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Global Peace & Collaboration Social Justice

On Supporting Immigrant/Refugee Rights

“Building Multi-Racial Coalitions Against Trump’s Criminalization Policies”

| Jose Calderon |

The families who are coming here from Central America, Mexico, and Latin America overall are coming as a result of years of this country’s foreign policies toward those countries and the growing violence and poverty. These reasons include the economic inequalities that exist between the U. S. and Latin America, the uprooting of farmers and peasants as a result of trade agreements such as NAFTA that favor the subsidized multinational corporate interests in this country, and policies that result in the undercutting of staple crops such as beans and corn. 

These policies have historically tended to separate immigrants coming to this country into political and economic refugees. Those coming from Cuba, for example, have been labeled as political refugees, as running from a country that this country has decided is persecuting them, and has welcomed them with speedy and immediate legalization status. This was also true for Vietnamese refugees who were also labeled as political refugees.

Those coming from Mexico or Central America are labeled as “economic refugees.”  In practice, the U. S. during the Reagan administration continued to grant refugee status to immigrants from Southeast Asian and Eastern Europe while making it difficult for others fleeing places like Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Being a refugee then has not been a matter of personal choice, but of government decisions based on a combination of legal guidelines and political expediency. How one is classified, as either an economic or political refugee, depends on the relationship between the U. S. and the country of origin and the international context of the time. It is problematic because it is not an economic mode of incorporation but a political status, validated by an explicit decision of the U. S. government.

The immigrant and refugee families from Central America come from countries where U. S. companies have been using their cheap labor and resources historically. The immigrant and refugee families are also running from drug cartels who would have no success were it not for the demand of the consumers that are primarily located right here in the U. S. Many are hoping to be reunited with parents or relatives already living in America, and they cross the border without papers because there are virtually no legal ways for them to immigrate. Nor can their undocumented parents return home to get them.

The media primarily blames the immigrant and refugee families for leaving because of gang violence but there are deeper issues here. A lot of the gangs in Southern California were formed as part of the great migration from El Salvador when Ronald Reagan and the U. S. government in the 1980’s intervened in that civil war resulting in 75,000 deaths. Many were arrested and deported and, in El Salvador and other central American countries we saw the rise of death squads and the mass incarceration of gang members. After the war, there was a rise in gangs and, although the U. S. government has not played any role in developing programs to deal with this issue, it has been organizations such as that of Homies Unidos who have been in the forefront of organizing and reducing the incarceration of gang members. Similarly, the Central American country of Honduras, from where many recent refugee children and families are coming from, has had a long history of wars that have displaced thousands. More recently, in 2009, the U. S. supported a military coup in Honduras that resulted in the ouster of the democratically-elected government of Manuel Zelaya.  Following the coup, there has been mayhem in the government with oppression of any groups that protest. The economy has been in dire stress and thousands of children and families have been thrown into the streets and, with nowhere else to go, have joined the thousands of refugees who have made their way to the U. S. Mexican border. This is also true for the thousands climbing on trains and leaving Guatemala, a country where the U. S. supported a military junta that killed thousands of indigenous people.

The media and politicians in this country bypass this history when they present the reasons why immigrant and refugee families are coming here and seeking asylum. As a result, we have had rabid racism and nativism displayed by angry mobs in places like Murrieta, California with cries that these families have no rights to be here and should be immediately deported.

This goes against the official reports by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which documents that almost 60 percent of the children and the families fleeing to the United States from Central America are legitimate asylum seekers.

It is only our efforts that can ensure that the asylum-seeking immigrant and refugee families stuck in places like Tijuana and those who are coming here are not removed through a non-judicial process but receive the opportunity for fair and full consideration of their legal claims with access to legal counsel. The cost of pushing these refugee and immigrant families back into dangerous or deadly situations is simply too high.   

These children and families, under international law, are entitled to be classified as refugees from violence and war. They have the right, as refugees, to have legal assistance and to have their cases heard before a judge. Those who are found to be refugees from violence or persecution have the right to asylum. However, instead of the U.S. asylum system recognizing the unique forms of persecution that these immigrant and refugee families have faced in their host countries, they are being denied any opportunity to articulate their claims for asylum — they are simply detained for long periods of time in inadequate facilities with little regard for their best interests.

In recent years, we have learned that it is only our organizing work at the grass-roots that can ensure legislation that is truly just and that rewards, not criminalizes, immigrant families and refugees for their contributions. We have moved forward from the period in 2004-2006 when California Governor Pete Wilson used Proposition 187 to get re-elected, when the Sensenbrenner bill was advanced by the anti-immigrant conservative right, and when there was a cutting of bilingual education and affirmative action. It was not that long ago that many labor unions were anti-immigrant. Now, in a recent session of the CA legislature, it was unions that helped to pass Assembly Bill 450, requiring an employer to require proper court documents before allowing immigration agents access to the workplace or to employee information. Alongside this, it is important to recognize the role that Dream Act recipients played in moving policy at a federal level like no other organization has been able to do in recent years. It was Dream Act recipients, before the 2012 elections, that showed their capacities for exerting this political power by presenting 11,000 signatures, courageously leading protests in the streets, and holding a series of sit-ins across the country that, along with many community-based legal teams, led to Obama’s executive order granting “deferred action status” and implementing a Deferred Action Policy.

The best strategy that these combined forces have been able to advance has been one that has organized multi-racially at the local, state, and national levels. On the local level, in the city of Pomona, I have been part of coalitions that have included immigrant, labor (UFCW), student, faith-based, and community-based organizations. The Pomona Habla coalition, on a local level, was an example of a coalition that took a local issue about immigrant rights and connected it to policy changes statewide (while building support to change immigration policies nationally). 

The coalition became a model for the passage of ordinances in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Baldwin Park allowing an unlicensed driver that permit an unlicensed driver to allow another licensed driver to allow another licensed driver to take custody of the vehicle rather than having it impounded. These statewide efforts led to the introduction of a bill by Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, and signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown, restricting local police from impounding cars at traffic checkpoint simply because a driver is unlicensed. This ultimately led to the passage of a bill allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses.

In connecting the local to statewide efforts it is no accident why our political representatives have taken positions of “no ban and no wall,” supporting California as a sanctuary state, and vowing to protect the rights of our immigrant and targeted communities regardless of what oppressive policies Trump tries to force the states and cities to carry out. In recent years, it is the immigrant rights and worker movements who have pressured legislators in passing landmark pro–immigrant legislative policies such as: in-state tuition, driver’s licenses, new rules designed to limit deportations, state-funded healthcare for children, a new law to erase the word “alien” from California’s labor code, and the passage of SB-54, called the Sanctuary bill, which prohibits California officers from inquiring about a person’s immigration status and limits cooperation between California police officers and federal immigration agents. There are other bills in recent legislative session that have included measures to block the expansion of immigration detention centers, to protect undocumented immigrants from housing discrimination, and to stop unjust workplace raids.

The roots of these changes on the state level have their foundation in the organizing that is taking place at the grass-roots. On the local level, we have our coalitions that have been exemplary in the development of a partnership between the community-based Latino and Latina Roundtable organization, the Pomona Economic Opportunity Center, the Pomona Valley Chapter of the NAACP, the Inland Valley Immigrant Justice Coaltion, and others. In creating connections between the educational and immigrant rights needs of families, the partnership has implemented workshops for hundreds of students and parents in how to qualify for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, how to obtain a Matricula Consular card (an official identification document issued by the Mexican government), and (with a coalition with the Pomona Day Labor Center) workshops on how to obtain a California driver’s license. The partnership on K-12 and college pipeline issues has led to further action, including family summits and some parents who have gone with us to Sacramento to educate our representatives on bills to provide safe schools for immigrant children and to ban the use of public funds to aid federal agents in deportation actions, as well as other legislation to protect vulnerable students and advance educational equity. We have also been organizing by getting our members and others to understand the Real ID, after the California DMV began offering a compliant Real ID driver license or ID card as an option in order for its holders to be able to board a domestic flight or enter a federal facility as of October 1, 2020. Most of the undocumented community is not eligible to receive these documents, which exposes them to vigilantism, profiling, and persecution. We therefore have been calling on our communities to opt for a non-compliant I.D. or driver’s license for use in our daily life in California instead – and in this way our documentation will be the same as that of an undocumented person with a driver’s license, thus making the distinction between “compliant” and “non-compliant” documents less effective as a mechanism to isolate our undocumented community.     

As part of these efforts, we have been organizing to defend the rights of our Central American families who have faced deportation with Trump’s actions to abolish the Temporary Protected Status program affecting many Central American families (some whom have been here for over twenty years) with children who have grown up in this country and are now attending school or college or have full-time jobs. When the Trump administration sought to deport over 400,000 immigrants with Temporary Protected Status (TPS), a coalition made up of organizations such as the National Day Labor Organizing Network, CARECEN-LA, and the National TPS Alliance led a campaign to defend the program. This multiracial coalition has been exemplary in organizing a grassroots network of over 70 TPS committees from across the country, in training new immigrant rights leaders, and in bringing two class-action TPS justice lawsuits that initially blocked Trump’s termination of TPS status for nearly half a million people from six countries: Haiti, El Salvador, Sudan, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Nepal. These efforts, while initially successful in achieving a one-year extension for all six countries covered by the two lawsuits, received a setback on October 12 when the Ninth U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Trump administration and cleared the way for ending the protection of the 400,000 families covered under this program. In response, the coalition is embarking on a “Road to Justice” bus tour exposing how Trump’s TPS terminations were motivated by racism, going to 54 cities in 32 states, and ending with advocacy actions and meetings with congressional legislators in Washington, D.C.

Instead of supporting billions for surveillance technology, including unmanned drones and military-grade radar and billions toward the construction of a double-layer fence, our coalitions have continued to fight to stop the deportations of our undocumented brothers and sisters, who are not  hard-core criminals, but whose only crimes are to work to feed their families here and abroad!   

We continue to point out through forums and our research that the focus of this administration on enforcement and against a speedy process  goes against the many studies that show how much undocumented immigrants would stimulate the economy if they were allowed legalization as quickly as possible. According to the American Progress organization, a speedier legalization would result in: an additional $1.4 trillion to the Gross National Product between the present and 2022; resident workers benefitting with an additional $791 billion in personal income; and the economy creating an average of an additional 203,000 jobs per year. Within five years of their legalization, undocumented immigrant workers would be earning 25% more than they are earning resulting in an additional tax revenue of $184 billion (with $116 billion to the federal government and $68 billion to state and local governments). Overall these statistics sustain the argument that the sooner asylum and legalization can happen, the more the significant gains for all working people and the greater the gains for the U.S. economy. 

A progressive immigration policy will take fighting for supporting the allocation of funds for processing and not for enforcement — to take the millions being proposed for more fence and more border officers and use it for a more efficient means of doing away with a backlog of thousands waiting in line for legalization. It needs to include additional resources to allow for hearings that ensure the rights and interests of the children and families in all proceedings, so that they can be released as quickly as possible from Border Patrol facilities that are inadequate.

Beyond the short-term need to ensure protection of rights and safe environments for our immigrant and refugee families, it is important to deal with the reality of conditions that are occurring in Latin American countries. What is true is the reality that immigrant workers will remain in or return to their homeland when the economy in these countries improves. If the U. S. federal government was really interested in doing something about immigration long-term, it would work to strengthen the sending countries’ economies. There is no reason why the U.S. could not develop bilateral job-creating approaches in key immigrant-sending areas. What is needed now and long-term is moving away from policies that merely focus on an enforcement that racially profiles our communities to policies that will speed-up the process to legalization, and advance a commitment to enhanced funding streams for economic development in the immigrant-sending countries (such as El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras).

It was refreshing after Trump’s announcement of non-support for DACA to see how people from all backgrounds walked out of schools and jobs to protest in support. Our support for the DACA program has been further bolstered by a study that just came out from Professor Roberto Gonzalez, of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, how DACA has benefited over 800,000 of our young immigrants, contributed to the nation’s workforce, and added billions of dollars to the economy. This study comes at a time when the Supreme Court opposed the Trump Administration’s policies to terminate DACA (sending the decision back to the Department of Homeland Security) and brings forward the significance of the November presidential elections in deciding its future.

With this administration’s attacks in opposing DACA and TPS, it is more important than ever to continue organizing marches and protests by our individual organizations alongside building multi-racial coalitions who are collectively carrying out voter turn-out efforts to ensure the election of representatives who truly represent the interests and issues of our communities; fighting alongside our communities against immigration and refugee policies that only focus on enforcement; and fighting for policies that will immediately lead to permanent residency and citizenship for our immigrant and refugee families with no expansion of temporary guest worker (bracero) programs and with labor law protections.