Race File

By Gabrielle Banks Dec 15, 2002

An historic victory for the Blackfeet Nation may have Interior Secretary Gale Norton scrambling for a rock to hide under. On Sept. 17, a federal judge found Norton and Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Neal McCaleb guilty of four counts of contempt for gross mismanagement of a trust handling billions of dollars in revenue from Indian lands.

Six years ago, Elouise Cobell, the leading plaintiff in the Blackfeet case, sued to get the federal government to cough up billions of dollars belonging to approximately 300,000 American Indians and their heirs.

For more than a century, the Department of the Interior has held the purse strings to money belonging to some of the nation’s poorest citizens. In 1887, Congress confiscated 90 million acres from Indian tribes and offered it to white homesteaders. The unclaimed land was divided into allotments and leased to timber and mining companies and ranchers. The Department of the Interior was assigned to ensure Indians received the proceeds from these ventures. Cobell and her fellow plaintiffs allege that as much as $10 billion in royalties may be missing or stolen from the Individual Indian Monies (IIM) trust.t

Although Norton’s ineptitude is shameful, the Secretary stands in a long line of sketchy appointees. Clinton’s Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin were both found guilty of contempt for inaction in resolving the same case. And this summer one of Norton’s top aides, James Cason, admitted before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs that the GAO audits of 1928, 1952, and 1955, and 30 Inspector General reports since 1982 had found fault with the department’s management of the system.

In spite of their recent victory, Cobell and her fellow plaintiffs have learned too much from history to simply rest on their laurels. She puts it plainly: "It is time to put the IIM trust in competent, professional, accountable hands and make it into a proper trust."

Driving Without an ID

California immigrant rights advocates are retrenching after Governor Gray Davis’s October 1 veto of a bill that would have made it possible for immigrants seeking legal residency to apply for drivers’ licenses.

"Anything having to do with immigrants is still a hot button issue in California for any politician —especially in an election year," said California Immigrant Welfare Collaborative representative Maria Blanco. "Maybe there’s some way to look at the issue of eligibility that doesn’t single out immigrants but deals with the legitimate concerns about licenses for everybody who’s driving."

In 2001,California was among 15 states preparing legislation to provide immigrants access to drivers’ licenses. Civic leaders, labor unions, law enforcement, and businesses all backed the measures. The benefits of access to drivers licenses, these groups argued, included greater road safety, a greater number of insured drivers, and, ultimately, increased access to work and improved economic conditions for immigrants.

The California legislature was ready to open access to licenses prior to September 11. The state’s lawmakers passed the original version of AB 60 during the summer of 2001. All that remained for the bill to become law was for Governor Davis to sign on the dotted line. Now California, like other states, is struggling over whether to allow immigrants to obtain driver licenses at all.

In spite of resounding support for the law, Davis informed the state’s lawmakers in recent months that he would veto the bill if national security safeguards were not added to protect against terrorism. Davis struck a deal with the bill’s author Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) about amendments to the bill. Effectively abandoning his immigrant rights constituents, Cedillo authored new provisions that called for criminal background checks, proof of employment, and birth certificate requirements for immigrants seeking California I.D. In addition, the new bill’s most questionable conditions allowed more cooperation between the INS, the DMV, and law enforcement officials, something that Davis spent most of his political muscle pushing for.

Immigrant rights advocates actively organized against what advocates called unfair restrictions, discriminatory statutes, and efforts to criminalize immigration in the amended Cedillo bill. Blanco emphasized that "making distinctions in California law for immigrants versus others sets a bad precedent."

To further complicate matters, the political finagling pitted immigrant rights groups against the communities they work to support. For many immigrants who felt they had nothing to hide, Cedillo’s amendments were better than no bill at all. According to Governor Davis’s chief of staff, the final language—drafted by the Latino caucus at the eleventh hour—did not provide the minimum security requirements the governor had insisted upon.

But Blanco has not lost hope for future measures to open access to immigrants. "As we move further away from the upcoming election and 9/11, maybe people will move beyond a blanket response to security concerns and will look at these issues case by case," she said.