Should White America Be Afraid of Becoming a Minority?

Thank you so much for inviting me to speak with you today … and I want to start with words of gratitude for asking me to be here …

Your invitation to me begins the conversation because you want to see what is happening in our America today. And that is already a major step forward … the fact that you want to see, you want to hear, you want to make the invisible visible and for that, once again, I give thanks and gratitude.

In my life as a journalist, this core value of making the invisible visible is what moves me. As a young Mexican immigrant growing up on the south side of Chicago in the 60s and 70s, my story was invisible from the mainstream media. We were not poor immigrant Mexicans who came to work the fields or factories. My father is a medical doctor dedicated to research and the university of Chicago asked him to become part of their staff … but in essence, what my invisibility from the mainstream did to me was to deepen my sense of not being a real part of America. And if I was invisible as the daughter of a doctor, what about all of those people I saw in Pilsen, the Mexican barrio where we went almost every weekend to buy our food and be with our community.

This invisibility has consequences … especially when it continues in the media … you see, it led me to think that I could never grow up to be a journalist because there were none like me.

After going to New York City to college at the all women’s Barnard college and getting involved with the college radio station, I began to believe that I in fact did have a voice and that my story, my American narrative was in fact important. And I began my career as a journalist. I began to define what was important, what was at the core of my raison d’être as an American reporter.

Already in my work I was focused on the other. The outsider stories … the knowledge that I was the first Latina to be employed for example, at NPR, then first Latina correspondent at CNN, then as an anchor on PBS, made me realize that it was not just about my voice … I did in fact have the responsibility on my shoulders to represent an entire community in those editorial meetings … but as a young journalist I assumed this with gusto because now I had a seat at the table.

At one point in my career when I was producing for NPR on the Salvadoran guerilla war, I stared at my green card and said … hmmm … maybe one day someone, one border guard or immigration agent might decide to not let me back into the us. I was always proud to have my green card and green Mexican passport. But now I had to think about becoming an American citizen. And so I studied and thought about the constitution and learned the basics to prepare for my citizenship exam …

Citizenship in the U.S. is a core value for me. I wasn’t born here. So I take my citizenship duties and rights very seriously.

Many people accuse me of having an agenda and I want to deal with this head on because if you know me as a friend or coworker you know I deal in the truth.

Part of that truth is that because I am different and because I am one of the firsts and because of my core journalistic values I do get accused of having an agenda. A pro-immigrant agenda, a pro woman agenda, a pro-Mexican agenda, a progressive agenda, and if they could see me my critics might say a pro short person agenda!

But I am a professional journalist and that means I deal in truth and fairness and do not judge, I report.

I share the same values and quest for the truth as Edward R. Murrow. I want to make the invisible visible, I want to give voice to the voiceless. I want to shine light where there is darkness, and I want to make my media consumers feel something through my reporting. And yes … I hold those in power accountable to the truth.

I bring this up because I believe that they think that I have an un-American agenda.

I am not advocating for anything today … I am not advocating a specific policy, not advocating for a political party, not advocating open borders or closed borders … I am not here to advocate but to share with you stories that are fact based, stories that come primarily from my yearlong in depth investigative reporting for a one hour long frontline documentary that aired on PBS about the detention and deportation of immigrants and the role of the Obama administration in defining this policy. I also have been reporting on immigration since 1985.

And by the way, we all just lived through a historical moment.

The limited temporary protective status for immigrants named by Obama is the first major piece of immigration reform we have had since 1986 when the immigration control and reform act took place which created the path for citizenship for over 3 million undocumented immigrants.

I only speak the truth when I say we are a country of immigrants and for over 25 years … half of my career … this immigration issue can’t get resolved.

So today, I am in fact here to simply share stories. Factual stories of what I heard or saw during the time we filmed the frontline and more broadly in my 25 years of not only reporting the story but living it.

25 years during which the Latino population was exploding demographically. And it still is … the Latino demographic is one of the fastest growing demographic groups in our country …

It almost doubled over the last decade and not because of immigration but because of us Latino births …

But let me get back to the documentary …

The documentary, Lost in Detention, was the first time a group of American journalists had this level of access to a large part of the daily workings of what has become immigration policy under this administration.

Another fact you should know … this administration has overseen the highest number of immigrant detentions and deportations than any other in recent history. This was not a policy designed by the Obama administration … it was voted on and passed by your congressmen and women. At that point congress decided that money should be allocated to ice to effectuate the deportation of 400 thousand immigrants a year.

The administration told us there is no quota but former ice officials told me that if numbers were not high enough they would get called in to dc to answer for that.

But why not deport that number republicans and some democrats asked? We have 12 million undocumented? We should be able to deport this many every year.

At that point they did not talk about the money … but this was happening at the same time that the private prison industry was beginning to grow. But we will come back to that.

What has happened under the Obama administration is that they have carried out that policy effectively. They have delivered.

But what the Obama administration did not do was to deliver on the presidents promise to fix this issue. In fact, in his first campaign speeches, then candidate Obama pointed out that this enforcement-only focused policy was having other impacts … very real human consequences … very real consequences for any immigrant without or with a green card …

This is where my critics will say that I begin to reveal that I have an agenda …

And what I say is that the reason why the stories I am going to share with you matter to me is not because I am an immigrant but rather because I am an American citizen … and because I chose to become an American citizen this matters to me.

So my agenda is to give facts to my fellow Americans and to let them do with those facts what they want.

I suppose it is important to mention that another one of my core beliefs is in democracy … and living in a democracy that is alive and active … where everyone’s voice is valued.

I remember growing up in the 60s and living thru another divisive time in America around race and difference …

I remember hearing George Wallace talk when I was in second grade … I did not truly understand what George Wallace was saying, except to know that he did not like people like me or my best friend at the time, a little Jewish girl … and so she and I talked about our plan about what basement we would hide in if Wallace became president and came looking for people like us..the others … .

But the first person who made me truly believe that I in fact did matter to this country was someone who looked nothing like me … it was dr. Martin Luther King … a black man who made this little Mexican girl believe that my voice mattered … even though I was not part of the majority.

Thank you for giving me the honor to share a pulpit that my greatest American hero once had …

The Unitarian Universalists have been committed to this notion of making “the other” your own story … and I believe this too is a core of who we are as Americans …

For those who see this as an agenda I point you in the direction of our most American of holiday celebrations … thanksgiving where the pilgrims who came with no permits or permissions or visas— so they were truly the very first undocumented immigrants—were prepared to share a table with the people most unlike them, the indigenous Americans, and prepared to see themselves in each other’s eyes as a way to save our country and move forward together.

So again my deep gratitude to the uua for asking me to speak and letting me tell these stories.

Now much of what I am going to tell you is going to sound confusing, is going to sound counter to conventional wisdom, is going to sound hard to believe. But everything that I am sharing with you is what I witnessed. Or was told to me by someone …

There is another America that is operating parallel to this one … in fact, it is here in Arizona, where these two Americas have come face to face.

This is an America where people live in fear of any kind of authority … .imagine looking at officers and feeling fear because the police have the capacity to tear your family apart. You don’t understand as a child that the police will hand you over to immigration who will then separate your family … the point is you fear the police … .all the time.

I met a woman here in phoenix two years ago who told me she couldn’t drive her kids to school anymore. And that if her American born son drive her to work he would be arrested for smuggling his mother. This is what that fear looks like.

This is not a judgment … this is a fact. Right now, today, just blocks from where we are gathered, there are people living in fear of encountering the police. So imagine if you are a victim of a crime … would you dare report it? Can you imagine that happening in your town or neighborhood … you are held up at gun point but you don’t tell anyone? Is this really happening in our country?

In fact it does happen or you will be stopped for something like a broken tail light. In Arizona that lands you in jail for breaking state law by driving without a license… in an un air-conditioned tent that can get as hot as 139 degrees with pink underwear and pink socks to humiliate you and make it harder to run away. Is this the USA? Is this who we are?

Where a traffic stop leads to you never seeing your kids again, perhaps … certainly not touching them. Contact visits at detention centers are rare.

This is also an America where double jeopardy exists.

An America where every night, our government sanctions the misrepresentation of law enforcement … where immigration agents who are not the police, wear outfits that define them as police …

An America where if you are a detained immigrant, you do not, by law, have guaranteed access to a phone call, or a lawyer, or chance to present your case before a real live judge … maybe only thru video camera … an America where you are treated like a criminal even though you are not charged as a criminal …

It is an America where a sector of people have been dehumanized … and I am repeating what I was told by people who used to work in the detention centers and saw the ultimate in the real life dehumanization of people. Now this happens in our country in other ways … all criminals are dehumanized and forgotten to a certain extent. But what happens he that we must pay attention to is that much is this is based on ethnicity … so someone whose grandparents were held in a Japanese internment camp just three hours from here told me she feels uncomfortable… scared …  the government said they held them for the security of the rest of the nation …

And this is where the role of an unfortunately un-diverse media has come into play… again, this is not my opinion … simply look at the facts in terms of diversity in the mainstream media … while our country is becoming, statistically more diverse every year, our media has not changed and progressed … in fact, there were more Latinos working in mainstream media decades ago than there are now.

Instead, my old network, CNN, gave free reign to Lou Dobbs to go on the offensive against immigrants … that is a fact. But every night Dobbs called them illegal aliens, he was allowed to paint a picture of the person Americans should fear the most … a Mexican immigrant.

I remember standing in the New York bureau of CNN and meeting the Nobel peace prize winner Elie Weisel, who survived the holocaust. It was Elie Weisel, the person most unlike me, who taught me to question the use of this term “illegal immigrant” … those who accuse me of having an agenda might believe that I chose as a journalist to question that term because of some radical Latino studies professor in college. That is not how it happened.

It was Elie Weisel who said to me … do not use that term illegal to refer to these immigrants. Why I asked? Because there is no such thing as an illegal human being. You may have broken an immigration law  … in this case actually a misdemeanor … but that does not make you an illegal person. That’s as if you have ever been stopped for speeding and given a ticket … does that make you an illegal driver now?

Weisel said, there is no such thing as an illegal human being and it is a dangerous term to use. Why I asked? He said the Nazis declared the Jews to be an illegal people and that was the beginning of the holocaust.

For 25 years I have been reporting on immigration and yet, there were things that even I didn’t know as we set out to report our frontline.

And it is important to remind you that factually, immigration law is more complicated than even tax law … so I will understand once again, if you are confused by the facts I am giving you.

There are two different legal systems in our country. If you are a criminal, one set of laws apply to you. If you are an immigrant another set of laws apply to you.

In fact, if you are a criminal you have more rights afforded to you by law than if you are an immigrant. I know, that sounds strange. But it is true.

What does this look like?

If you are a criminal, when you are arrested you have your Miranda rights read to you so you understand who is taking you, why, where, what your rights are, that you can remain silent, that if you cannot afford a lawyer one will be given to you. We believe that these basic rights of due process are afforded to everyone. But they are not. And the only reason they are not is because of the fact that you were born in another country, you are an immigrant.

Let me be clear … if you are an immigrant and you get caught committing a crime … you will serve your time in a criminal corrections setting. But once you are done serving your time … you will be then moved into the immigrant detention system and this is where you are treated differently.

Ok let me put this in a real life context for you…

Immigration and customs enforcement, ice, allowed us to join them and film them as they went out one morning on what they call a fugitive operation.to track down dangerous immigrant criminal fugitives … the ones that are a stated priority for ice …

What first struck me … and this is from the opening scene in our frontline documentary … is that these immigration agents were all wearing uniforms that had police labels everywhere … on their baseball caps, on the front of their jackets, on the back … everywhere in big letters they were identified as police and in much smaller letters, it said ice … . If it said it at all.

This is of concern to me because as I understand it due process requires that law enforcement not misrepresent who they are … that is unlawful to misrepresent yourself as police when you are not.

We were told we were going to witness the rounding up of dangerous criminal immigrants that morning and that these people were potentially threatening …

To be honest, my team and I were concerned that shooting might take place, that these agents were out to get high level gang members, violent offenders, drug traffickers. Dangerous immigrant criminals that needed to be removed from our country immediately so the rest of us could all be safe …

It was 6 in the morning in east Los Angeles … the roosters were crowing in the back yards of this predominantly Mexican American barrio.in the humble but manicured lawns where the statues of the Virgin of Guadalupe and Jesus Cristo were adorned with xmas lights even though it was march.

We witnessed the knock on the door. The agents did not specify who they were or what they were looking for. They did not say they had a warrant. What these heavily armed men wearing uniforms that said police everywhere did say was … we don’t want to talk about this business on your front door step. Can we come in?

In fact, people have the legal right to say no to these officials. But not knowing that, they let them in. And at the point the agents have the right to ask anyone in the house for their immigration status.

So how would you like it, if you are awakened at 6am and a tax agent has come to your door but instead of wearing a uniform that says tax agent, he is wearing one that says police? Or if child welfare came to your home on a failure to pay alimony but instead of identifying themselves as that, they were wearing police insignias. And then you let him in without being told that you in fact have the right not to let them in. How would you feel as an American if this happened to you or to one of your children?

The two men the dangerous immigrant criminals we were told were being rounded up were not drug dealing gang bangers at all. They were men in their late 50s who worked as gardeners. One had a dui from 20 years ago; another a moving violation where someone was injured. Both men had served their time as punishment. But they were at the top of the hit list of threatening immigrants who needed to be deported immediately.

Are we safer now that they have been deported both leaving American born grandchildren behind?

So when these men and women and young people are detained this is where the different legal system kicks in. Because this is civil immigration law, they do not have access to a lawyer who can help them to understand what just happened. Only if they can afford to pay a lawyer do they get one …

You are held in our country and you do not have access to a lawyer … only if you have money. Consider that fact.

Now I am going to bring in another complex reality for you to understand …

The United States of America has the largest prison population in the world. These are criminals in prison.

But immigrants who are detained for immigration issues are held in a parallel universe … a universe called civil detention …

And now we have the largest population of civil detainees in the world… the men who we watched being rounded up were in fact not being held for their crimes … they were being held because of their immigration status … they are civil detainees not criminal inmates in a correctional facility

This is another concept that is a factual reality that I am asking you to wrap your heads around …

The problem is that we do not have an actual system set up to run civil detention …

Dora Schriro who is the former commissioner of corrections here in the state of Arizona and now is corrections for NYC and who is an academic in corrections says you can’t run civil detention as corrections. Two basic different philosophies and yet at ICE and DHS … suddenly they are running this system they are not trained to run … that is what she told me.

All immigrants charged with immigration violations are held in civil detention but they are dressed like inmates and housed like inmates and treated like criminal inmates even though they are not. What would you think of your son or daughter who failed to pay alimony being housed in an open population, dressed in orange jump suits having no privacy whatsoever … how would you feel about that?

Moving on to another difficult topic to wrap your heads around … the notion that double jeopardy exists in our country.

And the notion that many of these immigrants who are held actually have green cards … I know, it is confusing … but it is factual.

This is one story we uncovered and like this one there are many more …

We met a man who lived in NYC and had been in this country since he was a teen … came here with a legal green card from Jamaica … twenty years ago, he committed a non-violent offense as a 20 year old… selling drugs. He was arrested, charged and he served his sentence. And for twenty years he had no further problems with the law.

He too was targeted as a criminal immigrant who was seen as a threat and so had made it to the top of the list and was detained by the police who handed him over to immigration agents. But he told them he had already served his time … and they said, too bad … now you are going to be deported. But he said I have a green card, they said, too bad.

Double jeopardy is alive and well in America.

Now I have given you a lot of information and I am sure you are reeling. But this in fact is the other America I was talking to you about …

One where you have a separate and not equal legal system, where you have a separate and not equal system of detention, where you have double jeopardy, where you have officers misrepresenting who they are, where you have people holding you and not explaining to you clearly for what you are being held, where you do not have access to a lawyer, where you may not ever see a judge, where you are awakened in the middle of the night and taken from your home and yes, disappeared sometimes for days …

This is the other America. It is a factual one … one not based on my opinion but on facts.

The question for you is what do you think about this?

I know that as an American citizen I expect due process to be upheld in every circumstance …

And here is my opinion … I worry that if due process can be denied to some people in our country then it becomes easier for that due process to be denied to me …  Or to someone I know …

So who is this new America?

Have we as a country been afforded the facts to look at this and say, yes, this is what we want, yes, we do believe that immigrants should be treated in a different manner simply because they were not born here …

But unfortunately without this broad national dialogue, my esteemed Unitarian Universalists, the story only gets worse.

Because we don’t talk about it because we don’t know about it.

Because so much of what I have outlined for you is happening in the shadows …

Remember when I mentioned accountability as a core value of mine as an American journalist … and how important oversight is?

Because another basic issue of due process is denied these immigrants in civil detention because there is no oversight. And because so many of these immigrant detention centers are run by privately run corporations that have a financial motive to keep these detention centers full. They have to be able to report a profit to their shareholders … I understand … they have shareholders who expect a return on investment. We all do! But here the only thing is that they make a profit out of a body in a cell …

There is money to be made in detaining immigrants. Just look at the numbers … we taxpayers pay over $100 to privately run companies that take care of housing this exploding population of immigrant civil detainees. Taxpayers have paid dollars to these companies. But because they are private and don’t have the same strict government regulations they skimp … on the quality of the workers because they pay lower wages, on the food, on the dentists and healthcare. And because they are private they don’t necessarily have to open their doors to journalists.

Because we do not have a thorough or proper civil detention system there are no legally binding standards for the immigrants who are held in detention.

Again this is complicated so let me paint a picture of what we witnessed in one privately run detention facility in Raymondville Texas known as the Willacy detention center …

Because it is privately run they have more lax requirements for guards who work there … because it is privately run and they do not have any federally mandated standards they can skimp on food. They can skimp on health care …

What did I see?

People housed in circus tents with no windows … where the one window had a red line around it and where you are not allowed to cross. So even looking out a 24 inch window was not allowed. I was shocked that the women’s tent had a complaint box that was nailed shut so no way to even put a complaint inside. Where the was no clean drinking water. Imagine every time you were thirsty in a circus tent in the middle of the desert in Texas and having to ask for a cup to get water every time. Inside that room there was no TV … no windows.

When we walked inside we were sat down and told we could not speak to any of the detainees. But we spoke to some former detainees.

There was nothing to do in these warehouses.

A woman named Maria who grew up in Austin and was a single mom and who never knew she was undocumented told us she was sexually assaulted by a female guard. I know this is going to sound horrible … she told me that they were so bored that they gave the rats names. That they would run out of toilet paper and pads and would have to plead for more. That when they smelled chicken they knew that outside monitors were coming to see Willacy but that other than that they were hungry most of the time.

Our whistleblower who worked inside told the story of how she didn’t believe the complaints about the food … to prove it a detainee brought her a napkin of what they had been served for lunch … she opened up the napkins and there were live maggots … in our USA?

In fact, when commissioner Dora Schriro visited Willacy she was so taken aback by the depression and gauntness of the detainees that she had them all weighed at time of entry to know … and each one had lost at least ten pounds.

People were not just fed bad food they were hungry. And the thought of people who are not criminals being held by my government in windowless rooms with no drinking water, asked to wear used stained underwear and unwashed clothes … .this reality raises core issues about due process denied. And what that means to me as an American citizen.

Understand that even if these detainees wanted to complain there is no way for them to sue anyone to hold them accountable. They do not have that right by law.

We heard stories of women detainees who were raped by guards, complained about it and were deported the next day. Is that the perfect solution … you assault a detainee who doesn’t speak English, you get her pregnant and you deport her if she threatens to complain?

The Canadian woman who overstayed her visa and was picked up for bouncing a check for $200 who was sexually assaulted by a guard who told her she must like it … and when she asked another guard if she should complain that guard said don’t do it … it will get worse for you.

Do not speak up about this … .?

Isn’t that what we believe is our right as Americans. To speak up?

I have never told this story in public but I am going to do so now … the young woman from Austin who was held told me another story …

To be honest this young woman was not very smart … she was humble… had grown up in the poorer sections of Austin … she was the one who told me about the rats … and we heard many stories about the rats … she told me that she and her fellow detainees we’re so bored that they entertained themselves by giving the rats names.

But this story stuck with me … this former detainee told me that when they would find a bed bug or lice that they would line up all of the women detainees and disrobe them and take out all of the bedding and then stand in line naked for the open showers.

And she said to me, there was a movie I watched as a kid and I felt like I was in it at that moment … did you ever see that movie? It’s called Schindler’s List.

Why have I told you these stories? Because they are happening in our midst in our country in our time.

I have to tell these stories. It is my job.

What you do with this information is your job as members of the greatest living democracy.

Very soon we will have the SCOTUS ruling on more than likely ratifying several parts of the Arizona law SB 1070.

Legally scholars say it will federalize racial profiling specifically against Latinos but generally among anyone who looks or sounds “foreign born” what does that mean in a country where the number of nonwhite births has now surpassed that of white births?

I want you to know what that looks like from my side … again, just factually. I realize that for me, Mexican born, it is not enough for me to have my NY driver’s license. I have to be able to show any official of this state my us passport.

How many of you said to yourselves as you were packing for this trip … hmmm let me bring my passport because I am going to Arizona and they might ask me to prove my citizenship … probably very few of you.

And that is the core of the issue… you see now we do have two Americas … one where some people feel like they have to be able to prove themselves as real Americans and where others don’t even realize this is even an issue that happens.

But what has happened is that this far away immigration battle in fact has impacted you … it has potentially changed you and your rights and your due process and your tax dollars and in fact your own identity …

How?

The ACLU has reported that it takes about 80 minutes for a local Alabama police officer to locate your name in the federal registry. So you are stopped, and for some reason the police officer asked for your ID to prove you are a U.S. citizen … .

Imagine you will be on the side of the road in Alabama and waiting for the computer to show you are in fact a us citizen … and for 80 minutes you don’t know what the answer might be.

So right now I am sure some of you are thinking, hmmm, how would I prove that I am an American? Where is my birth certificate?

And at that moment … you have been impacted in your own life. This changes us all … . Not just immigrants.

American citizens are changed by this.

What does it mean in a democracy to create separate and unequal and to have it exist in a parallel universe.

The president announced … and as the journalist that I am, I am skeptical of any government … I want to see numbers …

But this president has always asked for Americans to take part in grassroots democracy … he said so in his recent speech at Barnard college and praised suffragettes … . So this is what new civil rights movement looks like … the dreamers who have nothing to lose … and, just love this country …

now we have the capacity to create this new America together … in my new work for PBS that my company, the Futuro Media Group is producing … we ask the question straight ahead …

Should white America be afraid of becoming a minority? And the response is only if minority continues to be defined as isolated, disenfranchised, powerless … but it doesn’t have to be that way …

Today in Arizona I spent time talking to people … Latinos … who support SB 1070 … I spend time listening to everyone …

I also went to an underground library where books are being smuggled in to this state …

These two realities have to find a way forward. Because the numbers already show it …

But there are many unexpected stories of this new American reality … and I truly believe in the American people and their hearts and minds to overcome difference …

I meet people like this all the time … for our PBS special we went to one of the places that is one of the most diverse. In Clarkston, Georgia …

And there I meet a tea party born again Christian woman who is running for the city council… and who becomes her campaign manager? A Somalia woman who is new refugee but who loves politics … Amina also loves Obama but managed the campaign to get her tea party friend elected to the city council in Clarkston …

And they are best friends!!!!!

I always end my speeches by telling the true story about what happens when tragedy creates unity …

It was after 9-11 and within hours I followed y course as a journalist who is always trying to find the invisible story and so I found the family of Antonio Melendez who was an undocumented Mexican immigrant who was a cook at the windows on the world restaurant at the top of WTC …

He died a hero … but he was undocumented …

Within a day after the attack my CNN team was at the home of his wife and four kids … we put Julia Hernandez on TV … worried about her own future as an undocumented Mexican who was now a widow of a hero but who could also be deported at any time …

After we out her story on TV many people from around the country wrote to Julia … and it was that moment when I remember feeling like the entire United States identified as New Yorkers … as citizens of the world where there were no borders because there was so much grief among us …

That December I got a call from a South Carolinian gay man who was living in Augusta, Maine, and who along with his farmer partner had raised several thousand dollars for Julia Hernandez and her kids.

AJ Dinkins came to NYC and brought the family gifts …

And then six months later … Dinkins invited the entire family to visit Rudy and him for a week on their farm …

The gay hairdresser and the undocumented Mexican immigrant became best friends …

I have a photo of myself, Julia Hernandez and AJ Dinkins wearing his American flag t-shirt … that is my vision for a new America … where people get out of their own comfort zone and embrace difference and only see their common humanity.

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