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Quakers Promote Immigrant Rights

Times Staff Writer

American Quakers launched a $2.4-million initiative Monday to document and challenge abuses of immigrant rights, which they argue have escalated during the national war on terrorism.

The initiative, announced in San Diego by the Quakers’ American Friends Service Committee, will encourage illegal immigrants to come forward and train them to record and publicize their experiences of abuse through a national network of “human rights committees.”

The “Project Voice” initiative also will focus on crafting policies for immigration reform.

“We believe immigrants will be the vanguard of a new civil rights movement in the United States,” said Christian Ramirez, director of the committee’s U.S. Mexico Border Program in San Diego. “We want them to move from being victims to active promoters of their own human rights.”

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Ramirez cited detentions based primarily on ethnic background as one example of the abuse of rights.

But Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform disagreed that abuses are escalating, and said that U.S. officials were merely doing their job by rooting out illegal immigrants.

“People who have not broken any laws are not subject to harsh treatment,” Mehlman said.

Rebutting charges of racial profiling, Mehlman also said that immigration officials look in Latino communities for illegal immigrants because that is where most of them are.

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The Quakers, formally known as the Religious Society of Friends, won the 1947 Nobel Peace Prize for World War II relief work; theirs was one of the first organizations to oppose slavery and the wartime internment of Japanese Americans. Now, they say, defending the rights of immigrants has become their most important issue. The new initiative represents the Quaker committee’s largest financial commitment to any initiative in its 86-year history and a doubling of its current spending on immigrant rights advocacy.

Kicking off a weeklong conference on immigrant rights, a multicultural group of about 40 committee members shared reports of what it called escalating fears of harassment among immigrants across the country.

In West Philadelphia, according to member Mohamed Ibrahim, even legal immigrants are staying home for Ramadan prayers and fast-breakings rather than venture to mosques thought to be under surveillance by U.S. authorities. In San Diego, Radahi Mata said that the presence of U.S. Border Patrol agents on trolley cars intimidated her from taking public transit to her job. Mata, a single mother, was compelled to forgo needed income.

Mata represents the kind of newly assertive immigrant the committee is hoping to nurture. After she had a problem with her child’s school bus program in San Diego, she said, she decided to enter a Quaker committee human-rights training program. The 16-hour program exposed her to such documents as the U.S. Constitution and the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and instructed her on how to document abuses and how to organize her community to defend those rights.

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Most important, Mata said, she learned her own self-worth.

“In my community, we feel we have no value or dignity because of so many Border Patrol raids,” she said. “But I learned I have dignity, and that it is time to lose my fear and speak up for my community.”

After the training, she said, she mustered the courage to speak to the school board about the issue.


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