Laws Before Justice in Herndon

Stephen J. DeBenedittis, the mayor of Herndon, Va., a DC suburb with a huge population of immigrants, particularly from El Salvador, published a letter in The Washington Post this past Sunday to declare his respect for the "rule of law" and his willingness to embrace legal immigrants into his community. Since taking office Mr. DeBenedittis has moved forward several measures similar to those springing up in towns across the nation, intended to deter the undocumented from settling in these communities.

He writes: "This does not mean we are unwelcoming to immigrants, nor does it mean we are against any ethnic group. It means that we respect and seek to follow the law of the land."

Yet, Mr. DeBenedittis then contradicts himself, saying, "Workable, enforceable reforms to immigration laws and policies must be enacted."

In doing so, he exposes the contradiction inherent in deriding undocumented immigrants for not respecting the established "rule of law" while at the same time calling for changes in that "rule", in order to deter or punish the undocumented. If, as the mayor claims, illegality is the problem and not the immigrants themselves and he's willing to make new laws in this arena as he's shown by his initiatives, then why not encourage change in the laws of admission to the USA, making them more permissive and therefore more in step with the realities of immigration, and enforce them justly? This way, Mr. DeBenedittis would have more legal immigrants to welcome into his town, which he claims to be so keen to do.

No, this "law of the land" rhetoric seems either false-hearted or misplaced. Respect for the law should be tempered by a sense that the law exists to serve the cause of justice, not to serve itself. Otherwise, were our judges this forthright, we might witness more of this backwards occurrence, described in Billy Bragg's song "Rotting on Remand":

"I said there is no justice
As they led me out of the door.
And the Judge said, 'This isn't a court of justice, son.
This is a court of law.'"

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Racial Profiling in Enforcement?

ICE took into custody 24 day laborers in Baltimore city two days ago, using methods that may amount to racial profiling, according to an internal e-mail from Washington-area members of the American Immigration Lawyers Assoc.:

"Witness accounts indicate that Latino workers were separated from other ethnic groups for questioning, and passers-by who appeared Latino were also being detained and questioned."

The e-mail called on members to help a local Latino group identify and support those apprehended, who now sit in Salisbury Detention Center, and address "the racial profiling issue which appears to have been very blatant."

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State of the Union

Pres. Bush's sixth State of the Union address came and went without any strikingly new thoughts on immigration. Call it pandering to various constituencies or working for compromise, Bush maintained his call for both "laws that are fair" and "borders that are secure"; a temporary-worker program and twice as many Border Patrol backed by "new infrastructure and technology".

Yet his call for "laws that are fair" stops with this worker program, leaving out the full complexity of the insufficiencies of our immigration law -- like the "material support" bar that, for instance, denied asylum to a woman held captive, raped, and forced to work by a rebel group in West Africa by saying she aided terrorists. (Several such instances have been reported.)

More importantly, it ignores the paralyzing failings of our immigration system itself, so backlogged and politically prejudiced that it fails those who actually qualify under our stringent laws of admission, either through the delay of justice or the unreasonable discretion of judges. Should a man sit in prison for months, even years, awaiting adjudication of his claim for political asylum? Should a U.S.-citizen child, born and raised in this country, whose mother has outstayed a visa, face the fate of either (1) deportation to a destitute and unruly land she's never visited, where medical care is impossible and warring factions use rape or amputation of children to fight their battles, or (2) life as a ward of the state and an ostensible orphan? (I've worked on several cases just like that myself.)

A temporary-worker program would certainly prove a relief valve of sorts, allowing the natural cycles of worker migration to resume, but it's not enough -- particularly if it proves to be the program that's temporary, as the official transcript of the President's speech implies, and not the workers. (Of course that implication might result from poor punctuation, writing "temporary worker program" instead of "temporary-worker program", rather than poor policy making.)

In his address the President also called for workplace enforcement of immigration laws, just as his executive branch announced several hundred more such arrests and deportations this week. From the West Coast to the East, immigrants were taken into custody for alleged violations. No charges have been brought against the people who employed them.

Pres. Bush demanded we resolve the status of the undocumented "without animosity", a noble thought indeed. Yet we continue to treat undocumented migrants as dangerous criminals or enemy combatants of some sort, even without proof of wrongdoing, as last week's report reminded us. And even the quickest survey of commentary from anonymous writers online to t.v. personalities to elected legislators reveals the wide spread of a fallacious nightmare in which murderous, malicious hordes of foreigners swarm into our country to destroy it.

The President also said that, "our country requires an immigration system worthy of America". Is such xenophobic behavior worthy of the USA? Are walled, medieval cities worthy of the land of the free and the home of the brave? Was war-torn Berlin? Soldier-lined borders? Federal agents kicking down doors at 4 a.m. to take people away? Are these the things America deserves?

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New Report of Immigrant Neglect

ICE has mistreated suspected undocumented immigrants in several detention centers nationwide, according to a government report released yesterday. The Washington Post reports that ICE and the private contractors to whom it outsources some of its detainees "denied timely medical treatment to some of the immigrants, failed to disclose and justify disciplinary actions against them, and improperly limited access to relatives, lawyers and immigration authorities".

This news doesn't shock the immigrant community, particularly since 09.11.01 and the Special Registration of Muslim- and/or Arab-type men. Many of those men found themselves detained without cause or the one phone call afforded others seen as criminals. And insiders of the immigration system have long dealt with indefinite detentions while a backed-up system crawled towards examining cases.

Critics of the new report claim the government has presented a watered-down assessment, leaving out reports of more severe abuses, "which they said included physical beatings, medical neglect, food shortages and mixing of illegal immigrants in administrative custody with criminals." Aside from the clear-cut abuse, someone who has allegedly overstayed a visa should not share a cell with a convicted murderer. This is why we have prisons of varying levels of security.

Some claim that those not here legally do not deserve the protection of our laws -- despite our founders' assertions that The Constitution applies to all people. (Those old, white men of course may have had a different concept of "people" than we have today.) But we should not punish people with our laws if we do not allow them the protections those laws provide. That's not how our system was intended to function.

Regardless, ICE's attempts at raising the detention rate of undocumented people add strain to a system that, as this report indicates, can't support its current burden -- despite DHS Assistant Secretary Julie L. Myers's protests and only partial acceptance of the report. But the U.N. plans to investigate.

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Testing II

The only acceptable answers for our sample citizenship test, according to USCIS:

1. She fought for women’s rights.

2. The Federalist Papers

3. Everyone must obey the law.
Leaders must obey the law.
Government must obey the law.

4. The Missouri River

5. Because there were 13 original
Because the stripes represent
the original colonies

6. The spread of communism
The Soviet Union [USSR and
Russia are also acceptable.]

7. U.S. diplomat
Oldest member of the
Constitutional Convention
First Postmaster General of the
United States
Writer of “Poor Richard’s

8. 1787

9. You can practice any religion
you want, or not practice at all.

10.Print money
Declare war
Create an army
Make treaties

Apparently, THE "major concern" during the Cold War was EITHER Communism OR The Soviet Union. Look, either ask for "a" concern or declare only one possibility for "the" concern. As for Susan B., the question as it's so vaguely worded could be answered: Wore dresses. Was an avid reader. Liked long walks on the beach. Or ended up on a silver dollar.

The freedom of religion answer is just loony. The government has established that, for instance, certain Caribbean religions involving the practice of animal sacrifice are not allowed. The practice of polygamy, once popularized in Mormonism (though now largely out of fashion), has been outlawed. And don't even get me started on the constraints we've placed on practicing Islam. And we may not physically impede most people from practicing anything that doesn't look like Christianity, but we certainly ostracize them a lot of the time. Now, to be fair, the question doesn't claim that this country allows freedom of religion as it defines the term (though other questions here do). So then why put this question on this test?

And rule of law. Ah, yes. "Those illegals don't respect the rule of law!" Anything that says "Everyone must obey" sounds a bit ominous to me, particularly since many folks tout respect for the "rule of law" even by those from whom they would refuse the benefits of the law, i.e. non-citizens must follow our laws but don't receive the benefits of our highest law, The Constitution. And recent history shows us that the President can, if not flaunt the law, simply skirt it to his own ends. That kind of thinking makes us hypocrites. Perhaps a question that teaches that should appear on the test as well.

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So U Wanna B a Citizen?

USCIS recently released the questions and answers of the pilot version of a new citizenship test, the one legal residents have to pass as part of their applications for citizenship. USCIS will start testing the exam questions on applicants early this year, hoping to finalize a new exam more angled towards the "concepts of democracy and the rights and responsibilities of citizenship". Out of the 144 questions in the pool, applicants have to answer correctly 6 out of the 10 asked of them.

Some people have long wondered how native-born citizens would fare on this exam. So, let's test ourselves. Read the 10 questions below, drawn straight from the pilot citizenship exam, and send a comment with your answers (or wait until I post the answers and send in your score). Also, if you want to send in some snide, funny answers, please do.

1. What did Susan B. Anthony do?
2. What group of essays supported the passage of the Constitution?
3. What is the "rule of law"?
4. What is the longest river in the United States?
5. Why does the flag have 13 stripes?
6. What was the major concern of the US during the Cold War?
7. Name one thing Benjamin Franklin is famous for?
8. When was the Constitution drafted?
9. What does freedom of religion mean?
10.Name one thing only the Federal government can do.

[I did handpick these, so they're not random. I could have asked, Who was the first President? or Which sitting member of the Executive branch recently shot a man in the face?]

The point, however, is not the injustice of demanding of new citizens a knowledge of our government than many of us do not possess. After all, we hand them a sheet with all the answers on it ahead of time: To become real students of the USA, they just have to learn by rote, spit out the right responses on test day, and go on their ways, immediately forgetting what they'd learned.

The glaring problem with this test is that it rather boldly attempts to indoctrinate our new citizens with simplistic thought and some debatable, politically motivated answers like "Everyone has the right to bear arms" -- and that several of the answers are, well, wrong.

Steven Lubet illuminates this in a piece at Salon.com, in which he attests that answers to as many as 19 of the 144 questions on the test are incorrect. For example:

"The dumbed-down answers to the pilot questions end up penalizing applicants who actually understand the Constitution. Thus, anyone who wants to guarantee a passing score should probably memorize the many misconceptions found in the USCIS pilot answers, such as the following:

"A member of Congress represents all citizens in that representative's district (wrong; he or she represents all people in the district, including noncitizens).

"Only state governments can provide police protection and fire departments, issue drivers' licenses, and provide education (wrong; the federal government can, and does, provide those services on military bases and in the District of Columbia).

"Elections in the United States are always held in November (wrong; federal elections are in November, but state and local elections -- and federal primaries -- are held in many other months).

"It is the responsibility of U.S. citizens, and only citizens, to vote and serve on juries (idealistic, but still wrong; jury service can be legally required, but voting is strictly optional -- and in any event, noncitizens may be allowed to vote in certain state and local elections).

"Only U.S. citizens may apply for federal jobs (seriously wrong, especially given the context; permanent resident aliens -- meaning pretty much everybody who takes the citizenship test -- are eligible for employment by many agencies of the federal government, including the U.S. Postal Service)."

Lubet also throws in some levity at the end, adding President Bush's theoretical responses to some of the questions. The test does prove good for some laughs, but it also shows that, even in a smaller matter like the citizenship test, USCIS and its system need deep reformation. A legal venue for immigration this flawed deserves much of the blame for our large, undocumented population. Who wouldn't skirt a system this stupid?

(You can find the whole pilot test here.)

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