Fighting for Immigrant Dreams

At the opening plenary session of the National Immigrant Integration Conference 2018 in Arlington, Virginia. (Photo by Karen Pennar for Voices of NY)

Buoyed by the election breakthroughs made by people of color and immigrants last month, more than 1,200 attendees at the National Immigrant Integration Conference 2018: New American Dreams – From Resistance to Victory gathered in Arlington, Virginia, to discuss the next steps in the battle against what one speaker called “Hurricane Trump.” Of greatest and most immediate concern: The proposed broadening of the government’s definition of “public charge,” which could potentially affect hundreds of thousands of immigrants across the nation seeking permanent residence, and their family members, by discouraging their use of public benefits.

The comment period for the public charge proposal from the Department of Homeland Security closed on Dec. 10, and speakers at the conference, which opened a day earlier, were busy urging attendees, who included representatives of immigrant and refugee serving organizations, policymakers, advocates, academics, faith leaders and others, to file last-minute comments opposing adoption of the new rule.

Some said the number of comments posted to the Federal Register online and by mail would ultimately top 200,000 – an extraordinarily large number that speaks, said Bitta Mostofi, commissioner of the NYC Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, to how “deeply this is resonating with people and how important it is to fight back against it.”

Mostofi, who spoke at five different sessions at the conference, including one on public charge, told Voices of NY that “there is an incredible amount of visceral and deep understanding of what the impact of this could be across sectors…people who really implicitly know that the impact on communities is going to be pervasive and that they’re already seeing that fear and confusion.”

On Dec. 10, thirty-two local governments and the U.S. Conference of Mayors filed a comment stating that the proposed rule “violates the Administrative Procedure Act and other federal laws.” The comment letter stated in its introduction:

Because supplemental public aid programs, such as Medicaid coverage, food stamps, and housing assistance, would be included in the public charge determination, many immigrant families would choose to forgo or dis-enroll from essential services in order to protect their immigration status, even if they were otherwise eligible for such benefits. Thus, the Proposed Rule not only makes it harder for immigrants to enter the United States and for those already legally present, to adjust their status to become Legal Permanent Residents (“LPRs”), it would have wide-ranging and devastating effects on the health and financial stability of immigrants and their families, including U.S. citizens. Many of the immigrants targeted by the Proposed Rule have resided, worked and payed taxes in the United States and the signatory cities for years.

The federal government is required to review all comments and justify how they respond to comments in any future proposal. “They have a lot of work to do to be responsive,” to the comments, said Mostofi.

Also high on the agenda of concerns at the conference was the uncertain status of DACA holders and TPS holders as dates on which their legal status expires start to approach in 2019. And looming in the near future as a threat to communities is the forthcoming 2020 Census, which may end up undercounting immigrants and communities of color, partly because of the addition of a question about citizenship and partly because of underfunding that has impaired the ramp-up process.

In addition to these top-of-mind concerns, attendees wrestled with topics ranging from how to strengthen mental health for immigrant and refugee communities to what’s happening in detention centers around the country to how to better fund the activities of immigrant and refugee-serving organizations.

But the mood at the conference, in its 11th year, was inspiring and upbeat. Organized by the National Partnership for New Americans and cohosted by CASA in Action and NAKASEC (the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium), plenary sessions opened with Peruvian flute players, Korean drummers and other performers. And this year’s wins by Democrats in the House, and in state and local offices this year and last, were roundly cheered.

Pramila Jayapal, who represents Washington State’s 7th district and was recently named co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told the crowd that the battles will continue: “We’re fighting for the soul of our country and we’re going to bring accountability back to USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services), make sure that they’re not just becoming an enforcement arm…we are going to stop this public charge rule…we are going to ensure that the Census takes out that citizenship question and counts everybody because that is what is constitutional…we are going to fight for immigrants to continue to be properly integrated, to get their citizenship when they’re eligible and to have the support and resources they need.”

Strength emerges, said Jayapal, in times of crisis. “Don’t forget that the backlash only occurs because we are making progress.”

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