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‘Immigrants are Not Bargaining Chips’: Hundreds Rally In D.C. to Urge Senators To Reject Permanent Changes Gutting Asylum

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Alarming reports have revealed that Senate negotiators and the Biden White House could be close to agreeing to a “border security” deal that would actually do nothing to improve conditions at the border. It would instead implement permanent changes that would eviscerate decades of established asylum law, severely limit the president’s immigration parole authority, separate families, and expand ICE detention in exchange for aid to our allies in Ukraine. 

For weeks, advocates have been fiercely pushing back against these proposals, and continued that fight on Tuesday, holding a number of events in the nation’s capital urging Senate Democrats and the Biden White House to hold strong against these Trump-era policies and stand firm on asylum. 

The day began at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation, where a prayer vigil hosted by the Interfaith Immigration Coalition, Hope Border Institute, and Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center featured the voices of affected people. “During the vigil, people of faith prayed for justice for our immigrant neighbors, and asylum seekers shared their stories,” Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center said

Among the speakers on Tuesday was Jessica Patricia Barahona-Martinez, a mom and asylum seeker from El Salvador. She shared her horrific experience while in detention, which could become a reality for many more asylum seekers under the proposal currently being negotiated by lawmakers.

“I was in ICE detention for more than six long years. Six years in which they denied me my humanity, treating me less than an animal,” she told the audience. “In my detention, I felt voiceless, invisible. But today, I’m speaking for the people who couldn’t be here, are detained or deported. And I join hundreds of people to raise our voices in defense of immigrant rights.”

More than 350 people from the area and across the country would eventually gather at the church, advocates said. They were joined by Congressional Democrats including Sen. Alex Padilla (D-CA), Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), and Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ).

“You can’t be serious about our heritage as a nation of immigrants … you can’t be true to that if you are seeking to deny the ability for migrants to seek asylum in the United States,” Padilla said to applause. Padilla had previously issued a joint statement with Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chair Rep. Nanette Barragán urging the Biden White House to reject the proposal. 

“In this critical moment,” said Rep. Pressley, “it’s imperative that we not only advance policies that affirm immigrants’ rights as the human rights that they are, but also push back against any harmful proposals that deny migrant families the compassion, dignity, and fairness they deserve.”

Attendees were joined by representatives from numerous organizations, including the ACLU, Amnesty International USA, CASA, Community Change Action, Haitian Bridge Alliance, HIAS, Human Rights First, Immigrant Defenders Law Center (ImmDef), Immigration Hub, Jesuit Refugee Service/USA, Justice Action Center, Make the Road Connecticut, Make the Road Nevada, Make the Road New Jersey, MoveOn, Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, International Mayan League, National Immigration Law Center, New York Immigration Coalition, Refugee Service/USA Justice Action Center, Tahirih Justice Center, Vera Institute of Justice, Wind of the Spirit Immigrant Resource Center (NJ), Women’s Refugee Commission, and #WelcomeWithDignity Campaign. 

The call to protect asylum continued into the day, when advocates broke off into more than a dozen groups to visit all 100 Senate offices to distribute materials and continue urging lawmakers to reject any anti-immigrant policy in the emergency supplemental funding bill. Juan Carlos Gomez of the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) led one such visit to Sen. Cory Booker’s office, one advocate shared.

Also on Tuesday, dozens of Catholic and faith-based organizations also issued a letter urging the Biden administration to reject these harmful and permanent changes, questioning “whether these proposals would in fact reduce the number of asylum seekers reaching the US-Mexico border in the years ahead.” As America’s Voice has previously detailed, the details of what’s on the table threaten to add to border chaos and pressures and should not be short-handed as “border security.”

“As we witnessed during the ‘Remain in Mexico’ program, migrants, including women with children, are subject to danger and violence by criminal elements in Mexico,” the 50 groups and congregations said. “Moreover, we believe that closing the border at ports of entry would encourage unscrupulous smugglers to find alternative ways to penetrate the border, leading migrants on more expensive and dangerous treks.”

“In addition, measures that alter the normal functioning of ports of entry severely impact locals and trade flows alike, jeopardizing borderland residents’ daily lives and relations with Mexico,” they continued.

Senators including James Lankford (R-OK), Chris Murphy (D-CT), and Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ) have continued these negotiations even as new polling shows overwhelming support for a policy that’s possibly on the chopping block. Parole authority, which can allow immigrants to work legally and temporarily live in the U.S., has been used by all presidents for decades. Under President Biden, it has resulted in an expansion of legal avenues for certain migrants, and has reduced disorder at the border. But this authority is now at risk.

“Likely 2024 voters in seven key swing states — Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — showed very strong support for expanding work permits for undocumented immigrants (including long-term workers, farmworkers, Dreamers without DACA and spouses of United States citizens),” the American Business Immigration Coalition Action and American Families United said. “The proposed policy is favored by two-thirds of voters in these states before they hear any messaging and it is strongly favored by nearly half. Only one-quarter are opposed.”

This authority has notably been used to protect Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s unprovoked invasion. “People deserve to be in a country where children do not cry from fear, pain, and death nearby,” Nadiia Veselova, a United for Ukraine sponsor, said at the rally on Tuesday. “The opportunity to work here is especially important for Ukrainians, and I am personally grateful that the United States accepts Ukrainians in this terrible time …”

“These extreme proposals would do nothing to improve our immigration system, but they would almost certainly result in more children detained, more families separated, and more people sent back to face persecution and even death,” Kica Matos, president of the National Immigration Law Center, said on Tuesday. “Immigrants are not bargaining chips – they are neighbors, coworkers, family members and friends who help build this country and contribute to the strength of its future. Our champions in Congress must hold the line and to fight with, and for us.” 

Weren’t able to make it to the rally this week? You can still support asylum by clicking here and urging your senators to defend families and prevent these restrictionist policies from going into place.