Local leaders and immigrant advocates marked the ninth anniversary of the Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) by once again calling for congressional action on pending legislation that would create a path to citizenship for thousands of “Dreamers.”
Tuesday marked the anniversary of the Obama-era DACA program, which protects an estimated 640,000 people nationwide who were brought to the country undocumented as children, including around 12,000 in Nevada, according to government data.
“Today is an incredible celebration for us of this anniversary – or ‘DACAversary’ – which we've celebrated every single year, and the excitement that surrounds remembering June 15, 2012, when so many of us were awoken by the excitement of what may come,” Astrid Silva, DACA recipient and executive director of Dream Big Nevada, said during a press conference in Las Vegas. “It has opened so many doors for us to be able to continue fighting for a pathway to citizenship.”
Clark County Commissioner William McCurdy II, Las Vegas Councilwoman Olivia Diaz and North Las Vegas Councilman Isaac Barron joined Silva, among others, to offer messages of support to those in attendance and to call for action from Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen and the Biden administration.
Congress is considering the American Dream and Promise Act and the DREAM Act. Each measure aims to create a path to permanent status for hundreds of thousands of people covered under DACA and living in the U.S. with temporary status.
The House passed the American Dream and Promise Act in March, but the Senate has yet to consider the bill, in part, because 10 Senate Republicans would be needed to pass the measure with the 50-50 party split in the chamber. The House bill only got nine GOP votes.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), a member of the Senate Budget Committee, told reporters Wednesday that immigration reform could end up in an infrastructure bill as a way to help pay for the package under the reconciliation process. Under Senate rules, reconciliation allows legislation that directly affects spending and taxes to avoid a filibuster — which requires 60 votes to overcome — and pass the chamber on a simple majority.
“Anytime there’s been a [Congressional Budget Office] examination of what immigration reform would do, it produces a significant increase in the [Gross Domestic Product] without really costing much money,” Kaine said. “So that may not be a traditional pay for but if we feel like there’s something we could do within a reconciliation vehicle that could produce significant economic growth.”
Cortez Masto is working with a bipartisan group of senators to see if an immigration deal can be struck, but has not signaled that they have made much, if any, progress.
“DACA is still under imminent threat. And the only pathway that we see is the pathway to citizenship, which will provide the certainty that Dreamers and their families need,” McCurdy said. “Now is the time to step up. Now is the time to create a quality of life that all of our families can enjoy. And that pathway is by passing the two bills that are now stuck in the Senate.”
On Tuesday, several Democratic senators, including Rosen, signed on to a letter spearheaded by Cortez Masto and sent to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services seeking answers about recent delays in DACA application processing. In a tweet, she said the Trump administration created an “extreme backlog.”
“Dreamers are our friends and neighbors. These delays have made it impossible for many to work and support their families,” Cortez Masto continued in another tweet. “While we continue negotiating a bipartisan immigration bill with a path to citizenship for Dreamers, we must make sure the DACA program is actually working.”
A pending 2018 lawsuit in Texas adds to uncertainty about DACA’s fate — U.S. District Court Judge Andrew S. Hanen of the Southern District of Texas could decide that DACA is unlawful. Silva urged eligible Nevadans to apply as soon as possible with that in mind.
“It's not about necessarily hurrying or causing panic. We've been waiting for the court decision since Dec. 22, and so every day that passes by I say, ‘yes, one more day to apply,’ but this isn't something that's going to be stable forever,” Silva told The Nevada Independent in an interview. “There's no deadline, but there are outside factors that could change it. And it's moving fast, very fast.”
Dream Big Nevada and the Immigrant Home Foundation, which focus on immigration advocacy, providing resources and support, held their first in-person, first-time DACA applicant workshop after holding only virtual workshops since December. In the nine years the program has existed, the Immigrant Home Foundation has helped more than 5,600 DACA applicants, including those applying for the first time and renewals, according to Cristhian Barrera, DACA program coordinator for the foundation.
“It's incredible to think that it has been nine years, because I think so many of us thought that this was going to be kind of a temporary thing, that it would kind of hold us over while they were figuring it out in Congress, and so it's exciting to see how all of us have grown — but it's also very frustrating,” Silva said on Tuesday. “And some days, it's very, very easy to want to give up …. But we have to pick ourselves up and remember that we have gotten this far because of all of us. We have gotten to this place because all of your dreams matter.”
Immigration advocates, families and supporters gathered Thursday evening outside the federal courthouse in downtown Las Vegas, waving American flags and toting signs demanding legal residency for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) holders.
This kind of activism is nothing new for those protected by TPS. They continually feel on the cusp of losing their right to live in the United States. So once again — after a recent Supreme Court decision — they gathered with their allies and urged President Joe Biden and Congress to create a pathway to permanent residency for TPS holders.
“Se ve, se siente, el pueblo está presente! Se ve, se escucha, estamos en la lucha! Ni COVID, ni el viento detiene el movimiento…” the group, organized by Arriba Las Vegas Workers Center, chanted in unison in Spanish, stating that they are present, they will be heard, they are in a battle and nothing will stop them, not even the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a blow to TPS holders and advocates who have longed for a pathway to citizenship, the Supreme Court issued a ruling earlier this week that bars TPS holders from adjusting their immigration status to become lawful permanent residents, or obtain “green cards,” if they entered the country unlawfully. TPS holders for years have been seeking a more stable and permanent solution to their temporary status, which must be renewed every 18 months.
The immigration status is granted to people from countries experiencing crises caused by natural disasters, war or poverty. TPS protects immigrants from deportation and grants them work authorization permits. Nevada is home to roughly 4,000 TPS holders and there are more than 400,000 TPS holders in the United States from a dozen countries, including El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras and Syria.
The ruling leaves TPS holders who were not vetted and authorized to enter the country by an immigration officer out of options as a major deadline approaches in early October, when the protected status expires for beneficiaries from El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nepal, Nicaragua and Sudan. Without TPS, beneficiaries will lose legal work authorization and be subject to deportation.
“No somos uno, no somos cien, 11 millones, cuéntenos bien!” the group in Las Vegas continued chanting Thursday evening, saying that the fight is not just for one or a hundred people, and not just for the hundreds of thousands of TPS holders in the United States but for the 11 million undocumented immigrants seeking a path to citizenship.
Immigration statuses such as TPS and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) do not include a route to legal permanent residency, nor citizenship, for beneficiaries.
Immigrant advocates cite the deep ties TPS holders and other immigrant groups have in their communities, as workers, taxpayers and parents to U.S.-born children as the primary reasons they believe the federal government needs to come up with a more permanent solution.
According to the Pew Research Center, more than 70 percent of immigrants in the United States in 2018 had lived in the country for more than a decade. A 2017 report from the Legal Immigration Resource Center found that TPS holders contribute billions of dollars to the nation’s economy, and the Center for American Progress identified more than 130,000 TPS holders as essential workers during the pandemic.
About 450,000 U.S. citizens live in a household with a TPS holder, and about 280,000 U.S.-born children under the age of 18 live with a parent protected by TPS. Mixed-status families are at risk of being separated by deportation, or being displaced to a country they are not familiar with and where they do not have family or work ties.
The ruling shields TPS holders who entered the country in a legal manner, though. For example, if current TPS holders entered the United States with a visa, overstayed the term of the visa and were later granted TPS, they can apply to become lawful permanent residents.
Nevada Tepesianos (TPS holders) continue their years-long fight
Walter Martinez, a TPS holder from El Salvador and Las Vegas resident, has been in the United States for more than 20 years. His mother immigrated first to escape poverty, and after graduating high school, he begged her to let him join her for better opportunities. Shortly after he arrived, he was granted TPS.
“It gave me the opportunity to have a real ID. I was able to open a bank account, learn how to drive, and honestly I felt like I was no longer in the shadows,” Martinez said in Spanish at the vigil on Thursday. “I’ve been here for over 20 years. We have the right to a permanent residency because we understand that the program is temporary, but we have contributed to the economy and our community for so long. Most of us come to contribute to this country.”
Martinez said he had hoped TPS would lead him to the opportunity to become a legal permanent resident, but years have passed as he continues to wait for immigration reform.
“I think that’s what happened to many of us — we thought there was going to be an immigration reform, and it didn’t happen,” he said. “The next steps are really to just keep fighting.”
And that is the message the group aimed to send Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen and President Joe Biden on Thursday — that they won’t give up and expect them to stand alongside all 11 million.
An attendee at the vigil, whom The Nevada Independent is not naming because of the vulnerable nature of her immigration status, stood in solidarity with TPS holders on Thursday evening. Her husband was deported three years ago, leaving her the sole breadwinner for their three children. She has established roots in the United States over the past two decades, paying taxes, and working and raising her children, two of whom are American citizens.
While not a TPS holder herself, the woman said she fights the same battle for a path to permanent residency for herself and her oldest son, who is a DACA recipient.
“We work so hard, but we’re in the shadows, we get paid low wages, we don’t have a contract — sometimes even enduring abuse from our bosses,” she said in Spanish. “It’s not easy for us, especially with the uncertainty if the next day we’ll still be allowed to be here – our kids, our lives are here. Having to go back to our countries would be like starting from zero.”
She recalled how deeply her children were affected by their father being deported. No one wanted to talk or leave their bedrooms, she said. And one of her children recently admitted to experiencing a depressive episode at the time.
“Seeing their pain in their eyes is very difficult as a mom, seeing them so hurt that the family has been separated. That’s what hurts most, seeing our children go through that,” she said.
After her husband was deported, she couldn’t make ends meet and had to move into a bedroom in a friend’s home with her two younger children. She feared that her daughter wouldn’t graduate high school because of the living situation, compounded by stress and the effects of the pandemic. But she said their hard work paid off, as she was able to purchase a mobile home after saving her money. Her daughter graduated last week.
“When you come to this country, you come with the dream that you’re going to support your family, that your children are going to have a better life, that they won’t lack anything,” she said. “We all have similar fears – being separated from our children, being in a different country and not seeing them grow and succeed. That’s the biggest fear.”
A ‘provisional situation’
Michael Kagan, director of the UNLV Immigration Clinic, highlighted the fragile reality TPS holders continue to face, typically dependent on changes within presidential administrations.
“Presidents come and go and for people to have their lives and their futures depend entirely on who won the last election is a terrible way for people to live,” he said, “and, in this case, we're talking about people who have been here for longer than me. I've been [in Nevada] since 2011.”
While Nevada immigrants rooted for Biden during last year’s election, in the hopes his administration would be more immigrant-friendly than the Trump administration, they also sensed that immigration reform was a long shot.
The Biden administration may not be wholly responsible for delivering the ruling on TPS, but Kagan said it is not innocent either.
“The Biden administration asked for it. They could have pulled this case back and avoided this decision, but they pushed ahead with it. So that was a real disappointment to many of us. The Biden administration's hands are not clean on this decision,” he said.
Kagan said TPS holders and supporters have to be hopeful the administration will — at the very least — renew the protected status before October, although that is not the ultimate solution TPS holders and supporters desire.
“But even if that happens, the problem is that it will only be an 18-month reprieve,” he said. “Unless Congress were to pass a new law, this situation will just continue interminably over and over again every 18 months.”
The American Dream Act recently cleared the House of Representatives on a 228-197 vote, with nine Republicans voting in support. The measure would allow TPS holders to become lawful permanent residents as long as they meet certain requirements, such as living in the United States for at least three years (from the bill’s adoption) and paying a fee. The bill is limited to TPS holders who were granted the protected status on or prior to Jan. 17, 2017, and does not include the most recent designations for immigrants from Venezuela or Burma.
But the measure faces an uncertain future in the Senate, with Democrats and Republicans deadlocked. For the bill to succeed in the Senate, it would require support from all Democratic senators and at least 10 Republican senators to overcome the filibuster rule requiring 60 votes.
With that in mind, Nevada TPS holders are calling for Congress and the Biden administration to pass the measure through budget reconciliation, a process that allows legislation to pass with 50 votes, plus a vote from Vice President Kamala Harris.
With their fate in the hands of the federal government, TPS holders are turning to their only option — to continue speaking out and urging elected officials to stand by them. Kagan said this is an opportunity for other community members to stand in solidarity with TPS holders to effect real change.
“If no laws are passed, then the Biden administration will just be a period of ceasefire in a longer war,” he said. “Then you could have another president in January 2025, who returns to what Trump was doing, and people's entire lives and families will be directly threatened again.”
Finding an attorney to represent them in immigration court can be a challenge for people facing deportation proceedings who often don’t have the financial means to seek legal counsel.
In an attempt to bridge the gap, Nevada Assembly lawmakers on Wednesday approved AB376, which allocates $500,000 in state funds for the UNLV Immigration Clinic to expand its no-cost legal services for immigrants.
The bill advanced along party lines, with Republicans voting against it. Bill sponsor and Assemblywoman Selena Torres (D-Las Vegas) introduced AB376 during a hearing in the Assembly Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday alongside Majority Floor Leader Teresa Benitez-Thompson (D-Reno), who called the funding allocation a “smart use of money… an exciting use of money.”
“We have folks in the community who are doing really great work who are providing pro bono services to our immigrant community, and we know we have populations in need, so how do we help our helpers? And the answer was, get more support to the UNLV Immigration Clinic,” Benitez-Thompson said.
Nevada has the largest per-capita population of undocumented immigrants in the U.S.
Michael Kagan, director of the UNLV Immigration Clinic, said the funds would be used to create a community advocacy office off the UNLV campus intended to be more accessible for the community and to hire two new lawyers as part of the Immigrant Justice Corps, a fellowship program for law school graduates interested in practicing immigration law.
In addition to allocating half a million dollars to the clinic, the measure would also implement the “Keep Nevada Working Act,” establishing a task force headed by the lieutenant governor’s office and intended to generate strategies to bolster the state’s workforce and economy, including expanding pathways for immigrant workers and entrepreneurs.
The measure also requires the task force submit a report to the Legislative Counsel Bureau by July 1, 2022 with a summary of the work accomplished and recommendations for legislation.
Another section of AB376 requires the attorney general’s office publish model policies for local law enforcement agencies with the priorities of fostering trust between communities and state or local law enforcement, limit to the fullest extent legally possible interactions of state or local law enforcement with federal immigration authorities for the purpose of immigration enforcement. A subsequent section includes the limitation of immigration enforcement at public schools, colleges and universities, health care facilities and courthouses.
Various groups turned out in support of the bill, including the Nevada System of Higher Education, Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada and the ACLU of Nevada.
“It's a policy failure that we have not declared legal counsel a right in immigration proceedings, and you have an opportunity to take a step forward by passing this bill and appropriating these funds to this program,” said Holly Welborn, policy director of ACLU Nevada.
The bill also saw opposition from the Nevada Sheriffs and Chiefs Association, members of the Independent American Party and the Nevada Republican Party.
Eric Spratley, speaking on behalf of the sheriffs and chiefs association, pointed to the provision in AB376 that requires the attorney general’s office provide model policies for local law enforcement agencies to adopt. He expressed frustration at the lack of a fiscal note in regards to the funds it would take for local law enforcement agencies to implement new policies.
“Each Nevada law enforcement jurisdiction is different and unique,” he said. “Law enforcement leaders across Nevada are elected or appointed by the people of that jurisdiction, and as such, their local law enforcement operations have policies which reflect how those Nevada residents want their jurisdictions to function.”
Torres clarified that local agencies are allowed to opt out of the model policies drawn up by the attorney general’s office.
“Over the recent months we've seen local law enforcement agencies asking, even in interviews in the media, for there to be model policies and expressing distress that there was no model policies. This would give the opportunity for them to create model policies and local law enforcement agencies can choose to adopt those if it's so appropriate,” she said.
AB376 has survived key legislative deadlines after it was declared exempt in April and has been significantly watered down from its original version, which focused more explicitly on curbing collaboration between local law enforcement agencies and federal immigration authorities (such as ICE).
For years, Nevada immigrants rights advocates have fought for the end of ICE detainers, practices by local law enforcement that hold undocumented immigrants for no legal reason other than to allow federal authorities to pick them up. Advocates argue this violates immigrants' constitutional rights.
A few Nevada agencies continue to participate in the 287(g) program, a formal partnership with ICE, including Nye County, but the informal practice of detaining immigrants for small infractions and flagging them on a database for federal authorities continues.
The measure must still pass through the Senate before heading to Gov. Steve Sisolak’s desk by Monday, when the session ends.
The various costs of deportation
Kagan, the UNLV Immigration Clinic director, said the $500,000 investment from the state general fund to the clinic over the biennium “might be more like $900,000 in impact,” explaining that deportation proceedings cost Nevada money and families separated by deportation end up depending on the state for more resources.
“When someone from Nevada is deported, that means that a family loses a breadwinner,” Kagan said. “That means a child loses a parent, that means that children are more likely to go into foster care, that means that schools may have additional costs for interventions to help that family, and I hope, for the sake of child safety, that is ultimately the state's responsibility and that's why it's important for us to do that work.”
When people avoid deportation and obtain legal permission to work, they can be self-sufficient and pay their taxes, he said, adding that a similar program in New York City generated $1 million in new tax revenue by expanding access to legal work permissions.
People are able to avoid deportation four out of five times, or 80 percent of the time, when they have lawyers to represent them in court, Kagan said, adding that the opposite is true as well.
“Just because they're in immigration court does not mean that people need to be deported,” he said.
The immigration clinic is the only place people facing deportation can turn to, he said, as most don’t have the means to hire a lawyer, especially unaccompanied children, who often face immigration proceedings alone. Immigration courts are civil courts, meaning that children facing deportation do not have a right to a government-appointed attorney, which is the case for criminal courts.
Kagan said unaccompanied children are the largest group of clients the clinic works with.
“Most of our child clients have been middle school or high school age but we have had clients as young as three when they first walked in the door. That's not something law school prepares you for very well, that's not a normal kind of client, but those children are victims of violence in their countries and often of child abuse as well,” he said.
With the goal to provide legal services to a growing population of people, Kagan said the funds allocated in AB376 could help propel the immigration clinic’s reach further in the long term.
“It would be the beginning of something bigger,” he said. “This is essential for the community in which we live, for our neighbors, and generally for the value that when someone's family is in jeopardy, they should not stand alone.”
As the daughter of immigrants who were displaced from El Salvador during the 12-year civil war that ended in 1992, being the first to attend college and graduate with a bachelor’s degree in 2015, and then earn a master’s degree, were big accomplishments for Jahahi Mazariego.
But her moment in the sun was clouded by a family member’s pending deportation.
“Even graduating, it wasn't the happiest moment of my life. It was actually extremely hard,” Mazariego, 28, said during an interview with The Nevada Independent.
Social work degree in hand, Mazariego set out to work with and support the immigrant community in her new career. A year after graduating, she was hired as the first social services coordinator at her alma mater, UNR, working closely with students who were undocumented or protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
Mazariego connected students to resources related to basic needs, such as food or housing assistance, financial aid and scholarship assistance, case management and mental health support.
University officials created the position in response to petitions from students in 2016 demanding more support for immigrant and undocumented students amid then-President Donald Trump’s policies seeking to eliminate DACA and Temporary Protected Status (TPS).
There are more than 12,000 DACA recipients and more than 160,000 undocumented immigrants living in Nevada. It’s unclear how many UNR students are protected by DACA or are undocumented.
Now, five years since students called on UNR to protect its immigrant population, Mazariego’s position is vacant as she seeks to pursue the same goal she had to support the immigrant community — this time as a licensed therapist. She said that while it may take years of effort and work to change state or federal policy, she realized there’s an opportunity to facilitate change through therapy.
“In speaking with these students, I learned that oftentimes, we don't have control over these bigger social issues — we don't,” Mazariego said. “But what can we control? We can control how we process and how we behave because of the barriers and the disparities that we face.”
Mazariego’s absence on the UNR campus creates a void for undocumented and DACA students, leading students to once again ask the university to continue funding the position amid budget cuts caused by the pandemic and find a successor.
In March, UNR Student Senator Dionne Stanfill created a petition to keep the position alive that received more than 1,000 signatures, and she introduced a resolution to the student government body.
“The academic success of undocumented students is simply just as vital and important as academic success for any other students,” Stanfill said during an interview with The Nevada Independent. “And this role is instrumental in accomplishing this mission.”
In the fall of 2019, 22.4 percent of full-time undergraduate students enrolled at UNR were Latino, just shy of the 25 percent Latino enrollment requirement needed to designate it as a Hispanic Serving Institution. The designation would make UNR eligible to compete for grants through the federal government or private foundations specifically earmarked for minority-serving institutions.
Students persevere, again
A few weeks ago, UNR responded to the calls from students by posting the open job position online, solidifying efforts to continue providing resources and support to undocumented and DACA students.
The move first had to be approved by the Nevada System of Higher Education chancellor’s office because universities and colleges are under a hiring freeze as a result of the budget cuts caused by the pandemic.
“We look forward to filling this important position,” wrote a spokesperson for UNR President Brian Sandoval’s office in an email to The Nevada Independent.
Stanfill celebrated the university’s decision, and said it made her realize “that the student voice does matter.”
Maria Doucettperry, director of the Equal Opportunity and Title IX office at UNR, said she is optimistic the office will have a new social services coordinator hired and trained by early summer.
The Latino Research Center joined students in advocating for the position in 2016, and continues to stand by them.
“As a University it is our job to identify talented individuals and foster that talent regardless of documentation status,” wrote Latino Research Center Coordinator in Education, Research and Outreach J. Diego Zarazúa in an email to The Nevada Independent.
Lessons learned and moving forward
In her four years as the first and only social services coordinator dedicated to undocumented and immigrant students at UNR, Mazariego blazed a trail for other Nevada higher education institutions, including UNLV and Truckee Meadows Ccommunity College in Reno, which also created positions dedicated to the same purpose in the last few years.
Mazariego said that serving students and creating an infrastructure for other institutions to follow was rewarding, but it did not come without challenges.
“When I first started as the social service coordinator, I knew it would impact me emotionally, mentally,” she said. “It was extremely harmful that I came into this role thinking that I was going to make the loss of my family member from the U.S. meaningful, like, not to see their deportation in vain.”
Her immediate family member, originally from El Salvador and also a UNR graduate, received bad legal advice from a notary as she attempted to apply for legal residency after marrying a U.S. citizen. Her petition was subsequently denied in 2015, and the U.S. barred her from coming back into the country for 10 years, splitting Mazariego’s family across the U.S.-Canada borders (her family member was granted dual citizenship in the northern country).
Though she said she thinks the experience was generally detrimental to her mental health at the time, it also helped her to personally connect with what undocumented and DACA students were living through, too. For example, she said she could really empathize with students who would reach graduation and not have their parents or other loved ones by their side to see their accomplishments because they had been separated by deportation.
“That experience of like big life moments and graduations is something that I processed with students,” she said. “It's a common story. It happens a lot more than I think people know — that parents can't see their children graduate because of immigration policies.”
But Mazariego said she loved being part of the students’ healing journeys and helping guide them as they learned to accept and even feel empowered in their diverse racial, cultural and sexual identities.
“So I wasn't a therapist then, but the work that I did was therapeutic enough for people to understand their identities and their immigration status in this weird dynamic in being a student at UNR,” she said.
For now, Mazariego is looking forward to continuing the work she’s done and expanding the ways and the people she can help as a therapist outside of the walls of UNR.
“I really miss being in the community, I miss being back in the ‘hood, I miss being back with people that look like my mom and people that look like my abuelos and my abuelas,” said Mazariego, who grew up in Sparks in a predominantly Latino and immigrant community.
She also thinks advocacy for support for undocumented and immigrant students shouldn’t stop with one position, but needs to continue with greater institutional and state policy changes.
Mazariego pointed to AB213, a bill that would remove the requirement to complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which requires a social security number, in order to obtain higher education scholarships, such as the Silver State Opportunity Grant. The measure would also provide in-state tuition rates to any graduate of a Nevada high school, regardless of citizenship. The bill was approved by the Assembly in early April and is pending evaluation in the Ways and Means Committee, which will review its fiscal impacts.
“We can’t have clinical therapists, we can’t have more nurses and doctors, if we don't change this institution policy because it's so expensive to pay out-of-state tuition as a graduate student,” Mazariego said. “So, la lucha sigue, the fight still continues. And I'm hoping the next person is able to continue on with this work.”
Nine Nevada sheriffs from rural counties and Carson City have signed on to a letter blaming President Joe Biden’s policies for increased criminal activity related to illegal immigration and urging the Democratic president to embrace the border policies of the Trump administration, including resuming construction of the border wall.
In the letter titled “Help America’s Sheriffs Keep Our Neighborhoods and Communities Safe by Halting Illegal Immigration,” a group of 274 sheriffs wrote earlier this month that their policing resources are being “overwhelmed” by criminal activity related to an increase in illegal immigration. The letter specifically points to transnational gangs, guns, dangerous drugs and human trafficking as the dangers.
“In a myriad of ways, you and your administration are encouraging and sanctioning lawlessness and the victimization of the people of the United States of America, all in the name of mass illegal immigration,” the sheriffs wrote to Biden.
The letter does not cite specific evidence of increased illegal immigration under the Biden administration nor evidence of criminal activity linked to undocumented immigrants. It primarily focuses on blaming Biden for the crisis at the border — a characterization that is in dispute, as the Biden administration has actively avoided use of the word crisis, unlike the Republican Party — and immigrant advocates have criticized the letter for wrongly painting immigrants as violent criminals.
The nine Nevada sheriffs who signed the letter are Ken Furlong (Carson City), Jesse Watts (Eureka County), Daniel Coverley (Douglas County), Frank Hunewill (Lyon County), Sharon Wehrly (Nye County), Richard Hickox (Churchill County), Aitor Narvazia (Elko County), Ron Unger (Lander County) and Scott Henriod (White Pine County). Neither sheriff from Nevada’s urban centers — Joe Lombardo in Clark County and Darin Balaam in Washoe County — signed the letter. Balaam’s office did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday as to whether the sheriff had been approached to sign on. On Friday morning, a spokesperson for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department said that Lombardo has not seen the letter.
Many claims about a crisis at the border have relied upon data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection on encounters with migrants. Those numbers show that encounters at the southern border hovered between 70,000 and 80,000 from October through January, before increasing to 101,000 in February and more than 172,000 in March.
However, Michael Kagan, director of the UNLV Immigration Clinic, explained that with the border closed to most asylum seekers because of the pandemic, a migrant who is denied asylum and expelled could return to the border again, creating a new encounter with the U.S. Border Patrol, meaning a new encounter is not necessarily a new migrant arriving at the border.
The number of encounters in February and March are also similarly large to numbers from the middle of Trump’s presidency, as border encounters climbed over 100,000 per month from March through June in 2019.
“In 2019, the number of people approaching the border was climbing very rapidly, and I don't think these sheriffs complained about Donald Trump,” Kagan said.
Carson City Sheriff Ken Furlong told The Nevada Independent that he signed onto the letter because he was concerned about the issue of immigrants entering the country illegally and “creating havoc in our communities.” He also noted that though he agreed with the intent of the letter, he did not necessarily agree with all of the verbiage used.
“We're tasked with protecting our communities,” Furlong said. “It's difficult to protect our communities, when we're not applying regulation or control over who's coming into this country.”
Though a multitudeofstudies show that undocumented immigrants in the country are not more likely to be arrested or incarcerated than Americans born in the United States, Furlong pointed to one specific case of criminal activity by an undocumented immigrant in Northern Nevada. In that case, Wilber Ernesto Martinez Guzman, an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador, was arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Carson City in January 2019 as the prime suspect in four murder cases across Washoe County and Douglas County.
Furlong acknowledged that incidents involving people living in the country illegally and the type of criminal activity listed in the letter are rare in Carson City, but he also cited concern for the states that share a southern border with Mexico, including Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California, as a reason for joining the letter.
“I do know the struggles that many of the law enforcement agency fixtures, such as me, have suffered when we're dealing with illegal immigrants and our ability to safeguard our communities,” he said. “I want to support those southern border states that are struggling immensely, just to get through every day.”
The other eight sheriffs who signed the letter were unavailable or did not respond to requests for comment on Thursday afternoon.
The letter has been panned by immigrant advocates such as Erika Castro, a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and the organizing director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada. Castro said the letter focused on an “anti-immigrant narrative.”
“It's very disheartening knowing that we have sheriffs in our state of Nevada that have those anti-immigrant feelings,” she told The Nevada Independent. “At the end of the day, if they really are here to protect and serve our community, that includes everyone.”
Kagan also criticized the letter as a move rooted in partisan rhetoric and noted that the letter does not provide evidence to back up claims about undocumented immigrants bringing increased amounts of crime to the country.
“I think they mean that a president they didn't vote for is in office, so they want to blame problems on him,” Kagan said.
He also said that the sentiments expressed make sense coming from sheriffs because those officers tend to come from rural, white areas that vote Republican.
“The general phenomenon holds that these are largely elected politicians from areas that mostly voted for Donald Trump for president, expressing anti-immigrant views without factual basis,” Kagan said.
The letter calls on the Biden administration to halt its “pro-illegal immigration policies” and return to “the common-sense, public-safety-supporting border policies of the previous administration.” However, Kagan said that the immigration policies of the Biden administration have not been a significant departure from the policies of the Trump administration.
“I would personally criticize Biden for leaving in place most of Donald Trump's policies so far,” he said. “Biden has left in place a near total border closure… turning away people who are applying for asylum on the grounds of public health without actually much clear public health justification.”
Biden has continued a Trump-era policy called Title 42, which was first invoked during the pandemic by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control on March 20, 2020. Since then, the policy has allowed the federal government to close the southern border to nonessential travel and expel asylum seekers at the border. Groups of lawyers and lawmakers, including Vice President Kamala Harris, even raised issues with the Title 42 policy last year.
Though the Biden administration has granted asylum to unaccompanied minors arriving at the border, the Trump administration had been doing the same since late November, when a federal judge blocked the Trump administration from expelling migrant children under the Title 42 policy.
“It seems to me that we have now emerging a pattern that when there is a Democratic president, Republican border governors sound the alarm that there’s an emergency,” Kagan said. “I think that that is also a lot of talk, and it's not a serious contribution to any immigration policy challenges that we face.”
Update: This story was updated at 9:40 a.m. on April 23, 2021 to include a response from Sheriff Joseph Lombardo's office.
AB376, sponsored by Assemblywoman Selena Torres (D-Las Vegas), was rid of language that draws a bright line between immigration enforcement and local police in the name of rebuilding trust between police and immigrant communities. What remains is a proposed Keep Nevada Working Task Force charged with finding ways to strengthen the immigrant workforce, a call for the attorney general to develop model policies on immigration issues and half a million dollars to support deportation defense through UNLV’s Boyd School of Law.
“I think that we've got some really good work out of the amendments that we made on the legislation,” Torres said in a brief interview on Tuesday. Asked if she was disappointed about losing other provisions, she added “I think we're in a good spot.”
Erika Castro, organizing director for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, said the provisions that have been watered down are the ones she and other immigrant advocates were excited about, adding that their priority now is to maintain what’s left of the bill in the Senate.
“And that Governor Sisolak actually signs it into law,” she added.
The bill’s transformation was one of the more dramatic ahead of Tuesday’s deadline for bills to pass out of their first house. Four bills died, and more than a dozen — including AB376 — were re-referred to money committees, where it’s possible a lack of money to implement them could seal their fate.
Assembly Majority Leader Teresa Benitez-Thompson (D-Reno), who is listed as the sponsor of the primary amendment excising the bill’s most controversial provisions, said the proposal to send half a million dollars to the UNLV Immigration Clinic was aimed to “help our helpers who are out there in the trenches.” She said the clinic reported being unable to meet the demand for pro bono legal services for unaccompanied children and others facing deportation.
“If they feel like they're being detained illegally, they feel like they're being harassed, they have a place to go and get help,” she said. “And so ultimately, this was our solution about how we make the system more fair, more just for them.”
As in Washington D.C., where Congress has repeatedly failed to accomplish comprehensive immigration reform and where the issue is sometimes described as a “third rail” too controversial to meaningfully address, immigration policy has been an albatross in at least the last three Democrat-controlled sessions in Carson City.
The decades-long lack of reform, despite which political party is in power, continues to erode trust and hope among immigrants, said Castro. Some Nevada immigrants expressed a sense of optimism when President Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump last year, but skepticism remains.
“We've been waiting for a form of relief at a federal lever level for over 30 years now,” said Castro, who is a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. “We really need our elected officials to keep their promises that they made on the campaign trail, now that they're actually in office and have the power to be able to do something.”
In 2017, a bill to bar cooperation between law enforcement and local police died without a hearing after quickly being branded a “sanctuary bill” by Republican leaders. In 2019, lawmakers gutted a bill from Torres calling for reports about how serious the underlying crimes were for people who were arrested and ended up in deportation proceedings; the bill ultimately enacted a provision requiring jail staff to tell inmates why they are asking questions about immigration status.
Castro noted the repeated attempts to address collaboration between local law enforcement agencies and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the state level and said that although the most recent effort through AB376 has been watered down, it’s significant progress from previous years.
“This is the furthest that we've gotten with a piece of legislation like this,” she said. “And we're gonna continue to come back until it actually becomes a law, because I think at the end of the day, deportations are not stopping whether we have a Democratic president. So we're going to continue to bring these policies forward because our communities deserve and they need that relief.”
This session, Torres’ bill faced opposition from law enforcement and critics who again argued it would make Nevada a “sanctuary state” and repel tourists.
Assemblyman Edgar Flores (D-Las Vegas), who chairs the committee from which Torres’ bill passed in its original form a few weeks ago before being amended, acknowledged that changes to programs such as 287(g) agreements between local and federal law enforcement are difficult to explain and people are “afraid of that conversation.” In recent years, Republicans such as 2018 gubernatorial candidate Adam Laxalt have rallied around the criticism that Democrats are trying to implement sanctuary policies, and some Democrats have shied away from responding to those statements.
“I think immigration is such an intimidating topic for anybody. Doesn't matter what side of the aisle you're on,” Flores said in an interview. “And it's a very heavy lift. Because politically, it's so easy for it to be turned into something it’s not.”
For now, Castro and other immigrant advocates and organizations are focused on helping raise support to shepherd the bill all the way to Sisolak’s desk and working with state leaders to ensure that a potential fourth attempt to pass legislation such as AB376 doesn’t get stuck in the process. “Our communities have waited enough, especially with the pandemic, knowing that they were left out of any financial resources, any support,” Castro said. “Being in a state where we have the largest population of immigrants per capita, I think that puts us in a place where we really need to be intentional about how we're including and supporting our undocumented communities.”
Bills sent to budget committees
Budget committees in the Assembly and Senate typically serve two roles — reviewing every part of the state’s executive budget, while also holding jurisdiction over any bill that includes direct spending or a potential fiscal impact to the state.
But on deadline days, those committees serve another role — lifeboats for contentious or complex bills that would otherwise sink by deadline day. That said, referrals to budget committees don’t guarantee anything, and can often be the final stop for bills with large fiscal impacts or that draw too much opposition during the session.
Here’s a look at some of the major bills that were referred to budget committees on Tuesday:
SB235 proposes a single, streamlined dispensary license in place of the current system, in which most dispensaries have both a medical and a recreational license. But a compromise from the bill’s earlier version raised further questions about whether consolidating licenses would reduce revenue.
Another bill, AB322, allows for permitting events where cannabis can be sold or consumed but could require more staff resources to process additional licenses. Another, AB341, authorizes cannabis consumption lounges, but regulators anticipate it would also require the Cannabis Compliance Board to staff up to meet the higher regulatory and enforcement workload.
SB201, sponsored by an interim committee studying prescription drug prices, would require the licensure and regulation of any pharmaceutical sales representatives. An amendment to the bill adopted Tuesday requires that any licensure funds (between $500 and $800 per year) only account for the costs of licensing and regulating the profession, or improving transparency on the price of prescription drugs, and wouldn’t revert to the state’s main budget account.
A fiscal note on the bill submitted by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Public and Behavioral Health Division estimated that it would cost the state around $250,000 every year to implement the bill and regulate the estimated 3,800 pharmaceutical sales representatives active in the state.
Another pharmaceutical drug-related measure expanding the state’s existing drug price reporting database, SB380, was similarly amended and referred to a budget committee on Tuesday. While no dollar amount was listed on a fiscal note attached to the bill by the Department of Health and Human Services, the agency wrote that the state’s current drug pricing transparency database “will not meet the requirements” of the bill.
And the bill by Assemblywoman Daniele Monroe-Moreno creating a statewide occupational licensing board for professional midwives (AB387) was similarly yanked to a budget committee after being amended on Tuesday.
The state Department of Public and Behavioral Health estimated that the agency would need around $450,000 every two-year budget cycle to hire staff to implement provisions of the original bill.
Decriminalizing traffic tickets
A bill by Assemblywoman Rochelle Nguyen (D-Las Vegas) aimed at decriminalizing traffic tickets — the fifth time in five sessions lawmakers have brought the concept forward — was referred to the Assembly budget committee on Tuesday, after legislators adopted a lengthy amendment.
Local governments have long argued against the bill, saying that fees and fines from traffic tickets make up a substantial portion of their annual budgets. Clark County, for example, estimated that the measure would lead to a $12.75 million annual reduction in revenue.
Though it technically happened late Monday, lawmakers agreed to send two major election-related bills sponsored by Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas) to the Assembly budget committee.
AB321, which would make Nevada’s expanded mail voting system in place for the 2020 election a permanent feature, carries a somewhat hefty price tag — the secretary of state’s office estimated that the measure would cost up to $17.3 million to set up for the 2022 election cycle, and $7.7 million in future election cycles.
AB126, which aims to move Nevada up the presidential preference primary calendar, was also tagged with a $5.2 million price tag from the secretary of state’s office.
Bills that actually died:
By the end of the evening, only four bills actually died by Tuesday’s deadline for first house passage, withering on the proverbial vine that is the Secretary’s Desk. Three of the four failed measures (excluding SB314) would have required a two-thirds vote as they increased taxes. They included:
SB314, a bill by Sen. Dina Neal that aimed to place more regulations and customer protections around high-volume marketplace sellers — defined as any person who makes or enters into 200 or more transactions through an online marketplace such as Etsy or Amazon.
SB170, a bill sponsored by the Legislative Committee on Public Lands that looked to change the registration process for off-highway vehicles. The bill required a two-thirds majority to pass.
SB405, a bill from the Governor’s Office of Finance that would have removed caps on funding that the state’s Public Utilities Commission and Office of Consumer Advocate receive from regulated providers of electric and natural gas service (such as NV Energy and Southwest Gas). It instead would have authorized both agencies to set funding levels (calculated in mills based on operating revenue) based on what was needed to fund agency operations. The bill required a two-thirds majority to pass.
SB407, a bill from the Governor’s Office of Finance that would have required professional apiaries (beekeepers) pay an annual registration fee and register with the state — while exempting hobbyist beekeepers. The bill required a two-thirds majority to pass.
Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez contributed to this report.
Updated on 4/21/2021 at 5:55 p.m. to add statements from Erika Castro.
U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) called for the creation of a task force to direct funds from the White House-proposed $2 trillion American Jobs Plan to Latino and other needy communities during a meeting with President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on Tuesday.
The interagency task force would help “ensure that, not only is there accountability as we look to pass the American Jobs Plan, [but] that funding gets to where it needs to go in our communities,” Cortez Masto told reporters after the meeting, which included members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC).
Nevada’s population is 29 percent Latino, meaning that directing funds from the new infrastructure package to the community would be good for the state.
Cortez Masto likened the proposed task force to the COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force established by the White House that helped direct funding to communities of color from the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill, the American Rescue Plan, signed into law in March. The COVID task force has sought to help Latino and other communities that have had high rates of infection and low rates of vaccination compared to other segments of the population.
She said her task force would help address disparities in housing, education and other areas, contributing to Latinos in Nevada having a median family income of $51,995, according to recent U.S. Census Bureau data. That compares with white Nevada families, which have a $66,440 median family income. Nationally, Latino households' median income is $51,118, which is less than the $68,785 for white families.
Before the meeting, Biden acknowledged the need to support the Latino community.
“America— in our view, and I mean it sincerely—cannot succeed unless Hispanic families succeed,” Biden said.
Biden’s plan includes $213 billion for affordable housing and $100 billion to upgrade and build new K—12 schools.
Cortez Masto also cited the need for a “skilled workforce” and “that includes so many in the Latino community, so it was important for me to talk to him about education and supporting our Hispanic-serving institutions.”
Biden’s bill includes $48 billion in workforce development infrastructure, including expanding apprenticeship programs.
A group of Senate Republicans, including Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), has been critical of Biden's plan for being too broad and costly. The senators are working on a counterproposal that could be unveiled "hopefully by the end of the week," Capito told reporters Tuesday.
Cortez Masto also urged the White House to help minority-owned businesses access capital and credit during the economic recovery. “Many of our Latinos are entrepreneurs, they're small business owners, and they can't access capital or credit, and they have challenges even getting contracts,” she said.
Other issues discussed included the need to reform the immigration laws and Biden’s reversal on keeping caps set by former President Donald Trump’s administration on the number of refugees permitted to enter the country.
The caps came up “as part of a larger discussion on immigration, and really a broader discussion on what needs to be done to address a broken immigration system,” Cortez Masto said.
Biden wascriticized last week by Democrats for keeping the refugee caps for the current fiscal year at the 15,000 level set by Trump. Biden reversed course after the subsequent backlash. Keeping the 15,000 cap would have violated a promise made in February to raise it.
Cortez Masto also said that a group of 16 senators, eight Democrats and eight Republicans, who are testing the waters to see if there could be a bipartisan immigration bill, would meet for the second time this week.
“I will say this, and I truly believe this, that we can have a strong border, and still have an immigration system that treats people with dignity,” Cortez Masto said.
Another CHC meeting with Harris is expected soon on the root causes of illegal immigration. Harris is heading up the White House effort to stem the flow of illegal crossings on the southern border.
Cortez Masto’s meeting comes after Rep. Steven Horsford (D-NV) met with Biden and Harris last week as part of the Congressional Black Caucus.
A legislative committee voted on party lines Wednesday to limit local police cooperation with federal immigration authorities after hearing stories of families affected by deportations, including a 13-year-old boy who became suicidal during his father’s monthslong stay in immigration detention.
The Assembly Government Affairs Committee voted 8-5 to advance AB376, sponsored by Assemblywoman Selena Torres (D-Las Vegas), which — among other things — bars law enforcement from detaining a person at the request of immigration authorities unless there is a warrant for that person and requires police to warn people that their answers to questions about their birthplace could be used against them in deportation proceedings.
“Federal government agencies should not be allowed to commandeer our state's scarce public safety resources,” Torres said. “Studies also show that misuse of local resources for federal immigration enforcement has a negative effect on reporting for both victims and witnesses of crime.”
The bill, which also declares that it is not the primary purpose of local law enforcement to enforce civil federal immigration law, is part of a long struggle between immigrant advocates and police agencies over practices such as jails holding inmates longer than they otherwise would in order to give immigration officials a chance to take custody of them.
That’s what Jennifer Antonio testified happened to her husband, an undocumented immigrant, in August 2019. She said her then-11-year-old son Ethan has ADHD and tried to run away during a behavioral episode; when her husband grabbed the boy’s jacket to stop him, someone called the police and both the boy and her husband were arrested.
The boy was released to his mother shortly after, but Antonio’s husband was detained for nine months and authorities said she could not bail him out because he was on an immigration hold. With less supervision, Ethan started acting out, becoming depressed and even attempting suicide.
“My father got out of immigration three days before my birthday, and that was the best present that I could have ever had,” Ethan testified. “Now he is home, and I feel better, but we still live in fear that they will come for my father. Please stop taking people from their families. It’s not right.”
Opponents, however, questioned whether the bill would prevent authorities from catching dangerous criminals who have violated immigration laws. Assemblywoman Annie Black (R-Mesquite) pointed to a news article about the arrest of two Yemeni men apprehended by the Border Patrol who had been on a terror watch list and asked if the bill would prevent local police from helping bring them into custody.
“There's nothing preventing ICE from doing their job,” Torres replied. “Additionally, in the legislation it's abundantly clear that if there is a federal warrant, they can still detain those individuals and they would be transferred into ICE custody.”
The bill would bar state and local law enforcement from using agency money or personnel to investigate, question or arrest people for immigration enforcement purposes, and specifies that police should not detain someone solely for the purpose of determining their immigration status. It also bars local agencies from allowing federal immigration officials to question inmates in local custody about noncriminal matters unless the interview is voluntary or backed by a court order.
Police agencies opposed the bill, raising a litany of issues with the language. Chuck Callaway, lobbyist for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, said that asking arrestees about their birthplace is legitimate because police have to notify certain countries such as China and Saudi Arabia when their citizens are arrested.
He said the measure also would prevent jail personnel from answering questions from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) about when an inmate was going to be released if federal authorities wanted to detain someone exiting the jail. Eric Spratley of the Nevada Sheriffs and Chiefs Association added that the Miranda rights-style disclosure the bill requires to alert inmates that any answers they provide could be used for immigration enforcement will make inmates distrustful.
“It will make people we are coming in contact with feel like we are now partnered for immigration purposes, and further widen this racial divide that law enforcement is actively trying to repair,” he said.
Members of the public opposing the bill said it would give Nevada a reputation as a “sanctuary state” that could repel tourists and invite crime.
“Bills like AB376 invite people to break our laws at the expense of our most vulnerable Nevada citizens,” Nevada Republican Party Chairman Michael McDonald said in written comments. “The United States of America is a land of laws and we ask that this committee respect our country enough to abide by the existing laws already in place.”
But supporters argued that striking a clearer divide between local police and federal immigration enforcement officers would build trust and create a safer community. Liz Ortenburger, CEO of the nonprofit Safe Nest dedicated to victims of domestic violence, said fear of deportation prevents victims from calling the police or seeking a restraining order.
“We also see in the eyes of many of our victims the fear of being deported and taken away from their children, and leaving their children unsupervised at the hands of a batterer,” she said. “All of this creates more abuse, more cycles, more traumatized children, and more generational violence in our community.”
Education advocates testified that the bill could ease anxiety among children with undocumented parents and help them focus on school. The bill specifically prevents school police from inquiring about or collecting information about a person’s immigration status or birthplace.
Sylvia Lazos, a professor at UNLV’s Boyd School of Law, noted that close to half of the students in the Clark County School District have one or more immigrant parents, and some of those are undocumented.
“When a parent is deported, the children who are left behind are traumatized, not knowing why their parents abandoned them, fearful that no one will take care for them,” she wrote. “Exactly what is the Southern Nevada community gaining from such policies?”
A less controversial element of the bill, which was dubbed the Keep Nevada Working Act, establishes a task force affiliated with the lieutenant governor’s office and the Office for New Americans that would explore ways to attract and retain immigrant-owned businesses. The group would conduct research and submit recommendations to the Legislature about developing small businesses and maintaining stability in the agricultural workforce, which is made up predominantly of immigrants.
“Creating the task force will assist our state in continuing to attract and retain a talented workforce, including entrepreneurs and small businesses, to create jobs and prosperity,” said Lt. Gov. Kate Marshall, a Democrat.
The hearing and vote were the first steps for the bill, which now heads to the Assembly for a possible vote.
Las Vegas resident Alberto Enriques has lived in the U.S. for 26 years, but he says his love for his home country of Venezuela “never dies,” so it hurts and frustrates him to see the devastation the political instability has brought some of his countrymen.
The federal government took action this week to grant legal status to Venezuelan immigrants fleeing the country amid political turmoil. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas approved the move to designate Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for immigrants from Venezuela earlier this week, effective Tuesday through September 2022. The TPS designation will also allow eligible immigrants to work legally in the U.S.
According to the federal document, the TPS designation was granted because Venezuela is facing a “severe humanitarian emergency,” including economic and political crisis in the country, high poverty and unemployment rates, food insecurity, and limited access to medicine and a severely weakened medical system, among others. Venezuela joins a number of other countries with the designation, including Syria, El Salvador, Haiti and Honduras.
The Brookings Institution found that about 16 percent of the country’s population fled from 2015 through 2019, amounting to 4.6 million refugees. Many Venezuelans were arrested or killed during anti-government protests during the past few years as economic inflation made food and basic toiletry items inaccessible to the general population.
“We don’t see a future at the moment in Venezuela,” Enriques said in Spanish during an interview with The Nevada Independent.
Enrique said that although he’s established a family and home in the U.S., he hopes freedom will be granted for Venezuelans in their own country, so that they may return if they wish to.
“We should fight to better our country,” he said. “To make it the country it once was, so that there’s not so many people immigrating.”
The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) charges individuals between the ages of 14 and 65 filing for TPS and work authorization $545. Those under 14 are charged $50 and those over 66 are charged $135.
In addition to the TPS designation, the federal government is also implementing Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) status for Venezuelan individuals in the U.S. The policy is a stay of removal authorized by the president, and is not a specific immigration status, but protects individuals covered by it from deportation for a certain time period. In this case, Venezuelan individuals who arrived in the U.S. on Jan. 20, 2021 or afterward are protected from removal through July 2022.
Because it is not a formal immigration status, Venezuelan individuals do not need to apply for Deferred Enforced Departure. However, Venezuelan immigrants determined to be a threat to public safety or national security, among other requirements, can still be removed from the country.
According to the Migration Policy Institute, the population of Venezuelan immigrants in the U.S. has increased by 54 percent since 2015, standing at nearly 400,000 across the U.S. in 2018. The Migration Policy Institute also found that at least 1,200 Venezuelan immigrants were living in Southern Nevada from 2014 to 2018, with a total of 1,300 statewide.
The growth is something Enriques said he’s seen throughout the years in Las Vegas. For now, he said he hopes people will keep fighting to free Venezuela from what he called a dictatorship under current President Nicolas Maduro’s administration.
“That people won’t lose faith, that we keep fighting, that it won’t take 100 years for us to escape this dictatorship and be a prosperous country. To have faith and to fight for it,” he said.
The Nevada Independent refers to the woman quoted in this story by the pseudonym ‘Maria’ because of the vulnerable nature of her immigration status.
When Gov. Steve Sisolak issued an order to shutter businesses across the state because of the pandemic nearly a year ago, a Reno hairstylist and her husband, who works in construction, were among the hundreds of thousands of Nevadans whose jobs and income came to a screeching halt.
Unlike other Nevadans, however, Maria (whose last name will not be identified because of the vulnerable nature of her immigration status) and her family were ineligible to receive federal aid afforded by the CARES Act because she is undocumented. She’s lived in the U.S. for 24 years, since she immigrated from Mexico in 1997. Her husband and her daughter, a student at UNR, are both U.S. citizens.
“We’re still surviving and adjusting to what we do have,” Maria, 46, said in Spanish during an interview with The Nevada Independent.
The mixed immigration status family was among those who received a one-time $300 payment from the Esperanza Fund, an initiative created last summer to bridge the lack of federal and state aid available for ineligible individuals and families in Nevada.
As of earlier this year, though, the Esperanza Fund had exhausted its piggybank of more than $1 million, distributed to 13 non-profit organizations.
“Those funds are all used now,” said Francisco Morales, previous director of public affairs and community relations for Gov. Steve Sisolak’s office and current student at the William S. Boyd School of Law. Morales helped raise the million dollars for the Esperanza Fund and recruited the initiative’s board of directors.
Despite the empty bank account, Morales said this won’t be the end of the group’s efforts to provide financial aid to immigrant families in the state.
“The plan is to just aggressively tap every possible funding source that's out there, and continue to provide aid to these families. As you know, they've been excluded from basically all the COVID relief packages, and we just haven't been able to get them the help they need,” he said.
According to Esperanza Fund spokesperson Melissa Warren, the Nevada Community Foundation, the operating umbrella for the fund, estimates that more than 3,000 individuals have received a $300 payment to date based on feedback from participating organizations.
For now, the initiative leaders are still in the early stages of applying for additional grants.
“We have a very compelling case,” Morales said. “We hope that the funders will see that and continue to fund this really important project.”
Most of the funding had been allocated as early as October, according to Warren, who then wrote in an email to The Independent, “The need is so high that there are waiting lists for everyone.”
Stretching $300 during a global emergency
The $300 gift card Maria received from Faith in Action Nevada in early January helped her pay for groceries for a few weeks, but the payment was still $1,500 less than what individuals with legal immigration status collected through federal stimulus payments in the past year, which would amount to $3,600 per household with two eligible adults.
Furthermore, the privately-funded $1 million initiative created to help undocumented immigrants in Nevada pales in comparison to the more than $20 billion available to the general population through state funds.
According to the American Immigration Council, there are more than 200,000 undocumented immigrants in Nevada and more than 250,000 people who live with an undocumented family member, including one in seven children (more than 95,000) across the state.
State and local jurisdictions, at times, have had more federal funding than they could spend before deadlines afforded by the CARES Act (and which were eventually extended). In October, the City of Las Vegas was criticized for spending 90 percent of the $119 million federal funding it received on payroll for public safety workers rather than spending the funds on COVID-related services for residents.
The most recent coronavirus relief bill approved by Congress in late December allowed mixed-status families to receive the $600 direct payment included in the measure and also retroactively made them eligible for the $1,200 CARES Act payment from March. The measure required both spouses to have valid Social Security numbers, therefore excluding undocumented immigrants, but extending eligibility to others, such as lawful permanent residents.
In early February, Congress approved an amendment to the proposed $1.9 trillion pandemic aid package that prohibits undocumented immigrants from receiving the potential $1,400 aid payment. However, the bill only requires one spouse to have a Social Security number, extending eligibility to families such as Maria’s.
Maria and her family haven’t missed any important bills yet, but say they have fallen behind at times. In mid-February, Maria said she hadn’t yet paid their mortgage for the month.
And while local community members have stepped up to help bridge the financial aid gap for immigrant families, such as donating food boxes, Maria said she hasn’t accepted the help because she feels there are others who may need it more.
“We haven’t wanted to use [the help] because when we are really in need, there will be no other option other than to use it. We all need each other, but sometimes there are people who need it more, in reality, and we should let them have the opportunity,” she said.
Despite surviving up to this point without federal aid, Maria said she thinks excluding undocumented immigrants from the federal aid payments was unjust.
“I think we all have a right to receive help. I think the majority [of immigrants] pay our taxes and when we need to pay the government, they have no problem with that. Instead, they’re charging you interest,” she said.
Organizers seek to continue supporting immigrant community
Social justice organization Faith in Action Nevada (previously known as ACTIONN) distributed $300 gift cards to 300 individuals in Northern Nevada, according to Regional Director Victoria Rios.
The outcome overshot the organization’s initial goal of reaching 100 individuals, but reaching immigrant community members posed a variety of challenges.
Right off the bat, Faith in Action organizers grappled with getting the word out about the stimulus payment and the subsequent application that needed to be filled out, facing gaps in technology and language barriers. The issue was resolved by meeting the community where they are, which in this case, was in places of worship.
“Thankfully, we were able to put together an application and share it with our leaders to be able to then have folks come into congregations and sit comfortably and submit their application so that that would then lead to them qualifying,” Rios said during an interview with The Independent.
The approach also helped foster a sense of trust and safety, which is critical when reaching out to vulnerable community members, added Rios.
But even as the organization surpassed its goal of reaching immigrant families in need, Rios didn’t feel like it was enough.
“We also felt like $300 may not suffice. Beyond that, the families needed additional resources, they needed information for immigration attorneys, they needed resources for local health care, local food distributions, and so it wasn't like, ‘Hi, thank you for applying for these funds, we are happy to assist you, here's a card and have a nice day’ — we can't continue to do that. It was more of a temporary Band Aid solution for me,” she said.
But Rios also acknowledged that while the one-time $300 payment is small in comparison to the federal or state aid extended to others, it still made a difference and prevented people from falling too far behind on housing payments (thus facing eviction) or car payments, as well as to help keep food on the table.
The organization also found itself faced with a new reality: an entire community was now looking to them for resources amid a national emergency.
“But the biggest challenge is once we open the door to provide assistance, and you are a trusting organization that is serving the community with organizing work, I think it was very hard to decide on how we could continue that on, protect our community at the same time with COVID, and also, how could we expand our capacity overnight, so that we can also give them additional information like local resources?” Rios said.
Rios also said that any organization working with the Latino or immigrant community has to be cognizant of the chilling effects of the public charge rule, which limits what state resources immigrants hoping to update their immigration status can apply for. The rule is no longer applicable in Nevada after a court decision to block it.
“There's so much fear in requesting any sort of help, even if that means just getting food on the table. There are so many people who are in hiding, there are so many concerns, in general, about is this going to become a public charge? There's so much uncertainty of their pending immigration cases or pending deportation orders,” she said.
Rios said Faith in Action hopes to make a greater difference not just in locally, but also on a national level by pushing the Biden administration to grant citizenship to undocumented immigrants who have largely gone without aid during the most severe global crisis in modern history, all the while serving in frontline essential industries.
“We collectively put letters in support of what we're asking, and whether it's … to provide them with a path to citizenship, to include them into the stimulus that's coming up … but also to create another path that will create solutions, so that we're not just putting them in the frontlines and also continuing to not provide support, but yet expect families like that to sacrifice and give so much,” Rios said.
Moving forward, Rios said Faith in Action will continue to independently raise funds and provide financial support for immigrants and their families.
Hope in health
Despite the significant economic implications of being excluded from state or federal aid, Maria’s greatest concern lies in her family’s health and protecting against becoming infected with COVID-19.
Her husband is 58 and has hypertension and diabetes, which is more common among Latinos and people of color, making him high-risk when it comes to exposure to the virus.
At one point during the pandemic, Maria’s 20-year-old daughter, who lives at home with her parents, tested positive for COVID-19. Maria and her husband took all the necessary measures and dodged the virus, but the increasing number of people they know becoming infected with or dying from the virus has them on edge.
“We’ve been lucky that we haven’t contracted it, but sometimes I hear so much from people whose friends have gotten sick or others who have died here and there. It’s still a risk,” Maria said.
In addition to her husband’s high-risk situation, Maria and her family don’t have health insurance, posing another obstacle should they need care for an aggravated case of the virus.
Health comes before any economic situation for Maria. As long as she and her family are healthy, she said, they can work and provide for themselves. But without their health, they would be left without options. And like many, Maria said she hopes the vaccines will bring an end to the perilous pandemic that has disproportionately hit her community and the broader Latino population.
“Let’s hope that with the vaccines and everything that’s coming out and with people continuing to comply with mask-wearing, that all this can be over soon, that we can see the light a little bit and be able to return a little bit to life beforehand. Having faith in God that we find our way out of this.”