Categories
Education Living NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

The Undocumented Need Not Apply

Cinthia Gutierrez is well on her way to becoming a New York City police detective. The 18-year-old aspiring investigator just completed her first year of studies in the honors program at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and she already has undercover experience — though not exactly the kind favored by the NYPD. When she was 12, smugglers bringing her family into the United States from Mexico gave her a fake ID and a cover story to get past the border guards.

“They told me, ‘If someone asks you what you’re going to do, say you need to go to the mall to buy new clothes,'” Gutierrez recalls. “I didn’t even know what the mall was.”

Gutierrez spoke no English when she arrived in New York in 2007 with her mother and younger brother. Six years later, she graduated near the top of her class at Staten Island’s Susan E. Wagner High School. Under normal circumstances, she would have had her pick of colleges, but as an undocumented immigrant, her options were limited. She is barred from receiving state or federal financial aid and is ineligible for student loans. And when Gutierrez graduates, she will be unable to work legally for most employers — including those in law enforcement, the career she desires.

“I still have to find a way to fix my status,” Gutierrez says. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. There hasn’t been any legislation passed that will help me.”

With comprehensive federal immigration reform stalled in Congress, promising students like Gutierrez are stuck, waiting for states to enact their own measures that expand access to higher education. In the meantime, undocu–mented students are forced to rely on scholarships and a cobbled-together support network of family, teachers, mentors, and other allies.

“My parents don’t earn that much, I didn’t have a job at the time,” Gutierrez says, recalling her high school experience. “All I could think was that I wanted to go college. I just didn’t know how to do it.”

Gutierrez eventually found a way, obtaining a scholarship and stipend from John Jay and becoming one of the first recipients of a new, private scholarship specifically reserved for undocumented immigrants and first-generation citizens graduating from New York City schools. But she is more the exception than the rule.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, roughly 65,000 undocumented people graduate from U.S. high schools each year, including an estimated 3,600 students annually in New York. Nationally, only 49 percent of undocumented high school graduates move on to college, versus 76 percent of immigrants with lawful status and 71 percent for native citizens.

“A lot of students end up feeling hopeless,” says Jessica Rofe, a former New York City public school teacher and recent graduate of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at New York University School of Law. Rofe cites the case of one gifted former pupil who “basically stopped going to school” after being discouraged from applying to college. “They end up leaving school because they’re told by guidance counselors — or by their parents, even — that college probably isn’t an option because of their immigration status.”

Nearly 5,500 undocumented students are currently enrolled at colleges in New York, which is one of 17 states that allow undocumented students who meet certain residency requirements to pay in-state tuition at public colleges. (Other states either expressly ban undocumented students or charge international tuition, which can cost more than triple the in-state rate.) But the state still denies undocumented students the financial aid that makes college attainable for many middle-class and low-income families.

States that have opted to help fund higher education for the undocumented have shown that even modest investments can pay significant, long-term dividends. A 2012 Fiscal Policy Institute study found states that granted in-state tuition to undocumented students experienced a 14 percent decrease in college dropout rates and a 31 percent increase in college enrollment. College graduates earn an estimated $25,000 more per year than their high school-graduate counterparts in New York state and pay about $3,900 more per year in state and local taxes. (New York’s undocumented residents currently pay nearly $700 million annually in taxes.)

“The more educated they are, the better it is for our workforce,” says State Sen. Jose Peralta, a Democrat from Queens. “It’s better for the city’s economy, it’s better for the state economy. It’s better for everyone.”

Peralta was a prime sponsor of the New York DREAM Act, voted down 30 — 29 by the state Senate earlier this year. Peralta blames two moderate GOP legislators — Sen. Phil Boyle and Sen. Kemp Hannon — for failing to appear at the Capitol when the votes were cast.

“They mysteriously disappeared,” Peralta says. “I’m pretty sure [Republican Party] leadership asked them to take a walk. ”

Hannon did not respond to messages requesting comment for this story. Boyle says he was attending his uncle’s wake at the time and would have voted no, regardless.

“I’m very sympathetic to the plight of the dreamers,” Boyle, who represents a swath of Long Island’s South Shore, says. “I know they’re in this situation through no fault of their own. But I have concerns about the use of taxpayer money in this regard.”

The State Education Department estimated that the annual cost of expanding the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) to cover undocumented immigrants would be $627,428 per year. (The Fiscal Policy Institute, anticipating higher enrollment, predicted the figure would be closer to $17 million annually.) By comparison, the California Department of Finance estimates that approximately 2,500 undocumented students qualify each year for $14.5 million worth of state education grants.

Without access to financial aid, Cinthia Gutierrez works three days a week at a Mexican restaurant near her family’s modest home in Staten Island’s Port Richmond neighborhood. Her father earns decent money working construction, and her mother works as a housekeeper. All members of the family are undocumented.

Gutierrez’s father, José Manuel, explains in Spanish that he brought his family to the United States to provide a better future for Cinthia and her brother, a high school junior who wants to become a computer engineer. “The people who came here illegally, the majority work in construction, in restaurants with a minimum salary,” he says. “We can’t pay for college with the cost that high. If you have three kids, that’s a lot of bills.”

Easing the burden on the Gutierrez family is a $5,000 scholarship Cinthia received from the Ascend Educational Fund (AEF). Co-founded in 2012 by Julissa Arce, a former undocumented immigrant who gained legal status and ultimately landed jobs at Goldman Sachs and Bank of America, the crowdfunded program distributed $63,000 among eight graduating high school seniors this year.

That was out of 350 applicants, and Arce laments the fact that dozens of qualified candidates who didn’t make the cut are left with little recourse when it comes to financing their education.

“It’s so heartbreaking,” Arce says. “I wish we knew of other [resources] we could send them to, but frankly we don’t know too many other scholarships where undocumented kids can apply. Other kids have more options, from financial aid to loans or a million other scholarships they can apply to.”

Arce dreams of eventually expanding AEF to cover all of New York state or perhaps other major cities with large immigrant populations, but for now, only residents of the city’s five boroughs qualify for the scholarships. Arce says the scholarship committee focuses on awarding money to students who might otherwise not be able to attend college.

“That’s something we’re very mindful of,” Arce says. “A lot of kids might think, ‘Oh, I’m going to go part-time or take a year off and work and then go.’ Then life happens, and those things don’t end up happening.”

Though invaluable for some, private scholarships such as the AEF cover just a small percentage of the undocumented high school graduates who could potentially afford college if not for their immigration status. The only real remedy, Arce says, is federal immigration reform, and the DREAM Act has been stalled in Congress since 2010, when it was filibustered by Senate Republicans. The measure has the support of President Obama, multiple national education groups, and most top universities.

Gutierrez and other young, undocumented immigrants say that though they are not U.S. citizens or permanent residents, they consider themselves American and share a common desire to make the most of life in their adopted homeland.

“Being American is not about where you are born and not even what papers you have,” says Jin Park, an 18-year-old undocumented student from South Korea, who was raised in Queens and will attend Harvard next year. “Being American is the desire to make something better of yourself and willing to be accepting of a lot of views and values and beliefs.”

For Gutierrez, who arrived in the United States a few months too late to qualify for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — President Obama’s 2012 executive order granting a temporary work authorization and reprieve from deportation for people who immigrated illegally as children — the risk is very real that she or her parents could be deported back to Mexico. Her parents say they abide by the laws and diligently pay taxes “to be right with the country” if a path to citizenship ever becomes available. Her father says half-jokingly that if Gutierrez does eventually become a police officer, he will be less fearful about receiving a traffic ticket that could set him on the path to deportation and leave the family without their main breadwinner.

“I guess if I put myself in the shoes of the people who are against immigration reform, I can see some of their points of view,” Gutierrez says. “But at the same time, a lot of the people here as undocu–mented people, we can do so much for the country if we are given the opportunity.”

Categories
Datebook FOOD ARCHIVES Listings NYC ARCHIVES

How to Locate NYC’s Best World Cup Bars

The Red Bull New York locker room is an impressively diverse place, with players hailing from a dozen different nations occupying every corner of the map. (The only continent not represented on the MLS team’s roster is Antarctica.) Among friends and teammates, international relations are typically amicable — at least until the World Cup kicks off on June 12 in Brazil. Then diplomacy goes by the wayside.

“We always trash talk each other,” says midfielder Michael Bustamante, one of two Colombian players on the squad. “Especially if we’re playing teams from the opposite country.”

Colombia faces Japan on June 24 in the opening round, and Red Bulls defender Kosuke Kimura plans to use the freeze-out strategy on Bustamante and teammate Jámison Olave until bragging rights are assured. “I’m not talking to the Colombians,” Kimura says. “And when Japan wins against them, I’m going to go crazy.”

Much like New York City itself, the Red Bulls’ locker room during the World Cup is a hodgepodge of cultures crammed into close proximity and engaged in a friendly but intense rivalry. As Kimura and Bustamante both attest, aside from making a pilgrimage to Brazil, there is no better place to be during the World Cup than New York, where even casual fans schedule their lives around matches, transforming sleepy ethnic bars and restaurants into madhouses packed full of screaming, face-painted fanatics.

Several soccer-centric bars have opened in Manhattan and Brooklyn in recent years, but the key to an unforgettable World Cup viewing experience is finding where expats from each nation assemble to support their respective teams. The Voice consulted a variety of experts, pounded the pavement, and guzzled several frosty bottles of lager in far-flung neighborhoods (all in the name of research) to create these tips for mapping an authentic World Cup tour of New York.

1. Know Your Neighborhoods
For Colombia’s opening match, expect to find Bustamante in Jackson Heights. More than 75,000 Colombian immigrants call Queens home, and walking down 37th Avenue is like being transported to Bogotá; for an afternoon stroll. Señoras peddle ice cream from sidewalk carts, and reggaeton thumps from shops selling jerseys of national team star Radamel Falcao.

Bustamante prefers Las Margaritas, a restaurant that is ostensibly Mexican, but other neighborhood highlights include El Basurero (32-17 Steinway Street, 718-545-7077) — a full-on sports bar decked out with jerseys and soccer décor — and a small restaurant next door called La Fonda Antioqueña (32-25 Steinway Street, 718-726-9857), which offers heaping platters of meat and seafood and potent margaritas.

Jackson Heights is also a destination for fans of Uruguay, Ecuador, and Argentina, who gather at La Gran Uruguaya (85-6 37th Avenue, 718-505-0404), a restaurant and bar attached to a bakery and bodega on 37th Avenue. The owners are from Uruguay, the bartender is Colombian, and the customers come from across Latin America to sip Pilsen, Quilmes, and other beers from home. A replica of the World Cup trophy stands behind the bar. The steak sandwich — a medium-rare slab of juicy skirt steak topped with tomato and red onion and slathered with garlicky chimichurri sauce — is worth the trip alone.

Other neighborhoods known for their immigrant populations — Russians in Brighton Beach, French-speaking West Africans in Harlem’s Le Petit Senegal — are obvious targets. Manhattan’s Avenue C boasts everything from a sprawling German beer hall (Zum Schneider, 107 Avenue C, 212-598-1098) that is absolutely jammed for soccer matches, to a tiny sake bar (Sake Bar Satsko, 202 East 7th Street, 212-614-0933) with a solitary TV screen that leaves the owner, as one server put it during a recent visit, “simultaneously cheering and cursing” when Japan plays.

2. Do Your Homework
When Braden Ruddy, a United Nations speechwriter and soccer fanatic from Queens, was compiling a list of World Cup-centric New York establishments for the travel site Roads and Kingdoms, he couldn’t find a place dedicated to showing Cameroon matches. Phoning the country’s Permanent Mission at the United Nations for a recommendation, he discovered that the diplomats plan to open their doors to the public on match days.

“Try to look beyond the prototypical Irish and English bars and pubs,” Ruddy recommends. “Look at off-the-beaten-path establishments — cafés, grocery stores, social clubs, juice bars. People love to connect through soccer and through food. This is a once-in-a-four-year opportunity to meet different kinds of people you live right next to.”

The New York-based soccer site First Touch offers a free “soccer bar finder” app for iOS and Android that provides live broadcast schedules and points you to the nearest pub. The app is geared toward traditional pubs and soccer mega-bars such as Nevada Smiths and Legends, which will likely have extremely diverse crowds. For purely partisan viewing, First Touch publisher David Witchard suggests visiting Little Brazil on West 46th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.

“Police section off the whole block for every Brazil match,” Witchard says. “It just becomes a street party. It’s great — everybody is out dancing and playing drums in the streets.”

3. Adopt a Team
With USA stuck in a Group of Death with Germany, Portugal, and Ghana, it may prove wise to have a backup team to support in the later stages of the tournament. Defending champions Spain are again favored to reach the finals, and the best place to watch La Furia Roja defend their title is La Nacional (239 West 14th Street, 212-243-9308), a Spanish restaurant in Chelsea with a tranquil basement cantina frequented by silver-haired men who sip red wine and argue about fútbol. The tapas are delectable and affordable — try a buttery wedge of tortilla Española, big enough to serve two — and the drink selection includes the devious Basque concoction kalimotxo, a mix of wine and Coca-Cola.

If you prefer to pledge your allegiance to an underdog, consider Bosnia and Herzegovina. One of the smallest countries in this year’s tournament, Bosnia’s national team features an electric striker in Manchester City star Edin Dzeko and has served as a unifying force in the ethnically divided Balkan nation. Bosnian fans gather en masse at Old Bridge (28-51 42nd Street, 718-932-7683), a hole-in-the-wall in Astoria that specializes in cevapi, thumb-sized lamb and beef sausages served with a pita-like bread. When their squad qualified for the Cup last year, Bosnian fans flooded the street outside the restaurant waving flags, honking car horns, and setting off fireworks.

Bosnia faces Argentina in the opening round, a foe with a superior soccer pedigree and an equally rabid New York following. Ruddy recommends arriving early if you want to score a seat at Boca Juniors Restaurant (81-08 Queens Boulevard, 718-429-2077) in Elmhurst, a steakhouse named after Argentina’s most popular professional club. Another Queens option for would-be Argentina fans is La Esquina Criolla (94-67 Corona Avenue, 718-699-5579), a restaurant and social club in Corona. Richard Turkieltaub, president of NYC Argentina, a club team competing in New York’s Cosmos Copa soccer tournament, says newcomers are always welcome, as long as they’re pulling for Messi and Co.

“All you have to do is put on a jersey and join,” Turkieltaub says. “No one is going to make you feel uncomfortable. Everyone is there for a specific reason, and that’s to scream and yell and cheer for the country they love and the team they love.”

Categories
Living NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

World Mug: Here are New York’s Best Soccer Bars

The Red Bull New York locker room is an impressively diverse place, with players hailing from a dozen different nations occupying every corner of the map. (The only continent not represented on the MLS team’s roster is Antarctica.) Among friends and teammates, international relations are typically amicable — at least until the World Cup kicks off on June 12 in Brazil. Then diplomacy goes by the wayside.

“We always trash talk each other,” says midfielder Michael Bustamante, one of two Colombian players on the squad. “Especially if we’re playing teams from the opposite country.”

Colombia faces Japan on June 24 in the opening round, and Red Bulls defender Kosuke Kimura plans to use the freeze-out strategy on Bustamante and teammate Jámison Olave until bragging rights are assured. “I’m not talking to the Colombians,” Kimura says. “And when Japan wins against them, I’m going to go crazy.”

Much like New York City itself, the Red Bulls’ locker room during the World Cup is a hodgepodge of cultures crammed into close proximity and engaged in a friendly but intense rivalry. As Kimura and Bustamante both attest, aside from making a pilgrimage to Brazil, there is no better place to be during the World Cup than New York, where even casual fans schedule their lives around matches, transforming sleepy ethnic bars and restaurants into madhouses packed full of screaming, face-painted fanatics.

Several soccer-centric bars have opened in Manhattan and Brooklyn in recent years, but the key to an unforgettable World Cup viewing experience is finding where expats from each nation assemble to support their respective teams. The Voice consulted a variety of experts, pounded the pavement, and guzzled several frosty bottles of lager in far-flung neighborhoods (all in the name of research) to create these tips for mapping an authentic World Cup tour of New York.

1. Know Your Neighborhoods

For Colombia’s opening match, expect to find Bustamante in Jackson Heights. More than 75,000 Colombian immigrants call Queens home, and walking down 37th Avenue is like being transported to Bogotá for an afternoon stroll. Señoras peddle ice cream from sidewalk carts, and reggaeton thumps from shops selling jerseys of national team star Radamel Falcao.

Bustamante prefers Las Margaritas, a restaurant that is ostensibly Mexican, but other neighborhood highlights include El Basurero — a full-on sports bar decked out with jerseys and soccer décor — and a small restaurant next door called La Fonda Antioqueña, which offers heaping platters of meat and seafood and potent margaritas.

Jackson Heights is also a destination for fans of Uruguay, Ecuador, and Argentina, who gather at La Gran Uruguaya, a restaurant and bar attached to a bakery and bodega on 37th Avenue. The owners are from Uruguay, the bartender is Colombian, and the customers come from across Latin America to sip Pilsen, Quilmes, and other beers from home. A replica of the World Cup trophy stands behind the bar. The steak sandwich — a medium-rare slab of juicy skirt steak topped with tomato and red onion and slathered with garlicky chimichurri sauce — is worth the trip alone.

Other neighborhoods known for their immigrant populations — Russians in Brighton Beach, French-speaking West Africans in Harlem’s Le Petit Senegal — are obvious targets. Manhattan’s Avenue C boasts everything from a sprawling German beer hall (Zum Schneider) that is absolutely jammed for soccer matches, to a tiny sake bar (Sake Bar Satsko) with a solitary TV screen that leaves the owner, as one server put it during a recent visit, “simultaneously cheering and cursing” when Japan plays.

2. Do Your Homework

When Braden Ruddy, a United Nations speechwriter and soccer fanatic from Queens, was compiling a list of World Cup-centric New York establishments for the travel site Roads and Kingdoms, he couldn’t find a place dedicated to showing Cameroon matches. Phoning the country’s Permanent Mission at the United Nations for a recommendation, he discovered that the diplomats plan to open their doors to the public on match days.

“Try to look beyond the prototypical Irish and English bars and pubs,” Ruddy recommends. “Look at off-the-beaten-path establishments — cafés, grocery stores, social clubs, juice bars. People love to connect through soccer and through food. This is a once-in-a-four-year opportunity to meet different kinds of people you live right next to.”

The New York–based soccer site First Touch offers a free “soccer bar finder” app for iOS and Android that provides live broadcast schedules and points you to the nearest pub. The app is geared toward traditional pubs and soccer mega-bars such as Nevada Smiths and Legends, which will likely have extremely diverse crowds. For purely partisan viewing, First Touch publisher David Witchard suggests visiting Little Brazil on West 46th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues.

“Police section off the whole block for every Brazil match,” Witchard says. “It just becomes a street party. It’s great — everybody is out dancing and playing drums in the streets.”

3. Adopt a Team

With USA stuck in a Group of Death with Germany, Portugal, and Ghana, it may prove wise to have a backup team to support in the later stages of the tournament. Defending champions Spain are again favored to reach the finals, and the best place to watch La Furia Roja defend their title is La Nacional, a Spanish restaurant in Chelsea with a tranquil basement cantina frequented by silver-haired men who sip red wine and argue about fútbol. The tapas are delectable and affordable — try a buttery wedge of tortilla Española, big enough to serve two — and the drink selection includes the devious Basque concoction kalimotxo, a mix of wine and Coca-Cola.

If you prefer to pledge your allegiance to an underdog, consider Bosnia and Herzegovina. One of the smallest countries in this year’s tournament, Bosnia’s national team features an electric striker in Manchester City star Edin Dzeko and has served as a unifying force in the ethnically divided Balkan nation. Bosnian fans gather en masse at Old Bridge, a hole-in-the-wall in Astoria that specializes in cevapi, thumb-sized lamb and beef sausages served with a pita-like bread. When their squad qualified for the Cup last year, Bosnian fans flooded the street outside the restaurant waving flags, honking car horns, and setting off fireworks.

Bosnia faces Argentina in the opening round, a foe with a superior soccer pedigree and an equally rabid New York following. Ruddy recommends arriving early if you want to score a seat at Boca Juniors Restaurant in Elmhurst, a steakhouse named after Argentina’s most popular professional club. Another Queens option for would-be Argentina fans is La Esquina Criolla, a restaurant and social club in Corona. Richard Turkieltaub, president of NYC Argentina, a club team competing in New York’s Cosmos Copa soccer tournament, says newcomers are always welcome, as long as they’re pulling for Messi and Co.

“All you have to do is put on a jersey and join,” Turkieltaub says. “No one is going to make you feel uncomfortable. Everyone is there for a specific reason, and that’s to scream and yell and cheer for the country they love and the team they love.”

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES TV ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES

Documented’s Vargas: The Culture Has Not Yet Shifted on Immigration

Jose Antonio Vargas has just bared his soul to an audience in Queens and now he is basking in the afterglow. A crowd of dozens lingers in the lobby of the Museum of the Moving Image, swarming around him well after the closing credits of his film, Documented. The Filipino-American filmmaker smiles and laughs, shakes hands, poses for pictures, and tells his new friends to keep in touch on Facebook.

Read our film review of Documented

It’s no surprise that Documented — a deeply personal documentary about Vargas’s life as an undocumented immigrant — elicits such a warm response. He created the film with the express purpose of swaying viewers, particularly those not already sympathetic to the plight of the undocumented, to soften their views on immigration. The film’s true power will be tested later this summer when it is broadcast on national television, but early on, at least, it seems to be working.

Viewers end up feeling as though they have known Vargas for years. Moving from his ramshackle childhood home in the Philippines to the halls of Congress, where Vargas delivers a Hollywood-caliber speech to the Senate Judiciary Committee about what it means to be an American, the film is an emotional journey that provokes both tears and laughter. Vargas is the hero, the Pulitzer-winning journalist who sheds his veil of objectivity to fight for civil rights, but mostly he comes across as human. He’s the 12-year-old kid who loves Fresh Prince and the thirtysomething adult who can’t bring himself to friend his estranged mother on Facebook. It seems like he keeps no secrets.

“That’s probably what I was most scared of going into all this,” Vargas says later, away from the crowd. “The word ‘humility’ comes to mind. How do I do this with as much humility as possible?”

In 2011, Vargas outed himself as an undocumented immigrant in a New York Times Magazine cover story, telling the world how his grandparents, both naturalized U.S. citizens, paid to have him smuggled into the country as a child, leaving his single mother behind in the Philippines. The film focuses on the weeks leading up to the bombshell story, and the fallout in the years after. Vargas quit journalism and created the pro-immigrant Define American campaign.

Vargas has been touring the country virtually nonstop ever since, using his story to make the case that America’s 11 million undocumented immigrants deserve better from the government. Now, with the release of Documented, Vargas is poised to take his message to a truly national audience. The film premieres May 2 at the Village East Cinema, and is scheduled to air on CNN over the summer.

“The era of preaching to the choir is over,” Vargas says. “No more patting ourselves on the back. We will not win this thing if we do not talk — actually talk — with each other.”

During a roundtable discussion after the screening in Queens with filmmaker Paola Mendoza and Nisha Agarwal, the city’s commissioner of immigrant affairs, Vargas stressed his belief that movies and television have the power to sway public opinion like no other medium. He cited the Joy Luck Club as a favorite because of the way it humanizes Asian immigrants. Sexually diverse characters in popular movies and shows such as Frozen and Orange Is the New Black are widely credited with influencing mainstream views on LGBT issues.

“I would make the argument that the LGBT civil rights movement would not be where it is now if the culture had not shifted as far as it did,” Vargas says. “The fact that Jan Brewer can veto an anti-gay bill and keep S.B. 1070 [Arizona’s strict anti-illegal immigration law] tells you everything about how the culture has not yet shifted on immigration.”

With immigration reform stalled at the federal level, Vargas and other advocates are pushing state and local initiatives as stopgaps. In New York, the City Council is considering a bill that would establish the largest municipal ID system in the nation, giving undocumented immigrants who are unable to obtain driver licenses access to a variety of city services. Agarwal also points to a public defender service for defendants in federal immigration court, and programs to educate public school students about immigration laws and issues.

“We see our role in city government as being a leader and doing what the federal government should be doing when they’re lagging,” Agarwal says. “Those local and state efforts, they inevitably influence what the national government thinks it can and should do.”

Vargas calls it “an embarrassment of monstrous proportions” that the state legislature has been unable to pass the New York Dream Act, which would allow undocumented students who meet in-state tuition requirements to access financial aid and scholarships. But he still hopes that his film will make a difference.

“We have to change the culture before we can even focus on the political football that is happening when it comes to this issue,” Vargas says. “That’s why I think films are important; that’s why culture and art is important. We need more of these stories. This is only one story.”

Categories
NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Asylum Insanity

Every day at airports and border crossings around the country, dozens of asylum seekers arrive fleeing death and persecution in their native countries.

They are welcomed to the United States with an interrogation, housed in cold, crowded cells, and constantly threatened with being sent home.

This story examines how the U.S. immigration system fails asylum seekers, and highlight opportunities for reform, including a promising but extremely limited alternative to detention program currently underway in the New York area and four other cities.

Read the full story: “Asylum Insanity: Welcome to the Land of the Free.”

Categories
NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Asylum Insanity: Welcome to the Land of the Free.

Hussein Mohamed took a hard road to America. Born into a minority clan in a nation rife with ethnic conflict, the boyish 24-year-old with gangly limbs and intense brown eyes describes fleeing his village in Somalia in 2012 after gunmen threatened to kill him. Mohamed says he was forced to quit his jobs as an English teacher and taxi driver and escape to neighboring Kenya. After making his way to South Africa, he forked over his life savings to human smugglers, who shipped him across the Atlantic to Brazil and guided him north through the jungles of South and Central America into Mexico.

When he finally arrived at a border crossing in Brownsville, Texas, this past summer, Mohamed thought he’d safely reached the end of a harrowing 10-month journey. He had no inkling of the ordeal awaiting him on the other side of the Rio Grande.

Mohamed approached a U.S. Border Patrol agent and recounted his story. He explained that he wanted to seek asylum, a classification of refugee status granted to people who arrive in the United States having fled persecution in their homeland. He was immediately handcuffed and placed in immigration detention: a cold, cramped cell in a privately owned and operated prison facility. Soon after, along with hundreds of other detainees, he was herded onto a cargo plane and transferred without explanation to a jail in Newark, New Jersey.

Eight months later, Mohamed is seated in the jail’s makeshift visitor center, a stuffy gymnasium with rows of plastic chairs and tables arranged on the basketball court. It has been more than a year since he spoke with his family in Somalia, and he fears the worst. He knows exactly one person in America, a fellow Somali immigrant who lives somewhere in California. He dreams of moving there, finding work, maybe starting a family.

Instead, he will likely be deported, shipped back to the war-torn country on the Horn of Africa he worked so hard to escape. Mohamed’s request for asylum was denied because he lacks a passport or other documents to confirm his identity. He has filed an appeal, and his detention ticks on indefinitely.

There are no statutory limits to the amount of time a non-citizen like Mohamed may be held in immigration detention. When the process goes smoothly, asylum seekers tend to be released in a matter of weeks. Many end up imprisoned for much longer.

Approximately 6,000 survivors of torture — exiles from Iran, Myanmar, Syria, and other brutal regimes — were detained in immigration jails while seeking asylum over the past three years, according to a 2013 report by the Center for Victims of Torture.

“It’s really tragic,” says Amelia Wilson, staff attorney for the American Friends Service Committee, a faith-based organization that aids asylum seekers. “They’re fleeing persecution, and many of them have just fled institutions of incarceration in their home country. Through guile or luck or the right contacts, they manage to get out of their country. They come here and they’re promptly detained. They’re shocked. They’re not criminals. In fact, they’re following the legal procedure the government has put in place for them to get protection.”

Over the past five months, the Voice visited detainees at two immigration detention centers and conducted extensive interviews with outreach workers, attorneys, academics, and other experts on the asylum process. Our investigation revealed how a process created to save innocent lives has come to embody some of the worst aspects of American immigration policy: The nation’s system of mass deportations and incarceration has devastating consequences for vulnerable individuals who seek nothing more than safety and a new beginning.

The immigration overhaul the Senate passed in June 2013 addresses several issues with asylum, but the legislation remains stalled in the House of Representatives. Raising concerns about fraudulent claims, some Republican leaders are now pushing draconian measures that would put even more asylum seekers behind bars. House Judiciary Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia, has said the asylum system is “exploited by illegal immigrants in order to enter and remain in the United States.”

“The tone of immigration politics, even when it comes to asylum seekers, has gotten really vicious,” says Alina Das, co-director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at the New York University School of Law. “People have generally forgotten what it means to be seeking asylum in our country. It’s really disturbing, and I think it’s a sad commentary on how easily a minority of elected officials can hijack an issue that should really speak to core American values.”

Though the political climate looks bleak for advocates of asylum reform, an ongoing pilot project offers a glimmer of hope. The project allows Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials at facilities in New York City, Newark, San Antonio, Chicago, and Minneapolis-St. Paul to release select detainees seeking asylum into a program coordinated by the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. As of March 31, the program has helped secure temporary housing and social services for 32 people, including survivors of torture, victims of domestic abuse, and LGBT individuals, all of whom would otherwise have remained jailed indefinitely.

“There’s growing recognition from ICE that maybe detention is not appropriate for all of these folks,” says Megan Bremer, a staff attorney at LIRS. Early successes aside, Bremer cautions that the arrangement is only temporary and receives zero government funding. “A lot of programs locally are running on a deficit. If it wasn’t for all the volunteers providing time and services, the program would not be in existence.”

Beyond the humanitarian concerns, the cost of detaining asylum seekers and other nonviolent immigrants creates an enormous burden for American taxpayers. The Department of Homeland Security budget for “custody operations” in the 2014 fiscal year is $1.84 billion. According to DHS’s own estimates, if the agency used electronic ankle monitoring and other less expensive alternatives instead of detention, the government could save more than $1.44 billion annually: a 78 percent reduction in costs.

Yet every day at airports and border crossings around the country, immigrants like Mohamed — who committed no crime beyond seeking to save his own life — are locked up for weeks, months, and even years. And if they are sent home, deportation can be tantamount to a death sentence.

Snowden and Assange: Atypical.

The two most famous asylum seekers in recent history are Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, but those cases are hardly typical. The ex-National Security Agency contractor fled first to Hong Kong and then to Moscow after supplying journalists with a trove of information about controversial U.S. spy tactics; the WikiLeaks co-founder sought refuge in an Ecuadorian embassy in London amid fears he’d be extradited to Sweden to face sexual-assault charges. Perhaps the only thing these men have in common with the average asylum seeker in the U.S. is that they are stuck in legal limbo waiting to resolve their claims.

Unlike Snowden and Assange, the vast majority of asylum seekers are anonymous. In 2012, according to the United Nations, 45 million people worldwide were forcibly displaced owing to persecution and conflict. While the majority became refugees, roughly 1 million sought political asylum. (The only difference between an asylum seeker and a refugee is location: Refugees typically remain near their homeland when they initiate the process, while asylum seekers arrive at their desired destination without prior authorization.)

Several ancient societies, including the Greeks, Hebrews, and Egyptians, respected the right of asylum, but the framework that exists today was established in 1951 to deal with millions of displaced people in the aftermath of World War II. As a party to the United Nations Convention Against Torture, the U.S. agreed to “not return refugees to countries where their life or freedom would be threatened and where they are more likely than not to be tortured.” In the old days, asylum seekers were rarely detained.

With the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, everything changed. Later that year, 60 Minutes broadcast a report emphasizing the fact that Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the suspected mastermind behind the attack, had applied for asylum. The sound bite that stuck was provided by a representative from the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an anti-immigrant group: “Every single person on the planet Earth, if he gets into this country, can stay indefinitely by saying two magic words: ‘political asylum.'”

In truth, Abdel Rahman had entered the U.S. on a tourist visa and received a green card despite his status on a terrorist watch list. He didn’t apply for asylum until years later, and his claim was ultimately rejected. But the damage was done. According to a 1998 report on asylum by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C., the 60 Minutes segment “created the impression that few, if any, claims of asylum in the United States are legitimate.” In the aftermath, federal agencies adopted more stringent standards for identification of asylum seekers (typically requiring a passport, birth certificate, or other form of ID) and imposed a minimum 180-day waiting period before issuing a work permit.

Unsatisfied with these reforms and reacting to a broader influx of undocumented immigrants, Congress passed a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws in 1996. The legislation set a one-year deadline for immigrants to apply for asylum and created an “expedited removal” process to swiftly deport anybody who arrives at a port of entry without proper documentation. For the first time in history, arriving asylum seekers were subject to mandatory detention.

“That became somewhat of a game-changer,” says Annie Sovcik, director of the Washington, D.C., office of the Center for Victims of Torture. “From there, you started to see an overall growth in the detention system itself, both in the number of people detained on a daily and annual basis, as well as in the different categories of people that are held.”

The immigration detention boom had begun, and it would only get bigger. The number of beds in immigration jails has more than quintupled since 1996, rising from 6,280 to 34,000 in 250 facilities across the nation in 2014. Since 2006, Congress has required ICE to keep all 34,000 of those beds perpetually filled, a provision known as the bed mandate. Critics of this no-vacancy policy argue that civil immigration offenders with no criminal history have no business behind bars.

Partnering with the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition, Sovcik co-authored a report in 2013 about detention’s psychological toll on asylum seekers. Drawing on testimony from dozens of former detainees, the report details the appalling conditions found 
in some detention facilities along the southern border. The findings echoed another report from 2013 by Americans for Immigrant Justice.

“The temperature in the cells is so cold that [Customs and Border Patrol] officers themselves refer to them as ‘hieleras,’ or iceboxes, in Spanish. Detainees’ fingers and toes turn blue and their lips chap and split due to the cold. Blankets are not provided. These crowded hieleras have no mattresses, beds or chairs,” the Americans for Immigrant Justice report states.

“They’ve signed up for a certain degree of hardship during these journeys,” Sovcik says of asylum seekers in general. “But at that moment when they believe they’ve reached a place they can ask for help, they’re handcuffed and taken into cold rooms. They have no idea what’s going on. There’s a certain degree of shock in that experience that adds to the intensity of their trauma.”

Research has shown that the longer asylum seekers are incarcerated, the more emotionally fragile they become. A team led by Dr. Allen Keller, an associate professor of medicine at the NYU School of Medicine and director of the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture, interviewed 70 asylum seekers detained in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania for a study published in The Lancet in 2003.

“What we found were very alarmingly high levels of psychological distress among asylum seekers in detention,” Keller tells the Voice. “There was a clear correlation between the length of time in detention and the severity of these symptoms, including depression, sadness, and hopelessness, as well as profound symptoms of anxiety and post-traumatic stress.”

In 2009, ICE issued new parole standards: If arriving asylum seekers pass a “credible fear” interview, they can be eligible for release. Nevertheless, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom issued a report in April 2013 concluding that ICE “continues to detain asylum seekers under inappropriate conditions in jails and jail-like facilities.”

A spokesman for ICE did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story.
Megan Bremer, who helped organize the LIRS’s pilot program, says her organization received approval from ICE before agreeing to discuss the project.

“Until there’s some movement from Congress on the bed mandate, ICE really feels its hands are tied,” Bremer says. “Unfortunately, there’s a lot of divisive rhetoric right now and fearmongering about who is coming into this country.”

First Friends program director Sally Pillay.
First Friends program director Sally Pillay.

In New York and New Jersey, two women have been instrumental in securing the release of asylum seekers. The first is Sally Pillay, program director at First Friends, a nonprofit group that provides the simple but vital service of visiting immigrants who might otherwise remain isolated behind bars. Ebullient and loquacious, 36-year-old Pillay may well have spent more time inside the detention centers than anyone except the guards and staff.

When she joined First Friends in 2008, while she was earning her master’s degree in social work, there was one immigration jail for the entire New York City area, 
housing a total of 320 detainees. Today, five facilities hold more than 1,500 immigrants and asylum seekers on any given day.

Beyond providing moral support, Pillay helps detainees keep in touch with their families, refers them to pro bono legal services, and sometimes serves as a 24-hour on-call cab service when people are paroled.

“The facility where most asylum seekers are, it’s horrible. If you go outside, you’re surrounded by toxic fumes and the smell is unbearable,” Pillay says. “When somebody is released, they have no transportation. Do they care? No. [ICE] calls us and says, ‘Hey, can you take this person to the train station?’ It can be 10 or 11 at night.”

In order to qualify for parole, asylum seekers are required to confirm their identity and show proof of “community ties,” which, practically speaking, entails proving they have a friend or family member with a spare bedroom. It’s harder than it sounds: Documents may have been lost, stolen, or confiscated, and asylum seekers seldom have local contact to rely on.

Since June, Pillay has participated in the LIRS pilot program, coordinating with community members (mostly churchgoers) willing to host an immigrant. In seven months, she has found shelter for seven asylum seekers. “We rely on the kindness of strangers,” she says. “You’re asking somebody not to charge any money or anything. It can be a burden sometimes. We have to rely on the generosity of host families.”

Pillay’s counterpart in New York is Jamila Hammami, director of the Brooklyn Community Pride Center’s Queer Detainee Empowerment Project. Hammami says detention for LGBT asylum seekers can be especially nightmarish. LGBT detainees are 15 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than their heterosexual counterparts while incarcerated, according to a 2013 report from the Center for American Progress. They’re also more likely to end up in solitary confinement, a tactic that keeps them separated from other inmates.

“They’re victims of torture and persecution, but when you’re put in a detention center, you’re not safe there, either,” Hammami says. “It’s like being in a microcosm of the community that you’re trying to flee. The psychological damage is huge.”

Clement Lee, a staff attorney at Immigration Equality, a nonprofit group that advocates for LGBT asylum seekers, describes situations in which detainees live in perpetual fear of having their sexuality revealed, knowing it will lead to physical and verbal abuse by guards and other inmates.

“When I talk to clients by phone, they’re looking over their shoulder left and right to make sure nobody is listening,” Lee says. “I have to encourage clients to use code words when talking to me about being gay or transgender. This is a country that offers humanitarian protection, but they don’t feel safe even when they’re applying — there’s something a little disjointed about that.”

Finding housing for parolees is only half the battle. Asylum seekers aren’t allowed to look for employment until 180 days after they’ve filed their application, and bureaucracy and backlogs can delay work authorization for months. Legally barred from finding a job, they are forced to subsist on handouts.

Jamila Hammami, director of the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project, says "the psychological damage is huge" for LGBT immigrants in detention.
Jamila Hammami, director of the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project, says “the psychological damage is huge” for LGBT immigrants in detention.

“I had no idea how vast or complex the asylum seeker process really was,” Hammami says. “I thought it was like, they come here and we help them with housing and they can work. I completely found 
out that’s not the case at all. It’s horrible. Horrible, and so incredibly complex.”

One of Hammami’s clients in Brooklyn is a soft-spoken 29-year-old Nigerian woman who asked that her name not be published because she fears people from her homeland may still be trying to track her down. Born into a devout Muslim family, “Tamara” entered an arranged marriage at age 19. When her husband died suddenly five years later, the families ordered the young widow to remarry her brother-in-law. Tamara says her stepmother was abusive and threatened to harm her if she did not obey.

“[My husband’s family] gave her land and properties and money,” Tamara says. “She knew if I’d leave, they’d want to get all that back from her.”

With the help of a sympathetic family friend, Tamara hatched an escape plan. She booked a flight to New York and arrived at JFK Airport in June 2012, afraid, confused, and alone. She wound up in detention for four months. After she was released, Hammami’s organization provided a small stipend, but, despite having earned her GED and completed a variety of certification courses, she hasn’t been able to achieve her goal of becoming a nurse, owing to a misspelling of her name on her immigration paperwork. Because of the typo, she has been unable to obtain a state ID, and without that, she can’t enroll in nursing school.

With Hammami’s help, Tamara found work as a server at a restaurant in Brooklyn, and she hopes to enroll in nursing school in the coming year. Though still bitter about her months in detention, Tamara says the tribulations were worth it in the end.

“The good thing is, I’m free from everything now,” she says. “The good thing is the freedom. I’m finally able to think straight. The people here, they’re accommodating. People don’t even know you, but they just want to help you.”

Not every asylum seeker is as fortunate. Of the roughly 68,000 people who applied for asylum in 2012, only 29,000 had their requests approved. Reasons for rejection can run the gamut from security concerns to fraudulent claims, but in many cases the decision whether to approve an application appears to be cruelly arbitrary.

A series of reports by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University “found extensive disparities in how the nation’s immigration judges decide the thousands of individual requests for asylum that they process each year.” In New York, where judges decide one out of every four asylum cases in the United States, the disparity has improved in recent years but still remains an area of concern. One judge approved just 5 percent of asylum cases in a single year. Another judge in the same building approved 67 percent of such cases.

The inherent randomness is commonly known as “refugee roulette,” a phrase coined in a 2008 Stanford Law Review report. Analyzing more than 270,000 decisions by immigration judges and asylum officials over a four-and-a-half-year period, the authors concluded that “in many cases, the most important moment in an asylum case is the instant in which a clerk randomly assigns an application to a particular asylum officer or immigration judge.”

Jaya Ramji-Nogales, a professor at the Beasley School of Law at Temple University and a co-author of the refugee roulette study, says the problem boils down to a matter of time and resources. Immigration judges typically lack both. Facing a backlog of more than 354,000 cases — an 85 percent increase from five years ago — judges are forced to make snap decisions about complex legal issues that can have life-or-death consequences. A recent Washington Post story quotes one immigration judge who describes the current system as “like doing death-penalty cases in a traffic-court setting.”

“In comprehensive reform, we see money for night-vision goggles at the border, everything the border patrol could possibly want,” Ramji-Nogales says. “But we don’t see the same funds directed to immigration courts. That’s huge. Who wants to be the person in this political climate that says, ‘Let’s pour money into immigration court’?”

First Friends program director Sally Pillay keeps a map of detention centers nationwide.
First Friends program director Sally Pillay keeps a map of detention centers nationwide.

Every asylum seeker has a heartbreaking story to tell. Unfortunately, the tales aren’t always true. In 2012, federal prosecutors in Manhattan filed an array of charges against 30 attorneys, paralegals, interpreters, and others accused of helping dozens of Chinese immigrants file fraudulent asylum claims. One lawyer was caught on tape telling his client to “just make it up” if immigration officials probed for details of the forced-abortion narrative he’d scripted for her.

The high-profile Chinatown case — it was the subject of a front-page story in the New York Times, headlined “An Industry of Lies” — has contributed to backlash against asylum seekers that advocates fear could have tragic consequences for those with legitimate claims.

The elected official leading the campaign against asylum seekers is Bob Goodlatte, the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. On February 11, Goodlatte presided over a hearing for the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security ominously titled “Asylum Fraud: Abusing America’s Compassion?”

“Our nation’s record of generosity and compassion to people in need of protection from war, anarchy, natural disaster, and persecution is exemplary and easily the best in the world,” Goodlatte began. “We grant asylum to tens of thousands of asylum seekers each year. We expect to continue this track record in protecting those who arrive here in order to escape persecution. Unfortunately, however, because of our well-justified reputation for compassion, many people are tempted to file fraudulent claims just so they can get a free pass into the United States.”

Goodlatte claimed that 70 percent of asylum applications are fraudulent, and stated that “the rule of law is being ignored and there is an endemic problem within the system that the [Obama] administration is ignoring.”

The 70 percent statistic comes from a 2006 report from the Government Accountability Office on benefit fraud. The authors analyzed 239 asylum cases and concluded that 29 of them — or 12 percent — were fraudulent. To reach the alarming 70 percent figure, Goodlatte included an additional 138 cases from the report that exhibited “possible indicators of fraud.”

He also cited “a separate DHS report [that] shows that the Obama administration is abusing current law by not detaining certain individuals seeking asylum.”

Upon request, Goodlatte’s office provided the Voice with a draft copy of a 2012 DHS report to Congress titled “Detained Asylum Seekers.” According to the report, 68,795 people applied for asylum in 2012. Of those, 24,505 (roughly 36 percent) were detained, including 796 in New Jersey and 302 in New York. The average stay was about 79 days, but nearly 25 percent were held for 90 days or longer.

In point of fact, anyone who sets foot in this country and seeks asylum is detained, if only briefly. Those who meet the criteria to be considered an “affirmative” applicant — meaning they applied within a year of arriving, possess proper identification, and followed regulations — are rarely detained for any length of time.

“In practice, only a very small number of affirmative asylum applicants are detained,” the report reads. “On the other hand, many defensive applicants… are detained for at least some portion of the processing of their immigration cases.”

Those “defensive applicants” — people fighting deportation because they fear returning to their homeland, including those who passed a “credible fear” interview — accounted for more than 23,000 cases of detention in 2012. Defensive applicants include people who failed to apply for asylum within a year of arriving in the U.S. and individuals like Hussein Mohamed, the young Somali detained in New Jersey. His mistake was to walk across the border and immediately approach a border patrol agent to make his claim. By crossing on foot and essentially turning himself in, Mohamed became a member of a subset of asylum seekers subject to “expedited removal,” a type of deportation proceeding with mandatory detention.

“In the perverse way the system works right now,” LIRS attorney Megan Bremer explains, “if you come to the border and ask for asylum, you’re considered a defensive asylum applicant. If you actually leave the airport — I don’t know where you go — but the next day, you go to the immigration office and ask for asylum, then you’re affirmative. It makes no sense.”

Bremer says the results of the ongoing pilot project with ICE prove that asylum seekers should not be incarcerated. “The people that are being referred [by ICE 
officials], they represent no danger to our community,” he insists. “They have credible claims. They would be released except for the lack of community ties.”

It costs about $160 per day to keep each asylum seeker in immigration detention. It costs nothing to release them on parole to the nonprofit groups participating in the LIRS pilot program. Bremer says the fiscal considerations are helping “put feet to the fire” to prove to Congress that the program is safe and saving taxpayers money. The federal budget for immigration detention and deportation stands at $2.8 billion a year, with less than $100 million devoted to alternatives to detention such as electronic ankle monitoring.

Bremer says the lack of federal funding for the pilot program “really limits the ability to deepen the capacity or scale up across geographic areas. It’s not going to grow to meet the need without deeper pockets.”

In order to secure additional funding after the pilot programs in New York, New Jersey, and San Antonio, Texas, end in June, Bremer and other advocates must convince politicians like Goodlatte, ICE officials, and the general public that asylum seekers deserve compassion. Misconceptions about the asylum process and suspicions of fraud make matters difficult.

The uncomfortable truth is there is no surefire way to prevent fraud. The very nature of asylum requires officials to take people at their word to a certain extent. Documents and witness testimony are available in some instances, but short of personally traveling to conflict zones like Syria or lawless corners of Somalia and Pakistan, there is often no way for officials (or journalists, for that matter) to independently verify the facts as asylum seekers tell them.

A 31-year-old Pakistani man named Khan incarcerated at a New Jersey detention facility tells the Voice he has spent the past seven months behind bars waiting for a decision on his asylum claim. He says he was forced to flee his home in Pakistan’s tribal region after the Taliban executed his parents and threatened to kill him, his wife, and their children.

“The Taliban, they killing all the time,” Khan says in broken English. To emphasize this point, he lifts his hands and makes a tat-tat-tat noise as if hoisting a machine gun. “The Taliban doesn’t know the word ‘sorry.’ You may be fine for one year, two year, three year, four year — then maybe 15 years they come for you.”

Khan explains that a judge had asked him for police reports of the killing and death certificates for his parents, but those records either didn’t exist or were impossible for his friends and family in Pakistan to obtain. It’s likely impossible to verify his story without visiting his village to investigate.

Khan tells his tale the same afternoon Mohamed speaks of his escape from Somalia. As the African describes walking through a Brazilian jungle with human smugglers and dodging bandits along the migrant trail in Central America, he is clearly aware of how implausible it sounds.

“I tell the truth,” he interrupts himself to declare. “I cannot lie before God.”

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Mosh Pit Paintings Capture the “Barbaric Yawp” of New York Hardcore

Update: See photos from the exhibition’s opening.


Dan Witz is painfully familiar with the sweat-stained violence of New York hardcore punk concerts. Attending shows in Brooklyn and Long Island by the bands Agnostic Front and Vision of Disorder, Witz has suffered black eyes, a broken finger, and various cuts and bruises. He once had a camera slammed into his face. He started wearing steel-toe boots to protect his feet.

See also: The Oral History of NYC’s Metal/Hardcore Crossover

But now, standing in front of one of the massive paintings that resulted from Witz’s experiences, the abuse seems totally worth it. At nearly six feet across, the canvas is huge. It’s alive with the feeling of bones cracking and the dull thud of flesh slamming into flesh. The scene is organized chaos, with pale tattooed limbs flailing aggressively. In the vortex of the pit, a skinhead with sleeves of tats protruding from his tank top has the facial expression of a wild, hungry animal released from a cage.

“This guy is just fucking crazy,” Witz says. “He didn’t even know where he was. He ran into me and it was like a horse. His eyes — he didn’t even see me. He’s like, ‘Sorry, man!’ and then he just started going again, so I followed him around. He’s in all my paintings several times. He’s in this one, yawping in the background. I love that guy.”

With eyeglasses dangling around his neck and a frizzy head of gray hair, the 56-year-old Brooklyn artist is not the guy you imagine getting banged around in a mosh pit with angry skinheads. Witz borrows a phrase from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” to describe his fascination with hardcore music: “the barbaric yawp.”

“That’s sort of the essence of this kind of music,” Witz says, perched atop a stool in his cluttered, attic-like studio in Williamsburg. “The barbaric yawp. ‘I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.’ The problem with that fucking thing is they used it in Dead Poets Society, so it’s kind of lame now, but I don’t care.”

Attending concerts is essential to making his paintings, but Witz is not exactly a fan of the music. He is drawn to the energy of the crowd, the out-of-body experiences and uncorked aggression that come with a soundtrack of thrashing power chords. Getting the shit kicked out of him, he says, is a way of “trauma bonding” with his subjects.

Witz has painted mosh pits for more than a decade, and on April 5 he will display his newest work at a solo exhibition at Jonathan LeVine Gallery in Chelsea. The show is titled “NY Hardcore,” and the works are a testament to the enduring popularity of the genre. The music dates back to the late ’70s and ’80s, but can still be heard today at clubs like Revolution on Long Island, and Saint Vitus and The Acheron in Brooklyn.

“There’s an authenticity, ultimately, that is there that you don’t find in other music, a kind of a rawness,” says gallery owner LeVine, who came of age at New Jersey hardcore shows. If you’re growing up and feel alienated, if you’re some sort of creative weirdo, it’s the place you go and let your aggression out. It seems negative, but there’s camaraderie, and the spirit of it is more positive. Dan’s painting represents this struggle and violence, this aggression, a lot of things.”

Born in Chicago, Witz came to New York in 1978 to study art at the Cooper Union. Witz says the city’s punk scene “had already become about hair and having the right leather jacket,” but the don’t-give-a-fuck vibe of the gritty East Village inspired him to create street art and join a band.

Witz ended up playing keyboards for Glenn Branca, the avant-garde composer and noise rock pioneer who mentored Sonic Youth. The music was droning, almost unlistenable, and often used weirdly tuned and modified guitars. Witz chooses the words “super challenging” and “super loud” to describe the sound, with live performances that were “crazy absorbing.”

“I was actually a crappy musician,” Witz says. “That’s why they liked me, because I couldn’t play. It was a non-musician movement. Knowing how to play or knowing chords wasn’t the idea. It was very intense. People were really into it and really passionate about it. Every concert was a real group lift. It wasn’t bogus. It wasn’t bullshit. It was real.”

Witz eventually quit the band to pursue his art career full-time, a move that proved wise. He went on to become a godfather of the street art movement, and he works on a prisoner rights campaign with Amnesty International. He gets paid to tour Europe and North America making creepy street paintings of figures behind bars.

“I really mourned that I would never feel that intensity [of performing] if I went back to painting, which I was of course totally wrong about,” Witz says. “Not only do I get to do [the mosh pits], but street art is crazy intense, running around with the cops and going to Europe and attacking cities and stuff. I was wrong about that — my career is about sustaining that type of intensity I felt while performing.”

Witz spends about four months creating each painting. He uses a camera mounted on a pole to photograph crowds at the concerts, then digitally edits files from several different shows to create a collage of his favorite characters. He prints a base layer in green on the canvas, and then meticulously paints over it to bring the subjects to life. He says the technique is modeled on the work of classic painters such as Breughel, Vermeer, and Rembrandt, and his style involves creating “a subliminal feeling of unbalance and just sort of fucking with all the sort of rules of traditional stable painting.”

“I think about those guys while I paint,” Witz says. “That’s how I do ’em. I know all their stories, their biographies, and all that. It’s like when I was in bands, there were people like the Sonic Youth guys. They were so smart. They just, every song, they knew every riff — ‘oh yeah, and you did the drum fills like that’ — they were really involved in that shit. I’m the same way about these guys.”

Witz has struck up a friendship with Tim Williams, the lead singer of Vision of Disorder. The men are neighbors in Brooklyn, and Williams says he was initially skeptical when his artist buddy told him about his plan to photograph and paint mosh pits at his concerts.

“He showed up with all this gear in the pit getting knocked around,” Williams says. “I was like, man, he’s really getting in there. He was so into it. Then later, to see them come to life, it was like, whoa. He was really serious. It’s a crazy feeling to see the crowd though a snapshot like that. For a second you can kind of remember that show and where you were and the expression on people’s faces.”

Oddly enough, Witz doesn’t listen to hardcore when he’s working on the paintings. Instead, he says he prefers mellow, minimalist jams by Brian Eno and other ’80s electro masters.

“The music sort of leavens it out a little bit so I don’t get too crazy in my head,” Witz says. “I’m not really a fan of hardcore. I’m a fan of the concerts. It’s the same thing as the music I used to play. I never listened to it recorded. You just have to go and see it. It’s like these paintings — you have to see them in real life. When you actually see these things in person, I want them to grab you by the balls.”

‘NY Hardcore’ opens on April 5 at Jonathan LeVine Gallery.

Ten Metal Albums to Hear Before You Die
The Top 20 New York Hardcore and Metal Albums of All Time
The Oral History of NYC’s Metal/Hardcore Crossover


 

Categories
Neighborhoods NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

DARK WATERS

Equal parts urban adventurer, stencil artist, and photographer, Brooklyn’s multitalented Logan Hicks has new work on display at a pop­up exhibition on the Lower East Side by PMM Art Projects. Known for stenciling surreal floating figures onto dark cityscapes, Hicks has titled his latest project “Love Never Saved Anything.” He promises photos that depict “forbidden areas of the urban environment and unique vantage points,” as well as intricately layered stencils inspired by underwater photography and the feeling of being “adrift in a sea of uncertainty.”

Fri., March 7, 6:30 p.m., 2014

Categories
Neighborhoods NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

GEEK OUT

The fourth season of HBO’s Game of Thrones doesn’t premiere until April 6, but those familiar with the lands and legends of Westeros and Essos have already found their way to Over the Eight in Williamsburg. Every second Sunday since January, Thrones aficionados have gathered for a trivia tournament as epic as George R.R. Martin’s fantasy series. The competition is organized by Thrones ultra-nerds Upjumped Sellswords, and features five-person teams with cheeky names like Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things vying for bar discounts and a mystery grand prize by answering obscure questions about Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books. TV-only fans should be wary of spoilers, and though the live event lacks the show’s signature mix of gratuitous nudity and violence, the atmosphere is reportedly lively, with craft beer and cocktails offered at happy hour prices throughout the night.

Sun., March 2, 6 p.m., 2014

Categories
ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

“Amaze”: Rikers Juvenile Inmates Get New Art From British Street Artist Ben Eine

Rikers Island is a dismal and dangerous place. Spread across 415 acres of repurposed landfill in the the East River between the Bronx and Queens, the island is home to more than 12,000 inmates in 10 separate jail facilities. There were 73 stabbings and slashings committed by inmates in 2013, and the general reputation for brutality, rape, and abuse earned Rikers a ranking among America’s 10 worst prisons last year. It’s basically the last place on Earth that a street artist like Ben Eine wants to find himself.

Eine was arrested multiple times for vandalism during his days as a graffiti writer, and he has pulled off some impressive stunts (including painting the West Bank barrier in Palestine with Bansky), but his recent daylong stint in Rikers was completely legal and voluntary. In fact, a warden actually invited Eine to paint a wall inside the jail, part of a new program aimed at inspiring young inmates with art. I profiled Eine and his new gallery work last week for Village Voice, and he invited me along to document what promised to be a surreal experience inside New York’s notorious lockup.

Street artist Ben Eine painting inside a jail facility on Rikers Island
Street artist Ben Eine painting inside a jail facility on Rikers Island

I met Eine and his accomplices Ben, Julio, and Lorenzo at a painfully early hour on a frigid Thursday morning last week. We nursed coffees, and stopped to gather the essential supplies — spray paint and cigarettes — before heading to Rikers. The island’s only connection to land is a narrow bridge on the northern tip of Queens with guardhouses at either end. Although a prison official had invited Eine to the jail, the artist has the word “GUILTY” tattooed on his neck and generally looks the part of an erstwhile graffiti writer. The awkwardness was palpable when we arrived at the first guardhouse.

Eine’s partner Ben rolled down the window and announced, “We’re here to paint a wall,” sounding as cheerful as possible with his British accent.

The guard surveyed the bleary-eyed and bearded artists. He looked confused. “You’re here to post bail?”

Eine at work at the Robert N. Davoren Complex on Rikers Island
Eine at work at the Robert N. Davoren Complex on Rikers Island

After a few minutes of convincing, we were ordered to park, unload all the paint and gear, and wait for another guard to come ferry us across the bridge. Eine lit the first of many Marlboro Lights, and we stood shuffling our feet and rubbing our hands. The forecast called for a high of 25 degrees, and the wind on the exposed parts of the island is bitterly cold. After 30 minutes, our ride arrived: a beat-up Department of Corrections inmate transport van with a riot gear helmet rolling around in the back.

The driver was a friendly Puerto Rican guard who introduced himself as Q. As we crossed the bridge onto the island, Q patiently answered our questions about the jail (yes, somebody managed to escape once; no, conjugal visits are not permitted) and guided us through the remaining security checkpoints. As we arrived at our destination, the Robert N. Davoren Complex, or RNDC, a call came over the radio in the van saying a suicidal inmate was threatening to jump from the fourth floor somewhere above us.

“You believe this friggin’ guy?” Q said. “Welcome to the RNDC.”

We were escorted into the office of warden Antonio Cuin, which was filled with stacks of paperwork, drawings, framed photographs, souvenirs, and boxes of spray paint. Cuin was absent, but Q assured us he would stop by later in the afternoon to check on the progress of Eine’s painting. The warden, we later learned, grew up in the Bronx with old-school graffiti writers, and has maintained an affinity for the craft.

The graffiti wall inside the yard of the RNDC on Rikers Island
The graffiti wall inside the yard of the RNDC on Rikers Island

Several prominent graffiti and street artists preceded Eine inside the RNDC at Cuin’s invitation. Their art now decorates the main yard inside the facility, including a massive work by French artist JR of an eyeball that covers the entire exterior of one building. The famed artist REVOLT also painted his name on a wall inside the jail, but the word apparently sent the wrong message to prisoners and was promptly whitewashed.

Q confiscated our cell phones and ordered us not to smoke or take pictures around the inmates or staff. He led us through the corridors of the jail, which were decorated with several small murals, including a cheesy beach scene that only served as a reminder of the glacial temperatures awaiting us outdoors. We passed through a musty gymnasium, and exited into a large grassy area surrounded by 18-foot fences topped with razor wire. It felt empty and deserted.

An enormous guard who seemed in charge of the area surrounding the gym was wearing a fur-lined trooper hat and designer sunglasses, which made him look like a taller version of Rick Ross. When he learned the artists would be working outside all day, he unleashed a booming peal of laughter.

“It’s man against God,” the guard howled. “You’re not just fighting against the canvas today but the elements and God almighty. Who will win? My money is on the artists.”

Eine has a laugh with an equipment operator at the RNDC
Eine has a laugh with an equipment operator at the RNDC

Eine quickly got down to business, sketching the word “AMAZE” across the exterior of the gymnasium in letters about 15 feet high and 5 feet wide. The artists had a hydraulic lift at their disposal, and its operator asked Eine, “Are you that anonymous British artist who paints the side of a building and suddenly it’s worth millions?”

“Nope,” Eine said. “That’s the other one.”

It was a bizarre spectacle seeing the artists paint immediately below a row of surveillance cameras and coils of barbed wire, but the vibrant red and blue piece quickly began to take shape. The artists wore latex gloves, which kept paint off their hands but also caused their fingers to go numb from the cold. Unable to feel the cap on his spray can, Julio accidentally shot a puff of bright blue paint onto his bearded chin.

“Shit,” he cursed. “I look like I just went down on a Smurf.”

The Rick Ross guard returned with a pot of hot coffee — “that prison coffee, it’ll keep you up for three days” — and entertained the artists with stories during their break. The guard reported that there are more than 200 gangs active inside the jail, including “a gang that’s not a gang” called NFL, or Neutral For Life. The RNDC is “by far the most volatile” facility on Rikers, he explained, because it is filled with teenagers.

“They come in not knowing shit about shit,” the guard said. “They just know they don’t want to be nobody’s bitch, so they fight.”

A basketball stuck in razor wire near Eine's painting on Rikers
A basketball stuck in razor wire near Eine’s painting on Rikers

Other guards joined the conversation and began discussing inmate habits. We learned that Jerry Springer is by far the most popular TV show. (“You try to change the channel when Springer is on, your ass ’bout to go toe-up.”) We were also told that a popular makeshift meal prepared by inmates consists of canned tuna mixed with crumbled Doritos and ketchup.

“There’s always vacancy here,” one of the guards said, making a sales pitch like a real estate broker. “It’s a gated community, you’ve got 24-hour security, beachfront property, catered meals …”

But as we ate lunch (a perfectly appetizing menu of roast chicken, French fries, and cheeseburgers with wheat bread slices for buns), the artists agreed they’d rather not return to Rikers as inmates. Throughout the afternoon, we would periodically hear people screaming and wailing at the top of their lungs in nearby cellblocks. It sounded like someone was being beaten to a pulp.

Eine and fellow artists painting at Rikers. Inmates could occasionally be heard screaming from nearby cellblocks.
Eine and fellow artists painting at Rikers. Inmates could occasionally be heard screaming from nearby cellblocks.

To his credit, the warden seems committed to cleaning up the place. When he came to survey Eine’s painting, Cuin talked about using art as a tool for rehabilitation.

“I take it upon myself to beautify the facility,” Cuin said. “These kids come here, they look at it, they wonder how it’s done, they want to learn. It’s very creative. Instead of sitting a cell thinking about doing crime, they’re drawing. I have 500 young inmates here that are 16 to 18 years old. Why not try to change them? What better way?”

Cuin also acknowledged that he’s taking a risk by allowing graffiti artists inside the jail.

“This is the only prison that has graffiti in it,” the warden said. “This is, like, unheard of. This is career-ending — if something goes wrong, if the wrong message goes out, it could end my career. I could be done, boom, gone.”

A guard taking a photo of Eine and his completed painting
A guard taking a photo of Eine and his completed painting

Eine was friendly with the warden, but he clearly had mixed feelings about painting inside a facility that has housed countless graffiti artists busted by the vandal squad over the years. Instead of his own signature, he left the names of some previously incarcerated friends atop the wall. The painting is big enough that it should be visible from flights departing from La Guardia, but only inmates, guards, and prison staff will get to see the tribute up close.

“People always ask in interviews, ‘What’s the strangest place you’ve ever painted?'” Eine said, breathing a sigh of relief after leaving the island. “Going forward, I will definitely say it was this.”

In addition the piece Rikers, Eine also painted this wall at 325 West Broadway in Manhattan:

Eine's 'THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT-ISH' painting on a DDG building at 325 West Broadway
Eine’s ‘THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT-ISH’ painting on a DDG building at 325 West Broadway

[@keegan_hamilton]