I spent most of past few weeks in the company of justifiably angry Latinos.
First, on June 23, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it was deadlocked, 4-4, on President Barack Obama’s executive actions – Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) and extended Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA+) – which would offer temporary deportation relief to an estimated 4 million undocumented people.
In 2015, the Migration Policy Institute estimated that some 51,000 people were eligible for DAPA and DACA+ in Pennsylvania, nearly half of them concentrated in three counties: Philadelphia (12,000), Montgomery (5,000) and Chester (5,000).
As soon as the deadlock was announced, Latino immigrant rights groups took action. Not1More and Mijente called for a “No DAPA? No Deportations” moratorium. Make the Road Pennsylvania (based in Reading) and Juntos (based in Philadelphia) held press conferences to announce further actions, and on June 28, both organizations offered support to Latinos who, in an act of civil disobedience, blocked traffic on the I-676 ramp at Vine Street in Philadelphia in protest.
Rev. Adán Mairena, the pastor of the Presbyterian West Kensington Ministry in Norris Square in Philadelphia, was one of four people cited for obstruction during the action. Though his congregation in Norris Square is mostly Puerto Rican, Mairena has been a tireless advocate for Philadelphia’s undocumented community, even offering sanctuary to a mother of U.S. citizens who was threatened with
deportation in 2014.
Mairena spoke to me about the undocumented folks who participated in the civil disobedience with him: “My place is there to support them and let them know they are not alone,” he explained. “And I really do see myself in my brothers and sisters. It's intense because only by fortune or luck or circumstance are my mother or my nephews not in that situation.”
Adanjesus Marin of Make the Road Pennsylvania said that in Reading, the Latino community is “devastated by the Supreme Court's inability to reach a majority for DAPA.”
“But we are at a point where we have no choice but to fight back for our very survival, and so that is what we've decided to do,” he added. “We hold not only the Supreme Court responsible, but all of the politicians who have created the climate of hate that made it possible.”
In Philadelphia (as in Reading and Allentown, which both have substantial Latino populations) Puerto Ricans have also been supporters of DAPA and DACA efforts, even as they have been waging a sometimes solitary battle to inform their fellow Americans about ways to address the financial crisis on the island.
That point was referenced by Philadelphia City Councilwoman María Quiñones-Sánchez in her comments at a People for the American Way event at City Hall, which happened to take place an hour or so after the DAPA road-blocking action ended.
“We need to activate ourselves,” Quiñones Sánchez said. “We need to register and we need to vote.”
Political activation of the Latino community across Pennsylvania was the focus of the PFAW event, which brought together Quiñones-Sánchez and legendary Latina civil and labor rights activist Dolores Huerta, as well as leaders of immigration advocacy groups, among them Marin, Erika Almirón of Juntos and Yaheiry Mora of CASA.
Scheduled roughly a year after Donald Trump opened his presidential campaign by impugning Mexicans as rapists, drug dealers and criminals – “Donald Trump’s Year of Hate,” per PFAW signage – the event had speaker after speaker assert that they were committed to fighting back via the ballot box in Berks, Lehigh, Lancaster, Philadelphia and other counties across the commonwealth.
“We have a very potent, nonviolent weapon to stop Donald Trump,” Huerta said. “In Pennsylvania, there are between 300,000 and 400,000 Latino voters. Latino voters have made the difference in the last presidential elections, and guess what? Latino voters are going to make the decision in the next presidential election ... to ensure that Donald Trump is never in a position to appoint Supreme Court justices.”
“And Sen. (Pat) Toomey continues to hold the Supreme Court seat open for a Trump presidency,” she added.
It isn’t the first time Huerta has called out Pennsylvania’s Republican senator for partisanship in blocking Obama’s judicial nominees. In May 2015, Huerta pushed Toomey to “do your job” by confirming Judge Luis Felipe Restrepo, whom Obama nominated for the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in November 2014. (Restrepo was finally confirmed in January 2016.
Toomey, who has met with Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, but refuses to proceed with the confirmation hearings, came under fire from Quiñones
Sánchez as well.
“Pat Toomey’s inaction on the president’s Supreme Court nominee is a failure of leadership for Pennsylvania,” she said. “The disgraceful things Donald Trump has said about Mexican immigrants and Puerto Ricans show that he doesn’t have the temperament or the judgment to be commander-in-chief. Until Sen. Toomey renounces any support for Trump, he has to be held accountable for the positions of his party’s nominee. Latinos will make our voices heard loud and clear
It’s not just about stalled immigration legislation and record deportation numbers.
On July 1, the president signed the Promesa bill drafted by Congress, which ostensibly permits restructuring of Puerto Rico’s $72 billion in bond debt, but does so by imposing a seven-member Fiscal Board that has more power than the government of Puerto Rico. The fiscal board can, for example, choose to sell off land, and in the days before the bill’s signing, the ground was prepped for just that when beaches in Vieques, Culebra, Condado, Isla Verde, Isabela, Lajas, Cabo Rojo, Guánica and Rincón were transferred from public
to “private” ownership.
The privatization of beaches prompted one Puerto Rican on the island to climb up the capitol building’s flagpole and take down the U.S. flag in an action poignantly – and pointedly – reminiscent of Bree Newsome climbing the flagpole at the South Carolina capitol to remove the Confederate
flag flying there.
“The Promesa bill is deeply flawed,” said Quiñones-Sánchez, “but it is only a first step that we desperately need. Years of bad policy have created a humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico, and for too long, the profits of hedge funds have been prioritized over the health, safety and lives of the American citizens on the island.
“If we do not deal with the crisis in Puerto Rico, we will deal with it here,” she added. “Thousands leave the island monthly. We must give Puerto Rico the ability to restructure its debt and then engage in deep, meaningful reform to ensure that Puerto Rico’s path to recovery is truly sustainable.”
The “¡Sí, se puede!” that resounded frequently at both June 28 events in Philadelphia may now be more widely associated with Obama, but long before his landmark 2008 campaign it was a rallying cry coined by Huerta back when she was organizing farmworkers in California. Then, as now, the challenge was to prod people to “get off the sidewalk” and walk the streets into history.
And in Pennsylvania, Latinos are running with that idea.
Advocacy for Puerto Rico is taking place in Philadelphia: Councilwoman Quiñones-Sánchez will be part of a July 25 rally in support of Puerto Rico at Thomas Paine Plaza to draw attention to the issue during the 2016 Democratic
And there may yet be legal recourse for DAPA and DACA+ protections to be put in place. David Leopold, the former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, believes there is a way forward: “The Obama administration does not have to simply accept the Supreme Court’s failure to rule,” he said in a commentary on Medium. “It can – indeed, should – immediately file a motion for reargument before the Court to take place once a ninth Justice is confirmed
by the U.S. Senate.”
In the interim, in Pittsburgh, Casa San José is holding DAPA information sessions and legal screenings at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Latin American Studies, and engagement is escalating in Reading and Allentown.
“In Reading, 60 percent of the population is Latino, yet we have zero representation in city government,” Marin said. “In the wake of the DAPA decision, we have fought for simple protections like a city ID, and we have been met with racist opposition from government officials who claim to represent the city. At a meeting last week, our members voted unanimously to keep up the fight, endorsing a moratorium on all deportations, and pledged to also hold local politicians accountable for their failure to serve the people.
“In Allentown,” he said, “where the Latino population has nearly doubled since 2010 and is close to reaching a majority, our organizing committee has been conducting a series of surveys on the most important issues facing the community. While education funding and raising the minimum wage had dominated those surveys for weeks, post-DAPA, we have seen an increased desire for workshops and materials on deportation protection. And we've started to provide that through workshops and distribution of ‘Know Your
“In Lehigh Valley,” Marin added, “our members are looking right at Pat Toomey, and planning to hold him accountable for his refusal to appoint a ninth (Supreme Court) justice.” ■