Activist wants Amherst, Northampton to help resettle refugees, asylum seeker

  • Malu Klo, an asylum seeker from the Congo, attends a picnic for refugees, Thursday, July 4, 2019, at Fort Williams Park in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Volunteers put together the welcoming picnic for asylum seekers housed at the Portland Expo. AP PHOTO/Robert F. Bukaty

Staff Writer
Published: 7/12/2019 10:02:01 AM
Modified: 7/12/2019 10:01:49 AM

AMHERST — Thousands of undocumented immigrants, both adults and children, are being held in detention centers across the United States, with their numbers swelling as the Trump administration prioritizes immigration enforcement.

With the camps overseen by Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Office of Refugee Resettlement holding an average of 42,000 people per day last year, actions have increased to raise awareness of these sites. Recently, several residents from the area spendt time outside a youth detention camp in Homestead, Florida, and several dozen residents protested family separation, overcrowded camps and inhumane treatment on Independence Day rally in Shutesbury by walking from the Lake Wyola Dam to the nearby state park.

But as much as local activists would like to see these sites closed and people released as they await asylum hearings and other court proceedings, Amherst activist Vincent O’Connor says this won’t happen unless a process is created by which undocumented immigrants can be welcomed into local cities and towns.

O’Connor is encouraging officials in Amherst to establish a resettlement commission on refugees and asylum seekers. He sees this commission’s role as exploring and identifying places in town, likely private homes, where people could be accommodated when released from government custody.

“This is the only way we can undercut this horrendous imprisonment situation we’ve all been witness to,” O’Connor said.

O’Connor said he intends to bring the topic to the Northampton City Council and make an appeal for Northampton officials to establish a similar commission for the city.

Once a commission is formed, O’Connor envisions that members would bring expertise in housing for low-income people, would interview and seek out homeowners willing to offer space in their residences, and would provide information about the various needs of the individuals and families, from food to transportation.

Based on the populations of both Amherst and Northampton, O’Connor estimates that each community could find room for 75 to 100 individuals.

It’s uncertain whether the Amherst Town Council will take up the matter. 

“At this time, the council has not made a decision whether to consider this or not,” said Council President Lynn Griesemer.

Griesemer did say she appreciates the oral presentation from O’Connor, who has not yet made a written proposal or provided any written correspondence.

O’Connor said he believes welcoming undocumented immigrants would have minimal impact on municipal services, including schools. In Amherst, even if 50 school-age children needed to be enrolled, they would be spread among three elementary schools and two regional schools, which is not an undue burden, he said.

The important thing, he said, is that this could lead to both Amherst and Northampton being designated as places appropriate for releasing those who have been held in camps, ensuring that they will have a stable environment in which to live for a period of time. That, in turn, will make it easier for judges presiding over cases challenging the prolonged detention of asylum seekers, as well as a potentially new presidential administration that could change President Donald Trump’s policies.

“You need to have an orderly process,” O’Connor said.

“This sets in place a plan should Trump be defeated,” O’Connor said. “There needs to be a place these people can go, and a resettlement commission would provide a basis for courts ordering people to be released.”

Much of the commission’s work would be collecting information, which wouldn’t be made public, but would instead go to the courts and attorneys.

“That information would be made available to lawyers attempting to represent imprisoned asylum seekers and refugees,” O’Connor said.

Martha Spiegelman, a member of the Amherst chapter of Amnesty International, said a June 24 teleconference for New England-based Amnesty chapters endorsed what is known as community sponsorship, with these chapters encouraged to participate in refugee resettlement programs in towns, by both governmental and non-governmental agencies.

Formally known as the longer table initiative, the correspondence for this regional call states: “We see awareness building and advocacy as constants running through our resolutions and community sponsorship and volunteer engagement work. The main idea behind community sponsorship and volunteer engagement within the longer table initiative is for Amnesty groups — both student groups and other local chapter — to work with local resettlement agencies and connect with refugees … and asylum seekers.”

Part of O’Connor’s advocacy for undocumented immigrants comes from his experience in the 1960s and 1970s when he was living in San Francisco and worked to find safe and suitable housing for AWOL soldiers and those avoiding the draft.

He would like to see the Pioneer Valley do its part to help those coming to America, whether they have crossed the southern border or overstayed their visas.

“This community is capable of organizing this effort,” O’Connor said. 

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.


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