“A travel document is much more than a piece of paper. It is the weight that determines freedom or imprisonment, health or harm, family unity or separation, or injustice and rights.” —Abraham, Families for Freedom Over 41 million immigrants, 13% of the population, call the US home1. Millions more have parents who migrated here and live in communities that are directly affected by immigration policies. In the lead up to the 2016 US presidential election, immigrants have been unfairly scapegoated for many of America’s problems. Undocumented immigrants have been threatened with increased deportations and family separations. A ban has been called for on Muslim immigrants. Driven by a concern for this xenophobic rhetoric, we, a group of high school students, took part in Picture Justice 2016. The program was a partnership between the United Nations International School, PROOF: Media for Social Justice, and the New York State Youth Leadership Council. It provided us with the opportunity to explore the experiences of immigrants in NYC through a social justice lens. We trained with photographers and met with lawyers and activists working on immigration reform. We listened to and transcribed the stories of immigrants and took their portraits. We believe that anyone who is forced to flee from violence, poverty, disaster or in search of a better life deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, and that human rights should not be determined by a person’s papers. We also believe that photos and stories can be powerful tools for social justice. With this exhibit, we hope to raise discussions around important and difficult questions of human rights and belonging in the US.
photo courtesy GARY KNIGHT/ VII
We all have the right to migrate, to look for a new life. Even butterflies migrate to survive. We come escaping from danger, but here we face racism. We face a hard injustice, many cold hearts. There are no illegal human beings. We all have the right to live with dignity. We all have to fight to be able to live without hiding ourselves from a system that only terrifies us. I live with the fear of being deported again, of being detached from my family.
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Myrna is from Mexico. Although undocumented, she has two US citizen children. She is currently fighting her case to stay together with her daughters.
NO HUMAN BEING IS ILLEGAL Which document allows you to live in the US? Is it a birth certificate? A green card? A G4 visa? A diplomatâ€™s passport? There are an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. They comprise about 3.5% of the population1 and 5.1% of the labor force.2 They are also parents to 7% of children under age 18 in the US.3 Undocumented immigrants include those who crossed into the US without legal status, those who entered with false documents, and those who overstayed their visas. Because the process of becoming a legal resident is so complicated, many undocumented immigrants, especially those whose children are US citizens, see no choice but to remain without papers. They live in constant fear of deportation and separation from their families. Undocumented immigrants cannot apply for a social security number. In most states, they cannot obtain a driverâ€™s license. Being undocumented also increases vulnerability to all types of human rights abuses. They are more likely to be exploited at work, underpaid and live in poverty. Approximately 60% of adult undocumented immigrants lack health insurance and must rely on emergency services.4 Access to higher education is also a huge challenge. Every year, 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high school,5 but only 5â€“10% can afford college.6 In most states, undocumented immigrants are not eligible for instate tuition and financial aid, both of which make college more affordable.
One day when the gangs came to collect the tax, we couldn’t afford to pay. They left a note saying, “You and your sister will die if we don’t get our money.” By then, the gang members had already threatened my son with a gun and stole his bike, and shot my husband. I marched to the police station to file a complaint. They said that my home was unsafe and that I should leave immediately. At that moment I made the decision to flee to the United States. When I got here, they put an ankle bracelet on me and saw me as a criminal. People made fun of me every time I went out. God only knows why I had to leave my country and now they’re laughing at me. And here I am, fighting, because we too have rights, as human beings. And I am fighting more than anything for my kids.
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Denia fled from Honduras to the United States in 2014 with her two children. She is currently awaiting the outcome of her asylum application.
DISPLACED BY VIOLENCE Globally, more people have been forcibly displaced by conflict, violence and persecution than ever before; over 65.3 million at the end of 2015 according to the UNHCR. With media focused on refugees fleeing to Europe, it is easy to forget about the thousands of Central American mothers and children who sought asylum in the US from gang and drug violence in 2014. An asylum seeker is a person who has crossed an international border in search of protection and filed a claim for asylum with the host countryâ€™s government. In response to the influx of Central American asylum seekers, the US Department of Homeland Security launched an aggressive strategy to deter more people from crossing the US border. It began locking them up in family detention centers as they awaited the outcomes of their asylum cases. Detention exacerbates trauma and makes it more difficult for asylum seekers to obtain legal counsel and win their cases. Since there are no limits on the amount of time a non-citizen can be held in immigration detention, some asylum applicants have been held for months or even years. Many who are released must wear visible monitoring ankle bracelets.
â€ƒ My family is in Guatemala. I came to this country by myself when I was 17. The journey took 25 days. Initially I had spoken with my brother about planning the journey to the United States but when the day came, it ended up just being me.
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Mario left his family at 14 to continue his education and decided to cross the border to the US in the hope of a better future.
CROSSING ON MY OWN Children without a parent or legal guardian are coming to the US in historic numbers, from an average of 7,000 in 2011 to over 54,000 in 2016.1 There are no signs of this number decreasing any time soon. Unaccompanied children come from all over the world, but the largest numbers arrive from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. They range in age from toddlers to teenagers. Unaccompanied children come to the US for a variety of reasons: to escape poverty, to reunite with family, but increasingly they come fleeing violence in their home countries. Their journeys are often as distressing as the circumstances they are fleeing, with children facing sexual violence and other indignities as they travel. Their challenges continue when they arrive in the US. Nearly all unaccompanied children surrender at the border in seek of help and are taken into the custody of the federal government and placed in removal proceedings. There, they are treated as â€œadults in miniatureâ€? and have no right to a lawyer. Some children find pro bono legal representation through advocacy organizations, but more than half must go through the intimidating experience of appearing in immigration court on their own to fight their case.
Being undocumented and Muslim, there are layers of oppression and stress. You have to deal with the stress of being undocumented; being fearful all the time; not knowing where you are going to be even the next day. And on top of that you have to be afraid or vigilant when you’re on the streets. Especially if you are a visible Muslim; if you have a beard; if you’re a hijabi. If you look Muslim, there is that double layer of “be careful.” As soon as something happens, my first thought is, “omg I hope this person is not Muslim,” and my second thought is, “damn I have to stand up for my religion again.” I’m tired of doing that and I feel like I shouldn’t have to do that because I’m a part of American society as much as the next person.
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Israt immigrated to the US with her family from Bangladesh at age 6. They arrived in 2001, 5 months before the 9/11 attacks.
DO I LOOK DANGEROUS TO YOU? US immigration policy has a history of excluding immigrants based on ethnicity/race, nationality and religion. The Chinese Exclusion Act, refusal of Jewish asylum seekers during WWII and expulsion of Mexicans are cases in point. However, recent immigration has been marked by great diversity. Growing Islamophobia, fanned in particular by the 2016 presidential election campaign, is once again challenging this. Fueled by rhetoric of national security linked to Al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attack, US military involvement in the Middle East, the rise of Islamic State and “domestic” jihadi terrorism, Islamophobia is also being expressed in violent hate crimes against Muslims. There were 260 incidents of antimuslim violence in 2015 nationwide, significantly disproportionate to the fact that Muslims make up 1% of the US population.1 The 3.3 million Muslims living in the US are ethnically diverse and 70% are naturalized US citizens.2 The majority are well educated, economically successful and well integrated. But not only are Americans of Muslim heritage being “othered” as enemies of the nation or cultural outsiders; new immigrants, including asylum seekers, are being targeted as a threat and proposals for the “banning” of Muslims are gaining political traction.
Being gay and growing up as a child in St. Vincent, I was physically abused by my father and bullied in school. At one point I was suicidal. I was going through the trauma of understanding my identity, being fearful of my own family and of society. I felt very isolated. It’s that stripping away of your humanity on a weekly, monthly, yearly basis that drives you to leave and not want to even have a life.
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lando is currently O seeking asylum.
DOUBLY MARGINALIZED There are approximately 904,000 adult identified LGBTQ+ immigrants in the US, 267,000 of whom are also undocumented. Doubly marginalized, LGBTQ+ refugees and immigrants are designated an “outsider” status in the US and must also navigate the isolation they face within their own ethnic or national communities because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. They face significant discrimination in employment, housing, and healthcare. Many come to the US to escape from homophobic and transphobic violence in their home countries, where they can face incarceration, castration, sexual assault, and extreme social ostracization at a higher likelihood than in the US. Transgender people are especially vulnerable in the immigration system, particularly when held in detention. Despite the fact that transgender people comprise only 1–2% of the population, 20% of reported sexual violence cases in immigration detention centers involve a transgender person.1
I was walking home from work a couple years ago and I got picked up for a robbery that happened on my block. Physically I couldn’t have done it, but I ended up on Riker’s Island. I had convictions during the War on Drugs in the 90s but since then I’ve gone to college and grad school. I was able to get bond. Upon my release from Rikers, I went to 10 immigrant rights organizations and basically they were like, “you have a criminal conviction, so we cannot help you.” What I went through is a human rights issue and not just an immigrant issue; the fact that I’m a human being, I have a family, I have a humanity, and that all people everywhere deserve rights.
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Abraham is an Eritrean refugee, born in Sudan who came to the US when he was 9 months old. He is the executive director of Families for Freedom, a multi-ethnic human rights organization by and for families facing and fighting deportation.
FAST TRACK TO DEPORTATION It is a myth that immigrants increase crime in the US. Studies have repeatedly shown that immigrants are less likely to be incarcerated for violating criminal laws than Americans.1 However, immigrant communities find themselves targeted by laws and policies which make it much easier for them to come in contact with the criminal justice system and be detained or deported. The criminalization of immigrants began twenty years ago in an atmosphere of tough on crime policies, mandatory minimums and the War on Drugs. The “1996 Immigration Laws” or the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), expanded upon the crimes that were deportable for non citizens, known as “aggravated felonies.” Almost overnight, individuals who had built their lives here, were in the process of attaining status, were working and had families here, suddenly—because of some conviction—were fasttracked to deportation. These convictions could be as simple as jumping a turnstile or writing a blank check. Consequently, deportations have increased tenfold. President Obama has come to be known as the “deporter in chief.” Under his presidency, more immigrants have been deported than under any president in US history: over 2.5 million.2
Remember you are coming from a country where you were homeless; you had nothing. You come to a decision that you are going to flee. You would never go to the police for a police report, because you wouldn’t make it back from the station. When you’re in detention you are not entitled to a lawyer. The form you fill out says you have to have evidence and so it’s most likely that you will lose your case in detention.
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Paul is a gay man from Jamaica. After crossing the US border in November 2015, he spent three months in immigration detention. Paul’s asylum case is still ongoing.
THE ICE BOX The US maintains the world’s largest immigration detention system. It is run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) whose funding is dependent on a quota passed by the US Congress that requires ICE to detain 34,000 immigrants on any given day.1 ICE’s mission is to “find and remove illegal aliens who are criminals, fugitives or recent arrivals.”2 However, of the 315,000 immigrants deported in 2014, close to half did not have a criminal record3. Detainees also include long-time permanent residents, asylum seekers, survivors of torture, children, and parents of US citizen children. ICE operates over 200 detention centers throughout the US and 60% of its facilities are subcontracted to private prison corporations,4 which profit from the detention of immigrants. The daily cost of detention is $164 per person.5 Immigration detention can be worse than prison. Many immigrants use the term “ice box” to describe immigration detention centers, as it is common practice to detain them in frigid cells to pressure them to agree to deportation. Unlike those accused of crimes, immigrants can be held indefinitely and do not have the right to a lawyer. In 2013, 83% of people deported from the US were not given a hearing before a judge.6 Many are also denied access to adequate medical care and family contact.
I struggled a lot. I was really resentful towards my parents for bringing me here. Not knowing the language, feeling really alone and isolated, facing discrimination and racism. I grew up really angry. I grew up thinking my parents didnâ€™t love me because they took me away from a place where I felt very loved. When I saw my grandparents, they made me feel normal and that I was loved way beyond borders. I felt less angry right away.
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Guadalupe came to the United States from Mexico when she was three years old. Through DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival), she was able to return to Mexico in 2015 after 20 years to visit her family.
TRAUMA ACROSS BORDERS â€œFor a privileged few, migration can be beautiful.â€?1 However, for the many forced to uproot themselves due to political, economic, social or climatic crises, the process can be traumatic. Family members, culture and language are left behind in search of opportunities in an unfamiliar country. Upon arrival in the US, immigrants are expected to almost immediately learn to speak English and find a job. And when met with unemployment and harsh living conditions, immigrants are blamed for failing to assimilate. Many immigrants, especially those of color, are also subjected to discrimination and racial profiling. For those who are undocumented, there is the added anxiety caused by the threat or experiences of immigration raids, family separation, detention and deportation. Along with loneliness and stress, these experiences place immigrants at risk for mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, and thoughts of suicide. Distrust in the system and stigma prevents many from seeking help.2
â€ƒ When we talk about borders and walls, we talk about controlling people. But yet, we forget that buses and trucks cross the border every day. Money crosses the border every day. A corporation has more freedom than we do. And we are the people. We are the human beings. We need to look at migration as being a natural process and put in place security and safety for the people who are migrating.
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Ravi is from Trinidad. He is an organizer for the New Sanctuary Coalition which supports immigrants and their families who are resisting detention and deportation and advocates for immigration reform.
IMMIGRATION MYTHS In 2015, the number of international migrants was estimated at 244 million, representing 3% of the world population.1 The story of migrants is that of markets, demographic trends, political instability and climate change. It plays out in the global North as well as the South. Migrants seek better lives and this benefits receiving countries. To this end it is essential to reject persistent myths about migrants which are both wrong and lead to violations of their human rights. Myth 1: Immigrants take jobs from Americans. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2014 a considerable segment of the approximately 26 million migrants working in the US worked jobs not filled by better-educated and native-born workers. Myth 2: Undocumented immigrants commit crimes. Immigrants are incarcerated at a much lower rate than native-born Americans, according to the National Institute of Corrections. Myth 3: Undocumented immigrants donâ€™t pay taxes but get benefits. Undocumented immigrants pay sales and property taxes. According to the U.S. Social Security Administration, in 2013 undocumented immigrants paid $13 billion in payroll taxes for benefits they would never receive. Myth 4: Immigrants are overrunning the US. According to PEW Research Center, immigrants made up 15% of the population in the late 19th century compared to 14% in 2015.
â€ƒ I got involved in the undocumented immigrant rights movement because I did not want to continue living in the shadows. In March of 2012, I took part in an act of civil disobedience where I, and two other women, blocked traffic in front of Governor Cuomoâ€™s office, laying two banners in the middle of the road. We were arrested, spending the night in jail. As an undocumented immigrant, coming into contact with the criminal justice system imposed many risks, including the possibility of deportation. At that time, we were willing to put our lives at risk to demonstrate how urgent and necessary it was to pass the New York State DREAM Act.
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Janet Perez was born in Puebla, Mexico and came to the US at 6 months old. She is a core member at the NYSYLC and has organized for undocumented immigrants rights since 2010.
UNDOCUMENTED, UNAFRAID, AND UNAPOLOGETIC Undocumented youth are leading one of the most important social movements challenging unjust immigration policies in the US. Dubbed “Dreamers” by mainstream media, most of these activists were brought to the US as children and grew up here, but do not have legal status and can be deported at any time. Unlike previous generations of undocumented immigrants for whom hiding in the shadows was the norm, these youth have stressed “coming out” as undocumented as a way of asserting their dignity. Since 2001, undocumented youth have pressed Congress to pass legislation that would provide them a pathway to citizenship through a bill known as the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. At its final push in 2010, the bill passed in the House of Representatives, but failed by five votes on the Senate floor. Although the federal DREAM Act failed to pass, through high-risk civil disobedience actions, undocumented youth were instrumental in getting the Obama administration to pass Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in 2012. This measure provided approximately over a half a million undocumented youth with a social security number and temporary relief (two years) from deportation. They have also been successful in getting states to pass their own DREAM Acts. State DREAM Acts cannot provide a pathway to citizenship, but they have made higher education more affordable for undocumented immigrants. According to United We Dream, 19 states offer in-state tuition and four provide access to financial aid for undocumented immigrants. As of 2016, New York has not yet passed the NY DREAM Act.
Notes Picture Justice was created in 2014 as a partnership between PROOF and UNIS, and with the support of several human rights organizations based in New York City. In 2016, the focus of the program was immigration in the US. Picture Justice collaborated with the New York State Youth Leadership Council to include students from communities directly affected by immigration policies. 21 students from 8 schools took part in the program.
PROOF: Media for Social Justice Inc. (PROOF) is a nonprofit organization based in New York City that uses visual storytelling, education and research to inspire action on human rights and to effect change in attitudes and policies. Its photo exhibits, publications and education workshops on child soldiers, rescuers, genocide and gender-based violence have travelled to over 20 countries throughout the world.
The United Nations International School (UNIS) is affiliated with the United Nations. UNIS offers a K-12 education guided by the UN principles of global peace, fundamental human and equal rights, sustainability, social progress and a free world. Its global curriculum enables students to better understand and act upon current global challenges. Students at UNIS come from over 120 countries. NYSYLC The New York State Youth Leadership Council (NYSYLC) is the first undocumented youth-led organization in the state of New York. NYSYLC works to empower immigrant youth regardless of legal status to challenge the broken US immigration system through leadership development, grassroots organizing, educational advancement, and self-expression. NYSYLC is a space for undocumented youth to organize and create change in our communities through such tools.
1. Council on Foreign Relations, The U.S. Immigration Debate, February 2015 No Human Being is Illegal
1. PEW Research Center, 5 facts about illegal immigration in the U.S., September 2016 2. PEW Research Center, Share of Unauthorized Immigrant Workers in Production, Construction Jobs Falls Since 2007, March 2015 3. Migration Policy Institute, Frequently Requested Statistics on Immigrants and Immigration in the United States, April 2016 4. Public Policy Institute of California, Health Coverage and Care for Undocumented Immigrants, November 2015 5. Center for American Progress, Undocumented Students Deserve Greater Access to Higher Education, March 2015 6. Amnesty International, Immigrants’ Rights: DREAM Act Activist Toolkit, 2012 Crossing on my Own
1. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, United States Border Patrol Southwest Family Unit Subject and Unaccompanied Alien Children Apprehensions Fiscal Year 2016, September 2016
Abby MacPhail (UNIS)
Michael Kirby Smith
Debra Driscoll (PROOF)
Do I look Dangerous to You?
Janet Perez (NYSYLC)
1. Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism; California State University San Bernardino, Hate Crime in the United States, 2016
2. The Week Staff, Being Muslim in America, July 2016
Elisabeth Wandel (UNIS)
Sofia Muñoz Boullosa
Yareli Adan (Sunset Park)
Carlos Martinez (Sunset Park)
Manuela Africa (UNIS)
Daniela Munoz (Sunset Park)
Monserrat Ambrisio (Manhattan Village Academy) Sarah Blau (UNIS) Krissia Bonilla (Brooklyn Technical)
Fast Track to Deportation
1. American Immigration Council, The Criminalization of Immigration in the United States, July 2015 2. Office of Immigration Statistics, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 2014 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, August 2016
The ICE Box
1. Detention Watch Network and Center for Constitutional Rights, Banking on Detention, 2016 2. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, What We Do 3. U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement, ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations Report, December 2014 4. Detention Watch Network, Immigration Detention 101 5. Human Rights First, Immigration Detention: How can the government cut costs?, January 2013 6. American Civil Liberties Union, Immigrants’ Rights: What’s At Stake?, 2013
Trauma Across Borders
1. A.S., Amplify(her), 2016 2. American Psychological Association, Crossroads: The Psychology of Immigration in the New Century, 2012
1. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, International Migration Report 2015, 2016
Marlon Polycarpe (UNIS) Ellie Smith (UNIS) Oriana Ullman (UNIS)
Josue Morales (Fannie Lou Hamer)
Ivan Rendon (DeWitt Clinton)
Noella Kalasa (UNIS) Naima Kane (UNIS)
Zoe Knable (UNIS)
Leora Kahn (PROOF) Curator
Adrián Mandeville (UNIS)
Melissa Perez (In-Tech Academy)
Drew Hill (UNIS)
Tim Lin (UNIS)
1. United We Dream, No More Closets: Experiences of discrimination among the LGBTQ immigrant community, January 2016
Sanjeevi Nuhumal (UNIS)
Rahat Charyyev (UNIS)
Lydia Leiber (UNIS)
Hixon Design Consultants, Inc.
1966-2016 50 years on the front lines for social justice