Local agencies that work with immigrants and refugees — such as HIAS Pennsylvania, the American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) Latino Jewish Coalition of Philadelphia and others — are taking steps to prepare for a new presidential administration. Given the pervasive anti-immigrant rhetoric that was heard during much of the campaign season, they’re starting with education.
“It is our feeling that the No. 1 reason policies that hurt immigrants and refugees are proposed and subsequently enacted is because of lack of education,” said Cathryn Miller-Wilson, executive director of HIAS, who’s concerned that cuts in federal funding could reduce the agency’s ability to resettle a proposed 250 refugees in 2017. “The election results are based on a failure to understand how much immigrants and refugees bring to this country and a misplaced fear about refugees in particular.
“It’s very important to get the truth out. The truth is immigrants are not criminals any more than the rest of us, and immigrants bring a tremendous amount to the economy.
“I’m not sure if we’re doing anything different from before. Perhaps the right word is we’re more focused.”
So is Fernando Treviño, a political consultant from Mexico who helped run President Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign in Pennsylvania and now serves as Pennsylvania director of constituency outreach and partnerships with the “For Our Future” super PAC.
“Everyone is thinking about the first 100 days,” Treviño said. “That’s when [the new president] can kind of position his window of opportunity to shape his government.
“Usually, after that, Congress starts thinking about reelection and shuts down. We believe most of the issues that could affect our community and policies that would go against progressive values will be set in the first 100 days.”
On the other hand, Miller-Wilson has circled a different point on her calendar.
“May is when Congress votes on the budget,” said Miller-Wilson, who noted that 70 percent of HIAS’ budget comes through various forms of federal funding. “I assume they’ll be looking at where we are spending money and why.
“If they look at the dollars already authorized for us and say, ‘We don’t believe this is a good use of federal money,’ it would really hurt us. If any of our federal funding dries up, it will cause significant problems for our agencies.”
While that’s the long-range worry, of more immediate concern is what happens to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). That’s the executive order signed by Obama in 2012 that protects immigrants who came to the U.S. as children from deportation, and allows them to work. As an executive action, it can be repealed at any time.
According to Miller-Wilson, that would devastate the economy.
“If the DACA program is repealed, it’s estimated it will have a $4.3 billion negative impact on the economy,” she explained. “People would be losing jobs and consequently not be able to pay their rent.
“They won’t just be losing jobs but their authorization to work, so they wouldn’t have any ability to contribute to the economy. Right now, they’re such enormous contributors. It doesn’t make any sense.”
Treviño seconds that, yet at the same time is willing to take a wait-and-see attitude. With a Jewish wife, he’s aware of the rising tide of anti-Semitism as well as growing anti-Muslim sentiments.
“At this point, there’s not much we can change as an organization,” said Treviño, who conceded he was personally offended by Trump’s comments about Mexico when he entered the presidential race. “I’m an organizer by heart engaged to push back on policies implemented by the president.
“It’s difficult to recommend anything, but we need to be ready. I’m telling everyone, ‘Do not panic.’ The uncertainty is more troubling than anything. One day Trump says one thing; then he changes his mind and a member of his cabinet says something else.”
While the waiting game continues, HIAS and other advocacy groups are joining forces trying to enlist support. They’ve gotten a boost from Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, who — anticipating problems with Philadelphia’s status as a “sanctuary city” — promptly changed the terminology.
“Mayor Kenney quite appropriately changed our name to make it a Fourth Amendment city,” Miller-Watson said. “The Fourth Amendment is against unreasonable search and seizure.
“We’re saying, ‘We’re not going to detain people unless you have a warrant and probable cause for detaining them.’ That’s simply following the law. It’s not lawless. It’s the opposite of lawless.
“Unfortunately, there’s been a lot of uneducated messaging that has taken hold.”
Such an environment is not unfamiliar to Miller-Wilson.
“We’ve seen this before,” she said. “During Ronald Reagan’s presidency, he deported and failed to grant asylum to many El Salvadorans, who were truly persecuted based on public fears of immigrants and the myth that immigrants cause problems for the economy.”
Some 30 years later, she’s hopeful such a chain of events won’t be repeated.
“In terms of advocacy, we’re doing everything we can with coordinated efforts with other organization to try to stop proposed legislation that will hurt immigrants,” she said. “We’re working with other advocates — like the Pennsylvania Immigrant and Citizenship Coalition, the ACLU and the American Bar Association — who talk to Congress.
“There’s a coordinated effort to try to make sure the budget for us is not too damaging. But there’s a large learning curve for the incoming administration.”
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