(Walter Barrientos is a program officer at the New York City-based North Star Fund.)
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the most chilling provision of the Arizona law known as SB 1070, a provision that allows police to stop anyone they believe to be undocumented and check their immigration status.
For most immigrants, including me and my family, the message from the Supreme Court is clear: the police have been appointed de-facto immigration agents. This means that any time an immigrant is the victim of a crime, he will have to ask himself, Is what just happened to me worse than being questioned about my immigration status, being detained, and possibly deported by the police?
I had to face this question myself when I was assaulted three years ago by gang members on the streets of Queens. At the time, I decided to call the police and report the crime. But when I was summoned to testify in court against the individuals who assaulted me, my knees grew weak. I knew that if my undocumented status were revealed in the course of testimony, I could find myself in deportation proceedings.
Because I had years of experience organizing immigrant communities, I was able to call an attorney friend who worked with community leaders to teach immigrants like me about our rights. From her, I learned that there's a visa for victims of violent crimes like the one I had been a victim of, and today I have that visa. But few immigrants have a trusted contact, as I did, to provide critical information.
My experience shows why it so important for us to build a robust network of immigrant organizations and leaders who can organize immigrants to protect and advocate for their rights. Thanks to the Supreme Court decision, local police departments in Arizona and at least four other states are no longer an institution immigrants can trust. Instead, immigrants must rely on their own community organizations and leaders as the first line of support and advice in critical situations, as well as to assert larger immigrant rights issues in public and policy forums.
From my vantage point as both a funder and a community organizer, there are several steps that community-based organizations and leaders need to take to build their strength and expertise in order to respond to the changing immigration landscape. Here are a few of them:
1. Community organizations need to build their capacity to reach deeper into and build stronger ties with members of immigrant communities. And they need to bolster their efforts to reach even the most marginalized members of those communities to ensure that everyone has basic information about immigration laws and that they trust the organization to be there for them in times of need.
2. Immigrant organizations need to build their capacity to respond to immigrant members who find themselves in dire situations, such as when an undocumented immigrant without a license is stopped by the police after he has gotten off work at 2:00 a.m., or when an undocumented immigrant has witnessed a crime and is afraid to report it. They need to expand their staff and train staff members to be liaisons between community members and police or immigration authorities. Staff also need to be trained and accredited by the Department of Homeland Security to represent individuals in detention. Organizations should encourage all their constituents, regardless of immigration status or citizenship, to complete the G-28 form, which allows accredited representatives to represent them in any immigration detention or matter.
3. Members of immigrant communities need to be taught how they can cooperate with the police without putting themselves at risk of deportation. This is a complex proposition but is critically important.
4. Legal groups, advocacy groups, and others need to develop and push for legislation like the California TRUST Act, which aims to rebuild much needed trust between police and California's immigrant communities. This legislation could offer a smarter alternative to punitive laws like Arizona SB 1070.
The foundation community has an opportunity in the wake of the Supreme Court decision to build on the best of our immigrant traditions by reaching out to our immigrant neighbors and the organizations that represent them and by supporting greater respect for immigrant cultures, immigrant rights, and immigrants’ sizeable contributions to our economic, social, and political life. Immigrants who pooled resources to support families back home were among the earliest American philanthropists. It's time to show them our gratitude.
-- Walter Barrientos