Commentary, immigration

Immigrant families in NC are pleading with Tillis and Burr for assistance

Sen. Thom Tillis, left, and Sen. Richard Burr, right

It’s been over 200 days since the first COVID-19 relief package was signed into law. In a short time, immigrant communities across the country will once again find out where they stand in our leaders’ hearts and minds. Congress has passed not one, but three COVID-19 relief packages that have excluded thousands of immigrants here in North Carolina and millions more nationwide. A legislative response that protects all people requires leadership by Senator Thom Tillis and Senator Richard Burr.

In North Carolina, 889,000 people live in families with at least one non-citizen, including 321,000 children. El Pueblo and other immigrant-serving organizations throughout the state recognize the gap in COVID relief for immigrant communities and have opened mutual aid funds and other services to address this gap. Our top priority has been to distribute direct financial assistance to those who are not receiving any government aid. The amount of need is both astounding and frightening as we have moved many months into this crisis. We know that we are not able to help everyone who has been excluded by congressional leaders.

Community members continue to request assistance to pay for rent, bills, utilities, food, and other basic needs due to loss of work and, increasingly, due to the economic impacts of having one or more loved ones who have been ill and/or hospitalized due to COVID. While we have been able to financially assist many families, our mutual aid funds are not the solution for the lack of action by congressional leaders. Our organizations are helping fill a gap that should not exist. We cannot afford to have gaps in relief to communities; not now, not ever.

The ultimate solution for our communities includes transformational change that would provide full inclusion for immigrants and other community members who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic due to systemic racism, xenophobia, and other barriers to health. A first step toward this solution would be for Senators Tillis and Burr to support the HEROES Act, an inclusive relief bill that was passed by the House in May.

My parents are immigrants that have shown me the importance of being in community with one another and of supporting each other when government support may or may not be available. In these times of hardship, I see my communities coming together every day to do our best to do what our leaders have failed to do. For months, the Senate has refused to advance this legislation while our communities have suffered. The HEROES Act, while not the ultimate solution for all of the challenges we face, includes critical provisions that would improve health care access and provide economic support for thousands of immigrant families in North Carolina. I urge Senators Tillis and Burr to support the HEROES Act and demonstrate what so many other North Carolinians like my parents are demonstrating every day: that the health and prosperity of each of us depends on the health and prosperity of all of us.

Veronica Aguilar is the Communications Coordinator for the Raleigh-based group, El Pueblo.

immigration, News, Trump Administration

Border officials did not follow guidelines on migrant children’s health care, government investigators find

U.S. Customs and Border Protection has not consistently followed new guidelines for medical care of migrant children and spent some of the agency’s money designated for “medical care” on unrelated items like printers, speakers and its canine program, according to a new federal investigation.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office, an independent “congressional watchdog,” found gaps in care across border facilities. Border officials also chose to go against a recommendation from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to give the flu vaccine to children who crossed the border into the United States.

The GAO released the findings Wednesday, as members of the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee held a hearing as part of an ongoing investigation of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) policies in light of the deaths of two children at the border in December 2018.

The children, 8-year-old Felipe Alonzo-Gomez and 7-year-old Jakelin Caal, were both Guatemalan and died in different CBP holding facilities in New Mexico and Texas.

“The simple reality is that children shouldn’t be locked up by our government,” U.S. Rep. Val Demings of Florida said in an email. “This administration’s anti-immigrant hysteria has led to deeply inhumane treatment of asylum seekers and others who are seeking legal status here in the United States.”

Demings, who is under consideration to be the vice presidential candidate for presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, is a member of the committee but did not question witnesses at the hearing.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Lesko, an Arizona Republican who sits on the committee, called the children’s deaths tragic but said the federal government isn’t necessarily at fault. “We should start blaming the cartels, don’t you think, and they should be at least partially accountable for children’s death,” she said at the hearing.

Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat, asked the GAO to look into the matter in the wake of reports showing what he called an “appalling disregard for the lives of migrant children” at the border. He tweeted Wednesday that the funding for the U.S. Homeland Security Department — which oversees CBP — must carry “clear directives and restrictions to ensure transparency and accountability.”

The Inspector General of the Homeland Security Department released its own findings Wednesday that both children died of natural causes related to the flu and bacterial infections. The Inspector General found there was no misconduct or malfeasance from border patrol agents.

But Dr. Fiona Danaher, a pediatrician who Democrats asked to review the records, said the agency needs more policies in place to protect children.

“Death by natural causes does not mean death was inevitable,” said Danaher, an instructor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.

Democratic lawmakers grilled witnesses from the GAO and Inspector General’s office on whether CBP equips its agents to identify when a child might need further medical help.

“CBP did not provide officers and agents with training to identify medical distress in children, is that correct?” Rep. Cedric Richmond, a Democrat from New Orleans and a member of the committee, asked.

The Homeland Security Department’s Inspector General, Joseph Cuffari, said agents are trained in basic first aid, CPR and trauma care. They had no pediatric training.

Tennessee Republican Rep. Mark Green, a physician, said putting more medical staff at the border may be an unreasonable ask in a country already facing a shortage of doctors in rural areas.

“Where in the world are we going to get the doctors to put somebody at every single crossing?” Green asked.

Richmond opened his remarks with criticism of that perspective.

“It is a proverbial Trumpism, pitting communities against each other. I guess that is where we are going in terms of access to doctors. I just won’t entertain it,” Richmond said. “We are the greatest country in the world.”

Gaps in care

The deaths happened in the midst of a surge at the border that backed up the immigration system last year. Read more

COVID-19, Education, Higher Ed, immigration, News

Students in U.S. on visas will not be able to stay if campuses go online-only

Students in the U.S. on student visas will not be able to enter or remain in the country if their courses are online only, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced Monday.

None of the UNC System’s 17 campuses plans to begin the Fall semester online-only. UNC-Chapel Hill is reserving spaces in its Carolina Away online program for foreign students who can’t procure visas.  But the change in policy could mean that such students already in the U.S. whose semester begins on campus would have to leave the country if, as happened last semester, the universities close to in-person teaching because of  the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

With North Carolina still experiencing record COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, many of the system’s students, faculty and administration consider a return to online-only education before the end of the semester a strong possibility.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, immigration, News

North Carolina dreamers heartened for their futures after Supreme Court ruling

Jocelyn Casanova

T he day before Jocelyn Casanova graduated high school, her mother told her she was an undocumented immigrant. She had crossed the desert with her when Casanova was just 4 years old in the hopes of finding a better life and of giving her daughter more opportunity.

“It was just kind of like ripping a Band-aid off,” said Casanova, 24, of finding out.

She wasn’t mad at her mother, but learning about her past meant her future was in jeopardy. She had already applied to colleges and wanted to pursue a career in law, but had to put those plans on hold because of her immigration status.

When the Obama administration created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which protects undocumented people from deportation who were brought into the country as children, she became a recipient, but there were still a lot of obstacles to her pursuing her goals.

She had to pay out of state tuition to go to a community college in North Carolina, where she grew up, and she couldn’t apply for federal aid. She worked three jobs to pay for school, and still, it wasn’t always enough.

“I’ve had to get really creative as far as bettering myself,” she said in a phone interview Thursday.

That includes putting aside dreams of becoming an immigration attorney in order to learn new skills and soak up all the opportunities she is afforded, in part because of DACA. Most recently, she was able to get an engineering degree through a company sponsorship and she works now as a software engineer in Raleigh. She continues to take classes at Wake Tech.

When the Trump administration rescinded the DACA program in 2017, it instilled a sense of fear in Casanova. She lived in the U.S. almost her entire life, but could suddenly be deported to a land mostly strange to her. She thought she was dreaming Thursday when she woke up to the news that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the administration’s decision to end the program was against the law.

“I had to do a double take; is this really happening?” she said. “I shed a couple tears because it was like a weight lifted off my shoulders.”

She said the decision is a victory, but immigrants and DACA recipients, also called dreamers, should not stop fighting for their future.

“We still need a permanent solution for our dreamers who are constantly trying to pursue the American Dream,” Casanova said. “It felt amazing to not be in limbo after walking down this path and not knowing where you would end up. Happiness is an understatement, especially during this uncertain time where we have a pandemic still going on, and our Black Lives Matter brothers are voicing their concerns with the justice system. Change is happening, and we should still continue to have these conversations as well as continue to count our blessings.”

Casanova is one of about 24,000 DACA holders who live in North Carolina, and among the 700,000 or so recipients nationwide. She said she is grateful to be in the U.S. and wants to continue to go to school, work and contribute to her community.

Oscar Romero is pictured left at a U.S. Supreme Court rally in the fall.

“Honestly all dreamers want, we’re hugging this country and we just want this country to hug us back,” she said. “Hearing this news was like getting a pat on the back. I definitely have a lot of hope and faith for the future. I know that we still have a long road to go down, but I’m very hopeful we’re going to see change.”

DACA is a temporary fix for recipients of the program, who don’t otherwise have a permanent path to U.S. citizenship. Last June, the U.S. House passed legislation that would safeguard the program and provide a pathway to citizenship. The bill has not been taken up in the U.S. Senate.

Still, the Supreme Court news from Thursday brought many people comfort this week. Oscar Romero, of Charlotte, said he was in complete shock when he read about the ruling.

“This was a turn of events that I don’t think anyone expected,” he said. “I just broke out into tears, just full joy. … While it doesn’t fix everything for us, it’s definitely a breath of relief for all of us who have been holding our breath this whole time.”I just broke out into tears, just full joy. -Oscar Romero Click To Tweet

The 25-year-old was brought to the U.S. from Mexico when he was 4. The DACA program changed the entire trajectory of his life, he said. Before the program, he couldn’t legally drive and he had to work jobs where he was paid “under the table.”

“It’s completely opened up so many opportunities for me,” he said, adding that he’s since finished college on a scholarship. “This is a great victory regardless of what lies ahead. Like Black Lives Matter, this is a topic that we shouldn’t just put away.”

Many of the dreamers who talked to NC Policy Watch had similar stories of how DACA helped them get to where they are.

Daniel Bello is no longer a DACA recipient — he has a green card now — but it was the program that helped him be able to go to college. Now he’s in his third year of law school at Campbell University.

He was cautiously optimistic Thursday about the high court’s ruling.

“I’m very happy, but I know that they’ll probably try to challenge it again,” he said.

Daniel Bello

Bello, 30, pointed out that DACA recipients undergo background checks and are required to meet certain standards to be eligible for the program. There are also a lot of misconceptions about immigrants.

“DACA recipients consider the U.S. our home, because we’ve been here our whole lives, and we love this country and just want a chance to participate,” he said. “Based on our record and education, we are likely to become a benefit to the economy in a very positive way.”

Carla Mena, also 30, told her story to Policy Watch on Thursday. She said there was an added pressure on the first generation DACA holders like herself to be successful and to pave the way.

“We are the oldest children of the first-generation immigrant community, and there’s a lot of responsibility in general when it comes to being the eldest in the line of children,” she said.

They live bicultural and bilingual lives and feel at times as if they don’t belong in one world or the other. Only dreamers can really understand what they go through at times, Mena said. And they fought hard before 2012 to be an active part of their communities.

“We were marching; we were doing hunger strikes; we were occupying officials’ offices,” she said. “I think that the biggest takeaway is we are not just hardworking when it comes to our jobs, we are hardworking for what we believe is right. We believe that we deserve better, that our families deserve better.”We believe that we deserve better, that our families deserve better. -Carla Mena Click To Tweet

The elder DACA holders are teaching the younger dreamers to also fight and to build resiliency. They are taking care of one other. Mena said in a lot of ways, they had an even harder time with the Trump administration’s rescission, because they grew up with the program available to them and then had to cope when it could just be taken away.

Casanova, one of those younger dreamers, said she is thankful her parents made the choice to bring her to the U.S. so she could have a chance at a better future. She encouraged her peers to vote — because DACA holders can’t — and to be a champion for immigrants.

“They are the real dreamers who had the dream of a better life for us, their children,” she said of her parents. “They didn’t want us to suffer like they did. We owe it to them to keep fighting for the American Dream.

“Like my mom always says to me in Spanish with everything I do, ‘Mija, echale ganas,’ meaning ‘Daughter, do your best.’ We must continue to give it our all because the fight is not over yet. We have to be strategic and organized about the upcoming battles.”

COVID-19, immigration, News

Elected officials pledge stimulus checks to help immigrants during pandemic; here’s how you can too

Several elected officials from Raleigh and Durham have pledged to share their federal stimulus checks with immigrants who are cut off from COVID-19 aid.

The pledges to donate money are part of a #ShareYourCheck challenge started by the Latinx grassroots empowerment organization, Siembra NC, to encourage people to contribute part or all of their COVID-19 stimulus checks to its new COVID-19 Immigrant Solidarity Fund.

The federal government is sending a one-time stimulus check to some Americans as part of a $2 trillion COVID-19 response bill known as the CARES Act. Individuals who earn less than $75,000 per year will receive a $1,200 check by the end of 2019, with an additional $500 for each qualifying dependent child under 17. Married couples under the threshold will receive $2,400.

At least 157 North Carolinians have already pledged to share their checks with the fund. The elected officials who have taken the pledge include Durham Mayor Steve Schewel, along with Durham City Council members Mark-Anthony Middleton, Charlie Reece, Jillian Johnson and Javiera Caballero, Durham County Commission Chair Wendy Jacobs and Durham County Commissioner Heidi Carter, as well as Raleigh City Council members Saige Martin and Nicole Stewart.

“Moments like this define who will rise and who is left behind,” Martin stated in a Monday news release. “As Federal programs struggle to reach those that qualify, it’s clear to me that we must give back to those who are the backbone of this country, yet, too often do not qualify for aid. I call on my fellow residents with any capacity to join me in donating their stimulus check or any amount to the Siembra Solidarity Fund. Let’s ensure we all rise together.”

The New American Economy research group estimates there are over 317,100 undocumented immigrants living in North Carolina who paid more than $639 million in federal, state and local taxes in 2018. Yet, even U.S. citizens married to undocumented immigrants who file jointly with their spouses are ineligible for stimulus checks.

As part of its COVID relief effort, Siembra NC is standing up for families in Stewart Detention Center in Georgia — the closest Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility — and they converted their 24-hour detention hotline to a COVID relief referral service. The group is also providing Spanish-language information to workers, business owners and others on how to stay safe, access testing and aid and defend their rights as rent comes due and managers force them to work without proper safety measures.

The organization kicked off its fundraiser Saturday with a “Sábado Gigante” Facebook Live telethon hosted by younger immigrant members of Siembra NC who also pledged their stimulus checks. Over the course of 12 hours, 219 donors gave more than $13,000, surpassing the initial $5,000 goal.

Still, the group is encouraging more donations for those residents who are able to contribute.

“These funds are a critical lifeline for North Carolina taxpayers who work in restaurants, hotels or as domestic workers and have lost most or all of their income, and have been blocked from receiving state or federal aid,” said Siembra spokesperson Andrew Willis Garcés. “Beating this pandemic requires all of us to work together to fill gaps in our social safety net, and this effort to create a ‘people’s stimulus’ is one way to step in where government programs are falling short.”

The live broadcast from Saturday’s fundraiser can still be viewed in four parts, and included a cooking demonstration from James Beard-nominated Raleigh chef Oscar Diaz, and performances by Durham rocker Cristy Road Carrera, Raleigh drag queen “Tesoro” and 18 others. It’s already had more than 21,000 views.

The telethon funds already benefited seven Raleigh immigrant women whose husbands were detained by ICE since January. The funds also contributed to the broader solidarity fund, which will provide relief for those undocumented families who are shut out of federal stimulus checks.

“We’re encouraging everyone who can to donate,” said Durham’s Caballero. “There are many ways to help those who are struggling, and this fund is one of them.”

North Carolinians who want to help can both take the pledge to share their stimulus checks and make donations online. All of the funds raised are re-granted to North Carolinians in need.