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Immigrant advocate group fights deportations in boro

Kateel is a staff member of the Families for Freedom, a non-profit organization billed as "a local group of immigrants facing and fighting deportation." He and a dozen other organizers gathered in Jackson Heights last weekend as part of their Anti-Deportation Summer 2004 campaign, designed to educate and empower immigrants who may be in danger of deportation. "We're involved in the struggle to get deportation laws changed and to make people aware of overzealous policing policies," said organizer Maria Muentes. "We'll be handing out fliers and informing people how to protect themselves and surveys to see how safe people feel in their neighborhoods. All these measures for security, they make us feel less secure."Muentes said Families for Freedom chose Jackson Heights as one of its target neighborhoods because of its large and diverse immigrant population. "We go to neighborhoods that have large immigrant populations," she said, noting that the organization had also worked in Washington Heights, Flatbush, Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park earlier in the summer. Members of the Woodside-based Latin American Integration Center, a non-profit group focused on Latino immigrants, helped pass out information."Jackson Heights is probably the most complex neighborhood," said Aarti Shahani, the founder of Families for Freedom. "We had to decide where to go and what languages to bring with us." That same day, the group also distributed information in the heavily South Asian area around 73rd Street and 37th Road, and the predominately Chinese and Korean neighborhood near 82nd Street and Roosevelt.Shahani said she, like many members of Families for Freedom, has experienced firsthand the devastating impact of stricter immigration laws after Sept. 11. "My father and uncle ran the family business, and in 1996 were arrested for improper tax transactions," she said. "They went through criminal proceedings. The day my uncle got out of jail, we thought he was coming home and Immigration got him."Now, Shahani said, her father is also facing proceedings to deport him to India. "Lots of people don't know if you have a conviction, even if it's just a misdemeanor, you can be deported," she said."We're not lawyers at all. We're just regular people reaching out to other regular people. Deportation hits you when you don't expect it," she said, glancing around the crowded sidewalk. "Look at Jackson Heights. I can safely say every other person here knows someone who is getting deported."Reach reporter Sophia Chang by e-mail at news@timesledger.com, or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 146.

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