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During President Trump’s time in office, immigrant rights were pushed front and center as the administration seemed to delight in finding new ways to inflict pain and cruelty on people fleeing persecution. When President Biden was elected two years ago, he promised to undo the harms caused by Trump and to usher in a more humane immigration system. But in many ways, the Biden administration has doubled down on some of the worst aspects of Trump’s policies.
Meanwhile, politicians like Gov. Greg Abbot in Texas made headlines by bussing thousands of asylum seekers to Democrat-controlled cities like New York, claiming these so-called “sanctuary cities” were best placed to take in newly arrived immigrants.
But the truth is, here in New York State, where close to a quarter of the population was born outside the U.S., we don’t protect the rights of our immigrant residents as well as many people might assume. So what can we do to truly make our state a welcoming place for immigrants?
Simon: [00:00:00] Welcome to Rights This Way, a podcast from the New York Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of New York State. I'm Simon McCormack, senior staff writer at the NYCLU, and your host for this podcast, which is focused on the civil rights and liberties issues that impact New Yorkers most.
During President Trump's time in office, immigrant rights were pushed front and center as the administration seemed to delight in finding new ways to inflict pain and cruelty on people fleeing persecution. When President Biden was elected two years ago, he promised to undo the harms caused by Trump and to usher in a more humane immigration system.
But in many ways, the Biden administration has doubled down on some of the worst aspects of Trump's policies. Meanwhile, politicians like Governor Greg Abbott in Texas made headlines by busing thousands of asylum seekers to Democrat controlled cities like New York, claiming these so-called sanctuary cities were best placed to take in newly arrived immigrants.
But the truth is, here in New York State, where close to a quarter of the population was born outside the US, we don't protect the rights of our immigrant residents as well as many people might assume. So what can we do to truly make our state a welcoming place for immigrants? We'll get into that in just a moment.
First, I'd like to ask you to please download, subscribe, rate, and review Rights This Way. It will help more people find this podcast.
And now I'm joined by three guests. Zachary Ahmad is a NYCLU Senior Policy Council. Drea Herrera is a NYCLU Senior Organizer, and Ignacio Acevedo is the NYCLU'S Hudson Valley Organizer. Zach, Drea, Ignacio, welcome to Rights this Way.
Drea: Thanks so much for having us
Ignacio: [00:01:59] Thank you for having us.
Zach: Thanks, great to be here.
Simon: It is great to have you all. I want to actually start by asking all of you where you see the state of the fight for immigrant rights right now, and you know, specifically how does it compare to the Trump years?
Ignacio: Well, I think, at least when I come across my neighborhood, which is a community of 60% immigrants during the Trump years, people was a fear that you could even taste it. The hatred, it was more in your face. So people were, felt like they were scared.
They didn't know if they were gonna be here tomorrow. So even though, many are still here, but that fear is linger for day to night. So I think when Biden came in, there was like a moment of hope there might be a change, you know that [we] might be okay, we can breathe now.
I can take my kids to school and I don't have to, they don't have to worry if I'll come back to pick them up. But I think with time the fear is coming back and simply it’s because they don't see a change that nothing is, progressing. Their life pretty much continues the same. So it feels like, I guess they feel, like, forgotten. Like their promises have never been taken serious.
So it's like a rollercoaster. That's what it feels like. An up and down, up and down. And then now, this way, it’s coming back up again. But, I do think that, at least what I see, is that they are ready to participate and hopefully they feel empowered to do, at least in this next election – I think elections has changed and it has made our community more motivated, especially when there's a lot of hatred.
Zach: I'll just add a little bit, you know, in the policy and legal context uh, you know, there are some things that have changed in particular ways or at the margins. But you know, structurally the immigration enforcement regime is the same one that we were dealing with during the Trump years.
And, and even well before that, you know, ICE is still ICE. Border Patrol is still Border Patrol. You know, we're still seeing people arrested and detained for civil immigration purposes, expelled at the border, denied status for unjust reasons. Um, you know, the same sort of set of laws and the same enforcement structure that we've had for a long time now are still in place across administrations.
And then on top of that, and this kind of goes to what Ignacio was saying, I think one new challenge has been that among some lawmakers or policy makers, there's been a little bit of disinterest or complacency because of the new administration, compared to you know, during the Trump years, because the Trump administration was so overtly cruel and imposing on immigration it became an issue that a lot of more liberal leaning politicians were very eager to take up as a cause. But with the change in administrations, I think some of that motivation and attention on immigration issues and the cruelty of the immigration system has waned or maybe even regressed in certain ways, even though many of the same problems are still with us.
[00:04:57] And people in immigrant communities are still dealing with them, and, and experiencing them in the same ways. So, you know, in, in some ways I think that makes the work even harder than it was during the Trump years.
Drea: Yeah, I'll add to that. As an organizer, I think sometimes it can make it a lot harder to get people inspired to do the work. And you know, just a reminder that it doesn't matter who's in office, right? Like we still need to fight for immigrants’ rights because these systems still exist. And even more important, you know, when there is someone new in office, right? Or someone that people are very excited about. Like, you know, Ignacio was saying we went from fear to now kind of like feeling maybe a little more hopeful, that that makes it even more important to hold those elected officials accountable for what they said they're going to do in terms of immigrants’ rights.
And so we actually do still need people to be taking action and to be passing legislation that's going to expand and protect immigrant New Yorkers.
Simon: [00:05:53] Yes. That is a great point to pick up on there. And Ignacio, when you talk to people in the immigrant community, what are some of their biggest concerns right now? Have those concerns changed between the Trump and Biden administrations?
Ignacio: Yes. I think when Trump was in office, it was more of a, like, survival instinct kick in. It was like, I need to stay home, I need to take care of my kids, I need to prepare in case I, I'm taken away, in case my family is separated. And what do I do? So it was like that kind of fear. But then actually Covid came.
And many of them didn't have the safety blankets that other communities have that, you know, they didn't have a, a big savings, the federal government didn't give them any financial support. So the older immigrants who had been here for decades, they actually confronted, they don't have health insurance.
What do we do now? Like they don't wanna take me in the hospital. What about when I retire or when I get sick? What happens if I die? So the fear, they, of course, they want a path to citizenship, but now, what do I do to survive and have a life that I feel safe? So, I think that, that, mentality has changed because now they're worried about retirement.
[00:07:09] They're worrying about their health insurance. They're worried about having a savings account. They're worried about their kids' education because during Covid, it wasn't the same for immigrants’ communities. Why? Because they had to go to work, both parents. And the kids had to stay home. So the education experience was completely different than other communities during Covid. And now we have a new wave of immigrants.
The new wave of immigrants are coming and they're confronting a new set of issues, that they don't know the system. The system has changed during Covid. The resources are scarce. The rents are going up. So there's a whole new way of obstacles. So I feel like during Biden, maybe there was hope, there was like something is gonna change for everybody.
We participated. We are coming together, we're supporting people who are citizens. We were the workforce doing Covid. We kept this country alive. So something good is gonna come our way. But it hasn't. So I think now it's like the moment of: where is those promises? What is happening?
Simon: [00:08:11] And speaking of that fear, Zach and Drea, one of the things that I wanted to touch on is the fact that every day in our state, some immigrant New Yorkers are fearful, as Ignacio said, that, just leading a normal life out in the open could put them in danger. Can you talk about why that is and the campaign for a bill called New York For All?
Zach: [00:08:37] Sure. So ICE has a lot of resources. They have a lot of manpower. They have a very large budget. But even with all of that, with all of those resources they rely to a pretty large extent on local police and jails and other government agencies to identify people who they think might be removable from the United States, or gather information, or assist in other ways to arrest and detain people that they might be looking for.
And across New York State, there are very few – if any, in some places – restrictions on how local authorities can work with ICE. A few places have local laws or policies in place that limit that kind of collusion, but in many places, local authorities and ICE and CBP, Border Patrol, they work hand in hand, and and really see each other as partners.
And that creates a real fear for immigrant New Yorkers or, you know, people who have immigrants in their families, or, just know immigrants in their communities,uh, that any interaction with a government agency, no matter how benign, is going to be the first step on a path to deport[ation].
So, the New York for All Act is a state bill that would keep local law enforcement in New York and, and all government agencies really, at the local and state level, out of the business of immigration enforcement. It would prohibit local authorities from using their time on duty for immigration enforcement and from sharing sensitive information with ICE, so that New York is not making it easier for ICE to carry out, its agenda.
You know, it's what some people might recognize as a sanctuary law. This is not a new idea. Several other states have passed similar laws in the past decade or so. New York City has a few of these policies in place at the local level, however imperfect. But we don't have a statewide law like this in place in New York.
So New York is really behind the curve on this kind of policy. And it's past time that we get it done and, and pass New York For All hopefully in 2023.
Drea: [00:10:29] Yeah. I'll add that, you know, not only is this a fear like Zach said, but we've actually seen the impact of this problem. We've heard from community members, right, like Dalila Yeend for example, who, whose story you can also hear on the NYCLU's New York for All campaign page. We've heard stories of like, in her case, a simple traffic stop, right,leading to ice arrest and deportation because of the communication between that police officer and ICE. And that happened in, I believe Troy. And so, you know, that's just one example, but we've heard stories of this happening. So I just, I wanted to add that there's a fear, but also this is happening in New York State, so it's important that we do pass this legislation, like Zach said, as soon as possible because it's still a problem,right? I'll also add that New York for All is actually part of a broader effort or strategy called disentanglement. And the term entanglement refers to when state and local entities are, like, complicit or actively conspire with ICE. And so basically, you know, entanglement, that's what's happening. And then when we say disentangle, like Zach said, we wanna disrupt. So, I did just kind of wanna add that disentanglement strategy is something that is also, you know, we need it to be across the country. And so as New York State, we also need to be being a leader in that sense of actually passing this legislation to get New York State out of the business of immigration enforcement, which is just a piece of that larger disentanglement strategy.
Simon: Right.[00:11:55] And, Ignacio, you were a big part of the successful push to pass what's called the Green Light Law. This was a law, or is a law that allows people to get driver's licenses regardless of their immigration status. Can you talk about why that's important and also some of the lessons learned, and things you can take from that successful campaign?
Ignacio: Yes. So just to continue the thought from Drea, I live in the Hudson Valley and having an interaction with a police officer around a stop sign or anything could lead to, you know, kids being left without parents. So the Green Light actually created the ability for people to just live their life, to go get groceries, to go to work without the fear of being, you know, not being deported.
[00:12:45] And also it allows them to have access to other things, right? To have to go to a bank and, and have a, a bank account, or if a student wants to go to take a class at, at BOCES, allows them to register [at] BOCES. So it allows them to, people have a more full life. But for my work, it actually allow me to, to learn how coming together as a community we can actually improve [the] lives of all. I mean, green light gave about 50 million dollars to the State. That could be used for education, that could be used for roads. So, I think it was a way for, also for our community to, to participate and to, to give to the State, but to also feel safety, to feel safe. And at least for me, definitely this gave my community more power.
It gave us an ability to participate and we learn. They're coming together, talking to each other. We can improve our state, we can improve our lives.
Simon: [00:13:43] And Ignacio, when, when you talk about that fear around, if, say, somebody is pulled over for running a stop sign, as you said, there is a chance that, that stop by a local or state police officer could then end in ICE being made aware of this.
Or somebody who gets arrested for some, you know, even for something very minor, that could serve to alert ICE, and that ends up in a deportation. Is that fair to say?
Ignacio: That is fair to say. I mean, even when you are walking – let's say you're not even driving, you're walking – sometimes you come across police enforcement who, they ask you for ID to identify yourself. This allows you to identify yourself and continue with your day. It doesn't be–it doesn't lead to a possible deportation. So it, it, it doesn't just work for driving. It also works to have a positive interaction with police officers.
Simon: [00:14:41] Right. That is good to know. And Zach and Drea, I think some people listening might actually think that abuses that happen in immigration jails, that we sometimes see on the news, that those are confined to conservative states or maybe to private prisons. But those same abuses actually happen in New York.
Can you talk about that and about the legislation we're pushing that would address this problem?
Drea: [00:15:07]Yeah, thanks for that question. You know, I, I'm not sure if a lot of people know this, but right now in New York State, there are active contracts between jails, right, which are locally run, and ICE. And so two of the facilities that are most active are in Rensselaer and Orange County. The NYCLU is part of a coalition called Dignity Not Detention, which seeks to kind of understand the issues that people are facing in those facilities.
And a lot of what we're hearing is that the conditions inside, for example, at Orange County correctional facility for immigrants who are detained at that facility, the conditions have been horrible. So leaky pipes, we’re talking –people have reported, like, racial slurs being thrown at them, the officers getting physical with them, and moldy food. And so the people who are detained at Orange County Jail have started doing, like, hunger strikes. And so there's been also a lot of civil rights complaints as well. And a lot of legal service providers that we work with have been pretty horrified by what's been the conditions of that facility.
And so Dignity Not Detention is a bill that would effectively end all contracts immediately and push for release, right, of people in detention in local jails. So we're talking, specifically about these two specific jails in Orange County and Rensselaer would be impacted.
And that's a couple hundred people I believe who would be impacted. But it would also prevent new contracts from being created, which is super important, right? When we're talking about – again, I'm gonna use the word – disentangling New York State from this sort of mass detention and deportation machine, we need to get out of the business of not only immigration enforcement, like New York for All would do, but also out of the business of immigration detention.
So that's what the Dignity Not Detention bill would do.
Zach: I might add that these detention contracts that are in place between [00:17:00] ICE and these counties across New York State, like with the information sharing that happens, you know, on the front end, really allows ICE to increase their overall detention capacity when they're able to rent out space from local jails.
It just increases the overall ability to detain people and pack people into immigration jails where they mostly should not be. And so ending these contracts is really part of a bigger strategy to make sure that we're shrinking ICE's capacity to detain people on a national level and shrinking the overall number of people who end up in ICE detention.
[00:17:37]And then similar to that, you know, I would just underscore that these efforts to end these contracts and shut down these facilities is also part of the larger project to make sure that New York is protecting immigrant communities in all the ways that it can. You know, we need to be turning off the pipeline on the front end, like New York for All would do.
We need to make sure that we're not creating space for immigration detention in New York. And you know, we need to make sure that people who are enmeshed in the immigration legal system or remain enmeshed in the immigration legal system, you know, even after they've been released from detention, uh, have proper representation. We can't just do one of those things. They all work together to make sure that, you know, New York is really providing a safe and welcoming place for immigrant communities.
Simon: [00:18:21] Let's talk about that last piece, Zach. The need to ensure that people in the immigration system have attorneys. Why is that important and what can New York do to, to make sure that happens?
Zach: So, in immigration court – while everyone has a right to an attorney – unlike in criminal court, people are not entitled to a government appointed and government funded attorney to represent them in removal proceedings if they can't afford to hire one on their own. And there's a lot of data and a lot of experience out there that tells us that people are far more likely to succeed in a case and be able to present their best case and, you know, show, proceed on the merits as they should when they do have representation and do have a lawyer by their side, which of course makes sense.
[00:19:07] Immigration law is extraordinarily complex and a person cannot be expected to navigate such a complex legal process on their own without any legal training or without a legal advocate by their side. So there's another piece of legislation in New York, it's called the Access to Representation Act.
And it would ensure that New Yorkers in removal proceedings are provided with access to a lawyer funded by the New York State government. New York has actually funded legal representation for immigrants for several years now under a few different programs. But it's not something that's guaranteed, and it's subject to the whims of annual budget cycles and, and funding year to year by the state legislature.
And that's a particular issue because immigration cases can often drag out for several years. And it creates uncertainty about whether or not that funding for people to be represented in their cases is gonna continue to be there. So this is a bill that would effectively, you know, codify the kind of funding that New York has been providing for several years now, and make sure that people who need a lawyer to fight their immigration cases in New York are receiving one.
Simon: [00:20:15] Great. And as we kind of start to wrap up here, I just wanted to ask all of you, what can people who have listened to this episode, or have been interested in immigrant rights for a while, how can they join the fight?
Drea: I think there's a lot of ways for people to get involved. We talked about a few different pieces of legislation to which we're still trying to pass New York for All and Dignity Not Detention. And I think there's very specific things people can do.
[00:20:44] So, you know, calling your representative, meeting with your state representatives on, uh, you know, why these, these pieces of legislation is important. They care about what you have to say as a constituent, right, in their district. But beyond legislation, I also just wanna mention, you know, the other things that are important are, are also uplifting the experiences of people currently detained in facilities like Orange County you know, teaching other people about these issues, right?
And sharing stories, shining a light on ICE's lack of policy, transparency, and oversight and how they treat people in their custody. And you could also attend, you know, one of our campaign calls or statewide convenings on these issues to hear more about, like, direct actions that are happening, like rallies, demonstrations, things like that.
And I was gonna say, you can sign up to actually get on our email list to hear about when those calls are happening. Maybe we can put a link in the description of this podcast, uh, to sign up to, to volunteer, which just means you would be receiving the campaign calls and how to join those calls.
Ignacio: Yeah. [00:21:46] I think if you are a person who, you're directly affected by it, maybe your family is a mixed family, I think this is the time you can participate. You're needed in the fight. So start organizing your community. You can join us, you can join New York State, you know, reach out through our, emails and websites. It also depends, like, ‘I'm too busy, I'm, I'm a professional,’ – organize money. Give as much as you can for as long as you can because we need funding for this fight. We're talking about lawyers. If this New York State doesn't have it, we need to create funding for that. So I think the level of engagement, just to give you a wrap up, I organize meetings with people directly affected and moms will not come to the meetings because there's no babysitters.
So if you are willing to come out and babysit for, for an hour and a half in a meeting, reach out to us, reach out to other organizations who are in your town or locally to you. But you need to start and join in the fight.
Zach: [00:22:48] Yeah, I, I agree with everything that Drea and Ignacio have said. I think they really, you know, covered it. I would just kind of, add on a bit more of a general level. You know, it's really important, especially right now, to hold politicians accountable for their words, particularly those who, who are out there speaking about their support for immigrants. Making sure that they're actually backing that up with action. You know, there, there are some lawmakers who, you know, kind of present themselves as allies and I think are allies to immigrant communities.
But when push comes to shove, bills like some of the ones that we've talked about today, you know, have been kind of lingering in the state legislature for several years now without passing. And so, you know, it's, it's really about making sure that, our policy makers and our lawmakers, people who actually have the, you know, the power to create change at the policy level are not just saying the right things, but are actually doing the right things and backing up their words with, with real changes in the law and, and in policy. So, that's what I would add.
Drea: You’re getting me fired up right now, Zach. I'm ready.
Simon: [00:23:49] Yeah, we're, we're all fired up. Um, and with that, Zach, Drea, Ignacio. Thank you so much for being on Rights This Way.
Drea: Thank you.
Ignacio: Thank you.
Zach: Thanks so much.
[00:24:02] Simon: Thank you for listening. You can find out more about everything we talked about today by visiting nyclu.org. And you can follow us @nyclu on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. If you have questions or comments about Rights This Way, you can email us at email@example.com. Until next time, I'm Simon McCormack.
Thank you for fighting for a fair New York.