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Community forum explores immigration policies, experiences

The panel of speakers at the April 12 annual local leaders’ forum, which focused on immigration, (L-R): Enrique Gómez Montiel, Peris Lopez, Fernando Najera, Rebecca Curtiss, Antar Davidson, and moderator Nancy Montoya. (Photo: Debe Campbell/AJP)

As Tucson grapples with a continuing influx of Central American migrants seeking asylum, and the community responds with shelter, food, and clothing, the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s Jewish Community Relations Council and the Jewish History Museum focused their annual local leaders’ forum on the immigration issue. The event was held April 12 at the Federation. Nancy Montoya, Arizona Public Media news and public affairs reporter specializing in immigration and U.S.-Mexico border issues, moderated the forum and audience dialogue with the five panelists.

“This program is convened in the spirit of community and solidarity,” said event host Bryan Davis, JHM executive director.

Davis reminded the audience of 115 of anti-immigration policies in U.S. history. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first significant law restricting immigration into the United States. The National Origins Act of 1924 restricted immigration with a system of national quotas, discriminating against southern and Eastern Europeans, and Asians. In 1939, the United States denied permission for 900 passengers from Germany aboard the MS St. Louis to disembark; 254 ultimately were killed in the Holocaust.

“As Americans, we all understand and acknowledge the need for secure borders,” Davis told the AJP.  “We also recognize that the increase of asylum-seekers, reaching almost 100,000 last month, poses a challenge for our administration in terms of the resources required to expeditiously evaluate requests for permanent asylum while providing safe and humane temporary shelter.”

He noted that Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel famously said, “You who are so-called illegal aliens must know that no human being is illegal … Human beings can be beautiful or more beautiful; they can be fat or skinny; they can be right or wrong, but illegal? How can a human being be illegal?”

“We have an obligation beyond just taking care of ourselves and our own border,” Rabbi Thomas Louchheim of Congregation Or Chadash said during introductory remarks. “We have a core obligation to take care of the stranger in our midst. ‘Welcome the stranger’ is mentioned 36 times — more than any other commandment — in the Torah. The dogma of the quiet past is insufficient. We must rise to this occasion. ”

Louchheim commended the efforts of the museum and the JCRC, including JCRC Co-Chairs Mo Goldman and Pat Ballard, and JCRC Social Action Chair Jill Rich.

Panelist Rebecca Curtiss, a staff attorney for the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, is one of eight attorneys who assist refugees at Florence Correctional Center and Eloy Detention Center. She focuses on rights awareness for unaccompanied minors at Southwest Key Program’s youth migrant shelters and those placed in foster care, deportation defense representation, and visa applications where applicable.

“We hope to reunify [separated children with parents] quickly and get kids out of the shelter and with family or people they know,” she said, referencing an October 2017-June 2018 U.S. policy of separating adults from child migrants when they cross the U.S border. “The adult detention facility is nothing more than a prison. People don’t legally have the right to counsel in immigration cases,” unless they are mentally incompetent, she noted. “Most of them represent themselves [in court hearings]. With only eight attorneys for an average of 4,000 detainees, there is no way that’s okay.” She added that once migrants seeking asylum set foot on U.S. soil, they have the legal right to adjudication as an asylee.

Immigrants are those who choose to leave their country with the intent to resettle. Migrants move from place to place, usually for economic reasons. Asylum-seekers pursue protection from dangers.

An audience member asked, “What if they [Homeland Security] reenact family separation?”  Curtiss said another separation policy is “the biggest fear … Originally, [asylum-seeking or migrant] families with children were released to family and friends around the country. The policy changed to separate children. This created unaccompanied minors who were then turned over to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which placed them in shelters or foster care,” Curtiss said. “Toddlers and babies in shelters … the system was not set up for this. It was a child welfare nightmare that was horrific. Some were so young they were preverbal or knew no Spanish but didn’t know what language they spoke so an interpreter of one of 60 languages could be identified. It was intentional chaos trying to advocate in a humanitarian disaster.”

Antar Davidson is the former Tucson Southwest Key Program employee who blew the whistle in June 2018 about physical and human abuses allegedly perpetrated under the $1.7 billion, Texas-based nonprofit’s operations at a child immigrant shelter. Davidson, a Brazilian Jew, was hired at Southwest Key just before the U.S. zero tolerance family separation policy went into effect. “Over time I realized [Southwest Key] was a private prison, looking to take in more kids, expand and take more [public] money,” he said.

Davidson said when he was forced to tell siblings who were separated from their mother not to hug one another, after witnessing inadequate facilities, untrained staff, inhumane policies, and the impact of family separations firsthand, he quit. Davidson, who appeared widely in national media at the time, called himself the first American to bring down a private prison CEO. Southwest Key’s Juan Sánchez stepped down in March.

Southwest Key operated 27 facilities to detain thousands of separated children, including infants and toddlers. Tucson’s was among 13 shelters it operates in Arizona for the unaccompanied minors program. It has similar detention operations in Texas and youth justice programs in six states. The state of Arizona revoked Southwest Key’s shelter license in late 2018 for failure to complete staff background checks and in response to media reports of sexual misconduct. At least one former Mesa, Arizona, youth care worker was convicted for child abuse. The Tucson facility was cleared to reopen in late February.

Fernando Najera, a University of Arizona law and political science student, is a DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival) recipient, also called a Dreamer. “I came with my family in 2001 at age 3,” he said. “I’m one of those who has benefited by DACA. I’ve been able to drive, work, and study.” Since 2017, he has been a director and advocate with Scholarships A-Z, which provides resources and scholarships to students, families, and educators to make higher education accessible to all, regardless of immigration status.  “Dreamers are the largest undocumented youth organization in the U.S.,” Najera noted, suggesting that new policies need to make Dreamers safe and prosperous, and defeat hatred.

Peris Lopez is the Catalina Foothills High School student body president, a member of JFSA’s Jewish Latino Teen Coalition, and an advocate for youth to understand fair and legal immigration. The week before the forum, she returned from a JLTC lobbying trip to Washington, D.C., that focused on the Dream Act of 2019 and on lifting barriers that prevent immigrants from reapplying to return the United States within five to 10 years of deportation.

She was asked how legislators articulated defense of current border policies. “[U.S. Sen. Martha] McSally, [R-Arizona] seemed receptive,” Lopez said. “She was respectful but against what we lobbied for. Our group told McSally the story of how a father’s deportation directly impacts one of our coalition members. [Her response] was disappointing.” Najera interjected that, in his lobbying experiences in D.C., he was disheartened to hear legislators’ positions. He spoke to U.S. Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Arizona, about a clean Dream Act in 2018. “The only result,” he said, “was a letter from Biggs to the UA president asking him never to send another delegation to visit him.”

Enrique Gómez  Montiel, the deputy consul of the Consulate of Mexico in Tucson, viewed the immigration issue with a wider lens. He said there are 35 million Mexicans in the United States, of which 12 million are Mexican born, and 4 million are undocumented. Forty percent of Tucson’s population is of Mexican origin. He said immigration is a sad but rewarding part of the consulate’s mission.

“People die trying to cross the border. The consulate collaborates with forensic officers from Yuma to Douglas to examine the remains and belongings for clues to identify and return to the family remains of those who die in the desert,” he said. “Putting a face on the remains is humane work. From 1998 to the present, 2,643 human remains were discovered in Southern Arizona, believed to be Mexican citizens. For 2019 alone there have been 37.”

The consulate works with local, regional and federal agencies. Checking fingerprints on nationwide databases, Gómez said, “last year we were able to close a case from 1987 and send the remains back. Of remains found, 1,460 were identified.” The Mexican consulate in Tucson operates the only worldwide “Center for Information and Assistance to Mexicans” call center, 24/7, 365 days a year.

Gómez was asked about possible reinstitution of the U.S. “bracero program,” a series of laws and diplomatic agreements initiated in 1942 when the United States and Mexico signed the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement. “There are still those programs,” he said. “There are H-2A visas for agricultural workers, although the numbers are diminishing. Immigration changes in cycles. Twenty to 30 years ago, most agricultural labor was seasonal, and workers returned home. Then they began bringing families and stayed, the immigrant numbers went up, and measures toughened.” The number of Mexicans going south is now higher than Mexicans coming to the United States, Montoya noted. The number coming from Central America is going up, and family units are not the “normal” immigrants, Gómez  said. “Most immigrants don’t leave their country because of need, violence, starvation, and problems.”

Gómez said his country takes migrants returned by the United States to await their immigration hearings on a humanitarian basis. “When the U.S. sends people back to Mexico, we cannot leave those people in the border towns; the shelters are out of space. You can’t jail a family. Mexico requested assistance from the United Nations for refugees on a humanitarian basis and lets people in temporarily. After the first caravan, Mexico offered migrants work and stay visas.”