Executive Director’s Corner
Fighting Racism in America
February marks Black History month, and as the nation celebrates the achievements of black Americans and their central role in shaping U.S. history, it is also a time to reflect on the injustices and racism that plagued this country for centuries and continues on today.
According to a report from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Rights Working Group, every day thousands of people in this country still face harassment and abuse because of their skin color or ethnicity. To those of us in the social justice arena, this is hardly news. Every day we see and hear about racial injustices that make us uncomfortable and outraged – from incarceration rates among African American to immigration, from workplace discrimination to voting rights. Over the years, Equal Justice Works has placed scores of Fellows in communities across the country to stop this cycle of hate and prejudice.
This newsletter features the work of a current and former fellow who have devoted themselves to combating discrimination: Equal Justice Works Fellow Franco Torres and Equal Justice Works Alumnus Alexander Saingchin. You will learn about the tremendous injustices their clients face solely because of their skin color and background. You will also hear how they are fighting to correct these injustices and advocating for legislation that will provide protection to those targeted.
I am always inspired by the energy and determination of our fellows, and the difference they make during and after their fellowships. Franco and Alex are two terrific illustrations. But for every one of these amazing lawyers we fund, there are eight equally deserving candidates who we turn down. This year, however, thanks to a one-time funding source, I am thrilled that we will be able to fund an additional six Fellowships addressing systemic issues that disproportionately affect African Americans in the areas of education and health care as well as problems stemming from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. These fellows will begin their two-year fellowships in the fall of 2012. If Alex and Franco are any indication, these six Fellows will make a profound difference in their communities during and after their fellowships.
With intractable problems like racism, there are no silver bullet solutions. It will take an army of advocates to use many strategies – litigation, legislation, advocacy, education and organizing – to make a dent on those injustices. With your help and contributions, we will continue to seed the field with new Fellows each year who are ready to join the crusade.
Because of his Hispanic background and upbringing in Brooklyn, Franco Torres has always felt connected to the Latino immigrant community. The challenges and hardships that immigrants face are often violations of their most fundamental and sacred rights. These injustices, which include racial profiling, unlawful detention and harassment, are what inspire Franco to represent those who do not have the ability or means to effectively advocate for themselves.
Franco began serving at Americans for Immigrant Justice in September. As a 2011 Equal Justice Works Fellow co-sponsored by The Florida Bar Association and Greenberg Traurig, he is dedicated to challenging civil right violations against Florida’s immigrant community.
In Miami, and throughout Florida, partnerships between Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials and state or local authorities have exponentially expanded over the last few years, allowing state and local enforcement agencies to have a more active role in enforcing federal immigration laws. These partnerships and expansion of power of local authorities is leading to discrimination against immigrant communities.
“I am dealing with injustice at its most visible,” said Franco. “My clients are being judged on how they look without any other justification or reason.”
Though only serving for a few months, Franco has already seen an overwhelming amount of need. He currently hosts ‘know your rights’ seminars at an immigration detention center to the men detained there, while a colleague works to provide the same help to the female population. Many of the individuals he meets are being held on minimal and non-violent crimes, including traffic violations and petty theft crimes.
One of Franco’s first clients was a man mistakenly taken in and then held because of his immigration status. Juan was pulled over while driving with his pregnant wife and two year old son in the car after picking up a crib for the new baby. Without given an explanation for why he was being pulled over, Juan’s name was run through the computer system, which registered that he had an outstanding fee on his record. For this, he was taken into custody, processed through the system and eventually transferred into immigration custody. The fee that had popped up on his record, however, was a computer error and Juan was being held without committing any violation. Because Juan had already been mistakenly processed through the system and even though he had done nothing wrong, he continued to be held based on his immigration status for an additional two months. Franco worked with Juan and his family to fight his detention on humanitarian grounds. Juan’s two-year son, a U.S. citizen, had a chronic medical condition that required numerous trips a medical provider and due to medical complications in her pregnancy that required bed rest, Juan’s wife was unable to care for their sick son. With hard work by Franco compiling documentation of the medical needs of the family, Juan was able to rejoin his family at home just in time for the Christmas holiday.
“While so much as happened already, “ said Franco, “there is still so much that needs to happen.” Juan's story is just one example of unjust racial profiling that Franco has seen in just a few months of service and he knows that there will be many more to over the course of the next year and a half.
During his on-going efforts, Franco hopes to continue to build pro bono legal partnerships to help meet the relentless needs of those held, often with little understand of the proceedings they are in. In addition to training and mentoring volunteers to assist in the ‘know your rights’ seminars, Franco is working to compile and document the many cases he hears to provide further proof for the need for reform the current system. He is both grateful and thrilled by the support he has received from both his sponsors and host organization. With their help, he hopes to ultimately end the criminalization of immigrants through legislation and litigation, and to protect those currently targeted because physical ethnic features, which are used as a means to suspect that they may be from another country.
Continuing to fight against discrimination
As a member of the 2006 Equal Justice Works Fellowship class, Alexander Saingchin created the New Jersey Asian American Legal Project, an initiative of the Asian American Legal Defense & Education Fund (AALDEF) to address the unmet legal and civil rights concerns of New Jersey's diverse Asian-American communities. Alex’s work ranged from combating injustices faced by immigrant populations to ensuring access to government services with interpreters and translations.
“One of the proudest accomplishments during my project was opening a community office space in Jersey City,” said Alex. “There we began to represent some of the most marginalized members of the Asian American community: Asian immigrant workers.”
Through his efforts, Alex was able to provide legal assistance to workers who were often not paid minimum wage or overtime (some failed to receive any wages) but who had not sought help because of fear of repercussions. In several of his campaigns, Alex represented Filipina immigrants who lived and worked in the homes of well-to-do white employers. The workers were required to cook, clean, garden and care for their bosses’ children. Although the employers would refer to the workers as part of their family, the reality said otherwise. The workers were frequently required to labor over 100 hours per week, often being on-call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The workers were often paid less than four dollars per hour and without overtime pay “No human being would treat a family member like that,” said Alex. “These examples of exploitation highlight how race and class often intersect.”
After his Fellowship, Alex remained at AALDEF for an additional two years where he continued to work on behalf of Asian Americans and other immigrants struggling to overcome inequality. During these years, Alex and AALDEF were able to recover close to half a million dollars in back wages for Asian immigrant workers in New Jersey.
“Discrimination persists daily and takes various forms. Government departments and agencies are often willfully ignorant of people’s needs, and turn a blind eye in the face of injustice,” said Alex. While at AALDEF, Alex saw numerous instances of discrimination against people of color. One that sticks in his mind is a case involving a sixth-grader of Pakistani descent. He was routinely bullied by classmates, called a “terrorist” and asked why he had “blown-up the twin towers?” Alex was able to legally intervene because school officials neglected to do so. The school agreed to improve parental communication on these issues and provided cultural sensitivity training to the children at fault.
Today, Alex continues to fight against oppression and discrimination. Since leaving AALDEF Alex has worked with the Urban Justice Center to promote policies to combat institutional racism in NYC government, and notes that there is still much work to be done before communities of color are protected against discrimination.
“Despite the myriad contributions that immigrants have brought to the U.S., anti-immigrant sentiment festers. Full access to government services is still only a dream,” said Alex. Immigrants are still frequently forced to work in the shadows, where pay is meager and exploitation rampant. Violence against immigrants is not uncommon and they are often treated as outsiders in our culture. But despite the constant battle, Alex is positive that he won’t give up the fight.
“Seeing and being a part of victories—both large and small—really keeps me going, particularly when it involves organizing and movement work,” said Alex. “I can’t see myself doing anything else.”
U.S. Department of Education releases Public Service Loan Forgiveness certification form
We are pleased to announce that the Department of Education has released an Employment Certification for Public Service Loan Forgiveness form to assist borrowers in tracking their qualifying employment and qualifying payments as they work toward earning loan forgiveness.
After borrowers submit the form, they will be notified whether their employment qualifies, the total number of qualifying payments they have made and how many payments still need to be made before they qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness. This will be a tremendous help for borrowers in documenting the 120 qualifying monthly payments (at least 10 years worth) they need to earn forgiveness. It also will provide them with some certainty that their employment qualifies.
Go here to find out more about Public Service Loan Forgiveness and the certification process set up by the Department of Education, and to download a copy of the form, instructions and a “dear borrower” letter.
For more details, email our Educational Debt Relief team at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more student debt tips and information, follow the Equal Justice Works Student Debt Relief hash tag, #studentdebthelp on Twitter.