Category: citizenship

JHISN Newsletter 05/16/2020

Dear Friends,

Greetings to you, as we enter the third month of stay-at-home restrictions in New York City. We continue to use our e-newsletter as a collective ‘public space’ during the pandemic, sharing news with a local focus on immigrant politics and solidarity. We are grateful for your encouraging responses! Please continue to send us ideas for future newsletter items, and feedback on how to make the newsletter most useful to you at

We are also now sharing the newsletter on social media. We invite you to follow @JHSolidarity on twitter and facebook, and to circulate newsletter items to folks who might be interested.  

Newsletter highlights: 

  1. Immigrants Excluded from Rent Relief — update on #CancelRent and Legislative Proposals
  2. Activist Art Traditions Continue during a Pandemic 
  3. Immigrant Students Struggle for Educational Access 

1) Still No Rent Relief for Immigrants

Widespread inability to pay rent during the Covid-19 catastrophe continues to threaten the housing security of millions of immigrants left out of federal and state assistance programs. About 20% of tenants in the US failed to pay any part of their rent on May 1. This figure actually represents a drop from April 1. Analysts believe that increased rent payments were made possible by stimulus or unemployment money. Neither of these is available to roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants, as well as many others in their households.

#CancelRent says that there were 190,000 rent and mortgage strikes nationally. In New York, there were about 14,000 strikers, mostly in 57 large buildings. Many immigrants participated. This is probably not the massive response that organizers had hoped for, but it’s a solid beginning for a movement that seems likely to grow as the rent crisis deepens. As activists say, “We can’t pay, so we won’t pay…together.”

Proposals in the US Congress for emergency rent suspension or rental assistance, including initiatives by Ilhan Omar, Sherrod Brown, and a group of Queens Congress members, seem unlikely to go anywhere right now because of Republican opposition. At the state level, Governor Cuomo has made it clear that he does not support aid of any sort for undocumented immigrants. The current legislative effort with the best prospects may be the bill proposed by Michael Gianaris in the State Senate, calling for a 90-day suspension of rent and mortgages for anyone economically impacted by Covid-19. Notably, it has attracted support from some commercial tenants, individual homeowners, and even landlords, because it would provide for broad mortgage forgiveness as well as rent relief.

Currently, there is a NY State freeze on evictions, which has been extended through August 20. Tenant advocates expect a wave of eviction proceedings once the freeze ends, since all back rent will be due at that time. Also, a new provision added to the freeze puts the burden on tenants to prove that they can’t pay their rent specifically as a result of Covid-19. This raises the prospect of grueling eviction hearings, initiated by landlords challenging the rent freeze for individual tenants. “Landlords will bring tenants to court, who will then have to demonstrate to landlords…that they were impacted, and the court will either find [tenants] credible or not,” said Ellen Davidson, a staff attorney at Legal Aid Society. “In a city where landlords have called ICE on their tenants, people will have to choose whether or not to tell their landlords about their immigration status.”


2) Making Art and Public Memory in Pandemic Times

In times of uncertainty, art is more than beauty or decoration — it’s a tool. Art can heal, art can save lives, art can bring us together — even when we’re apart. Aaron Huey, “Artists Paint a Portrait of a Pandemic”  

She has purple and white wings, pink-red boxing gloves, a blue cap, a white mask. Painted on the side of an abandoned building in Denver by mural artist Austin Zucchini-Fowler, Healthcare Hero is one of countless works of public art blooming across cities and towns in response to the pandemic. In New York City, she is four stories tall, a nurse in white and blue, palms pressed together like buddha, and E-S-S-E-N-T-I-A-L spelled out in bright red letters above her head—a poster designed by the Hawaiian artist Marvin Madariaga and projected on the side of an NYC hospital.  

Public art has a long, activist history of escaping the museum and the gallery to directly engage people in our everyday lives. In the current crisis, institutions ranging from the United Nations to the social change organization Amplifier are holding international contests for artists to contribute their work in the service of popular education and collective well-being during the pandemic.  

Here in Queens, a call for “Art from the Epicenter” is circulating right now for artists in Jackson Heights and neighboring areas to donate their artwork to support local organizations, including Covid Care Neighbor Network, Make the Road NY, and Meals for Elmhurst Hospital. Artists’ donated work will be sold in an online exhibition/auction, with all monies going to local groups providing mutual aid to immigrant communities and those hit hardest by the crisis.

The Queens Public Library and Queens College have also launched the Queens Memory COVID-19 Project, a public art initiative gathering stories of how we are struggling, surviving, and coming together during the crisis. Part of the larger Queens Memory Project–a community archive narrating everyday life in “The World’s Borough”–The COVID-19 Project belongs to us. As an intimate collection of oral histories, images, and experiences, the project will become a form of public memory for a moment which, for many of us right now, is filled with silence and loss.


3) Immigrant Students Can’t Count on Billionaires for Equal Access to Education

Before the pandemic, the Education Justice Project of Make The Road New York, an immigrant-led justice organization, worked with public school parent committees and youth leaders to end ineffective punitive policies, and challenge the management of overcrowded and underfunded neighborhood schools. With a stunning 85% of youth participating in their Student Success Centers accepted to college, MTRNY’s model was replicated across all five NYC boroughs, serving over 17,000 students in 34 schools.

After the pandemic hit and the schools closed, education for the children of immigrants has been disproportionately disrupted. The Mayor’s office gave lip service to supporting immigrant families left out of federal funding and lacking access to educational technology. It was unclear how the city’s approach would be funded, until the announcement that the Open Society Foundations, run by liberal philanthropist George Soros, earmarked $15 million to fund the Department of Education’s remote learning program. 

Educational technology is often a problem area, especially for immigrant and low-income families. 15% of US households with children lack high-speed internet at home. One in three households that make below $30,000 a year lacks any internet. When parents live apart, or are in quarantine, internet learning can easily be disrupted. In New York, the Department of Education is supplying large numbers of internet-connected tablets, but some students still fall through the gaps. In one family we know, the children are doing their homework on their parent’s mobile phone.

A JHISN newsletter reader, embracing Mutual Aid, asked us if there were organizations that were funding immigrant children who lack the devices and other technology necessary to participate in the remote learning program. They were looking to make a contribution to a local organization that specifically supports children’s edtech needs. Please let us know if you are aware of any in our neighborhood?

Governor Cuomo took the idea of billionaires funding education even further by recently inviting Bill Gates to advise a council to ‘Reimagine Education’. The council met without the input of any educators from New York City, or any grassroots experts like the New York Immigration Coalition’s Education Collaborative. As Forbes magazine reports, The Gates Foundation has been involved in several education projects that have ended badly. This includes the 2011 InBloom initiative, which Gates simply walked away from after $100 million had been wasted.

Over 150 years ago an immigrant industrialist, Peter Cooper, founded Cooper Union on the Lower East Side to provide free education to the working class, women, and people of color. He aimed to promote civic virtue and harmony. Today we have racist millionaires in the White House who are “prompting immigrant families to forgo services that they fear could land them on Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s radar or jeopardize their path to citizenship.” Although right now we find ourselves a long way from civic harmony, perhaps we can at least provide all students access to the necessary resources they need to pursue the education they deserve. 


With gratitude for collective care and mutual aid in these staggering times, 

Jackson Heights Immigrant Solidarity Network

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If you stop and think about it, citizenship is a strange phenomenon. It’s an “official” status that gets assigned to each of us, for better or worse, based on lines on a map, and accidents of birth. It’s a way that governments separate and classify us. It can be the most ordinary, bureaucratic thing in the world—or a matter of life and death.

For most people who are born in the US, citizenship is automatic and routine. They don’t do anything to get it, and they rarely give it a thought. But for hundreds of millions of people, survival itself rides on citizenship. Citizenship can lock a person into a lifetime of hunger and fear, unable to cross borders to seek a better life. Or it can virtually guarantee the basic necessities of life, safety and opportunity.

Currently there are about 730 million people in the world living on less than $1.90 a day—what economists classify as “extreme poverty.” Virtually none of these people are US citizens. Meanwhile, 16% of Honduran citizens, 21% of Indian citizens, 22% of Laotian citizens, 23.5% of Haitian citizens, and over 77% of citizens of the Democratic Republic of Congo endure such destitution. All because of where they were born.

For many migrants, gaining US citizenship is a prized accomplishment. It’s not always possible to become a citizen, as we know. When it is possible, getting it often requires a difficult struggle. We should support migrants in this effort, admiring their fortitude and the sacrifices they make while seeking a better life for themselves and their families.

But we must also recognize that US citizenship often functions as a form of privilege in the world. Statistically, US citizens have a much higher standard of living, more options, and more personal security than most of the world’s people. Looked at historically, this is mainly due to the power and wealth of US imperialism, which has used military force and economic blackmail to dominate other lands. Most of the profits of imperialism go to a tiny percentage of super-rich monopolists. But some of the advantages go to ordinary US citizens, too.

Imperial privilege, infused with racism, was integral to the origin of the US. Citizenship was for white settlers only. It was based on genocide against Native peoples, their enslavement, and theft of their lands. (Native people weren’t legally considered US citizens until 1924.)

It should go without saying that African slaves weren’t US citizens. The first slave ship arrived in Jamestown in 1619. Only in 1868, 249 years later, did African Americans gain birthright citizenship. Nevertheless, their citizenship was questioned and restricted for generations after that, with many white politicians advocating Black deportation and promoting white nationalism.

The US seized half of Mexico in 1848. The 80,000 Mexicans living in the occupied territory became US citizens overnight, whether they wanted to or not. Those new citizens were still subjected to violent white racism; many were forced off their land or illegally deported in the following years. On the other hand, Mexicans who happened to live on the south side of the newly-imposed border became “illegal aliens”in the eyes of the US—restricted from crossing into the northern half of their own nation.

Ethnic Chinese people born in the US were denied birthright citizenship until a hotly-contested Supreme Court ruling in 1898.  Even then, Chinese and other non-white immigrants were strictly prohibited from becoming naturalized citizens of the US for decades—until 1952, to be exact.

We know that citizenship doesn’t guarantee equality. Nationally, women citizens didn’t get the right to vote until 1920. In 1898, nineteen years after the US invaded and occupied Puerto Rico, people born on the island were formally declared US citizens. But Puerto Ricans still can’t vote in presidential elections, unless they leave Puerto Rico to live in one of the States. They don’t get all the same federal benefits as other citizens, either. Similar restrictions apply to the residents of the US Virgin Islands, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands.

Meanwhile, the stark distinction between citizens and non-citizens inside US borders is a persistent feature of our society. Non-citizen residents face discrimination in many walks of life, whether they are in the US legally or not. On average, non-citizens make about 20% less in wages. They are frequently turned down for jobs that are reserved for citizens. Their immigration status makes them vulnerable to exploitation and police abuse. Legal residents may be denied important government benefits, such as retirement programs, welfare, health care, public housing, and access to higher education, all depending on a patchwork of arcane state and national laws.

The current US administration has recently activated a provision of the Patriot Act that allows them to imprison non-citizens forever, without trial, if the government considers them to be a “threat,” but finds them difficult to deport for some reason. (For instance, if their country of origin refuses to accept them.) Their status is considered to be similar to the prisoners in Guantanamo. No evidence of  an actual threat needs be proven—the government claims to have complete discretion when it comes to non-citizens.

Even when migrants do manage to become US citizens, that status can be taken away. Right now the government is ramping up a program called Operation Janus, started under the Obama administration, which actively attempts to deport people who are naturalized citizens, especially Muslims and politically active people. The Department of Justice looks for technical flaws, omissions or false answers in these citizens’ naturalization paperwork, often going back decades. The DOJ is working to literally undo the citizenship of people they don’t like. Operation Janus further illustrates the politicized and racially-determined character of US citizenship.

Citizen privilege obviously isn’t the only form of privilege that affects our society. White privilege has always played a particularly central role in this country. And male privilege infuses US society, like every society in the world today. There are other kinds of privilege as well. All these forms of privilege overlap and interact with each other in a variety of ways. In fact, the history of citizenship in the US, with its intimate connections to white supremacy, is a good example of this.

Recognizing that US citizenship is a privilege doesn’t mean disregarding other forms of privilege, or minimizing the oppression of citizens of color, women citizens, or any citizens struggling for equality, justice and a decent livelihood. Rather, it means adopting a global point of view. It means seeing our society through the eyes of billions of non-US citizens around the world who are struggling for those exact same things. Many of whom are migrants being driven from their homes by US imperialism.

Understanding US citizenship as a privilege helps inform our fight for migrant rights. It puts a spotlight on the fundamental unfairness of determining peoples’ fate according to where they were born, the color of their skin, or the color of their passport. It forces us to question the logic of today’s borders. How sacred are the lines on the map that were drawn by invaders and occupiers? Why can billionaire investors live and invest any where in the world, while ordinary people are prohibited from seeking a better life in another country?

By acknowledging that citizenship privilege in the US is intertwined with colonialism, we strengthen our determination to welcome and support migrants whose lives and livelihoods overseas have been devastated by US corporations and US government policies. This acknowledgement further motivates us to help reverse and repair colonialism’s damage, so that people can choose to stay in their home countries if they wish.

Finally, an awareness of citizenship’s history and role in the world underlines the responsibility of US citizens to make use of their own privilege in the battle for migrant rights. Citizenship’s advantages bring with them an obligation: to fight alongside those who seek, demand, and battle for an equal chance in life.