The Trafficking of Migrants by American Political Leaders

 

Picture of the famous Ellis Island, where many immigrants made their entrance to America
Source: Wikimedia commons found on Yahoo Images; An image of Ellis Island, the place of entry for many immigrants wishing to enter into America

The issue of immigration in America is one that is divided on so many fronts, and recognizing this division, political leaders have exploited the public’s conflicting views to push their own political agendas. Immigration has a rich history in this nation, and unfortunately, America has had a very unequal approach to how immigrants are treated. While some immigrants, (including many from Western nations) are treated with great respect and dignity, many of the immigrants that come from Central American nations, African nations, or Asian nations are portrayed by many political leaders in the United States as “criminal” or “coming to the US to steal our jobs.” This has been a tactic used historically since the founding of this nation, and it has led to the racial hierarchy that functions in America to this day. Even today, there have been comparisons drafted between Ukrainian refugees and how they are received versus how refugees from Palestine are treated. Ukrainian immigrants were accepted fully without any concern for space, funding, or any of the other arguments that come up in regard to immigration. Palestinian immigrants, who have been struggling with a similar situation as Ukraine, (where another nation has invaded their own nation, claiming property and lives in the process), continue to deal with political attacks and discrimination simply for being Palestinian immigrants. (For more on how countries value immigrants from different nations differently, read a recent post by my colleague Danah Dibb). This discrimination is also present in how immigrants from Central America are treated, including the fact that children are still being held at the border in inhumane conditions separated from their parents.

Additionally, immigrants have been a source of cheap labor for industries since the founding of America. At first, there were indentured servants and slaves that helped build the economic success of America early on. Yet, after slavery was abolished and indentured servitude was outlawed, industries faced a new challenge to find cheap sources of labor to maintain their profit margins without sacrificing their productivity levels. This has led to industries using the modern-day prison industrial complex, (which has evolved slavery and indentured servitude into a legal process), or outsourcing jobs to other poor nations to be able to exploit laborers for their own benefit. Yet, another way that industries have aimed to address their cheap labor needs is through the employment of immigrants, mainly undocumented immigrants who are not protected under American labor laws, and as such, industries can (and do) exploit their labor without any regulations or transparency in the process. Even the process for naturalization and legalization for immigrants is purposefully long and difficult, forcing immigrants to still pay taxes, without receiving any benefits that documented immigrants would receive. Despite the misconceptions of many Americans, immigrants do not take away jobs from the American public; they take on jobs that are generally avoided by most Americans. Also, contrary to the American myth that immigrants are “criminals,” the immigrant population is more rule-abiding than most U.S. citizens. All these facts are relevant to frame the political landscape for immigrants in America. This historical context is necessary for comprehending the full reality of the political stunts that occurred recently in regard to immigrants.

A Bit of Background on Human Trafficking

I wanted to include this image because it is inclusive of what human trafficking entails
Source: Yahoo Images; An image of a person in distress made up of multiple words and phrases relating to human trafficking. These are just some of the realities people who are trafficked face

So, what is human trafficking, and what does it have anything to do with immigrants? Let’s begin with the first question, focusing on what it is, the federal laws on human trafficking as well as international and human rights laws that protect people from being trafficked. Human trafficking is the sale and purchase of human beings for the single reason of exploitation, whether it be for the victims’ labor, or for sexual manipulation. According to the human trafficking institute, over 24 million people worldwide are trafficked, of which 20 million are trafficked for labor-related issues, and another 4.8 million are exploited for the sex industry. These victims of trafficking are comprised of men, women, and children, from various nations, and from any and all age groups. Just looking at the numbers for America, it is estimated that around 14,000-17,000 people are trafficked into the United States. This does not even include the people that are trafficked within the borders, and this estimate is based on reported findings, which means that many people being exploited that have not been reported are not included in this statistic. Of course, as it is with any other issue, the more marginalized the group of people being targeted, the more vulnerable they are to being trafficked. Among other fields such as the sex industry, some of the most popular industries that employ people who are trafficked are the agricultural, manufacturing, domestic, and construction industries, which benefit from the cheap labor force. Victims are coerced into being trafficked through a variety of ways, including the threat of physical and psychological abuse to themselves or their family members (which can include sexual abuse, deprivation of food and sleep, as well as shaming and isolating victims from their family members). Traffickers also abuse the legal system to confuse or manipulate the victims, such as withholding their passports or documents and forcing them to comply with the trafficker’s rules. Immigrants and refugees are especially vulnerable, because they come from another nation, and most of the time, don’t speak the language of the country they are exploited to, are not familiar with that country’s laws, and are also threatened with deportation back to the country they escaped from fearing for their lives.

What protection do people have under the law against being trafficked?

I wanted to include this image to show that the UDHR protects people from being trafficked
Source: Yahoo Images; The Universal Declaration of Human Rights details in Article 4, that all persons are protected from being trafficked, forced into labor, or other forced actions.

Under most nations’ laws, human trafficking is a heinous crime that can result in serious punishment for those who participate in criminal activity. Protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) under Article 4,slavery and forced labor are prohibited. States that have ratified the UDHR are under a bounded obligation to protect the rights outlined in the UDHR. The United States has only selectively ratified the rights outlined by the UDHR, and as such, any issues of accountability they might face for any violations of the UDHR can become complicated. The United States does have its own laws against human trafficking, and according to the American state department, they have made it one of their policy priorities. One such legislation passed in 2000 to address this issue was the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which put into place an updated legal framework that focused on the protection, prevention, and prosecution of human trafficking. Additionally, to better define who falls under the victimhood of trafficked individuals, the A-M-P model was proposed, focusing on the Action, (how the trafficker approached the victims), Means, (what strategies the trafficker employed, mainly force, fraud, or coercion), and the Purpose (for sexual exploitation or labor exploitation) for the trafficking of individuals. This framework helped the legal system better understand not only how the people were trafficked, but also defined the why. With all this being said, let us now move on to the issue of two political leaders, Ron DeSantis of Florida, and Gregg Abbot of Texas, who engaged in the trafficking of migrants across state borders to stage political stunts, in the process of uprooting the lives of many vulnerable immigrants.

Case of Greg Abbot and Ron DeSantis Transporting Migrants Across States

I wanted to include this image because most humans who are trafficked are done so for two reasons: labor or sexual exploitation
Source: Yahoo Images; An image of migrant workers in the field. Many of the immigrants who were trafficked by Abbott and DeSantis were coerced, with false promises of new opportunities.

The Republican governor of Texas, Greg Abbot, in an attempt to make a political statement regarding the United States immigration policies, began loading up busses full of migrants he picked up at the US-Mexico border to then be transported to the houses of his party’s opponents, such as Vice President Kamala Harris. He also proceeded to send busses into cities that are led by Democrats, such as Chicago, Washington D.C., and New York City, arguing that the borders were not secure enough and that the United States allowed too many immigrants into the country. While this argument is far from the actual truth, Abbot is not the only political leader spouting this hateful rhetoric. The cruel tactics that were used were originally made popular by former president Donald Trump in 2019, who envisioned a much more sinister approach to collect all the “rapists and criminals” and “bus and dump” them in blue states to stoke fears against immigrants. The trafficking of migrants has been put into practice many times since then, by political leaders from his own party acting on the former president’s ideas.

Similarly, the Republican governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, also put into practice Trump’s “bus and dump” tactic but using a private plane this time, to fly migrants to Massachusetts, a state he claims is a “sanctuary state,” (which means these states or cities have an understood policy, whether written or unwritten, to protect the reporting of immigrants and their status to law enforcement, unless the individual is under investigation for a serious crime). In this latest stunt pulled by DeSantis, with the help of an individual identified as “Perla” (Perla Huerta, who is said to be a former counterintelligence agent for the US Army in Afghanistan and Iraq), rounded up 48 migrants in San Antonio, Texas, mostly from Venezuela, and lured them under false pretenses of new opportunities of employment and survival, to board the flight that landed in Martha’s Vineyard. These migrants were handed brochures that came from the Massachusetts Refugee Benefits center (which was made up), and had presented information on the pamphlet which they had copied from the real office for immigration services, Massachusetts Office of Refugee and Immigrants (who had no idea about any of these events). This brochure included “benefits” that the migrants were wrongly led to believe they would be eligible to receive and were flown to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. These benefits included promises of eligibility to receive up to eight months of cash assistance, housing assistance, food, clothing, and transportation assistance, and even help with childcare and education. Not knowing that these were only eligible for documented immigrants that had already been granted asylum, many of the Venezuelan asylum seekers (who had not been granted asylum by the United States) were misinformed and manipulated.

So, what happened to the migrants in both these cases?

Although this is not an image from the recent trafficking incidents, I wanted to include an image of what it looks like when community members come together to help migrants out.
Source: Marty Graham via Yahoo Images; An image of a community coming together to help with the medical needs of the migrant population

Despite the belief by both Abbot and DeSantis that these migrants would not be well-received, the people from the cities where the migrants were dropped off took it upon themselves to ensure that the migrants had adequate food and shelter arrangements as the issues of what to do moving forward were being decided upon. Chicago, one of the cities which received the waves of migrants sent by Governor Abbot, went out of its way to ensure that the migrants’ needs are being met and that they receive the medical care and legal advice they need as they await their fates. Similarly, in Massachusetts, Governor DeSantis’s plan was to drop the migrants off at the foot of a community center and they were told to knock to receive help. No one knew what was happening, but the entire community around Martha’s Vineyard came together to help feed and clothe the migrants. The 48 migrants later ended up at the military base in Cape Cod, using the military’s empty barracks for places to sleep.

If the actions of governors DeSantis and Abbot are run through the A-M-P model discussed earlier, the purpose of these stunts would be the only aspect that might be hard to judge from a legal perspective. The actions the two governors took would clearly fall under the transporting criteria of the first step, and their means would include both fraudulence and coercion for the second step. Although their purpose was of a political nature, they still rounded up migrants through fraudulent means to be migrated forcefully out of their current residence, without a proper place to be sheltered and provided for. While DeSantis dropped the migrants off at Martha’s Vineyard and forced the people there to deal with the aftermath, Abbot transported the migrants to the doorstep of the houses of his party’s political opponents. These actions, if committed by someone, not in a position of political power, would have led to the person facing severe legal repercussions. Yet the two governors have doubled down on their actions, proudly taking responsibility for the stunts, and Abbot even promises that more migrants are on their way, implying that he is not yet finished.

Update: Migrants file lawsuit against DeSantis

United States Supreme Court Building, Washington, D.C. Original image from Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress collection. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel. Source: found via Yahoo Images Public Domain

Still, DeSantis might face some form of accountability for his actions, as the 48 migrants he flew to Martha’s Vineyard have filed a civil lawsuit against him, claiming that in the process, he violated the fourth and fourteenth amendments as well as many federal laws. The attorneys, on behalf of the migrants filing the lawsuit, are calling on DeSantis to be banned from repeating this political stunt again and are asking for DeSantis to pay for the damages caused to the migrants as a result of his actions. DeSantis came out protesting this accusation, claiming that his actions were legal because he had obtained signed consent forms from all the migrants who boarded that plane. He also alleged that this was not an act of coercion but that the migrants willingly took the journey to Martha’s Vineyard. However, most of the migrants claim they did not know where they were being taken to, only that they were promised good employment opportunities and a chance at a better lifestyle. Many of the migrants that were coerced into getting on the plane did not even speak or understand English. Additionally, there have been updates provided that the funds for these political stunts pulled by DeSantis came from public, tax-payer funds, meaning that this is also a case of misappropriation of state funds. Some legal experts are even proposing that these political stunts can be categorized as “kidnapping” because the victims were moved from one place to another without knowledge about where their destination was going to be. We will have to wait and see how this lawsuit plays out, mainly on the issue of whether there will be any accountability for people in positions of political power.

What now?

So, while we await the final verdict from the courts, what can be done to ensure this doesn’t happen again? For one, we could put immense public pressure on the two political leaders using a tactic known as “naming and shaming” to discourage them from pulling similar stunts in the future. However, many people that support these politicians, mainly the Republican base, have applauded the two governors’ behaviors, doubling down on their anti-immigration stances. In a society that continues to become more polarized, “naming and shaming” might have the opposite results than expected. Additionally, another step that can be considered is impeachment, or even banning the two politicians from holding office again. Some people might say this may be a drastic move, but if, as an elected official, you are irresponsible with so many human lives, including those of children, where you think it is okay to treat others with disrespect and ignominy, then you should not be allowed the opportunity to serve a position that would put you in charge of people’s well-being.

Another approach would have to come from the international community, mainly the international criminal courts, in an attempt to hold these individuals accountable for violation of human rights. This too, however, might not be as easy as it seems. For one, the federal courts would have jurisdiction before the international courts, and even still, in 2002, then President George W. Bush “unsigned” the Rome Statute, and a few months later, Congress passed the American Servicemembers Protection Act, which forbade the US from assisting or supporting the ICC or any member states that support the ICC. Further, it granted the president full power over securing the release of any US person, or allies that are held or imprisoned by the ICC. Although there has been renewed interest in revisiting this legislation, from an unlikely individual at that (Lindsey Graham), this support might not extend as far as investigating members of his own party. America has long struggled to hold its political leaders accountable, whether it be for war crimes committed by past presidents, or even for simply acknowledging historical atrocities that have occurred in the nation’s past. However, without proper accountability for these heinous political stunts, the two governors would set a precedent for the worse treatment of migrants in the future.

On the Railroad Workers’ Situation

amtrak
An Amtrak train (source: yahoo images)

Perhaps, in the media or within your own life, you have heard snippets about “railroad workers rights” and “railroad unions.” However, even though you might have heard of these topics, you still may not know what they refer to. You might have even asked yourself, “Why would railroad workers form unions? What is going on?” To understand the answers to these questions, consider the severity of the situation. For example, did you know that railroad workers across the United States are facing disciplinary action for taking days off to go to the doctor?

I hope this post implores you to spread information about the maltreatment that the railroad workers are experiencing. This blog will share the most current information relating to railroad workers rights movement.

But First

italy
A night-time view of Italy (source: yahoo images)

Before we unpack all that has been going on with railroad workers, we will firstly examine a place that is frequently of American interest: Italy. Whether it be Italy’s beautiful geography, remarkable monuments, or the sublime cuisine, most Americans have similar presumptions about the nation: it is simply exquisite and fosters a rich culture. 

Unfortunately, however, this blog will not discuss Italy’s glorious disposition. Instead, we will be discussing another remarkable, modern-day characteristic of Italy (which, in my opinion, trumps some of the others): the rights of employees instituted by the federal government.

In Italy, every employee is entitled to at least four weeks of paid vacation. The federal government makes it illegal for any employer to prohibit their employees to not take at least four weeks of time off.

Contrastingly, this notion, as it relates to the United States (where there is no federal law regulating how many days off a private employer is required to give their employee) is borderline martian. Employees being federally entitled to paid time off in the United States is similar to oxygen in space—nonexistent. 

However, even though Italian employers are required to offer at least four weeks of paid vacation to their employees, the majority of employers offer five weeks. In the United States, the average length of paid time off given to employees is 10-14 days—less than two weeks. 

Without a doubt, when comparing which nation better allows its employees to have a healthy work-life balance, Italy prevails over the United States. (I did not even have to mention how Italians also receive 104 hours per year which they can use for personal affairs: taking a child to the doctor, running errands, etc.). 

However, let us now consider the argument that follows from the aforementioned points: indeed, Italy may have better federal legislation for employees; but, surely, as a result of that, their economy and government is not as prosperous as the United States.

This argument, although perhaps not for the reasons one might assume, is valid—the United States indeed does have a bigger and better economy than Italy. In regards to GDP, the US economy ranks first in the world, while Italy’s is 8th. However, one must also consider the USA’s size and history. Italy’s economy crumbled after the World War; the US’ economy exponentiated. Therefore, considering that Italy had to recover from a World War, the fact that it currently ranks 8th in the world—and it has legislation ensuring the prosperity of employees—is rather remarkable.

As you read the rest of this article, keep these statistics and distinctions in mind. 

Back to the States

american flag
The White House (source: yahoo images)

Up until this point, we have discussed international affairs. However, the main point this blog seeks to discuss and analyze relates to railroad workers in the USA—a domestic topic. Italy’s overpowering legislation on employee’s rights shall be used as a tool of comparison for what is currently occurring in the United States.

With all this in mind, the ultimate question remains: what is going on with railroad workers in the United States?

The Fundamentals

steam train
A steam engine (source: yahoo images)

For the past couple of months, multiple unions have been created by railroad workers to bring forth change in the workplace. These unions have threatened to go on strike multiple times. 

The central issue that unions are attempting to fix relates to worker rights. More specifically, the rights of employees wishing to take days off.

For the railroad workers, the ability to have sick days has been a source of conflict. Currently, railroad workers throughout the United States are not able to take days off for any reason. Whether it be taking off days because of sudden illness or having to go to a funeral, railroad workers are unable to take off days without facing repercussions (which include suspension and potential dismissal). 

According to Vice, railroad workers are “working or on call 90% of the time.” When workers are on call, it’s rather common for them to be called into work at random times and end up being away for multiple days. When workers are not on call, they are often already at work. 

This has caused outrage within the railroad workers community. These workers, who are vital to America’s economy, are not being offered basic worker protections.

In fact, a spouse of a railroad worker once stated that “[they] go to work sick, they miss funerals of loved ones, they miss final goodbyes to parents on hospice, they miss holidays, birthdays, all of it.” 

Moreover, some railroad companies, in an effort to have a “system” overseeing the amount of days off an employee receives, created a point system. In this system, employees gain points for showing up as scheduled and lose points when they do not show up as scheduled. Ostensibly, this makes sense: workers should both be praised for their hard work and penalized if they simply disregard their schedule. However, unfortunately, this system is far from that. 

In this system, every employee starts with 30 points. If an employee wants to take a day off, they lose 15 points. Whether it be Christmas, New Years Day, or Thanksgiving, any day off by an employee leads to a deduction of 15 points.

Therefore, if an employee wishes to take a day off on Christmas and Thanksgiving, they would lose all of their points. This in turn would get them suspended and put under investigation. If they are found to be compliant workers, they are put back to work and given 15 points. If they end up losing those 15 points, they are fired. (I should also note that, in this particular point system, the only way an employee can gain points is by being on call for 14 days in a row. 

Therefore, the points system forced upon the railroad workers does not penalize them for disregarding their schedules, it penalizes them for not making “work-life” simply “work.”

The Strike

railroad worker
A railroad worker (source: yahoo images)

As one would expect, this blatant disregard of equitable worker considerations has forced railroad workers to rally together and create various unions. These unions, as was previously mentioned, have been threatening to go on strike until changes are brought forth. 

Currently, negotiations are still ongoing. Thankfully, however, the threat of striking seems to be working in favor of the railroad unions. One of the tentative agreements reached between the union and workers, according to Slate, is that “[railroad workers would have] voluntary assigned days off, granting one additional paid day off, allowing workers to attend medical appointments without penalty, and creating exemptions from attendance policies for hospitalizations and surgeries.” 

Seeing that these workers are now being allowed to go to the doctor’s office without facing the threat of penalization, this is a definite step in the right direction. 

The Future

the future
(source: yahoo images)

What the future entails, we know not. However, what we currently do know is that this issue would break just about every other federal law regarding workers’ rights in Italy. While here, in the United States, railroad workers are battling to merely receive days to go to the doctor’s office because of sudden illness, Italians enjoy the privilege of federally mandated vacation days. 

Perhaps, as it relates to this manner, the United States could learn from Italy. A federal mandate over workers’ rights in the United States would benefit the entire nation. This mandate would make it federally illegal for employers to overwork their employees and penalize them if they simply wish to go to a funeral. In order to bring this change into effect, everyone needs to be aware of this issue. To most, the rights—or lack thereof—of railroad workers is rather shocking. If this issue were brought to the forefront of the media, more would become aware of it, and more would be willing to advocate and bring change. This is not a local issue, this is a national one and we, as a nation, need to be aware of it. 

With acknowledgement of the maltreatment of employees across the nation, as well as advocacy for reforms on federal legislation about employee rights, the United States could become more like Italy and ensure all employees get fair treatment. With acknowledgement and advocacy for change, ensuring that every worker gets basic necessities might not be too far away. 

 

International Day for The Eradication of Poverty

Source: BetterAid via Google Images

Monday, October 17th is the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty; in 2022 we have a lot to acknowledge and a lot of work to be done. The theme for this day of commemoration is dignity, focused on how every human has the right to live with pride for themselves and respect from others. The first line of the Preamble for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) emphasizes the importance of how the “…recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,” and that is precisely the ideology behind the founding of this human rights holiday. But why, exactly, is poverty an international human rights issue?

History

Global poverty is defined as “lacking enough resources to provide the necessities of life—food, clean water, shelter and clothing. But in today’s world, that can be extended to include access to health care, education and even transportation.” 

This international day of recognition was adopted by the United Nations in December of 1992 to recognize the structures that cause poverty, to listen to and amplify the needs and desires of impoverished persons, and to place a specific focus on how the international community and global leaders can work to solve this persistent social problem. October 17th was chosen to observe this topic because on this day in 1987 a crowd of over a hundred thousand protesters gathered in the Trocadero Plaza of Paris, France to honor the victims of extreme hunger and poverty. In commemoration, a stone was placed in the Plaza, now renamed the Plaza for Human Rights and Liberties, engraved with the following message from Father Joseph Wresinski, “Wherever men and women are condemned to live in extreme poverty, human rights are violated. To come together to ensure that these rights be respected is our solemn duty”.

The right to live free of poverty is not listed in the UDHR, but our current understanding of poverty constituting a violation of human rights has been developing since before the UDHR was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. This is because living in extreme poverty is almost always accompanied with a loss of essential human rights that were explicitly enumerated in the UDHR, like the right to health, safe food and water and the right to adequate housing as illustrated in Articles 25 of the UDHR and the Human Right to Water and Sanitation. Even in developed and wealthy nations, citizens living in poverty experience obstacles in their ability to access the right to education, work, and political participation named in Articles 21, 23, and 16 of the UDHR. 

While persons living in poverty are often denied many, if not all of those fundamental human rights listed above, this holiday gets its theme from Article One of the UDHR, from which this holiday gets its theme: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Those in poverty often lose this right as limited access to the essential requirements of a quality life places them in a position where they rely on the aid of others, who often treat the impoverished as less than equals. They are patronized and degraded in their daily lives, and the social response to an impoverished person exercising their agency to decline charity is typically one of rebuke.

Source: Sparkasse Köln Bonn via Flickr

The Current State of Poverty

Global poverty rates have increased since the beginning of the Pandemic in 2020, and World Bank estimates that we have been set back 3-4 years on our path to ending extreme poverty as of October 2021. In addition to climbing unemployment and poverty rates is the leap in inflation, which has climbed globally as supply chains stretch thin. The Pew Research Center has found that the global middle class shrank while the global poor increased as the pandemic progressed, disrupting the progress of developed nations around the world, particularly in Asia and the Middle East.

These economic impacts affect more than immediate financial conditions of those involved. One side-effect has been a loss in education; as the United States and other wealthy countries moved online in response to the pandemic, other nations (particularly in the Global South) had to close schools entirely. Human Rights Watch has noted that, for millions of school-aged children, the pandemic effectively ended their formal education as alternative school options were few and the need for work and additional income rose. The International economic recovery will be challenging, and may take years to accomplish, but it is paramount that we keep the most vulnerable, both their dignity and agency, in mind as we navigate our collective path forward.

International Human Rights holidays are often overlooked due to their focus on what are often perceived to be niche categories outside of major religious or cultural practices. However, observing human rights holidays is a practice that allows for shared positivity and encouragement as we mark progress and victories in the field. They also provide days of unity to focus on pervasive issues that still need attention and work. On this holiday, join me in taking the time to think about how poverty affects your community, how your community has responded, and how it can alter that response to alter the quality of life for its impoverished population.

 

 

Cameroon, a Nation Divided

Over 6,000 individuals killed, 765,000 individuals displaced, 2,200,000 individuals in need of humanitarian support, and 600,000 children stripped of their education.

Where, you might ask, is this currently occurring?

Bordering the Atlantic coast in west Central Africa, the country of Cameroon is entering into its sixth year of armed conflict. Deemed the “second most neglected crisis in the world” by The Norwegian Refugee Council, only 29 percent of the country’s Humanitarian Response Plan has been funded and/or implemented.

A map showing Cameroon and surrounding countries
Source: Yahoo Images

Historic Overview

This conflict divides the country of 27 million inhabitants into two distinct groups: the Anglophones and the Francophones. The Anglophones, the English-speaking minority of the West regions, have experienced marginalization across multiple levels by the Francophones, the French-speaking majority of the Central and Eastern regions.

Once comprised of many ethnically distinct kingdoms, or Fondoms, the region now known as Cameroon became established in 1884 under German colonial rule. At the end of World War I, Germany receded control of West Cameroon to Britain, and Central and East Cameroon to France under the League of Nations. European governance remained in place until 1960, when France granted independence to the country of Cameroon. The following year, the British-controlled North-west and South-west regions voted between the option of joining Nigeria or the newly established Cameroon. The North-west region voted to become a part of Nigeria, while the South-west region (now referred to as Southern Cameroons) voted to become a part of Cameroon.

The Root of the Crisis in Southern Cameroons

While the country is formally unified under one government, tensions have simmered for decades, specifically following the 1982 election of Cameroon’s current president, Paul Biya. Under Biya’s governance, the country has faced a decline in economic prosperity and unequal representation of the Anglophone minority. Undertones of opposition erupted into protests in late 2016.

Teachers, lawyers, and judges within Southern Cameroons initiated a series of protests to call for an equal representation of Anglophones and the use of the English language in legal settings, government, economic development, community services, and education, as stated in the constitution of Cameroon. A movement to establish an independent Anglophone nation, Ambazonia, strengthens alongside the protests. The desire for independent Anglophone and Francophone nations relates to the establishment of Cameroon in the 1960s. The British-controlled regions were given the option of joining with the governance of one of their neighboring countries, not the opportunity for independence.

Humanitarian Crisis

Image of soldiers standing next to a fire
Source: Yahoo Images

As tension heightened between the Anglophones and the Francophones throughout 2016 and into 2017, violence ensued. Both groups engaged, and continue to engage, in armed conflict. Armed governmental forces in support of the Francophones and armed separatist forces in support of the Anglophones have created a humanitarian crisis within the country. In addition to the continued acts of direct violence, acts of structural violence run rampant, particularly in Southern Cameroons. Schooling and health care access disrupted, resources blocked, property and land seized, lack of clean water and food, rolling electric and internet outages, individuals imprisoned on political grounds, allegations of election fraud… and the list goes on.

Humanitarian organizations struggle to provide the basic necessities for those affected by this conflict. The number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees (primarily in neighboring Nigeria) continues to increase, with women and children at particularly high risk. The International Crisis Group currently classifies the conflict in Cameroon as an “unchanged situation”. Additionally, The Institute for Economics and Peace ranks Cameroon 11th globally on the 2022 terrorism index. First-hand accounts continue to be shared that validate these statistics. A cemetery worker in Southern Cameroons reflects in an interview with the BBC, “It is a blessing to be buried at all, let alone by family and friends.”

This is the first in a series of blog posts that will look further into the conflict in Cameroon. Each month a humanitarian need and/or organization working in response to the humanitarian crisis will be featured on the UAB Institute for Human Rights’ blog.

 

Iranian Women Burn Hijabs in Response to Killing of Mahsa Amini

Imagine living in a world where a woman showing her hair is considered “immoral” but killing a woman for showing her hair is not. Unfortunately for Mahsa Amini, that is the world we live in. On September 14th 2022, the 22-year-old was visiting the Iranian capital of Tehran with her family when she was arrested by Iran’s police. The reason for her arrest was wearing an “improper” hijab that did not adhere to the strict Islamic dress code laws. While in custody, she was beaten within an inch of her life and was comatose before being pronounced dead the following day. Iranian officials claim she died of a heart attack while in custody.

A protestor holds up a photo of Masha Amini
Source: Flickr

 

Public outcry

The Iranian government is implying that a dress code carries more significance than a young woman’s life. However, many Iranians disagree. In fact, women across the country have started publicly removing and burning their hijabs in protest. Burning head scarves is a powerful display that highlights the demand to end mandatory hijab laws. It is a direct objection to the controlling state’s policing of women’s bodies. Many people have taken to the streets to protest this blatant violation of human rights. Article 3 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights states, “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” Iranian women’s liberty is in grave danger. Under Iran’s authoritarian regime, personal freedoms and the right to choose are in grave jeopardy. During the protests on September 21, Iran’s armed forces shot and killed more than 8 individuals. In the last 5 days, 15 protestors have died as a result of direct fire from government forces, with an additional 733 people injured and dozens imprisoned.

 

Morality Police History

Iranian authorities have a long history of violent and inhumane enforcement of dress codes, specifically, compulsory veiling. This can be traced back to the Islamic dress code, a strict dress code that requires women to conceal their hair and neck with a head scarf and to cover their body. This law has been in effect in Iran since 1979, after Iran’s Islamic Revolution. The “Gasht-e-Ershad,” which translates as “guidance patrols”, patrol the streets of Iran enforcing these laws. They arrest individuals they deem in violation of this law, including women who do not adhere to the strict concealment of their body. In 2017, dozens of women removed their hijabs in defiance of the dress code. They waved their white hijabs standing on utility boxes. Since then, the morality police have taken severe measures to prevent women from disobeying the dress code. The arrests often involve verbal abuse and physical violence, targeting women and girls as young as 9 years old. Violent videos have emerged on social media depicting the “morality” agents forcefully detaining women, dragging them by their hair, administering beating with batons, and even spraying them with pepper spray.

A woman cuts her hair
Source: Flickr

Protests Are Not Anti-Islamic

The presence of the morality police is a violation of freedom and dignity of the women in Iran. Western practitioners of Islam may misconceive these acts of protest as an attack on Islam. However, these individuals have the freedom to choose their religion; they are not forced to adhere to religiously influenced governmental action. It is important to make the distinction between burning symbols of the state and disrespecting religion. To many Iranian women, the mandatory hijab enforcement is not a religious symbol, but rather a symbol of their oppression. These protests are the result of religious trauma and not Islamophobia. This movement is not Anti-Islamic, but pro-liberty. Citizens across the nation are fighting against the unjust criminalization of women due to the strict, mandatory dress code. They are fighting against an authoritarian regime that weaponizes Islam as a tool of oppression.

What Can You Do

Protestors hold a sign that says "Say Her Name #MASHAAMINI"
Source: Flickr

The courage and solidarity these women are showing is quite moving. This may serve as a catalyst for the liberation of women around the world. As of now, Instagram is blocked in Iran. However, these activists’ valiant efforts will not be stifled. Now the baton passes to us. We must amplify their voices and raise awareness about the atrocities endured by these women by sharing hashtags and saying her name: Mahsa Amini. Follow these informative accounts and repost their posts:
@middleeastmatters
@masih.alineejad
@farnanak_amidi
@golfarahani
@negah_amirii
@duzenetekkal
Use this link to help people in Iran bypass the internet blockade Middle East Matters (mideastmatters.carrd.co). Donate to United for Iran and help fund the app Gershad that alerts woman the whereabouts of the morality police and protects women across Iran from unjust arrest. Everyone is entitled the most basic human right of choice. Women all around the world should be at liberty to wear what they want without fear of jeopardizing their lives.

Yeshiva University vs. Pride Alliance Group

 

Yeshiva University Wilf Campus
Yeshiva University’s Wilf Campus (source: yahoo images)

On Friday, September 16th, 2022, in response to a court’s ruling that the university cannot block the formation of a LGBTQIA+ group, New York’s Yeshiva University decided to temporarily suspend all undergraduate student activities and clubs. Yeshiva claims that permitting the formation of a LGBTQ+ student organization would be “inconsistent with the school’s Torah values and the religious environment it seeks to maintain.”

How It Started

Pride Parade NYC 2011
2011 Pride Parade in NYC (source: yahoo images)

The LGBTQ+ group in question is Yeshiva’s Pride Alliance, which was unofficially created in 2018. They were unofficial in the sense that their support was low and their group size was small— as all student groups are in the beginning. The student group describes itself as a supportive space for all students, regardless of sexual orientation and gender, with the goal of allowing all members to feel secure, respected, and represented at Yeshiva.

It is understandable that one of the group’s goals was representation. In the modern day, it is extremely unlikely to find any major university without an instituted pride alliance group. Therefore, Yeshiva’s Pride Alliance group wanting that same, basic characteristic—of representation—should not come as a surprise. 

However, when they  approached the university last year to ask if they could get officially recognized as a student group, they were instantly denied. In response, however, they remained determined, and proceeded to sue the school for discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

The Legal Claims

NYC CIty Court
New York City Court  (source: yahoo images)

The Pride Alliance group sued Yeshiva for breaking the New York City Human Rights Law, a law code prohibiting discrimination on a basis of gender, race, sexual orientation, and other classifications.

In response to the lawsuit, Yeshiva University, which identifies itself as an Orthodox Jewish university, claimed that they could not recognize the group because it “conflicted with the school’s interpretation of the Torah.” 

The lawsuit first went to a court in New York, where it was concluded that the university must officially recognize the group. The court argued that Yeshiva was not a religious institution (which would thereby make it immune to New York City’s Human Rights Law), but an educational institution. 

Yeshiva disagreed and appealed to the Supreme Court. At first, the Supreme Court told Yeshiva to ignore the prior ruling, and that the Justices will be the ones to declare what rights LGBTQ+ groups have in universities. 

However, that standing changed rather quickly. Just earlier this week, by a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court told Yeshiva that they should follow the prior court’s ruling because they have not exhausted all their options before appealing to the Supreme Court. In other words, the Supreme Court voted to send Yeshiva’s appeal back to local courts; they did not rule that Yeshiva acted unconstitutionally. 

Yeshiva’s Next Step

Empty Campus
An empty campus (source: yahoo images)

After Yeshiva was notified that they should follow the prior ruling (meaning that they must officially recognize an LGBTQ+ student group), they concluded that their only option was to shut down all undergraduate activities and clubs. 

Enforcing such drastic measures upon the entire undergraduate population, as one might assume, was an unprecedented move on Yeshiva’s end. Many might infer that this action could have been done in an attempt to mask discrimination. Is it truly discriminatory to not recognize a pride alliance group when also not recognizing any other groups at all? Most would say it is not. That, from what we can assume, is what Yeshiva wants until the legal proceedings sort out: put forth a blanket disapproval of all student groups so they cannot be faulted for targeting an LGBTQ+ one.

Yeshiva’s measures have caused many to view the university as homophobic; however, the president of the university, Rabbi Ari Berman, was quick to demobilize those allegations, stating that “[Yeshiva University’s] commitment and love for our LGBTQ students are unshakeable.”

However unshakable Yeshiva’s love for LGBTQ+ students might be, we have yet to see. We must not overlook what we have seen—it merely took a pride alliance group to ask for recognition to rid the entire university of all its undergraduate activities and clubs.

What’s to Come

supreme court
The Supreme Court of the United States of America (source: yahoo images)

As Yeshiva returns back to local courts we are unsure of what will happen in the future—except that it will not be filled with any undergraduate activities. If Yeshiva’s appeal succeeds and the city’s ruling is overturned, then the LGBTQ+ group will not be able to get recognized by the school. If the ruling does not get overturned, Yeshiva could appeal their way back up to the Supreme Court.

However, even if this were to happen, precedence seems to be against the LGBTQ+ group. In prior cases, the Supreme Court has sided consistently with religious universities when discussing issues of religious freedoms (i.e. what a religious university can and cannot do). 

Moreover, one of the dissenting members of the initial Supreme Court vote, Samuel Alito, stated, “[Does the First Amendment] permit a State to force a Jewish school to instruct its students in accordance with an interpretation of Torah that the school, after careful study, has concluded is incorrect? The answer to that question is surely ‘no.’” 

In other words, Justice Alito is stating that in his opinion, states should not have the authority to tell religious schools what to do if it does not align with their religious understandings.

With all of this in mind, one could reasonably come to the conclusion that the future of Yeshiva University’s Pride Alliance group is dependent on whether or not the initial city court was correct in deeming Yeshiva a state institution and not a religious one. 

If the city court was incorrect, Yeshiva could inherit the authority to deny recognition to a group seeking representation—even though, allegedly, their commitment and support for LGBTQ+ persons is “unshakable.”  If the city court was correct, representation and recognition of those underrepresented shall prevail. 

LGBTQ+ Rights

pride flags
Pride flags (source: yahoo images)

The events that unfolded between Yeshiva and its pride alliance group returned a variety of different topics to the forefront of the media. One of which, in particular, is the topic of LGBTQ+ persons and the rights they have. 

Discrimination against LGBTQ+ persons has been an ongoing issue for hundreds of years. For years, The United Nations has repeatedly stated that “discrimination against LGBTI  people undermines the human rights principles outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet discrimination and violence against people in the LGBTI community are all too common. Homophobic, biphobic and transphobic attitudes remain deeply embedded in many cultures around the world.”

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was published in 1948. 74 years ago. Not only does discrimination still exist, but same-sex marriage, in 2022, is only legal in 24 countries. 

With Yeshiva University’s recent decision, we are seeing the global issue of same-sex marriage and LGBTQ+ rights back in mainstream media. Equality and respect for all people should be the standard that we live by. 

Despite all that has occurred, Yeshiva could bring forth new lessons for us all. Maybe, (or perhaps hopefully), one of those lessons could be that we, as a society, should strive to make discrimination of all people a thing of the past—make it history, so we can learn from it. 

LGBTQ+ Rights in Brazil

Back of person in white shirt and hat holding rainbow pride flag in the air alongside a colorful designed scarf.
Figure 1: Source: Yahoo Images, Ye Aung Thu; Pride flag held aloft. Back of person in white shirt and hat holding rainbow pride flag in the air alongside a colorful designed scarf.

You look around at the passing people, from old women and working mothers to teachers and police, any of them could want you dead. This is the unfortunate reality facing many LGBTQ+ people in Brazil, the world’s most dangerous country for trans and Queer people. With a stark rise in conservatism driving discriminatory legislation and a president that has publicly vilified “gender ideology” and Queer persons, the rights of LGBTQ+ people are threatened by institutions and public support of hateful rhetoric and discriminatory laws. 

The political climate fostering LGBTQ+ hate

The current president of Brazil is Jair Bolsonaro, who began his term on January 1, 2019. Bolsonaro is seen as a polarizing figure both within Brazil and by the international community for his disparaging comments against women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ individuals. A far-right figure, Bolsonaro claimed in a 2011 interview with Play Boy that he would rather have a dead son than a gay one. 

Figure 2: Source: Yahoo Images; An image of President Jair Bolsonaro. Shoulder to head image of a white male wearing a black suit looking towards the top right corner.

After the election of Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s second openly gay congress member Jean Wyllys left their position and fled the country due to the increased level of violence against LGBTQ+ people and the number of death threats received. “It was not Bolsonaro’s election itself. It was the level of violence that has increased since he was elected,” Wyllys told local newspapers. Bolsonaro has been clear about how his convictions motivate his discriminatory rhetoric that disparages LGBTQ+ people, and his election and widespread public support have also translated to widespread violence. 

Bolsonaro represents a rise in conservatism further supported by a significant growth in Evangelism in Brazil over the last decade. Despite being the world’s largest Catholic country, Evangelical churches have been increasing, and now approximately one-third of Brazil’s population is EvangelicalJohn Otis, a reporter for the National Public Radio, found that “Evangelicals now make up 31% of Brazil’s population, according to the Datafolha polling firm. They’re still outnumbered by Catholics, who make up 51%. But evangelicals are growing at a much faster clip. They’re also more politically active than Catholics.” 

Evangelism is an umbrella term for Protestant denominations that emphasize the Bible as the ultimate source of morality and history and a desire to evangelize, or spread their faith. Evangelicals tend to be more conservative and opposed to more progressive values. The concern between the rise in evangelism and subsequent conservatism in Brazil is that these joint forces signal an erosion of secularism and democracy in Brazil.  

On his inauguration day, Bolsonaro said, “We will unite people, value the family, respect religions and our Judeo-Christian tradition, combat gender ideology and rescue our values.” On December 1, 2021, the Brazilian senate approved the appointment of Evangelical lawyer and pastor André Mendonça to a position on the Supreme Court. This is a signal of the key role evangelists play in the political climate of Brazil today with positions on the highest court in the nation and executive office. 

LGBTQ+ experiences 

Foremost, sexuality and gender identities are a focus of discriminatory laws and practices in a lot of states, but trans and Queer people are also the victims of torture, violence, and death.

The highest rates of transpeople and gender non-conforming people killed are concentrated in Central and South America. Most prominently, Brazil has the largest number of trans and Queer people killed in the world, and in 2021, Brazil maintained this position for the 13th consecutive year. 

The violence and deaths of LGBTQ+ individuals are in direct contradiction with the right to life and safety guaranteed to all people. Additionally, LGBTQ+ people face more barriers to healthcare access, and discrimination is conflated by additional minority identities such as being a person of color. Trans persons are particularly vulnerable to exposure to violence due to name and sex details in official documents. 

As a result of the violence, LGBTQ+ people have been responding by taking defense and martial arts classes. In large cities such as Sao Paulo, Porto Alegre, and Rio, defense courses are being offered to Queer people who increasingly doubt Brazil’s institutions will protect them. Carlos Renan dos Santos Evaldt, a banker and president of a gay sports club in Porto Alegre, was spurred to offer jujitsu classes not just to ensure personal safety, but “rights achieved through hard work and at the cost of many lives and years.”

Figure 3: Source: Yahoo Images; An image of people learning jujitsu. A group of four or five white men sitting on a blue mat being instructed by a black man in jujitsu.

Since 2014, there has been a growing passage of legislation, approximately 200 bills, at all levels targeting “indoctrination” and “gender ideology.” Bolsonaro’s Minister of Women, Family, and Human Rights, Damares Alves, an evangelical pastor said on her first day, “Girls will be princesses, and boys will be princes. There will be no more ideological indoctrination of children and teenagers in Brazil.” 

In 2011, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution affirming LGBTQ+ rights as human rights due to the discrimination and violence levied against this minority community. Alves’ promotion of anti-LGBTQ+ speech disparages the identities of all people, and moreover, signals a failure from the ministry with an objective in human rights to combat rhetoric against Queer persons. Brazil is a current member of the Human Rights Council and therefore has an obligation to promote human rights for all. 

Brazil requires comprehensive sexuality education (CSE); however, attempts to reduce or eliminate teaching about gender and sexual orientation represent a threat to the right to education, information, and health. These bills represent a process of silencing rather than honoring the diversity of individuals. 

Successes in face of growing anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments 

While there is still a long way to go in addressing the human rights violations trans and Queer people face in Brazil, there have been successes in the face of growing hate and violence. As previously mentioned, trans people face additional threats due to names and assigned sex at birth listed on official documents. In 2018, Brazil’s Supreme Court ruled that the government could no longer require individuals seeking a name or gender identifier change on official documents to undergo medical procedures or judicial review. Previously, transgender people had to undergo mandatory psychiatric evaluations, medical transitions, or obtain a judicial order. This represents a major step to ensuring the safety and validating the identity of all people. This is a confirmation of the right of a person to self-determination and a denial of any government to decide for a person who they are. 

In June 2019, the Supreme Court furthered its protection of LGBTQ+ people by criminalizing homophobia and transphobia. Under the law, homophobia and transphobia would be treated the same way as racism. In May 2020, the Supreme Court struck down a federal ban on blood donations from men who had sexual relations with men. 

Also, in 2020, the Supreme Court struck down a number of bills that aimed to censor “gender ideology” and sexuality in CSE programs. These cases established that municipalities could not override national education plans, and in these specific cases, changes represented a violation of the right to equality and education. And in April 2022, the Supreme Court affirmed that the “Maria da Penha” law against domestic violence applied to transgender women.

Figure 4: Source: Yahoo Images, Ben Tavener; Gay Pride parade in Sao Paolo, Brazil. A street filled with people to the end, a giant rainbow flag marches at the front of the group held over the heads of numerous participants.

In spite of political attempts to limit or deny the rights of LGBTQ+ people, there are institutions that still protect these human rights. As of this October, Brazil will hold its presidential election between incumbent Jair Bolsonaro and former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who is leading in the polls. As Brazilians celebrated Pride month this year with the first in-person parade in two years they did so under the slogan “vote with pride, for policies that represent us.”

The Human Rights Campaign has partnered with Instituto de Políticas Públicas LGBT and Instituto Mais Diversidade in order to promote and develop more inclusive LGBTQ+ employment practices in Brazil and Argentina. By creating more accepting workplaces for Queer people, more inclusion can be fostered across all aspects of life in Brazil. 

To get involved, you can support the Human Rights Campaign by donating so these programs can continue to combat discrimination against LGBTQ+ people. Also, by creating dialogues in your own workplaces on LGBTQ+ inclusion, human rights in corporations will continue to be a standard of practice ensuring equality and equity on all levels, local to international. 

The Right to Vote And The 2022 Midterms

Though the right to vote was codified as a fundamental human right in Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the 20th century, voting has been a cornerstone of American democracy since the nation’s founding in 1776 (though it took a while to realize this right for everyone).  In order to call itself a representative democracy, the United States must represent its citizens through laws and elected officials, which is executed through free and fair elections with equal access to participating in the voting process. In this article, we will be covering the importance of ensuring voter accessibility, some upcoming voter issues from a human rights standpoint, and, of course, how your vote matters! 

Please scroll to the end of this article for information on voter registration, aid in accessing the polls, remote voting options, and how to find your local candidates and docket items.

Source: Steve Rainwater via Flickr

What are Midterms?

Midterm elections are held in the middle of Presidential terms. In midterm elections, eligible citizens vote for the House and Senate candidates that, if elected, shape national laws and policies. The 2022 midterm elections take place this year on Tuesday, November 8, 2022, and will have a major impact on citizens’ rights on both the state and national level. These elections determine which political party will hold the majority in the houses of Congress for the next two years, which can affect everything from the federal budget to national and international policy. Check the current midterms forecast here to see how the House, Senate, and your state elections are predicted to go.

Source: Joe Brusky via Flickr

Each Vote Matters

The most common response I receive when asking why my peers choose not to vote is the thought that, “one vote cannot make a difference”. History disagrees. The 2020 presidential election saw a record voter turnout, with nearly two thirds of all eligible voters (158.4 million people) showing up to the polls. However, midterm elections historically have 10-20% lower voter turnout than presidential elections. For example, the 2018 midterm elections only saw 113 million votes, which is roughly 53% of the eligible voter population; and that was still the highest voter turnout for a midterm election in four decades with a historic average of roughly 40%. That means the elected officials who vote on crucial national policies like minimum wage, education, housing and healthcare are only representative of less than half of Americas eligible voters.

In addition, following the Supreme Court’s decision of Dobbs vs Jackson in June 2022, we have seen a large change in voter demographics as historically conservative states like Kansas, Ohio and Alaska observe spikes in young, female voters and Democrat registrations. On September 13, 2022, Democrat Mary Peltola was sworn in as the first Alaskan Native to be elected as an Alaskan representative in Congress. States that have been dependably Republican for decades are now facing a new population of politically active citizens flocking to all forms of civil engagement in order to change their states, for the present and the future. 

The Voter Issues

As we get closer to the midterm elections, it is important that we recognize both the dangers and the potential solutions that could be determined by the vote this upcoming November. Below you will find some of the largest human rights realms that will be affected by the outcome of the midterms.

Voter Issue: Abortion Rights

In the wake of Dobbs v Jackson, the right to elective abortions has become a prioritized and contentious voting issue for the 2022 midterms. Currently, 26 states are likely, planning to, or have already restricted access to elective abortions following Dobbs. The Pew Charitable Trusts used recent data to create the map below:

Source: The Pew Charitable Trusts

For the first time in five decades, local and state representatives will now determine whether women and people who can get pregnant in your state will have access to what was considered a nationally protected right under Roe v Wade. Beyond the simple matter of legal access, those elected to your state governments have the ability to further restrict or protect the right to abortion in your state. On the national level, those elected to Congress this November will be voting on policies like the Women’s Health Protection Act; a piece of federal legislature that would protect abortion access nationwide. 

While we are still two months away from elections, there are many signals that abortion will be one of the largest voter issues this election season. The very demographic of voter registrations has shifted following the Dobbs decision in June, with a rise in female, young, and Democrat voter registrations nationwide. In Kansas, a state with a long history of voting red (56% of Kansas voters cast their ballots for Donald Trump in 2020), an anti-abortion referendum was struck down by 59% of votes. This is the first time since Dobbs was decided that restrictive abortion legislation was struck down by voters. It was also a clear display of voter participation shifting the partisan norm as a deeply conservative state was met at the polls by voters, impassioned with protecting reproductive rights.

Source: “Vote Earth Tree” by Earth Hour Global is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Voter Issue: Climate Change

The United Nations passed a resolution in July of 2022 that declares a clean, healthy environment is a universal human right. In addition, the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act plans to tackle both economic and environmental issues by majorly investing in clean energy production and creating jobs in the industry. Unsurprisingly, the Pew Research Center found that energy policy and climate change are two predominant issues voters will consider when casting their votes in November.

Source: Valeriya via Getty Images/iStockphoto

Voter Issue: Healthcare

The right to health is an inclusive right, defined by the United Nations as encompassing accessibility, quality, and availability amongst other qualities. While the aforementioned Inflation Reduction Act plans to lower drug costs for Medicare recipients, America still stands alone as the only developed nation in the world that does not have Universal Healthcare.

With chronic, severe or uncommon conditions, constant full-time employment may be the only way to gain affordable insurance that provides access to vital drugs and treatments. Insulin and Epi-Pens are two life-saving essential drugs that American citizens experience being denied access to because they cannot afford out of pocket costs. A simple ambulance ride can cost upwards of $1,200, an amount many Americans could not pay without incurring debt. With bankruptcy and extreme medical woes being legitimate fears for American citizens without health insurance, it is easy to see why 60% of voters say that healthcare policy is very important to their vote in the midterm elections.

Source: Victoria Pickering via Flickr

Voter Accessibility And Suppression

Voter suppression, whether passive or active, is a real issue in 2022. It is crucial that we recognize the ways in which voter accessibility is inhibited, especially in the discussion of voter turnout and how that affects who is truly represented in the US Government. Lack of accessibility and excessive voter registration requirements are detrimental to our voter turnout, and contribute to feelings of helplessness and voter apathy.

One of the largest inhibitors of active voters is pure accessibility. The US Justice Department states that, “Title II of the ADA requires state and local governments… ensure that people with disabilities have a full and equal opportunity to vote. The ADA’s provisions apply to all aspects of voting”. While some cite mail-in voting as a solution to physically inaccessible polling locations, the DOJ continues to specify that, “Any alternative method of voting must offer voters with disabilities an equally effective opportunity to cast their votes in person,” meaning that simply offering a mail-in vote option is not just insufficient; it is illegal. Despite this, the American Bar Association has found that “persons with disabilities made up one-sixth of eligible voters in the 2016 election, yet only 40 percent of polling places were accessible.” Both persons with disabilities and the older population are greatly impacted by this lack of accessibility.

While accessibility at physical voting locations is a major issue, the voter process begins with voter registration; a procedure that can be incredibly inhibiting. Voter ID requirements are one of the primary obstructions across the board when citizens attempt to register to vote. Burdensome voter identification restrictions are explained as necessary security measures, but their policy outcome is that citizens who are eligible to vote are unable to due to the expensive and time-consuming process necessary to obtain government IDs. While the average percent of eligible voters who lack a government-issued photo ID is roughly 11% per the Brennan Center’s research, that amount is significantly higher amongst minority groups, low-income people (15%), young voters 18-24 (18%) and old voters 64 or above (18%). The highest category though is African-American citizens, who reported a staggering 25% of voting-age citizens without eligible IDs. In a nation with a history of civil rights abuses, institutional racism and voter suppression, modern voter ID laws must be re-evaluated in order to uphold the integrity of the electoral system in America.

Additional voter restriction issues include lack of public transportation to polling sites, deceptive practices, racial and partisan gerrymandering, employers not providing time off, long lines, prolific jailed, previously jailed and ex-felon disenfranchisement.  A representative democracy must represent its people, and to do that its people must be able to vote.

Resources:

  • Please click HERE to register to vote. If you are interested in absentee or mail in voting options, please check out this page where you can speak to an agent if you have any additional questions!
  • VoteRiders is an amazing nonprofit that helps voters to obtain their necessary documentations, and can help provide rides to the DMV to obtain photo IDs and rides to the polls through their volunteer service! Their organization will also cover any fees necessary in the ID process, so please check them out if their resources would be helpful to you or if you are interested in volunteering with them! You can also reach their help line at 888-338-8743
  • Rock the Vote provides helpful information on voting in your state, walks you through the registration process and provides helpful reminders for upcoming voter deadlines!
  • To learn more about voter suppression or to join the fight against voter ID restrictions and voter suppression nationwide, please check out the ACLU and the Brennan Center today!
  • Find the forecast for your State’s midterm election results here

 

Barren- Food Deserts and Hunger in America

What Is a Food Desert?

Source: Mike Mozart via Flikr

Currently in America, the neighborhood you were born in can affect your future income, education level, and your ability to consistently access nutritional food. The Food Empowerment Project (FEP) defines food deserts as “geographic areas where residents’ access to affordable, healthy food options (especially fresh fruits and vegetables) is restricted or nonexistent due to the absence of grocery stores within convenient traveling distance”. The USDA has defined two types of food deserts: one that exists in both rural areas more than 10 miles from the nearest store and the second which exists in urban environments, where citizens face daily obstacles in obtaining healthy food due to lack of availability or resources. But, the average conversation about food deserts surrounds zones within American cities where citizens, hindered by lack of access to transportation and restricted budgets, are unable to obtain nutritional food. Food deserts play a critical role in food insecurity in the United States, and they are typically visible in urban areas where the residents are already living in extreme economic hardship. 

The Institute of Human Rights at UAB has recently published an article about food deserts in our hometown of Birmingham, Alabama that you can read here– but for readers in other parts of America, I want you to do an exercise with me. Think about your nearest big city, or an urban area you are familiar with. This can be in New York City, Atlanta, Miami, Chicago, or whichever metropolis best applies to you. Visualize the roads you drive, the areas both wealthy and impoverished. Now, think of the few streets within that city where there are almost no Walmarts, Targets, Krogers or Publix chains. In this stretch, there are tons of fast food restaurants, cash bond and payday loan businesses, laundromats and gas stations. There is an abundance of drive throughs and minimarts, but you could drive for a few minutes before you find a grocery store. Can you see that part of your city in your head now? THAT, dear reader, is your local food desert. 

Note: The USDA compiled census and other data into an interactive map called the Food Environment Atlas, which allows any user to view rates of food insecurity, diet quality, and food prices in your area or any neighborhood you are curious about. If you struggle to think of a food desert near you, or want to learn about what areas are impacted by food insecurity, I recommend you try out the Food Environment Atlas here.

Source: DcJohn Via Flickr

The Cause:

Food Deserts have typically been attributed to socioeconomic status. One of the main characteristics that defines a food desert is lack of accessibility, which means people living in a certain region have limited resources, be it money, time or transportation to access nutritional, fresh food. Food deserts are most common in low socio-economic  areas, where residents are unlikely to own a car or have one that is not always working. Americans living here typically live paycheck-to-paycheck, and require both accessibility and affordability to make ends meet throughout the month. It is currently estimated that one in six Americans still experience food insecurity, and that roughly 19 million people are affected by food deserts or limited access to supermarkets in America. Recent studies by the United States Department of Agriculture confirm the connection between race and food deserts, stating in 2019 that “rates of food insecurity were substantially higher than the national average for single-parent households, and for Black and Hispanic households”. 

The conversation surrounding food deserts has shifted to include race in recent years. Originally, the term food desert was coined to represent the socioeconomic disparities that cause some Americans to face food insecurity. Now, organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) are pushing to recoin the term as food apartheid to accurately represent the way food insecurity affects those of minority race in America. The NRDC explains the term shift, saying that, 

“Many groups are now using the term “food apartheid” to correctly highlight the how racist policies shaped these areas and led to limited access to healthy food. Apartheid is a system of institutional racial segregation and discrimination, and these areas are food apartheids because they too are created by racially discriminatory policies. Using the term “apartheid” focuses our examination on the intersectional root causes that created low-income and low food access areas”. 

Essentially, it is vital that we recognize how a historical and current racial inequalities act as a cause of both the food deserts and the zones of poverty they’re found in. The historically black areas of segregated cities were underfunded and underdeveloped, plagued by lack of opportunity and equal access, and in some areas across the United States an economic shadow of that segregation still remains.

Source: Gilbert Mercier via Flickr

Their Effect and Why It Matters:

America has incredibly high rates of obesity and nutrition-based health issues in comparison to other developed countries. While there are decades of research connecting poverty and race to higher rates of nutrition-based disease and other health issues in America, science is now beginning to track the specific effects of food deserts on obesity and chronic illness. A corner store or a pocket-sized version of big supermarket chains like a Walmart Neighborhood Market, but if you take the time to walk inside you’ll see the fresh produce section is either neglected or nonexistent. These smaller stores have less room for inventory, their foods are less likely to be fresh produce due to the requirements to keep them fresh, and these foods are often packaged and processed. That means those who depend on these stores are limited to fast food, packaged goods, or other processed and low quality options that can contribute to malnutrition, heart disease, obesity, diabetes and more.

In addition to the effects of food deserts on health, the prices per unit are almost always more expensive than their suburban, chain-grocery counterparts. A person who can afford a Costco membership will almost always spend less on the same food products as a family living paycheck to paycheck or utilizing EBT for groceries. A 1997 USDA study found that “geographic location was the single most important contribution to higher nationwide average prices faced by low-income households”, and that smaller stores charged more per item than supermarkets nationwide. Food scarcity and cost disparities disproportionately affect minorities and those already living in financial insecurity, and each city has a part to play in ending this national crisis of inequality.

Source: Sue Thompson via Flickr

Join the movement to end food insecurity in the US:

Ultimately, the end to food desertification requires an effort between elected officials and businesses to make nutritious food affordable and accessible for all people. If you recognized a food desert near you in the imaginative exercise we did earlier, that could be the perfect topic to address with your local lawmakers through emails, calls or petitioning. If you prefer other types of action, there are countless ways to work as individuals to help your community in the meantime. Getting involved in the fight against food insecurity can be as hands-on and involved as you want, from donating non-perishable foods and needed items to local organizations, shelters or food kitchens to establishing a community garden, or everything in between. There are plenty of ways to make a difference at whatever level of involvement works best for you, and I’ve linked some of my favorites below!

A Few Ways to Get Involved:

  • Click HERE to find your elected officials on the state and local level and how to contact them about the food deserts affecting their voters. You can use your voice to push for changes that directly impact your community in a positive way.
  • Feeding America is a charity that uses your donations to help the 1 in 8 Americans experiencing hunger now. This link takes you straight to their front page, which features a zip code locator for the closest food bank to you!
  • Organize or contribute to a local food drive. Many public schools and local businesses run food drives for charities throughout the year, and Rotary International has an awesome guide available for starting your own community food drive HERE. Sharing surplus food is an excellent way to help others while reducing waste as well!
  • Use this link to find food pantries near you to donate, volunteer, and get involved in your state’s fight against food insecurity.
  • Find what works for you. Try searching for more ways to get involved that are tailored to your area and preferences…every contribution helps!

Food Insecurity in Birmingham, AL

Outdoor Food Market with Vegetables
Source: Yahoo Images

The USDA reports that there are about 23.5 million people in the US that reside in a food desert, including over six and a half million children. A food desert is described as an urban area in which it is difficult to buy affordable or good-quality fresh food. Many believe that the term ‘desert’ incorrectly implies that a lack of affordable and healthy food is naturally occurring, and a better term to describe the subject is food apartheid, which also includes the discrimination of communities of color regarding economic opportunity and access. For the case of this post, we will use the two interchangeably. In Alabama alone, close to two million residents live in a food desert, and almost 150,000 of them live in Birmingham. This accounts for 69% of the city’s total population. A 2019 update also found that there is at least one area that is identified as a food desert in each of Birmingham’s nine City Council Districts.  

Birmingham’s Efforts to Eliminate Food Desertification 

Birmingham Mayor Randal Woodfin speaking
Source: Yahoo Images

At the end of March 2022, the Birmingham City Council voted to approve an incentives package for a new Food Giant supermarket in the city’s Five Points West area. According to the Birmingham Watch, the Food Giant store will be located at 2257 Bessemer Road, the former location of a Winn-Dixie grocery store that shut down in 2018 after the chain filed for bankruptcy. Mayor Randall Woodfin spoke on the efforts to eliminate food deserts saying, “We’ve been aggressive since day one in finding the most creative things we can do to support putting a dent in food insecurity and getting more grocery stores in our community,” he said. “I think we’ve been told ‘no’ a gazillion times. … Now, we’re happy to share with the public that a brand that is known, that people trust and that provides quality food is coming back to Birmingham.” 

In addition to the positive effects of bringing a new and much-needed grocery store to the area, Jay Mitchell, Mitchell Foods Vice President of Retail Operations, said the store looks to hire locally through social media, hiring events, and job fairs. “We will be bringing some team (members) from our adjacent stores, but most of the hiring will be right here,” he said, adding that the average wage will be between $11 and $12 per hour. The project brings in many promises to increase economic development, which has proved to be exciting for the city administration, the Food Giant team, and the residents of West Birmingham themselves. 

National Food Apartheid 

According to a report by the USDA’s Economic Research Service, there are over 6,500 food desert tracts in the United States. People who reside in food desert tracts are more likely to have abandoned or vacant homes, and those who live in these areas tend to have less education, lower incomes, and higher unemployment rates. 

Graph showing Food Insecurity by RaceThis chart goes on to show the differences between food insecurity rates based on race. Although each demographic has seen a decrease in their food insecurity rate over the last several years, there is still a very large gap between the races, with the biggest difference being between Black and white Americans, who have a difference of roughly 10% between the groups. Even worse, there are countless combined consequences that can hurt already marginalized communities from living in a food apartheid, including an increase in obesity and physical conditions like diabetes due to the lack of access to affordable and healthy food options. 

Ways to Help 

Despite the current efforts to help, there is still a great need to assist those who are experiencing this human rights crisis at hand. Although the complex issue holds no simple solution at the local, state, or national level, there are many ways to contribute to the cause. The first step to begin making a positive change is to educate yourself on the levels of food insecurity in your area and who it primarily affects. Learn if anything is currently being done by your city, county, or state government or private organizations. Familiarize yourself with food banks in your community and consider forming the habit of donating to them periodically if you can do so. Food banks and pantries usually also take donations of unused toiletries for those in need and special products for pregnant mothers and babies, but you should check what each place is willing to accept in advance. In addition, you can also ask what their most needed items are throughout the seasons. Regardless of how you choose to help, we can all make a positive difference by educating ourselves and others on the causes and effects of food insecurity.