Immigrant Rights Activists Hope ‘a Cloud Has Lifted’

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden speaks to the media after receiving a briefing from the transition COVID-19 advisory board on November 09, 2020 at the Queen Theater in Wilmington, Delaware. Mr. Biden spoke about how his administration would respond to the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

By Ashley Spinks Dugan

November 19, 2020

Day two of immigrant summit focuses on federal policy, ICE detention.

ARLINGTON- Immigrant rights advocates say former Vice President Joe Biden’s election as president earlier this month marked the end of an era. Gone was the historically anti-immigrant agenda of the Trump administration. Activists have a laundry list of policies they would enact tomorrow if they could. But for now, the presidential victory is enough. 

“The cloud of demonizing the immigrant population has lifted slightly,” said Nina Patel, a legislative assistant for Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.). Referring to President-elect Biden, she said, “I think he understands and approaches the issue (of immigration) with a lot of humanity.”

The second day of this year’s Virginia Immigrant Advocates Summit focused on that concept. People examined the damage done by federal policies over the last four years and what needs to change, in order for things to get better for local immigrants.

For example, having a new chief executive will symbolically undo a lot of the harm suffered by immigrants in the last four years. Biden can also reverse more than 1,000 anti-immigrant administrative actions of the Trump administration. Monica Berrera, director of strategic partnerships at the Immigrant Hub, hopes Biden starts with that.

Advocates formed The Immigrant Hub in 2017 in response to the issues surrounding Donald Trump’s presidency.

“For a while, we’ve been on defense,” Berrera said.

Not A Broken Philosophy

Now, immigrant groups feel that era of defense is coming to an end. The question remains, however, what happens next. The philosophy behind America’s immigration system is still a good one, advocates argued.

Patel called it a system “that values the inclusion of folks in our society,” and said the United States built the world’s largest economy on the theory of including everyone in its democracy.

However, individual agencies and the mechanics of the immigration process need a lot of work. Veda Beltran, a legislative assistant for Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), said the reputations of federal agencies like the Department of Homeland Security and ICE have been “absolutely tarnished” under Trump.

“We need to invest money in restructuring and rehabilitating those agencies,” she said. 

Biden has already committed to freezing deportations for 100 days and reinstating the DACA program. He also said he will end the use of for-profit detention centers. And of course, there’s the issue of reuniting 666 migrant children with their parents.

Activists would ideally like to see other measures implemented, including a pathway to citizenship. However, Patel pointed out that it’s difficult to gauge what exactly is possible until the fate of the U.S. Senate is decided. Right now, a slim Republican majority is likely, pending runoff elections for both of Georgia’s two seats in January. Biden’s capacity to address immigration issues may be limited to what he can do by executive action.

“Elections matter; voting matters,” Patel said.

Call Congress 

Monica Sarmiento, executive director at Virginia Coalition for Immigrant Rights (VACIR), moderated the first panel of the day. She pointed out that the issue of immigration intersects with many others. Climate change will lead to refugees coming from new places, particularly Central America, she said. 

Immigrants—especially single women of color—are at the forefront of a historic economic crisis in this country. Again, whether Democrats regain control of the Senate will determine if Congress can take action through relief bills or by extending Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for refugees.

In the meantime, and even if Republicans maintain a majority in the Senate, Patel encouraged folks to call their representatives. 

Executive Director for the Virginia Civic Engagement Table Irene Shin described her success in building coalitions at the local level by including chambers of commerce, faith leaders, and others. And while there’s no sense of immediacy in the Senate for economic relief, advocates can turn toward their statewide government. States have the power to implement new workplace safety measures, eviction moratoriums and minimum wage increases, Shin said.

Immigration and the Carceral State 

Participants on the day’s second panel, on ICE detention facilities in Virginia, did not mince words. America has a mass incarceration problem. The country houses 5% of the world’s population, community organizer Paola Henriquez pointed out, but a full quarter of its incarcerated people. 

Activists maintain that there is a direct connection between this reality and America’s detention and deportation system.

Henriquez is part of the Free Them All Virginia coalition, and said while the most urgent project of the group is to shut down the ICE facility in Farmville, its ultimate goal is abolition for all.

The Farmville facility was the target of significant controversy this summer after a severe COVID-19 outbreak. Nearly 90% of the facility’s detainees were infected. Immigrants staged a hunger strike to advocate for more sanitary conditions. Meanwhile, activists want all folks in detention released during the pandemic, and Free Them All has launched a fund to support quarantine housing for those let out on parole.

But beyond just freeing current prisoners, we need to talk about how they got there, said Silky Shah. Shah is the executive director of the Detention Watch Network.

“We really need to talk about how we criminalize people,” she said, and then combat the idea that anyone deserves to be incarcerated.

The effort to divest from the carceral system will be a grassroots political action. Panelists suggested challenging state and local budgets that invest in detention facilities. Local governments should invest in community-based initiatives instead, they said. 

Abolitionists admittedly face an uphill battle, because such decisions are often driven by profit potential. In Farmville, for example, ICE pays the facility $120 per person, per day. The surrounding Caroline County also profits. Furthermore, detention facilities bring jobs into their local communities. This makes elected officials hesitant to end contracts.

Immigrants Yet to Come

But each step activists take today to reform agencies, change the cultural perception of immigrants and divest from the carceral state will benefit immigrants yet to come.

This future population of immigrants was the focus of the day’s final panel. 

Jesse Franzblau, a senior policy analyst at the National Immigrant Justice Center, named two priorities for supporting this specific group. First, Biden should end the MPP (or “Return to Mexico”) policy, which he said deprives people of their legal right to seek asylum. Second, the government should seek to reunite families impacted by Trump’s family separation policy.

Del. Elizabeth Guzman (D-Woodbridge) offered closing remarks on Wednesday. The current candidate for lieutenant governor came to the United States from Peru with $300 in her pocket and a young daughter in two, she said. She worked three jobs to afford her one-bedroom apartment. She said her personal history means she will “always stand with (immigrants.)”

Now, she’s a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, who successfully defeated 287(g) agreements in her community. These are agreements of local law enforcement to cooperate with ICE. Guzman said immigrant activists knocked doors and organized to elect Democrats to both the county Board of Supervisors and the jail board. 

“It happened because people like you stood up when you saw injustice,” she said.

Ashley Spinks Dugan is a freelance reporter for Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected].

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