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Our lawsuit against DeSantis is a chance to see immigrants as a powerful force

Undocumented immigrants often feel powerless in the U.S. legal system, but there is strength in numbers.
Image: DeSantis migrant flights to Martha's Vineyard
Immigrants gather with their belongings outside St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Edgartown, Mass., on Martha's Vineyard, on Sept. 14.Ray Ewing / Vineyard Gazette via AP

Last week, the nonprofit immigrant advocacy group Lawyers for Civil Rights filed a federal class-action suit on behalf of Venezuelan migrants whom Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis flew to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, in a political stunt. Alianza Americas, the organization I help lead, is a co-plaintiff. 

Our suit against DeSantis and others involved in abruptly sending nearly 50 migrants to Martha’s Vineyard seeks a nationwide injunction to stop this sort of relocation of immigrants, which we believe to be fraudulent. These recent arrivals, all of whom have been screened and approved for entry into the U.S., have little to their names other than the determination to build better lives for their families.

When they arrive, immigrants deserve to be treated as far more than the agentless pawns they are often portrayed to be in our hyperpartisan debates.

Because undocumented immigrants are routinely taken advantage of by people in power, the suit is a significant example of members of the immigration community’s agency in a legal system in which they often feel powerless or simply don't understand. 

Our organization is a network of groups that help immigrants achieve a sustainable way of life throughout the Americas. Before I led it, I worked for nearly 25 years with different organizations helping newcomers in the U.S., so I am accustomed to hearing the stories of people who are trying to navigate a complicated system.

But this year, as Republican governors ramped up transporting migrants unannounced to sanctuary cities, that feeling of powerlessness that frequently engulfs the immigrant community I serve — my community — showed up at the door of Alianza in a new way.

The biggest challenge is that without family or friends in the areas where they have been dropped off, many migrants lack the kind of connections that help support marginalized communities. 

It is through our coalition that we heard about a woman who said she was still cramping and weak from the miscarriage she suffered after crossing the Rio Grande when she boarded a bus that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott sent to Washington, D.C.

And in Chicago, where migrants have begun showing up recently, volunteer organizations that we work with trekked with boxes from church to church, school to school, trying to wrangle up enough donations of winter coats for those who have arrived and the many more who are sure to come by December. 

A combination of deepening impoverishment because of the economic impact of Covid-19 and increasingly dictatorial approaches to governing is pushing people out of their countries.

Those who’ve braved the arduous journey to risk a new start in the U.S. have often survived unspeakable trauma and exhaustion, even before getting here. For example, on the plane DeSantis commandeered to Martha’s Vineyard using Florida’s federal Covid-19 aid, there was a man who said that before he made it to the U.S., he was kidnapped in Mexico and tortured by captors who pulled out his teeth with pliers.

Their pains began in their home countries, where a combination of deepening impoverishment because of the economic impact of Covid-19 and increasingly dictatorial approaches to governing is pushing people out of their countries. 

When they arrive, immigrants deserve to be treated as far more than the agentless pawns they are often portrayed to be in our hyperpartisan debates. They are powerful.

We’ve brought flavor, color and diversity to the U.S.’s cultural landscape. We’ve brought hugely positive economic, social and cultural benefits to a country with an aging population, bolstered by the labor of hard-working, young, dynamic newcomers who are filling critical areas in the U.S. labor market. In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, immigrant workers played a decisive role in what have been dubbed “essential functions” across the country. 

You would hardly get a sense of that from the narratives pushed by DeSantis and his ilk. Instead, the implicit message is that migrants are undesirable — unless there’s a chance to use them for right-wing news fodder. At the very least, Florida authorities should have called their counterparts in Massachusetts so they were prepared to receive the migrants, which they never did.

Ultimately, the Martha’s Vineyard case is an opportunity to reflect on how we can do better, honoring the critical role migrants play in bettering our nation. 

Right now, our immigration system pours incredible resources into keeping immigrants away rather than recognizing them for what they are: powerful agents for good. 

One area where we can improve is in providing orderly transportation options for new arrivals. People deserve support in reuniting with their families in the U.S. and reaching their destinations; that’s just part of what it means to receive people in a welcoming, dignified way. 

We should also provide work permits for asylum-seekers as expeditiously as possible. Instead of having them wait for months for the legal right to work, we need to empower asylum-seekers to support themselves economically and integrate fully into their communities. It’s ironic that amid a labor shortage, we are trying to make life impossible for people who hope to come to the U.S. and do what they’ve done for decades. Namely, to help generate incredible wealth for the country.

Finally, we need to modernize our humanitarian protection laws. The architecture of U.S. asylum law dates back to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, where what it meant to be a “refugee” was defined. Back then, the word was reserved for anyone with a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” in their countries of origin. 

But that was more than 70 years ago. Today, other realities drive people to flee their homes and seek asylum abroad, such as gang violence and the effects of climate change

Out-of-date asylum laws are just one subset of a much larger problem. Overall, our immigration laws are obsolete and impractical. The basis for much of today’s policies remains rooted in 1996’s Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. It increased the number of people considered deportable and mandated re-entry bans for deported undocumented immigrants who had resided in the U.S. for extended periods. This law has separated many families. Our laws should be geared toward maximizing the potential of people who migrate, not punishing and excluding them. 

The Martha’s Vineyard lawsuit is a chance for us to revisit the conversation about whether we are truly prepared to honor our promise of being a country that welcomes immigrants. It is in our best interest to integrate immigrants who’ve brought incredible benefits and improvements to our communities. It is a shame that all too many unscrupulous politicians see is a chance to drum up hate and fear — but as we’ve seen from the heroic efforts in recent months to welcome those arriving on buses and planes, solidarity is stronger than hate every time.