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News // Immigration and Asylum

Celebrating Hispanic Culture Means Recognizing the Breadth of the Hispanic Immigrant Experience in the U.S.  

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah

October 16, 2023

Within a week’s time during Hispanic Heritage Month, the Biden administration recently announced plans to build 20 additional miles of border wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and the resumption of removing and returning Venezuelan migrants to dangerous conditions in Venezuela.

These latest developments highlight the irony of the difficulty Latin American migrants face trying to enter a country that has gained so much from Hispanic Americans. A few key figures in Hispanic American history include civil rights activist and National Farm Workers Association founder Cesar Chavez, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and National Medal of the Arts recipient and writer Sandra Cisneros.

Hispanic Americans make vital contributions to American life daily by filling labor gaps in critical sectors such as agriculture, construction, technology, and finance. In 2022, foreign-born workers made up about 18 percent of the U.S. labor force, and Hispanic immigrants accounted for nearly half of these workers. Every vulnerable asylum seeker turned away represents not only a dream of safety denied, but a long-term contributor to our tax-base and economy missing from a workforce desperate for talent.

The indelible mark Hispanic Americans and immigrants have left on this country’s culture, workforce, and economy can’t be overstated. As a nation, we dishonor their humanity and contributions when we shrink from our moral and legal responsibilities to the current generation of migrants seeking a better, safer life.

The Biden administration has expanded pathways to legal entry with the humanitarian parole program open to Cubans, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans and extending Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to several Latin American Countries. But these efforts aren’t enough.

Approximately 20 million people from Latin American nations have immigrated here to due political instability, violence, financial crises, and natural disasters in their home countries.

Every single day, our staff at Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), hear harrowing stories about the systematic, technical, and even physical obstacles our immigrant clients face.

Take, for example, Texas which has separated families and installed razor-wire barriers and a floating buoy wall in the Rio Grande as part of Operation Lone Star. On a federal level, President Biden’s new restrictions require migrants to apply for asylum in a country before reaching the U.S. or secure one of the highly-coveted 1,450 daily appointments at ports of entry through the CBP One mobile application, which has been mired by technical glitches and more.

Many migrants fearful of staying in northern Mexico while waiting to hit the daily appointment lottery risk end up in immigration detention by entering the U.S. between ports of entry– potentially jeopardizing their asylum protections under the new Biden administration rule.

Migrants in Custom Border Patrol (CBP) custody are only supposed to be detained for 72 hours but they can be held for weeks on end in facilities where unsanitary conditions are commonplace. Many migrants are transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facilities owned or operated by private, for-profit prison groups who rake in taxpayer dollars and have horrendous track records of abuse and indignity.

Asylum seekers fortunate enough to avoid removal, start their lives in a foreign country in legal limbo. With a 2.6 million case backlog, those seeking legal protection must contend with an average wait time of four years for their immigration cases to be completed.

And while they wait for some sense of stability, Hispanic immigrants must also grapple with cultural differences, language barriers, the lack of affordable housing and less access to healthcare, education, and meaningful employment. Combined with anxiety about their immigration status, these challenges can lead to significant mental health concerns.

Our political leaders need to reimagine a system that can process people with dignity, in line with our values as a nation of immigrants and the world’s humanitarian leader. And beyond their initial arrival, we need a framework that sets our newest neighbors up for long-term success, and sets U.S. communities up to benefit from their cultural, civic, and economic contributions.

At LIRS, our core mission is ensuring successful outcomes for refugees and asylum seekers by walking alongside them as they rebuild their lives, navigate a new culture, find a new home, a new job, and a much-needed sense of belonging. In 2022, we helped resettle nearly 5,000 refugees, including hundreds from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Columbia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba. We also operate Welcome Centers across the country that feature wraparound services tailored to fit immigrants’ individual needs, as well as innovative workforce development programming to help them find meaningful, appropriate career opportunities.

But there is still so much need. If only our leaders dedicated as many resources to welcoming immigrants humanely as they do building new border walls or sending Venezuelan migrants back to unsafe conditions in their home country.

Whether it’s Hispanic Heritage Month or not, let’s honor the breadth of their contributions to American society by advocating for just and humane immigration practices, and by extending a warm welcome to immigrants in our local communities.

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