Posted on June 25, 2013 in Countdown

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A Drastic Blow to Voting Rights

Earlier today, the Supreme Court struck down in a 5-4 vote a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a law which has helped millions of Americans exercise their right to vote. Section 4(b) of the Act required states and counties with histories of racial discrimination to submit any change in their voting laws to the Department of Justice (DOJ) for pre-clearance. Before any change could go into effect, DOJ had to certify that it would not disenfranchise minority voters. This remains a crucial protection, as a number of states had discriminatory voting regulations rejected by DOJ just in the last few years.  Now, this provision no longer exists, and discriminatory voting laws – such as voter ID provisions or racially gerrymandered districts – can be enacted freely. The only way to stop them is filing a lawsuit, which can take years. As a result of the ruling, the rights of Arab American and other minority voters are less secure today than they were yesterday, and this decision should outrage everyone who believes all Americans deserve the fundamental right to vote. This ruling may also affect minority voters through language access, an issue not often addressed in media coverage. Today's Supreme Court decision comes on the heels of another problematic ruling yesterday, involving an Arab American plaintiff in a Title VII employment discrimination retaliation case. The Court's decision seriously weakens the ability of Americans, particularly minorities, to file lawsuits addressing discrimination in the workplace. AAI joined ADC in submitting an amicus brief to the Court in support of Naiel Nassar, the plaintiff in the lawsuit.   

Mohammed Assaf: Palestinian Idol and Ours Too

The realities of life under occupation and internal political division seldom afford Palestinians the opportunity to feel empowered. But over the weekend, Palestinians were uplifted as one of their own, Mohammed Assaf, won a coveted victory on the Pan-Arab TV show “Arab Idol.” The Countdown team (and the entire Arab world) can’t help but share in Palestinian euphoria. A 23 year-old wedding singer from the Khan Younis refugee camp in Gaza, Assaf almost didn’t make it on time to the show’s tryouts. Israel’s blockade on Gaza prevents Palestinians from traveling freely and Hamas was less than enthusiastic about letting Assaf leave Gaza. It was only after Palestinian officials reportedly stepped in to negotiate his visa out of Gaza that he was able to leave. After a quick bribe to Egyptian border guards, he was finally on his way to the contest in Beirut. But Assaf’s woes didn’t end there. When he got to the grounds where the auditions were taking place, he was too late – the doors to the contest were closed. So what did he do? He hopped the fence. Unfortunately, Palestinians are used to separation barriers, so it wasn’t a problem. On the other side, Assaf encountered yet another problem: he didn’t have a place in line, so he began singing. Noticing his voice, a fellow Palestinian waiting in line gave Assaf his ticket. His songs of Palestinian pride and resistance, coupled with his extraordinary voice, instantly made him a national hero, even more popular than his president, writes Arab American journalist Ahmed Shihab-Eldin. The trials and tribulations of Assaf’s journey are reason enough for anyone to consider his triumph  amazing. But for Palestinians – people who through the unfortunate realities of occupation are used to  hardship – this was a nationally significant moment of hope.

New York Times Editorial Board Slams NYPD's 'Overreach' on Spying Program

In Sunday’s paper, The New York Times' editorial board delivered a scathing critique of the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) legal overreach with regard to spying against the city’s Arab American and American Muslim communities. The Justice Department, the article’s authors remind us, has yet to come to a decision on whether or not the surveillance is legal. A federal lawsuit has been filed against the NYPD on behalf of those targeted by the spying program and another questioning the legality of stop-and-frisk is currently pending. Attorney General Eric Holder has said that the Justice Department is waiting on the verdicts in both those cases before his office can come to a decision on the legality of each program. In their article, the Times' editorial board did not pass judgment on whether the controversial spying practice is legal, but they did provide a compelling example of how the NYPD's program negatively impacts communities and frightens some away from free exercise of their religion.  We also know, given the so-called “Locations of Interest Reports,” which detail conversations overheard by NYPD officers surveilling Arab American-owned businesses, that Arab Americans are hurt by the stigma associated with being the subjects of surveillance. As the NYPD continue to spy on Arab and Muslim communities, the Times’ article helps keep the issue alive. They reject Commissioner Kelly's dismissal of criticism of his spying program, writing: "This arrogant approach tries to discredit legitimate criticism while justifying further overreach by a department with a history of abusive behavior. It is up to the courts to determine whether the Muslim surveillance program and the stop-and-frisk program are constitutional. What already seems clear is that these surveillance policies create suspicion and mistrust, which does not help the Police Department or anyone else." We couldn't have said it better ourselves.

Where in the World is Edward Snowden?

Over the weekend, the Edward Snowden saga got a lot stranger after the NSA contractor turned leaker fled Hong Kong for Moscow. The 30 year-old Snowden, who fled to Hong Kong last month and revealed details of some of the US government's most secret intelligence programs, has received assistance from the anti-secrecy organization Wikileaks and is currently holed up in the international zone of Moscow's international airport. Ecuador has furnished him with travel documents, and rumors have circulated that he may seek asylum there, or in Cuba, or Venezuela. In reality, no one but Snowden knows his true plans. Snowden's decision to flee Hong Kong was prompted by the Justice Department's announcement Friday that he would be charged with numerous violations of the Espionage Act, for which he could receive up to ten years in prison. Snowden's prosecution under the Espionage Act would be the tenth such case since the law's passage in 1917; seven of those cases have come under the Obama Administration, a number that reveals the distance between the President's actions and his promises of transparency. A law intended for use against foreign spies is now being used against Americans accused of leaking government secrets, a troubling development, to say the least. We can be sure American officials will continue to apply both public and private pressure on Russia, China and other countries to send Snowden home to face trial. One thing's for sure: a man with so many secrets will never want for attention from the world's governments.

Immigration Bill Nears the (Senate) Finish Line

The months-long saga of the Senate immigration bill (S.744) may be nearing completion. Senators voted 67-27 Monday evening to approve border security provisions in the larger bill, reaching a new deal that is outside the original compromise framework worked out by the bipartisan group of Senators known as the Gang of Eight.  The bill the Senate is considering, crafted over months, contains three main provisions: a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the US, strengthened border security to limit future illegal immigration, and an expansion of guest worker visa programs for high-skilled workers and farm laborers. Major concessions on border security have angered some advocacy groups, but if the bill can succeed in creating a path to citizenship for undocumented Americans, those concessions may prove to be well worth it. At least, that is our hope. Monday’s vote clears the way for a final Senate vote later this week where supporters of the bill hope to see it garner more than 70 votes, putting pressure on Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) to at least bring it up for a vote on the House floor. Speculation abounds about Boehner’s intentions; though the bill could easily pass the House with Democratic votes, the Speaker may be loath to break the Hastert Rule. If Republican lawmakers head home for the August recess without passing a bill, they may get an earful from anti-reform constituents, scuttling the bill’s chances come September. After months of negotiations, we have the best chance in years for comprehensive immigration reform. The bill deserves a chance for a vote. We hope the House hears that message.

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