|RaceWire Article - May 2003|
What Can Foreign Embassies Do for Immigrants?
By Francis Calpotura, ColorLines RaceWire
In the wake of the domestic crackdown on their communities, immigrants have begun to turn to their home-country governments for support. "We have no other place to go," says Hector Archangel, a 75 year-old Filipino who worked as a screener at the Oakland International Airport." 9/11 took away the little rights we had, and politicians are not willing to take risks on us in this environment."
Contrary to the historical experience of immigrant rights groups in the U.S., advocates are unexpectedly finding allies in their home countries foreign embassies and consulates. If trends continue, immigrant defense in post-9/11 America will become part of an historical effort of home-country governments to strengthen political and economic ties with their diaspora.
Few institutions have been able to step up and provide protections to beleaguered communities. But as an indicator of the emerging social, economic, and political influence of expatriate communities in homeland priorities, some foreign embassies and consulates have been enlisted to protect their nationals from the impacts of the "War on Terrorism." In the post-9/11 environment, these institutions provide the last shield of legal protection for thousands of immigrants in the United States.
Pakistani Government Calls for Humane Treatment
"After 9/11, people hate us," says Hiraj Zafer, a Pakistani cook from Salt Lake City, after making his way to Burlington, Vermont en route to the Canadian border. Zafer is not alone. Families like Hiraj Zafers who have lived undisturbed lives in the United States for years are now rushing to Canada for fear of being deported back to their home country.
"There are now refugee camps as 1,200 Pakistanis await asylum hearings at the U.S.-Canadian border," according to Asad Zeidi, founder of the South Asian Network (SAN), a southern California based immigrant rights organization. "We knew when Ashcroft announced the special registration that our community will be hit hard," Zeidi says. "But we never expected to be like this."
The Pakistani embassy has been one of the most vocal in trying to alleviate some of the pressure.
A few days after the Washington, DC forum, Ambassador Qazi joined Foreign Minister Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri, representatives of the Consul General in Los Angeles, and the regional and local directors of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) for a town hall meeting in downtown L.A. Attended by over 200 people from community organizations in the Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities, the unusual accountability session exacted commitments from those officials present. Even though their concession may seem trivial on its face, it is significant that the community has been able to move these institutions to take action.
The Pakistani government pledged to ask the U.S. State Department to take Pakistan off the list of countries that required to report for special registrations, and pledged to establish a hotline for people to call for questions. The INS Regional Director also gave permission to SAN, working with the L.A. Pakistani Consulate, to have a table inside the INS building during the period of registration to provide information and advice. INS officials promised to treat registrants who are "out of status" in a "humane way"i.e. not putting on handcuffs in public.
The Pakistani government managed to get the INS to extend the registration deadline from February 21 to March 21, providing them, if nothing else, at least a little extra time to fulfill the registration requirements.
Mr. Zeidi senses the beginnings of a shift. "The Foreign Ministry and the community were on a collision course after 9/11. They were not equipped to deal with the impact of these laws on the Pakistani community," he recalls. "But for the first time ever, instead of picketing outside the consulates, we now have meetings inside to figure out ways to respond to the demands from the community."
Defending Filipino Airport Screeners
Under pressure from immigrant advocates, Phillipine officials in the U.S. have also taken steps to protect their countrys nationals in the wake of Ashcrofts crackdown on immigrants; although the intervention of the Philippine government on behalf of thousands of Filipino airport screeners facing job loss was disappointing to many.
During a visit by Philippine Vice President Teofisto Guingona to San Francisco in April 2002, a delegation of Filipino airport screeners and their advocates presented the visiting official with a petition signed by more than 100 screeners from Oakland, San Francisco and San Jose airports. Their demand was simpleto urge President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to help them save their jobs. The Air Transportation Security Act of 2001 had displaced hundreds of immigrant workers from the security frontlines in airportsbaggage screeners, security personnel, etc.by adding a new requirement of U.S. citizenship. "At that time, Macapagal-Arroyo was negotiating with the Bush administration to allow the deployment of U.S. troops to the Philippines," recalls Kawal Ulanday, an organizer with Filipinos for Affirmative Action. "We wanted her to use our demands as a bargaining chip in their negotiations."
Although it was much less than the screeners had asked for, Vice-President Guingona did instruct the Philippine Ambassador to the U.S., Albert del Rosario, to lobby the U.S. Congress for some relief. The effort complemented a one-week lobbying effort led by FAA and the screeners in May 2002. "There were a few in Congress including Dianne Feinstein and Zoe Lofgren who filed bills to save the jobs of those currently employed," recalls Consul Eduardo Malaya of the San Francisco Consulate. Those initiatives found little political support from their colleagues and died without making it to the House and Senate floors.
Increasing Political Clout
Increasingly, immigrant communities in the United States are accruing enough political stock to force their governmental representatives here to listen to their demands. Policies and initiatives of homeland governments, lobbied for by expatriate constituents, have consolidated the influence of nationals living outside their national borders.
Mexicans led the way in galvanizing the connections and influence across the border. In 1990, the Mexican government established the Program for Mexican Communities Abroad tasked to support the establishment of "state-level" associations of Mexicans living in the United States, and other programs that strengthen the cultural and economic ties to their homeland. In 1999, the Mexican legislature passed a law that allowed for dual citizenship.
One intended outcome was for U.S. citizens of Mexican descent to buy real estate and make other investments in Mexico without onerous taxes and red-tape. Late last year, President Fox created the Advisory Council, comprised of 120 Mexicans and U.S. nationals of Mexican descent, to advise the Mexican government on community issues in the United States. In one of the regional meetings convened by the Advisory committee, advocacy on legalization, human rights at the border and voting rights for Mexican nationals were at the top of the policy agenda.
On Feb. 13, 2003, Philippine President Macapagal-Arroyo signed the Overseas Absentee Voting Act which enfranchises four to five million nationals outside of the country to vote for President and Senate seats starting with the May 2004 elections. Estimates from the Philippine Consulate predict that one to 1.5 million Filipinos in the U.S. are eligible to vote, three to five percent of the total voting population. The Philippines joins the Dominican Republic, South Korea, Colombia and other countries with significant immigrant presence in the United States with this law. Advocates from both sides of the Mexican border are pushing for similar legislation.
Money Wields the Big Club
But the real bargaining chip in influencing homeland policies towards a countrys nationals abroad is monetary remittances. "These remittances have incredible influence on governments," according to Asad Zeidi. "Since foreign exchange now largely goes through state banks instead of small, more indigenous and less formal arrangements, the government directly benefits from every dollar of the billions sent back home every year through fees and interest."
A 2001 study by the Multilateral Investment Fund found that the level of remittances ($20 billion in 2000) to Latin America and Caribbean countries exceeds all foreign aid to the region, and is more than 10 percent of the gross domestic product of six countries (Haiti, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Jamaica, Dominican Republic and Ecuador). For example, Mexicos remittances exceed 160 percent of its farm exports, equal its tourism revenues and are equivalent to two-thirds of its oil revenues. With 2,383 Filipinos leaving the country every day to work overseas, the $8 billion in annual remittances represents 50 percent of the entire Philippine national budget. Without remittances, these economies would, inarguably, collapse.
Marriage of Interests: Matrícula Consular and U.S. Banks
In spite of opposition from conservative factions in the general U.S. population, Mexicos U.S. representatives are taking a stand to protect basic business dealings for Mexicans abroad. With the prospects of a general amnesty for undocumented immigrants dim after September 11, President Fox instructed the 47 consulates in the United States to push the issuance of matrícula consular (Mexican Consulate I.D.) for Mexican nationals by January 2002. Hundreds of thousands of Mexican nationals in the United States do not have reliable identification, and, as such, are constrained in opening up bank accounts or cashing checks, signing up for utilities and acquiring drivers licenses.
The government-issued photo I.D. certifies ones Mexican nationality and residence in the United States, thus preventing potential harassment from U.S. authorities. Mexico has been issuing matrículas for 131 years, but only in the past two years have the cards become so in demand. There were more matrículas issued in 2002 (over 1 million) than all the others in circulation before September 11, 2001.
Opponents consider this policy as a form of "stealth amnesty." "The cards are part of Vicente Foxs plan to circumvent U.S. federal immigration laws by lobbying state and federal authorities to grant amnesty in incremental steps," writes Phyllis Schlafly in her syndicated Eagle Forum column. On January 7, 2003, a dozen House members sent a letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell stating that the matrículas are issued by governments of Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras for "the express purpose of evading U.S. law."
U.S.-based banks were first in line to accept the matrícula as valid identification. The prospect of capturing $9.5 billion in remittances from Mexican nationals convinced 74 banks in the United States to recognize the matrícula as sufficient identification for opening a bank account. With prodding from community organizations and the Mexican consulates, at least 800 police departments also recognize the validity of the Mexican identification card. Recently, the city of Toledo, Ohio, joined Los Angeles, San Francisco and Columbus, Ohio in passing an ordinance that allows city agencies to accept the matrícula as an official I.D..
With a sizeable percentage of their nationals living abroad, and the significant financial infusion of their diaspora into the national economies, some governments have been forced to respond to the clamor of the expatriate community. Nationals outside their home countries have become effective lobbyists in engendering accountability from their governments to their issues.
But Asad Zeidi of the South Asian Network is cautious about this new trend. "The Foreign Ministry is not equipped to deal with these issues in the long haul. Before September 11, they did not interact with the community in any significant way." Zeidi thinks that the burden of proof is with the Foreign Ministry.
Thats the challenge that Consul Eduardo Malaya wants to take head on. "We want to re-orient our Foreign Service away from the political cocktail circuit towards attending to community needs first and foremost."
Until they see some sign of abatement of attacks on immigrants in the horizon, immigrant rights organizations may have little choice but to help their governments make this transition.
Francis Calpotura is former co-director of the Center for Third World Organizing.