What must we do to make immigration just and humane?

MAPA News & Analysis, May 2020

Protest march outside School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, where Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents are trained. Photo by Sunny Robinson, November 2019.
Protest march outside School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, where Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents are trained. Photo by Sunny Robinson, November 2019.

The following article is the third and last in “Voices from the Border”.  (Read Part 1 and Part 2)

by Sunny Robinson     

It is legal to seek asylum

Addressing this question has become more urgent than ever, with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic and the closure of the southern and northern borders!   

While many of us are able to remain at home in a relatively safe and secure setting, as we practice social distancing, we must keep in mind that none of the immigrants currently in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention or in the makeshift refugee camps along the Mexican side of the border are able to do so. This includes unaccompanied minors in Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) facilities. Ironically, it now also includes the staff of ICE, ORR, and Custom and Borders Protection (CBP), a fact that might provide us with a new lever to push on, since advancing asylum claims and releasing detainees now has the potential to protect staff as well as detainees. As legal advocates are vigorously arguing (although their efforts do not appear in the news), the presence of COVID-19 does NOT eliminate the right to claim asylum, though it has currently given Trump an excuse to close the border – one perhaps now supported by more anti-immigrant and xenophobic prejudice than ever.

The strong request made in Part II of this series – that everyone call their congressional reps and insist that the U.S. adhere to its own asylum laws — does not change. Call every week, every month. Ask all the candidates what they are doing to pursue genuine and humane immigration reform.  MAPA readers should especially demand this of Sen. Markey, who has been endorsed by this organization (and rightly so, given his historically strong anti-nuclear stance), but also thank him for the immigration advocacy that he and Sen. Warren have continued. It is surely hard for these offices to respond to such a demand at this time of national challenge; but calls coming into these offices give support and, hopefully, incentive to congressional folks who genuinely want to improve the current immigration situation. Only when enough of us are making such demands are our representatives likely to add this to their current agenda. And when have most of us had this amount of time to actually push these issues forward?!

Migrants waiting for a hearing in an Immigration "Tent Court" at the US Mexico border. Photo by Border Philanthropy Partnership
Migrants waiting for a hearing in an Immigration “Tent Court” at the US Mexico border. Photo by Border Philanthropy Partnership

Central to the current moment also is the demand that all detainees who do not pose a serious, violent crime risk – which is the vast majority of immigrants – ought to be released into the U.S. to join their family and friends. This is especially true for detained, unaccompanied minors. (On March 30, 2020 Politico reported that U.S. District Court Judge Boasberg declined to release immigrant families from detention centers in Texas and Pennsylvania. Instead, the judge said he would monitor the facilities to make sure Centers for Disease Control health standards were adhered to. Yet such adherence is utterly impossible in overcrowded ICE and ORR facilities, making the need to call for detainee releases that much more urgent.) What sense does it make to keep so many thousands of people locked up, in close quarters, lacking normal health care access, and with inadequate food?  What sense does it make to create potential incubation pools which will sicken not only the migrants but also the staff and subsequently their families? This is a dire situation that we must vigorously press our elected representatives to address.  

Make a sign: Release the Detainees. Take a selfie. Send it to your reps!  How many thousands of such messages could MAPA generate?

Elizabeth Warren has joined others in demanding that immigration courts be closed so that migrants, refugees and staff are not brought into additional close contact; and that any proceeding be conducted electronically so as not to increase anyone’s risk. While this is a good move that preserves social distancing and is highly recommended by the American Immigration Lawyers Association, it is insufficient given the crowded conditions of the detainees in the U.S. and metered asylum seekers living in the camps in Mexico. Additionally, we must insist that ICE arrests not occur in settings where people are already vulnerable, such as hospitals, health clinics, police stations and courts.

Actual courts proceedings ought, at the very least, to be replaced with electronic proceedings, which have appropriate translation and legal advocacy, so that asylum claims can proceed and the backlog of unaddressed cases does not increase. Or, since these measures would in fact be very difficult to carry out, we ought to go a step farther and seek the release of migrants so that they have the same chance of avoiding COVID-19 that the rest of us do. Instead, there are now reports of these migrants being deported to Guatemala, effectively denying their right to make a claim for asylum in the U.S.

After the current pandemic situation eases, we need to return to additional advocacy issues. Here in Massachusetts we have two pro-immigrant bills still in the legislative process that need to be passed: Safe Communities and Driving Families Forward- An act relative to family mobility. (See https://www.miracoalition.org/ for fact sheets and updates. MIRA, the Massachusetts Immigration and Advocacy Coalition, also has produced an excellent and detailed list of additional suggestions to safeguard immigrants and refugees. See Inclusive Response to COVID-19, also on the MIRA website.) Contact your state legislators’ offices urging their support of all these measures and these two pieces of legislation.

Ausra Kubiliis and Jeanne Gallo protest at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia. Photo by Sunny Robinson, November 2019
Ausra Kubilius and Jeanne Gallo protest at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia. Photo by Sunny Robinson, November 2019

At the national level, we need to advance broad-spectrum immigration reform. The best model I know is People First, outlined by Julian Castro. (See https://issues.juliancastro.com/people-first-immigration/) What Castro’s plan makes clear is the breadth of our task going forward.  Security and a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients is a completely insufficient measure.  As Castro articulates, there are millions of unauthorized immigrant persons in our country, many of whom have been here for years, if not decades, who are contributing daily to our society and economy and who also deserve a pathway to citizenship. Julian Castro’s proposal, again the best and most comprehensive proposal that I know, addresses three main areas: “…putting people first; creating a humane border policy; and establishing a 21st century ‘Marshall Plan’ for Central America.”

I urge us to advocate vigorously for migrants’ safety now. When we get beyond the pandemic, let’s work to fully welcome migrants and refugees into the U.S., creating legal options for the vast numbers of individuals and families who come fleeing violence, poverty and, increasingly, climate change, as well as for those already here. Our country’s military and economic history in Latin America has contributed to the poverty and violence driving so many people out of their homelands to seek safety elsewhere. In the name of justice and human rights, let’s demand that the U.S. help them in the many ways we can.

—Sunny Robinson is a retired public health nurse and decades-long human rights activist, focused largely on Central America, as well as an active member of the Mass. Peace Action Latin America Working Group and the Essex County Community Organization. She and Jeanne Gallo are available for presentations and discussions on current U.S. immigration policy and the actions needed to make it more just.