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Shifting politics, pandemic create opening for immigration reformers



By Matt Murphy
State House News Service

APRIL 5, 2021…..The arrival of the Biden administration and the shifting of the COVID-19 response to economic recovery have combined to give immigration reform advocates in Massachusetts hope that a long-term solution is within reach.

U.S. Rep. Katherine Clark, a Melrose Democrat and senior leader in the House, convened a group on Facebook on Monday to discuss the current status of immigration in the United States and the efforts underway to build momentum for Congress to tackle reform.

The House has already passed legislation this year to give the so-called “Dreamers” and immigrant farm workers a path to apply for permanent residence, and Clark said that in addition to convincing the Senate to take up these bills Congress must take additional steps to create pathways to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants, including high-skilled groups, and to protect against exploitation in the workforce.

“As immigrants and refugees continue to seek a better life in the United States we need to create long-term solutions that respect the dignity and rights of immigrants and keep the American dream alive,” Clark said.

The politics around immigration, however, continue to be polarizing. Biden has introduced his own immigration plan, but has been pushed on the left to move faster to end certain detention policies and criticized on the right for failing to stem the tide of unaccompanied minors and asylum seekers crossing the southern border.

Eva Millona, president of the Massachusetts Immigrant & Refugee Advocacy Coalition, said the COVID-19 pandemic has given advocates an opportunity to “change the narrative” and try to convince lawmakers still on the fence about reform.

“Immigrant workers are and were on the front lines and they were the ones who kept the economy going and what they need is just the proper papers so they can have the peace of mind and better integrate into society,” Millona said.

MIRA reports that 20 percent of the workforce in Massachusetts is made up of immigrants, including 71,900 undocumented essential workers delivering care and services during the pandemic. Immigrants also contribute $1 trillion to the gross domestic product and pay $340 billion a year in taxes, Millona said.

Jose Palma came to the United States in 1998 under the Temporary Protected Status program from El Salvador, moving to Somerville, raising a family and earning his associate’s degree. But he and thousands of others with similar stories were told last year by the Trump administration that their TPS designation would be ending and they would have to return to their country or origin.

Palma helped create the National TPS Alliance and the Massachusetts TPS Committee to raise awareness about TPS and fight for the ability to become a permanent resident. He joined Clark’s video discussion from Freedom Plaza in Washington, D.C.

“We are here raising awareness. Despite victories in court protecting us until Oct. 4, our life continues in limbo,” Palma said.

Palma said that for every story used by reform opponents about criminals entering the country through programs like TPS, there are millions of stories like his that he believes should be told to build support.

“I am happy that the strategy is getting understood in Congress because I believe we need a comprehensive immigration reform to protect everyone, but it’s also true that due to the political climate and what’s going on in Congress if we were able to achieve something as moderate as 4 million people protected, it’s not that small and for sure it will guarantee to our immigrant community that the Democratic Party, our leadership is serious,” he said.

Palma was referring to the Dream and Promise Act, which would create a path to citizenship for TPS recipients and those living in the United States without documentation who were brought as children by their parents. It passed the House on March 18 by a vote 228-197, with nine Republicans voting in support.

The House on the same day in March passed the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which would create an opportunity for agricultural workers to seek permanent legal status. That bill passed 247-174 with even greater bipartisan support. Thirty Republicans voted in favor.

“People who grow and harvest the food we eat every day shouldn’t be forced to live in the shadows, especially during this pandemic. When farm workers have risked their own health every day to keep produce on our tables, the least we can do is act to ensure they don’t live in fear,” Clark said.

Patricia Montes, executive director of Centro Presente, also said it’s important that the Biden administration consider the root causes of migration to the United States from countries like El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, where poverty, violence and corruption lead people to seek asylum in the United States.

“We believe that it is urgent to understand the situation in the region and reestablish the rule of law in countries like Honduras,” Montes said.

Any money sent to these countries must be used to help the people, not to further the militarization of the government, she said. “It’s not just about extreme poverty and extreme violence. It’s also the endemic level of corruption and the impunity that these places are facing right now,” Montes said.

Clark was also joined in the discussion by Mei Hung, director of the Chinese Culture Connection, Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, and Framingham City Councilor Margareth Shepard, who in 2017 became the first Brazilian-American woman ever elected to a city council in the country.

Espinoza-Madrigal said Lawyers for Civil Rights spent the past four years suing the Trump administration to try to prevent him from ending programs like TPD for immigrants from Central America and elsewhere.

“Now that we are with a more immigrant friendly administration with the Biden-Harris administration we really have an opportunity to focus on more affirmative measures, not just defending immigration programs, but creating immigration protections and relief,” he said.

Shepard said the work isn’t all at the federal level either. She called on Democrats on Beacon Hill to pass the “Safe Communities Act,” which restricts the ability of police to inquire about immigration status, and the Work and Family Mobility Act, which would allow undocumented immigrants to apply for a driver’s license.

“We need to empower our immigrants,” she said.

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