In Delaware, hundreds of immigrant rights advocates led by Make the Road Action and Casa in Action came in a cavalcade from seven states and Washington D.C converging on President-Elect Joe Biden’s home city of Wilmington on Tuesday, December 15 to deliver a firm message— take decisive action on three key issues: immigration, criminal justice reform, and debt relief for Puerto Rico.
But Biden’s commitment to fulfilling his campaign pledge to dismantle the Trump administration’s immigration policies through executive authority have recently been cast into doubt. On December 13, NPR reported that Biden intentionally did not include immigration in his top four priorities because the Biden camp and then the transition team felt that immigration activists had become too adversarial.
“We want this new administration to dismantle the ICE deportation machine,” said Alvarez, member of Make the Road Action Pennsylvania, before a socially distanced throng of immigrant rights advocates and allies in Wilmington’s Rodney Square.
She has been one of the advocates protesting ICE’s deportations in Berks County, Pennsylvania and Dilley, Texas where “23 black and brown families, including 28 children, are currently facing hasty and illegal deportations.”
On immigration, the advocates and allies demand a reversal of Trump’s immigration policies within Biden’s the first 100 days in office. The policy agenda they rallied for includes a moratorium on immigration detention and deportations, acceptance of new Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) applicants, including initiating settlement talks in all Temporary Protected Status (TPS) litigation, designating Cameroon, Guatemala, and Venezuela for TPS, and a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented people in the country.
“We know that the incoming administration has the ability to use executive action as a key tool—both to reverse Trump’s devastating policies and overhaul enforcement for the better. During the campaign, President-elect Biden committed to doing this, including with a moratorium on deportations, said Javier H. Valdés, Co-Executive Director, Make the Road Action.
Over the last week, there were leaks in the Biden team suggesting that he was cautious about using executive action, reports The American Prospect. During the Obama administration, there was a tendency to blame an obstructionist Congress for inaction on immigration. Pending the results in the two runoff Senate races in Georgia, Biden may find himself similarly constrained in pushing legislation through Congress thereby forcing him to get creative with executive authority.
“As we made clear in Wilmington, we will hold his administration to that commitment and we are eager to work with them to ensure they enact the best possible policies for our communities,” Valdés summed up via email when asked about the media reports and Biden’s mealy-mouthed excuses for bold executive action.
Advocates also demand Biden repairs to harm caused by the Violence Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, or the crime bill, and called on him to repeal the law. As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden played a key role in drafting the law and shepherding through the legislative process. In July 2020, he told supporters in South Carolina: “There’s another part of my long record that’s being grossly misrepresented: the 1994 crime bill.”
Taking aim of crime bill’s provisions, advocates demand new legislation ending the criminal punishment system, making reentry easier, ending cash bail, while divesting from carceral law enforcement system and instead investing in communities.
“The role of the immigrant, Puerto Rican and Black community in electing Biden-Harris is undeniable,” says Gustavo Torres, president of CASA in Action.
“We demand to invest in community resources — access to quality education, basic healthcare, and affordable housing — that are being gutted and made more inaccessible by public policies rooted in racism and corporate greed,” said Flor Huerta, a 16-year-old junior at Bassick High School in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
During her freshman year in high school, Huerta got involved with Youth Power campaign of Make the Road Action in Connecticut after noticing the ubiquity of police officers in her school. Later, she found an explanation for it—the discrepancy in funding, with $247.7 million in the education budget flat-funded for four years while public safety saw an increase of $4 million to stand at $174, 276,000 over the current fiscal year.
“President-Elect Biden, I hope you hear me and you do the right thing,” she added.
This spring, the U.S. economy came screeching to a halt to stem the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. The economic devastation has drawn comparisons to the Great Depression of the 1930s but a closer corollary in human suffering might be Puerto Rico.
Since 2015, Puerto Rico’s nearly three million residents have been in a perpetual state of emergency and economic freefall. In June of that year, Puerto Rico’s Governor Alejandro García Padilla declared that the U.S. Commonwealth’s $72 billion debt was “not payable.” The ramifications for the island’s residents have been devastating: the government has delayed income tax refunds, shuttered hundreds of public schools, increased the retirement age, and demanded greater pension fund contributions from public sector workers. Washington’s solution was the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA). The law established a fiscal oversight board after the island could no longer service crippling debt payments, forcing it into a debt restructuring process.
“More island residents have migrated to the U.S. mainland in the last 5 years than at any time since the Great Puerto Rican Migration after World War II,” according to 2015 report from the Hispanic Federation. In the five years since the report, Puerto Rico’s population has dropped further from 3.5 million to 2.9 million people.
Jose Aviles, a member of Casa in Action, came from Puerto Rico six years ago and settled in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Aviles speaks with fondness of his homeland and hasn’t forgotten the many years of suffering its people have endured and how these hardships have only worsened in recent years.
Aviles blames PROMESA for the forced migration of Puerto Ricans to the mainland U.S. pushing the island “to austerity, to close schools and hospitals and to make thousands of Puerto Ricans, like me, have to leave the island due to lack of opportunities. PROMESA has served for nothing more than enriching a few in exchange for the suffering of my people.”
Then, Hurricane Maria, registering as a deadly Category 4 storm, pummeled the island territory on September 2017.
Anywhere from 125,000 to 200,000 Puerto Ricans fled the island as hurricane and economic refugees, mainly settling in Florida, followed by Pennsylvania, and then New Jersey.
Lourdes Garcia, a member of Casa in Action, left the Puerto Rican municipality of Peñuelas for Pennsylvania six months before Hurricane Maria struck the island. She left for the mainland U.S. seeking medical care for her premature baby girl, medical care that hospitals in the island were ill-equipped to provide.
These hardships motivated Garcia and Aviles to vote for Biden.
“As Puerto Rican who lives in the United States, I decided not only to use the power of my vote for the first time in November, but also to convince family and friends in Lancaster, Pennsylvania to join their power with mine and thus demand justice for Puerto Rico,” said Aviles.
Puerto Rican voters demand legislation to abolish PROMESA and support for the U.S. Territorial Relief Act of 2018, which would provide debt relief, and audit the causes and sources of Puerto Rico’s debt. In addition, they seek self-determination through Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act of 2020, which sets up an impartial, binding and executable self-determination process for the island territory.
“The role of the immigrant, Puerto Rican and Black community in electing Biden-Harris is undeniable,” said Gustavo Torres, president of CASA in Action, which mobilized 1.2 million voters in Pennsylvania and Virginia. “Now, we forge ahead to claim what we have fought for and work closely with the new administration for a package benefiting communities of color.”
Biden had conciliatory words for the advocates on Tuesday, December 15. In a letter released just as the press conference and rally was going to kick off at Rodney Square, he said, “You advocated for your community, for your family, and for your life. Your efforts helped turn out communities of color in record numbers to vote and thanks to you, we can begin the work to build back better.”
There were no substantive action items in the overture.
Luis Feliz Leon is an organizer, journalist, and independent scholar in social-movement history making good trouble in New York City.
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