The Immigration Stakes in Georgia

If the Democrats win a majority in the Senate, the pressure on a Biden administration to push leftward in tandem with the party will be immense. That makes the stakes in the upcoming Georgia runoffs high on every front, but one that gets little attention in news cycles lately is the trademark issue of Trump’s successful 2016 campaign: immigration.

The immigration question is especially important because activists for the cause are out in force for the Democratic candidates in Georgia, mobilizing critical votes and thereby shaping the electorate. A press release from one group gives an impression of the extent and organization of the network on the ground:

All of Poder Latinx’s Georgia staff are residents of  Gwinnett, Cobb, and Fulton counties. The team led a phone banking operation staffed by 24 bilingual phone bankers calling Latinx voters throughout Georgia, and 18 bilingual canvassers knocking on doors in Gwinnett, Cobb, and Fulton counties. Canvassers were given extensive training on safety protocols before talking to voters, not only to protect themselves, but also their own Latinx community, which has been hit hard by the pandemic.

These activists’ agenda includes hot-button issues like legislating DACA and excusing sanctuary cities, but also things like lower application fees for immigrants, along with increased or new benefits for immigrants, both legal and illegal. The National Partnership for New Americans (NPNA) has published a New American Dreams Platform for immigration policy. It begins with sweeping claims:

We believe that we cannot have a true democracy without a system that includes all people. Congress must pass comprehensive immigration reform that provides an attainable road to citizenship for undocumented people and protects existing immigration pathways through family migration and diversity visas. Congress should also foster “active citizenship” for New Americans by funding civic leadership, reducing barriers to voting, and promoting greater civic participation. In addition, we must eliminate unfair barriers to naturalization—such as exorbitant application fees and linguistic requirements—while reducing the application backlog. In all this work, we must remember that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is a customer service agency with a separate and distinct mission from agencies geared towards immigration enforcement.

The platform includes workforce training and English language classes for immigrants. Furthermore, since NPNA views health care as a human right, the group also believes all immigrants should receive free health care:

We must affirm that affordable health care is a basic human right, regardless of immigration status. There are a number of steps we can take to ensure that everyone has access to affordable health care, such as enacting policies to make employer-based health coverage more affordable, strengthening safety-net programs, and removing barriers for legal immigrants to access federally funded health care programs. We must also work to ensure that public health programs and health care providers are culturally and linguistically competent, with a workforce that reflects the diversity of the communities they serve.

This immigration platform will also play out in many areas which receive very little attention.

For instance, President Trump ended the process of rubber stamping Temporary Protected Status (TPS). TPS was designed so that in case of a natural disaster, war, or other emergency, people from a certain country who are in the U.S. legally but temporarily would receive a reprieve while the situation in their home country played out.

TPS was supposed to last two years for citizens of a given country, but starting in the Bush administration and continuing in the Obama administration, the TPS status would get reauthorized as a rubber stamp and a temporary program became permanent.

But President Trump ended all that, something immigration integration plans like NPNA’s seek to reverse:

Our country has a proud history as a beacon of freedom and safety. We need to honor that history by ensuring that people seeking refuge from violence and exploitation have adequate pathways to lawful immigration, regardless of their country of origin, race, religion, or sexual orientation. Congress should also amend the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program to allow for a path to permanent residence for those with TPS if they have established lives in the U.S. We must ensure that all people can meaningfully seek asylum in the U.S. and end travel, immigration, and refugee resettlement bans. Finally, we should hold Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to the highest standards of civil policing conduct and reject actions and rhetoric that treat civil immigration enforcement as a military issue.

NPNA declined to answer my list of questions but did invite me to a press conference held on November 19, 2020. At the conference, NPNA representatives made the case that new American voters made the difference in key states like Georgia, Arizona, and Pennsylvania. One in ten voters in Arizona, they noted, were naturalized citizens.

While announcing a commitment to working with a potential Biden administration, NPNA Executive Director Nicole Melaku accused the Trump administration of engaging in “unprecedented attacks” on immigrants. (That said, she did remark that 2 million people, an admittedly significant number, have been naturalized during his administration.)

NPNA laid out its policy goals for a Biden presidency in a press release:

NPNA and other immigrant rights advocates are calling on the incoming Biden/Harris administration to further commit to promptly enacting other key changes that will not only reverse the damage done over the past four years, but create a more just and welcoming nation for all. While some of these policies would require congressional action, many can be done simply through administrative changes.

For immigrant communities, expanding access to citizenship is one of the priority issues on the docket for the new President-elect. First steps to achieving this include rescinding Trump administration policies that cut off low-income immigrants from naturalization via fee increases and reduced eligibility for fee waivers, and new barriers to passing the civic test for immigrants with limited English proficiency.

Other NPNA recommendations for the incoming Biden/Harris administration include the adoption of a comprehensive national immigrant integration strategy in collaboration with federal agencies, state and city govenments, and community-based organizations.

In addition to NPNA, the most active group in this network is one many won’t know: Unidos US, called La Raza prior to 2017. This group is a collection of local community organizations, allowing it to reach people on a grassroots level—a key to any succesful campaign.

The money behind the movement, though, comes from another group few are familar with: The Emerson Collective. Its power is owed to one word: Jobs—as in Lauren Powell Jobs, the widow of Steve Jobs. The Emerson Collective has assets of more than $1.8 billion, and gives grants in numerous liberal wish list categories like social justice, climate change, and immigration causes.

One beneficiary of Emerson funds is The Immigration HUB. It’s filled with former Capitol Hill staffers who previously worked for Kamala Harris, Jerry Nadler, Robert Menendez and others. These were often key staffers like Kerri Talbot, who was Chief Counsel for Robert Menendez.

Joe Biden has been in DC for nearly fifty years; he’s a swamp creature. Who better to influence him than other creatures of the swamp?

Other groups like Alianza Americas will also contribute. This network will also receive support from several local community organizations pushing left wing immigration policy in certain localities, including the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR), Florida Immigration Council, and COPAL MN.

These grassroots efforts will be buoyed by several dozen lawmakers, primarily from two caucuses: the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the New Americans Caucus. The CHC, for its part, remains well known but has lost some of its influence on immigration issues since Luis Gutierrez—longtime Illinois congressman and constant presence on cable news—retired in 2018.

The New Americans Caucus is small—six members—but it includes some of the most prominent open borders hardliners, such as Jesus Garcia, who has been in Congress since 2016. Before that, he was a Cook County Commissioner. In 2012, he spearheaded a controversial local ordinance which forbade the Cook County Sheriff from cooperating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on detainers. (A detainer is a hold of up to forty eight hours that ICE places on prison inmates it wants to pick up so they aren’t released.) In a party line vote, Democrats passed the law.

A few months later, Saul Chavez was released after he made bail. Chavez was drunk when he crashed into Denny McCann, who was crossing a Chicago street. Chavez dragged McCann about two hundred feet and killed him. Chavez failed to make his next court appearance and remains a fugitive to this day. Others released under this ordinance include gang bangers and other violent criminals.

Another immigration issue to watch is deportations. While it received scant media coverage, the Obama administration set records for the number of people deported. Even Trump couldn’t keep up.

Rep. Gutierrez made numerous criticisms of Obama admin practices:

Nobody can say with a straight face that President Obama is not enforcing our immigration laws vigorously, but that is still the main talking point on the right wing every day and twice on Sunday’s talk shows. The fact that we are deporting so many people, even when illegal immigration has slowed to a trickle, is a symptom of our decades-long neglect in fixing the immigration system.

Suffice it to say that record deportations would not align with the plans of any of these activist organizations. I asked the folks at NPNA about this at their press conference. Nicole Melaku said that it was important to develop a program of “reform for all eleven million to bring relief,” but that a comprehensive plan would be unnecessary.

Gary Segura, a senior partner at Latino Decisions who was also on the press conference, said, “We will be watching very closely,” referring to all Biden campaign promises. Segura, however, also called my question misleading on the grounds that all Obama-era deportations were statutory and lawful.

But there would be no conversation on the subject if immigration activists’ concern was really just that deportations be conducted properly according to existing law. It is hardly up for debate that any broad deportation campaign is contrary to their goals. And it just so happens that Obama deported over 2.7 million people—more than any president in history, according to a 2016 ABC story. He and George W. Bush—who deported another 2 million himself—deported more people than all presidents in the 20th century combined.

This may be a policy many readers favor, but it is certainly anathema to NPNA and others putting in the hard work for Democratic victory. It remains to be seen how such groups respond if a President Biden follows President Obama’s lead.

Michael Volpehas worked as a freelance journalist since 2009, after spending more than a decade in finance. He is based in Chicago.

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