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Sanctuary for Immigrants

Javier H. Valdés shares how his family's experience of immigration from Argentina shaped his motivation to help immigrants in New York.

Javier H. ValdésJavier H. Valdés is being honored as a Champion of Change for his efforts as an Immigration Reformer.

My family’s experience has long been one of immigration: from my grandfather immigrating to Argentina to my parents immigrating to the U.S., we have repeatedly set out to build a life in a new place. One thing that stands out as a common thread in all my ancestors’ stories is that, wherever they went, they survived and thrived by working with their community to build supportive structures and lay down roots for the next generation.

When I moved to Texas from South America in 1987, I remember learning about Cesar Chavez in school. As an adult I learned more about him on my own, reading about his work, philosophy, and history. I have always been moved and inspired by his deep commitment to the cause of justice and to the people he represented. I am honored to be recognized as a Cesar Chavez White House Champion of Change.

At Make the Road New York (MRNY), where I serve as Co-Executive Director, we work to transform lives and empower immigrant communities. We organize in some of the most economically marginalized communities in the United States, while providing direct services to keep families out of poverty. By helping immigrants to directly engage and advocate on the issues most critical to their lives, we have, together with our allies, shaped New York into one of the most immigrant-friendly states in the nation.

With language access posing a critical problem, beginning in 1999, we organized to win translation and interpretation in multiple levels of government and society so that immigrants can fully participate, stay healthy, and care for their children. We began with ensuring translation and interpretation at New York City public benefits offices, then went on to establish these rights at major public and private hospitals across New York State; in major chain pharmacies statewide; and in all City, State, and Suffolk County government agencies. These protections are fundamental and New York now stands as an example to other states.

We have also helped New York to become a leader in protecting the safety of immigrants and helping to keep immigrant families from being torn apart by deportations. The intentions of the Federal Secure Communities program are to make us all safer; by sharing information between government agencies, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) seeks to root out dangerous criminals. However, during this quest to make our country safer, the U.S. is actually failing to protect the human rights of many of the most vulnerable people living here. Secure Communities compels local governments to hold thousands of people suspected of being undocumented immigrants at local taxpayer expense and turn them over to ICE, where they are funneled into the black hole of immigration detention, often without access to adequate legal representation.

In practice, in New York City, we found that this made our communities feel less safe. Community members were afraid to approach police officers either to ask for help or report a crime for fear that any engagement with law enforcement could lead to detention. Victims of crimes were often swept up.

We decided that this was not the kind of city we wanted New York to be.  We helped families affected by detentions to come forward about their experiences, and we showed lawmakers that our criminal justice system was not living up to the character of New York. Through the work of a citywide coalition of community, advocacy, and legal groups, MRNY and our allies have won new legislation to limit ICE's involvement in NYC corrections facilities and to prevent local law enforcement agencies from spending millions of city taxpayer dollars to hold individuals at ICE's behest. Thousands of unnecessary deportations will be avoided, saving local and federal tax dollars while keeping our communities strong and families stable. These laws demonstrate that the City of New York is willing to stand behind immigrant families and stand up for humane immigration policy that keeps families together locally, while we fight for just and humane reform nationally. We in New York hope that the federal government will exercise even greater discretion in determining who is targeted for deportation. New York has always been a sanctuary for immigrants and we believe it always should be.

However, without comprehensive immigration reform, our work at the City and State levels can only go so far. We need just national reform that values the contributions immigrants make to the character, prosperity, and humanity of the United States. Immigrants have made New York the wonderful city it is, both economically and culturally. And like New York, the United States has always been a place of opportunity, refuge, fairness, and compassion. What better way to honor the legacy of justice left by Cesar Chavez than to extend that opportunity and give immigrant families a meaningful path to citizenship so they can continue to contribute and make our country as strong as it can be.

Javier H. Valdés oversees the organizing and policy work at Make the Road New York in the areas of civic participation, civil rights, education, housing, environmental justice, LGBTQ, and immigration.