Forum: High stakes for immigrants in this year’s election

Panel members: (from left) moderator Jaime Del Razo of Vassar College, Emma Kreyche of Worker Justice Center of New York, Ignacio Acevedo of Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson, and Shannon Wong of the New York Civil Liberties Union. (Photo by Phyllis McCabe)

On Tuesday night, Oct. 30, a panel of three experts and activists on immigration issues sponsored by Ulster Immigration Defense Network, Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson, and La Voz radio show and magazine spoke about how policies at the federal, state and county level are impacting immigrants and what’s at stake in the upcoming election. About 50 people attended the panel discussion, which was held at Holy Cross/Santa Cruz Episcopal Church on Pine Grove Avenue.

The Ulster Immigration Defense Network (UIDN) was founded at the beginning of 2017 “to create experiences safety for those under threat and under siege,” said Father Frank Alagna of Holy Cross in opening remarks. More than 20 local faith congregations, including the Islamic Association of Ulster County, the Jewish congregations in Woodstock, Kingston and New Paltz, and a cross-section of Christian congregations are participating in UIDN, along with activist groups such as Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson and La Voz. “We’re all responding to the same directive from sacred writings to ‘welcome the stranger and care for the stranger among you,’” Alagna said. As it is, “there’s no way to enter this country legally unless you have money and connections. Our doors are closed to families whose lives are at risk. We’re working together so we can hopefully make a difference for some of the people most in fear and at risk.”

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Before introducing the panelists and moderator Jaime del Razo, assistant professor at Vassar College focusing on education inequality and what it takes for children of immigrants and people of color to succeed, Elana Michelson of UIDN noted that this “nonpartisan educational event” was designed to “endorse human dignity and equality and a political process enabling those who vote to make informed decisions and those who cannot [vote] to be in the minds and hearts of all of us.”

Noting that immigration issues are very complex, del Razo alluded to the Clinton administration’s Operation Gatekeeper, which spent $2 billion on determent strategy, and noted that “immigration enforcement is not new … Migration has always occurred and it will continue,” he said. Implementing the right policies and holding leaders accountable means “getting involved,” a recurring theme at the event. “This next week is a very important part of that, but remember there’s a day that follows the vote and the day after that.”

The panelists, who addressed current issues faced by immigrants and the policies and processes affecting them at the federal, state, and county level, were: Emma Kreyche, co-founder of UIDN, senior worker rights advocate at the Hudson Valley offices of the Worker Justice Center of New York, and an instructor and advisor at the Bard Prison initiative; Ignacio Acevedo, lead organizer of Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson, a grass-roots community organization that has successfully advocated for social justice through its utility justice and education justice campaigns and is now engaged in an Immigrant Justice Campaign; and Shannon Wong, director of the Lower Hudson Valley chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, former Orange County legislator (who helped pass the state’s paid family leave bill and public defense reform legislation), and former legislative director for the YWCAs of New York State.

Because immigration falls under the executive branch of the federal government, “the president has broad powers when it comes to department [immigration] policies” and has dictated policy through executive orders and allocation of resources, Kreyche said. The federal government currently spends $20 billion on immigration enforcement, which was increased under Trump and “is more than all other agencies combined,” she noted.

Trump’s travel ban, elimination of specific priorities of deportation, and prohibiting some immigrants from being eligible for certain types of visas, along with Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ changing of the interpretation of asylum law to exclude victims of domestic violence and gang violence, are among the changes in policy that occurred without any legislation passed by the Republic-controlled Congress, Kreyche said.

What’s at stake federally in the election? “A Democratic-controlled Congress would not stop Trump from making executive decisions,” Kreyche said. “They could defund some of these agencies, but Trump is very likely to veto any immigration legislation passed by Congress.” She added that “Democrats don’t have good records” regarding immigration policy. “If there is a change in Congress … there is still a lot of work to do for meaningful immigration reform.” She said that Antonio Delgado, Democratic candidate for the House in New York’s 19th Congressional District, “has said very little [about immigration] other than he would support bipartisan legislation to address the immigration problem.”

At the state level, Kreyche said “the government has a significant role in terms of determining the degrees to which the state agencies will collaborate or not with federal agencies and the allocation of resources.” New York State’s Office for New Americans program administers legal assistance to certain people facing deportation, provides access to business resources and community services, and otherwise aids immigrants seeking to become citizens.

Governor Cuomo “has deployed strong pro-immigration language and issued executive orders to prohibit state agencies and law enforcement officers from inquiring about a person’s immigration status and in response to the separation of families crisis as well as taken a number of other measures,” Kreyche said. (His Republican opponent, Marc Molinaro, spoke out about the separation of families at the border but otherwise has not addressed immigration issues, according to UIDN.) However, “he has not used an executive order to allow illegal immigrants to obtain a driver’s license.”

Assemblyman Kevin Cahill has sponsored The Green Light Bill, which seeks to amend the state law to enable undocumented immigrants to obtain drivers’ licenses. 

The bill is supported by Chad McEvoy, Democratic candidate for District 101 in the State Assembly; Republican candidate Brian Miller did not respond to UIDN’s questionnaire, which was sent to all local candidates regarding their position on pending state immigration bills. (Indeed, while all local Democratic candidates for the state Assembly and Senate responded that they support the state’s pending immigration legislation, none of the Republicans responded to the questionnaire.)

Kreyche said such legislation is critically important. “Many undocumented people drive and put their self at risk, exposing them to possible detention and deportation. [Not being able to drive] prevents people from integrating with the community,” particularly in Ulster County, where “it’s impossible to live without a car.” Kreyche said the issue is a priority for her organization, which in its work with farm workers knows “how important access to a vehicle is for them.”

Two other bills that have passed the state Assembly but have stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate are The Dream Act, which makes all state college students, regardless of immigration status, eligible for state financial aid, and The Liberty Act, which ensures no crime victims, witnesses or people receiving state or local services are unnecessarily questioned about their immigration status; the bill also grants people facing deportation the right to an attorney and prohibits police from stopping or arresting someone based on perceived immigration status. A third bill introduced by the Assembly, The Protect Our Courts Act, seeks to protect undocumented individuals appearing in court from immigration detention in the absence of a judicial warrant or court order. As it is, “people are afraid to go to traffic court or to custody hearings,” Kreyche said. “If the Senate turns Democratic, these bills could get passed.”

Even then, the public needs to lobby for their support, said Joyce St. George, Democratic candidate for the state Senate’s 51st District, who was in the audience and spoke during the Q&A session. If a Democratic-majority Senate passes the bills, “the day after we need public help. We need people to go out and speak and talk … my district is very rural and very Republican. Latinos are sprinkled throughout, and already ICE has taken some out. Part of our struggle is helping the rest of the population understand the impact these things have on them.”

“Immigration is not a winning issue,” added Kreyche. “Many Democratic legislators are more mindful and concerned about what their opponents think about them than their supporters, and their supporters are generally silent on immigration issues.”

That passivity is unfortunate, given the current stakes and attacks on immigrants at the highest level of government. “People in power now have the freedom of office to create rules and regulations that sometimes reflect their racist beliefs,” said Shannon Wong. “It is our job to keep things in check by voting, running for office, and staying involved.” Wong said one very important position of power locally is the office of sheriff. It lacks state oversight, so that “you can’t complain to anybody” if there is an issue of abuse of power. “The office has a great degree of power and responsibility, yet many people don’t pay close attention and skip it on the ballot,” she said.

The sheriff runs the jail system and can choose alternatives to incarceration, such as rehabilitation, Wong said. He or she has the ability to decide how much support and information to provide to ICE.

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“Sheriffs can prohibit spending on resources for ICE and decline to share information about a person’s status, unless there is a judicial warrant,” Wong said, explaining that in some cases, local law enforcement intimidate and turn undocumented immigrants over to ICE with an administrative warrant, which lacks actual authority (a judicial warrant, in contrast, is a warrant signed by a judge).,” she said.

The survey UIDN sent out to all local candidates running for office was also sent out to the Ulster County sheriff, Paul VanBlarcum, and his opponent, Democratic candidate Juan Figueroa. While neither responded to the survey, the record shows that VanBlarcum has been cooperating with ICE, which Figueroa said he would not do, Wong said. Furthermore, she noted that her organization, the New York Civil Liberties Union, filed a lawsuit against VanBlarcum in response to his now-discontinued practice of checking people entering the county’s Department of Social Services office for active arrest warrants. He also came out against Kingston becoming a “sanctuary city,” Wong said.

“People are afraid of anyone with a uniform right now,” she added. 

Ignacio Acevedo spoke from personal experience about the impact of such policies and practices on immigrants. He arrived in America from Mexico with his mother at age 10 — “I ran from hunger and violence” — was documented at age 27 and got the right to vote when he was 32. “The day after Trump got elected, I was getting the oil in my car changed and sitting across from a couple when one of them looked over at me and said, ‘Finally somebody is going to get rid of those Mexicans,’” Acevedo recalled. “I followed the rule that you got to be a good immigrant by working real hard and going to school … then I was a citizen and nobody is defending me yet. I am still very afraid, and [with Trump’s election] it just got worse.”

Acevedo said in his home city of Newburgh, the majority of the population are people of color, but “when you go to the school board you don’t se the same representatives … I see my nephews and don’t know what to tell them. Maybe one day Newburgh will have an immigrant mayor or school board member … we are now at a pivotal moment. We either talk to our neighbor and say, ‘I have your back and will vote for you’ or we let this wave go over us. My mom and I walked two days in the mountains and the choice was to go back and starve or find this American dream, where we will finally feel safe. The vote this November is to create that safety.”

In the Q&A session, an audience member asked about the importance of aligning immigrant rights with workers’ rights. “Employers need to join the fight,” responded Wong. “Chambers of Commerce need to speak up. Along with faith communities, employers and large businesses can really play a part.”

Alluding to the swastikas scrawled on various Midtown buildings last week, Acevedo said it is imperative to combat the movement of racism and hate. “We need to create our own movement and literally give people who are confused or hurt or going through their own struggle another choice. Coalitions are being built in the Hudson Valley, conversations are happening. We need to come together or they are going to run us over. The reality is good cannot be silent anymore.”

“There’s a tremendous amount of discontent, and creating some alternative vision is really important and something we have to figure out how to do,” said Kreyche. “If the balance of power changes in the [state] Senate, there’s still a huge amount of work that has to be done. Every single progressive cause needs to be addressed. Just sitting on our laurels is not enough.” 

She added that “we’re always looking for volunteers, people who can drive people to court hearings or to the doctor to reduce the risk of law enforcement stopping them for driving without a license … you can get out the vote, canvass, or fund raise, make phone calls, do computer work. We hope to see you out there Nov. 6 and every day after.”

La Voz recorded the panel discussion, which will be posted on its website.