A Critical Response: Humanizing Immigrant Lives by Nicci Mattey (A’22)

by tuftsigl
Jul 24

After more than a month at the Immigration Hub in Washington, DC, I have come to fully recognize the importance of the organization’s work, and I am honored to have a place in it. The ongoing humanitarian crisis at our border and the horrific conditions in immigration detention facilities are making national headlines, and it seems that much of the country is waking up to a crisis that has been building for years. I feel privileged to be working on the front lines of what I consider to be the most pressing humanitarian and moral crisis facing our country right now.

While a photo of a drowned El Salvadoran father, Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez, and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, sent shockwaves across the country and the world, the Immigration Hub team paused only for a brief moment to cry together in our conference room before beginning to plan our next move. I was floored by my colleagues’ apparent calm in the face of such sorrow, when they told me that they see photos like this almost every week, which just do not make national news. The only difference was that, this time, we had a chance to create real change. Seeking not to exploit this moment of tragedy, but rather to use it as an opportunity to galvanize the American public and the media to take action, we organized press calls with organizations such as Politico, the Hill, and the New York Times to help their reporters respectfully and conscientiously discuss tragedies like the death of Óscar and Valeria.

Another event that brought crucial attention to the issue of immigration was the first round of Democratic presidential debates that took place in Miami in mid-June. In advance of the debate, I helped the Hub team write a detailed memo for the candidates, seeking to educate them on the current issues in our immigration system and to propose reforms that they could speak on, that are both electable and, crucially, effective.

With such busy schedules involving both campaigning and, for many candidates, full time jobs in Congress, the candidates have come to rely on the Hub for accurate information and powerful messaging on immigration. During the first debate, my former mayor, Julian Castro of San Antonio, TX, spoke passionately and eloquently (in both English and Spanish) about the border crisis and called on other candidates to support the decriminalization of illegal border crossings. The following night, when asked if they supported Castro’s proposal, eight out of ten candidates raised their hands, a stark evolution in the candidates’ policies that would not have been possible were it not for Castro’s speech.  While the Hub itself does not specifically advocate for Castro’s proposed solution, we were pleased to have several candidates incorporate our messaging and policy proposals, such as increased aid to Central America and greater accountability for Immigration Customs and Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection officers.

Much of the messaging we included in the presidential candidate memo came from a convening that the Immigration Hub hosted at our offices in June. Bringing together advocates and researchers, we took a day to exchange ideas and strategies. I found a presentation from the American Immigration Council (AIC) particularly impactful, as it challenged me to rethink and reframe the way I talk about immigrants. Over the years, I had heard many stories of “immigrant exceptionalism,” in which an immigrant is portrayed as having done something truly exceptional, such as making a major scientific breakthrough or doing an extraordinarily brave act. However, as Wendy Feliz of the AIC explained, these stories, while well-intentioned, effectively “otherize” immigrants and may even create subliminal, or outright, competition and resentment between citizens and immigrants. Instead, Wendy suggested, we as advocates and the media ought to talk about “immigrant achievement”. By portraying immigrants as having achieved through their participation in the great experiment that is American democracy and society, we put them on equal ground with citizens and showcase our interdependence with them. When immigrants achieve, we all succeed, no exceptions.

 As an immigration advocate, many of my internship duties have revolved around crafting a response to President Trump’s repeated threats to conduct mass immigration raids that spread fear throughout both the documented and undocumented communities. I compiled a list of resources, which organizations such as United We Dream have distributed to immigrant communities, to help them best prepare them for the raids. I also participated in a Hub-led call with more than 150 staff members from Congressional offices and helped answer their questions about potential Congressional responses to the raids.

I also had the opportunity to meet with one of the Democratic presidential candidates, Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado. Senator Bennet responded candidly to my question about his willingness to compromise on key immigration issues, such as the contentious Senate version of the supplemental border agency-funding bill. In his response, he displayed a deep knowledge of the issues, which I worry many candidates lack, honed in part due to his hard work with the so-called “Gang of Eight” bipartisan Senators that crafted a failed 2013 comprehensive immigration reform bill. The Hub continues to work with Senators such as Bennet on a modern version of the bill that could solve our current crisis and prevent future ones from occurring. We are also working closely with Senators Jeff Merkley (OR) and Charles Schumer (NY) on a bill that would codify protections for children in detention and provide families seeking asylum with crucial access to legal services.

Throughout June and July, I have had the opportunity to attend Congressional hearings on Capitol Hill as a liaison for the Hub. By far, the most powerful was a hearing of the House Oversight Committee on the subject of family separation on July 12th. I listened to Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayana Pressley give heartfelt testimonies about their experiences at the detention facility near El Paso known as Clint. They spoke of crying children, desperate mothers, and broken families. “What’s worse, Mr. Chairman, was the fact that there were American flags hanging all over these facilities,” said Rep. Ocasio-Cortez. “That children are being separated from their parents in front of the American flag, that women were being called these names under an American flag, we cannot allow for this,” she said. Wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with “Families Belong Together” under my blazer, I sat surrounded by advocates, many of them immigrants and parents themselves, and was reminded anew of why I joined this fight and why I must keep fighting.