Rights of passage

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 March, 2006, 12:00am

The diversity and vibrancy of New York City - and of the US in general - owes much to its immigrants. Yet the business of protecting those who leave behind their homes in pursuit of the American dream is thorny to say the least.

Bringing the issue sharply into focus recently was the appalling story of Jiang Zhenxing. An illegal immigrant from China, Ms Jiang was three months pregnant with twins when she was seized by immigration officers in Philadelphia. Hustled off to New York's JFK Airport for deportation, officials apparently ignored her pleas for medical help for so long that she lost the twin babies she was carrying.

The fate of Ms Jiang illustrates that successful immigration policy and basic human rights can be uneasy bedfellows. The row over the pregnant woman's treatment has become a lightning rod for minority groups battling for better treatment of immigrants, with New York's Chinese community being among the most vocal in its outrage.

Ms Jiang and her husband, Tien Xiaozhang, worked together in a Chinese restaurant in Philadelphia, where they lived with their two sons, aged four and six. Ms Jiang had been in the country illegally since 1996. Her appeals for political asylum from the mainland's one-child policy were denied for the final time in 2002.

Under immigration law, Ms Jiang could have been deported immediately - but was instead allowed to report routinely to immigration authorities, until the beginning of February. Reporting for an appointment with authorities last month, it is alleged that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers saw that she was pregnant, forced her into a car and drove to JFK Airport. Claiming that she felt severe pain in her back and stomach, Ms Jiang requested a doctor. 'You are not going to get out of this,' officers allegedly told her.

As her pain became increasingly obvious, Ms Jiang was eventually examined by a medical team who informed ICE officers that she needed immediate hospital treatment. By then it was too late, and the twin fetuses were confirmed dead in a Queens hospital.

While ICE officials deny any wrongdoing, the incident asks where law enforcement ends and basic human rights begin, regardless of immigration status.

'What happened should have never happened to anyone in America. A pregnant woman who was pleading for medical help should have been allowed to go to the hospital,' said Chung-wha Hong, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition.

Others have been more vociferous in their criticism. 'The actions of the ICE officials are cruel and atrocious,' said Queens council member John Liu. 'This is not what the United States of America is about. This is not an immigration issue. It is not about deportation. This is a horrific example of a system that castigates and dehumanises human beings.'

The issue of immigrants and their rights has always been hotly debated, but is becoming more volatile as the US Senate prepares to begin a debate next week over whether to toughen border restrictions, but possibly ease the path to citizenship for illegal aliens already in the country.

The issue of restricted rights for illegal immigrants is something that the ICE has been criticised for repeatedly, after tightened restrictions in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Yet certain cities have also taken their own lead in preventing such controversies.

Topping this chart is New York, where examples of illegal immigrants being denied critical, humane services - due to the nature of their status - are supposed to be a rarity, thanks to a liberal piece of legislation implemented by the city's mayor, Michael Bloomberg. Executive Order 41 is a law prohibiting the disclosure of the immigration status of any person who seeks the city's services, from health to law enforcement or the fire department. Other similar rulings exist elsewhere in the country, yet New York's law is regarded as one of the strongest and most clearly defined in the country.

One of its primary functions is to encourage anyone who is a victim of crime to step forward with confidence, safe in the knowledge that a lack of visa will not be a barrier to justice. Passed in September 2003, it represents an about-face by Mr Bloomberg, whose previous 9/11-tainted stance allowed the reporting by New York agencies, including the police, of illegal immigrants to the federal government.

Yet successful implementation of Executive Order 41 has proved tough in an era when the influx of immigrants, particularly from China, has grown exponentially. 'Since the 1970s the community demographics have changed substantially, and the Asian-American community has doubled in every decade,' said Margaret Fung, director and co-founder of the 31-year-old New York-based civil rights group the Asian American Legal Defence and Education Fund (AALDEF).

'The demands for legal assistance have grown in the post-9/11 political climate in the US, where the courts have adopted much more restrictive views on immigrant rights,' she said, adding that this had essentially made low-wage workers reluctant to seek legal redress. 'They cannot be sure that the courts can provide a suitable forum.'

A case in point is that of New York City resident Waheed Saleh, who has received the organisation's legal backing in his argument with local authorities. Having complained of harassment by the New York Police Department, he now faces deportation after being reported as an illegal immigrant.

The AALDEF has accused the police department of petty retaliation for Mr Saleh's accusation, and crucially, of failing to abide by Executive Order 41 in disclosing his immigration status.

For some it serves as evidence that the NYPD is unenthusiastic about a law that compels them to spend their resources on those who shouldn't be in the country. Mr Bloomberg has acknowledged that police officers have previously violated the privacy requirements of Executive Order 41, while testimony by NYPD officials before the New York City Council has revealed that officers routinely question non-citizens about their immigration status when they are arrested, before disclosing that information to federal immigration officials.

As a result, many claim that immigrants are deterred from accessing city and state services or from co-operating with government agencies, such as police and fire departments, for fear of immigration consequences. In turn, this engenders a lack of trust within the community, making the work of the police even more difficult.

'The problem we see is in the loopholes in the Executive Order for investigation of illegal activity,' said AALDEF staff attorney Tushar Sheth. 'It doesn't really define when police officers or when law enforcement officers can actually disclose someone's immigration status.'

Such loopholes result in cases such as that of Chinese food deliveryman Chen Mingkuang. In April last year, Mr Chen told of his 81-hour ordeal when trapped in the elevator of a Bronx apartment block, after he'd made a US$15 delivery to an off-duty police officer.

It was then leaked that Mr Chen was an illegal immigrant who had paid US$60,000 to be smuggled into the country by triads - a direct contravention of Executive Order 41, regardless of his legality.

While Mr Chen then disappeared for fear of being deported, the notion that nobody had noticed him crying for help from within an elevator for nearly four days has been overshadowed by another theory that Mr Chen was abducted by the snakeheads to whom he owed the money. The gang might have put him in the elevator, from where he was eventually discovered.

Yet with his safety compromised by the leakage of his immigration status, a negative message was sent to others. 'The language of [Executive Order 41] is strong and the mayor should be commended for taking a stand like this,' said Mr Sheth. 'I just feel that he has left too many loopholes that have undermined the effectiveness of it. People are going to report crimes and be witnesses, but if they feel like every time they're going to talk to a police officer they're going to get deported, then they're not going to speak up.'

Others seek more far-reaching, fundamental changes to the immigration system - changes that could have prevented the tragic fate of Ms Jiang or Mr Chen in the first place.

'There needs to be a massive overhaul in terms of our immigration policy,' said Mr Fung, who was born in the US to parents from Guangzhou.

'There needs to be a fair policy that allows people to come here, therefore eliminating the backlogs that have kept many families from being reunited. That would have a large impact on immigration policy - something that is really so significant for the Asian-American community.'