News & Events

‘We can breathe again’: Local immigrants, advocates optimistic for Biden presidency

By Danny Jin, Berkshire Eagle

After four years of fear and uncertainty under President Donald Trump, Berkshire immigrants and immigrant advocates hope that a Joe Biden presidency will bring more stability to their lives.

“We were all waiting for somebody else to run the country,” said América López, a member of Berkshire Interfaith Organizing and Cafecito, a local Spanish-language conversation group. López, a West Stockbridge resident, immigrated to the United States from Mexico.

“I’m just so relieved this is all done,” she said. “A lot of things are going to be hard to change or will go back to what they were before, but I feel that it’s going to be different and going to be better. … At least, to me, it means that we can continue our lives without being afraid.”

Many expressed hope and relief after projections over the weekend that Biden had won the presidential election. Yet, there also is a feeling that work remains to be done.

“All of us are obviously very hopeful but know that there is a lot of harm to undo,” said Michelle Lopez, executive director of the Berkshire Immigrant Center.

In addition to using rhetoric that immigrants felt treated them as scapegoats for the nation’s problems, Trump frequently attacked the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy. DACA, which provides temporary work authorization and protection from deportation, survived a Trump administration challenge in June, when the Supreme Court ruled that the administration’s tactics were unconstitutional.

But, the Trump administration has restricted DACA by reducing renewals from two years to one and preventing new applicants from applying. An estimated 5,560 Massachusetts residents have DACA status, and more than 10,000 more are thought to be eligible, although they did not apply.

While immigrant advocates take solace in Biden’s pledge to restore DACA, many want comprehensive immigration reform, which they recognize will be difficult to achieve, particularly if Republicans maintain control of the Senate.

DACA was meant as a temporary solution, after the DREAM Act — it included a path to permanent residency — passed the House in 2010 but was filibustered in the Senate. DACA, which started in 2012, protects undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. before turning 16.

“While DACA recipients get more stability, there’s still a lot of questions, and there’s a lot of discomfort around what could happen in the future,” Sarang Sekhavat, the former federal policy director for the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, said at a Tuesday panel that MIRA convened on the future of DACA. “And we’re not going to see those concerns go away until we get the DREAM Act passed.”

Michelle Lopez said she would like to see conversations begin over creating a path to permanent legal status, although she is uncertain whether those talks “could come to fruition” over the four years of a Biden presidency.

A 26-year-old Pittsfield resident, who asked not to be quoted by name due to immigration status concerns, said that whether through citizenship or a green card, he and other DACA holders seek “something that can be more stable and something that keeps us away from deportation proceedings.”

“The Senate will definitely have to work together to bring something on the table that works for both parties, and something that can help the ‘Dreamers,’ ” he said.

Calling himself “cautiously optimistic,” he added: “We can breathe again and look forward to new things.”

The Berkshire Immigrant Center estimates that there are more than 10,000 immigrants in Berkshire County, accounting for about 10 percent of the county’s population.

In recent months, the Trump administration also has changed policies with little notice, making it difficult for immigrants and caseworkers to keep up with changes and to submit their paperwork correctly.

“I hope things would be more stable or at least more predictable,” said Emma Lezberg, a Berkshire Immigrant Center caseworker. “We know that some things are almost certainly going to get better, like, there won’t be family separations at the border.”

Others also expressed hope that Biden would expand opportunities for obtaining visas and restore the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents program.

Noting that Democratic and Republican presidents have instituted policies seen as harmful to immigrants, Lezberg added: “While we’re incredibly hopeful, we also know we have to be pushing for things.”

Biden served as vice president in the Barack Obama administration, during which a record 3 million people were deported. Biden has said deporting that many people was “a big mistake.”

Yet, immigrants far prefer Biden to Trump on rhetoric alone.

“We just need somebody who sees immigrants and the immigrant community as part of the country,” América López said. “Most of us want to be beneficial to the growing of the country. We are here because we want to work. … Even though a new presidency doesn’t mean that we all are going to be OK all of a sudden, there is more hope that, now, things are going to be better.”

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