One of my most vivid memories in recent years is of the evening of November 20th, 2014, when I was in an overcrowded South Philly eatery watching television. President Barack Obama was on the air, announcing that he was taking executive action to offer temporary deportation relief to an estimated 4 million undocumented people via programs that helped undocumented parents of U.S. citizens and permanent residents (known was “Deferred Action for Parents of Americans,” or DAPA) as well as undocumented people who arrived in the country before age 16 (extended “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals,” or DACA+).
Inside Taquitos de Puebla on 9th Street, the atmosphere was electric with hope. Those who qualified would be able to get out of a shadow economy that relies on their labor without according them any protections, and conduct their daily lives without the soul-crushing fear that at any moment agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement could swoop down to deport them.
Almost immediately, the president’s executive actions were challenged legally, and for two years those people with whom I had celebrated that November night carefully banked their hopes and waited as the legal case wound its way through the lower courts to the Supreme Court.
This Thursday, those hopes were dashed after the Supreme Court deadlocked 4-4 on the issue, a non-decision that effectively lets the lower court’s injunction stand.
“Today, the Supreme Court of the United States made a shameful decision by denying millions of undocumented immigrants their right to be treated fairly with an opportunity to remain in this country on a temporary basis,” Manuel Portillo, director of the Immigrant Professionals Career Pathways Program at the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians, wrote on his Facebook page minutes after the announcement. “This is a deeply felt setback that once again sends the VERY wrong message to million of people who have been making significant contributions to the American economy, people who pay taxes and people who produce wealth which, by the way, does not remain in their hands. Shame to those who mistreat immigrants!”
The way this has wounded a wide swath of the Philadelphia community is palpable.
“It is so sad,” said Stevanie Theresia of the Philadelphia Praise Center. “It’s the little hope we had, and it has now been taken away from us.”
“In [the past] two weeks, every single aspect of my identity has been attacked,” said Miguel Andrade, a Philadelphia queer Latinx community activist with Not1More, as he pointed to the intersection between the SCOTUS decision and the Orlando mass shooting, whose victims were mostly Latinx and LGBT. “Each one of my communities is in pain. Enough is enough!”
There is an undercurrent of frustration and anger in the reactions to the SCOTUS deadlock that reflects the sense that immigration has been stalled and weaponized by both political parties, without regard for the real lives impacted by deportation policies.
And nobody is giving up the fight.
“[The SCOTUS deadlock] points to a partisan divide that ignores families most in need of mercy and a reprieve from the threat of deportation,” said Bethany Welch, director of the Aquinas Center in South Philly. “Just this week, as a community of faith, the people of St. Thomas Aquinas bore witness to three stories of migrants and refugees whose lives have been transformed by mercy. One young man, who fled Indonesia because of violent discrimination he experienced as a deaf child, described how DACA has allowed him to live a full life here with his mother and brother, even after his father was deported.
“As Catholics, we have stood together to tell our elected officials that we need policies that unify families and prioritize safety for the vulnerable,” Welch added. “We will not be dissuaded by this roadblock. We will continue to advocate for just policies and live with conviction the charge in sacred scripture to welcome the immigrant and the stranger.”
“Time and again, the federal government has devastated immigrant families,” wrote Peter Pedemonti, director of the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia. “But we will continue to fight for all immigrants without exception, and for laws that respect the dignity of every individual and family.”
Erika Almirón, director of Juntos and one of the most outspoken immigration advocates in Philadelphia, didn’t mince words: “Philadelphia families are more angry than fearful and are tired of waiting to have justice in this country, [tired] of being political footballs.
“We call on President Obama and his potential successors to take us out of deportation’s crosshairs by immediately issuing a stop to deportations and by dismantling the machine he built to destroy us before he leaves office,” she said.
Many immigration advocates have a very clear, bulleted plan for what needs to take place.
“DACA/DAPA was never a perfect solution. It excluded millions, such as the majority of Southeast Asian families facing separation due to the label ‘criminal alien,’” said Mia-Lia Kiernan, co-director of Philadelphia’s 1LoveMovement. “[As] a collective movement, we need to reassess, realign, and go for broke. We can no longer allow immigrant and refugee communities to be ranked by the government as deserving or undeserving of relief. We must work together to dismantle ICE entirely, call for a moratorium on all deportations, and fight for the right to return of our deported communities.”
For me, the celebratory memory from that night two years ago at Taquitos de Puebla coexists uneasily with another more recent indelible memory.
A few weeks ago, I spoke via Skype to a twenty-something Mexican man who was deported from Philadelphia to a country he didn’t remember. Despite his stoicism and resilience, he visibly choked up when we spoke about his family in Philly. He’s been separated from them for six years already, and because of a number of injustices built into our immigration policies and laws, he’ll be barred from being with them for at least another 20 years. If he’s lucky.
People are fond of arguing against any and all proposed immigration reforms by saying “but it’s the law,” as if the laws were graven in stone. But they are not. We modify and strike down laws every day. On our worst days, we modify them because we are panicked about people with whom we fear we can find no commonality. On our best days, we change laws because we recognize that, as Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and we want to be just.
SCOTUS waffling not withstanding, it’s time to be just.
Sabrina Vourvoulias is an award-winning columnist with bylines at The Guardian US,AL DÍA News, Tor.com and Strange Horizons. Her novel, Ink, was named one of Latinidad’s Best Books of 2012. Follow her on Twitter @followthelede.