart on the left also depicts bias; the race of the victims influenced whether or not the defendant received the death penalty. If the victim was white, the defendant was more likely to be sentenced to death row than if the victim was black. Although the data appears outdated, it reflects the trends that exist within criminal law today. With a system that projects discrimination, how are African-Americans supposed to guard themselves against their claimed governmental protectors? If the keepers of justice are prejudice, then African-Americans are left defenseless against institutionalized racism. The black community will have to use out-of-doors organizations like the NAACP to ensure that their rights are safeguarded.

Since the recent protest (image on right), “the FSC NAACP has requested the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division to investigate the circumstances surrounding the case bought by the State of Florida in Bay County, and more importantly, to follow up on the FSC NAACP’s initial request in March 2006, calling for the U.S. District Attorney in North Florida to conduct an investigation into and charge those responsible for the civil rights violations evident in Martin Lee Anderson’s death.” Efforts to remove hints of bias from the judicial system send a hopeful message to African-Americans. The progress of the American government since the 1960’s in removing manifest discrimination from most of its institutions is praiseworthy, but furtive elements of partiality still remain. The civil rights movement did not just end with the Civil Rights act; it is an ongoing struggle minorities face to achieve equal protection under the law.

Monday, October 22, 2007

U-Visas For Immigrants: A Step Towards Recognition and Protection Under the Law

This past week, an Associated Press article released news that the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services had begun to sort out visas under the 2000 Victims of Trafficking and Violence Act. The act, seven years overdue, provides temporary visas for illegal immigrants who have been victims of crime within the United States. The purpose of allowing illegal immigrants to apply for this U-Visa “is to encourage illegal immigrants to report crimes against them in return for the right to remain in the United States and eventually apply for permanent residency.” This law allows ten thousand U-visas to be granted per year, and these visas expire within four years. One revolutionary aspect of the act is the following: if a U-visa holder stays within the country for three consecutive years, he or she can apply for full citizenship after the three years have passed. Offering U-visas appears to be a positive approach towards immigration, but the act has not passed without encountering some opposition.

Numbers of opponents of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Act find the U-visa portion of the act to be controversial. Ed Hayes, the Kansas director of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps has a firm stance against illegal immigrants, stating that, "If they become a victim, I am sorry for them. They should testify and then go home." Hayes oversimplifies how victims report crimes, ignoring the fact that illegal immigrants may not even report crimes if it jeopardizes their ability to stay in the United States. He claims that since they are illegal, they have no right of even being in the country to begin with, and are therefore not entitled to any sort of visa. Some opponents of the act are more sympathetic towards illegal immigrants, taking into consideration a provisional visa. Mark Krikorian (image on the left), executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, suggested an alternative to the U-visa, “something that allowed a person to testify but didn't give them the jackpot of a green card.” In essence, his argument is that an immigrant visa should be more difficult to attain. Illegal immigrants should not be rewarded with citizenship for participating with law enforcement if they are victims of a crime, but only a temporary visa to allow the victim to testify in a case. Although this argument is a fair one, Krikorian fails to acknowledge the fact that most crimes against illegal immigrants go unreported. The recent tightening of immigration laws, which provides that an illegal immigrant convicted of a crime in the U.S. will be immediately removed from the country, is the approach the government is using to pursue justice for the victims of these crimes. This sounds like a promising way to curb the number of illegal immigrants in the country while pursuing justice for the victims of the crimes, but this removal procedure alone does not appear to provide enough motivation for illegal immigrant victims to report crimes against them. There needs to be an incentive for these crime victims to file a report, which the Victims of Trafficking and Violence act takes into account.

The Victims of Trafficking and Violence act is progressive in its approach towards illegal immigrants because it grants temporary residency and a chance for illegal immigrants to apply for citizenship. Although the G.O.P.-led administration is more stringent when it comes to immigration laws, the act circumvents the administration’s efforts, presenting an alternate medium for illegal immigrants to attain citizenship. This law is a partial victory for illegal immigrants since it offers protections and services normally reserved for U.S. citizens. Reasoning for the act is summed up by U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services spokesperson Marilu Cabrera, who says, “it is helpful for the government that we get information and cooperation so we can solve these crimes and prevent future crimes.” Few statistics about illegal immigrants as victims of crime exist; the act would ideally increase the information available on the issue by increasing the number of people that report crimes. Cabrera continues, “for the person, it gives them peace of mind and an opportunity for a new life.” Her statement mirrors what illegal immigrant and crime victim Eleuterio Rodriguez Ruiz said about his motives for entering the United States. He voices that “more than anything I came to this country to find a better standard of living.” His words allude to the idea of the American dream, an issue discussed within my first blog post concerning immigration. Rather than building higher walls for illegal immigrants to climb over (image on right depicts desperation of immigrants to get to the U.S.), the American government should get to the roots of illegal immigration, one factor being poverty. Almost one hundred percent of the illegal immigrants coming from Mexico are near or below the poverty line and since about fifty-six percent (click on "origins" link on page) of illegal immigrants come from Mexico, the correlation between trespassing into the United States and financial instability becomes apparent. Bringing criminals to justice is important, but alleviating the poor from suffering is also imperative. The Victims of Trafficking and Violence act sets a precedent for acknowledging the suffering of illegal immigrants; hopefully this recognition will extend beyond the courtroom, offering economic relief as well. Instead of investing three billion dollars to secure borders between the U.S. and Mexico, a portion of the money could go towards assisting the poor in Mexico. Offering financial help to a country plagued by high poverty rates could potentially prevent as many illegal immigrants from sneaking into the U.S.

Although the purpose of Victims of Trafficking and Violence act is intended to uphold the justice system and put criminals in jail, the law goes beyond preserving the notion of “crime and punishment.” One proponent of the act, lawyer Peter A. Schey, said, “we intend to continue the fight for immigrant crime victims,” because they are a “largely poor, vulnerable population with no political clout.” Illegal immigrants are at an estimated twelve million and exponentially growing, and therefore are an undeniable presence in the country. By no means should illegal immigrants receive the equal benefits and protections naturalized citizens receive, but if they are subject to a crime, they should be shielded from more violence and crime. Realizing that the rights of victims, regardless of citizenship status, supercedes immigration law, conveys a more accommodating, inclusive strategy towards dealing with immigrants.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Violence in Philadelphia: Will 10,000 Men Accomplish the Job Cops Cant?

On October 21, 2007, Philadelphia will begin its initiative titled, “10,000 Men: It’s a New Day,” (to the right is a photo of the plan’s flier, a vibrant but idealistic push for peace). The program, which will be referred to as “10,000 Men”, was proposed by Philadelphia Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson. 10,000 Men aims at alleviating the city’s growing crime rate. Between January 1 and June 30 of 2007, the Philadelphia police have recorded 203 homicides, 159 of which involved an African-American victim. “More than 80 percent of the slayings involved handguns, and most involve young, black males.” This overwhelming surge of killings has forced the Philadelphia police to rely on other means of containing violence, extending policing power to volunteers within these dangerous neighborhoods. The plan is to plant a volunteer force of 10,000 men on notorious drug dealing and shootout corners, and these volunteers will serve as mentors to the youths committing violent acts. Volunteers would ideally work “three hours a day for at least 90 days,” and would be trained in cultural sensitivity. These 10,000 men would impart advice and guidance for the youths prone to aggression; the goal would be to advocate conflict resolution while providing the youths with role models. “One gun-violence researcher said the idea of putting citizens on patrol had the potential to show children that adults care.”

In the article, supporters of 10,000 Men discussed the pros of Johnson’s proposal. The executive director of the Firearm and Injury Center at the University of Pennsylvania said, “a steady exposure to violence just creates this toxic environment for children.” Any concerned parent would want their child to play freely in the yard without having to worry about a stray bullet killing their kid. Understandably, children learn behaviors from their surroundings, and the plan will hopefully deter violence in future generations. 10,000 Men is an idealistic effort to provide violent youths with options beyond the gang-life or drug dealing, further promoting a peaceful community. Very rarely does policing power get handed down to the people, and this act serves as a symbol of empowerment for African-Americans in Philadelphia. A chorus of volunteers have emerged in Philadelphia, and this philanthropic spirit is praise-worthy, but not enough to help Philadelphia. On the surface, Johnson’s plan may temporarily help protect neighborhoods, however, in the long run, Philadelphia will need more than 10,000 men to keep the streets safe.

Overly ambitious, 10,000 Men is riddled with problems. Heather Derussy of the Guardian Angels comments on Johnson’s plan, skeptical of him getting “anywhere near that number [10,000].” Her program, Guardian Angels, parallels 10,000 Men’s goals, and her organization has only gathered support from 7 people within the past two years. This disheartening number may be the future of 10,000 Men, especially if the program is not revised to address the issue of volunteer safety.

What happens if and when one of these 10,000 men gets injured on the job? There’s an inherent danger a volunteer takes on, especially if their presence prevents a drug transaction from occurring. Volunteers will not be carrying weapons, and will have to rely on words to defend themselves in the face of a gun. Who is to say that one of the youths will not hesitate to open fire on a volunteer because of their interference with business? Also, if volunteers are patrolling their own neighborhoods, their family and friends could fall victim to intimidation and violence; drug dealers and gun toters could easily follow volunteers and threaten their families in order to stop the patrolling. The program may unintentionally increase the number of homicides, the exact problem Johnson’s proposal is supposed to prevent. For 10,000 men to be able to recruit a lot of members, there need to be more incentives than just the preservation of “the public good.”

10,000 Men is a romanticized, quick fix answer to a problem with deeper roots than just the absence of role-models. The plan’s attempt to reform youths is a positive move towards understanding the causes of gang life and but forgets to consider other factors that contribute to crime. Increases in violence often correlate with escalating poverty levels. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, 22.9% of individuals in Philadelphia are below the poverty line. Since 2000, number of poor people in the city has undoubtedly risen. Unless the causes of violence are resolved, then 10,000 Men will only serve as a temporary solution for the crime in Philadelphia.

What happens when the 10,000 men leave their posts? Gang violence and drug selling do not just stop once there are more cops around; if anything, these actions will induce a brief respite from crime, followed by a new wave of crime. Once again, the police force will be, overwhelmed and understaffed. Philadelphia’s fate requires more permanent proposals implemented in such as stricter restrictions on gun sales, more governmental aid to families in need, and more after-school programs for kids.

The picture on the left is only a part of what the 10,000 Men will have to face. Each red dot indicates the location of one homicide in Philadelphia from January 1st to July 30th of this year. Only time will tell if Johnson’s plan is an effective tool in preventing crime, but the future looks grim for 10,000 Men.

Monday, October 1, 2007

The "New" and "Improved" Citizenship Test: More Expensive and More Biased

On September 27, 2007, the Bush-led government released a revised version of the naturalized citizenship test with some important changes. For the current exam, there are ninety-six questions, but on the new exam, there are one hundred questions. A handful of the newly introduced questions, one example being "If both the president and vice president can no longer serve, who becomes president?," emphasize understanding how the American government is structured while other questions require comprehension beyond mere memorization. The new exam compels citizen-hopefuls to use critical thinking to answer. Few people can argue that the revisions are unfair because becoming a citizen is indisputably a status an immigrant should earn; more challenging questions are thus a means to ensuring that citizen-hopefuls grasp core American ideas and values. However, the new exam that will be introduced starting October 1, 2008, allows for only a specific answer rather than the previous exam which permitted some flexibility in answering the questions. My mother, who is currently applying for naturalized citizenship, may have difficulties in repeating the exact answers that are in the study guides, especially given her trouble translating Chinese into English. As a result, immigrants like her will need to memorize the answers provided by their study guides and brush up on English, and these factors may decrease the number of people passing the test. The image on the right depicts a diverse group of people swearing in their oaths before receiving citizenship status, which may perhaps be a distant reality once the new test is implemented.

Another problem with the revised citizenship test is that it does not reflect or cater to a diverse range of immigrants. Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials' education fund, critiqued that immigrant advocacy groups had no opportunity to "comment on the very final version of the exam." This is a flaw on the U.S. Immigration and Services' part because advocacy groups' are more sensitive to the needs of certain immigrant groups, and their input could ensure that the new exam is fair to all immigrant groups. The article then describes that "the redesigned questions went through four months of testing at 10 agency offices that were chosen for their diversity and varying caseloads." This appears to be an impressive fact, indicating that the government has researched the effects of the new exam, but one side note is that the test was not introduced to any California agency offices. California is significant when discussing both immigration and citizenship issues because the state has the highest immigration rate in the nation; twenty-eight percent of the nation's immigrants, legal and illegal, are residing in California.
It seems almost nonsensical then, that California was not participating in the trials for the new citizenship test. Supporters of the revision, like Alfonso Aguilar, chief of the Office of Citizenship, stated that "94% of the volunteers passed the new test," whereas "84% pass the current test." These figures appear promising; the new exam may increase the chances of an applicant passing. Yet numbers are often distorted and unrepresentative, as 94% of those who passed the new test were from only ten out of the fifty-one states in the nation, while 84% of test takers nationwide passed the current exam.

In addition to the under-representation of immigrants from states like California, one of the problems with the future exam is the "recent increase in the citizenship application fee (now $675)." Now, not just the difficulty of the questions, but also the cost for applying may hinder immigrants from becoming naturalized. The increase in cost and difficulty consequently impacts immigrants who have less money or do not have a strong educational background. Fred Tsao, a policy director for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrants and Refugees even says, "Mexicans, as a group, fall into that category" of underprivileged. He also noted that the new test "may block out people who are older or less well-educated." Many immigrants from Mexico apply for U.S. citizenship to get a chance at a better life, and the new test provides another obstacle for these immigrants to face. Therefore, this "new" and "improved" citizenship test singles out these less-advantaged minority groups, while promoting an agenda of building barriers against "undesirable" immigrants. This new exam, like immigration policy, favors educated or affluent immigrants, who are predominantly from Asian or Western European countries. Of the Asian immigrants that come to the U.S., forty-eight percent had a bachelor's degree, whereas only eleven percent of the immigrants from Latin America had a bachelor's degree. Even more startling is the fact that forty-seven percent of Latin American immigrants who come to the U.S. have no high school diploma, whereas only sixteen percent of Asian immigrants had no high school diploma. The discrepancies in education level will undeniably affect an immigrant's ability to comprehend and pass the citizenship test. What happens to the Mexican immigrants then is that more may resort to illegal means of entering the United States. As the image on the left illustrates, relations between President Bush and President Felipe Calderón of Mexico are civil now, but may grow tense in response to Bush's stringent citizenship and immigration laws.

The revamped citizenship exam, "intended to promote assimilation and patriotism," falls far from assimilation and instead, encourages exclusion. At stake is a core American value, equal opportunity, undermined by the implementation of the latest revision.
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