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Fellows' Perspectives: The Executive Action on Immigration

Students of ConTextos in El Salvador, founded by 2013 Fellow Debra Gittler

Last week, President Obama announced his plan to use his executive authority on immigration policy, protecting millions of people living within the United States from deportation. “The President’s plan focuses on cracking down on illegal immigration at the border; deporting felons, not families; and accountability through criminal background checks and taxes,” the White House announced. To help understand the context, and impact, of the policies, we opened the floor for Echoing Green Fellows whose work is closely aligned with these populations. While the President’s words held hope for some, they also signaled work to come for all.

We Were Strangers Once, Too

Christina Fialho is a co-founder of Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC), and a 2012 Echoing Green Fellow.

President Obama’s action to delay the deportation of roughly 4 million undocumented immigrants is an encouraging step forward, but unfortunately, it does not fully address our country’s immigration system that is continuing to separate, detain, and deport families. At this critical time, we must call on Congress to fulfill its obligation to create a permanent solution that makes our immigration system more humane and functional for everyone.

In particular, we must end the Congressional quota that requires that 34,000 people be locked up in immigration detention each day, and we must end family detention.

Just two days before the President announced his executive action on immigration, the Obama Administration confirmed that it is contracting with Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) to open a 2,400-bed family detention facility in Dilley, Texas—the largest immigration detention facility to date. The U.S. government is increasingly detaining migrant children and their parents for months and even years in prisons run by corporations such as CCA and GEO Group.

While I am relieved and grateful that President Obama finally has kept his promise to address our broken immigration system, I cannot help but think of the many people President Obama’s action will not help. President Obama’s action will not help Sylvester Owino, who currently is detained in Alabama, having spent the last nine years of his life in civil immigration detention. The President’s action will not help Yu Wang, who spent a year in detention before being deported, although his wife and young daughter are U.S. citizens. President Obama’s action will not help Marcela Castro, an asylum seeker who spent her first 180 nights in the United States in a county jail to satisfy Congress’ lock up quota. Over 34,000 people like Sylvester, Yu, and Marcela will continue to languish in immigration detention today, despite the President’s action.

Immigration detention is a practice that even for short periods of time has severe, negative effects on a person’s physical and mental health.  Adults and children alike are often first detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in hieleras, or iceboxes, which are rooms without windows or natural light where the air conditioning is turned up so high that it is too cold for the children to sleep.

In his speech, President Obama explained that whether our ancestors crossed the Atlantic, or the Pacific, or the Rio Grande, “we were strangers once, too.” It’s time to welcome the strangers, not imprison them. It’s time to end immigration detention of our friends, families, and community members.

Out of the Shadows

Josefina Alvarado Mena grew up in Oakland, California where she now leads Safe Passages, a minority women led human services organization in Oakland dedicated to disrupting the cycle of poverty. She is a 1996 Echoing Green Fellow, a graduate from UC Berkeley School of Law, and a mother of three young children.

President Obama said during his Immigration Reform announcement last week, “You can come out of the shadows.” I was sitting at home with my children watching the announcement when this statement struck me to the core. Immigration is one of the greatest Civil Rights issues of our time. Moreover it is a human rights issue.

The President’s words took me right back to my first year as an Education/Civil Rights attorney and Echoing Green Fellow. I was the only full-time attorney in a legal services organization committed to serving the Latino community in Oakland, California. In the throws of my start up program, a mom with a toddler in tow and a baby in her arms came into the office. The mom was distraught because she had just come from the hospital with her baby and her fist was clenched. When I greeted her, she opened her fist to reveal a small vial containing a cockroach that had been removed from inside her baby’s ear by the hospital doctor.  The mom went on to explain that her apartment was infested with cockroaches and other vermin; her stove was broken; there was no heat in the apartment and the plumbing had back up spilling raw sewage onto the carpets in most of the units in the apartment complex.

I asked the mom if she had spoken with the landlord. Shaken, she shared that she was undocumented and the landlord frequently threatened the tenants with calling, “la migra” or Immigration. She explained that many of the other tenants were too scared to come to our office because of the landlord’s threats. We closed the office that day and walked the four blocks over to the apartment complex. As we went door to door, we saw, smelled and heard about the deplorable, inhumane living conditions from over a dozen tenants and their children. Many children were suffering from asthma exacerbated by the cockroaches. These were the families living in the shadows.

This experience profoundly impacted my work. It became clear that education rights by themselves would not be enough. The totality of the socioeconomic conditions, including poverty, immigration, education, and violence that disenfranchised the community had to be addressed. Eighteen years later, bringing people out of the shadows is still an incredibly daunting work in progress in Oakland, and every other city in America.

Now as the CEO of Safe Passages and as a social entrepreneur, I think about all my experiences working with disenfranchised, vulnerable communities and I am reminded of my own personal trajectory. My grandmother was brought to the U.S. as a toddler riding the shoulders of her uncle as they crossed the Rio Grande and I think, I would not be here if she had not.

So, President Obama—thank you for reminding us that we are all created equal, that all of us should have the chance to make of our lives what we will, and of this country’s potential to be great. And please, take every Executive Action in your arsenal to bring more of us out of the shadows.

Criminals, Not Kids

Debra Gittler is a 2013 Echoing Green Fellow, and founder of ConTextos. Please read more about how ConTextos improves education and uses literacy as a tool to prevent migration, address trauma, and circumvent violence at and

During 2014, nearly 70,000 kids have crossed the US border, unaccompanied and undocumented. Most flee violence, poverty and insecurity in the Northern Triangle Countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, where ConTextos works using literacy as a tool for prevention and healing.

Obama’s recent executive action to address immigration and delay deportation has brought these kids back into the spotlight: he vows to deport “criminals, not kids.”

Meanwhile, a NY Post article last month announced that 2,350 of those undocumented youth will be entering New York City Department of Education schools, costing about $50 million. “But the costs could soar, because the youths—many of them victims of poverty and abuse—will need state-mandated English-language instruction, free or reduced-price lunch, and a range of other services, including psychological counseling, medical and dental.”

And that’s the costs just for New York City. On a national level, the cost is billions of dollars. And even if we somehow manage to stop the kids at the border, we haven’t done anything to address the root causes, including lack of safety and opportunity, that encourage them to migrate. Closing the borders or delaying deportation doesn’t change that.

I don’t know how immigration reform will play out in my home country of El Salvador. or how to uniformly solve the epidemic of violence that has flourished for more than three generations. But I do know for sure that every feasible, long-term solution involves investing more in schools and education in the countries of origin. No matter what the US government does and how our school and social systems adjust to take on the burden, part of immigration reform must address the countries of origin. Helping these kids avoid migration—through improved education and increased social services in their home countries—is the only long-term solution. Everything else is just a Band-Aid.


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