AFSC and Human Rights for Immigrants

From resettling Jewish refugees in the United States during the 1930s to aiding Japanese internees during World War II, to organizing migrant farm workers in California, and to providing aid in refugee camps during numerous international conflicts, the rights and well-being of migrants and displaced persons have always been central to American Friends Service Committee’s witness for universal human dignity.

Human migration is a global phenomenon spurred by conflict, economic and social inequality, environmental disaster, and poverty. Many people move because they have to, not because they want to. In 2001, the AFSC Board of Directors adopted a statement calling for United States government policies that:

  • respect human rights and international law;
  • stop militarization of the border;
  • remove the unequal treatment to which undocumented persons are subjected;
  • provide nondiscriminatory application of immigration laws;
  • support legalized entry to those under duress or fleeing natural disaster, regardless of national origins and political affiliation; and
  • support family reunification.

The values that inform the Board statement converge with the AFSC vision of humanitarian service, justice, and peace; this is as much the case now as it was when AFSC was founded 90 years ago. Just as Quakers spoke and acted against slavery decades before abolition; just as AFSC called for the end of apartheid in South Africa, and was at the forefront of the civil rights movement in the United States; so are we called to speak out for and support the human rights of immigrants to the United States today.

Immigrant connections and networks provide critical links to everything from jobs to housing, healthcare, education, childcare, worship—the web of relationships that form a community. American Friends Service Committee’s immigration programs reflect the creative, demographic, and geographic variety of immigrant communities themselves. They seek to galvanize community resources toward the goal of protecting human rights for immigrants, the single common thread weaving through every AFSC program. All of AFSC’s immigration programs aim for one or more of the following overlapping objectives:

  • Building understanding across communities;
  • Fostering immigrant leadership and civic integration; and
  • Promoting fair and just public policies.

Building Understanding across Communities

We need to support one another to overcome our barriers and hardships. Learning about one another is one of the many ways to develop mutual understanding and build deeper friendships in our community and at large.
—Lao woman, AFSC program participant in California

Many issues that are pressing on immigrants weigh on non-immigrants as well: affordable housing, fair wages, healthcare, childcare, education, and community safety. Immigrant rights in this context means no more and no less than the right of any person to live in safety and peace, to have access to available services, and to contribute one’s share of talents to better the life of the community.

Misunderstanding is an obstacle to cooperation. Misconceptions prevail that immigrants take jobs away from U.S. citizens, that they do not want to learn English, that their presence increases crime rates. From such positions emerge conflict, resentment, and opposition to humane policies regarding immigrants and immigration.

Together, immigrants and non-immigrants stand to gain far more than they would in opposition to one another. AFSC helps to build understanding across communities so that immigrants and non-immigrants may improve their interactions with one another, their trust in their communities, and the quality and richness of their daily lives.

For example, in California’s agricultural Central Valley, AFSC provides a space and support for immigrants and refugees to gather, learn from each other, and participate in the life of the community. From the simple start of visits to each others’ communities, a major cultural festival was developed; youth found an outlet to express their identity through video, women started to organize for childcare, and all the major immigrant communities turned out in small and large towns throughout the Valley to support immigration reform.

As with many community-based events, rallies and demonstrations strengthen relationships between participants and reveal shared interests, aspirations, and values. For example, an immigrant rights rally co-organized by AFSC and held at Liberty State Park in Newark, New Jersey, led to strengthened relationships with local unions and African American organizations. This resulted in a broader coalition of groups supporting immigrant rights and a more visible, vocal, and diverse constituency for immigrant rights in the eyes of policymakers.

Fostering Immigrant Leadership and Civic Integration

Leadership in this sense is merely a long-term objective. To be able to become leaders, immigrants must overcome language barriers; develop confidence in institutions; establish relationships with those institutions; have a deeper understanding of their rights; and have opportunities to exercise their rights and fulfill civic obligations even when they are still in the process of obtaining U.S. citizenship.
—From the AFSC Pan Valley Institute publication Immigrant Women: A Road to the Future

Immigrants arrive from some of the poorest countries in the world, often by ways that challenge their very survival, and they surmount obstacles from language barriers to ethnic prejudice to abject poverty. They help one another find work, places to worship, schools for their children, and doctors who will treat them. They learn English, start small businesses, establish networks, and organize themselves naturally into communities. Yet their entrée into the broader civic life and structures is not an easy one. AFSC provides support so that they can develop leadership within their own communities, take an active role in the burgeoning immigrant rights movement, and achieve civic integration in their new home country.

In Colorado, a state with a growing number of immigrants, AFSC has nurtured the creation, growth, and independence of two organizations and is now supporting Coloradans for Immigrant Rights, a group of immigrants and immigrant allies who educate citizens and organize actions in support of human rights for immigrants. In nine months, they had 16 letters to the editor published in the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News. Their speakers’ bureau pairs an immigrant and a non-immigrant to speak to community groups about the economic, political, and personal aspects of immigration.

With immigration at the forefront of political discussions nationwide, this is an opportune time to clarify confusing information and bring the values of human rights and dignity to the debate. Faith and community groups, city councils, and virtually any place where people gather in one place at the same time—these are places where such dialogue and conversation can take place. Immigrants telling their own stories in such settings humanize the issue, educate people about some of the realities of immigrant life, and build relationships among individuals. Non-immigrants speaking as allies of immigrants can by example and by persuasion lead their peers in the community to support the human rights of immigrants.

Promoting Fair and Just Public Policies

Portland has become a city of great diversity, and this enriches our cultural life and economy. We must ensure that this diversity is protected, nurtured, and viewed as the asset to our city that it is.
—Tom Potter, Mayor of Portland, Oregon, on passing a city resolution on human rights for immigrants

The United States was settled and founded by immigrants and has, in philosophy and in practice, welcomed immigrants from all over the world. Yet for almost that long, it has also set immigration policies that defy common sense and humanity. The Naturalization Act of 1790 prevented immigration here to all but free white persons; the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited citizenship for Chinese immigrants. During World War II, immigration policies and procedures prevented entry to an estimated 200,000 endangered Jews; more than 100,000 persons of Japanese descent were held during the same period in "relocation" camps.

Such policies continue today. From the increase in military personnel at the Mexico border to a town ordinance criminalizing landlords who rent to undocumented immigrants, immigration policies are often costly, counterproductive, and hurtful.

Communities that have built understanding across differences and that have developed leadership from within are ready to make policy changes to better their lives and those of others. AFSC supports these efforts by promoting fair and just public policies regarding immigrants and immigration so that those who wish to live and work here can do so legally.

AFSC maintains an office in Washington, D.C., to monitor legislative activities and discussions on immigration, and to educate policymakers through testimonies, reports from the field, and face-to-face meetings with immigrant constituents. In 2006, AFSC San Diego and other border allies participated in a community delegation to Washington that provided an opportunity for border residents to share their unique perspective with key legislators. AFSC presence in Washington has meant that immigrants will continue to voice their own concerns and to participate in shaping the policies that affect their everyday lives.

More recently, more than 100 faith and community organizations joined AFSC’s call for a moratorium on worksite raids and instead urged Congressional leaders to take constructive action on changing current immigration laws. AFSC leadership in this endeavor has galvanized the support of immigrant-led and non-immigrant organizations committed to humane and fair public policies.

In 2005 AFSC, in partnership with Witness and the American Civil Liberties Union, produced a documentary about vigilantism at the Mexico border that has been screened widely and influenced debates in city halls from Austin, Texas, to Cambridge, Massachusetts. The documentary, Rights on the Line, has been used as an education and organizing tool to stop the violence and lawlessness of vigilantes, and to gain support for sensible responses to immigration.

Some cities have designated themselves official "sanctuaries" for immigrants, setting a tone and framework for humane local laws. With the backing of AFSC and a broad coalition, the Portland, Oregon, City Council passed a new city resolution that supports the establishment of a task force to develop possible solutions to the problems faced by the city’s immigrant and refugee population, supports policies that improve immigrants’ access to government, and urges the federal government to create fair and humane immigration reform.

Providers of direct services are often well-positioned to make statements and advocate on behalf of their clients toward systemic change. This is the case for AFSC in New Jersey, which operates a busy office providing legal services, referrals, and trainings to other legal providers on immigration-related legal issues faced by individuals. At the same time, the data they collect and the information they glean from individual cases shape their advice to policymakers seeking sensible reform. From detention to domestic violence to labor disputes and wage claims, AFSC helps immigrants exercise their existing rights while advocating for changes that ultimately benefit immigrants and non-immigrants alike.

Carol Tashjian

Carol Tashjian is director of the AFSC Grants Unit. Alan Lessik, a member of San Francisco (Calif.) Meeting, is regional director of AFSC's Pacific Mountain Region.