A few weeks back, I received a call from a community member about a loved one who’d been detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). As I took notes and tried to calm her, I couldn’t help but notice that everything she said felt very familiar.
I have experienced ICE’s cruelty since I was 12 years old. Growing up undocumented, my sense of safety was constantly undermined by threats to arrest or deport my parents. If it weren’t for the lawyer who represented my father through his immigration proceedings, my siblings and I would have lost our primary caregiver.
I’m 30 now, and not much has changed.
ICE functions as designed, detaining people in egregious, unhealthy conditions. Our immigration system functions as an extension of the prison industrial complex that is steeped in racism and profits off of human rights violations.
Amid COVID, ICE has been a superspreader. In August of last year, the number of COVID infections stemming from ICE detentions was so high that, if reported by a country, it would have ranked 16th in the world in the number of reported cases, beating out Germany, France, and Canada. Even as cases fall in our area, COVID remains a concern in detention centers: Just weeks ago, ICE reported that York County Prison had 70 new cases.
What’s worse, since people facing deportation do not have the right to a public defender, a majority of those in detention (an estimated 70%) have no legal representation. This has a huge impact on their life and liberty, as studies show a person with an immigration lawyer is 3.5 times more likely to be granted bond and up to 10 times more likely to be granted the right to remain in the United States.
In Pennsylvania, we have a solution: Pennsylvania Immigrant Family Unity Project (PAIFUP), the state’s first publicly funded deportation defense program for immigrants. Since its inception in 2019, PAIFUP attorneys have worked on the front lines to keep people free.
PAIFUP receives funding from the City of Philadelphia, along with the Samuel S. Fels Fund and a catalyst grant from the Vera Institute. I have seen firsthand the value of our investment in this resource – such as at the end of that difficult phone call, when I could refer the community member to PAIFUP. Over the years, local political leadership has recognized PAIFUP’s importance, with strong support from Mayor Kenney’s administration and city council leaders.
But the fight for dignity and justice for all immigrants is far from over, as immigrants in our city are still at risk of criminalization, detention, and deportation. Just recently, then-candidate for Philadelphia District Attorney Carlos Vega stated he would cooperate with ICE if elected. Now is the time to build trust and foster safety in immigrant communities.
The current city budget allocation of $200,000 for PAIFUP — which was almost cut last year — is not enough to guarantee fairness for immigrants ensnared in an unfair system. Many in detention are still not represented and PAIFUP lawyers are over-worked from having to represent their clients remotely due to COVID-19, keeping up with client transfers to distant facilities, and navigating the shifting landscape of immigration court challenges.
This year, Philadelphia should strengthen PAIFUP with an additional $100,000, which would enable the hiring of an additional lawyer to ensure fewer families from our community face the prospect of detention and deportation without an attorney.
In the meantime, we will continue to organize to abolish ICE and encourage other key actions, such as defunding the police (whose bloated budget stands at $727 million), investing in our communities, and building strength and stability in historically marginalized communities, rather than reinforcing institutions that have caused harm and suffering.
As our city recovers from the pandemic and takes steps to dismantle systemic racism and violent policing, we must ask our leaders: Who are we looking to protect? What policies can we invest in to undo historic harm to communities of color? How can we address the unfair double oppression of Black immigrants in particular, who are targeted by law and immigration enforcement?
While organizers continue to build power in our communities to secure self-determination, Philadelphia can continue to stand with us by bolstering funding for PAIFUP and beginning the critical work of curtailing unjust systems.
Erika Guadalupe Núñez is the Executive Director of Juntos, a community-led, Latinx immigrant rights organization in South Philadelphia.