Immigration has come to the forefront of our national dialogue as policymakers weigh decisions that may upend and jeopardize the lives of millions of people in America. The DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act is a legislative proposal that provides those who entered the country without documentation as minors – the ~800,000 “Dreamers” – with a multi-step path to citizenship. The act has gone through multiple versions but Congress has failed to pass it each time. In 2012, through executive order, the Obama administration established Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). This policy gave Dreamers the option to apply for a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and a work permit. However, on September 5, 2017, President Drumpf announced he would end the program in six months – leaving the future uncertain for Dreamers and immigrants of all backgrounds and statuses.
In early October, three UEP Master of Public Policy (MPP) students communicated their reflections on this issue at the Fall Colloquium series, speaking from their personal, professional, and academic perspectives. The speakers were:
- Rasha Mikhael, Cultural Broker at Russian Community Association of MA (2nd year)
- Miriam Ortiz, Co-Founder and Chair of Board, Student Immigrant Movement (1st year)
- Nelson Butten, Director of Community, Family, and Student Engagement, Lawrence Public Schools – formerly worked at Lawrence Community Works (1st year)
Each of these MPP students have committed their professional lives to the empowerment of immigrants and refugees in Massachusetts. It was a privilege for the UEP community to hear their stories and viewpoints.
Personal stories and challenges
Rasha, Miriam, and Nelson began by sharing stories of their experiences and challenges as immigrants in Massachusetts. Rasha, originally from Iraq, expressed her gratitude and esteem for welfare policies in the United States that support legal immigrants and refugees. But she also related the difficulties of understanding and navigating the programs refugees are entitled to – especially when dealing with recent trauma. She explained the hardship immigrants face in finding employment, even when they’re highly educated, because of language and licensing barriers.
Miriam, originally from Mexico, spoke from her experience as an activist working with student Dreamers and their families. She explained how policy affects the mental health of undocumented immigrants who are forced to handle everyday issues, such as not having a driver’s license, while living in anxiety about their legal status. As someone who grew up constantly aware of the different treatment of undocumented and documented immigrants, she criticized the false dichotomy of legal vs. illegal. Miriam argued that this dehumanizing duality is often translated into deserving vs. undeserving, which is further reinforced by policy decisions.
Nelson, originally from the Dominican Republic, emphasized the impact national programs had on his ability to succeed: the Community Block Grant program funded his English classes when he first arrived in 1993; AmeriCorps provided his entry into the social service sector as a youth; and DACA benefits his family now. He also illustrated the barrier undocumented immigrants in his community face when it comes to participating in the public sphere, such as at city council meetings, because of the fear of discovery. A common thread between the speakers was describing the complex and often problematic ways policy decisions play out on the ground.
Community responses to current climate and challenges
Each speaker discussed how they, their organizations, and their communities are actively involved in responding to the current political climate and its hostile changes to immigration and travel policy.
Rasha’s work at the Russian Community Association of MA has involved seeking legal help for people experiencing issues with President Drumpf’s travel ban. She is also responsible for finding answers to different questions and situations that refugees and affected travelers face.
Nelson said the last six months have seen an increase in community activism in Lawrence and its surrounding communities – including marches, DACA clinics, and advocacy around the immigration center. He’s gotten involved with Cosecha Merrimack Valley, a local chapter of the national Cosecha movement that organizes for “permanent protection, dignity and respect for our undocumented immigrant community.” Nelson explained a key position of Cosecha: that immigrants bring their own wealth of knowledge, and should be viewed as a resource rather than taking resources from the country. In his work at Lawrence Public Schools, he’s working on developing policies for dealing with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents if they come into the schools, as well as informing parents and community organizations about these policies. He’s also striving to create safe spaces for immigrant students at school.
Similarly, Miriam talked about safe spaces offered by the Student Immigrant Movement in their discussion circles with DACA students, and noted the evolving narrative of how young people share their stories. She said Dreamers often wrestle with their “special status” that may let them stay in the U.S., but still leaves the other 10 million people—including family members—out. There was agreement across the panel that no easy solutions exist right now, so everybody is trying to ease fear and anxiety however possible.
Actions moving forward
When asked how all Tufts students can support their work, the panelists provided a range of ways to get involved. These included to keep up with updates and action alerts through organizational websites and social media, as well as volunteering.
In a concluding note, moderator and UEP professor Penn Loh called on UEP students, as future policymakers and planners, to acknowledge our responsibility to understand the diverse histories of immigrants in the U.S. and help everyone reach their full potential.
Nicole Huang and Lily Ko are both first year UEP MA students.
Below is a list of links for students to become more involved:
Student Immigrant Movement
Russian Community Association of Massachusetts