Advent 2020: Waiting for Immigration Reform

Gina Kelley
December 20, 2020

During this season of reflection and hope as we approach the New Year, and with it a new Presidential Administration, I find myself thinking of everyone who has given and lost so much during this often tragic year. While I know that many of us this year have sometimes felt paralyzed at the loss of life, I have attempted to redirect this sadness towards hope for future change. Having worked with undocumented folks in college, I often imagine a day where the changes our broken immigration system requires are realized.

5.5 million undocumented immigrants are essential workers, including 425,000 who are healthcare workers. Immigrants have always been at the heart of our national community and identity, but this pandemic has demonstrated that without immigrants, this country does not survive. For example, 1.7 million undocumented workers are essential to our food supply. Undocumented individuals have always been essential and the pandemic has only amplified that truth. Undocumented immigrants can no longer be defined by their legal status. They are members of our communities. They have families of their own. They are equal.

The United States has often thanked essential workers throughout these painful 10 months. However, undocumented individuals are frequently excluded from that gratitude just as they were with the passage of stimulus checks. Our neighbors have worked through a pandemic without equal treatment or government support. COVID-19 relief is necessary for all of us, and ‘us’ includes our undocumented brothers and sisters.

During this time of incredible difficulty, we have also witnessed continued violence and negligence on our borders against those most in need. Since 2017, all while in U.S. custody, or immediately after being released, 39 adults have died with independent experts finding that subpar care contributed to these deaths. One Louisiana center had multiple reports of no access to soap for bathing or any cleaning supplies. This research was concluded prior to the pandemic; however, reports from immigrant advocates have not indicated any improvement. Erika Pinheiro, litigation director of Al Otro Lado, has reported a continued problem “with ICE hospitalizing people, releasing them, and then they die,” and the death goes unreported by ICE. A U.S. District Judge stated that ICE has demonstrated “deliberate indifference to the risk of an outbreak” and that the agency has “lost the right to be trusted.”

We have families separated on our border enduring inhumane treatment and within those borders undocumented people work without basic protections. Over the last four years, the Trump administration has taken an already broken system and broken it in new ways, without thought or care for the families and people whose lives are at stake. As I look with anticipation to a new year and new administration there are steps that should be taken on Day One to remedy these realities. For example, all COVID-19 relief must include mixed-status families, and basic health care and pandemic protections must be provided to those in detention centers. There are also long-term solutions like a clear pathway to citizenship for all undocumented essential workers and their families, abolishing ICE, and developing new agencies to assist those coming to our borders. I hope that many of you are with me in this battle for a just and humane immigration system that respects and values all people.