Challenges with Undocumented Immigrants in the U.S.

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Source: Yahoo Image

Humans have always been regarded as higher animals due to several similarities we share, including instinct, cognition, problem solving skills, introspection, creativity, emotional intelligence and planning skills. Just as planning is an ability of both humans and animals, it involves adequate effort and encompasses a wide range of ideas and research put in place to actualize our desired objective. One of the most fascinating parts of planning to me includes identifying the best place or location we can truly reach our goals, achieve our objectives and fulfil our purpose, which all basically centers around migration. Migration remains a constant and unending phenomenon for both humans and animals, and various motives can be attributed to this endeavor, such as the search for food and water, seasonal weather change, mating reasons, employment opportunities, health and education reasons, adventures and thrills, insecurity, and many others. More still, we can basically summarize migration purposes as a search for a better life, which is a basic instinct all living things possess.

In the last ten years, migration within the international context has risen to a significant level despite continuous efforts many countries have dedicated in ensuring their borders are adequately tightened with hope of discouraging immigrants from illegally entering their borders. According to Ross, Cunningham, & Hanna, an estimation of 244 million migrants are presently living temporarily or permanently outside their country of birth.  Violent conflict, discrimination and lack of employment opportunities are major reasons for the increasing number of immigrants in several developed countries, and has forced many countries into adopting drastic measures such as rigorous identity checks, detention camps and deportation, to reduce their entry. Another means of curbing the increasing number of immigrants includes formulating and enforcing policies that limits them access to affordable healthcare services. For instance, the United States Affordable Care Act excludes undocumented immigrants from accessing health insurance, while the immigrant provisions of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) excludes undocumented immigrants from publicly funded services.

Several immigration laws and policies within the United States continuously hinder undocumented immigrants’ access to adequate healthcare services, which constitutes a major challenge to all who fall under this category despite evidence proving they contribute more money in taxes to the U.S. economy than they consume in services.  What I believe the U.S. government has failed to understand is the fact that these laws and policies not only put the health of these undocumented immigrants at a high risk, but also the health of the general public and socioeconomic development of the country. One of the most detrimental ways these laws and policies have greatly affected this vulnerable population is in the fight against the HIV epidemic. According to Ross et al., migrants who reside in developed countries are disproportionately affected by HIV as the proportion of new HIV diagnosis amongst migrants exceeds the percentage of the general population. HIV, as we all know, is a global epidemic that demands the best care and treatment which was the reason that spurred world leaders in 2015 to restate their commitment to the right to health by enacting the universal health coverage in the sustainable development goals that guarantees all people and communities access to high quality health services.

HIV +-
Source: Yahoo Image

It is clear the United States government clearly disregards this universal policy that aims at ensuring everyone receives the best healthcare services irrespective of their personality or condition. I guess the U.S. government by their own understanding believes migrants do not fall under the universal coverage as it is evident through their discouraging treatment of undocumented immigrants, more so, those living with HIV. Ross et al. believes migrants persons living with HIV have more characteristics that are associated with poor HIV clinical outcome, and are more likely to die from HIV compared to non-immigrants. For undocumented people living with HIV, there are more factors that exacerbate their condition such as discriminatory laws and policies, lack of follow-up care, ignorance, stigmatization and discrimination. I do believe these discriminating laws and policies serves as the major factor affecting undocumented people living with HIV. One area that typifies this can be seen during the documentation process of a patient health record, which compulsorily demands the immigration status information of individuals. This got me wondering if a client’s immigration status information is actually needed in their health record.

Kim, Molina & Saadi believes documenting immigration status in patient records not only possess a challenge to the clients but also to clinicians. Although by recording this, the information would most likely improve the communication process between the client and the clinician, and also facilitate continuity of care, on the other hand, recording the same information could expose the client alongside their family to risks of being stigmatized or discriminated by non-immigrant friendly clinicians who may expose them to immigration enforcement officers even though it violates patient confidentiality. They believe explicit documentation of immigration status of patients alongside their families in a health record be avoided as evidence suggest risks outweigh benefits in this regard. Conversation about immigration status using indirect language in describing social context should rather be prioritized over written documentation to ensure patients have their healthcare needs met without fear. They concluded by advising clinicians and the general healthcare system to ensure policies and guidelines reduce the high level of stigma and discrimination for all rather than the present opposite.

Families fighting against forced separation
Madison, WI, USA- February 18, 2016 – group of people protesting new Wisconsin immigration laws. Source: Yahoo Image.

Another area that strikes me hard for undocumented immigrants living with HIV are those who are currently in detention camps across various states in the U.S., a revelation which came to me through one of my on-campus events with the representative of the Alabama Latino Aids Coalition. The speaker spoke about the inhumane treatment undocumented immigrants go through while in detention, more so, people living with HIV. This made me do some research and I found several evidences that confirmed undocumented immigrants living with HIV can actually maintain continuous access to care and treatment while being detained in correctional facilities to ensure they sustain or achieve good virologic outcomes and well-tolerated regimens if structured protocols are implemented and enforced. It should be noted that the detention process for migrants during their deportation proceedings is complex and rigid which has led to several lapses due to poor access to proper medical care. Even though there are 21 Federal Detention Centers across the U.S., which are operated by the Bureau of Prisons, and all provide Antiretroviral treatment and medication to detainees who disclose their HIV status, there exists fear of stigmatization or discrimination amongst detainees living with HIV as they believe their disclosure may negatively impact their immigration trial, especially if they also fall under any gender or sexual minority groups. Also, the poor living condition and environment of this population while in detention forces some to relapse into substance use, engage in risky sexual behaviors, and disregard their treatment plan.

Based on this understanding, it is hard to imagine the inhumane condition undocumented immigrants are forced to live through while being detained. There is need for the U.S. government to understand that even though several undocumented immigrants after their trial, are usually deported or released at the nearest borders or territories close to their home countries, several others return into the society without receiving adequate rehabilitation or reintegrative education which possess a challenge to the society at large. Human and material resources that could have been used to resolve other pressing needs will then be used to serve their avoidable demands. To resolve this challenge, there is the need to abolish any form of discrimination against detainees living with HIV and ensure it does not affect their deportation trial. Also, clinicians and correctional officers need to be more sensitive to the needs of the detainees having been separated from their families and may never see them again, which is a situation that can easily exacerbate their condition in such a hostile detention environment. Human rights institutions, immigration right advocates, academicians, alongside health authorities, media and the general public should also advocate and help raise awareness about the poor condition of these detention facilities. For deported detainees living with HIV, the U.S. government alongside non-governmental institutions should provide adequate health education using evidence-based treatment medications and materials that meets the specification of their home country to ensure transnational HIV continuity of care.

Picture of Undocumented Immigrants
Undocumented Immigrants in dire need of help. Source: Yahoo Image

In all, we all should understand that undocumented immigrants are also humans and should be treated with utmost respect irrespective of their situation. There is need to ensure their health and wellbeing are adequately met and well taken care of. As humans, we should not only sympathize with them, but also support them by raising awareness and advocating for better laws and policies that can assist them during their ordeal. We should always aim for a multi-sectoral approach that addresses the structural challenges for undocumented immigrants living with HIV such as housing, food security, mental health, and access to employment because there is a continuous effort by the U.S. government to dehumanize undocumented immigrants as community members and remove vital resources that is available to them. As we all know the U.S. government remains extremely resolute in enforcing the 2015 immigration laws that places all undocumented immigrants at risk of being deported, they can also ensure the universal law on respect to all life is adequately respected by enforcing laws, guidelines and policies that protects the lives and wellbeing of undocumented immigrants.

COVID-19: A Glimpse to the East

An image of a crowd of people in Wuhan, China. They are all wearing masks as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
2019-20 Wuhan coronavirus outbreak. Source: Wikipedia. Creative Commons.

COVID-19, otherwise known as the 2019 novel coronavirus, has spread to many countries around the world, affecting many immunocompromised populations and impacting millions of people worldwide. My colleagues have referenced hotspots where the response has impacted the most, from the Middle East to migrants right outside U.S. borders. They have illustrated how discrimination, isolationism, and plain ignorance have shattered families and populations, destroyed economies, and brought fear and terror into the hearts and minds of Earth’s people. It is in that essence that this article will continue to explain the impact of COVID-19 in another hotspot of the world, Asia.

The Asian continent, comprising 48 countries, according to the United Nations, encompasses immense diversity and roughly 60 percent of the global population within its boundaries. This diversity includes, but is not limited to, having the highest and lowest points on Earth, “the world’s wildest climatic extremes,” and “the birthplace of all the world’s major religions.” For the sake of this article, I will be focusing on three countries that are handling the virus very differently, India, China, and South Korea.

Food Insecurity

Having one of the highest populations in the world, India is often referenced as a case study when examining the impact of overpopulation, economics, and food security. In 2012, Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, 60 million out of 200 million people were considered living below the poverty line. Economic inequality has further negatively impacted India’s poorest communities with “57 billionaires controlling 70 percent of India’s wealth” as of 2017. Such inequality has led to the increase in poverty, a lack of medical equipment and access, poor living conditions, and a lack of food.

An image of Indian Census data from 2011. The country is seen with an immense population density per square kilometer. Uttar Pradesh and the city of Kolkata are most dense.
Demographics of India. Source: Wikipedia. Creative Commons.

However, this pandemic has exacerbated the lack of access to food by Indian residents that comes on the heels of Prime Minister Nahendra Modi’s announcement to begin a “21-day nationwide lockdown.” With such an announcement also came with rising panic from Indians, crowding grocery stores and shops with people panic buying everything in sight. Under Modi’s plan, the “Prime Minister’s Poor Welfare Scheme”, individuals will be able to receive five additional kilograms of rice or wheat for the next three months. Although proposed to benefit 800 million people, many are wary of its success due to the closure of interstate travel, trains, and flights. It is under this lockdown that residents could face two years in jail and a financial penalty if they leave their home for non-essential reasons. In an interview with Time, an autorickshaw driver expressed concern over Modi’s decree to lockdown the entire country. Before the decree, his main concern was to save enough money to help get his son through college. However, “as he stays home with no daily income, his main concern is putting food on the table. He’s not sure what he will do” once those savings run out. When examining a singular issue impacted by COVID-19, the situation in India highlights the issues that countries with an enormous informal sector may face due to economic hardship and lack of infrastructure. For example, India can grow enough food for its growing population, although millions are left underfed due to “bottlenecked supply chain[s], inadequate logistics, food wastage and sharp societal inequalities.” The virus has further called to attention the lack of food security that many around the world face on a daily basis which infringes upon their basic human rights and a Sustainable Development Goal that must be achieved by 2030, Zero Hunger.

Government Control

An image of the spread of the coronavirus in January. The Wuhan province is shown to be the most effective, colored in black.
Timeline of the 2019-20 coronavirus pandemic from November 2019 to January 2020. Source: Wikipedia. Creative Commons.

Being the most populated country in the world, China is often criticized for its drastic measures and horrifying treatment of Muslim minorities. When examining the pandemic, COVID-19 is known to have originated in the Wuhan province in China and was noticed by Chinese ophthalmologist Li Wenliang. Dr. Wenliang had used a private online chat to explain his worry for the novel virus, which quickly went viral, resulting in him being reprimanded by Chinese police. Following this observation, the province had shut down, cutting off transportation and sealing residents off from the outside world. In an interview with Dr. Bruce Aylward, “the leader of the World Health Organization team that visited China,” had praised the Chinese government’s decisive actions towards preventing the spread of the virus:

“I think the key learning from China is speed — it’s all about the speed.” — Dr. Bruce Aylward

Although the Chinese government has sought to demonstrate its prowess and handling of the virus, through building hospitals in 10-days and publishing photos of patients who have been cured of the disease, many human rights groups have expressed concern and worry over the treatment of those who have been critical of the government. For instance, Chen Qiushi, a Chinese human rights lawyer, was “put under quarantine”, Fang Bin, a citizen journalist, disappeared in February, and Li Zihua, another journalist, was taken away by a group of men. Dr. Wenliang had died due to the virus early February of 2020. With the news of his death, thousands of comments flooded Chinese social media site Weibo criticizing the Chinese government and censorship in the country with top hashtags such as “Wuhan government owes Dr Li Wenliang an apology” and “We want freedom of speech.” According to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), when they searched for the hashtags a day after Wenliang’s death, they disappeared having been censored alongside many comments aimed at the Chinese government.

From Wuhan province, we now turn to the Xinjiang province in Western China, where the imprisonment of millions of Uyghur Muslims could prove to be a breeding ground for the virus as it spreads throughout the world. You can read more IHR blogs about The Uyghur Muslims in the context of Crimes Against Humanity here and how this crisis is affecting refugees on the US-Mexico border here. In Xinjiang, there are an estimated three million people detained in re-education camps in Western China, mostly of Uyghur Muslims who have been suppressed by the Communist Party. As alleged by Jewher Ilham, the daughter of a jailed Uyghur academic, some of the “conditions at the detention centers offered the perfect chance for coronavirus to spread” citing “systematic abuse, serious overcrowding and poor sanitary conditions inside the camps.” Given allegations of China’s unwillingness to publish the truth about these conditions combined with the alleged suppression of critics and ethnic minorities, it is deeply concerning to gauge the risks of infection amongst those who have been cited as not having enough to eat or doctors on staff to treat those infected. This is also a signal to international groups and organizations to ensure that all people have the chance to be cured and not suffer as a result of the virus or violating the human rights to freedom of speech.

An image of China divided into province. The Xinjiang province is highlighted with the highest concentration of Muslims
Xinjiang Region, China. Source: Flickr, futureatlas.com. Creative Commons.

Some Potential Success?

Amongst all the panic buying and the loss of toilet paper throughout the country, there seems to be some light at the end of the tunnel manifesting itself through ‘flattening the curve’. This method has seemed to be close to perfected by South Korea whose growth in COVID-19 cases has significantly slowed compared to the United States. When examining South Korea, many writers have explained the situation by comparing it to religion and culture, chalking it up to higher levels of social trust and the lingering aspect of Confucianism. However, that does not seem to be the case. By flattening the curve, South Korea has demonstrated that it is due to “competent leadership that inspired public trust.” Having tested more than 5000 people per million inhabitants than the United States, it is no wonder that taking early action and mobilizing health officials could lead to a successful response.

“No sacred Confucian text advised Korean health officials to summon medical companies and told them to ramp up testing capacity when Korea had only four known cases of COVID-19.” — S. Nathan Park

Compared to China, India, and even the United States, South Korea did not have to “lockdown entire cities or take some authoritarian measures,” rather, they learned from their past experience with MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome). Such preparation allowed the South Korean government to be proactive and “improve hospital infection prevention and control.” Combined with South Korea’s industrial and developmental advantages over both China and India, the government was able to take a proactive approach and deter the worst effects of the virus. Once South Koreans started getting sick in early February, the government immediately began “testing aggressively to identify cases — not only testing people who are so sick that they’re hospitalized but also mild cases and even suspected cases.” This initiative has allowed South Korea to quarantine those at a high risk while also managing to keep their factories, schools, hospitals, and entire cities open while other countries around the world are having to shut down everything to contain the spread.

An image of the cumulative and new cases of coronavirus in South Korea. The graph is showing a flattening of the curve.
2020 coronavirus cases in South Korea. Source: Wikipedia, KCDC. Creative Commons.

Conclusion

Looking back at India, China, and South Korea, it becomes apparent that a swift and proactive response is necessary in order to not allow for the lockdown of entire cities and countries. However, that proactivity must balance itself between being lax and aggressive. For example, China’s efforts to curb the spread of the news rather than the virus has made human rights concerns more apparent to the world, especially since the freedom of speech for civilians is being curbed to protect China’s global reputation. In India’s case, the pandemic has shown many human rights groups and countries the issues that a country with a massive impoverished population faces during difficult times. By being able to demonstrate good leadership and mobilizing experts, South Korea has ultimately done what many other countries would only hope to accomplish. Such success has already inspired other Asian countries to follow suit, especially Singapore, Japan, and others. And although South Korea’s population is significantly small compared to that of India and China, their success is one that can be successfully implemented worldwide. Instead of casting these successes aside as an element of Confucianism or culture, it is necessary for us to be able to model our response like South Korea’s so that were such an event to occur again, we will be able to swiftly contain the spread rather than suffer through weeks and months at home without physical human interaction.

Breathing Lessons: Disability Rights in the Wake of COVID-19

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has provoked an unprecedented reality for much of the global population by streamlining widespread bureaucratic frustration, health anxiety, and social distancing. Most people know that older adults and people with underlying health conditions are disproportionately affected by COVID-19, although many people fall under both these categories and identify with a disability. Also, due to the limited resources available to treat people with COVID-19, concerns have emerged about who receives what type of care. This would force health providers with the grim task of dictating whose lives are worth saving. This blog addresses concerns about rationing care amid the influx of COVID-19 patients and how this might affect the largest minority group in the United States (26%) and world (15%), people with disabilities.

Word Health Organization suggests COVID-19 is particularly threatening to people with disabilities for a list of reasons: (1) barriers to implementing proper hygienic measures, (2) difficulty in social distancing, (3) the need to touch things for physical support (e.g. assistance devices; railings), (4) barriers to accessing public health information, and (5) the potential exacerbation of existing health issues. These issues add insult to injury because, even without COVID-19, people with disabilities by-and-large receive inadequate access to health care services. This is largely due to the competitive nature of health systems which value profit maximization and, thus, disadvantage people with disabilities as consumers in the health care market.

Recently, select states and hospitals have issued guidelines for health providers that would potentially deny people with disabilities treatment for COVID-19. Two entities, Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) and Washington State Department of Public Health (WSDPH), have recently come under scrutiny because of their efforts to fulfill such guidelines.

ADPH’s Emergency Operations Plan suggests that ventilator support would be denied to patients with “severe of profound mental retardation”, “moderate to severe dementia”, and “severe traumatic brain injury”. This controversial protocol has recently grabbed the attention of Alabama Disability Advocacy Program and The Arc thus leading to a complaint with U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights (OCR) regarding discrimination toward people with intellectual and cognitive disabilities.

With Washington notoriously being one of the first COVID-19 hotspots, WSDPH and the University of Washington Medical Center have come under fire for their plans to develop a protocol that would allow health providers to access a patient’s age, health status, and chances of survival to determine treatment and comfort care. These efforts have been confronted by Disabilities Rights Washington with their own complaint to OCR that declares any medical plan that discriminates against people with disabilities effectively violates the their rights and is, therefore, unlawful.

OCR swiftly responded to these concerns, as well as those from Kansas and Tennessee, by stating that, even in the case of pandemics, hospitals and doctors cannot undermine the care of people with disabilities and older adults. OCR Director Roger Severino exclaimed, “We’re concerned that crisis standards of care may start relying on value judgments as to the relative worth of one human being versus another, based on the presence or absence of disability,” and “…that stereotypes about what life is like living with a disability can be improperly used to exclude people from needed care.”

Also, with New York currently having most of the U.S.’s confirmed COVID-19 cases, they may very well be the first state to face the imbalance of available ventilators and patient demand. Disability advocates have recently decried verbiage in New York’s Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness (PREP) Act that could provide immunity from civil rights for some patients. Thus, U.S. state and federal powers are playing tug-of-war with the status of disability rights during the COVID-19 crisis.

Not Today #COVID19 Sign Resting on a Wooden Stool.
Not Today COVID-19 Sign on Wooden Stool. Source: Pexels, Creative Commons.

However, these concerns are not limited to the U.S. In the developing world, many people with disabilities are segregated from their communities in overcrowded facilities, while thousands of others are shackled and incarcerated. This weak enforcement of disability rights positions people with disabilities, in countries such as Brazil, Croatia, Ghana, India, Indonesia, and Russia, at-risk of further inhumane treatment by receiving limited or no appropriate care related to COVID-19. As a result, Human Rights Watch urges state and local authorities to return these populations to their families and demand they provide needed support and services within their communities.

Nearly every country in the world has ratified the United Nations’ Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) which aims to fulfill the human rights and fundamental freedoms of people with disabilities. More specifically, Article 25 of CRPD suggests people with disabilities have the right to non-discriminatory health care and population-based public health programs. Thus, nearly every person with a disability around the globe is associated with a governmental power that claims to be dedicated to fulfilling the promise of CRPD. However, in the wake of COVID-19, will these words be put into action?

These unprecedented events are a turning point for how we view our bodies, health, and communities. This is also an opportunity to view the world through the perspective of those in your community such as people with disabilities who represent an array of impairments, challenges, and experiences. Despite boredom and apathy being at the forefront of many people’s isolation, images of life versus death surround others, and for a good reason. In these decisive weeks, and likely months, there has never been a greater time for people in the U.S. and abroad to acknowledge that disability rights are human rights.

What is Homelessness and Why is it an Issue?

Homelessness is defined as “the state of having no home.” In the 1950s, the idea of homelessness was just that, an idea. About “70% of the world’s population of about 2.5 billion people,” lived in rural areas. Today, however, it is estimated that at least 150 million people across the world are homeless with a total of 1.6 billion people lacking adequate or appropriate housing. OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) data also ranks the United States (U.S.) as 11th behind Australia, Canada, Germany, Sweden, and others, in terms of homelessness as a percent of the total population in 2015. What is particularly interesting about these statistics is that the first two, Australia and Canada, have plans to address homelessness, with the latter two, Germany and Sweden, not having any type of national plan.

According to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) 2018 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, an estimated 553,000 people experienced homelessness on a single 2018 night. In terms of homelessness by state, California ranked highest with a raw amount of 129,000 people and North Dakota ranked the lowest in raw count with 542 homeless people through a point-in-time count. Compared to 2008, about 664,000 people in the United States had experienced homelessness on a single night. When looking at California in 2008, about 158,000 people, more than a sixth of the total, had experienced some type of homelessness.

Definitions:

Sheltered Homelessness: referring to those who stay in emergency shelters, transitional housing programs, or safe havens.

Unsheltered Homelessness: referring to those whose primary nighttime location is a public or private place not designated for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for people (streets, vehicles, or parks).

Chronically Homeless Individual: referring to an individual with a disability who has been continuously homeless for one year or more or has experienced at least four episodes of homelessness in the last three years where the combined length of time homeless in those occasions is at least 12 months.

A homeless man sleeps under an American flag blanket on a park bench in New York City.
A homeless man sleeps under an American flag blanket on a park bench in New York City. Source: Jacobin. Creative Commons.

During December of 2017, “Philip Alston, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty,” visited California, Alabama, Georgia, Puerto Rico, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C., and compiled his findings into an associated report. Here, he introduces the U.S. as one of the world’s richest societies, a trendsetter, and a sophisticated place to live. After such praise, he contrasts the country with his own observations and data gathered from OECD. He also indirectly attacks the U.S., going so far as to mention that “the strict word limit for this report makes it impossible to delve deeply into even the key issues,: showing the immensity of the issues at hand that affect those living in the U.S., known as a “land of stark contrasts.”

In the same report, Alston also noted the at-the-time recent policies that the U.S. had enacted, such as tax breaks and financial windfalls (a sudden, unexpected profit or gain) for the wealthy, reducing welfare benefits for the poor, eliminating protections (financial, environmental, health, and safety) that benefit the middle class and the poor, removing access to health insurance for over 20 million people, increasing spending on defense, and many more. One of the solutions proposed to such an important issue was to decriminalize being poor.

However, leaders of cities and states may think otherwise.

A view of Bunker Hill, Los Angeles
Bunker Hill as seen from Los Angeles City Hall. Source: English Wikipedia. Creative Commons.

For example, Los Angeles and other central cities are constantly seen with “giant cranes and construction” building towers and other magnificent architecture solely to “house corporate law firms, investment banks, real-estate brokerages, tech firms” and other ‘big-money’ companies. However, in those same cities, when looked closely, can make out “encampments of tattered tents, soiled mattresses, dirty clothing, and people barely surviving on the streets.” Alston even goes so far as to call out Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti for allowing ticketing $300 to have an encampment rather than developing affordable housing for the many people unable to pay for their homes and places of residence. This exacerbates the living conditions of those charged because they are struggling to make necessary payments on time, such as healthcare, food, water, and some sort of shelter, be it a tent or living out on the street. This demonstrates that criminalizing homelessness presents an ethical issue that drags people into an endless cycle of poverty.

“Criminalizing homelessness does not solve the problem. It makes suffering more brutal and drives people living on the streets further into the shadows.” – Human Rights Watch

Looking closer to home, the 2019 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report to Congress suggests Alabama has seen progress in lowering the homelessness rate. The report ranked Alabama having the “third-lowest rate of homelessness in the country,” but also having “one of the highest rates of unsheltered homeless youth.”

According to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) in 2018, Alabama had 3,434 people experiencing homelessness through a community count. Below is a breakdown of each category for homelessness statistics in Alabama:

  • Total Homeless Population: 3,434
  • Total Family Households Experiencing Homelessness: 280
  • Veterans Experiencing Homelessness: 339
  • Persons Experiencing Chronic Homelessness: 540
  • Unaccompanied Young Adults (Aged 18-24) Experiencing Homelessness: 158

 

  • Total Number of Homeless Students: 14,112
  • Total Number of Unaccompanied Homeless Students: 583
  • Nighttime Residence: Unsheltered: 675
  • Nighttime Residence: Shelters: 735
  • Nighttime Residence: Hotels/motels: 681
  • Nighttime Residence: Doubled up: 12,021
A homeless student, sitting on the sidewalk against a wall, reading a book. The student has a small bag of items beside him and a sign that says, "Homeless."
Not all students look forward to summer vacation. Source: FAMVIN. Creative Commons

Looking at Birmingham, October 2018 was quite a divisive time due to disagreements and allegations for discrimination against Firehouse Ministries who were aiming to receive support from the city in order to build a new Firehouse Shelter. These allegations had caused the city council to vote down said plan, causing Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin to criticize such an action, stating:

“We can’t interject race into every situation. Homelessness is not an issue we should be talking about race.” — Randall Woodfin, in an interview with WBRC Fox 6 News.

However, racial disparities still exist when looking into the homeless population. According to a 2018 report from National Alliance to End Homelessness, African Americans “make up more than 40% of the homeless population, but represent 13 percent of the general population.”

Those disparities could potentially be due to “centuries of discrimination in housing, criminal justice, child welfare and education.” They are also influenced by criminal records, which African Americans are more likely to have, leading to difficulties finding housing or a job to pay for housing.

The USICH has proposed a variety of solutions that could potentially reduce the rate of homelessness if not put an end to the issue once and for all. These solution span a wide range of projects and solutions, some listed below:

  • Housing First: Providing people with support services and community resources to keep their housing and not to become homeless again.
  • Rapid Re-Housing/Affordable Housing: Helping individuals quickly “exit homelessness and return to permanent housing” while also being affordable to even those living in deep poverty. Access must also be available according to need.
  • Healthcare: Having healthcare would allow these households to treat and manage those conditions that limit them from getting a job in the first place.
  • Career Pathways: Providing accessible job trainings and employment for those living without a home.
  • Schools: Providing children with schooling can be a sign of safety and connections to a broader community.

Are there any bills that have been introduced into Congress to mitigate homelessness?

Yes, H.R. 1856, titled “Ending Homelessness Act of 2019.” Introduced in March of 2019, this bill, sponsored by Representative maxine Waters of California aims to create a 5-Year Path To End Homelessness, among other things. Currently, this bill has yet to be passed in the House of Representatives before going to the Senate and President.

Homelessness is a Human Rights Issue. The lack to address it is a Violation of stated International Human Rights.

According to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner, homelessness has “emerged as a global human rights crisis,” particularly in nation-states where resources are available to address it.

In response to questions asked by the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing in 2016, Leilani Farha, the U.S. has NOT characterized homelessness as “a human rights violation by U.S. courts.” However, certain ordinances enacted by cities have been scrutinized, such as criminalizing people experiencing homeless that sleep in public areas, partially due to the lack of shelter space. Supreme Court case Bell v. City of Boise et al addressed this very issue by determining that convicting someone of a crime due to status is in violation of the United States Constitution, particularly the Eighth Amendment, stating that convicting “a person of a crime based on his or her status amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. Simply by criminalizing homelessness through fines or through time in prison, police and other authority bodies are unconstitutionally affecting those who do not the resources to live a life of stability.

In order to end homelessness, cooperation between public and private bodies are necessary so that equitable access to housing and workforce opportunities for those who’ve been disenfranchised. Following recommendations by the USICH can help relieve many of the problems that many communities, both urban and rural, have to face while also refraining from criminalizing homelessness.

PRISONERS NEED ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE TOO!

Image of US flag behind barbed wire
Incarcerated America. Source: Pixabay

With the release of the film Just Mercy, which recounts Bryan Stevenson’s experience challenging death row convictions in Alabama and creating the Equal Justice Initiative, the criminal justice system is once again in the news and the topic of the death penalty is being debated. First off, everyone should see the film. Until we do away with the death penalty it is necessary that we confront the realities of it in as many ways as possible. The work that Stevenson is doing is beyond admirable, and unfortunately is still needed, yet I couldn’t help but feel a bit pessimistic about this debate. Partly because it seems so obvious to me that the death penalty should not exist, partly because I have little faith in the current federal administration or the state government to address this, and partly because we have been having this debate about the death penalty my entire life. So I fought that initial feeling and began to think about how I could incorporate criminal justice into my own work on environmental justice and human rights.

Prisoners = Environmental Justice Communities

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), environmental justice is “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies”. In other words, no community should disproportionately bear the brunt of environmental ills, such as pollution, yet in reality, minority and low-income neighborhoods are the ones to bear the brunt. Just as race-based and class-based disparities exist in the experience of environmental ills, they also exist in the criminal justice system and are both the result of broader injustices, such as colonization and white supremacy. African Americans make up 40% of the prison population while representing only 13% of the American population, and Latinos make up 20% of prisons, but only 15% of the population. Low-income populations also have higher rates of incarceration then more others.

Although they are not often included in conversations about environmental justice, the US prison population mirrors other environmental justice communities in many ways especially in regards to discrimination, lack of political representation, lack of access to social services and economic marginalization. Minority and low-income individuals are disproportionately represented in prisons and therefore are disproportionately affected by inadequate prison conditions. Inmates in the US are further at risk due to their reliance on the state for protection and provision of basic needs, all while dealing with the chronic stress of prison life and lack of adequate health resources. Yet, despite this, the US continues to fail to recognize prison populations as environmental justice communities.

Unjust Prison Conditions

There are currently about 2.3 million individuals incarcerated in the US, including those who are awaiting trial, and all of those lives are affected by the inadequate prison conditions plaguing the US.

Pie Chart of US Incarceration
How Many People Are Locked Up in the United States?.
Source: Peter Wagner & Wendy Sawyer (2018) Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2018, www.prisonpolicy.org

Prison conditions throughout the country have been so inadequate that courts have ruled that they violate the 8th Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. Many of these conditions are the result of environmental ills such as excessive heat or cold, exposure to asbestos, lack of drinkable water and exposure to toxic elements. Yet, while some cases have been won no national changes have been made and environmental injustice continues.

  • Graph of Medical Conditions in Texas State Prisons
    Some Medical Conditions Make People Especially Vulnerable to High Temperatures.
    Source: Alexi Jones (2019) Cruel and unusual punishment: When states don’t provide air conditioning in prison, www.prisonpolicy.org
    • In February, inmates in the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, NY were stuck in freezing cells for a week as the temperature dropped to below freezing and heating became almost nonexistent.
    • Prisons also fail to adequately prepare for extreme weather events. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005 over 8,000 inmates were incarcerated at Orleans Parish Prison. Despite the mandatory evacuation, prisoners were forced to remain for several days in flooded cells, with a limited supply of food and drinking water and lack of basic sanitation. Similarly, prisoners were not evacuated from flood zones in Puerto Rico during Hurricane Maria.
    • Both prisons and toxic sites are considered undesirable land use and therefore they are often placed in the same area with little to no regard for the health of inmates. 589 of 1,821 federal and state prisons exist within three miles of a Superfund site, with 134 being within one mile. These sites commonly contain toxins such as arsenic, lead, mercury, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) and can cause extensive damage to human health.

Unjust Working Conditions

Prisoners are also vulnerable to numerous environmental ills in their work environments. The Thirteenth Amendment abolishes slavery “except as a punishment for crime” and under this ruling prisoners can be forced to work for no pay. Courts have also ruled that inmates do not have the right to refuse work and can be placed in disciplinary confinement for refusal. While only some states have refused any payment, most inmates make less than a dollar an hour. In addition, inmates are not protected by workplace health and safety regulations set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) because they are not considered employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). In other words, there is no outside agency to hold prisons accountable for occupational safety, unless it is so extreme that is constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Many work assignments deal with extremely toxic materials, such as e-waste and asbestos abatement, or inherently hazardous practices, such as firefighting, with little regard being given to inmate health.

Prison firefighters have received some attention of late due to the recent wildfires in California, with much of it focusing on the fact that they are poorly paid for such work and often cannot become firefighters after they are released. Another important aspect to examine is the physical toll firefighting takes. Inmates are eight times more likely to be injured while fighting fires than civilian firefighters, and the American Lung Association has warned of the negative health effects from continued exposure to particle pollution and carbon monoxide within forest fire smoke, among other hazardous air pollutants.

Responsibility of the State

Prisoners represent an incredibly vulnerable population, as they are completely reliant on the state, and therefore the state has a responsibility to protect prisoners from serious harm. The American Correctional Association’s (ACA) Declaration of Principles even recognizes the principle of ‘‘humanity’’ as being essential and states that ‘‘the dignity of individuals, the rights of all people and the potential for human growth and development must be respected’’. This is because people are sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment. The punishment for the crime is the length of incarceration.

Unsurprisingly, the stated principles of the ACA do not always manifest in reality. One such example took place in Louisiana. In 2016 the state made headlines when it was revealed that it spent more than $1 million of public funds on legal fees in an effort to defend its refusal to install air conditioning on death row at Angola prison. The cost to install the air conditioning and operate it would have been $225,000. The state has a responsibility to protect those in its care and it is failing to do so.

Why Bother?

Many may question why we should care about prisoners when many other communities are dealing with similar environmental injustices. Others may say that they should have thought about these things before they did the crimes and that prison is not supposed to be “easy”.

My response would be to watch Just Mercy and critically examine the “justness” of the criminal justice system. To borrow a quote from Professor Nick Hardwick, “If you’re going to defend the ordinary, everyday rights that all of us depend on as we go about our lives and live in peace and security, then actually you can’t risk sacrificing the principles on which those rights are based, even for people whose behaviour you disapprove of. Once you start saying that those rights are conditional for them, they are conditional for you too”.

Disclaimer: This article is not an endorsement of the concept that incarceration is a necessary evil nor is it a dismissal of the fact that an end to mass incarceration is the most effective way to address the injustices examined in this article.

The State of Incarceration in Alabama

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending the Organized Radical Collegiate Activism (ORCA) Conference organized by the UAB Social Justice Advocacy Council on January 24, 2020. Various important and interesting social justice issues were discussed and presented by talented UAB students throughout the day. The presentation that stood out the most to me was “The State of Incarceration in Alabama” by Eli and Bella Tylicki. The brother-and-sister duo did a great job bringing attention to a very important human rights issue right here in Alabama.

Eli Tylicki and Bella Tylicki Source: ORCA 2020

The presentation started out with some questions for the attendees, such as what they thought were their odds of getting incarcerated at some point in their life? After some interesting responses from the audience, the presenters revealed that White men have a 7% chance of getting incarcerated at least once in their life, Hispanic men 17%, and African American men have the highest (32%) chance. However, women account for only 7% of the U.S. prison population. It was also revealed that the cost to imprison one person for a year in the U.S. is $36,299.25, or $99.45 per day.

As compared to other developed countries such as Canada, Germany, France, Italy, and the U.K, the United States has the highest number of incarcerated people per 100,000 population, almost three times more than these countries. The United States makes up roughly 5% of the world’s population but holds about 25% of the world’s prisoners. Shockingly, 31 U.S. states also have higher incarceration rates than any country in the world, and Alabama is among the worst in the country. Alabama exceeds national averages in virtually every category measured by states and the federal government, making the state’s prison system one of the most violent in the nation.

Source: https://www.prisonpolicy.org/global/2018.html

Now the question arises, why is the state of incarceration in the U.S. uniquely outrageous, and why is Alabama among the worst in this aspect? Many factors are responsible for such staggering statistics, including our economy built on slavery, poverty, tradition-based culture, fear and insecurity, systemic racism, educational inequity, and punitive cultural attitudes just to name a few. Focusing on Alabama, the presenters showed that Alabama’s prisons were revealed to be the most crowded in the country in 2017, with the prison suicide rate being three times more and the homicide rate ten times more than the national average. On April 2, 2019, the U.S Department of Justice Report concluded that “there is reasonable cause to believe that the conditions in Alabama’s prisons for men violate the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The Department concluded that there is reasonable cause to believe that the men’s prisons fail to protect prisoners from prisoner-on-prisoner violence and prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse and fail to provide prisoners with safe conditions.” Note that the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits the infliction of excessive, cruel, and unusual punishment.

The presenters then went on to show the various horrific accounts of prisoner violence, sexual abuse, homicide cases, and extreme physical injuries during a single week in 2017 as reported by the investigation. It was extremely shocking to learn about the various instances of such abuse and violence that took place in just a single week in our prisons. Those examples were used to illustrate the gravity of ongoing issues in state prisons and are not mentioned here due to their disturbing and triggering nature. Additionally, overcrowding and understaffing are some very important issues that contribute to the worsening situation of prisons in Alabama. According to the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC), the state houses approximately 16,327 prisoners in major correctional facilities which are designed to hold only 9,882. Moreover, prisons like Staton and Kilby hold almost three times the number of prisoners than their capacity. As for understaffing, Alabama’s prisons employ only 1,072 out of the 3,326 needed correctional officers according to ADOC’s staffing report from June 2018. It also reported that three prisons have fewer than 20% of the needed correctional officers. This illustrates the increased threat to the safety of both the staff and the prisoners in those facilities due to the lack of required personnel in case of an emergency.

Source: Yahoo Images, Creative Common

The Department of Justice also reported the excessive number of deaths due to violent and deadly assault, high number of life-threatening injuries, unchecked extortions, illegal drugs, and the routinely inability to adequately protect prisoners even when officials have advance warning. The report also threatened a lawsuit within 49 days if the state does not show that it is correcting what is said to be a systemic failure to protect inmates from violence and sexual abuse.

In response, Alabama’s Governor Kay Ivey has proposed a public-private partnership to lease three “megaprisons” from a private firm as a solution to the understaffing and cost-ineffective conditions in state prisons. Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn said that “we are convinced now more than ever before that consolidating our infrastructure down to three regional facilities and decommissioning the majority of our major facilities is the way to go.”

Bella and Eli Tylicki gave an overview of the potential pros and cons of the megaprison proposal. Some advantages may be that the upfront costs will be covered, and it may prove as a quick fix with less red tape (a reduction of bureaucratic obstacles to action). However, privatized prisons may lead to a decreased quality of life, is economically inefficient, and there is no change in cost for taxpayers. The Equal Justice Initiative explains how building new prisons will not solve the state’s prison crisis:

Alabama’s primary problems relate to management, staffing, poor classification, inadequate programming for incarcerated people, inadequate treatment programs, poor training, and officer retention. None of these problems will be solved by building new prisons, nor does a prison construction strategy respond to the imminent risk of harm to staff, incarcerated people, and the public.

Therefore, the presenters proposed an alternative to this solution in the form of decarceration and rehabilitation of prisoners. This aims at fixing overcrowding and understaffing, decreases the inside violence, and costs less for taxpayers. Additionally, there is no change in crime rate outside the prisons and rehabilitation leads toward GDP growth and a more productive society. Studies have shown that incarcerated people who participate in correctional education programs are less likely to recidivate and have a higher chance of finding employment when they are released. Plus, these valuable educational and rehabilitative programs cost the state nothing while having significant positive effects on successful re-entry of prisoners and protecting public safety. Of course, there will need to be more done other than just an emphasis on decarceration, such as fixing the infrastructure, improving healthcare, and incentivizing an increase in Correctional Officers. Low-cost reforms such as effective use of video surveillance cameras, implementation of an internal classification system, skilled management, and other basic management systems such as incident tracking systems, quality control, and corrective action review can result in significant improvements in conditions for both the staff and the prisoners. These low-cost reforms helped the nation’s worst women prison, the Tutwiler Prison for Women, become a model for reform.

The Tylickis ended their presentation with a call for action by urging the audience members to call their state representatives and senators to take responsible action, as they will be voting on this issue in the coming weeks. Additionally, they asked us to volunteer with reentry organizations and educate ourselves and others on the issue. Some initiatives that we can support include The Dannon Project, Alabama Appleseed, and the Equal Justice Initiative. We, as responsible and active citizens of this state, need to play our part in making our society safe, just, and productive for all.

Arab Spring 2.0

The Second Arab Spring has risen, but this time it is much more peaceful, democratic, and youth-centered than the first. Why is this important?

2011 was quite the year for everyone except me. I still attended elementary school, could not ride a bike or swim, and had no idea what I was going to do with my life. Although nothing great happened to me, the world had changed drastically for those in the Middle East, especially the youth. That event, which changed the way many Arabs and Middle Easterners viewed their governments, was called the Arab Spring. Fast forward to 2019, I’m a freshman at The University of Alabama at Birmingham and Middle Easterners are fighting for equality and a democratic style of government. Then and now, human rights violations such as inequality and representation serve as focal points for protest and revolution, allowing for them to stand up for what they believe in and fundamentally change their government.

So, what exactly was the Arab Spring?

Basically, the Arab Spring consisted of many pro-democracy protests that took place in many majority-Muslim countries like Tunisia, Morocco, Syria, Libya, Egypt, and Bahrain. Like many other social movements, the Arab Spring started with a “single act of defiance.”

In December of 2010, a street vendor, Mohammad Bouazizi, from Tunisia set himself on fire to protest the seizing of his vegetable stand by the police due to him not getting a permit. Bouazizi’s sacrifice set aflame the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, where the many protestors fighting for more social freedoms caused Tunisia’s authoritarian president for 20+ years, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, to renounce his position and flee the country. This revolution in Tunisia had caused the country to become more socially democratic and involve the people in its political process due to Tunisia’s first elections occurring in 2011.

Such a great change in government by a country in the Middle East had caused others in the region to also protest, with protests occurring in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, although many succeeded and others failed.

Although Bouazizi’s death served as a catalyst for the spreading of pro-democracy fervor, the death of Egypt’s Khaled Said by police officers became another martyr in the fight for democracy. Through his death, an Egyptian Google Executive from Dubai by the name of Wael Ghoneim became a prominent activist, creating a Facebook group called “We Are All Khaled Said,” bringing in thousands of members.

Egypt’s Arab Spring, springing from Said’s death, called for the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, then President of Egypt. After resigning, he was “charged with ordering the deaths of protesters,” of which “more than 800 people were killed.” Once Mubarak stepped down, a former political prisoner by the name of Mohamed Morsy came into power democratically. Although he was chosen by the people, Morsy made it so that no court could overturn his decisions, solidifying him as an autocrat. After many protests and conflicts with the Egyptian military, Morsy “was ousted in a military coup,” leading to the establishment of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt’s former military chief, as President through 96% of the vote.

Images of Protests in Cairo, Egypt; Tunis, Tunisia; El Beïda, Libye; Sana'a, Yémen; Damas, Syrie; and Karrana, Bahreïn
SCREENVILLE: Iranian Dissidence in Real Life Peril. Source: screenville.blogspot.com, Creative Commons

Was the Arab Spring ultimately successful across the Middle East?

Unfortunately, no.

Although there were some democratic successes in both Tunisia and Egypt through electing leaders democratically, other countries in the Middle East, such as Libya and Yemen resulted in continued conflict and war many years after the Arab Spring.

Libya, though ousting Muammar Gaddafi from his reign, remains in conflict. Libya has essentially been divided through the many militias and political factions that exist today, fighting endlessly to grab power. The situation has been so rampant that many “migrants from sub-Saharan Africa are forced” to dangerously travel to Europe through the Mediterranean, all in an effort to flee human trafficking and violence.

At first, Yemen successfully removed its President of 30 years, Ali Abdullah Saleh. However, instead of a democratic response, an “armed uprising and foreign military intervention” caused Yemen to undergo a brutal civil war. It is through this war that Yemen experienced the worst cholera outbreak, large-scale famines across the country, and the killing of many civilians through bombs and landmines. These issues continue to be present, with no end in sight as to when it will end.

So, the Arab Spring, although deadly, resulted in some Middle Eastern countries to move towards democracy and others toward chaos and autocracy. It’s not like there’s going to be any other event like this soon, right?

Again, no.

In recent news, there have cumulative instances where protesters are fighting for the same issues. However, they “have learned from their mistakes, and are seeking new goals and using new means to achieve real, lasting, regional changes.”

According to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, there are three distinct characteristics for this new Arab Spring, otherwise called Arab Spring 2.0:

  1. The protesters do not trust any political leader. They believe that current leaders have not kept to their economic promises and reforms. And as such, many want to start over and introduce new politicians and parties.
  2. The protests are peaceful. Unlike protests from before, many current protests lean pacifist, even through brutal responses from the military. It is through these protests that widespread support is achieved and that countries are willing to listen.
  3. The protesters are rejecting sectarian divisions. In Lebanon, for example, religion and ethnic identity form a crucial part of how the government is formed and how people are treated. These protesters have essentially decided to do away with these divisive tactics and move towards equalizing all in government.
An image of the Peace sign
Peace Logo Wallpapers – Wallpaper Cave. Source: wallpapercave.com, Creative Commons

These characteristics directly coincide with many Algerian protests that began on February of 2019. During a panel discussion hosted by the Brookings Doha Center in partnership with Al Jazeera Centre for Studies, Haoues Taguia, a researcher for the Al Jazeera Centre for Studies, described how Algerians are distancing themselves from being a parallel to the Arab Spring. He noted that these protests are relatively peaceful, combined with the fact that a large portion of the population from “all walks of life” came to participate, legitimizing the movement. Due to a lack of leadership within the movement, these protests will be initially successful, but chaos would ensue in the years to come without a solid and stable leadership structure. During the same event, Shafeeq Garba, a professor of Political Science at Kuwait University, also advised that other civilians of MENA countries should follow Algeria’s example in order to create dialogue for change. He noted that “in the violent alternatives to this, civil wars, everyone loses, and that if these revolutions don’t succeed, they will ultimately lead to failed states.”

Lebanon is another interesting case where protests are fundamentally changing the way that a legitimate government should operate. These protests came to fruition on October 17 due to new taxes on WhatsApp calls, which caused protesters to light “fires on main roads and [block] highways, while banks, schools, and universities closed.” This new tax became the tipping point for those agitated with the Lebanese government and how their politicians are manipulating the wealth and resources that Lebanon contains. Protesters have gone so far as to create a human chain across the country as a form of protest while also involving more and more students into the fray. According to Fatima al-Sheikh, a freshman student protester, many students thought that the sectarian leaders “looked out for [their] interests, even though [the students] knew they were corrupt and oppressive. But now [the students] feel that with our hearts, and we can’t go back from that.” These protests have raged on for more than a month. With elections soon, only time will tell whether or not these protests will ultimately succeed or rather be only one of many protests in the MENA region that result in chaos and a fractured country.

Arab Spring 2.0 may only seem like a relatively new phenomenon for the MENA region now, due to the rippling effects the first Arab Spring had and still has to this day in countries like Yemen and Libya. However, rising protests against a corrupt and unfair government have spawned all over the world, from Latin America (my recent post concerning Chile’s protests) to the Middle East. Since many of these protests have been led by students it just really comes to show how concerned many college-aged people are about whether or not their respective government will be able to fairly implement policies that benefit the entire nation rather than just the ruling class. In terms of Lebanon and Algeria, both countries are fighting to revamp their respective governments. By fighting to create fair elections that emphasize the importance of the people and not just the ruling elitist class, protesters in the MENA region symbolize the importance of human rights values such as equality in a government through democratic and fair elections.

Family Fire: A Gun Safety Issue

A child holding a gun
Source: Yahoo Images, Creative Commons

Last week, a 2-year old boy accidentally shot himself in his home in southwest Birmingham. Fortunately, he survived the gunshot wound and is being treated at the Children’s of Alabama hospital. The police are not sure how he obtained the gun yet, but the investigation is ongoing. Last month, a case of a two-year old boy in Indiana was reported who lost his life after finding his mother’s unsecured gun in their home and accidentally shot himself. A few months ago, a 12-year boy in Mississippi accidentally shot and killed his sister of the same age while playing with a gun. There are numerous other cases like these when children get access to unsecured firearms and end up in such horrific circumstances. These accidental shootings are defined by the term “family fire.”

Family fire is a shooting that involves improperly stored or misused gun(s) found in the home, resulting in injury or death, including unintentional shooting, suicide, and other gun-related tragedies. Family fire is a constant threat for all members of the household where firearms are not properly stored. The Harvard Injury Control Research Center found that the prevalence of guns AND unsafe storage practices are associated with higher rates of unintentional firearm deaths. It was also found that youth killed in these gun accidents are shot by other youth in most cases, usually someone of their own age and typically a family member or friend.

Every day, family fire injures or kills eight children in America. According to a report from the New York Academy of Medicine, children under the age of 18 suffer the most from in-home gun-related incidents. For suicides and unintentional deaths, the gun used almost always comes from the child’s home, resulting directly from improperly stored firearms and the lack of proper precautions. Over 4.6 million children in the United States live with unlocked or loaded guns in their homes.

A large body of evidence has shown that the presence of guns in a child’s home substantially increases the risk of suicide and unintentional firearm death, though recent data suggests that not a lot of gun owners appreciate this risk. Parents and other adults who own guns tend to greatly underestimate the possibility of children being able to access those arms. It has been found that 75 percent of kids know where that gun is stored in their home. A report on “Parental Misperceptions About Children and Firearms” revealed another shocking fact that one in five kids had handled a gun in the absence of their parents. Not only that, children’s exposure to unsafely stored firearms can also have consequences beyond the home. It has been found that 75 percent of school shootings are facilitated by kids having access to unsecured and/or unsupervised guns at home.

Considering the seriousness of these statistics and the deadly consequences of unsafe access to guns, Brady launched a “End Family Fire” campaign. Through this initiative, they strive to promote the use of the term “family fire” in order to raise awareness of this nationwide crisis and drive social change by educating and encouraging gun owners about safe gun storage. Their belief is that family fire can be ended with joint community action and public awareness and that lives can be saved through promoting safe storage practices.

Ad Council, America’s leading producer of public service communications, partnered with EndFamilyFire.org to bring attention to this pressing issue and to encourage people to learn more about proper gun safety and responsible ownership.

Research data from the New York Academy of Medicine shows that:

“The risk of unintentional and self-inflicted firearm injury is lower in homes that store firearms unloaded (compared with loaded) and locked (compared with unlocked). In keeping with this evidence, guidelines intended to reduce firearm injury to children, first issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) in 1992, assert that whereas the safest home for a child is one without firearms, risk can be reduced substantially, although not eliminated, by storing all household firearms locked, unloaded, and separate from ammunition.”

There is a lot of conversation around gun violence and gun rights in America. Much of this debate is focused on the 2nd Amendment of the US Constitution, which states that “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Yet, what we need to understand is that this is more than a conversation about gun rights, gun violence, and whether or not people should have the right to bear arms. I’m sure that we can all agree on the importance of preventing our kids from the risks and deadly consequences of having easy access to firearms. Those on all sides of the Second Amendment debate and gun owners and non-gun owners need to come together to promote safe practices and prevent unfortunate incidents like family fire from occurring.

The first and foremost step is to safely store the firearm(s). It has been found that keeping guns locked and unloaded reduces the risk of family fire by 73%. Additionally, storing ammunition separately from its gun reduces the risk of family fire up to 61%. Keep them out of the reach of others, especially children, who can use them to dangerous outcomes. The State of New Jersey has required sellers to provide trigger locks or locked gun cases with each gun purchase, among other laws this has contributed in a decline of unintentional gun death cases in the state. It is another way to promote safe gun storage and making sure that people have the necessary equipment to do so.

Another way is to encourage discussions around responsible gun ownership and safe storage practices within our social circle, family, friends, and colleagues. The most important thing to do is to have a conversation with your kids. Make sure that they understand their limits on accessing firearms, do not consider it a toy, and understand the severity of consequences that may arise as a result. Discussing gun safety and making it a part of the family’s safety conversation is important, especially for gun owners because they play a powerful role in educating others about safe storage practices. Additionally, we need to begin asking others about the presence of unsecured guns in the home for their own safety, before moving in with someone, and before sending your kids to anybody’s home.

Family fire is a pressing issue affecting many families everyday in the country. We as a society need to take up the responsibility of addressing this problem, encouraging the lawmakers and security agencies to take notice and action, and play our part by both promoting and practicing safe gun storage practices.

Understanding Identity Politics in the MENA Region

Large crowd of people
Multitud // Crowd. Guzmán Lozano. Source: Creative Commons for Flickr.

When some ask me where I’m from, and “here” does not suffice, I do not say that I am Arab; I say that I am from Jerusalem. “Arab” is sometimes a bad word or foreign enemy that comes between me and this person, whereas “Jerusalem” is something they can relate to or has not been claimed by the same narrative. They both mean the same to me, but “Arab” carries an antagonistic or uneasy connotation into new relationships- where I want others to be open to understand me as an individual first and then have that built into their perspective or definition of an Arab. Societies provide advantages to certain identities and disadvantages to others prompting me to pick and choose in my immediate surroundings and context.

Identity can be wielded as a powerful and dangerous tool. It can be used as a guide when you are lost by giving you something to grab on with a purpose or goal to strive for and increase your self-esteem, confidence, and certainty while reducing stress or anxiety. When an identity is represented in our immediate context, people use it to understand, relate and form alliances or organize (politically) to defend their interests as a group. Further, I may assume one identity in its defense declaring my right to speak about it and for it, even if I am not especially informed on the way it has formed in the international world.

Being an Arab-American in times where Arabs and Americans are so polarized here, I realize I do not fully identify with or understand either side. However, even though I’m trying to develop my own platform, as a link, I am expected to speak on behalf of the “other.” In this position, I feel like a mediator or spokesperson, responsible for debunking an Aggressive Arab nature or a hateful and ethnocentric American nature, while facing hostility, collective suspicion, and surveillance.  Sometimes I am claimed and others I am rejected by each of these groups.

Every day I face realities that disconnect me from each group. An intimate one is my relationship with my white family. Before I blocked them, I would log into Facebook to find explicitly anti-Muslim or extreme Zionist articles that family members posted on my timeline. Still, my family is so loving in person, not wanting to face actual truths that weaken their own identity. They claim me as family, but then connect me to this identity that is so ignorantly represented and antagonized- the same way I imagine sectarian conflict separating MENA identities such as the Shia and Sunni Ummah.

Recently, in my class which is focusing on terrorism, someone told a story of how she became friends with her Muslim employer and that “no, they’re not all terrorists,” but just like the rest of us. Through the entire story, she looked and gestured at me, seemingly sharing consolation or seeking approval. Even though I did appreciate her good intentions, in the moment I was separated from the rest of my classmates, marked as other, and given the permission to approve her response to so many. Oddly, we demand recognition for ostracized groups in the same ways it’s been denied. Through identity politics, we demand respect for oneself as other or different.

Eventually, I realize as much as this position is a burden, it is also a great privilege. In the MENA region, most identify as “Arab” or “Muslim.” They faced similar histories and events and believe in a common text, so no one’s claim is as unique, distinct, or loud as mine is in an American backdrop. As an Arab or Muslim overseas, voices are muffled in with the rest of the people sharing your identity. Here, as many people there are that hate or fear me because of my foreign identity, others want to hear from me. I get to add to their definition of what these identities entail like what it means to be a Muslim, imposing my own narrative on the group.

I am also privileged to live in a country where its democratic policy- whether it has been fully realized or not- holds citizens from different backgrounds to bring their perspectives and issues to build from; not a country where an authoritarian figure or identity imposes their own opinion of what policy should be. Depending on the context, sometimes an identity victimizes me and sometimes it empowers me.

Growing up, my identity was not represented on SAT, ACT, or many other censuses. I usually had to check the “white” box even though I have learned to be proud of different aspects, tribulations, or stories of my heritage. I want to represent my ethnicity in the American success story.

The argument for the inclusion of more races or the option to select multiple races represents what power minorities have to demand better recognition from the government.  MENA region forms a greater narrative about the act of reporting identity. Groups were put under the rule of another identity and their own was denied which led to cultural suppression and persecution. Eventually, these groups that have been historically ignored or harmed demand the right to be protected.

Taking on a group identity gives us a sense of belonging and affirmation from other members. We may feel that we are part of something bigger, not insignificant, alone, or unheard. Committing or dedicating yourself to other members’ rights and responsibilities they expect from you grants purpose or direction. Your problems are group problems and your voice is supported and amplified to fight the threat together. You can split responsibilities or blame and there is more guidance and reinforcement to relieve you. However, to switch from an individual focus to a group focus, you may have to take on and accept values or beliefs you do not particularly agree with, adopting self-stereotypes or assimilating to the dominant, and sometimes blinded, discourse.

People of the MENA region faced a long history of sectarian violence that disabled unity which could effectively challenge or transform governments. Instead, it broke them apart, silencing their voice and in some cases making them dependent on foreign voices or aid. When the united Ottoman Empire was dissolved, colonizers split the area and its people while autonomous religious and cultural groups were also divided to reduce their power or say, in governance. Pause to imagine if it was possible to make America and an Arab middle-eastern state one state. Justified by the need for organization or governance of these diverse and divided citizens, ruling powers, even foreign, muted civil activity and imposed their way of life or opinions of policy on others. So divided, lacking an integrative identity, leaders and powerful figures or politicians may grab or monopolize resources and rights for their smaller groups crating a zero-sum competition. Sectarian polity in these areas was inflamed and harsher scrutiny or repression excluded many even in the case of a revolution. Personal and factional needs overwhelmed the sense of a common identity and instead of standing together, people joined opposing organizations to represent them. When an identity splinters, others need to be reinforced. Because, on your own, you are more easily erased.

Identity politics can urge mobilization around one identity or one aspect of your makeup, and you are pressured to take that as your defining feature even though you cannot be represented so reductively. To become a more impenetrable united force, the individual is integrated by assimilating dominant norms. Sometimes your identity’s label separates you more than your issue position. We may have the same values as someone but will never know because we are unwilling to socialize with outsiders and challenge this group or ideology that we have devoted ourselves to. When identities meet politics that have greater or long-term consequences, these divisions weaken our ability to form policies based on expected outcomes or truth-seeking. It’s more triggered by the “us” vs “them” battle.

Military stands before crowd
Operation Enduring Freedom. ResoluteSupportMedia. Creative Commons for Flickr.

Politics exploit these feelings to rally funding, resources, or a larger audience to win different supports. Then others grab onto these resource-rich identities. For example, anyone under the claim of a religious organization may win the support of foreign clergies who supply them with food or protections. Then, the leaders of these organizations win the support of desperate or oppressed populations.

In MENA, a religious identity also provides guidance for apolitical peoples searching for an ideology within which to frame their suffering or experience. It promotes faith and offers solace for ones suffering or oppressed with a promise of a bigger purpose. Religious groups mourn a supposedly more ethical past and presume religious instructions to return to this society.  People’s fears, resentments, faith, and suffering can be exploited by power under religious identities. This becomes even more dangerous if people cling to these collective truths so desperately.

We are faced with very complex decisions and circumstances. It would be too hard to weigh all the options and make decisions without these prior ideas or instructions on what we should do. However, you can get too tied up in your responsibilities or devotion to these identities. While identities can connect us and give our insecurities a stronger voice or support, they can also polarize groups or exploited by power-hungry mobilizers. These labels may effectively imprison you or constrain what you in what you allow yourself to explore or believe. Something intended for inclusion may trap you in estranging conflict.

Cupcake and the State of Missing Children in the U.S.

Kamille Cupcake McKinney. Source: AMBER ALERT, Creative Commons.

It breaks my heart to write about the tragedy of the three-year-old little girl Kamille “Cupcake” McKinney, fondly known as Cupcake, who was abducted from a birthday party about two weeks ago here in Birmingham, Alabama. AMBER alerts were issued across Alabama and extended into neighboring states in an effort to locate her. The Birmingham police department had been updating the public on the efforts, but unfortunately a day after Mayor Randall Woodfin pleaded with the public to help find her, the remains of the little angel were found in a dumpster at a landfill in Birmingham. This is indeed a sad moment for not only the family of Cupcake and the city of Birmingham, but also for humanity as a whole. We as a society have failed the little angel, and she is indeed in a better place than this cruel world. My heart goes out to her family as this is an irreparable loss for them that cannot be made up with any amount of sympathy. We hope they are able to find solace and healing with time.

Mayor Woodfin held a vigil for “Cupcake” outside of Birmingham City Hall, where hundreds of people gathered to honor her. They expressed sorrow and solidarity for the innocent soul “whose disappearance gripped the Birmingham area for 10 days and whose death shook the city to its core.” Birmingham police department, City Council, community activists, faith-based leaders and the general public stood with heavy hearts and teary eyes to pay tribute to baby Kamille. This was one of the many vigils held in the city after the devastating news of her death, including the spot where she was last seen in Tom Brown village. Birmingham Police Chief Patrick Smith expressed his grief over the incident and how his department endlessly worked in hopes of bringing the child safely back home. He had some powerful words to say:

“I believe Kamille changed this city. A 3-year-old little girl has changed the landscape of the city of Birmingham. She made us stop and check ourselves. Check ourselves to see if we’re doing everything we can to keep our children safe from harm. Check ourselves to see if we’re truly the village that we promise to be. Check ourselves to see if we’re living up to the expectations of tomorrow and watching over our children today.”

This incident has called for a reflection of ourselves and of our community. It has made us question the safety of our own children because little Cupcake was one of us. We need to evaluate if we really are the village that we strive to be or are we too segmented and disconnected as a community and a society? It makes us question how safe our neighborhoods and cities are? Do we assume that someone will always be there to step in and stop it? Are there any truly safe spaces? The answers are to be found.

To this date, two persons of interest have been charged with kidnapping and murder in relation to Kamille’s disappearance. A similar case surfaced in South Carolina when the body of a 5-year-old girl Nevaeh Adams, who was missing since August, was also found dumped in a landfill within 24 hours of this tragedy.

Missing children is a bigger crisis in the U.S. than most people think, and unfortunately Cupcake was one of many. A child goes missing every 40 seconds here in the United States. Last year alone, more than 400,000 reports of missing children were made to law enforcement in the US, out of which almost 15,000 were kidnapped. The most commonly abducted group was of female children aged 12-17.

It is notable to consider the amount of coverage Cupcake was able to get and the reward amounts offered for her retrieval. Unfortunately, this kind of effort is not always the case for missing children, especially for those of color. A study by Ohio State University found that missing African American children are in fact underrepresented in news media making it difficult to spread the word about them and to retrieve them. This itself is a violation of the Article 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that all are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. The Black and Missing Foundation, a non-profit striving to bring awareness to the missing persons of color, issued a report suggesting that one reason for the under-representation of missing minority people is the widespread belief that such people live in impoverished conditions with crime being a regular part of their lives. This mindset contributes to the factor of racial consideration in the coverage and efforts of finding missing persons.

Cases of people who go missing generally involve multiple abuses of human rights. For example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ensures the rights to life, liberty and security of person (Article 3) and that no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (Article 5). In a lot of cases, the right to life is also violated as in that of Cupcake and Nevaeh Adams. Additionally, the families of victims may face violation of human rights as well, such as the right to a family life. In case of the absence of official investigations, the families and survivors of the victims face the violation of their right to due process, to recognition of a person before the law, and even to the prohibition of torture. It is important to consider it as a human rights issue and the various ways in which the fundamental rights of the missing persons and their families are abused.

It is the responsibility of the state to ensure a safe environment for all its citizens and the community members to play their part in keeping it safe. In case of such unfortunate circumstances, the community seems to be limited to the aftermath and post-incident action. The states are under a legal obligation to conduct effective investigations for all missing persons and to guarantee that all abuses be officially investigated irrespective of the fact that whether or not those abuses are considered attributable to actions by the victim. International Humanitarian Law also obligates the search of the missing and complements the universal guarantees provided by human rights.

There are various reasons that a child can go missing. When children are kidnapped by strangers, it is often due to pedophilic motives and for sexual exploitation. Some kidnappings are also motivated by monetary reasons such as human trafficking, sex-trafficking, forced child labor, illegal adoption, or for ransom. These are generally well-organized illegal networks run nationally and internationally and are always on the lookout for potential target-children. A few rare cases also involve serious mental conditions or revengeful motives used for kidnapping, abducting, and hurting children. Parental abductions and runaways also constitute a large number of missing children, but the focus of this article are the abductions by strangers.

Now the question arises: What can we do on our part to prevent such unfortunate circumstances and to keep our children safe from predators in addition to actions taken by the authorities?

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, most of these incidents happen when children tend to wander off without realizing the danger. Parents and guardians need to take necessary precautions to help keep their children safe by being more vigilant of their surroundings and ensuring a check on children. Some kids can be more curious, mischievous, and vulnerable than others. Parents need to ensure trustable adult supervision at all times, especially in crowded public places. While choosing daycares, schools, or camps for children, make sure that there are ample security measures and policies in place for kids’ safety. Adults also need to be very careful while hiring babysitters and should get necessary background checks and recommendations before letting someone be alone with their child. Additionally, children need to be educated and trained for potential crisis situations and ways to seek help. Train them to be mindful of strangers, encourage them to share any unusual happenings, and teach them about the resources and necessary actions when encountering an unusual situation. For children with special needs, parents and guardians should take extra precautions and make necessary arrangements for the safety of their children, as they might be more vulnerable than others.

Lastly, all of us need to stay alert of our surroundings and take active responsibility for helping authorities in our communities when AMBER alerts are issued for such cases. We can look out for people, vehicles, victims, or criminals as specified in the issued alert. We can help spread the word by sharing the information with others and volunteer to distribute posters of missing children. For specific cases, community members can conduct organized searches to help the police forces look for missing children. We should stay aware of our surroundings, report suspicious activities and people, safely intervene and help in situations to the best of our abilities, and know the community resources for taking appropriate action.

A number of resources are available for parents facing such an unfortunate situation of a missing child. In such an emergency, contact your local FBI field office or call the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children on 1-800-THE-LOST. The AMBER Alert program has also been credited with the safe recovery of 957 children to date and is a great way to get the word out in order to mobilize communities for the lookout. Parents are also encouraged to keep child safety kits which include all the necessary information like IDs, recent photos, physical characteristics, fingerprints, and other information about the child. These should always be kept intact to be used in potential emergency situations to assist the authorities in taking appropriate and immediate action.

We as a society need to re-evaluate ourselves, our values, commitments, priorities, actions, and safety in the light of these staggering realities and horrific instances. Little baby Cupcake will not come back to her family, but a lot of other children can find their ways back home through the joint efforts of authorities and community members. We all have to work together to make our communities safer for our precious children, who are the future of this world.