Timeline: Fighting for a Place to Call Home

Michael Gould-Wartofsky Apr 30, 2013


In the weeks and months following 9/11, the city's Arab, Muslim and South Asian communities find themselves under siege from all sides: from federal authorities to local law enforcement, and from employers to landlords to racist vigilantes. At the federal level, over 1,200 Arab, Muslim and South Asian New Yorkers are targeted for "special interest" roundups and secret detentions, many of them held for months without charge. Immigrants and their allies organize in defense of their civil rights, with educational campaigns, legal advocacy efforts, volunteer escorts and solidarity actions at Immigration and Naturalization Service offices and detention centers.


In October 2002, thousands of young men from 25 primarily Muslim countries are subjected to "special registrations," at which they are interrogated about their politics, finances and immigration status. Over 3,000 New Yorkers are deported under the program from 2002-3. Meanwhile, the Homeland Security Act of 2002 leads to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, with the newly minted Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as its "principal investigative arm." By 2004, ICE apprehensions reached 1 million immigrants annually, and more than 200,000 were placed in detention centers. The offensive is met with widespread resistance in NYC. Families for Freedom, among others, is founded as a "multi-ethnic defense network by and for immigrants facing and fighting deportation."


Immigrant New Yorkers are at the forefront of a growing anti-detention movement, which helps put a stop to the special registrations in 2003. Amid preparations for the invasion of Iraq, the Department of Homeland Security announces Operation Liberty Shield, authorizing the detention of asylum seekers and the interrogation of immigrants from Iraq and 20 other nations. Meanwhile, in City Hall, Mayor Michael Bloomberg signs Executive Order 34, giving the NYPD and the Department of Corrections the power to investigate the immigration status of any New Yorker and to disclose their immigration status to ICE. Facing massive opposition, the mayor is forced to revise the order later that year but leaves many of its most harmful provisions in place.


Immigrant labor takes the lead in organizing drives and issue campaigns across the city and state. Domestic Workers United wins the first ever Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, mandating basic labor protections for this largely immigrant workforce in NYC. The Restaurant Opportunities Center organizes non-unionized restaurant workers and wins back millions of dollars in unpaid wages. The NY Immigration Coalition helps launch the Campaign to End Wage Theft and the $5.15 Is Not Enough Campaign, which pressures lawmakers to raise the state's minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.15. The local immigrant rights movement also partners with the AFL-CIO to bring tens of thousands out to the Immigrant Worker Freedom Rides in Queens, and tens of thousands more to march for immigrant and labor rights at the Republican National Convention.


Anti-immigrant violence continues to escalate in the Greater New York region. The escalation mirrors a national trend, with anti-Latino hate crimes rising 40 percent from 2003 to 2006. The violence is increasingly directed at Mexican and Central American immigrants, amid racist rhetoric and incitement from above. Suffolk County, NY is ground zero for the nativist offensive. Day laborers are harassed and beaten, a family of five is firebombed in its home, and groups like Sachem Quality of Life wage a campaign of terror in and around Farmingville, NY. Local initiatives like the Workplace Project and the Long Island Immigrant Alliance push back, fighting racial profiling, educating native-born neighbors and opening centers for day laborers.


The anti-immigrant right rallies around the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005 (H.R. 4437), with its battle cry of "border security" and its call for the criminalization of all 11 million undocumented immigrants as well as those who come to their aid. Some immigrant rights advocates ally with business interests and rally around the Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act (S. 1033), known as the McCain-Kennedy bill, which includes a path to legalization but also a path to further criminalization and an expansion of the guestworker labor regime. Many immigrant activists and advocates oppose both bills, fearing that they will only serve to legalize the status quo of exclusion and exploitation. Both bills ultimately go down in defeat amid an escalating wave of raids, detentions and deportations.


On March 25, immigrants and their allies stage a million-strong march in the streets of Los Angeles to protest the criminalization of the undocumented. On April 10, tens of thousands of New Yorkers converge on City Hall Park as part of a National Day of Action for Immigrant Justice. Then, on May 1 — International Workers' Day — immigrant workers lead a wave of wildcat strikes and megamarchas, pouring into the streets of over 70 cities in an unprecedented show of force known as "A Day Without an Immigrant." In NYC, hundreds of thousands of immigrants and their supporters march from Union Square to Foley Square, filling no less than 26 blocks along Broadway, and chanting "El pueblo unido, jam‡s ser‡ vencido." Hundreds of businesses throughout the city, especially in Brooklyn and Queens, are shuttered for the day.


The New York State Youth Leadership Council is founded by and for undocumented youth to demand equal access to higher education, including in-state tuition and tuition assistance for those who cannot otherwise afford to go to college. Youth have been organizing around the issue since 2001, but the founding of the YLC marks a new chapter in the history of the movement. Beginning in 2007, the DREAM Act advances at the federal and state levels, with the promise that it will make college affordable and offer a path to citizenship to the "Dreamers." But the effort is blocked by the nativist bloc in the Senate. In 2009, Dreamers from coast to coast come together to form United We Dream, aimed at "building a movement that would not hinge on votes in Congress," but on youth empowerment and youth-led mobilization at the grassroots.


As unemployment soars due to the Great Recession, immigrants across the region and country again find themselves scapegoated for the troubles of their native-born neighbors. The backlash yields a bill in Suffolk County imposing sanctions for immigrant hires, an initiative to turn local police into immigration agents in the Hudson Valley, and SB 1070 in Arizona, a law making it a crime to be without papers. New Yorkers turn out in force to reject the new laws and lend their support to the "Alto Arizona" (Stop Arizona) boycott.


Newly elected President Barack Obama, in spite of campaign promises to change course, continues and even accelerates deportations over the course of his first term. Each passing year marks a new record, with close to 400,000 removal proceedings recorded annually. ICE activity in New York City alone jumped 60 percent since 2006, according to Families for Freedom, with close to 30,000 New Yorkers detained since 2008 and 92 percent of them deported. Police precincts and city jails increasingly serve as direct pipelines to detention and deportation. And in 2012, in spite of local opposition, the Secure Communities (S-Comm) program goes into effect in NYC. Under S-Comm, all law enforcement is linked to immigration enforcement and local police are required to send any and all fingerprints immediately to Department of Homeland Security databases.


Undocumented students and their allies continue to push for passage of the DREAM Act and a national moratorium on deportations. In the spring of 2010, Dreamers stage a wave of sit-ins, hunger strikes and other actions in and around Congressional offices, including that of NY Senator Chuck Schumer. Over 100 allies are arrested in three weeks of civil disobedience at Manhattan's Federal Plaza. Yet the lawmakers remain intransigent. After two years of increasingly confrontational protests, President Obama blinks. In June 2012, the White House announces a "Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals" (DACA) policy, allowing Dreamers to stay in the United States and apply for work permits. While DACA brings a measure of relief to tens of thousands in NYC, it fails to stem the tide of deportations for the rest of the undocumented.


Immigrant and international activists play a formative role in the organization of Occupy Wall Street, with occupiers from almost every continent bringing their struggles to the table. Early on, immigrant-led unions such as TWU Local 100 are among the first to join the fray. Within days, community organizations, worker centers and allied groups around the city, from El Barrio to Sunset Park, join together to form the Immigrant Worker Justice Working Group. Declaring, "Immigrants Are the 99%," they go on to launch two parallel campaigns, one targeting for-profit detention centers, the other businesses engaged in wage theft. Long after their eviction from Zuccotti, immigrants continue to play a critical role in the movement as a whole, from May Day marches to rent strikes to organizing drives at local eateries and car washes.


Investigative reporters reveal the NYPD and its "Demographics Unit" has been spying on members of the Muslim Students Association at more than 20 universities in four states across the Northeast, including six CUNY schools, NYU, Columbia, and Saint John's. None of the organizations or "persons of interest" was ever accused of any wrongdoing, but that didn't stop NYPD detectives from tracking Muslim students through a "Cyber Intelligence Unit," issuing weekly "MSA Reports," or sending undercover operatives to infiltrate campus meetings, seminars and religious observances. The intelligence units in question worked closely with agencies in other cities, as well as an agent on the payroll of the Central Intelligence Agency.


The Senate's "Gang of Eight" unveils yet another "bipartisan framework" for comprehensive immigration reform, claiming to offer a new "roadmap" to address the status of undocumented immigrants. Many immigrants are quick to question this roadmap. Its path to citizenship not only takes 13 years and thousands of dollars in fines and fees, but is also "contingent upon our success in securing our borders," as well as an "E-Verify" system and a guestworker regime. The House, for its part, promises even harsher legislation. Advocacy groups call on their base to "fight to protect the good things" and to "fight to get rid of the bad." On April 10, over 3,000 New Yorkers board buses to Washington, D.C. to do just that.

On April 15, a pair of bombs go off at the Boston Marathon, killing three and injuring over 260. Two legal immigrants of Chechen heritage are later implicated. Yet, long before the suspects' identities are revealed, a new wave of racial violence ensues, stoked by speculation that the bombers are "dark-skinned males." Abdullah Faruque, a New Yorker born in Bangladesh, is brutalized in the Bronx. The backlash following the bombing revives calls for the mass detention of Muslims and threatens to derail efforts to win immigrant rights.

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