On May Day, Congressman listens to concerns among immigrants and refugees

A dozen people brought together by MIRA talked about urgent needs and moral imperatives.

Congressman Kennedy with Eva Millona
MIRA Executive Director Eva Millona welcomes Congressman Joseph Kennedy at MIRA on Monday. Click to see more photos.

BOSTON, May 2, 2017 – Amira and her children came to Boston with just three suitcases and hope. She applied for asylum and got a work permit, which has enabled her to support her family. But progress on her case has been slow, and the wait has been nerve-wracking.

“I’ve been living in anxiety for three years,” she told Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy (D-MA 4th Dist.) on Monday. She can’t travel internationally, but doesn’t even dare leave the state, lest it somehow get her in trouble. “My children think that if I speed in the car, I might get deported.”

She hears her people described as a drain on U.S. taxpayers, even though she knows they’re working hard, even starting businesses. She hears Muslims equated with terrorists and ISIS. Her son, now 8, has been bullied in school. “Kids are telling him: You are a foreigner – you must go back.”

Amira was one of a dozen people that MIRA brought together in its office on Monday to talk with Congressman Kennedy about the challenges faced by immigrants and refugees right now.

It was clearly a subject close to the Congressman’s heart. He spoke with anger about the Trump administration’s “cold-blooded” strategy to target immigrants, and with deep compassion for immigrants and refugees. It is our “moral obligation”, he said, to help ensure that all people in our communities can achieve their full potential.

“If the rules were then as they are now, my family wouldn’t be here,” he said. Likening today’s indifference to refugees’ suffering to how U.S. ports turned away the MS St. Louis when it arrived with 900 German Jews in 1939, he remarked: “50 years from now, people are going to say, that little boy in a chair in Aleppo, why not him?”

Kennedy then asked how he could help – and he got many requests and suggestions.

Marjean A. Perhot, director of refugee and immigration services at Catholic Charities in Boston, noted that 4,302 Haitians in this area could lose their Temporary Protected Status within weeks. Conditions in Haiti are still dire, with widespread hunger and disease and the worst cholera epidemic in the world, leading more than 400 faith leaders and organizations to write to Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly urging an extension of Haitians’ protected status.

Kennedy said he shares Perhot’s concerns, and his office is advocating for Haitians in Washington.

Anthony Marino, director of legal services at the Irish International Immigrant Center, also spoke about Haitians’ situation, noting that it’s “creating a lot of anxiety”. He also said he’s worried about the expansion of detention as part of immigration law enforcement, as it is likely to lead many people to give up their legal rights.

“If you keep someone in jail long enough, they’ll sign anything, do anything,” Marino said.

Indeed, several meeting participants spoke about the urgent need to ensure that immigrants have legal representation, which dramatically increases their chances of success. Yet even with the help of volunteers, legal services for immigrants simply can’t keep up with the demand.

“Unless folks have attorneys when they go to court, they don’t stand a chance,” said Sarang Sekhavat, MIRA’s federal policy director.

Kennedy noted that although President Trump had wanted to zero out federal funds for legal services, there is bipartisan support for restoring them – but most members of Congress don’t want to fund legal services for immigrants.

Gladys Ortiz, of REACH, which works with survivors of domestic violence, raised another growing concern about the immigration crackdown: the chilling effect on people who are victims of crime, such as women who are abused by their partners. Fewer and fewer REACH clients are calling the police when they’re hurt, she said. “They’re afraid to report these crimes.”

Kennedy, who spent a year prosecuting domestic violence offenders, said that he knows from experience that even without immigration issues, it is very hard for women to go through with the cases. Fear of deportation poses yet another barrier. Citing a case in Texas in which a woman was arrested by immigration officials when she went to a hearing on a protective order, Kennedy added: “How do you possibly not understand how that sends a chilling message to other victims?”

Jeremy Burton, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, asked Kennedy to use his position to bear witness, so what is happening today is never forgotten. “You have the potential to document these stories every day in the Congressional record,” he said.

Damaris Velázquez, program director of Agencia ALPHA, urged the Congressman to bring his heartfelt message of support to the immigrant community itself, which sorely needs to hear it.

“Those are healing words,” she said.

A May Day rally at the State House, the start of a day of action co-organized by MIRA
A May Day rally at the State House, the start of a day of action co-organized by MIRA. Click to see more photos.