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  • Occupy Wall St. Takes Up Immigration Reform

    Thanu Yakupitiyage: OWS should make immigrants' rights and Dream Act a major priority for 2012 -   January 13, 2012
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    Occupy Wall St. Takes Up Immigration ReformPAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay in Washington.

    Occupied Wall Street isn't occupying on Wall Street as much these days, but they have branched out. We've done stories on Occupied actions in Bronx, dealing with people that had been foreclosed or occupying houses. And Occupied movement across the country is taking up different issues as the movement matures. One of those issues is immigration.

    Now joining us from New York City is Thanu Yakupitiyage, and she is an activist in Occupied Wall Street. She's been one of the working groups dealing with immigration questions. Thanks for joining us, Thanu.


    JAY: So just quickly talk about the process of how Occupied Wall Street started developing these working groups, and then moving beyond Wall Street. And then we'll kind of dig into the immigration question.

    YAKUPITIYAGE: I got involved in Occupy Wall Street at the end of September. A friend of mine named Henna, who is a Muslim and a Hijabi, she really wanted me to come, and so we went to the first general assembly together. And that's when I sort of just got curious about what Occupy Wall Street was about.

    I think myself and lots of people were really actually quite cynical about what this movement was, and it seemed from the get-go actually really to be a very white middle-class movement. It was a lot of white young people involved. And I think a lot of people had questions about, like, how that would actually impact people of color and immigrants.

    And so I was actually part of a group of four or five other people of color who—in one of the general assemblies in the beginning of September, they were trying to pass the Declaration of the Occupation of New York City, and we found it to not really have a racial justice lens and really be conscious of the fact that communities of color and immigrants in the United States have actually faced a lot of these frustrations in regards to unemployment and the greed of Wall Street and corporations for decades, and this isn't something that has just happened right now in this moment. So we actually were able to change some of the language in the Declaration of the Occupation of New York City to reflect more racial justice language.

    JAY: What's an example of that?

    YAKUPITIYAGE: the initial language in the declaration said "the occupiers no longer divided by race, sexuality, gender," etc. And this particular line we found to be really not reflective of the actuality of inequity and inequality in the United States.

    JAY: 'Cause it sounds like a post-racial society.

    YAKUPITIYAGE: Precisely. It was very post-racial draft of the declaration. It presumed that everyone in that general assembly was the same, that we all came from the same background, and that we were all frustrated in the same light. And from our perspective (and, you know, for many of my friends, we come from racial justice organizing backgrounds) that isn't the case. The fact of the matter is that communities of color in New York City and across the country have faced inequity and inequality at a larger rate than white communities in the U.S. That's just a fact. And so we—and while it was important to capitalize on this movement of Occupy Wall Street, it's also important to reflect the realities of what's happening.

    JAY: Well, what was the new wording?

    YAKUPITIYAGE: So the new wording—we actually ended up having quite a big argument with the person who had written it, and it was a really frustrating conversation where he just—he said, well, we're all equal, we should act like we're all equal. And I said that we can't put out the first document, the first official document of Occupy Wall Street with post-racial language. We're not going to be taken seriously. How are you going to create a movement that actually includes people of color? So we actually decided—if you actually go and read the declaration now, the entire sentence around "we the occupiers no longer divided by race, sexuality" has been stricken out. So we—even though it seems like a small change, it actually was really, really significant, because it changed the direction of the declaration as a whole.

    JAY: Right. So let's move ahead. Now, you're working—there are various working groups on different issues. You're involved in maybe more than one, but you're involved in the immigration one. And I know you've mentioned to me before that the group has not yet met and you're not—so you're not going to speak on behalf of the group. So let me just ask you this question. President Obama has not been very—done very well on the immigration question, according to most immigration activists I've talked to. Deportations are at a record level. On the other hand, Mitt Romney is even proposing even more draconian measures. As South Carolina comes up, he's revving up the, you know, militant talk about immigrants and deporting immigrants and such. How do you think you think the Occupied movement should respond to this coming year, which is going to be elections and all the rest?

    YAKUPITIYAGE: Right. So, first of all, the OWS Immigrant Worker Justice Group, it met once this year so far, but I wasn't able to attend that meeting. But we've been meeting since early October, so we've been doing a lot of work. We did a major teach-in around immigrant rights and Occupy Wall Street. And on December 18, which was International Migrants Day, we were the ones who organized the International Migrants Day March in association with Occupy Wall Street.

    In regards to your question, I think it's really—it's a hard question, because it's sort of like being between a rock and a hard place with immigration these days, particularly in the U.S. On the one hand, you have President Obama, who has made all these promises in the last three years in regards to immigrants and has not delivered. In the three years of his administration, as you say, he has deported over 1 million immigrants. But the ways in which he's been trying to make up for the fact that he hasn't been able to pass or even get to comprehensive immigration reform is to pass too small—to make too small changes.

    So in August there was a change in prosecutorial discretion policy, which basically means that now ICE officials—deportation officials, essentially—that they can review cases on a discretion basis. And so cases such as that of DREAMERS, young undocumented people who are detained and could be deported, they are considered lower priority. And so DREAMERS are more likely to get a stay than people who the Obama administration consider criminals. So that was one change.

    And another change, which was recently, in the last week, was a shift in the three- or ten-year bar rule. So, now, this is a proposal that the Obama administration has made to change the three- or ten-year bar rule, which would basically make it so that undocumented people who have documented relatives, in order to adjust their status—. If they were to leave, there technically is a three- or ten-year bar on them entering the country again. But if you can show that your documented family member basically cannot live without you, they can give you basically a waiver so that you can apply for your green card from outside of the U.S., and it would be a speedier process. So this is—in the last week is a new proposal that the Obama administration has made.

    JAY: So these are some small changes that are better than nothing, but this hasn't been a great record.

    YAKUPITIYAGE: Yeah. I mean, it's better than nothing, but it's so—it's miniscule, and on the scale of the fact that over 1.6 million people have been deported. So what I think that the Occupy Wall Street movement really needs to do is to really, you know, take immigration on as a very large issue. And the way in which OWS has been doing work around immigration is there was a case of a Bangladeshi taxi driver, Ahmed, who was almost deported, and the entire Occupy Wall Street movement did get behind that and was able to stop his deportation. And the OWS movement has been very supportive of the immigrant worker rights working group.

    However, I think my one criticism of Occupy Wall Street is that people end up just being in their working groups and then not necessarily collaborating as much as they can. And so I think what's frustrating for me, as someone who is interested in issues of politics and, you know, shifting neoliberal agendas, is how do you make it so that people of color and immigrants are actually at the center of the movement and not always on the margins trying to force their way in, which I think is my critique of Occupy Wall Street to this day.

    JAY: Now, there was, at various times over the last year or two, upsurges in the movement for immigrants' rights, mostly, if I understand correctly, led by people of color and immigrants, and some of those marches in various cities were enormous. I mean, do you get a sense that's coming back? And is that relating to Occupied Wall Street in one way or the other?

    YAKUPITIYAGE: Yeah. I mean, I think that what the OWS Immigrant Worker Justice Group really is doing is also striving to push forward an immigrant movement that is as large as the 2006 movement. In 2006, millions and millions of people across the country were out on the streets pushing for immigration reform. But in 2006, the reason why that many people came out on the street was because of the Sensenbrenner bill, which passed the House but didn't end up passing the Senate. And that would have basically criminalized aiding undocumented immigrants at all. So that was the big push because of the Sensenbrenner bill.

    But it's really interesting, because since 2006 and since this move—pushback against the Sensenbrenner bill, there's been multiple anti-immigrant bills, but they've been state-based. So Arizona's SB 1070. In January, South Carolina's SB 22 has gone into effect. That was then signed into law by Senator Nikki Haley. Alabama's HB 56.

    JAY: Some of that was blocked by a federal judge, wasn't it?

    YAKUPITIYAGE: Yes. So SB 1070 is being looked at by the Supreme Court now. And South Carolina's bill, some of it has been blocked. Alabama's bill, I think, as well, some of it is under review. But since SB 1070, there really has been this—since SB 1070, copycat bills in different states came about.

    JAY: Right. But there's lot to this subject, obviously, and it's something we can talk about and I think we should talk about many times over the next few months. But just to end off, just give me your take on the DREAM Act, 'cause I know it's a little controversial. Some immigrants rights activists we've talked to even say they like it and they think it should be passed, and others don't like the provision that it kind of encourages young people to go into the military. What's your take?

    YAKUPITIYAGE: I don't think the DREAM Act is perfect legislation. However, I work with undocumented youth on a daily basis, I know a lot of undocumented youth in New York City, and the DREAM Act really is their only option in order to get the kind of education that they want. The youth that I work with, even though the DREAM Act, the federal DREAM Act does have the military segment to it, the young people that I work with, they want the DREAM Act to pass for the education provision. I do know that there are some DREAMERS who are interested in the military provision, but in terms of all the undocumented youth that I work with, they do not talk about that military provision. I think that—you know, I mean, just recently Mitt Romney, in a lot of his immigration rhetoric, has said that if the DREAM Act did pass the Senate, that he would veto it, which is just unbelievable to me because of all the issues—the issue of undocumented youth, and the fact that some of these kids have been here from the age of four, five, six, have gone through the entire American school system at the age of 18 to be told that they can't go to college. That's not fair. That's a human rights issue.

    And so I work with undocumented youth in New York City, and what a lot of youth are—after the DREAM failed to pass in the Senate in 2010, there was a lot of discouragement, because the DREAM movement has really been, you know, pushed forward by undocumented youth—you know, with the help of advocates, but it really has been a youth-led movement. But I think what was really incredible about 2011 was that a lot of these undocumented youth were like, no, we're going to keep going and we're going to push to get what we want. And so in 2011, California passed the California state DREAM Act, and New York, I think, is looking into—or advocates in New York are looking into what a New York State DREAM Act would look like. At the very least there should be tuition assistance for students regardless of status, and that's something that is happening in New York. And the regents—the board of regents has said that they would support that in New York. And so right now I think the strategy has been a state-by-state DREAM Act strategy. But, of course, there's—continues to be a push for the federal DREAM Act. And Harry Reid, he did reintroduce it in the summer of 2011, and he continues to reintroduce it. I have hope that it will eventually pass. I know that there's a lot of criticisms around the military component, and we can get into an entire conversation about, like, what really radical immigration reform looks like.

    JAY: Well, why don't—we'll do that next time. But thanks for joining us. And we will do this many times over the next few months. Thanks again.

    YAKUPITIYAGE: Thank you so much.

    JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.



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