Boston Mayor Marty Walsh addressed a packed forum on June 6at the Boston Foundation’s Edgerley Center for the release of a new Boston Indicators report on the growing wave of federal immigration restrictions. “Our country is at a crossroads” said Walsh. “We have to protect those who are the victims of bigotry, hatred and racism by showing people who we really are as a city.” He praised the Greater Boston Immigrant Defense Fund (GBIDF) and those who have contributed to it, including the Boston Foundation, adding, “Boston has to show the way; we have to protect the human rights of immigrants.”
The GBIDF co-sponsored the forum and the report, titled The Growing Wave of Immigration Restrictions: What’s at Stake for Massachusetts? A public-private partnership and funder collaborative, the fund is building Greater Boston’s capacity to protect and defend our immigrant and refugee communities by increasing access to legal representation and other crucial services.
Trevor Mattos and his colleague at Boston Indicators, Peter Ciurczak, co-authored the report with André Lima of the Mayor’s Office of Health & Human Services. It describes a sweeping, systematic federal effort to limit or revoke legal status for immigrants that has had a severe impact on families and entire communities in Massachusetts.
In presenting findings, Mattos began by describing the status of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Temporary Protected Status (TPS). “DACA is vulnerable because it was established through an executive order,” he explained. While the Trump administration tried to reverse the order, the courts stepped in to protect our state’s 6,000 DACA residents as well as thousands more across the country. However, fear has had a major impact on those eligible. DACA renewals have fallen by 70 percent and the administration has blocked any new applicants. “There are 11,000 people in our state who are eligible but can’t gain DACA status,” explained Mattos, “which means that there are 17,000 lives hanging in the balance.”
He went on to describe the damage done to TPS, which is offered to immigrants from countries where returning home is dangerous or impossible. The Trump administration’s efforts to end TPS for people from El Salvador, Haiti and other countries has put some 12,000 recipients in Massachusetts in a state of limbo. Once again, court decisions have curbed the damage, but only until early 2020. “Many of these people have built lives here and lived here for up to 20 years.”
André Lima described the “chilling effect” of the administration’s efforts to ratchet up the risks associated with becoming a ‘public charge,’ a move designed to discourage lawful immigration by expanding the definition of public charge to include anyone who receives federal health care, housing or nutrition assistance—endangering support for families that include a “mixed status” member. “There are 510,000 Massachusetts residents living in mixed-status families, who may be U.S. citizens, to protect their immigration status, which could pose a major public health risk.” As the report notes, were the proposed public charge rule to be applied to U.S. citizens only, roughly one-third would be unlikedly to pass the new test.
Hyams Foundation Program Officer Nahir Torres spoke next and explained that the funding community responded swiftly to the threats to refugees and immigrants shortly after Trump was elected thorough a funders gathering held at the Boston Foundation in 2017 to explore how philanthropy could rise to the threats that immigrants would inevitably face. She also introduced Marcela Garcia, the first Latina to serve on the Boston Globe’s editorial board.
Garcia went on to facilitate an informative, emotionally wrenching, discussion. Meg Moran, a staff attorney with GBIDF, focused on the changes in the ways that asylum seekers are treated. In the past, they were admitted to the U.S. and given the opportunity to explain their case, but now they are detained until their appeal is heard. She described a client from Central Africa who had been tortured by her government only to be imprisoned when she sought refuge in the U.S. “She was isolated in prison because she only spoke her tribal language,” said Moran, “and traumatized by people in uniforms, leading to complete psychotic break.” ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), refused her appeal, but eventually she was granted asylum.
GBIDF attorneys rely on community groups to help them identify immigrants and refugees who are afraid of coming forward to seek legal help. Panelist Gladys Vega, Executive Director of the Chelsea Collaborative, represents one such group, but even a trusted nonprofit like hers needs to reach out to help people. “We do what we do best,” she explained. “We knock on doors and encourage people who are afraid to engage with the courts to reach out for support.
Iris Gomez, Senior Staff Attorney with Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, said that Moran’s stories are the byproduct of what she called the “criminalization of immigrants.” Moran agreed, saying that the asylum seekers she meets are being treated as criminals, and that even people with legal status are in danger. “What’s happening at the border, is happening right here, including mothers being separated from their children. It’s not an ‘emerging’ humanitarian crisis; it is a humanitarian crisis.”
Michael Raabe, of Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, explained the importance of the GBIDF. “The minute you get a lawyer, you start getting good results,” he said, adding that the cases attorneys are taking are incredibly complex. “Most clients present multiple immigration problems.” Tragically, most who seek legal assistance are turned away because of lack of resources on the part of GBIDF and other organizations—even though immigrants are six times more likely to win cases when represented by an attorney.
Vega prompted a powerful response from the audience when she emphasized the importance of activism, saying, “We have to stop blaming everything on Washington and take responsibility for what we haven’t done here.” She encouraged the room to push legislators to create easier paths to obtaining local IDs and driver’s licenses. Other actions mentioned include applying pressure to allow some or all undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at Massachusetts colleges, and investing in the all-important legal supports available.
Looking out at the audience, Vega was optimistic about the future “When I think about what makes America great, it’s the people in this room—working together,” she said.
Marty Martinez, the City of Boston’s Chief of Health & Human Services, spoke last, summarizing the powerful discussion by saying that the issues discussed were about nothing less than “access to justice.”