By CAITLIN TAYLOR
Capital News Service
LANSING — The number of state civil rights complaints has not increased, despite increasing anxiety among immigrant and minority residents post-election, according to Agustin Arbulu, director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.
Vicki Levengood, the department’s communications director, said Civil Rights has monitored 86 bias incidents since Election Day. That’s a 10 percent increase in calls to the department’s toll-free intake center, but it has not resulted in a corresponding increase in complaints filed.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a national legal rights advocacy group, has tracked 1,372 bias incidents in the U.S. since Election Day. Of those incidents, 346 were motivated by anti-immigrant rhetoric, 260 were anti-black and 127 were anti-Muslim. Other incidents targeted LGBT groups, members of the Jewish faith, women and other groups.
“Civil rights violations happen all the time, so how many are a result of something related to the election is very hard to say,” Levengood said, adding that calls to the department’s intake center can result in complaints, a referral to another agency or general information on the center.
Arbulu said the increase in calls to the department indicates greater anxiety, particularly among Latinos and Middle-Eastern Americans, who feel most targeted by the federal administration.
“Because of how unpredictable the administration is, it is making people more nervous,” said Mir Quddus, president of the Islamic Association of Southwest Michigan in Benton Harbor. “People are anxious about what would be the long-term implications of what is happening.”
The association is a faith-based organization dedicated to fostering community among Muslims in Southwest Michigan.
Quddus said Muslims who are immigrants but not yet citizens are most affected by post-election anxiety because of the administration’s recent seven-country travel ban.
A week after assuming office, President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning refugees and immigrants from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen from entering the U.S. Islam is the predominant religion in the seven countries, though the order does not explicitly include barring access by religion. The Department of Homeland Security suspended implementation of the order.
Similarly, Adrian Vazquez, interim director of the Hispanic American Council in Kalamazoo, said the Hispanic community is concerned about the new administration and is afraid of being able to continue a normal life.
The council advocates for the social and economic well-being of Hispanics in Southwest Michigan.
“It has been the worst time ever for me since I have been in this country,” Vazquez said. “This is supposed to be a country that is welcoming to everyone.”
Trump has said he wants to build a wall along the Mexican border to prevent illegal immigrants from entering the U.S. In announcing his candidacy, he called Mexicans “rapists” and said they bring drugs and crime across the border. In recent weeks, immigration officials have increased detentions of undocumented immigrants, including targeting young people who had been protected by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status, or “Dreamers.”
While anxieties are on the rise, Arbulu said he is uncertain whether minority communities are simply more conscious of potential discrimination or whether more hate and bias incidents are occurring but going unreported.
“Hate and bias incidents do not necessarily rise to a complaint,” Arbulu said. “The fact that you say something doesn’t mean you can turn around and file a complaint with the Department of Civil Rights and think there is a remedy available — sometimes there’s not.”
For there to be a “remedy” in law for a complaint filed, discrimination must occur in the realms of employment, education, housing, public accommodation, public service or law enforcement. Michigan law covers discrimination based on race, religion, color, national origin, age, sex, disability, genetic information, marital status, familial status, height, weight and arrest record. Discrimination must have occurred within 180 days of filing a complaint.
If discrimination occurs in a private home, for example, no legal remedy is available for a complaint, Levengood said.
In addition to the limitations of legal remedies, Vazquez said many members of the Hispanic community are afraid of filing a civil rights or criminal complaint because they believe the organization or state department will release their information to the federal government, and then they will be targeted.
“Locally, we are trying to say that this is not true,” Vazquez said. “We are really encouraging people that if you are a victim of a hate crime, you can make a report with local enforcement, and you will be protected.”
In faith communities, Quddus said he believes anxiety hasn’t resulted in official complaints because “people resort to prayers to ask the creator to help them instead of seeking human intervention.”
Despite uncertainties, Quddus said he feels “blessed” to be living in a community in Michigan. From local churches to everyday people, he said he is surrounded by support.
“This is a very forthcoming community,” he said. “There are people who say, ‘You are not alone. We are with you.’”
Some of this support may have been fostered by increased civic engagement by Islamic Association members. Quddus said his organization has grown more active in the community, reaching out to neighbors to educate and ask for support.
Some minority groups are also looking to state officials for protection and to ease their anxieties.
The state has three ethnic commissions focused on the civil rights of Hispanic/Latino, Asian Pacific American and Middle Eastern American communities.
“Together, we will work with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights and elected officials to ensure protection and inclusion for everyone in our communities,” said leaders of these commissions in a statement by email.
Moving forward, the leaders said they are calling on elected officials, faith communities and school and business leaders to promote diversity and practice inclusivity and compassion.
If you believe you have experienced unlawful discrimination, call the Department of Civil Right’s toll-free number at 800-482-3604 or file a report online at http://www.michigan.gov/mdcr/.