Equal Rights for All

An Interview with Azadeh Shahshahani

Sally Steenland interviews Azadeh Shahshahani, director of the National Security/Immigrants' Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia.

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Azadeh Shahshahani (Marko Robinson, ACLU of Georgia volunteer)
Azadeh Shahshahani (Marko Robinson, ACLU of Georgia volunteer)

This interview is part of the Young Muslim American Voices Project, a project launched in 2009 by the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative that seeks to strengthen the voices and visibility of young Muslim-American leaders.

Listen to the full interview (mp3)

Azadeh Shahshahani is the director of the National Security/Immigrants’ Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia. Azadeh previously served as interim legal director for the ACLU of Georgia. Before her move to Atlanta, she worked with the ACLU of North Carolina as Muslim/Middle Eastern community outreach coordinator.

Azadeh has edited and written various articles and reports on racial profiling and 287(g)—a section of the Immigration and Nationality Act that allows federal agencies to authorize local and state law enforcement officials to enforce federal immigration laws. Azadeh’s opinion pieces have appeared in print and online publications such as the Atlanta Journal Constitution and The Huffington Post.

She recently spoke with Sally Steenland, Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress, about her work with the ACLU as a Muslim-American attorney in the South.

Sally Steenland: There is a lot going on in Georgia right now regarding immigration. There are anti-immigrant bills, racial profiling efforts, religious discrimination, and more. What is your main focus right now?

Azadeh Shahshahani: A high priority is fighting anti-immigrant and racial profiling legislation. A number of anti-immigrant bills have been introduced in the state legislature, including three versions of the Arizona “show me your papers” legislation. Another bill would ban undocumented students from enrolling in public higher education institutions. Yet another bill would basically turn teachers and doctors into immigration officials by forcing them to report the numbers of their undocumented students and patients. Thankfully, most of these measures have died in one form or another. Two versions of the Arizona bill are still alive, and we are fighting hard to ensure they aren’t enacted.

S: You helped create the Georgia Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, which is working against these bills. And the ACLU where you work is fighting them, too.

A: We have had two lobby days. We call them “By the People” lobby days, and another one is coming up next week. They have been an ACLU tradition in Georgia for the past seven years. We partner with community groups and invite them to the capitol. The ACLU provides lobbying training, but it’s really a means for people to talk to their legislators. Every Tuesday the ACLU of Georgia coordinates the program. Two of the lobby days focused on immigrants’ rights issues, and the one coming up will focus on anti-racial profiling measures we are trying to advance.

We also hold press conferences. One highlighted the voices of civil rights and human rights communities, including the NAACP, the Coalition for the People’s Agenda, and other groups. We also had a press conference to mark International Women’s Day, where various women’s rights and reproductive justice groups spoke out against the legislation and its impact on women.

Yesterday there was a huge rally at the capitol that drew about 9,000 people. It was coordinated by one of the organizations in our coalition, the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, and co-sponsored by a number of groups. The coalition has helped coordinate activities and campaigns. Right now the focus is to get Gov. [Nathan] Deal to publicly commit to veto the legislation if it ends up on his desk.

S: In this coalition are faith groups, labor groups, civil rights groups, immigrant groups, business groups, and more. How did you bring them all together?

A: There are guiding principles for the coalition. You have got to be committed to advancing the human rights of immigrant and refugee communities. One goal of the coalition is to ensure that various immigrant, refugee, faith, women’s rights, and domestic violence organizations are not working at cross-purposes. Our groups are very busy, and not all of us have the capacity to have lobbyists at the capitol. The coalition aims to coordinate our efforts and ensure that we are pulling our resources together. We each bring different strengths and capacities to the table. We speak with different voices.

For example, at one recent hearing—and there were actually three hearings on House Bill 87, which was the House version of the Arizona measure—a great number of speakers signed up to testify in opposition to the bill. All the testimonies were powerful and came from many different perspectives—from faith, from business, and so forth. Some members testified about the Chinese Exclusion Act and the history of discrimination against Asian-American communities. They were horrified to see this play out again in another form. The collective impact of the testimonies was very powerful.

S: Did the voices and stories at the hearings have an impact? Did they make a difference to legislators?

A: I think they really did. Unfortunately the bill did pass out of committee and the chamber, partly because of the composition of the legislature. But it must have made some members of the legislature more reluctant at least to vote. They posed additional questions to the author of the bill who had to amend the bill’s language 26 or 27 times in response to the concerns and questions committee members were posing as a result of the calls they were receiving from constituents.

The faith perspective is powerful in Georgia, and several of our speakers quoted from the Bible. One teacher got up at 4:30 a.m. for three days in a row to ensure he could be there to testify because he was afraid of the impact of the legislation on the kids in his class and their parents. He came from a faith perspective, but he also reminded the legislature that we are different from Arizona because we are the South. In Georgia we have a tradition of southern hospitality, and he asked what happened to that.

S: Can you talk about who your opposition is? It sounds like you did have measurable success with powerful testimonies, that the bill did get modified because of questions to its author—but it still went through. How strong is opposition from the general public? What about organized political opposition?

A: I gave a speech at the rally, and the question I posed was: Who is behind this legislation? We have heard teachers, the faith community, business community, immigrant community, civil rights community, and others come out strongly in opposition to the bill. At the hearing, two rooms were packed because not everyone could get in. People were wearing stickers that said, “Immigrants are welcome here,” and ACLU stickers that said, “What happens in Arizona stops in Arizona.” None of these people got the chance to speak, but there is strong opposition to these bills.

To the extent that there is support for the bills, I think a lot of it is based on misinformation. An organization called FAIR put out a misleading study about the costs of undocumented immigrants to Georgia. Different organizations, such as the Immigration Policy Institute, have put out counterstudies. A Center for American Progress study showed that immigrants boost the economy with new businesses, and if undocumented immigrants leave Georgia, that would be a huge economic disaster for the state. Unfortunately, misinformation has spread far and wide, and legislators keep citing the FAIR study. Add to that the attempt to scapegoat immigrants for the economic woes of the state.

Again—the question I posed at the rally was: Who is behind this legislation? An investigation in Arizona showed that it was actually the private prison industry—specifically the Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA—that had drafted its legislation. That is very troubling—especially since in Georgia two of our four immigration detention centers are managed by CCA.

In recent years, there has been a boom in the number of immigrants detained in Georgia, some of them in horrible and inhumane conditions. If in fact the private prison industry is supporting this legislation for the millions of dollars they are making off the backs of immigrants, we need to have that answer. The legislators supporting this legislation owe an answer to their constituents and the people of Georgia.

S: So you will keep pushing that question.

A: Yes, and there are reporters digging into it. We hope that articles will be published before the bill proceeds further.

S: I want to ask you a question about reality and rhetoric. One of the things you must see on a daily basis is the gap between the everyday reality of Muslim Americans and immigrant communities, and the discrimination they face. There is the reality of their lives versus the harsh political rhetoric directed against them.

A: As I mentioned, Georgia has immigration detention centers, and it also has four counties with 287(g) policies in place. The ACLU of Georgia did a study of the impact of 287(g) on two of the counties, Cobb and Gwinnett, and it showed that 287(g) has made a bad situation worse. Unfortunately, our state doesn’t have anti-racial profiling laws on the books. With 287(g) in place, local law enforcement has additional power to crack down on immigrant communities and communities of color, and this has led to racial profiling and an atmosphere of terror for immigrant communities, as well as a feeling of isolation.

Instead of making communities safer, 287(g) has made communities less safe for all of us because it’s made immigrants afraid to talk to the police. In one of our studies, a woman whose kitchen was on fire was afraid to call 911 because of a bad experience she’d had with the police on the way back from a family outing in the park. I think that is a daily reality for immigrants in Cobb and Gwinnett counties. They are afraid of interaction with police because they have seen their community members picked up and placed in deportation and have not heard from them again. Families are being separated. With proposals coming out of the legislature that make life even more difficult for immigrants, I think the reality is very stark.

For the Muslim community, there is unjustified governmental surveillance. We hear about community members being targeted by the FBI at their place of worship or business. Often times there is no apparent reason—and sometimes the targeting happens with the cooperation of local law enforcement.

There have been mosques in Georgia that wanted to expand—specifically a mosque in Millburn. Unfortunately, the city council put up a barrier to this legitimate request. For me, the really troubling factor was that the mosque had been around for more than a decade. The headline in the Atlanta Journal Constitution right after the city council voted against the mosque proposal was, “The community defeats the mosque.” They made it sound as if the mosque was a foreign outsider. We wrote to them and they changed the headline, but that very much reflects the reality lived by Muslim Americans—being viewed as outsiders and not accepted as everyday Americans living their lives.

Discrimination has played out in other forms, especially religious discrimination. We saw this in the case of Mrs. Valentine, a Muslim woman who was our client at the ACLU, who was denied entry into a courthouse when accompanying her nephew to a traffic hearing. Before she entered, she was told that she had to take “that” off. The reference was to her headscarf. She said, “This is an expression of my religious faith. I can’t do that.” The guard insisted she had to. There was some exchange of words, and Mrs. Valentine said she was leaving. In her mind was the experience of two other women at the same courthouse with the same judge who were also refused entry if they didn’t take off their headscarf.

She said, “Bullshit, I’m leaving,” and the guard said, “ You are not leaving.” Guards put handcuffs on her, brought her in front of the judge, and sentenced her to contempt of court. She was forced to remove her headscarf, was held in a temporary facility, and then transferred on a bus chained with other prisoners to a jail and was held there for a few hours before there was an outcry and she was released. The experience of being humiliated for the expression of her faith was profound for her and her family.

S: In a situation like that, are there allies among faith communities who have historic memories of discrimination and feel very keenly the right to practice their faith?

A: Yes, and I should say that the experience of Mrs. Valentine led to the establishment of a policy by the Georgia Judicial Council because she was courageous enough to go before the Supreme Court Commission on Fairness and Equal Access to the Courts. She talked about her experience, and the judges on the Supreme Court Commission were appalled that a colleague of theirs would subject any American to this experience. They recommended that the Georgia Judicial Council adopt a policy that the ACLU of Georgia had drafted.

The policy talks about all people of faith and says that religious headgear or headgear worn for medical reasons should be allowed in court. It says that if there are security concerns, headgear can be searched by a same-sex officer and the person is allowed to put the headgear back on themselves. The policy balances free exercise of religion with security concerns. When Mrs. Valentine brought the lawsuit, she said that this is about making sure that all people of faith are ensured the free exercise of religion.

Communities of faith have been very supportive. For example, the Anti-Defamation League sent a letter to Georgia’s Supreme Court Commission on Fairness and Equal Access to the Courts. And when the controversy around the Islamic center in New York broke out last summer, the faith community in Atlanta spoke out together in opposition to the attacks on the Muslim community.

S: I want to ask you about lessons you have learned that might be useful to people in other states. Lessons about organizing, coalition building, messages, and messengers.

A: I think working in the South has its own particular challenges. Immigrant communities here are not as well established as communities elsewhere. Also working with Muslim communities has its own set of issues. For good reason, communities are cautious when it comes to cooperating with figures of authority such as the FBI. Many people have left countries with dictators where you do what you are told unless you want to risk ending up in jail. But I think increasingly with the younger generation, people are more and more aware of their rights. We see this with the younger generation in Latino communities, like the DREAMers who are asserting themselves and standing up for their rights.

I also think that working in the South, specifically in Georgia, does present a unique set of opportunities and perspectives. The history of the civil rights struggle is very powerful. As the civil rights community is involved in the immigrants’ rights movement, it can draw on some of those experiences. At the same time, because the immigrant community hasn’t been as established here, it was challenging at first to build up coalitions. Now I think people appreciate the opportunity to work together and learn from each other’s experiences. Coalition work can be challenging, but the key is to be persistent and keep at it because that is how struggles can be won—through building broad coalitions.

S: Let’s switch from coalitions to individuals. Can you tell us your story?

A: I was born in Iran four days after the Iranian Revolution. My name, Azadeh, means freedom. A lot of girls in my generation were named Azadeh, reflecting the hopes of our parents. Unfortunately, they were disillusioned. I came to the United States when I was 16. What appealed to me was the free exercise of religion, which is obviously not the case in Iran. It was the beauty of being free to express your belief and not having a set of beliefs or particular way of practicing your religion imposed upon you. It has been a privilege to work with the ACLU to stand up for this right.

It was definitely a difficult transition as a teenager in the South. I came to Memphis first. I value living in this country. Every time I look at the Bill of Rights I am amazed by the scope and strength of the language. Being able to fight for these rights everyday is an honor.

My parents wanted me to go to medical school. Michigan used to have this program called Interflex where you applied in high school and a place was reserved in medical school—so that path had already been determined for me. But in college I started taking courses in humanities and became involved in human rights organizations, and realized that I wanted to do human rights work. So my senior year in college I changed my mind and applied to law school. The only place I applied to was Michigan, and I was lucky enough to get in.

I went to law school to do human rights work. My husband and I graduated at the same time. He was an academic, so we went where he had a job, and it was North Carolina. It was difficult at first because I didn’t have any connections and hadn’t envisioned myself in the South.

I didn’t expect to find such a large Muslim and Middle Eastern community in North Carolina. It was 2004, at the height of the anti-Muslim crackdown, so I was looking for an organization or project that catered to the needs of the community. I approached the ACLU of North Carolina and proposed a project that would focus on empowering the community in terms of “know your rights” presentations. It would ensure that the community had access to legal representation through training, recruiting, and access to attorneys. I also started a campaign against racial profiling—bringing together African-American, Latino, African, and Muslim, Middle Eastern, and South-Asian communities. Then I moved to Georgia and luckily enough was able to stay with the ACLU and start my own project. I have been doing this work in Georgia since March 2008. It is great to be excited about the work you do.

One thing I like about this work is I am an attorney, but we don’t have single strategy focus. We use litigation as a tool, but our work is multipronged. We make use of various strategies, and if it happens that litigation is going to advance the cause, then that is what needs to happen. We work in a coalition toward building a movement.

S: My last question for you: When you look ahead, what concerns you most, and what gives you hope?

A: What gives me hope is the people of Georgia. Being at the rally with 9,000 people yesterday, I was so proud to be part of this crowd. There has been such an outburst of support for immigrant communities. People are realizing that this is outrageous and not what Georgia is about. We saw the same when the mosque was under attack in Loburn. Different communities organized and went there to show support. I think there is a strong element of solidarity among communities in Georgia.

What gives me concern is that it seems to be open season on Latino and Muslim communities. Among some politicians and those in the media, there doesn’t seem to be any element of restraint in terms of the ways to discriminate. When you talk about immigrants’ rights now, the most effective argument is to show how the bill will affect business interests and the economy. We’re told: Don’t talk about human rights, don’t talk about racial profiling.

I understand that we want to be effective in our arguments, and obviously immigrants are very important to the economy in Georgia. But we are talking about human beings. Are we saying that Muslim Americans and Latinos and brown-skinned people are not worthy? That they don’t have human dignity and we don’t need to focus on them as human beings? That is worrisome. I hope that people who haven’t realized that there are interests out there making a scapegoat of immigrants—I hope people wake up and realize that.

S: Given your efforts and the coalition’s efforts and the “know your rights” rallies, more people are waking up to realize that. Thank you very much for the work you do and for talking with us today.

A: Thank you. I appreciate it.

Listen to the full interview (mp3)

Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. For more on this initiative, please see its project page.

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Sally Steenland

Former Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative

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