The Latin American and Caribbean Studies Center (LACS) at Stony Brook University held a panel forum on immigrant sanctuary activism featuring legal, activist and academic perspectives.
In light of today’s polarizing debate over immigration and policies set to strengthen border security as well as the powers of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Eric Zolov — director of LACS — set up a platform for voices of different backgrounds to talk about their experiences in the movement to protect immigration rights.
“The thing I didn’t expect to happen was having to write parent contact information on six-week-old infant backs,” Lisa Vontino-Tarrant, a human rights activist, said about her experience as a community organizer in PedWest, Tijuana’s new border town built by the U.S. government.
Michelle Caldera-Kopf, who is the senior attorney in the Immigration Practice Group and the program manager for the Liberty Defense Project, represents low-income immigrants who are at risk of deportation on Long Island. As an immigration rights advocate, she has worked on applications for asylum, lawful permanent residence, protection for immigrant juveniles and the green light coalition. An organization that advocates for equal access to drivers licenses for all residents of New York State, regardless of immigration status
“Hateful rhetoric was often used with the judges, by the prosecutors and jury to sort of paint folks as dangerous and poisonous and really push the narrative that starts from the very top to our president and goes all the way down to our local district attorney’s office and our local sheriff,” Caldera-Kopf said.
She spoke about ICE’s vast influence in getting local counties and sheriffs to work with them in restraining undocumented immigrants in county jails. Homeland Security’s 287(g) program legalized partnerships between state/local law enforcement and ICE. Consequently, the program allowed for the transferring of hundreds of immigrant detainees to the Albany County Correctional Facility.
Although Caldera-Kopf highlighted the negative impacts of having local officials criminalize undocumented immigrants based on ICE’s protocol, she said that by providing legal representation, immigrant detainees receive consultation to best tell their stories for seeking asylum.
“Folks who have contact with a lawyer, 80% of the time are able to prove that they had a credible fear of some sort of persecution in their home country,” Caldera-Kopf said.
Sheriff Craig Apple of Albany County did not hinder the mobilization of volunteer lawyers so that detainees can be justly represented without fearing the language barrier and uncertainty with the law.
Vontino-Tarrant volunteered to work in El Chaparral for the Sanctuary Caravan, a 40-day effort of assisting asylum seekers at the border by providing supplies and shelter. After meeting hundreds of migrants traveling for over two months to Tijuana from Honduras, she said she became increasingly aware of the lack of respect and care they received at the hands of border control.
Despite their draining and dangerous traveling, Vontino-Tarrant said that the migrants were told to come back to El Chaparral in two months to be processed, being left without food, shelter and — most importantly — an organization that prioritized their basic human rights.
“You really get to know people when you’re in the community because they see you day after day, and they start to tell you their stories,” she said.
Vontino-Tarrant disagreed with the notion that asylum seekers are taking advantage of the U.S. immigration system.
“Everybody was facing imminent threats either from gangs, government, military and police because in a lot of those countries, those four things are so commingled you can’t tell who is who,” Vontino-Tarrant said.
Nancy Hiemstra, an assistant professor in the department of women’s, gender and sexuality studies, discussed her research in working with immigrants who were detained and deported to Ecuador in addition to the economics behind how U.S. immigration institutions operate.
“From working with people in Ecuador, I think it is important to get out there that a lot of the premises underlying all this rationale of protecting security and deterring future immigration was very easy to see that doesn’t work,” Hiemstra said.
Hiemstra said there are economic interests that push for immigration policies, citing the U.S. government spends $2.6 billion for the country’s detention system.
She explored the many ways companies and counties play a big role in shaping immigrant policy; private companies operate 60% of detention facilities that impair living conditions for detained immigrants so as to profit from them, she said. In doing so, facilities — like Essex County that works with GD Dining — partner up with companies to sell soiled food and other necessities at a high cost, she said.
“These companies are essentially making money off of the misery that they create for these people in these facilities,” Hiemstra said. “They have voluntary work programs where they are allowed to hire detainees to work eight-hour shifts doing cleaning or food prep and get only one dollar a day.”
Sophomore political science major and president of Long Island Immigrant Activists, Evelyn Lopez, said it’s important to have these type of panels to show the different perspectives about immigration, especially since immigration is a hot topic in the mainstream.