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Northampton mayor backs immigrant advocates’ demands

  • Eduardo Samaniego speaks in front of Amherst Town Hall, Tuesday, May 1, 2018.  GAZETTE STAFF/SCOTT MERZBACH

  • Diana Sierra, an organizer with the Pioneer Valley Workers Center, speaks Tuesday, May 1, 2018, at a rally on International Workers' Day for immigrant rights. GAZETTE STAFF/DUSTY CHRISTENSEN



@dustyc123
Wednesday, May 02, 2018

NORTHAMPTON — After 18 years in the United States as an immigrant with legal status, Emma Muñoz now worries about the day when she might face deportation, tearing her away from her 7-year-old daughter, who has a serious medical condition.

“We have helped build the economy of the United States, we pay taxes,” said Muñoz, who has had “temporary protected status,” which the Trump administration has said it will strip from about 200,000 Salvadoran immigrants like Muñoz by Sept. 9, 2019. 

“Who will pick up my daughter from school? No one,” Muñoz said of the possibility of deportation after her status expires. “I don’t even want to think about the government taking custody of my daughter. My daughter is my life.”

On International Workers’ Day, Muñoz was one of a contingent of activists who met on the steps of City Hall to call for local and state politicians to put action behind their rhetoric by enacting concrete policies to protect the immigrant workers in their communities.

The rally came as part of the work of the Pioneer Valley Workers Center, whose worker committee recently presented Mayor David Narkewicz with suggestions for local actions to protect immigrant workers. With the federal government stripping legal status from hundreds of thousands of immigrants, and deporting many more, many workers and immigrant-rights activists are increasingly turning their attention to the local and state level to push for protections. 

“We really need the leadership of our local politicians and community to step up and support us,” Workers Center organizer Diana Sierra said to kick off the press conference.

The workers committee put forward several proposals for local politicians to take up: a city commitment to warn residents of possible immigration raids, city support of local congregations offering immigrants sanctuary, trainings for employers to learn how to interact with federal immigration agents, increased language accessibility in city politics, a city commission to work on making Northampton a welcoming city and expanding voting rights for non-citizen residents in city elections.

To push Narkewicz on those proposals, activists held bilingual poster-board checklists with their proposals written large, drawing hearts next to the ones the mayor voiced support for during his speech. And Narkewicz expressed some degree of commitment to all the proposals.

For sanctuary congregations, Narkewicz pledged continued backing following a strong statement of support when the Unitarian Society of Northampton provided sanctuary to local Russian immigrant Irida Kakhtiranova last month.

Narkewicz pledged to warn residents about any immigration raids he learns of ahead of time, though he said federal immigration authorities may not give him forewarning. He also said he has reached out to businesses and the Chamber of Commerce about bringing in legal resources to train employers about their rights if immigration agents show up and ask to speak to one of their employees.

On the topic of language accessibility, Narkewicz mentioned that the city’s website is now available in different languages, and he pledged to work with the City Council and others to look into expanding language resources for city government functions.

“We’re doing a good job on the electronic side,” he said. “I know that we do have to do better when it comes to actual meetings.”

Narkewicz pledged to form an advisory committee to bring together the workers committee and others to advise him on policy.

When it comes to expanding voting rights to non-citizen residents, Narkewicz mentioned a bill currently in the state Legislature that would give municipalities the local option to do so.

“But I think cities like Northampton are going to have to push the issue,” Narkewicz said. “So I will work with our City Council to try to send a home-rule style petition to the Legislature to see if we could get the ability at local elections to allow, again, these people that are working in our community, whose kids go to school in our community, to be able to vote on issues about our city and our schools during local elections.” 

Activists also pushed for local politicians to support state-level efforts to protect immigrants in Massachusetts. Among the initiatives Narkewicz backed were a bill that would give undocumented immigrants the ability to have driver’s licenses, as well as the Safe Communities Act, which would restrict agencies across the state from collaborating with federal immigration enforcement.

“We’ve been pushing for the Safe Communities Act now for several years,” Narkewicz said. “And if we can’t pass the Safe Communities Act in 2018 with President Trump, I don’t know when we’re going to do it.”

This week, Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo suggested that major immigration policy was unlikely to pass this session. That lack of action, despite a Democratic supermajority in the state House and Senate, was met with opprobrium by local undocumented activist and Hampshire College student Eduardo Samaniego.  

“The haven’t gotten off their damn ass to take action in this year of Trump,” Samaniego said to cheers. “Enough is enough.”

Earlier in the day, Samaniego took part in a day of lobbying on the steps of Amherst Town Hall. There, about 15 representatives from various groups, including the Pioneer Valley Workers Center, College Democrats of Amherst and the Western Mass Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action, called on state senators to vote three amendments into the budget before this year’s session is over to protect undocumented immigrants.

Molly Bajgot, an organizer for the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action, said three amendments endorsed by the Massachusetts Safe Communities Coalition would end collaboration between local sheriffs and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, inform people in police custody about their basic rights and ensure that police and other law enforcement officials do not inquire about immigration status unless required by law.

Eric Nakajima, a Democratic candidate to become representative for the 3rd Hampshire District, told those in attendance he will advocate for their rights if elected.

On what many countries celebrate as Labor Day, rally organizers in Northampton stressed that immigrant rights are worker rights. Many local labor unions came to voice their support the cause, from the University of Massachusetts Amherst graduate student union — which recently ratified a contract — to local carpenters.

“You have to use your voice to fight for other people,” said Donna Stern, a registered nurse at Baystate Franklin Medical Center and a leader with the nurses union that just recently went on strike against the hospital. “If you have privilege, you must use that. You must.”

Locals shared their stories, including immigrants with legal status that is currently under threat by the Trump administration. 

When she was young living in Washington state, Julieta Rendon-Mendoza says she had big ambitions: she wanted to work at Burger King — where her parents worked — and to become the president of the United States.

“For years, my parents didn’t tell me I was undocumented. They didn’t tell me because they wanted me to dream big, and I did,” said Rendon-Mendoza, who was brought to the country from Mexico as a 2-year-old. When she learned her immigration status, those dreams seemed far away. “I couldn’t even be a Burger King employee.”

Rendon-Mendoza is a first-year Smith College student who has benefited from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which grants legal status young people who were brought to the country as children. But she said she’s fighting for all workers, including many immigrants like Samaniego who didn’t meet the requirements for DACA.

“We must all reach that point where we see our liberations connected,” she said. “We weren’t born to suffer.”

Rendon-Mendoza said working with the mayor and local politicians gives her hope in a way it might not have in previous years.

“We all have a role to play in this,” she said.

Scott Merzbach contributed reporting to this story.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.