Tensions are reaching a fever pitch between newly arrived migrants and longtime immigrant and minority communities over perceptions of unfair distribution of government benefits.
The frustration, which is centered in big cities, is twofold: Many undocumented and mixed-status families feel overlooked as new arrivals become eligible for work permits, and in many communities of color, spending on shelter for asylum-seekers is viewed in contrast to scarcity in other social programs.
“The narrative out there has been somewhat distorted to present the picture where it looks like new immigrants are living in plush conditions. That’s not the case. They’re undergoing very difficult conditions,” said New York Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D).
The tension is especially felt in Democratic strongholds such as New York and Chicago, where community leaders and elected officials have spent decades organizing their constituents with limited success.
“Mixed-status families, people who have lived here for 10, 20, 25, 30 years, who have been working, paying taxes, sending money back to Mexico, abiding by the laws, laying low — probably being better citizens than most Americans — are frustrated,” said Illinois Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García (D).
“Because political leaders, community leaders, religious leaders have told them, ‘If you advocate for yourself, if you march in the pro-immigration reform events in Chicago, across the country’ — and Chicago was sort of the spark of a lot of this — that something would happen,” added García.
But immigration reform as most communities understand it — access to paperwork to get straight with the government — was last enacted in 1986.
What has changed is the pattern of migration to the United States, everything from demographics to the immigration status of new arrivals. And those two factors are linked: The historic trend of Mexican single adults crossing the border has over time given way to families from other countries with stronger asylum claims.
But by and large, the public does not make a distinction between asylum-seekers and undocumented immigrants, creating the impression of a two-tiered system.
“I go to my district, and I walk my district and I meet with people — this is more a result of what they hear on TV and what they read in the papers, that is sometimes creating this tension that in so many ways is more fictional than based on the reality of the communities where we have the migrants coming in,” said Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.)
That’s made assimilation of new arrivals more difficult, in particular for asylum-seekers from Latin America.
“I think some of it is xenophobia. I think some of it is disinformation. And it’s driven by uncertainty,” said García.
He added that the perception of a migrant threat has dovetailed with concerns about urban violence in Chicago, adding a layer of distrust among communities.
That distrust came to a head Tuesday in Chicago’s Brighton Park, a predominantly Latino neighborhood with a large Chinese immigrant population where the city is building a migrant camp on a privately owned lot.
Local protesters attempted to physically block machinery from entering the construction site, days after Alderwoman Julia Ramírez fled another protest that turned violent.
Ramírez hosted a tense town hall meeting Tuesday night where a majority of neighborhood residents spoke in favor of sheltering migrants, but many expressed frustrations over the city’s lack of transparency in choosing the shelter site and implied that migrants encumber public safety.
One resident, a teacher, ceded her time at the microphone to a recent arrival from Colombia, a student of hers identified as Juliet.
“Many people think it’s frustrating that new people, new migrants, arrive to this place. I understand that — obviously it’s not gratifying to have new people come to your place and to feel that there’s a change in the place where you live,” said Juliet, adding that sending migrants to hotels is not an option, because they are for-profit enterprises that won’t provide full board.
“People should put themselves in the shoes of others. We don’t want to spend a winter on the street. So please don’t hate us for wanting better stability for our people,” Juliet said in Spanish.
García said refugees from other parts of the world receive less media attention and have an easier time assimilating.
“We’ve been able to, in Chicagoland, integrate about 30,000 Ukrainian immigrants who came to Chicago, and they did not get this much reporting over that period, much less stories about crime and drugs and prostitution,” he said.
Still, there is growing rancor among communities of color and in general among low-income communities, and the work permit disparity is exacerbating those feelings.
“You’re seeing it in the Black community in Chicago and now you’re seeing the intensity of the anger and hurt in the Mexican community, who say, ‘What about us? We’ve been working here for 20 years,’ and some of them are actually being displaced by new migrants who are coming in with a work permit,” said Rebecca Shi, executive director of the American Business Immigration Coalition.
Advocates for longtime undocumented immigrants are calling on the Biden administration to address that disparity by granting immigration parole to large swathes of the population, clearing the way for them to work legally.
On Wednesday, García and fellow Democratic Reps. Pramila Jayapal (Wash.), Verónica Escobar (Texas) and Delia Ramírez (Ill.) had been set to call on President Biden to grant parole to undocumented or expatriate spouses of U.S. citizens, but their press conference was interrupted by the vote to elect Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) as the new Speaker.
Undocumented immigrants can’t apply to change their immigration status or be considered for work permits. Immigration parole essentially clears an individual’s immigration record, allowing them to file applications to get papers.
According to the lawmakers, 1.7 million U.S. citizens have an undocumented spouse, and 4.9 million U.S. citizen children have at least one undocumented parent.
Though mixed-status families are a priority for many lawmakers, there is also momentum to push for parole for Dreamers and farmworkers, among other groups of undocumented immigrants.
“I have some colleagues who I’ve worked with on a letter to the president about parole for mixed-status families. We’re going to urge the White House to do that, but there are a number of different groups of people with different immigration challenges and restrictions,” said Escobar.
But Escobar, who along with Rep. María Elvira Salazar (R-Fla.) is pushing a bipartisan immigration and border security compromise bill, said parole doesn’t go far enough.
“What frustrates me is that that we continue to punt on this issue in the hopes that one day we will have large enough majorities in the House in the Senate, and control the White House, and get everything that we Democrats want in order to help the vulnerable residents of our communities and throughout the country who deserve legal status.”
Still, advocates see parole as a powerful tool for the Biden administration to calm the waters between different immigrant communities, paired with ongoing measures to hasten work permits for asylum seekers and funds for cities to receive them.
A meeting Wednesday between members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas centered on the budget and how to get more funds to cities, rather than on parole, according to Espaillat.
The simmering tension, which Democrats hope to defuse with a combination of funding and work permits, could fuel a political backlash.
Chicago is due to host the Democratic National Convention in August, and Democrats are keen to avoid an escalation of the kinds of protests local officials have endured.
And for many mixed-status communities, which overwhelmingly vote Democratic, political inaction could be another factor in suppressing voter participation.
That incentivizes elected Democrats, most of whom don’t believe a bipartisan solution is within reach, to push the Biden administration for decisive action.
“It’s become really tough. Because those of us in elective office have told people it’s going to happen, and be patient, and don’t give up, and let’s keep trying. So things get complicated. And migration is a hemispheric challenge. It’s global,” said García.
“So you try to convey to people all the forces at work, at play, that create these challenges for us. And you also hope that young people will see the humanity of the recent arrivals and help bridge that gap and help create empathy and hope.”