Scanlon discusses immigration issues with panel of experts

Congresswoman Mary Gay Scanlon, D-5 of Swarthmore, center, talks to Raya Fagg, left, and Sundrop Carter prior to a town hall meeting Sunday. 

HAVERFORD — The plight of refugees, asylum seekers and illegal immigrants was the topic of a packed town hall meeting Sunday held by Congresswoman Mary Gay Scanlon.

Scanlon, D-5 of Swarthmore, who is clearly passionate about this issue, has twice traveled to the border to assess the situation and once, with a congressional group, visited the Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, where many immigrants originate.

Those three countries share dysfunctional governments, corruption, gang violence and violence against women. However, El Salvador has a new president who leans toward the U.S. but warned that the Chinese government is seeking a foothold there, offering to network that entire country and purchase the ports.

The first woman to represent Delaware County in Washington, Scanlon is a lawyer who previously worked to help immigrants through pro bono services at a large Philadelphia law firm, supervising more than 600 lawyers. The freshman lawmaker is also vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee and the immigration subcommittee. She brought a panel of experts to standing-room-only crowd at the Haverford Community Recreation and Environmental Center to discuss the issues.

Changes in immigration policy under the Trump administration have been “an issue that’s generated a lot of heat, sometimes not a light of light,” she said. “There’s been a lot of misinformation.”

“Immigration is one of the issues that spurred me to run,” she said. The rules had changed and that impacted people “who thought they were doing the right thing,” she said. “And all of a sudden the rules were changing.”

When people ask why they should care, the taxpayers are paying for the border wall construction, she said. If we can’t to get workers to do jobs like dairy farm workers or cancer researchers, we’ll pay. People in the community being deported without notice have spouses and children in the community, Scanlon said. The House has passed a bill that is a successor for the Dream Act (DACA), and another bill to give temporary protected status to immigrants from Venezuela, a country in crisis due to its socialist government. She voted against a bill to address the humanitarian crisis at the border because it no longer had “strings attached” to make sure the money was spent on aide for immigrants and not other things, she said, calling it “the toughest vote I’ve had to take.”

At the border she spoke with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, advocates for immigrant relief and aide organizations, Scanlon said. She said that while we do need to have secure borders and to prevent surges in immigration, there are many other factors in play.

“If the choice is my kid could get murdered … it’s basically a life or death choice; it’s not coming to freeload off the U.S., it’s to avoid actual harm,” she said. More aid is needed, she said. Spending $400 to $600 annually could keep a person in place in their country. In addition more immigration judges are needed.

“Stopping the cause at the root rather than stopping it at the back end,” she said. More than a million people are waiting for their cases to be adjudicated, she said. They are deported when they show up for their cases, she said.

“The folks who have the grit and determination to do something about their situation generally become extremely productive members of our communities,” she said. But for many people there is no line if they don’t have a close relative living here and even with a relative it can take decades to be allowed to come to the U.S.

“If your house is on fire you’re not going to wait decades to save your kids,” said Scanlon. “And that’s part of what’s driving this.”

“Immigrants, people who are here seeking legal status, do not have a right to legal counsel,” said Scanlon. Sometimes, with the increased enforcement, those without access to counsel, including some American citizens have been deported, she said.

Raya Fagg said that she runs a welcome center to help immigrants in Upper Darby Township, offering various services, including English language lessons and help with becoming a citizen.

Sundrop Carter is with the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition, which has 50 organization members. She said the immigration system always excluded some people and in the past there were mass deportations.

Carter gave an overview of the immigration system and the ways that people come to the U.S.

“Yes, this administration has done some shocking things but none of them are truly new,” she said. “They’re all based on a system that already has race-based judgments in it.”

The most recent change is a new rule that immigrants must be self-sufficient and not become welfare recipients.

“This is like looking at the Statue of Liberty and say, we welcome the hungry the poor, the tired masses, this is saying, ‘We welcome people who have a decent amount of money or have a job,’” said Carter.

There are huge backlogs for citizenship paperwork, she said.

She suggested that people become educated on the topic, then advocate to their public officials for change, along with volunteering with organizations to help immigrants.

“Sign the petitions, show up at rallies, if we don’t show up nothing will change,” she said. She supported ending police cooperation with ICE, driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants and changing the laws at public in universities to allow immigrant students to pay the same tuition rates as in-state students.

Meagan Hume, with HIAS Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, an organization that provides social services and legal help to refugees and those seeking asylum, also spoke. Only 1 percent of the 70 million displaced people seeking refugee status worldwide is granted it, she said.

HIAS has a government contract to work with the refugees for the first three months and after a year they can qualify for green cards. She was concerned that the Trump administration has “drastically cut” the number of refugees allowed into the U.S. She asked people to call members of Congress to support a bill that Scanlon has signed onto so they are not “zeroed out.” Traditionally, about 95,000 refugees were admitted and the bill would keep that level. In the past few years, the refugees allowed have been reduced to around 25,000, Scanlon said.

“If we aren’t helping our allies strategically … by not taking the most vulnerable (refugees) it serves to destabilize those regions further,” Hume said, adding that it was a national security interest to continue to take refugees.

Asylum seekers come into the country without prior refugee status and claim that they were persecuted in their home towns, with the process to vet them beginning afterward. There have been several Trump administration changes, including requiring those seeking asylum to remain in Mexico while their claims are validated, which she believes are detrimental.

Juan Valencia, of the Census Bureau, said the 2020 Census will begin soon and it was important for people to know that information they give to census takers will not be shared with ICE or other authorities. Funding for state programs like Medicaid, schools and highway construct depends on accurate census numbers, he said. And, the number of congressional seats allotted to Pennsylvania is also determined by census totals.

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