U.S. Commission on Civil Rights

Presentation on Civil Rights Issues Facing Immigrant Communities

December 13, 2002


The September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., proved to be a watershed event for the United States, but particularly so for its immigrant communities. Soon after the attacks, many in America were confronted with the reality of actual trespass of their civil rights, resulting from the challenge of balancing national security interests with the civil liberty interests of the individual. As noncitizens, the civil rights and civil liberty interests of immigrants were particularly vulnerable after September 11. On December 13, 2002, in order to examine the post-September 11 impact on the immigrant community in New York City, as well as other significant immigrant civil rights concerns, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights heard from panels of community leaders and advocates during a presentation in Brooklyn, New York. One panel discussed immigrant civil rights concerns, while a second panel explored post-September 11 civil rights and civil liberty concerns, as well as disaster relief issues.

The presentation panelists shared information on a variety of civil rights issues salient to immigrant communities both locally in the state of New York, as well as nationally. The panelists spoke on issues affecting the vitality of immigrant communities in the process of integrating into the mainstream of American life: the safeguarding of civil liberties for all, whether native or foreign born; the provision of adequate and culturally competent education for immigrant children comparable to what is received by nonimmigrant children; the opportunity for members of the immigrant community to participate in the democratic process by voting; and the plight of immigrant laborers.

Panel I: Immigrant Civil Rights Concerns

Education and English Language Learners

Margie McHugh, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, provided information on immigrant policy issues. She noted the importance of such issues to all states, since many immigrants are now moving directly into suburbs and rural areas, and to New York in particular, because of its long history as a point of immigration. McHugh noted that 35 percent of the city’s residents are foreign born, and 50 percent of those residing in the city speak a language other than English in the home.

While addressing immigrant civil rights issues, McHugh discussed education concerns and the implications on the immigrant community of the No Child Left Behind Act passed by Congress. While she stated the act presented “very laudable goals,” McHugh expressed concern about the application of high-stakes testing standards to English language learners who come into the system in their later years. She averred that about 12 years of English language instruction is needed to fare well on the standards set by the New York Board of Regents; however, many immigrant children are expected to pass the exams—a requirement to move to the next grade level—with only two to three years of English language instruction. According to McHugh, the State Board of Regents had developed a 12 Step Action Plan to increase the quality and quantity of English language instruction. This plan would have allowed for the recruitment of a greater number of certified bilingual and ESL teachers, and would have allowed for the provision of extended day and weekend classes for English language learners. However, she asserted that the Regents went forward with the standards without implementing the 12 Step Action Plan, which would have likely increased the percentage of English language learners who passed the state’s rigorous high-stakes exams.

Joe Semidei, who serves as the deputy executive director of the Committee for Hispanic Children and Families, asserted that the New York public school system fails to adequately serve Latino children from low-income neighborhoods. Reading levels in some Latino neighborhoods were floating around 10 percent, whereas the citywide average was about 50 percent. He stated, similar to McHugh’s assertions, that the New York educational system does not provide a safety net for English language learners taking high-stakes exams designed by the Regents. He believes that collection of data on school performance would help ameliorate the inequalities faced by students who were not proficient in English. “I think . . . that data is very important to hold the schools accountable. Tracking within the schools [is important] in terms of how they treat or how they are impacting on English language learners,” Semidei stated.

McHugh also spoke about the “push out” phenomenon. This occurs when schools encourage students to drop out and obtain their GED, and then use various types of “creative” record keeping to make it appear that the students simply transferred out of the school. The push- out technique is used by administrators to deflect attention away from schools’ high dropout rates. McHugh said as many as 50,000 students now fit into this category, whereas three or four years ago, the numbers were significantly lower, at about 3,000 to 4,000 students. “So it’s pretty clear that schools are using this as sort of a means to have these children sort of disappear and not be counted against them in terms of eligibility, and the accountability standards,” McHugh opined. She believes the push-out phenomenon is a national problem.

Immigrant Voting Rights

McHugh stated that one in four voters in New York City is foreign born, and two-thirds of first-time voters are immigrants. “I will put in a good word for our New York City Board of Elections, that they have tried to be sensitive to the issues around language diversity and have tried to cooperate with the community groups in opening up language access in languages other than those that are required under the Voting Rights Act,” McHugh said. Nevertheless, McHugh stated that her organization has been outspoken about the fact that the Board of Elections has not been effective in handling languages that board officials have been mandated to provide assistance in. Furthermore, she expressed concern that the Help America Vote Act requires first-time voters to provide photo identification. Stan Mark, a program director for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, stated that this requirement would make voter registration drives undertaken by his organization more difficult. He also expressed concern that many newly registered immigrants would be unable to produce the requisite photo identification.

McHugh said her organization is working closely with the Russian American community because of voting problems experienced in Brooklyn during the last several elections. She asserted that there are hundreds of incidents where Russian voters have been told at polls that they are not allowed to speak Russian. Mark noted that the 2002 elections marked the first election where Korean language assistance was mandated. His organization found that there was a lack of interpretive services and assistance at certain polling places during the last election. “Some of the signs that were in Korean and Chinese were not made available to people. There was confusion. Some of the exit poll workers believed Chinese was Korean or vice versa,” according to Mark.

McHugh referred, as well, to the serious problem of immigrant voter disenfranchisement resulting simply from immigrant names being different from typical American names and perhaps being harder to decipher for some Board of Election officials. “They give their names to people who were working and looking through the book for them, [who] say ‘No, you’re not here. You’re not allowed to vote,’” according to McHugh. She asserted that there is a problem with immigrant names being entered incorrectly in the voter rolls.

Immigrant Workers’ Rights and Working Conditions

McHugh stated that numerous employment violations have been reported to dozens of organizations and groups in New York City that result either directly or indirectly from the Supreme Court’s decision in Hoffman Plastic Compounds, Inc. v National Labor Relations Board.[1] “It’s obvious that immigrants are in working situations where they’re being paid a great deal less than native-born workers and where they appear not to have the opportunities for advancement, the opportunity to move into higher paying jobs, higher skilled jobs,” according to McHugh. Furthermore, she asserted that job training under the Workforce Investment Act largely excludes immigrant workers, especially those who do not have sufficient English skills. Consequently, the job training system and the money that the government invests in such training are much less relevant to immigrant populations in New York City. McHugh said a key element to helping immigrant communities recover from the attacks is to make the job training system work for people who have been displaced as a result of September 11.

Mayra Peters-Quintero, a lawyer for the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, corroborated McHugh’s sentiments, stating: “Unfortunately, the age of the sweatshop is alive and well here in New York. Just a few miles from here where we sit in Brooklyn, there are plenty of sweatshops, garment shops, factories with horrible health and safety conditions.” She said none of her clients works less than 60 hours a week, and many of those she serves work 100. Peters-Quintero opined that virtually all the employers she interacts with through her organization commit blatant and reckless violations of minimum wage and overtime laws. She noted there is very little union representation among low-wage and immigrant workers. Furthermore, immigrant workers are killed and injured on work sites at rates far higher than their nonimmigrant counterparts, according to Peters-Quintero.

She, like McHugh, spoke about the Supreme Court’s Hoffman Plastics decision, stating that although it applies to a narrow set of circumstances, the decision has had a chilling effect on immigrants filing meritorious claims against abusive employers. According to Peters-Quintero, “it has been hard at this stage to convince workers, rightfully so, to come forward and assert their rights, because we don’t know the real impact of the Hoffman Plastics decision legally as of yet.” After the decision, according to Peters-Quintero, the EEOC reaffirmed its position that undocumented workers are protected by civil rights and discrimination statutes; however, the agency issued a memorandum stating that based on its interpretation of Hoffman, it would discontinue pursuing back pay for undocumented claimants.

Post-September 11 Relief and Civil Liberties Issues for Immigrants

Mark revealed that there is a network of people in New York City whose family members were killed at the World Trade Center, many of whom are legally residing temporarily in the United States. Mark’s organization, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, is representing those immigrants who lost family in the September 11 attacks, in an attempt to get extensions on their current nonimmigrant status. He believes that many of these individuals deserve some sort of legislative remedy to grant them lawful permanent residence in the United States.

Mark also pointed out that there is a tremendous difference between the relief made available to people on the Lower West Side of Manhattan as opposed to those in certain sections of the Lower East Side, which are predominately Chinese American. As a result of this relief disparity, his organization is looking into litigation in the September 11 relief process. Mark also spoke about post-September 11 civil rights and civil liberties issues facing immigrants. He stated that his organization is representing about 40 or 50 people in detention. Mark expressed concern that “indefinite and in some instances mandatory, as well as secret detentions, are flying in the face of our traditions, civil liberties, and civil rights.”

Panel II: Post-September 11 Civil Rights and Civil Liberty Concerns and Disaster Relief Issues

Detention and Racial Profiling

Muzaffar Chisti, director of the Migration Policy Institute at the New York University School of Law, discussed the implications of the policies that have been connected, mostly at the federal level, with the September 11 attacks. He stated the fact that the 19 people accused of committing the September 11 attacks were all foreign born focused national attention on traditional immigration policy in this country. Chisti stated that although there was strong concern about the potential stereotyping of all Muslims and people of Arab descent as terrorists, he commended government officials—and even Hollywood—for setting the appropriate tone against the scapegoating of Muslim and Arab American communities.

Nevertheless, he asserted that the tone of tolerance set by the Bush administration and other officials is in sharp contrast to the actual actions taken by the administration post-September 11, “mostly in the form of executive decisions taken by the Attorney General that in almost all cases circumvent the normal immigration process of oversight and even normal regulatory process of issuing regulations and taking public comment.” He explained that civil liberty issues raised by governmental and private responses to the September 11 attacks include secret detentions, in which the arrests of the 2,000 people caught up in the post-September 11 dragnet have been shrouded in secrecy; the targeting of individuals, primarily Muslims from certain countries, based on national origin for voluntary interviews, registration and fingerprinting, and deportation; the increased threat that local law enforcement will enforce immigration laws; the hate crimes committed against those who appear to be Muslim or Arab American; and the job and economic discrimination faced by many Muslim and Arab Americans after the September 11 attacks.

Bobby Khan, director of the Coney Island Avenue Project, spoke of the secret detentions and inhumane treatment that some detainees received. He stated that many immigrants who left autocratic countries ruled by military power saw the United States as a beacon of democracy; however, their expectations were dashed by actions taken by the government after the September 11 attacks.

Hiram Monserrate, a local New York City legislator representing the 21st Council District, corroborated Chisti’s concern about police departments enforcing immigration laws and the attendant mistrust between communities and local service providers that ensues from such a policy. He spoke about a bill he introduced in the City Council to counteract Department of Justice efforts to institutionalize cooperation between the INS and local police departments. He stated that the Access Without Fear bill would remove the fear that restrains people and communities from seeking and accessing city services. Specifically, he said the bill would provide that no city officer or employee would disclose confidential information relating to an individual’s income tax records, sexual orientation, health or disability status, domestic violence status, crime victim status, or immigration status, unless such disclosure was constitutionally warranted.

He also stated that the policy of confidentiality, with the approval of three mayors and a “voter approved charter reform,” has enjoyed a long history of support in New York City. According to Monserrate, “in the end, a policy [institutionalizing cooperation between INS and local police departments] that breeds mistrust between the community and its law enforcement officials can only result in rising crime and [lower] quality of life.” Habbiby Brown of the Arab-American Family Support Center reinforced Chisti’s and Monserrate’s sentiments about the police-community relations problem caused by police and INS cooperation. In explaining the fear, uncertainty, and mistrust felt by many Muslims toward government officials, Brown noted that the issue of a task force of three different agencies—the New York Police Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the INS—working together was problematic. “You cannot separate who is who—who is NYPD, who is FBI, who is INS. And it’s a situation of terror in many ways. People feel insecure in their homes, vulnerable, and extremely frightened,” she explained. She also expressed deep concern that services were not being accessed and crimes were going unreported by many in the Arab American and Muslim communities who either feared retaliation or government over-intrusiveness and deportation.

Omar Mohammedi, a New York City civil rights attorney and president of the New York Arab Muslim Bar Association, expressed, too, his deep concern about what he perceived as the mounting civil rights violations against Muslims, as well as Asians who are perceived to be of Middle Eastern decent. “The perceived violations are committed by law enforcement, private and public institutions, and ordinary citizens,” according to Mr. Mohammedi. He contended that many Muslims and Arabs are being treated as terrorists until proven otherwise. Furthermore, Mohammedi felt that an environment has been created in this country where people can settle disputes with Muslims or Arabs by reporting them to authorities as potential terrorists.

Post-September 11 Relief Efforts

Margaret Chin, deputy executive director of Asian Americans for Equality, discussed the problem of immigrant community benefits after September 11. She emphasized the dire effects of September 11 on Chinatown residents. According to Chin, numerous main streets that lead from Chinatown to all of Manhattan were cut off, businesses were forced to close down, and jobs were lost. Chin stated that 8,000 people are still unemployed and several garment factories are still closed. She also opined that many of the police officers patrolling Chinatown do not speak Chinese and, consequently, are unable to explain to residents what is going on in their community.

Federal government relief efforts have been inadequate because officials failed to contact local community organizations that could have more efficiently directed resources to optimize their impact in the area. In addition, many residents of Chinatown who are not English proficient are unable to access services being offered through an English-only medium. For instance, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offers relief benefits, but application procedures are in English only and all packages sent are also in English. Loans that the Small Business Administration offers start at 6 percent interest; notwithstanding, many small-business owners are required to put down as collateral their homes to secure these loans. Chin said many small-business owners are unwilling or unable to make such a commitment in order to save their businesses.

According to Chin, “When the federal dollars came in to rebuild lower Manhattan they totally ignored the Chinatown community. That we’re so close to ground zero, and one of the lower income neighborhoods that’s close to ground zero, we’re not benefiting from the federal dollars that were coming in to rebuild the neighborhood.” Chin reiterated the points made in Mark’s testimony that there is a tremendous difference between the relief made available to low-income communities on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and other parts of the city.

Chin urged using federal dollars to expand the base of affordable housing in New York City for low-income families, particularly immigrant families. She expressed concern that Liberty Bonds and other federal funds are being used to build luxury housing. Chin also mentioned the dearth of bilingual mental health workers and social workers available to deal with trauma experienced by many in the immigrant community as a result of the September 11 attacks. In response to this shortage, her organization launched the Wellness Program with private funding to address the mental health needs of the immigrant community.

Likewise, May Chen, associate manager of Local 2325 and an international vice president of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, further described the economic impact the September 11 attacks had on Chinatown. She clarified that the Canal Street border of Chinatown was ultimately designated a “frozen zone,” which was extremely onerous for Chinatown businesses and residents. The designation of frozen zone meant that essentially all the factories downtown were closed off from work immediately after September 11. Consequently, workers who were employed north and south of Canal Street suffered disproportionate job loss, Chen stated. Chen also observed that truck drivers delivering supplies to the frozen zone, many of them persons of color, were forced to show IDs and were subject to what she considered humiliating frisks by officers.

Chen’s organization provided translation services for various government agencies. Her organization also developed a major plan to assist garment workers with health benefits. She has managed to obtain some grants for wage subsidies and job training for the workers represented by her organization. According to Chen, “the language access issue, health care, and counseling . . . [are] very severe issues, not only in the emergency relief like FEMA, but also for the access even to unemployment benefits.”

Chen also expressed concern about the Social Security Administration working closely with the Internal Revenue Service and INS to issue “no match” letters, which are distributed to employers to identify undocumented immigrants working illegally. Chen believes that this official action reinforces the divisive and dangerous impression that all immigrants or foreigners are in her words “normally bad.” She stated that many immigrants are industrious economic migrants who could substantially help rebuild New York City and its economy if given the opportunity to work.

 Panel Recommendations


On the education front, McHugh recommended that the state of New York implement its 12 Step Action Plan, which was designed after the State Board of Regents acknowledged the difficulty many English learners would encounter attempting to meet the standards established by high-stakes testing. In order to ensure that a higher percentage of non-English-proficient students pass high-stakes exams, McHugh noted the following: the need to increase the quality and quantity of English language instruction, the need to recruit more certified bilingual and ESL teachers, and the need for extended day and weekend classes.

She also stated that the state needed to tackle the push-out phenomenon. She suggested money be expended on increasing classroom resources as opposed to expanding GED programs. Furthermore, during her testimony, she rallied behind providing parents greater school choice under the Leave No Child Behind legislation. McHugh also suggested that the state needs to provide more services for parents who need assistance in helping their children meet the standards established by the high-stakes tests.

Immigrant Worker Rights

Mark suggested that in order to support higher labor standards for immigrants, the Department of Labor should be properly funded at the state and federal levels to fully enforce minimum wage laws. Panelists confirmed that unpaid overtime is one of the most pressing issues for low-wage and immigrant workers. McHugh asserted that job training under the Workforce Investment Act needs to be more inclusive of immigrant workers, especially those who do not have sufficient English skills. She recommended, as well, that more English language classes be provided to immigrant workers who lack English proficiency. The panelists, collectively, expressed a concern that working conditions for low-wage and immigrant workers need substantial improvement. A few of the panelists described working conditions for immigrant and migrant workers as inhumane and indicative of employer abuse.

Furthermore, the disparity between job and wage opportunities for nonimmigrant and immigrant workers needs to be closed, according to panelists. Peters-Quintero urged more union representation among low-wage and immigrant workers. She also suggested that the problem of employers using no-match letters generated by the Social Security Administration to discriminate against immigrant workers and discourage them from asserting their workplace rights must be confronted and tackled. Peters-Quintero’s testimony suggested that attorneys representing immigrants in labor cases need to vigilantly ensure that employers do not expand the Hoffman decision in the courts to further erode immigrant worker rights.

Post-September 11 Relief

Chin suggested that federal money should be invested in affordable housing for low-income and immigrant families, as opposed to luxury housing. Furthermore, disaster relief should be more evenly distributed throughout the affected areas of New York City. The panelists urged the allocation of more money to Chinatown to assist the area’s residents and small businesses more effectively.

Likewise, panelists suggested that more community-based programs be created to address the post-September 11 mental health needs of immigrants in a culturally competent and sensitive manner. Finally, emergency relief provided by FEMA and other agencies should be made more accessible to immigrants and should be offered in languages other than English.

Detention and Racial Profiling

Almost all the panelists spoke about the problems associated with the post-September 11 secret detentions and racial profiling. The panelists strongly recommended that local police departments not be saddled with the obligation of enforcing INS immigration laws. Many of the panelists believed that such cooperation between police departments and the INS would undermine police-community relations, and in the long run hinder law enforcement. In addition, the panelists urged more transparency in the arrest and detention of immigrants. Chisti highlighted the appearance of injustice in INS selection of 6,000 undocumented immigrants exclusively from Muslim countries for priority deportation, when there are 340,000 people in this country who have received their final deportation orders and have failed to leave.

Immigrant Voter Rights

Mark urged more interpretive services and language assistance at the polls for future elections. McHugh contended that the lack of bilingual staff at the polls had led to the “very serious disenfranchisement” of immigrant voters in past elections. She asserted that the problem of immigrant names being entered incorrectly into the voter rolls needed immediate fixing to abate further immigrant disenfranchisement. Furthermore, the panelists suggested that the ID provision of voter reform legislation should be handled adeptly so that the requirement does not serve to disenfranchise immigrants.


On December 13, 2002, the Commission heard from panels that emphasized the importance of safeguarding the civil rights and civil liberties of all Americans, whether immigrant or nonimmigrant; of providing adequate and culturally competent education to immigrant children, taking into account language barriers; of protecting the voting rights of immigrants eligible to vote; and of ensuring the safety and welfare of immigrant laborers. The panelists made numerous substantive recommendations to address these civil rights issues. Among these include tackling the push-out phenomenon in public education, providing improved bilingual education to immigrant children, placing more bilingual staff at voting polls, providing equitable disaster relief to all communities—immigrant and nonimmigrant alike, building trust between immigrants and local law enforcement, and providing more inclusive training under the Workforce Investment Act for immigrant workers. The discussion and recommendations resulting from the panel presentations will, thus, hopefully serve to help inform policy decisions on issues that affect the civil rights and civil liberties of immigrant communities.

[1] 535 U.S. 137. The Supreme Court decision in Hoffman denied an undocumented immigrant worker back pay for the time he was excluded from work due to participation in union activity. The Court conceded, however, that the immigrant worker had been wrongfully fired for his participation in that activity.