Immigrants advocates press local, state officials for protection

  • Irma Munoz, a member of the Pioneer Valley Workers Center’s worker committee, speaks about workers rights and immigration protection. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Veronica Amaya, her neice Perla Cornejo, and Irma Muñoz, members of the Pioneer Valley Workers Center’s worker committee, speak together with Diana Sierra, an organizer, about workers rights and immigration protection. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Veronica Amaya, her niece Perla Cornejo, members of the Pioneer Valley Workers Center’s worker committee, speak with about workers rights and immigration protection. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Veronica Amaya and her niece Perla Cornejo speak at the Pioneer Valley Workers Center in Northampton, Wednesday. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

Published: 4/25/2018 11:36:29 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Last July, when local immigrant Veronica Amaya’s cancer-stricken grandmother seemed to be nearing death in her native El Salvador, Amaya was legally able to visit her and then return to the United States. Her grandmother died 10 days after she arrived.

That possibility of travel was due to Amaya’s temporary protected status, or TPS, which offers legal status to immigrants who are already in the United States from countries affected by natural disasters or armed conflict. But that protected status, which Amaya has had for around a decade and a half, is soon to disappear after the Trump administration announced it will end temporary protected status for about 200,000 Salvadoran immigrants.

“It’s given me so many opportunities,” Amaya, with tears in her eyes, said of the program, which has allowed the 38-year-old to build her life in Amherst over the past 17 years.

Amaya is one of around two dozen concerned members of the Pioneer Valley Workers Center’s worker committee in Northampton, many of whom are facing increased uncertainty under the immigration policies of the Trump administration. On May 1 — International Workers’ Day — the workers will hold a press conference with Mayor David Narkewicz, where they are hoping he will take up their suggestions for local actions to protect immigrant workers.

With the federal government stripping legal status from hundreds of thousands of immigrants like Amaya, and increasing crackdowns on other undocumented immigrants, immigrant-rights activists are increasingly turning their attention to the local and state level to push for protections.

The Pioneer Valley Workers Center has been communicating with the mayor about potential measures to improve local immigrant protections, and is hoping local politicians will go beyond rhetoric to put some of those concrete policies on the books.

Among the proposals the workers are putting forward are a commitment to issue warnings ahead of potential immigration raids, an expansion of voting rights to non-citizens for city elections and widespread city trainings for local businesses to learn how to interact with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

“We’re going to push them publicly, and we’ll see there if he’s going to help or if he’ll toss us to the side,” 48-year-old Salvadoran immigrant Jesús Castillo said of Narkewicz and the City Council ahead of the May 1 press conference. “But I have faith in God that he’s going to give us a hand.”

Safe Communities

At that press conference, local workers are also calling on Narkewicz to urge state lawmakers to pass several laws. Those include the Safe Communities Act, which would restrict agencies across the state from collaborating with federal immigration enforcement, and a proposal to encourage the state’s attorney general to fine businesses that actively collaborate with federal immigration officials.

Narkewicz did not respond Wednesday to a request for comment on the upcoming event or the proposals for local action.

“I think that we’re all pretty optimistic, and they all have expressed their willingness to move forward on the proposals,” Diana Sierra, a Pioneer Valley Workers Center organizer who herself was undocumented for two decades, said of local officials. A big question, she added, is what is possible given the city’s powers. “There’s definitely an interest and a willingness to move these proposals forward.”

Those proposals came out of a brainstorming session with the worker committee, where workers talked about what they’d like to see in their day-to-day lives. From there, researchers with the worker center’s Sanctuary in the Streets network looked into concrete actions that local and state government could take.

Some of the proposals have been taken up elsewhere. For example, cities like Chicago and San Francisco offer limited noncitizen voting, and California’s attorney general has vowed legal action, including fines, against any business cooperating with federal immigration crackdowns.

“It gives us hope,” 32-year-old Irma Muñoz, a Granby resident who moved from El Salvador in 2000, said of the workers’ collaboration with local government.

Muñoz, who is also here on TPS, said that whatever action Northampton takes would be an example to nearby towns.

“We’re worried, we’re really worried,” said Muñoz, who has two children in the Granby school system. She just bought a home in Granby in 2016, but is fearful that she’ll lose what she has worked so hard for if she loses legal status. “We feel safe now, but after September 2019 we’re fearful that they’ll deport us.”

Working for all immigrants

Castillo, who arrived in the United States in 2001 and has lived in Northampton for five years, said the proposal he’s most interested in is the implementation of trainings for employers, teaching them how to interact with federal immigration officials who might arrive at their business.

“So that they defend their workers,” he said. “They have the final word,” he added, describing a situation where, for example, immigration agents show up at a business without a search warrant.

Though Castillo and the others who spoke with the Gazette about the proposals have temporary protected status, they said their efforts were meant to help immigrants with documents and those without.

“We’re working not just for DACA, for ‘Dreamers,’ for TPS,” Castillo said, referring to the program granting legal status to immigrants brought to the United States as youth. “It’s everything in general. If workers need help, that’s what the Workers Center is there for.”

With tears in her eyes, Amaya recounted how, because of the protection of TPS, she has been able to give her 16-year-old daughter the opportunity to continue following her dream of becoming a doctor.

With the Trump administration now threatening her and other immigrants’ stability in the country they’ve long called home, Amaya said she was relieved the mayor responded so rapidly to the committee’s outreach, and hoped local politicians would step up to help area immigrants.

“We’re in limbo,” she said.

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


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