UUSC Heads to the Capitol to Support Central American Immigrants

The fabric of immigration in the United States is frayed and in jeopardy of unraveling. Last month, we saw the latest in a string of appalling steps to trample the right to asylum as Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in charge of the nation’s immigration courts, announced he is reviewing whether or not sexual or domestic violence should qualify as persecution, and thus support a claim for asylum in the United States.

This action is yet another example of why Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) and a group of our members recently went to the U.S. Capitol to meet with Members of Congress to pressure them to reject the Trump administration’s efforts.

Lobby Day participants post in anticipation of meeting with Senator Kamala Harris’ staff. Senator Harris represents California.

Violence and human rights abuses have forced thousands of Central Americans to flee their homes in recent years– with a marked increase in forced migration since 2014. The Trump administration’s policies leave Central Americans at risk of human rights abuses in their own countries, and when they arrive at the U.S. border in search of safety and security.

The Trump administration has been dismantling the nation’s immigration policy, protections, and practices for more than a year. Limiting the right to request asylum in this country is only one part of a xenophobic campaign to criminalize immigrants and impede immigration overall, as shown by recent actions that have drastic and negative consequence for asylees, refugees, Temporary Protection Status (TPS) holders, and Dreamers, among other communities.

Recent evidence of Trump’s crackdown on immigration

Reports by independent NGOs working on the border show a major spike under this administration in criminal prosecutions of asylum-seekers—merely for crossing the border. Punishing people for seeking refuge is a violation of human rights and is often compounded by unnecessary family separation, prolonged detention, and wrongful deportation. Asylum-seekers, particularly Central Americans who cross at the U.S.-Mexico border, are in the vice grip of harm any way they turn.

Making our voice heard to our elected officials

UUSC and our supporters have a long history of joining immigrant rights coalitions and activists to protest family detention, support the rights of asylum-seekers, and most recently, decry the end of the protections for Dreamers and TPS holders.

 Recently, UUSC members and staff met with Members of Congress and their staff and stressed Congress’s power to enact legislation that can make a difference and the positive impact that constituent visits can have on the political process.

The conversations focused on two asks:  Funding in the FY2019 appropriations bill and protecting TPS holders from deportation via the SECURE Act (S. 2144) in the Senate and the American Promise Act in the House (H.R. 4253).

Lobby Day participants meet with Congressman Bill Keating, who represents Massachusetts’ 10th Congressional District

Congress has tremendous power to do good through appropriations. The UUSC delegations asked Members for assurance that they would use their authority to support immigration, denying funds for uses that are dangerous and counter to human rights, such as additional border enforcement, while ensuring that refugee-related accounts are fulling funded.

UUSC supporters also discussed the strong racial implications underlying administration positions on other programs that overlap the asylum policies, including Trump’s steps to end TPS for immigrants whose countries still are by definition not in conditions acceptable for their return, such as Haitians who came here following the 2010 earthquake.

By canceling TPS for Haitians, Salvadorans, and other foreign nationals who were provided refuge amidst turmoil and natural disasters in their home countries, the Trump administration risks of increasing instability, which is likely to drive migration further. Current legislation in the House and Senate aims to mitigate these effects: The American Promise Act provides TPS holders with a path to permanent status, while the SECURE Act offers qualified TPS holders with permanent legal residency as well as protects longtime holders of Liberian Deferred Enforced Departures (DED) from deportation.

Next steps

The United States has legal and moral obligations to provide safe haven to those fleeing persecution, violence, and war. The Trump administration’s immigration policies are an affront to basic humanitarian principles, and UUSC is committed to protecting and expanding immigrant rights.

In the coming weeks, UUSC will work to further engage individuals around these issues, including launching an action that allows people to sign and send a message to Congress echoing the asks of the Lobby Day. We hope that you will join us and ensure that U.S. government does not forget our historical values and continues to honor its obligations to people fleeing danger.

Hurricane Harvey: Fear and Courage after the Storm

In early December, nearly four months after Hurricane Harvey wreaked havoc along the Gulf Coast, Kathleen McTigue of the UU College of Social Justice and I traveled to Houston, Tex. to meet with Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) partners providing disaster relief and recovery assistance to those affected by the storm. In line with UUSC’s commitment to grassroots collaboration, our grants to these groups target community-based organizations reaching populations that struggle to access mainstream relief and services.

Two such groups in Houston include Living Hope Wheelchair Association and Fe y Justicia Worker Center. Living Hope works at the intersection of immigration and disability rights, and Fe y Justicia (“Faith and Justice”) protects the rights of “second responders,” the mostly low-wage, immigrant workers performing a bulk of the city’s post-hurricane reconstruction work.  We also met with Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.as.), an environmental justice organization working with the predominantly low-income, minority neighborhoods along the Houston Ship Channel.

Throughout the trip, we were reminded that natural disasters exacerbate existing inequalities. We also felt the heightened sense of fear among certain populations, particularly undocumented immigrants, in today’s political climate. Yet, even in the face of such daunting challenges, we also witnessed the courage and dignity of countless individuals still fighting for the rights of those worst affected by Harvey.

Exacerbated Inequalities: “We were already living in a disaster situation.”

Natural disasters around the world have demonstrated that low-income households and communities of color are disproportionately affected by extreme weather. Many of these communities reside in high-risk living conditions to begin with, whether due to the quality of their housing, poor infrastructure, or proximity to flood waters and pollution. In Houston, Harvey merely intensified these struggles.  Structural barriers to accessing relief and services make longer-term recovery more difficult for the poor, racial minorities, immigrants, and those living with disabilities.

Living Hope Wheelchair Association works primarily with undocumented immigrants suffering from spinal cord injuries, most of which resulted from workplace accidents or crime. Its modest office consists of two rooms and a storage unit for medical supplies and a handicap-accessible vehicle. Many members are on constant medication, in regular pain, and in some cases, require dialysis, but very few have medical benefits. As Pancho Argüelles, Living Hope’s Executive Director, put it, “We were already living in a disaster situation with respect to health care, housing, transportation, and undocumented status,” before Harvey. After the storm, the organization’s members needed to replace electronic wheelchairs lost to flood waters, repair houses and wheelchair ramps, and raise financial assistance to cover medical, transportation, and basic living expenses.

Fear on Top of Fear

For the approximately 600,000 undocumented people living in Houston, limited access to medical benefits and health insurance, coupled with fear and mistrust of immigration authorities, have made them one of the most vulnerable populations after the storm. The majority of Fe y Justicia Worker Center’s constituency consists of undocumented immigrant workers. In the face of continued anti-immigrant political rhetoric and crackdowns by local police and immigration agencies, people have been scared to seek even the assistance and benefits for which they are eligible. This fear, on top of existing language and other accessibility barriers, has magnified needs and vulnerabilities after Harvey. Whether it is medical care for a sick child, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) benefits, or wages due, people must conduct a mental calculus to assess the risk of claiming their rights.

Alberto Luera, Fe y Justicia Worker Center Board member

Fear and insecurity also leave people prone to abuse. In numerous cases, tenants have been afraid to push back against landlords who have failed to ensure safe living conditions or unfairly evicted residents at short notice. This additional layer of fear has also had a chilling effect on activism. Living Hope’s members are now less willing to travel for state-level advocacy through hostile counties between Houston and Austin out of fear that police may inquire about their immigration status. And while the storm has increased media interest in people’s stories and highlighted important needs and concerns, speaking to journalists and publicizing identifying details creates serious risks.

A Toxic Tour

The Houston area is home to the largest petrochemical complex in the United States and the second largest in the world. On our second day, t.e.j.a.s. took us on a “toxic tour” of various municipalities between Houston and Baytown, Tex. along the Houston Ship Channel, a key transport route for petrochemicals and other goods into the Gulf of Mexico. The torrential rains and ensuing floods from Harvey resulted in “a stew of toxic chemicals, sewage, debris and waste” that disproportionately impacted nearby neighborhoods, comprised primarily of low-income people of color. A long stretch of oil refineries, chemical plants, waste processing facilities, and other industrial plants borders the ship channel. Homes, schools, parks, and playgrounds, including Hartman Park shown here, sit in close proximity to many of these facilities, regularly exposing residents to harmful chemicals.

Mural in children’s playground at Hartman Park.

T.e.j.a.s. staff explained that childhood asthma and other respiratory ailments affect a significant portion of the local population. A 2007 University of Texas School of Public Health study reported that children living within two miles of the ship channel had a 56 percent higher incidence of leukemia than those ten miles away. In 2016, the Union of Concerned Scientists and t.e.j.as. published a report finding higher levels of toxicity from chemical exposure in east Houston than more affluent west Houston neighborhoods. Indeed, to us, the pollution was visible and palpable. In some areas we visited, the air smelled, and almost tasted, sickly sweet.

In the first week after Harvey, damaged oil refineries and facilities released over two million pounds of hazardous substances into the air. Flood waters also triggered the release of thousands of gallons of spilled petroleum. Neighborhood residents experienced headaches, sore throats, eye irritation, and nausea at greater rates than usual. While air and water pollution has been a longtime point of contention for frontline communities, Harvey magnified the problem.

Unidad Park, complete with a picnic area, skate park, children’s playground, and baby swings. Industrial buildings can be seen in the background.

Needs and Opportunities

In the face of these overwhelming challenges, t.e.j.a.s. and Living Hope both emphasized that Harvey brought not just urgent needs but rare opportunities. The storm has provided a chance to draw increased national attention to underreported problems. Local civil society is using Harvey as a catalyst to raise awareness, build coalitions, and call for reforms to address the structural reasons low-income and minority communities are so adversely impacted by disasters in the first place. Living Hope explained that it is using services and campaigns to build organizations and movements toward long-term change. It has activated its members, raised its voice, and reached a new level of visibility.

As recovery continues, UUSC is proud to support organizations working to address the needs of underserved communities following Harvey. We are especially grateful to the generous donors who made this work possible. Six months after the hurricane, thousands of people are still unable to return home or rebuild their lives in parts of Texas. But among those most affected by the storm, we are encouraged and inspired to see people overcoming fear and adversity with dedication, strength, and courage toward a just recovery for their communities.

Syma Mirza is a consultant supporting the Rights at Risk portfolio.

Global Compact for Migration Offers a Strong Signal for the Protection of Human Rights

             

L: Representatives from the Mission of Tuvalu to the UN and Palau’s Ministry of Immigration with Salote Soqo, UUSC’s Senior Program Leader R: Civil society groups meeting outside the conference venue

Delegations came together in strength and in unity to improve global governance on migration.

The stocktaking meeting for the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration which took place in Puerto Vallarta December 4-6, 2017 was “extraordinarily” positive. Extraordinary in the sense that during a time of rising nationalism and xenophobia around the world, there was great convergence amongst delegates to center the global compact on the protection of the rights of all migrants, and that the withdrawal of the United States from the compact did not seem to deter the spirit of the deliberations. What was seen instead was delegations coming together in strength and in unity to improve global governance on migration.

In addition to the unifying call for a human rights-centered compact that respects and empowers all migrants, other messages were loud and clear: the compact should be gender sensitive, respect migrant workers, protect children, counter xenophobia and the criminalization of migrants, encourage data-driven policies, ensure ethical business practices for migrants regardless of their status, uphold existing conventions and treaties, respect national sovereignty and above all else, increase the benchmark for addressing migration.

These are all overlying principles that we must support when it comes to governing all forms of migration, including climate-forced displacement. UUSC hopes that states will adopt these principles in earnest as they develop domestic and regional policies and we encourage states to combine compassion with urgency and diligence as they embark on this historic momentum.

The high number of non-state actors that turned up at the meeting and their engagement since the inception of the global compact has also been encouraging. From faith leaders to labor unions, and other civil society groups, like UUSC – our engagement with state delegations has made this process inclusive. Perhaps it was the scenery that made this meeting so pleasant or probably the fact that we were only a few weeks away from the holidays, but this is the standard that we hope the negotiations will adopt moving forward into 2018 and beyond.

Love Resists Deportation on the Capitol Steps

On Wednesday, December 6, I joined more than 180 people who were arrested on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, in what organizers reported to be the single largest immigrant-led act of civil disobedience of the Trump era. United We Dream, CASA in Action, and the Center for Community Change organized us to came to Washington to demand a clean Dream Act and permanent protections for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) holders, sacrificing a bit of our freedom to halt a xenophobic agenda that threatens the freedom of millions. Together, we told Congress that the pending loss of status for 59,000 Haitian TPS holders and 700,000 Dreamers is an emergency and that the time to act is now, before the December 22 spending bill deadline.

“We will not forget the original dreamers: our parents, our grandparents,” said Denea Joseph, a leader with UndocuBlack. “We will not be complicit.”

On behalf of UUSC and Love Resists, I was honored to join this action, which included Dreamers, labor leaders, immigrant activists, educators, and faith leaders of all traditions. Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL) and Judy Chu (D-CA), two current members of Congress and long-standing advocates for immigrant rights were arrested alongside us. Cheering us on were thousands of Dreamers and supporters, chanting encouraging words to remind us: We believe that we will win!

Activists gather on the steps of the Capitol in protest of congressional inaction on TPS and the Dream Act.

An honor to be arrested with you

On December 5, the day before the action, UUSC’s partners the UndocuBlack Network and the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium (NAKASEC), an ally organization, held a joint press conference in front of the Capitol as part of their Black-AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) Immigrant Day of Action. The inspiring conference featured four members of Congress and directly impacted activists. All spoke to the urgent need to pass a clean Dream Act and a TPS solution – and, in particular, to ensure that neither comes at the expense of other immigrants. “We will not forget the original dreamers: our parents, our grandparents,” said Denea Joseph, a leader with UndocuBlack. “We will not be complicit.”

Their example and that of many others helped me to find my courage the next day. As a first-time participant in civil disobedience, I felt no small amount of trepidation, but I was  inspired by the Dreamers who I know have risked far more in other acts of peaceful protest and found enormous strength in the people around me. I was in the company of veteran leaders from across the immigrant rights movement. In the pen next to mine was Gustavo Torres, the executive director of CASA de Maryland, the largest immigrant rights group in the state and an important figure for years in the campaign for immigration reform. Becky Belcore from NAKASEC, one of the lead organizers of the 22-day Dream Action Vigil that Love Resists joined in September, was there as well. Shaking hands across the metal traffic barrier, I told Becky it was an honor to be arrested with her.

“We see you, we love you”

A particularly unforgettable moment from Wednesday’s action came as we – the more than 180 of us arrested – were being led away by the police. An organizer from United We Dream leaned out of the crowd and called to us. “Thank you for sacrificing yourself for our rights. We see you, we love you, we see you, we love you.

These words moved me more than I can say, especially in that moment. At the same time, I realized that I was not really worthy of them—my detainment was only for about two hours. And while I had to return to a police station the next day to submit my fingerprints and a pay cash fine, I was safe and on a train back home to Boston the same day.

Between the minimal freedom that I parted with, and the freedom that is taken from the thousands of people held in immigration detention, or who are deported from their loved ones, there is no real comparison. To contemplate the risks that so many others have taken to travel across borders, to live and work without papers, to seek asylum from persecution, is to understand that my own ‘sacrifice’ weighs very lightly in the balance.

Activists await arrest.

We cannot continue to deny Dreamers and TPS holders this opportunity. It is their futures, in some case their existence itself, that are on the line. Staring up at the Capitol Dome from the steps where we sat, a line from Yeats came back to me: Tread softly, because you tread on my dreams.

As the next few weeks unfold, members of Congress may be tempted to waiver in their support for our immigrant communities. They may ask whether the Dream Act cannot wait until another time, or whether it really needs to be “clean” (i.e., with no anti-immigrant riders). This is because they are seeing through the eyes of privilege, with the myopia of power. As politicians who make many legislative decisions, they can afford to accept “compromises” and delays. But this process has a cost and we must recommit ourselves to supporting communities and individuals who would be directly and irreparably harmed by this inaction.

In the coming days, I invite others to join me in reflecting on this injustice, and to ask if we cannot perhaps give a little bit more for a clean Dream Act than we already have. When every hour is threatened for some of us, we all can devote a few minutes to writing to our local paper. When some of us are being silenced, we must all raise our voices to our legislators to defend our shared community. Let us dare to give more for freedom, and ensure that all of us have the chance to celebrate that right and live without fear.