Advancing Racial and Economic Justice for Asylum-Seekers

I’ll never forget the day that Alberto (name changed) came into our office seeking immigration help.  Only a teenager, Alberto fled his native Guatemala alone—leaving behind his loved ones and traversing Mexico through the unrelenting summer’s heat—to seek safety in central Mississippi, where his uncle lived.  As a Guatemalan Maya from the country’s western highlands, Alberto faced a lifetime of severe poverty, lack of opportunity, and possible death in his native country—solely because of his ethnicity.  

Before Alberto was born, Guatemalan soldiers murdered several members of his family during the country’s decades-long civil war, in which the government committed over 600 massacres against its indigenous citizens.  Even though the Peace Accords officially ended the war before Alberto’s birth, its legacies—along with the weight of generations of state-sanctioned racism, oppression, and genocide against the Maya—suffocated Alberto in his home country.  Born into extreme poverty, Alberto, his parents, and three siblings depended on a small subsistence farm in order to survive, unable to find economic opportunities in other parts of the country.  He dropped out of school in the third grade in order to work on the farm.  

When Alberto was around fourteen, the Guatemalan government approved the installation of a mine site in a neighboring town, despite strong opposition and protests by local indigenous groups, including Alberto and his family.  Alberto, his family, and neighbors protested the mine because they were afraid that the government would take their land, on which they depended for survival, and give it to the mining company.  Even if they did not lose their land, they also feared that the mining would contaminate their crops and water supply.  Unfortunately, many of these protests turned violent, with private mine security and state forces violently repelling protesters.  In one of these skirmishes, a miner slashed Alberto’s arm with a machete.  

Fearing for his life, Alberto fled his homeland for safety in the United States.  After the exhausted and dehydrated young man reached the U.S./Mexico border and requested protection, U.S. Border Patrol officers arrested Alberto, moved him to a children’s shelter, and released him into the care of his uncle in Central Mississippi.  Alberto’s fight for his life was far from over, however.  Upon his release, U.S. officials handed him a Notice to Appear, which advised him in English that he would have to appear before an Immigration Judge in Memphis to navigate the complicated asylum process in order to remain in the country.  He would face a prosecutor from the Department of Homeland Security, but would have no government-appointed attorney to represent him.  He would have to file all applications for protection and documents in English.  And if he mis-stepped even once, the U.S. government would forcibly remove Alberto to the country that nearly killed him.  

Thankfully, Alberto did not have to face this daunting system alone.  With the support of law students from the Mississippi College School of Law Immigration Clinic, with whom MCJ has partnered, Alberto won his asylum case and continues to reside in central Mississippi, where he is studying for his GED, learning English, and healing from the trauma he suffered.

Given recent attacks on asylum, asylum-seekers like Alberto need your support.  To learn more about the asylum process and ways that you can advocate for stronger legal protections for asylum-seekers like Alberto, you can visit:

National Immigration Forum:  

http://www.immigrationforum.org

American Immigration Lawyers Association:

http://www.aila.org

Catholic Legal Immigration Network:

http://www.cliniclegal.org

To learn how you can support Mississippi asylum-seekers like Alberto, please email amcgowan@mscenterforjustice.org.

Amelia McGowan is Testing Coordinator - Fair Housing/Immigration for the Mississippi Center for Justice.

Government Shutdown Threatens Federal Programs that put Food on the Table for Mississippi Families

On December 22, 2018, key parts of the federal government shut down as a result of leadership gridlock over President Trump’s request for 5 billion dollars in funding for a US-Mexico border wall. With no compromise in sight and the longest shut down in US history, 800,000 federal employees and nine different departments, including the Department of Agriculture (USDA) which is responsible for administering the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), continue to be affected. 

SNAP, the nation’s first line of defense against hunger, helps put food on the table for millions of low income Americans, including 537,000 Mississippians. If the government shutdown continues, 1 in 6 Mississippians could experience major food assistance cut backs. More than 75% of SNAP beneficiaries in MS are in families with children.

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On January 8th the USDA announced plans to help state agencies keep SNAP operational through February 2019 without cuts to benefits by encouraging states to make February benefits available by January 20th. For now, the USDA states that the program will operate as it would normally with the exception that February benefits will be issued early, on January 20th. Under the direction of the USDA, the Mississippi Department of Human Services (MDHS) plans to issue February benefits to some households by January 20th; however, households who have submitted SNAP recertification applications and have not been processed or approved by January 15th can expect their normal scheduled payment of benefits in February with no early issuance. With limited funds available after January 20th, MDHS indicated that they will continue to process applications as they are received and distribute funds based on availability of federal dollars. Families that receive payments on January 20th will not receive another payment until their normal scheduled distribution in March. Officials are encouraging clients to do their best to make their benefits last through February. 

Unfortunately, USDA’s commitment to fund SNAP benefits to recipients through February does not extend to retailers who did not have the opportunity to recertify with USDA prior to the shutdown. As a result of the lack of certification, 2500 retailers nationwide are unable to accept SNAP payments until the government re-opens. If the shutdown continues, delayed SNAP payments could place additional strain on local emergency food assistance providers, like food banks and food pantries, as well as negatively impact some 3600 SNAP retailers/business owners in Mississippi. 

The USDA does not have the authority to extend SNAP benefits in March without congressional action, putting thousands of Mississippi households at undue risk for hunger and hardship. Our congressional leaders have a responsibility re-open the government and ensure that millions of Americans (not just SNAP recipients) are not at risk for financial hardship and hunger. 

Ask your senator to go to Senate Majority Leader McConnell and the White House and demand the government re-open to stop the threat on federal programs that put food on the table for children and families in Mississippi. 

                  Cindy Hyde-Smith: (202) 224-5054

                  Roger Wicker: (202) 224-6253

Resources

USDA to Fund SNAP for February 2019, But Millions Face Cuts if Shutdown Continues

A Closer Look at Who Benefits from SNAP: State-by-State Fact Sheets

USDA Announces Plan to Protect SNAP Participants’ Access to SNAP in February

Kathryn Rehner is a policy associate with the Mississippi Center for Justice.

Virginia College Leaves Students In Limbo

The holidays are generally a time of joy and rest for students. Having just finished finals, students spend the holidays relaxing after a difficult semester. However, for Virginia College students in Mississippi and across the nation, this holiday season was a time of stress and anxiety following a string of broken promises. Virginia College students abruptly became former Virginia College students when they arrived at school on December 6th to find the Virginia College campuses permanently closed.  

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 Many students arrived for class and were left, literally, out in the cold, standing in front of locked doors on a blustery, windy day. For those who had taken the bus, they stood in shock, with nowhere to go and no answers to their myriad of questions. Would they be able to get back their tuition money, the money they had spent on books? Would they be able to transfer? Would their credits work at different schools? The school had guaranteed many students jobs, would this still happen? The students had no answer to these questions on December 6th and many still lack an answer to these questions now.

 Unfortunately, this treatment was not new for the Virginia College students. The school had consistently disappointed the students it had alleged to help. Students had been promised coursework that was never offered, guaranteed jobs that never existed and deprived of an education that they had paid substantial sums to receive. Virginia College had even promised to remain open through August 2019 and could not even hold to this simple promise. At the start of this new year, with so many hopes and dreams dashed, the students must add one further question to their lives: what will they do now? 

If are a Virginia College student or know one, please have them call the Mississippi Center for Justice at 769-230-0529 as we help to provide solutions to some of the many questions these students face.

Samuel Reese is an attorney with the Consumer Protection division of the Mississippi Center for Justice.