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Brooklyn Community Splits Sharply Over Proposed Mosque

Mosque in Flushing

"Allah Akbar, Allah Akbar, Allah Akbar," yelled Mayor Ed Koch in Arabic on an exciting day for New York’s Muslim community in 1987. With his shout (which means "God is great") Koch was present to celebrate the construction of the first mosque in New York City built from the ground up -- the Islamic Cultural Center of New York on Riverside Drive.

Back then, the only significant obstacle to the mosque's creation were funding problems, changing plans and internal feuding, all of which were eventually resolved.

Much, though, has changed in the past two decades. Now challenges to new mosques in New York City have grown to include some fresh problems, as the proponents of a new mosque in Sheepshead Bay have learned.

The proposed mosque, which does not yet have a name, has received the criticism that faces any establishment that tries to plant itself in a residential neighborhood: worries about parking problems, noise and the effect on property values. In the diverse waterfront Brooklyn community, the proposal to build a mosque also has become ensnared in allegations of bigotry on both sides, concerns about terrorism and debates about the Middle East. While the dispute there is the most heated in the city so far, it comes at a time when some other mosques in the metropolitan area have received increased scrutiny.

Creating Mosques

There are over 140 mosques in New York City alone, and since Sept. 2001, attitudes toward mosque building in New York City and Long Island have been mixed. In 2008, Temple Israel of Jamaica, then located in Holliswood, Queens, peacefully became the Bait-Uz-Zafar mosque. Due to a decrease in the number of conservative and reform Jewish congregations, the synagogue shifted hands with local Muslims of the Ahmadiyya sect to accommodate their growing numbers. Clergy members from several religious groups along with local politicians held a ceremony to mark the transformation from Jewish temple to Muslim mosque.

The Long Island Muslim Society, located in the quiet, suburban town of East Meadow, was at the center of attention in 2002 when it wanted to convert two homes that it used as its headquarters into a traditional mosque and school. The construction plans drew protests from some residents who complained about increased traffic and parking problems. The mosque received a permit to build the structure in 2007 after a long struggle.

The Parkchester Jame Masjidin 2009 became the first mosque in the Bronx to ask permission to use electronic amplification to perform the Muslim call to prayer, the "adhan." The adhan, which lasts for less than two minutes, is supposed to sound five times a day to call worshippers to pray, but mosque officials agreed to request permission to air the adhan only four times a day, skipping the early morning call. The mosque rescinded its request for the permit back in November when mosque leaders flew to Mecca to make the hajj pilgrimage but are once again seeking permission for its use.

The Cordoba Institute has purchased an abandoned building two blocks away from Ground Zero and plans to turn it into an Islamic center. Formerly leased to the Burlington Coat Factory, the building now used to accommodate the overflow of worshippers from Al-Farah mosque in Tribeca,. According to an articlein the New York Times, Mayor Bloomberg’s spokesperson Andrew Brent has said, "If it's legal, the building owners have a right to do what they want."

Not everyone agrees. Some opponents of the mosque have started a website called No Mosques at Ground Zero. It demands that Bloomberg "honor those murdered on Sept. 11, 2001 by not permitting a mosque to be built on Ground Zero." The creators of the website did not answer requests to be interviewed for this story.

Some elected officials are not shy about expressing their own negative views of Muslims and mosques. In 2007, Republican Rep. Peter King of Long Island said in an interview with Politico.com, "We have, unfortunately, too many mosques in this country. I'm aware of ones in New York. To me, they certainly raise suspicion, they should be looked at carefully." On another occasion, he referred to Muslims as "an enemy living amongst us."

And Koch, who appeared to have given his blessings for the construction of the Islamic Cultural Center 23 years ago, recently said on Neil Cavuto's show on Fox News that "hundreds of millions of Muslims are terrorists."

A Divided Community

New York City is home to over 600,000 Muslims, according to a study by Columbia University. The Association of Religion Data Archives found, that, as of the year 2000, there were nearly 58,000 Muslims living in Brooklyn, many of whom live in Bay Ridge, Coney Island and near the western part of Atlantic Avenue. There are over 28 mosques in Brooklyn alone.

The vacant lot on 2812 Voorhies Ave, has been purchased by Allowey Ahmed, a Yemeni-American who has lived in Brooklyn for over 40 years, in partnership, with the Muslim American Society. The new mosque will be four stories high and will house a community center as well as classrooms.

When Ahmed submitted plans for the mosque’s construction to the Department of Buildings in July 2009, it called for a minaret. His proposal was rejected but he submitted a second plan, and is now proceeding with construction of the mosque without the minaret. In an article on Sheepsheadbites.com, Ken Lazar, the Department of Building's community affairs liaison, said that religious institutions may build "as of right" so long as they fit in with zoning regulations.

The Muslim American Society has accused some residents of bigotry against Muslims.

A group called The Bay People has distributed leaflets urging people to "Say NO to mosque at 2812 Voorhies Avenue." A petition against the mosque's construction has made its way onto the Internet. The petition charges that the Muslim American Society has associations with organizations and individuals that espouse anti-Semitic views, and that it supports terrorist groups, encourages suicide bombings and rejects Israel’s right to exist. So far, 293 people have signed the petition.

In particular, critics have targeted Mahdi Bray, executive director of the Muslim American Society's Freedom Foundation and an outspoken critic of Israeli policies.

The Muslim American Society denies it has ties to terrorists or anti-Semites. Theresa Scavo, chair of Community Board 15, has called the creators of the flier ignorant people who understand neither the spirit nor the letter of American law guaranteeing freedom of religion.

At a January civic association meeting, Scavo reportedly saidthat those opposed to the mosque might have a better chance if they stuck to issues such as parking and traffic. "If you want to succeed, do not use the word mosque. Do not use the word Muslim. Request the traffic reports. Go take photos of the double parking at the other mosques during calls to prayer. Have [the opponent] done that? No. Because they’re lazy. You can’t just go with your mouth. You need paper,” she said.

The City Councilmember from the area , Lewis Fidler, has defended the mosque, saying "To make a decision that because this is a mosque and for no other reason that this will be a haven for hate or terror is over the top."

Neighbor vs. Neighbor

At a recent Community Board meeting, Sheepshead Bay residents -- including some who support the mosque and others who oppose it -- packed a large room at Kingsborough Community College. Though discussion of the mosque was not on the meeting’s agenda, the board allowed concerned residents to speak.

One Muslim man said at the community board meeting that the Muslims of Sheepshead Bay do not have a place of worship within walking distance and thus have to travel to worship. "I am sorry to hear what our neighbors are saying, it really hurt. We would like to worship God the same way like everyone else does, according to their own concept of God. This should not be too much to ask in these United States of America."

A resident named Stephanie who called herself a “Sweda-Rican” spoke against the mosque, eliciting several rounds of applause from the audience. "What troubled me most about this was portraying people who don’t think this mosque is a good idea as racist. I am not a racist."

"We have a good reason for our concern. It is simply rational fear. We must be honest," the woman said.

Mohammed Razvi, a Pakistani who founded of the Council of Peoples Organization and is co-founder of the We Are All Brooklyn coalition, urged all residents of the neighborhood to unite. "We should all come together to address those concerns. It's everyone's community," he said to the crowd calmly. "Brooklyn is an example of how peace can be achieved throughout the state, throughout the world. Please uphold that"

Fear Factor?

"My neighborhood will die," complains Greg Kalman in a thick Russian accent.

Kalman represents The Bay People. He said he is concerned about a decrease in parking in the area and thinks that property values will drop because if the mosque opens and result in an exodus of homeowners out of Sheepshead Bay.

In a telephone interview, Kalman said that he was frightened that tenets of radical Islam will be taught in the mosque. Kalman, who is Jewish, immigrated to the United States from Azerbaijan, a Muslim country in Central Asia carved out of the Soviet Union. Though he says he never had any problems with his Muslim neighbors in his home country or in Sheepshead Bay, he is still wary. "I put a menorah on my window during Hanukkah," he said. "I don't know if someone will come in and break my window."

"I am not a racist," he insisted. "I don’t think that the majority of Muslims are radicalized, but there is the possibility that a small percentage can become radicalized. People are afraid."

He also accused the Muslim community of Sheepshead Bay of being too insular. "I talk to the Italians, the Russians, but the Muslims don’t talk to anybody," he said.

To bolster his charge that the mosque backs the Palestinian group Hamas, Kalman cites a 2000 video of Mahdi Bray attending a demonstration in Lafayette Park in Washington D.C. In the clip, Bray nods and raises his hand as the speaker asks the audience whether anyone is a supporter of Hamas, which governs Gaza. The U.S. government classifies Hamas as a terrorist organization, but some nations, including the United Kingdom and Australia, only consider Hamas' military wing as a terrorist organization.

An outspoken critic of American foreign policy in the Middle East, Bray denies that he harbors any prejudice against Jews and said his work with interfaith organizations is testament to this, "I reject the idea that criticism of Israel makes you an anti-Semite," he said.

Bray also disputes a statement on the online petition saying that the Muslim American Society "has a troubling history of associations with radical organizations and individuals that promote terrorism." He said that the society has developed youth programs to steer youngsters away from the path of religious radicalism.

While Bray urged mosque officials to try to address all the concerns of the community and accommodate their needs, he thinks that complaints about parking, noise and property values are "pretexts" for simply not wanting a mosque. "Those are not the major issues," he said.

An online petition in favor of the proposed mosque has made its appearance on the Internet as well. That petition has so far gathered 583 signatures of support.

"We are the new kids on the block," Bray said of Muslim Americans. "We are going to build this mosque and we don't have to apologize for anything. Let the bigots scream."

Haitian's Case Focuses Attention on Deportations

Photo (cc) CC BY-NC 2.0
Protestors rally in support of Jean Montrevil and against deportations.


The campaign to free community activist Jean Montrevil, a native of Haiti, began on Dec. 30, 2009, the day he was taken into Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody during a routine check in and placed in the York County Prison in Pennsylvania. His detention sparked outrage among his supporters, resulting in the arrest of 19 people at a rally held to show solidarity with Montrevil and to protest what they deem are unfair immigration practices.

"These immigration laws destroy families and contradict the values we should uphold as a society," said Reverend Donna Schaper of Judson Memorial Church where Montrevil’s family worships. Schaper was among the 19 arrested. Montrevil's plight also caught the attention of several local politicians including U.S. Reps. Jerrold Nadler and Nydia Velasquez.

For now, though, Montrevil is free. On Jan. 23, after the government decided to halt all deportations to Haiti because of the earthquake there, he was released from the detention center.

His reprieve may be only temporary. And meanwhile, thousands of other immigrants still face deportation. As a result of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act signed in 1996 by President Bill Clinton, many immigrants have either been deported or face the threat of deportation. The act, which was retroactive, added a number of new crimes to the list of deportable offenses, which originally included only serious crimes such as murder and drug trafficking.

A Rise in Deportations

From Oct. 1, 2008 through June 30, 2009, ICE deported or returned more than 271,200 aliens, a more than 18 percent increase than that of the same time period in the previous year. In 2008, ICE issued 168,800 charging documents to formally begin proceedings to remove criminal aliens from the United States.

Immigration advocates have protested these actions, arguing that deporting someone who has already been punished with imprisonment is unfair, particularly when the person has turned his or her life around. Angad Bhalla, an organizer with the New Sanctuary Coalition, which opposes deportations, echoed the sentiments expressed by many supporting Montrevil and others facing deportation: "He served his time. He has reformed himself. Our priorities are out of whack if we feel that those are the people to deport."

"Jean put a face on this issue," said Bhalla, who has known Montrevil for three years. He praised Montrevil for sharing his story with the public. "For some, the only chance for people to stay with their families is to hide," he said. "It’s rare that people will talk about what they’re going through."

Bhalla is particularly critical of the effect immigration laws have on children. "What gain is there in making orphans out of children and breaking up families?" he asked.

In a letter written before his release, Montrevil said that he saw his children's future as "bleak and very fragile." "We make promises to be there for them, to protect them and cherish them, I may not be able to do that for my babies," he said.

Supporters of the laws, though, say the country needs to control who can stay here. " There are more people that want to come here than there are openings," said Bob Dane of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. "You got to keep your nose clean if you want to stay here."

As for Montrevil, Dane said, "He tossed his chance away. … He used a slot that someone else could have used and what did he do? He spent his time in jail."

John Vinson of the American Immigration Control Foundation said that, while Montrevil might have deserved his reprieve, the deportation procedures are necessary. "We can show compassion in some cases, but if we don't enforce the law for the most part, we're courting chaos," Vinson said.

A Costly Mistake

Montrevil's problems date back to a fateful decision made over 20 years ago. Montrevil, who legally arrived in Brooklyn as a teenager in 1986, was arrested for selling cocaine, an aggravated felony, in Virginia in 1989 and served 11 years in. While Montrevil was incarcerated, the Immigration and Naturalization Service initiated deportation proceedings against him, and in 1994, he was ordered deported.

They never followed up on that though, and in 2000, Montrevil left prison under supervised parole. Five years later, though, during a routine check-in at his parole office in Brooklyn, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, officials took Montrevil into custody and he spent over six months in detention facilities.

At the time, Haiti was deemed politically unstable and as a result, Montrevil was not repatriated. Instead, he was released and ordered to appear at ICE headquarters once per month. Montrevil started his family, marrying a teacher. He also established a van service, became active in his church and co-founded the New Sanctuary Coalition. All that, though, seemed to be in jeopardy when he was detained last month.

Trinidadian immigrant Ravi Ragbir also is fighting deportation. He said he believes the current immigration laws reflect a "just get rid of them attitude."

"They are inhumane. They are oppressive. I hate them," he said.

Ragbir, who arrived in the United States 20 years ago was charged and convicted of fraud and served two and a half years at a federal prison -- charges Ragbir denies. He also served two years at various detention centers within regular penitentiaries. Though detained for immigration matters, Ragbir says that he had to follow the same rules other prisoners, including violent offenders, followed.

Ragbir, who now lives with his daughter and his former wife, said his experience "emotionally traumatized" his daughter who saw him in shackles during a court proceeding. "She didn’t want to touch me. It was traumatic for her and myself," he said. "I told her mom not to come back and see me. 'Don't bring her. It's better that she doesn't see me through this process.'"

Ragbir is "certain" that he suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and attributes this to his time spent in detention centers as well as to the unsettling feeling of not knowing what his fate is. "How can I build there, when there is nothing there?" he says about the possibility of having to resettle in Trinidad. He says that moving to Trinidad would be particularly hard on his daughter, whom he describes as an American.

Twist of Fate

For his part, Montrevil reflects on the strange turn his case has taken. At the celebration service at the Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square, Montrevil said he was scheduled to depart for Haiti on Jan. 6. However, the flight was canceled when another Haitian scheduled to be on the plane came down with the swine flu and dozens, including Montrevil, were quarantined for seven days.

Then the earthquake hit. "I couldn't believe it. I was thinking how I could have been down there, I could have passed away. There are 111,000 people dead, 2 million people homeless, and they say there are still many people trapped under building debris. I kept thinking, I was supposed to be there on Jan. 6," he said.

Montrevil still is not sure he will be allowed to remain in the United States. Even though Janet Napolitano, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, granted Temporary Protected Status to eligible Haitian nationals, giving them an 18-month time period to live and work in the United States, Montrevil will not qualify because of his felony conviction. He has instead applied for "deferred action" with ICE for the past three years, which would, in effect, have his case put in the bottom of the stack, so his pending deportation orders would not be immediately enforced. ICE has not agreed to his request.

Fighting Complacency on Same Sex Marriage

Photo (cc) carbonNYC
Protestors rallied in support of same-sex marriage in Times Square last fall.

"Rally, times square @ 6!" read the enthusiastic text from my boyfriend Joel. In response to my message expressing frustration about the failure of New York's Marriage Equality Act, Joel had responded with his characteristic "let's do something about it" attitude.

After getting his text, I planned to attend the rally, but I had a busy day at work, and other things came up. So, even though my office is less than two blocks away from Times Square, Joel went to the rally on his own. A few minutes after 6 p.m., Joel sent me an update: "Here right now, kinda small and sad."


I was disheartened by his text. I wanted to see huge rallies in the street. I wanted New York City’s large gay population to fight back, to show the country that, in our state, we will not be denied equal rights quietly. I wanted outrage, and I could not understand, where was the outrage? As I sat at my desk angry over the situation, I realized that I was sitting at my desk angry over the situation. I had found better and more important things to do than attend the rally, and apparently so did most gay men and lesbians in the city. How could I be upset at others for not rallying in the streets, when I could not find the time to do so myself?

That night, Joel and I lay in bed discussing the situation. Why is it that we don't do more to fight for marriage equality? We both have very strong feelings about the issue, but aside from the occasional rally (like the march on Washington, D.C. earlier this year) or writing an occasional check (to support the fight against California's Proposition 8), we never take any action to support the cause. We rarely even make it a point to talk to our straight friends and family about the issue. We never tell them how important marriage equality is to us.

Why don't we get out there and fight for our rights?

Waiting for Change

As we discussed this, we realized that we don't fight because, deep down, we don't feel it is necessary for us to do so. We feel a sense of inevitability, a sense that history is on our side. After all, polls consistently show a generational gap in the support of marriage equality. A recent New York Times poll showed that 57 percent of people under the age of 40 support marriage equality, while only 35 percent of people over that age support it. If we're patient, it seems, marriage equality will come. Public opinion will eventually be on our side. When our generation is in control, we will have equal rights. We can wait.

This view is pervasive in the gay community, especially among the younger generation. A Forbes Magazine article earlier this year by Bernard Whitman entitled " Marriage Equality is Inevitable" articulates the generational argument. Whitman points to the generational divide regarding marriage equality as evidence that opposition, in both political parties, will begin to erode as younger -- and increasingly accepting -- generations come of age. Whitman writes, "Marriage equality is going to happen in this country. It's only a matter of time."

Other gay rights leaders, such as Joe Solomonese, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, and David Mixner, a veteran gay rights activist, also have espoused this view.

A Need for Outrage

While it's possible that this view is prescient, I believe that it is dangerous and poses a serious threat to the marriage equality movement. It is this sense of inevitability that keeps individuals in the gay community from getting outraged and taking action in their own lives to advance the cause.

This movement needs more than activists. Many well-organized LGBT groups are leading the battle for marriage equality in the legislatures and courts around the country. But, although necessary, legal and legislative battles alone have never been sufficient to create a successful civil rights movement.

The success of the marriage equality movement – like all past civil rights movements – depends on individuals. Think of the Montgomery bus boycott, or the Million Man March. It is the collective sum of individual action that eventually forces change in our laws. If the larger gay community passively waits to be granted equal rights, we should expect to wait well beyond this generation -- or the next.

For me, and for Joel, the New York State Senate vote shattered that sense of inevitability in a way that the vote in Maine, the Prop 8 vote in California and other earlier votes on same sex marriage failed to do. Having marriage equality affirmatively voted down in our home state shook us, especially because we have always viewed New York as a friendly environment for homosexuals. In that sense, the State Senate vote has had a positive effect. It broke us of our apathy and made us realize how dangerous this sense of inevitability can be.

I hope the State Senate vote will have a similar impact on other gay men and lesbians in New York. Marriage equality will not be reconsidered in the upcoming legislative session, but the legislature will take up the issue again at some point. To achieve a different outcome, individuals must begin to act now. Sustained effort by individuals in their own communities will open minds, shift public opinion and ultimately lead to the necessary pressure on or changes in the legislature to secure victory. Absent such efforts, the gay community will lose again in New York.

Marriage equality is not inevitable. For those of us who care about this issue, but have relied on others to fight for our rights, now is the time to step forward. We cannot attain equal rights without self-sacrifice. If we do not shed this sense of inevitability and take individual action, there is a real danger that marriage equality will never be achieved. As Martin Luther King said, "Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed."

I started small. Last week, I sent an e-mail to my parents and sisters telling them how important marriage equality is to me. This week, I wrote a letter to the eight Democratic state senators who voted against the Marriage Equality Act. And, next time Joel texts me to go to a rally, I will be there. I hope others will join me.

Michael P. Robotti is an attorney practicing in New York City.

City's Muslims Report Harassment by Police

Coming from a family with members who work in law enforcement, Yasmin Nasser used to look at police officers as honest, upstanding and there to protect all members of society. Today, though, Nasser said, she feels uneasy when she walks by cops and, for a brief period, tried staying away from them altogether.

The 20-year-old American citizen who resides in Saudi Arabia had come to New York City to visit family. Her trust in New York City's finest eroded the day she claims a police officer pulled her by the arm, told her to leave Rockefeller Center, where she had gone to see the Christmas tree, and called her a "terrorist." She was asked to provide identification to the officer, was subsequently accused of having phony identification and allegedly told, "Leave you terrorist, you shouldn't be here."

"It's so hard for me to believe that a cop could do this," said the Muslim woman who covers her head with the traditional headscarf (hijab) worn by some women who follow the Islamic faith. "I couldn't get over it. I was in shock," she said.

Nasser has reported the matter to the Council of American Islamic Relations and plans on filing a report with the city Civilian Complaint Review Board once she returns to Saudi Arabia. She fears that making a complaint prior to her departure could disrupt her travel plans.

Advocates say that Nasser's story is not an isolated incident. Monami Maulik, executive director of Desis Rising Up And Moving (DRUM), an immigrants' rights organization in Jackson Heights, said that she has heard many similar stories. Several other organizations say police harassment of Muslims is a genuine problem.

Encounters with Police

The Council of American Islamic Relations analyzed civil rights cases in 2008 by circumstances of occurrence. The group found encounters with police ranked sixth, following schools and prison. "Underreporting of hate crimes and police misconduct cases remains a real issue with American Muslims," said the council's New York civil rights director Aliya Latif.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, law enforcement officials have worked on building a cooperative relationship with the American Muslim community in an effort to obtain valuable information related to terrorism and safety issues. Muslim groups worry that allegations of misconduct by law enforcement damage the fragile ties between the two groups. "We are concerned that incidents like these further alienate community members and contribute to an atmosphere of mistrust with law enforcement authorities," Latif said.

Edina Lekovic, communications director for the Muslim Public Affairs Council, agrees. "The evidence of any problem with law enforcement undermines any cooperation they may seek from Muslims," she said. "Even if there is a perception of harassment, it very naturally leads individuals to be cautious and reluctant to seek help from law enforcement, let alone report any suspicious activity."

A police officer, though, may see the situation differently. "Police officers may not always realize how they have come across to a civilian," said Graham Daw, a spokesperson for the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the all-civilian board that investigates civil complaints about alleged misconduct on the part of the New York City Police Department. "Civilians are not always aware of the pressures under which police officers work or the powers with which they are vested in order to do their job."

The New York City Police Department was contacted numerous times to comment on this issue but did not respond.

According to DRUM, many Muslims have complained about being randomly approached by members of law enforcement in their own neighborhoods and apartment buildings and being asked about their whereabouts and about what they did for a living.

Maulik said that her organization has received hundreds of accounts of cases regarding police misconduct since Sept. 11, many from blue-collar workers such as street vendors and taxi drivers. She also hears stories from youth.

Slurs and Questions

In 2006, DRUM and the Urban Justice Center Community Development Project surveyed 662 South Asian youths living in Queens, most of them Bangladeshi and Pakistani Muslims, about the impact of school safety policies on them. The report revealed that nearly a third of the youths reported having seen harassment by police officers or experienced harassment. The study defined harassment to include "verbal abuse or harassment such as racial slurs and names, yelling and cursing; physical abuse or harassment, including physical harm, grabbing, pushing, forcing to do something the person does not want to do; and intimidation, including asking for identification or calling over for no reason, threatening to report person or their family to immigration and bullying."

"Since 9/11, there are a lot more security agents and police," said one young person. "They treat us differently."

"There is more hatred against South Asians [post 9/11]. The police pay more attention to you; they think you are suspicious. They wait for you to screw up," said another.

DRUM received a report on one incident in which a teenage girl who wore a hijab on the streets of Times Square was allegedly asked by a police officer if she was a terrorist.

Ayesha Mahmooda, who works with DRUM, spoke to at least 100 South Asian families in Flushing during an outreach effort and found many reported experiencing harassment by law enforcement. She said that many South Asians described feeling scared while being questioned by officers. She mentioned the case of a Muslim man who was questioned by law enforcement officials inside his own apartment. They asked him numerous personal questions, such as where he was born, what his immigration status was and if he smelled anything funny in his building, an apparent reference to possible bomb-making activities.

An alarmed South Asian woman asking Mahmooda why her husband was stopped and questioned by law enforcement on his way home from working the late shift. "I told her that it was because of the color of his skin, he is not white. He is a person of color," Mahmooda said.

A Reluctance to Protest

Those questioned are often afraid to protest, according to DRUM. Latif of CAIR, though, urges Muslims to exercise their right to have a lawyer present if questioned by the FBI or police. "Refusing to answer questions without an attorney present cannot be held against you and does not imply that you have something to hide," she said.

Few Muslims take their cases to the Civilian Complaint Review Board. Of the 14 allegations of offensive language based on religion reported to the board in 2008, only two involved Muslims or Islam, and the board was unable to conduct a full investigation in either case. One complaint was withdrawn by the complainant, and the complainant in the other case did not respond to requests to be interviewed by board.

"100 percent of the cases that we've ever gotten, no one has ever called the CCRB," says Maulik. "We really don't have faith in the CCRB. It is not a mechanism that has worked for many years in New York, so for the most part, Muslim immigrants don't call the CCRB and file complaints.

People do not think the board will hold police accountable for harassment or profiling, she said adding that Muslims who are undocumented immigrants are particularly hesitant to report any instances of misconduct to the complaint board. Instead, she said, they live their lives in fear.

Daw said the board would be glad to make a presentation to the Muslim community to educate them about its work, but Monami has no plans of reaching out to them. She has been working on a project to create a formal complaint process with CUNY School of Law.

Lekovic of the Muslim Public Affairs Council encourages Muslims to report all instances of misconduct to whomever they feel comfortable with, whether it be to Muslim organizations or city agencies . "Without individuals sharing their experiences, we do not have leverage to make change," she said.

Meanwhile, Yasmin Nasser thinks about what happened to her on her most recent visit to New York. "People in Saudi Arabia ask if people discriminate in New York City, and I always say 'people are nice,'" said Yasmin Nasser. When she lands in Saudi Arabia this time, though, she may offer a different answer.

School Holiday Issue Sends Muslims to City Hall

Photo (cc) Adrian Miles
Evening prayers at a midtown mosque. Many Muslim parents want the religion's holiest days to be included in the list of school holidays.

Isabel Bucaram of Astoria, Queens, didn’t want her 6-year-old daughter, Huyam, to miss her class trip to the Nutcracker ballet, but she could find no other alternative. The trip coincided with the Muslim holiday of Eid-ul-Fitr, one of the holiest days in Islam, and Bucaram wanted her daughter to participate in the day's religious festivities. "It was upsetting for her not to share in that field trip with her teachers and friends," Bucaram recalled.

Not wanting her daughter or any other Muslim child to miss out on a day of school because of a religious holiday ever again, Bucaram last winter become involved in the movement to have Muslim holidays recognized by the New York City Department of Education. Until then, Bucaram’s political knowledge had revolved mostly around national politics. But once she started working with the Coalition for Muslim School Holidays, a group of over 80 labor, community, faith, and civil rights organizations, she was meeting with City Council members James Gennaro and Peter Vallone Jr., and learning about what it takes to change policy.

Bucaram is not alone. More Muslims are getting involved in the political process than ever before, many spurred by the Muslim school holiday issue, according to Faiza Ali, community director for the Council on American Islamic Relations and a member of the coalition’s steering committee. "The issue of Muslim school holidays has mobilized the community in a great way," she said. "Across the five boroughs, community members have participated in the civic process testifying at hearings in City Hall and lobbying their elected officials, some for the first time, to support this cause."

Muslims in the Schools

The Muslim population in New York City numbers around 600,000 according to a study by Columbia University. Peter Awn, the dean of Columbia’s School of General Studies, characterizes Muslims as one of the fastest growing religious communities in New York City. Muslim New Yorkers hail from all parts of the globe, and an estimated 10 percent of the city's 1.1 million public school students are of the Muslim faith. Approximately 90 percent of Muslim children in the city attend public schools.

The movement to make the New York City Department of Education recognize the holidays of Eid-ul-Fitr, which marks the end of the month of Ramadan, and Eid-ul-Azha, which is the culmination of the yearly hajj to Mecca, began a few years ago when concerned parents like Bucaram decided that they should not have to choose between their children’s education or their religion.

This summer, the City Council's education committee voted overwhelmingly in favor of a non-binding resolution to close all public schools on Eid-ul-Azha and Eid-ul-Fitr. The full council approved the resolution in a voice vote.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, though, indicated his opposition to the proposal. "One of the problems you have with a diverse city is that if you close the schools for every single holiday, there won’t be any school," he said last summer.

The coalition’s Faiza Ali disagreed. "Giving days off for the Eids does not mean fewer days in school," she said. She maintains that recognition of the holidays would alter the school calendar only slightly since Muslims follow a lunar calendar. Thus, the holidays may fall on a weekend, on a school holiday or during a recess in any given year, as was the case this year when Eid-ul-Fitr fell on a Sunday.

Ali acknowledged that there will be instances when the Eids will fall on what would normally be school, but said the Department of Education has various methods to close for the two holidays and not decrease the overall amount of time in school.

In Ali's view, the benefits of observing the holidays outweigh any inconvenience to the school system. "Although incorporating the two Muslim holidays would have a minimal impact on the calendar, recognizing them would help foster a better understanding of Islam and reaffirm that Muslims are an integral part of this city," she said.

Fatima Shama, the city's commissioner of immigrant affairs, who is herself a Muslim, insists the administration is still considering the matter. "This is a complex issue, and we are not taking it lightly," she said. "We have sat with the Coalition of Muslim School holidays at least three times with Deputy Mayor [Dennis] Walcott, and we have never said no. It is an ongoing evolutionary process."

Shama said that the Bloomberg administration wants to review every aspect of how incorporating the two Muslim holidays into the school calendar would affect the school system and its 1.1 million students before making a decision. "We are not doing policy on the fly," she said. Shama says she "couldn't say" when a decision about this issue would be made.

Political Muscle

Muslims must be resolute in order to achieve victory on the holidays, according to Amy Sugimori of La Fuente, an organization that advocates for workers’ and immigrants’ rights. "They must demand an answer from Mayor Bloomberg," she said.

The New York Civic Participation Project, which works with La Fuente and other groups, played a major role in educating Muslims about voting and the political process. The project has organized voter registration drives in collaboration with neighborhood mosques in Queens and Brooklyn. Sugimori, who oversaw the voter registration drives, said Muslims "were really into the idea that they needed to be full participants in civic participation."

La Fuente's members, most of whom are of Latino descent, have shared their experiences with Muslims members. Sugimori believes that hearing the stories of how other communities overcame injustice "resonated with the Muslim community." "We have all fought to be able to vote," she said. "We all should exercise this right."

Prior to November's municipal election, the New York chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations held 10 voter registration drives to encourage Muslims to vote and fielded calls from community members asking for information on how to register to vote, the primaries, the candidates and elections.

Shamsi Ali, the director of the Jamaica Muslim Center in Queens, spiritual leader of the Islamic Cultural Center in Manhattan and a strong supporter of closing schools for Muslim holidays is optimistic that Bloomberg will eventually come around on this issue. If Muslims register and vote, then they will be valued by politicians even more," Ali said.

"This is what I tell my kids to do. If you see something that either needs to be changed or can be improved, work to make that change -- vote, write letters, speak with those elected," said Bucaram.

Second-grader Huyam sent Bloomberg an Eid card decorated with Hello Kitty stickers and on it excitedly told the mayor how glad she was that last Eid landed on a Sunday. "If that could happen more often, that would be great!" she wrote. Huyam, along with other members of New York's Muslim community eagerly await his response.

The Citizen

While turnout may have been low and much of the electorate disengaged, this year's city elections reflected gains for immigrants in New York. John Liu, who moved to Queens from Taiwan with his parents as a young boy, became the first Asian American to win citywide office here, becoming comptroller.

When the new City Council convenes in January, Margaret Chin, an immigrant from Hong Kong, Peter Koo, also from Hong Kong, and Ydanis Rodriguez, who was born in the Dominican Republic, will join the immigrants already on the council.

"In some ways, slow-moving New York City politics are catching up with the changing dynamics of the city itself, as the number of immigrants continues to rise and the idea of dividing the political pie three ways, among blacks, whites and Latinos, seems obsolete," the Washington Post reported.

The results came even as the Asian American Legal Defense Fund foundthat a number of Asian Americans encountered obstacles as they tried to vote. For example, the group said, some Asians trying to cast ballots in Bayside were denied language assistance. In the council racethere, Dan Halloran defeated Kevin Kim, a Korean American after a bruising campaign.

Meanwhile the economy continues to take its toll on immigrant communities, with scams against both workers and employers on the rise. The economy has affected families, too, as in many Korean families, both parents now must work. That's not the case among many Filipino immigrants though, where, in a reversal of their roles in their native country, many men stay home while their wives hold demanding and well paying jobs as nurses.

These and other stories from or partner, Voices that Must Be Heard.

From Voices that Must Be Heard

John Liu's Next Step?, Sing Tao Daily
Comptroller-elect John Liu, the first Asian to win citywide office here, clearly has higher aspirations and, with his victory this fall, running for mayor is a real possibility.

New Bronx Machine Flexes Its Muscle, EDLP
With the slogan "The Bronx is not for sale," this borough's Democratic machine, headed by Assemblyman Carl Heastie, Bronx Borough President Rubén Díaz Jr., and State Sen. Rubén Díaz, demonstrated its incredible political power at the polls when Mayor Michael Bloomberg lost the "Borough of Salsa" by 37 percent to 61 percent.

Behind the Koo Victory, Sing Tao Daily
Running in a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans five to one, Republican businessman Peter Koo faced an uphill battle in his campaign for City Council but, according to his campaign manager, won because of his personal charisma, ability to assemble a rainbow coalition of supporters and solid background.

Once in the U.S. Filipino Couples Switch Roles, Filipino Reporter
With many Filipino immigrant men staying home to care for children while their wives work, one woman fro the Philippine reporter a common joke: "If you meet a Filipino man at the grocery store with kids in tow, especially in the middle of a working day, and you ask him what he does for a living, the common reply will be, 'My wife is a nurse.'"

Troubles Abound for Fujianese Children Returning to Brooklyn, World Journal
Many Fujianese immigrants send their infant children back to China to be raised by grandparents or relatives, but when the children reach age 4 or 5 and return to the United States to start school, problems arise.

Crime Increases Among Young Koreans, Korea Times
Recent reports from some Korean organizations indicate that Korean youth in New York are being increasingly exposed to -- and involved in -- crime. While both parents work, their unsupervised children engage in destructive or illegal behavior, such as drinking, drugs or gang activity.

Workers Call for Saving City's Garment Industry, World Journal
The city's manufacturing and garment industries have been outsourced along with the lax enforcement of city zoning laws has led to the shrinking of the garment district in New York, according to garment workers and their supporters.

Beauty Salons Without Licenses Face Penalties, Korea Times
The Korean beauty industry faces a crisis as Koreans licensed in beauty skills and operating shops in their homes face huge fines, loss of their licenses and demands for payment of income tax.

Undocumented 9/11 Workers Caught in Double Bind, El Correo de Queens
With immigration reform postponed and a health reform that does not include them, the workers who cleaned up after the 9/11 attacks find themselves in limbo as they do not know who they can trust out of fear of deportation.

Mass Held for Polish Ground Zero Workers, Nowy Dziennik
Each year, more Polish asbestos workers die as a result of work they did at Ground Zero back in 2001. In early November, families and colleagues of those who had passed away prayed for them at a Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral, the second annual Mass commemorating the deceased members of Local 78.

New Program Aims to Reduce Attacks on Taxi Drivers, El Taxista
The attacks on taxi drivers in the city have become less frequent since the launching of a program that allows the police to randomly detain vehicles and approach passengers to interrogate and search them, with the driver's consent.

Anger Rises Over Chinatown Employment Agencies, World Journal
Reports of labor disputes between job seekers and Chinatown's employment agencies have been on the rise following the financial crisis, with immigrant looking for work charging that the agencies hoodwink them and take advantage of their lack of knowledge.

Temporary Workers Scam Their Korean Employers, Korea Times
Being without Worker's Compensation insurance leaves many Korean businesses vulnerable to fraud by one-time workers.

Advocates Seek to Protect Rights of Immigrants in Prison, La Voz Hispana A coalition recommends that the city Department of Corrections restrict immigration agents' access to prisoners awaiting trial, not share digital fingerprints with the Department of Homeland Security and protect the rights of all New Yorkers in prison.

Making New York 'Immigrant Friendly'

Photo from nyc.gov by Spencer T Tucker
Bloomberg upgraded the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs to become a charter agency, which provides direct access to the mayor. He appointed Fatima A. Shama as Commissioner in August.

Elick Bloomberg, a native of Balvan, Russia, moved to the United States before the turn of the 20th century. According to his World War I draft registration card, he settled in Chelsea, Mass., and was employed by Metropolitan Life as an insurance agent.

His experience was shared by tens of thousands of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe at the time. However, it was one of his grandsons, Michael, who gave the family name a household recognition. Mayor Bloomberg is proud of his immigrant heritage in a city where 40 percent of its residents are foreign-born.

"Immigrants are why New York City became America's economic engine," said Bloomberg in a recent press conference where he announced his campaign platform for immigrant communities. "The next time you walk or drive over the Brooklyn Bridge, remember that it was designed by an immigrant engineer. The next time you ride the subway, or pass the Empire State Building or the Rockefeller Center, remember they were all built by immigrant hands," he said.

"Economically, culturally and socially, we need more immigrants, not less," added Bloomberg.

As the election approaches, Bloomberg hopes to win votes in New York's immigrant communities. While his recently announced initiatives on immigration could be seen as campaign promises, over the last eight years he has been widely seen as a strong and outspoken supporter for immigrants.

'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

Immigrants have long been drawn to New York City because it provides many opportunities for all people, regardless of their immigration status. This remains true today, even in the face of the poor economy. As more cities and states have begun allowing their police to check people's immigration status, New York City remains a safe haven for those without documentation.

In September 2003, Bloomberg signed Executive Order 41 to reinforce that protection. The order prohibited city workers from inquiring about a person's immigration status when the person seeks services from a city agency or witnesses a crime.

Immigrants "have always been and will always be welcome here," said Bloomberg at the signing ceremony. "And the reason is simple: what's good for the city's immigrants is good for the city."

Found in Translation?

Because New York has welcomed immigrants, the city now is home to people speaking more than 170 different languages. In July 2008, Bloomberg signed Executive Order 120 to mandate all city agencies that provide public services translate and interpret in the city's six most spoken languages other than English: Spanish, Chinese, Haitian Creole, Russian, Korean and Italian.

"When he instituted the citywide language access executive order, [requiring] all city agencies ... to translate and interpret to all city residents, no matter what their language capability, I think that was received as a pretty precedent-setting policy around the country," said Chung-Wha Hong, executive director of the New York Immigrant Coalition. "That was an important accomplishment the city has done."

But some said the move, while important, was long overdue.

"We are very happy that the language access executive order was passed about a year ago but I think it is important to note that it took a lot of advocacy over the course of seven years to get the mayor to agree to do an executive order," said Wayne Ho, executive director of the Coalition for Asian American Children and Families. "What I often wonder is that if the mayor has been so committed to immigrant populations, why does it take so much advocacy in order to get policies or funding passed?"

Learning English

At the same time he has increased translation services, Bloomberg has also looked at ways to help immigrants who do not speak English learn the language. To help immigrants with limited English ability improve their proficiency, Bloomberg proposed a 10-year plan to provide English as a Second Language classes with job-training opportunities to an estimated number of 50,000 immigrant adults. He said the city will initially commit $3 million to serve additional 5,000 people.

The problem of not speaking English seems particularly dire in the schools. According to a report released by the Department of Education, the dropout rate among English language learners is significantly higher than for other students. Only 30.8 percent of the English language learners graduated from high school in four years.

"Under mayoral control, while all student groups had their test scores and graduation rates increased, the dropout rates for English language learner students actually increased, and test scores and graduation rates for them decreased," said Ho. "While [Bloomberg] keeps talking about mayoral control being successful for the school system, that's not necessarily true for English language learners."

Bloomberg has said he will convene a task force in the hopes of improving academic performance for these students.

Supporting the Dream Act

The Dream Act, which stands for the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, proposed legislation that would help certain undocumented immigrant youth gain legal status. The bill has been under discussion since 2001 and has been introduced to Congress at various occasions. Bloomberg has been an outspoken supporter.

"Why shouldn't our economy benefit from the skills these young people have obtained here in our public schools?" he said at a 2009 press conference officially endorsing the act. "It is senseless for us to chase out the home-grown talent that has the potential to contribute so significantly to our society. They're the ones who are going to start companies, invest in new technologies, pioneer medical advances. We need to welcome more immigrants, not deport those already here."

In the latest version, introduced in March 2009, undocumented immigrant youth would be eligible to apply for permanent residency if they have proof of having arrived in the U.S. before the age of 16 and have lived in the U.S. for at least five consecutive years. They must also have attended at least two years of American high school and have graduated from it. They will be given a six-year conditional status, during which period they must attend college or serve in the military for at least two years.

Bloomberg also cited the in-state tuition policy at the City University of New York as a model for other public institutions in the country. Currently any undocumented student who has attended high school for at least two years and graduate or earned a GED in New York State is eligible for the lower, in-state tuition at the City University if the person applies for a CUNY institution with five years of receiving their high school diploma.

Upgrading the Office of Immigrant Affairs

The Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs, formerly known as the Office of Immigrant Affairs and Language Assistance, has existed under various names and forms since the mid-1980s. In November 2001, the office became a charter agency, adopted by voter referendum into the city's charter. This provides it with direct access to the mayor and makes it a permanent part of the city government. In 2002, Bloomberg appointed Sayu Bhojwani as the first commissioner. Currently, Fatima Shama, a former education policy advisor to Bloomberg, heads the agency.

In 2004, Bloomberg initiated the first Immigrant Heritage Week. It is an annual citywide celebration of immigrant cultures that includes more than 100 free or low-cost events in art, music, dance and cinema. Taking place in every April, the celebration was made permanent when Bloomberg signed Executive Order 128 in April 2009.

Protection Against Immigration Fraud

Like employment agencies, immigration service companies are found in many ethnic neighborhoods. Although not attorneys, their staffs help immigrants prepare the documents and forms required by the Department of Homeland Security. Many of these service providers take advantage of immigrants who are not familiar with immigration laws and not proficient in English. This often leads to fraud such as the companies demanding for money for services they didn't perform or providing legal advice when they are not supposed to.

In 2004, Bloomberg signed Local Law 31 to ensure that immigrants are protected from fraud. Immigration service agencies are required to provide written contract in English as well as the client's native language, give the client three days to cancel the contract without penalty, itemize all charges, give back original documents upon request and have a legible sign stating the provider is not an attorney.

New Initiatives

The mayor's latest program sets out a number of initiatives aimed at immigrants. For example, he said he will add 1,000 spots for English language learner students to the city's summer youth employment program, which serves more than 50,000 young people. The city will identify bilingual work environments to accommodate students in entry-level jobs.

To help immigrants better integrate into civic life, Bloomberg proposed language assistance to immigrant homeowners on issues including code enforcement, property tax exemption, recycling, foreclosure prevention and so on. He said the Department of Housing Preservation and Development will conduct at least three forums per year in predominately immigrant communities.

To help immigrant entrepreneurs, the Department of Small Business Services will continue to conduct information sessions on financing, business assistance and government resources in Spanish. Bloomberg said similar programs in Russian and Asian languages are in the works.

At the federal level, Bloomberg said he will continue to advocate for comprehensive immigration reform. "I've said this a thousand times: I think this country is committing national suicide by not bringing the best and the brightest, the hardest working, the most fun … from around the world," Bloomberg said.

The People Will Be Watching

Advocates for immigrants will be checking to see whether Bloomberg delivers on his promises.

"Mayor Bloomberg does understand that the immigrant community is a vital part of New York City and he is committed to improving the quality of life for immigrant New Yorkers," said Wayne Ho. "But ... I would have hoped the mayor realizes that he is culpable in some of the challenges that immigrant New Yorkers currently face because he has cut back on budgets and hadn't passed certain policies earlier in his terms."

Discussing the mayor's new initiative, Hong said, "These are campaign promises but they are commitments on issues that immigrant communities have been talking about for a long time. ... It will be up to the people to hold him accountable to campaign pledges."

"In politics, they can offer everything. The thing is how do they do that," said Oscar Parades-Morales, executive director of the Latin American Workers Project. "We have to continue to push and work together."

Larry Tung is a Brooklyn-based journalist and media artist. He teaches media and film course at Kean University in Union, New Jersey.

Bloomberg's Calmer -- But Still Divided -- City

Photo (cc) ClixYou
A mosaic at Lenox Avenue and 125th Street in Harlem, a neighborhood rapidly changing through housing development.

Strikingly little attention has been paid over the years to the substance of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's record in terms of civil rights. While concerns continue to be raised about cases of alleged police brutality, and while many believe there needs to be a stronger, more independent Civilian Complaint Review Board to consider cases of reported police misconduct, most New Yorkers credit Bloomberg with improving New York’s "racial climate" from the more racially charged atmosphere that prevailed during the Giuliani administration. Indeed, a Quinnipiac University poll conducted last year found that even though two thirds of New Yorkers say police brutality is a "very" or "somewhat" serious problem, a similar margin approves of the mayor's handling of race relations. Among African-American respondents, approval as to race relations was measured at 55 percent.

Beneath such attitudes, of course, are substantive civil rights issues, and the mayor’s record raises questions as to many. In what might be one sign that the administration is not eager to discuss civil rights, City Hall did not respond to a request from Gotham Gazette to identify the key civil rights accomplishments of the mayor’s current term.

Segregated New York City

Despite daily references to the "diversity" of New York, the city remains one of the most residentially segregated cities in one of the most residentially segregated major metropolitan areas in the country. Residential racial segregation underlies virtually every other major societal disparity that exists, including disparities in education, health care and employment. But the administration has not developed concrete policies to reduce segregation. Indeed, the mayor’s "New Housing Marketplace" makes no reference either to the existence of residential segregation or to any strategy targeted at overcoming that segregation.

Photo (cc) rcherubin
New homes in Brownsville, Brooklyn off Pitkin Avenue.

The mayor has not pushed for mandatory inclusionary zoning, which requires developers to include affordably priced apartment in their development. Some advocates believe this, when combined with affirmative marketing, can be crucial in combating segregation. The effectiveness of voluntary inclusionary zoning, which the mayor has embraced, is the subject of ongoing debate.

Existing city policy actually perpetuates segregation in ways similar to what courts have found to be illegal in cases involving other jurisdictions. Every time a new development brings apartments to market, current residents of the community district in which the development is located receive a preference for 50 percent of the new homes. Because so many community districts are highly segregated, the preference process, by definition, skews opportunities, perpetuating more segregation than would be the case if openings were equally open to all.

Access for People with Disabilities

As with residential racial segregation, nothing in the mayor’s New Housing Marketplace targets barriers to accessibility for the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers with disabilities.

Ironically New York City has the strongest Human Rights Law in the country. The disability provisions -- applicable to employment, housing and public accommodations alike –- are especially robust and distinctive. Despite the legal guarantee that people with disabilities will have equal access to public accommodations like stores and restaurants, one can find on virtually any block in the city numerous non-compliant businesses. In contrast to the "sweeps" that have been conducted against other lawbreakers, the city has not -- either through its Human Rights Commission, Law Department, Department of Buildings or otherwise -- tackled the massive problem of continuing inaccessibility.

In the realm of taxi transportation, too, the administration resisted entreaties to require a conversion of the fleet to all-accessible cabs (London's taxis have all been accessible for years). The city regulates the taxi industry and has required some technological innovations, such as the ability to accept credit card payments. However, even thought regulatory change has often spurred the auto industry to innovate, the administration has not demanded that cabs be accessible to the disabled.

Enforcing Human Rights Law

More broadly, Human Rights Law enforcement has continued to fade during the Bloomberg administration. The number of city-funded staffers at the Human Rights Commission in fiscal year 2010 has dropped fully 90 percent from the peak city-funded staffing level attained during the Dinkins administration and is even below its lowest levels during the Giuliani administration. City Hall declined to comment on the decrease.

The recently released Mayor’s Management Report has a brief section on the Human Rights Commission. That section reports that, over the past five years, an average of 383 complaints have been filed every year, many fewer complaints than used to be filed. Such a decline in complaints has occurred in the absence of any evidence that the incidence of acts of discrimination has declined. A more likely contributing factor may be a belief by many victims that filing a claim could well be futile.

Another contributing factor appears to be the fact that, during the Bloomberg administration, the commission has assumed more of a gatekeeper function, preventing potential complainants from filing their claims. The commission has followed this path even though the city Human Rights Law obliges the commission to accept any properly notarized complaint.

The report lists the "average value of cash settlement" for the 25 percent of cases that are settled at a little over $11,000 per case. Herbert Eisenberg, an attorney who has specialized in employed law for more than 25 years and who sits on the board of the National Employment Lawyers Association, described this average as something that "sounds like nuisance value" as opposed to something that would allow victims of discrimination "to be fully compensated for their damages."

The actual average per settlement may be lower. At least in the early days of the Bloomberg administration, when the commission calculated the average, it excluded settled cases where the complaining party received no compensatory damages.

The city has two other methods -- both involving the city’s Law Department -- to foster implementation of its Human Rights Law. First, the Law Department has the power to bring cases of patterns of discriminatory conduct to court under Chapter 4 of the City’s Human Rights Law.

The second method arises from the fact that any individual who has been discriminated against can go to court instead of going to the Human Rights Commission. Many of those cases results in appeals, and the city’s Law Department has the ability to seek to intervene as a "friend of the court" to argue for the broad construction of the law that is required by what 2005’s Local Civil Rights Restoration Act defined as the City Human Rights Law’s "uniquely broad and remedial" purposes.

The city has not taken advantage of either approach.

Monitoring City Employment

The Equal Employment Practices Commission can audit and evaluate the employment practices of the city’s own agencies. Ejim Dike, director of the Human Rights Project at the Urban Justice Center, said the commission has performed well, given its budget constraints. She noted, however, that it "is underfunded, and it does not have power to enforce the recommendations it makes to city agency’s that it audits.”

Educational Equity

Schools Chancellor Joel Klein has often said that "for too long, and for far too great an extent, one’s race and ZIP code determined the quality of a child’s education." Asked whether demographics showing racial segregation in schools reflected underlying patterns of residential racial segregation, Will Havemann, a spokesperson for the city Department of Education, said, "That is absolutely the case."

Describing the mayor and the chancellor as "believing very strongly that education is the most important civil rights issue of the 21st century," Havemann identified efforts that the department believes are consistent with a civil rights focus. These include a drive to open new schools in neighborhoods that have traditionally been underserved and steps to increase fairness in the admissions process for specialized programs. Havemann also described the expansion of borough-wide and even citywide choices for high school enrollment -- as opposed to local preferences -- as increasing educational mobility for people of all races and backgrounds.

The success of the administration's efforts is strongly contested and that discussion dovetails with much of the debate over mayoral control of schools. The city, for example, says it has reduced the achievement gap between the races. Critics note, on the other hand, that fewer black and Latino teens now attend the city's elite high schools, such as Stuyvesant and Bronx High School of Science.

It is beyond the scope of this article to assess the efficacy of the Department of Education’s reform program. What is clear, however, is that the department’s explicit focus on issues of equity, its recognition that racial and socio-economic disparities exist, and its desire to "narrow the gap" signal a view that the educational status quo can and should be changed. This approach stands in contrast to the administration’s apparent view that, in the interrelated housing arena. patterns of segregation are an unalterable fact of New York City life.

Craig Gurian is a long-time civil rights advocate. He was the principal author for the Human Rights Commission of the comprehensive 1991 revisions to the City Human Rights Law and was the principal author of 2005’s Local Civil Rights Restoration Act. He also teaches civil rights courses at Fordham Law School, including Housing Discrimination: History, Demographics, Law, and Remedies. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

The Citizen

A rally for immigrant health and labor reforms on May 1st in Madison Square Park

With Congress mired in the debate over health care, changing the immigration laws remained in the political background during the closing days of the summer. However, before he left for vacation, President Barack Obama met with more than 100 advocates seeking changes in the system to assure them that change would be coming.

Although the White house did not allow media to attend the event, the Irish Echo quoted administration spokesman Nick Shapiro as saying, "The president understands our nation's immigration system is broken and needs to be fixed, and that's why he asked Secretary [of Homeland Security Janet] Napolitano to work with stakeholders and members of Congress to move the legislative process forward on this important issue."

In local politics, with the city primary set for Set. 15, a number of immigrants are running for office, while candidates of all backgrounds court the ethnic vote. In the 20th district in Queens, which includes Flushing, all but one of the five candidates is an immigrant. The race in the 23rd district in eastern Queens includes an Indian immigrant seeking to be the first Sikh elected in the city. A Korean immigrant has clashed with a Chinese immigrant over who can best represent Chinatown and the rest of Lower Manhattan's District 1, while several Dominican immigrants are among those vying for the council seat from District 10 in upper Manhattan. And so it goes, across the city.

But while the immigrant experience can boost some candidacies, it can also create problems. City comptroller candidate John Liu, a Taiwanese immigrant seeking to become the first Asian elected to citywide office, has made much of his family' s early experiences here when, he said, he had to work alongside his mother in a sweatshop. The Daily News challenged that account, saying his mother's recollections did not match his.

As Liu stood by his version of events, some -- including the candidate -- saw the incident as a reflection of the embarrassment some immigrants may feel about their early struggles in this country. Liu himself said at a Chinatown rally, he did not realize that his mother's days as a garment worker were "such a painful experience for her."

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer told the crowd the Liu controversy had prompted him to ask his mother if her mother — his grandmother, who emigrated from Russia — had worked in a sweatshop. "My mother loudly said, 'No, she worked in a factory,'" Stringer related. But, he continued, she was 15 years old, had no union to protect her, and working conditions were tough. Despite that, back then, he continued, "they weren't called sweatshops."

Regardless of the veracity of John Liu's story, for many immigrants, work here remains a struggle. In the past weeks, the immigrant press has presented stories of construction companies depriving workers of their pay, employment agencies trying to extract unfair fees from people seeking work, and a restaurant chain that underpaid workers and pocketed their tips. They have reported on Mexican parents who leave their children here while they go home to find work and covered the effort by Bangladeshi immigrants to find any job, let along one paying a living wage.

Also this month, The Citizen looks at why some immigrant parents do not help their children in school, mortgage fraud in the West Indian community and the increasing popularity of on-line dating services among young Indians. These and other stories from the Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Bangladeshi and Russian press, via our partner, Voices that Must Be Heard.

From Voices that Must Be Heard

Tough Times for Bangladeshi Immigrants, Bangla Patrika
Several recent arrivals to New York describe how difficult it is to find work and earn a decent wage during the current recession.

Campaign Targets Employment Agencies, Diario de Mexico
Mexican organizations in New York City want employment agencies to stop demanding job seekers pay a fee before they find work.

Workers Protest Against Restaurant Group, Sing Tao Daily
Employees of Wu Liang Ye have charged the New York restaurant group with paying less than minimum wage, pocketing employees' tips and taking vengeful actions against workers struggling for their rights.

Labor Abuses Increase in Chinatown, World Journal
Unlicensed employers have cheated many Chinese construction workers out of their wages, prompting a rise in labor disputes in the informal economy.

Children Remain in U.S. as Mexican Parents Return HomeDiario de Mexico
An increasing number of Mexican Americans in New York City are caring for their godchildren, as the economic crisis compels parents to return to their native country in search of work.

Working Immigrants Struggle to Help Children with School Work, Haitian Times
Long hours on the job and a lack of awareness of aspects of U.S. schools keeps many immigrant parents from being actively involved in their children's educations.

Bangladeshi Parents Fear Losing Their Children to Foster Care, Bangla Patrika
Bangladeshi parents traditionally use methods to discipline their children that, in the U.S., might be considered child abuse. As a result, some Bangladeshi children have been removed from their families and placed in foster care.

Survey Looks at Attitudes of Immigrant Women, Korea Times
A poll of immigrant women in New York City found attitudes vary among nationalities. For example, while 67 percent of Korean immigrant women considered their children's success, only 35 percent of Arab women put such an emphasis on their children's futures.

Immigrants Prey on Fellow Immigrants in Brooklyn, Carib News
The district attorney's office is probing a number of mortgage fraud cases where both the perpetrator and the victim are from the West Indies.

Looking to Improve 'Little Korea,' Korea Daily
Business owners on so-called Korea Way -- 32nd Street between Broadway and Fifth Avenue - hope to form an association to make the area better.

Report Details Abuses by Immigration Officials, El Diario/La Prensa
U.S. immigrant agent used abusive practices including intrusive home searches during work hours, threats and unjustified detentions during roundups of people suspected of being in the U.S. illegally, according to a report by the Immigration Justice Clinic at the Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University.

City Cracks Down on Vendor Fraud, El Correo de Queens
The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene wants to revoke the licenses of 500 vendors who are suspected of having participated in a scheme to avoid city rules on food cart sanitation.

Chinese Groups Speak Out on Police Shooting, World Journal
Representatives of the Brooklyn Chinese-American Association appeared at a press conference held by City Councilmember Bill de Blasio after the shooting of the Army veteran, Shem Walker, by a plainclothes policeman. The association wanted to highlight the problem of misunderstandings between new immigrants and the police arising from cultural differences and language difference.

Jewish Nonprofit Helps City's Russians, Prima Russkaya Reklama
The Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services, a group that has been helping people for over 110 years, has assisted almost 4,500 Russian-speaking Americans over the past year. The board's bilingual employees came to America from the Soviet Union many years ago and so understand the problems that immigrants face.

Young Indians Looking for Dates and Love, Indian Express
Conservative families might go to websites promising partners for arranged marriages, but with "love marriages" on the rise, dating sites are a popular alternative for the young Indians in New York and elsewhere in the U.S.

Campaigning on Facebook, Korea Daily
All four Korean-American candidates for City Council -– John Choe and S.J. Jung of District 22 in Flushing, Kevin Kim of District 19 in Bayside; and P.J. Kim of District 1 in Manhattan –-has his own Facebook page where they post photos related to their campaigns.

Museum of Chinese in America Gets a New Home

Photos by Larry Tung
Images from exhibits at the Museum of Chinese in America

A first-generation American born to immigrant parents from Shanghai, China, Helen Zia did not learn Chinese growing up in New Jersey in the 1950s. Her parents wanted her to speak only English in the hopes that she could be fully accepted in America and escape racism they experienced themselves. She went on to become a member of Princeton University's first graduating class of women and a celebrated journalist and author.

"My parents instilled in me their respect for America -- and their love for China. China was their passion and the home of their heart, while America was my home and my future," narrated Zia in a short video telling her story growing up as Chinese American. This narrative is part of an exhibition in the new home of the Museum of Chinese in America located on Centre Street in Chinatown in Manhattan.

In its new space, set to officially open Sept. 22, the museum hopes to boost its presence in the Asian-American community and serve as the city's premier spot to honor Chinese-American history and showcase Chinese-American arts and culture. With the additional room, the museum wants to expand its emphasis to include the national Chinese-American experience. "The museum's board has long decided to position MOCA as a national museum," said Alice Mong, executive director. "This country is a country of immigrants. We are part of the fabric of American society. We need to tell our stories."

Zia is one of the 10 Chinese Americans whose stories are featured in an installation exhibition titled "Core Portraits" that wraps around the museum's courtyard. Their stories exemplify a particular historical ear in Chinese-American history. The subjects include Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American movie star; Hazel Ying Lee, one of the first Chinese American women pilots to serve in the American military; and Yung Wing, the first Chinese graduate of an American university.

The museum was founded as the Chinatown History Project by Chinatown community activist Charlie Lai and John Kuo Wei Tchen, a historian at New York University, in 1980. It was created to promote Chinese-American arts and culture, and to inform, educate and engage visitors about Chinese-American history and continuing development. Its original home on the second floor of 72 Mulberry St. in the old school building for Public School 23, will remain and serve as the museum's archives and research center.

The museum's new home is designed by Maya Lin, who designed the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C. and a first-generation Chinese American herself. It is "larger, street-level, and closer to the subway. People can find us," said Beatrice Chen, education director of the museum.

Preparing for Official Opening

A rendering of the new museum

The core exhibit, entitled "With a Single Step," is inspired by the Chinese Taoist philosopher, Laozi, who said, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." Following the layout of a traditional Chinese house where all rooms are connected through the courtyard, each section of the exhibition is connected with chronological and thematic threads.

The exhibition's script is written by notable Chinese American writers, including David Henry Hwang, Ha Jin, Maxine Hong Kingston and Zia. It is a part of the museum's ambitious summer program leading up to its official opening.

"It is about a journey," said Ting-Chi Wang, curatorial assistant of the museum. "But this is not just about a journey from China to America. It is also a journey in the making. It is a continuous story. We are not rushing to make a conclusion to the journey. We are trying to tell a living history." Wang added that there will be an interactive device for visitors to record their stories.

The museum also will feature "The Journey Wall," an art installation designed by Maya Lin to honor family history. It consists of bronze tiles marked with various family names, their origins in China and where they settled in America. For a donation of $10,000 to $25,000, a family can honor and its family roots in this installation.

"Through the tiles, you can see that the Chinese have settled in different cities, not just New York or San Francisco," said Wang. "We are also aware that people come from different places. We are trying to educate our audience that not all Chinese are the same. But I think it is more important that people share some experience and background. Where they are from is the beginning, where they finally arrive at is what we are talking about."

Chinatown Film Project

The Museum of the Chinese in America also has commissioned 10 filmmakers, including Wayne Wang, who directed the critically acclaimed "Joy Luck Club," and the Emmy-winning editor and producer Sam Pollard, to produce short films about Chinatown.

The filmmakers, Chen said, were given very small budgets but complete freedom, and the results were unexpected, ranging from experimental films to documentaries.

"It is really about dealing with the perceptions of Chinatown," said Chen. "Part of our mission is to encourage people to question and not make assumption about race and ethnic groups."

In Pollard's film, titled "Chinatown: In Their Own Words," he followed three Chinatown natives who reminisced about growing up in Chinatown decades ago. Ann Chan, one of the main characters, shared her memories of being chased all the way down to her house on Mott Street by a boy every day after school, and winning the Chinatown baby contest in Columbus Park with an orange dress bought in China.

In Rose Troche's film "Sunday at 6," a Chinatown woman cooks an elaborate meal for her own birthday, but her son does not attend. The film questions the notions of assimilation and its price -- the loss of family tradition.

While the 10 short films are in exhibitions on site until the end of the year, visitors can watch other films on MOCA's at YouTube channel. Visitors to the site can upload their films on Chinatowns in New York and around the world.

Showcase for Chinese American Arts and Culture

With its bigger space, the museum hopes to broaden its horizons and forge partnership with other Asian-American organizations. This summer, the museum held the Asian-American International Film Festival with screenings and panel discussions. The museum also was the site of Asian American Comicon, which brought together top artists, writers, fans and readers of mainstream and alternative graphic fiction.

"Something that we found out after we opened the new space is that there really is a need for a space like this for the Asian American community," said Chen. She noted that about 500 people attended Asian American Comicon.

"The museum is expanding not just physically, but also in terms of our mission," said Wang. "We are serving a wider audience, national or international. The topics we select will reflect the needs and interests of our audience."

Funding for the New Home

The museum's new home, converted from a former industrial machine factory, is almost six times bigger than the original location. It took several years to locate the funding necessary for the renovation from federal, state and municipal sources. According to Sam Krueger, the museum's chief operating officer, the Museum of the Chinese in America received about $2.4 million from the City of New York for furniture, fixtures and equipment, and $2 million from the Lower Manhattan Development Corp for construction. It also received $2.2 million from the September 11th Fund for construction costs. The museum also gets grants from the New York State Council on the Arts.

Larry Tung is a Brooklyn-based media artist and journalist. He also teaches media courses at Kean University in Union, New Jersey.

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