During this season of Hanukkah and Christmas, we hear voices that proclaim peace on Earth to people of good will. While the goal of world peace is universal, it can never come to be without justice. For justice is the pathway to peace.
Realistically, we live in an imperfect world, where injustice abounds. It is tempting for citizens to look the other way. Yet justice can prevail when people of good will join in an effort to correct abuses that dehumanize both victim and oppressor and incite violence.
At least five areas of blatant injustice warrant urgent attention: (1) poverty wages; (2) immigrant detention; (3) harsh sentencing; (3) Guantanamo; and (5) Palestinian oppression.
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1. Poverty Wages. While US poverty and the growing disparity of income have begun to receive overdue attention by the president, the public and the media, Congress has failed to renew extended unemployment benefits. In addition, food stamp benefits for eligible households have been cut by up to $36 a month (for a household of four). At the same time, our lawmakers have failed to increase the federal minimum wage beyond the current $7.25 per hour. How can an individual live a healthy life on $15,080 a year, not to mention a single mother or a family of four? As fast-food and other low-pay workers are demanding, the minimum wage should be at least doubled.
2. Immigrant Detention. According to Human Rights Watch, “The United States regularly fails to uphold international human rights law in its immigration laws and enforcement policies, by violating the rights of immigrants to fair treatment at the hands of government, to proportional sanctions, to freedom from arbitrary detention, to respect for the right to family unity and to protection from return to persecution.”
The US maintains the largest immigration detention system in the world, operating nearly a thousand sites at a taxpayer cost of $2.8 billion. Of the 32,000 immigrants in detention in January 2009, some 19,000 had no criminal convictions. According to The Washington Post, the current boom in immigration detention is driven by the so-called “bed mandate” law that requires the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to keep an average of 34,000 detainees per day in custody despite the fewer illegal crossings from Mexico. Just as the United States needs a just immigration policy, it must reform its harsh and indefinite imprisonment of immigrants.
3. Harsh Sentencing. The war on drugs, three-strikes rules and mandatory sentencing have put a disproportionate percentage of African-American men behind bars. In many cases, the possession of only a small quantity of marijuana or a minor shoplift have resulted in life sentences without parole. Such disproportionate punishments shock the conscience. We need to end what Michelle Alexander has termed “the new Jim Crow.” We need to stop mandatory sentencing, repeal three-strikes laws and terminate our failed war on drugs.
4.Guantanamo. More than six months have passed since President Obama addressed the force-feeding of hunger strikers: “Is this who we are?” he asked. “Is that the America we want to leave our children? Our sense of justice is stronger than that.” If so, why is this cruel practice continuing? On December 4, the military announced that it will no longer disclose information about the hunger strikers – on the shaky grounds that it “serves no operational purpose.” The Miami Herald reported that at the end of November there were 15 prisoners on hunger strike, all of whom were being force-fed. Force-feeding, solitary confinement and indefinite detention are continuing abuses that cry out for the immediate closure of Guantanamo – a still-unfulfilled promise of our President.
Palestinian Oppression. America responded to South African apartheid with economic sanctions, which helped bring down the nationalist government. Yet we continue to support Israeli oppression of the Palestinians with multibillion dollar military assistance to Israel. Iran is berated and threatened for its nuclear program, while Israel gets a free pass on its hoard of nukes at Dimona. No lasting peace can be achieved in the Middle East without an end to the occupation and the creation of a regional WMD free zone.
This holiday season is a good time for Americans to ponder the injustices committed in their name. It is time for citizens to demand fair treatment of underpaid workers, immigrant detainees, prosecuted minorities, Guantanamo prisoners and Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza.