Start-up to energize immigrant entrepreneurs

Moroccan immigrant Ali Hajjaji’s business plan fills a notebook. But his back-of-a-napkin version is just a rectangle labeled “hub” and a handful of lines representing “stores” and “pick up points.”

A master of cellphone repair, Hajjaji, 37, came to America in 2010 with a green card he won in the State Department’s diversity lottery. He has worked for resellers and retailers, including RadioShack.

Two months ago, he opened iSmartTech, his South Ninth Street shop amid the bump and bustle of the Italian Market, where broken phones are as common as cabbage.

Now he hopes to hone his expansion plan, thanks to the “Philadelphia Immigrant Innovation Hub,” a new Knight Foundation-funded start-up that was awarded $261,500 last week.

“If it is possible, I will do it,” Hajjaji said, evincing the grit of a man accustomed to 16-hour workdays.

The Hub, which will occupy a rehabbed former post office at 6700 Germantown Ave., is a joint venture of the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians, which offers language and job-readiness training for immigrants; Mt. Airy USA, a community development group; and Finanta, a nontraditional lender in Kensington.

Their grant-winning proposal seeks to “harness the energy of immigrant entrepreneurs” and revitalize parts of Mount Airy by offering subsidized office space, language assistance, technical training, and access to capital.

“If you look at the census data on East and West Mount Airy for 2010, we had pretty significant population loss,” said Anuj Gupta, director of Mt. Airy USA, the nonprofit residents established in 1980 to counter blight on Germantown Avenue.

Though the city’s overall population grew 0.6 percent, the population within the area of Mount Airy bounded by Cresheim Valley Road, Washington Lane, Wissahickon Avenue, and Stenton Avenue declined 7 percent, an Inquirer analysis of the census data showed.

The communities of Mount Airy have much to offer in terms of livability and affordability, said Gupta. So why, when Philadelphia started adding population after decades of decline, was Mount Airy left out of the party?

“One of the primary drivers of Philadelphia’s population growth in the past eight years has been immigrants,” Gupta said. “But [Mount Airy] isn’t getting those immigrants, either as business owners or residents. If we want access to that population pipeline, we need to be part of the larger city’s dynamic.”

Though Mount Airy has some Latino- and Asian-owned businesses, he said, “we don’t see a clustering or concentration coming out of that. Nor have we seen much refugee resettlement up here.”


Put to the test

Striving to turn that around, the groups pitched their idea to the Knight Foundation’s Knight Cities Challenge, which this year provided $5 million to 32 projects from among 7,000 proposals nationwide. Including the Hub, Philadelphia had seven winners.

“If we give immigrant entrepreneurs reasons to come up here – affordable space, programming, linkage to capital,” said Gupta, “can we simultaneously sell them on the neighborhood? Have we convinced them to start businesses here, to live here, or both? . . . That’s the hypothesis we want to test.”

An 18-month pilot project, the Hub expects to open in late summer or early fall. It will offer subsidized, flexible, incubator-style space to approximately 60 entrepreneurs. The Knight funding supports the programming for immigrant entrepreneurs, said Gupta, but anyone can start a business there and benefit from the reduced rents.

Sameer Khetan, Finanta’s director of development, said his organization’s goal was to increase access to borrowing for largely low-income, minority, and immigrant populations. “We fill a gap in the market for individuals who just can’t get financing from traditional banks for a variety of reasons, like lack of assets, collateral, or credit score,” he said.

He anticipates Finanta’s loans to future Hub tenants will be for working capital less than $50,000.

Like Mt. Airy USA, Finanta will scrutinize the impact of its lending on the area’s residential areas and business corridors.

Finanta has helped revitalize parts of Woodland Avenue in Southwest Philadelphia by lending to businesses started mostly by West African immigrants. In making Mount Airy a magnet for immigrant entrepreneurs of all ethnicities, he said, Finanta hopes to replicate that success.

The lender will evaluate the social experiment by counting how many new businesses the Hub brings to the area and the number of “loans to existing [Finanta] clients who opt to do business or locate in Mount Airy in some capacity,” even if it’s only a food truck that brings new business in during the day.


Up the game

Herman Nyamunga, the Welcoming Center’s director of business development, came to the United States from Kenya 10 years ago. He will be in charge of Hub workshops and seminars designed to “up the game” of the immigrant entrepreneurs, he said.

Nyamunga met Hajjaji, the cellphone master technician, through a program of the Welcoming Center and was immediately impressed with his market research.

When the Hub is ready for its first group of entrepreneurs, Nyamunga said, he will happily refer the Moroccan man.

As an immigrant and former owner of a cleaning company and an import-export firm, Nyamunga knows the challenges immigrant entrepreneurs face.

“We will be helping people transition from an idea to a viable business,” he said, “and minimizing the cost of that transition” through Hub economies of scale.

The Knight Foundation made grants, from $20,000 to $297,000, to six other initiatives in Philadelphia, including projects to enhance city pools, vacant spaces, polling places, and schoolyards.



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Blu-ray Review: James Gray's 'The Immigrant' starring Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix

One of the casualties of the 2014 awards season was James Gray’s The Immigrant. While Gray has worked with Joaquin Phoenix and other big Hollywood stars during his entire career, The Immigrant was seen by some as his first masterpiece. Still, for whatever reason, The Weinstein Company never gave the film the same kind of awards season push it gives other high-profile movies, and it was dumped in theaters during the summer.

After its incredibly short theatrical run, the film was then posted on Netflix in the fall. That left some of the film’s fans wondering if we would ever see a physical release at all. Thankfully, TWC felt nice enough to give us one. The Anchor Bay Blu-ray hits stores on Tuesday, April 7.

I reviewed the film in June, when it did make its theatrical release. At the time, I gave it a glowing review and I still feel that it is a really good movie, coming close to a masterpiece. It doesn’t quite reach the level of other iconic immigrant stories that have been told in film, but the performance by Marion Cotillard is heartbreaking and Darius Khondji’s acclaimed cinematography is stunning.

Cotillard stars as Ewa, a Polish immigrant who arrives at Ellis Island in 1921 with her ill sister. Thankfully, Ewa can speak English, but that skill doesn’t save her from the fate many immigrant women face. Bruno (Phoenix) sees her and tricks her into coming with him. At first, she thinks he can help her get a real job, but it’s soon obvious that he’s just a pimp who believes he’s something more. Later, Ewa meets Bruno’s cousin, magician Emil (Jeremy Renner). Bruno and Emil have a violent relationship, as the two collide over Ewa.

Since The Immigrant is still available to stream on Netflix, it’s hard to recommend the Blu-ray to those who haven’t seen the movie. It is definitely a film one has to see first before committing to including it in their collection permanently. That said, fans of the film will appreciate the Blu-ray because it preserves the stunning visuals of the film. This is one gorgeous movie and it’s a shame that more people didn’t get to see it on the big screen.

Extras are a bit thin. The only video extras are the trailer and a short two-minute featurette with Gray discussing photos and paintings that inspired the film’s look.

Gray’s commentary though is worth the price of admission, as he goes into the technical details of the film and discusses the differences in acting styles that clash when Cotillard and Phoenix are on the screen. He also admits to some of the heavy-handed flaws in the film and explains why it was such a personal story to tell. It’s also interesting to hear him say that, while he does admire the work of Gordon Willis on the first two Godfather films, he wasn’t really inspired by that look. The Immigrant looks the way it does because of the time period, not because Gray was trying to mimic his film idols.

The Immigrant will go down as one of the forgotten classics of 2014 (even though the film was technically made in 2013 and premiered at the 2013 Cannes Festival). The film’s treatment was sad to see… and don’t even get me started on the garish poster.

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Hunger strike by immigrant mothers at Texas facility prompts probe

— Federal civil rights officials will meet Monday with two immigrant mothers who’ve been leading a hunger strike at a family detention camp in Karnes, Texas.

According to advocates working with the detained families, investigators from the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties are expected to talk to the mothers about their allegation that they and their children were assigned to the facility’s medical clinic to punish them for the hunger protest.

According to the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, a Texas-based advocacy and legal services group, three women were taken to the medical clinic on Monday, the first day of the hunger strike. Two of the women were held overnight with their children, said the group’s advocacy director, Mohammad Abdollahi. Others were warned they could lose custody of their children as a result of participating in the strike, he said.

“The women technically had not started their hunger strike on Monday when they were put into medical, so there was no reason for them to be in medical in the first place, let alone be threatened with their kids being taken away,” said Abdollahi. He called use of the clinic “solitary confinement.”

The hunger strike has focused attention on a rarely scrutinized portion of the network of facilities run by the government’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, part of the sprawling Department of Homeland Security. The Karnes County Residential Center, about an hour southeast of San Antonio, currently houses about 300 mothers and their children who are awaiting a decision on their petitions for asylum.

About 40 are participating in the hunger strike.

Some of the women have been held for as long as 10 months, according to one of the detainees, Kenia Galeano, a 26-year-old from Honduras who spoke with McClatchy. They began refusing food on Monday to protest the lengthy detention of their children.

“We have come to this country with our children seeking refuge and we’re being treated as delinquents,” the women wrote in a letter explaining their actions.

ICE officials said they don’t have solitary confinement areas and that the medical unit was not used for punishment. ICE said it also is investigating claims from some detainees at the Karnes facility that a member of a nonprofit group encouraged residents to stop eating to protest their detention.

According to a handbook of ICE standards, residents who do not eat for 72 hours will be referred to the medical department for evaluation and possible treatment. When medically advisable, medical personnel may place residents in a single occupancy observation room to measure food and liquid intake, the handbook states.

The Karnes detention camp is one of three facilities set up to house mothers and children in the United States. The Obama administration last year revived the once almost abandoned, and highly controversial, practice of detaining mothers and children. Since July, more than 2,500 immigrants, mostly women and children, have been detained at family detention centers across the country.

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Mothers start hunger strike at Texas immigrant detention center, want their children released

Dozens of mothers went on a hunger strike this week at the immigrant detention center in Karnes City, Texas, to demand that they and their children be released.

“We have decided to unite and launch a hunger strike to show our desperation,” they said Friday in a message written in Spanish and signed by 78 women, all of whom are being held at the center.

The Karnes City facility, located some 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the city of San Antonio, Texas, is one of four detention centers in the United States for families, all operated by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

The others are located in Dilley, Texas; Artesia, New Mexico, and Leesport, Pennsylvania, which if filled to capacity can hold a total of some 4,000 undocumented immigrants.

Most of the women in detention came from Central America and crossed the border during the last fiscal year, when an enormous wave of undocumented immigrants led the U.S. government to reopen these facilities as a way of discouraging new arrivals.

“You must know that this is just the beginning. We won’t stop until we achieve our goal. This strike will continue until every one of us is freed,” the women, who after crossing the border asked for asylum in the United States because of the violence in their own countries, said in the letter.

They also said in the note that living conditions in the center “are not good” for their children, who “aren’t eating well and are losing weight every day and whose health is deteriorating.”

“During this hunger strike, no mother will work in the detention center, nor will we send our children to the school or use any service of this place,” they said.

Karnes Detention Center, which was opened in August 2014 and is managed by the privately owned GEO Group, has been notorious for several scandals, including several complaints of sexual abuse of female detainees by the guards.

The Department of Homeland Security, or DHS, of which ICE is a division, opened an investigation following the complaints but concluded that no proof could be found to justify them.

For its part, ICE denied finding any evidence of a hunger strike at the Karnes family immigration facility.

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The Immigrant (Blu-ray)

The Movie:

On the surface, the plot of The Immigrant sounds like one of those cheesy period melodramas that the senior-aged audience eats up: An innocent immigrant woman comes to New York during the early 1920s and has to become a prostitute in order to save her beloved sick sister from deportation. Just by reading the logline, one can easily imagine scenes full of operatic tragedy, where mustache-twirling villains use and abuse our delicate protagonist behind an obligatory sepia-colored cinematography.

While the sepia-colored cinematography part is true (Although, it’s handled in an artistically breathtaking manner, resulting in some of the most gorgeous frames of last year), what separates The Immigrant from a flock of similar melodramas is co-writer/director James Gray’s insistence on delving deep into each character while refusing to peg any one of them as traditional villains or heroes. This is a film full of characters strictly in the grey area, without a black or white viewpoint to be seen anywhere, which is very unusual for this style of period drama.

Consider a typically tragic scene early on in the film: The poor but morally strong immigrant of the story, Ewa (Marion Cotillard in one of the most emotionally impactful performances of her career), is finally convinced to have sex with a young boy for a piece of the money she needs to free her sister. While acknowledging the tragedy of the situation, Gray complicates matters by not allowing us a clear antagonist to hate. We clearly understand and relate to the motivations of every party involved, including Ewa’s pimp Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), a staunch early 20th century opportunist who’s obviously falling in love with Ewa.

After fleshing out a string of lost and vulnerable characters in great films like The Master and Her, it’s fun to watch Phoenix as a manipulative charlatan whose charismatic façade gradually disappears because of his feelings for Ewa. Bruno lacks the confidence and self-esteem that’s required to open up to Ewa, which is a problem that his charming and idealist cousin magician Emil (Jeremy Renner) doesn’t suffer from. As Emil and Ewa develop a relationship and Ewa can finally see some light at the end of the tunnel, Bruno’s jealousy threatens her possible happiness once again.

Of course this doesn’t mean that we’re meant to root for Emil and hiss at Bruno. While we can see Bruno’s manipulative ways coming from a mile away, Gray doesn’t let the audience off the hook by developing a wholly evil character. He does guide his women into a life of prostitution, but also cares for their well being and sometimes even puts his own neck on the line in order to protect them. Emil looks like the perfect knight in shining armor, ready to sweep up the damsel in distress and take her away from such a wretched life.

But he’s also an ambiguous figure as hints of vanity and rage slowly reveal themselves. Even Ewa has some moments where he’s clearly manipulating Bruno’s weaknesses for her financial gain. The performances by the three leads are terrific as the film leads to an unexpectedly tender and moving finale.

The Blu-Ray:


Even though The Immigrant has a romantic sepia look that fits the period melodrama mold, especially when we’re talking about a period and place like early 20th century New York, the film has a distinct lived-in look. The cinematography by legendary DP Darius Khondji is gorgeous and has to be experienced on this excellent 1080p transfer.


Gray and his sound team obviously spent a lot of time giving The Immigrant’s locations an authentic feel. Even though the film doesn’t bring a lot of surround presence, at least until Chris Spelman’s moving score envelops your surround system, the attention to detail on the background sounds are impressive. The DTS-HD 5.1 track that’s offered on the disc also sports very clear dialogue.


The Visual Inspiration for The Immigrant: A very brief two-minute featurette that compares actual photos of 1920s immigrants in Ellis Island with the look of the film.

Audio Commentary by James Gray: If you’re a fan of this film, this commentary should come as an invaluable extra, as Gray gives a fascinating history lesson about the era while also talking about the details of the production.

We also get a Trailer.

Final Thoughts:

The Immigrant is an unpredictable and moving period melodrama that fits the strict confines of its genre perfectly while delivering something fresh, helped by Gray’s assured direction and the touching performances by Cotillard, Phoenix and Renner.

Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald,, and Bitch Magazine.

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Damages for sex assaults immigrant

An illegal immigrant convicted of “revolting” sex offences is to receive damages after a judge concluded he was illegally detained by Home Office officials for around seven months.

Naseer Chawki, who claims to be 34 and from Iran, won a High Court fight with Home Secretary Theresa May following a hearing in London.

Deputy High Court Judge Stephen Morris said the size of the payout for Chawki would be assessed, and gave no indication what the figure would be.

Chawki, who had failed in a bid to claim asylum, claimed that he was held in immigration detention when then was “no prospect” of him being deported, and therefore his detention had been unlawful.

Mrs May disputed his claim. She said he had been found guilty of a serious crime and posed a “serious risk of harm” to the public, and there was a “serious risk” that he would abscond.

Lawyers told Judge Morris that Chawki arrived in Cardiff in 1999 before moving to Liverpool then Seven Sisters, north London.

In November 2008 he was given a three-year jail term after being convicted of two sex assaults and possessing a false identity document.

The sentencing judge, who heard Chawki had taken advantage of women on a crowded train, said the sex offences were “revolting” and had “very lasting effects” on the victims.

Chawki was placed in immigration detention following his release from jail in December 2009, after ministers ordered his deportation.

He was released from immigration detention in late March last year – but made to wear a monitoring tag – after attempts to deport him failed.

Judge Morris ruled that detention was lawful for the majority of the four years and four months Chawki was held, b ut he concluded that detention was unlawful between mid-September 2013 and late March last year.

He said by mid-September 2013 there had been “no sufficient prospect of removal within a reasonable time”.

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Immigrant’s search for a better life goes horribly wrong

Other than the privacy curtain, it could pass for a hotel room. Clean and bright, there is a bedside table, a lamp, a bureau and a flat-screen TV. K’Paw Wah leaned back on his pillow and, TV remote in hand, switched channels to a basketball game Thursday afternoon.

For most, it is a simple hand movement. For Wah – reed-thin, with stark cheekbones and flowing black hair – it is a triumph of will and spirit.

Only after laborious therapy has the Burmese immigrant of Karen ethnicity regained movement in his right arm. The comfortable room is not in a hotel, but in Terrace View nursing home near Erie County Medical Center. Wah has been hospitalized since a mugging last June left him paralyzed, a disheartening symbol of the assaults and break-ins afflicting the immigrant population on Buffalo’s West Side.

The county executive last week celebrated the recent influx of immigrants, which has staunched the county’s three-decade population bleed. The other side of the immigrant story is K’Paw Wah. He was born and raised in a Thai refugee camp, after his parents fled from oppressive Burmese rulers. He and his two daughters four years ago followed his older brother to Buffalo.

Wah’s dream of freedom ended violently. Heading home from a West Side convenience store late one night, he was jumped by at least two men with, he recalled, “their faces covered.” The attackers, Wah told me in halting but clear English, threw him hard to the ground, breaking his neck.

The thieves took his cellphone but, more than that, left him imprisoned in his body. Friends say he only recently regained movement in one arm and can stand at a walker while supported. Despite recent gains, he likely will always be physically dependent. No arrests have been made.

“Given what he escaped, it’s a terrible irony to come here and have this happen,” said Andy Graham, a family friend and member of St. John’s-Grace Episcopal Church, which aids immigrants.

Wah’s fate is the grimmest reminder of the fragility of the immigrant population. Buffalo’s West Side is the end point for Burmese, Somalis, Burundi and other newcomers. Circumstances render them vulnerable and tough to protect. Language barriers, a lack of translators and a distrust of police related to abuse in their homeland contribute to their problems. Critics say police and city officials have been slow to respond to the challenge. Dozens of frustrated Burmese went public with their complaints this month at a Common Council meeting.

Lisa Strand said similar community outreaches the past several months have spurred good-faith efforts from police.

“There’s recently been a lot of progress,” said Strand, attorney for Buffalo’s Legal Aid Bureau. “But the police need a formal translator-access plan and to grasp the larger scope of this.”

Immigrants like Wah are the lifeblood of the city’s embryonic revival. More than 12,000 of them flowed into the county in recent years. Friends say Wah’s older brother, Tha Pay, his wife and four children have deepening roots.

Wah wants his daughters, 14 and 11, to get more of a chance here than he did. Their hand-drawn “Get Well” cards – one a red-petaled flower, the other a green-leafed tree – hang on his wall.

“I was happy to come here,” he told me, “because my children could go to school and learn English, to have a better life.”

Complimented on his English, he smiled and said, “Yes, I have a little bit.”

His daughters live with their grandfather, who recently lost his wife and speaks little English. Family friend Andy Graham and his wife, Ann – called “Grandma” by the girls – are part of their extended family.

“It’s hard for them,” Ann Graham said. “They had a father who was working, was with them and raising them. He can’t do that now.”

Although police were slow off the mark, spokesman Mike DeGeorge said they are getting up to speed with community meetings, translation efforts, aids to crime reporting and other efforts.

“I think the police realize this is an issue and are trying to find solutions,” said Legal Aid’s Strand.

It’s too late for K’Paw Wah. Hopefully it’s not too late for others.


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Digital Immigrant

DEFINITION of ‘Digital Immigrant’

Digital immigrant is a term coined by Mark Prensky in 2001 used to describe the generation of people who did not grow up in the digital age. People born before 1985 and who have adopted technology at a point later in life are considered to be digital immigrants. The opposite of digital immigrant is digital native – people who have grown up surrounded by technology from an early age.


The idea of “digital immigrant” came from an article explaining why today’s teachers are having trouble teaching students. Prensky argues that young people today are speaking a digital language, whereas teachers are speaking an old accented language (their accent being their reluctance to adopt new technology). He calls for a change in the way children are taught so that they may learn in a “language” they understand.

Some people take issue with the term digital immigrant. The term assumes that people who did not grow up with digital technology from early childhood are accented throughout their lives. This overlooks the role of digital immigrants in creating the technology and their own adaptive capabilities when using it. Moreover, it overlooks the situation of children without access to or interest in technology who may be left behind in the digital age and become digital immigrants themselves.

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More Illegal Immigrants Snagging White-Collar Jobs

While the size of the illegal immigrant workforce in this country has changed little since the worst of the recession, a substantial number of these unauthorized workers have moved into better-paying white-collar jobs, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center.

For sure, a solid majority of the 8.3 million illegal immigrants continue to work in low-skilled service, construction and production jobs. Yet the number of unauthorized immigrants in management or professional related jobs grew by 180,000 since the 2007-2009 Great Recession, while the number in construction or production jobs fell by about 475,000.

Related: Obama’s Immigration Order Blocked by Federal Judge

The findings are “a reflection of changes in the overall economy” since the recession, according to demographics experts Jeffrey S. Passel and D’Vera Cohn, essentially mirroring rises and declines in the overall U.S. economy.

The share of all unauthorized immigrant workers with management and professional jobs grew to 13 percent in 2012 from 10 percent in 2007, according to the study, while the share with construction or production jobs declined to 29 percent from 34 percent.

“Certainly the economy has moved more in that direction. Overall the white collar workforce has grown and the blue-collar work force has declined in the last few years, so in that sense the unauthorized immigrant workforce is just reflecting the larger economic trend,” Cohn said in an interview today. “What we don’t know is whether the people who” previously were in blue collar jobs are the ones holding those jobs now.

“It seems implausible that people who were construction laborers five years ago are now software developers,” she added. “In many cases these are different people, although some people may have moved up the ladder.”

Passel noted that many illegal immigrants have now lived and worked in the U.S for ten years or more and have been able to land better jobs in their occupational  fields, such as managers, while others have obtained work permits under the president’s executive action or decided to overstay their visas. “Remember, now there are about 600,000 people who have gotten work permits under the Dream Act, and those are all people who went to college pretty much,” he said.

Even with these shifts, illegal immigrant workers remain concentrated in lower-skill jobs, much more so than American-born workers, according to the new estimates, which are based on government data. According to the study, 62 percent held service construction and production jobs in 2012, twice the share of U.S.-born workers who did.

 The 13 percent share with management or professional jobs is less than half of the 36 percent of U.S.-born workers in those occupations, Pew said.

Related: Immigration Fight with Obama Risks Republican Unity

These new findings come at a time when the new Republican controlled Congress and President Obama are deadlocked over immigration policy – particularly the president’s highly controversial executive orders to protect most illegal immigrants from deportation and to grant many of them legal status to enable them to more readily find and keep jobs.

Republicans threatened to partially shut down the Department of Homeland Security in a move to block implementation of the executive orders, but backed down at the last minute. Still, Obama’s new policies have been held in abeyance pending a federal court challenge in Texas.

Many conservatives are enraged that Obama would take actions to essentially assist illegal immigrants or foreign workers with temporary visas to compete with unemployed Americans for jobs during the middling economic recovery.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), a leading conservative opponent of Obama’s amnesty policies, has charged that the president’s immigration policies are hurting average American workers.

Sessions has noted that since the 2007 recession, most employment gains in the U.S. have gone to imported workers instead of American citizens. On immigration, the president remains wedded to a lawless policy that serves only the interest of an international elite while reducing jobs and benefits for everyday Americans,” he told  in January.

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Immigrant advocates take aim at Berks center


Lawyers for immigrant children confined in Pennsylvania pending deportation say their detention at Berks County Residential Center is unlawful and are demanding the center be closed.

Led by Philadelphia attorney Matthew Archambeault, the five lawyers contend that BCRC’s state license authorizes residential treatment at the facility in Leesport for children who are delinquent or awaiting a juvenile court finding of delinquency.

“The problem,” the advocates wrote in a letter delivered Tuesday to the office of state Attorney General Kathleen Kane, “is that none of the [immigrant] children … are delinquent. … They are all refugees seeking asylum here in the United States.”

The facility has been operating for more than a decade but the issue became more pressing among immigrant advocates after last summer’s wave of undocumented children into the country. What had typically been a stay of days or weeks at the center has for some become months of confinement.

No immigrant child there, according to the letter, committed an act that would lead to a finding of delinquency under Pennsylvania law. Rather, they are typically charged with the federal civil offense of illegally entering the United States.

The letter asks Kane to investigate what it calls “the unlawful imprisonment of hundreds of children over the last several years.”

Carolyn Myers, a spokeswoman for Kane, said the AG’s office received the letter and is “reviewing the substance of the allegations contained therein.”

Typically, children housed at Berks are arrested at the southern border and shipped to Pennsylvania by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

“Family residential centers are an important part of the U.S. government’s comprehensive response to the unprecedented spike in illegal migration that occurred last summer,” said ICE-Philadelphia spokeswoman Sarah Maxwell. The centers are “an effective and humane alternative for maintaining family unity as families go through immigration proceedings or await return to their home countries.”

BCRC director Diane Edwards did not respond to calls seeking comment.

The 85-bed Berks facility, which opened in March 2001, is among three family residential centers maintained by ICE. The others are in Texas. All have been targets of immigrant rights groups, which contend it is inhumane to confine families when compliance with a notice to appear in immigration court can be accomplished by less restrictive means, including release with intensive supervision, or electronic monitoring.

According to Berks’ mission statement, it addresses “issues that arise when immigration officers encounter unaccompanied alien children, other minors, and family groups during the course of operations.”

The facility provides education for the children as well as medical and mental health care for the families, which, according to the mission statement, are “mandatorily detained during removal proceedings.”

Before last summer, when tens of thousands of mostly Central American children, some with parents, entered the U.S. illegally, the Berks center typically housed mothers and children for brief stays while ICE worked to place them with family in the United States. In that way, they could live with their families while their immigration cases proceeded.

“The summer of 2014 saw a change in policy in which ICE has refused release of these refugees and has begun to hold them in long-term detention,” wrote Archambeault and his colleagues. “There is a mother and child currently at the BCRC since April 2014. Eight to 10 months of detention of these children is not unheard of any longer.”

One newborn, the lawyers wrote, was 14 days old when she was admitted.

Copies of the letter were sent to: Gov. Wolf; the state Human Services department; Berks County Commissioners; the Berks District Attorney and ICE-Philadelphia’s field office director.In an interview, Archambeault asserted that “long-term detention is clearly not what is contemplated under [the Berks center's] license.” If it is operating under a waiver of the rules, he said, that needs to be clarified.

Archambeault said he is raising these questions now because they are timely, and because BCRC is due to double its capacity later this year.



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