CHATHAM–“You can’t be interested in food in America without being interested in immigration,” the noted author and food expert Ruth Reichl told an audience that packed the Morris Memorial gym Saturday afternoon. “Our entire food system rides on the back of undocumented immigrants.”
Ms. Reichl, a county resident, used that observation to introduce the members of a panel on immigration sponsored by the Chatham chapter of the Indivisible, a nationwide effort started by former congressional staffers to build local resistance to the actions and policies of the Trump administration. The panel members were a constitutional scholar and professor, an Episcopal priest and activist who works with migrants throughout the region, the owner of a local business owner and now a legal resident who survived the trip through the desert to the U.S. from Mexico when he was 15 and a local farmer engaged in the sanctuary movement.
Tom Gerety, now a professor at New York University and formerly president of Amherst College and director of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School, first offered some history of what he said is this country’s “deeply conflicted” attitudes about immigration. He said those attitudes range from an embrace of romantic sagas about the contribution immigrants have made all the way to the opposite extreme of “disdain, resistance and blame” attributed to immigrant communities who find themselves used by politicians as scapegoats for society’s problems.
Prof. Gerety cited cases from the 19th and 20th centuries in which the federal government singled out ethnic groups or nationalities, starting with the exclusion of Chinese in the 1800s and the internment of Japanese-American citizens at the beginning of World War II. He said immigration restrictions had slowly eased from a peak in the 1950s until the 9/11 attacks. The second of President Trump’s two orders that would have banned Muslims from several countries is still blocked by a lower court ruling, will likely soon end up before the Supreme Court, Prof. Gerety said, adding that the court is back at full strength now that President Trump’s appointee, Neil Gorsuch, has been sworn in.
The question before the high court, Prof. Gerety said, will be whether the president has the right to impose such a ban. “My own opinion is that the answer is Yes,” he said.
With that in mind, he said that people should now put pressure on the federal government to have “less freewheeling policing” of non-criminal immigrants by federal agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). He said that ICE, a division of the federal Department of Homeland Security, has been “empowered” by the anti-immigrant rhetoric of President Trump.
The Rev. Richard Witt, executive director of the Rural & Migrant Ministry in Poughkeepsie, urged the audience to “be allies with our immigrant brothers and sisters,” adding, “When we do that, boy, do we have power.”
He said immigrants are crucial to the state’s $6 billion farming industry and have been responsible for reviving the fortunes of upstate cities like Utica. But he said his organization is receiving calls from immigrants living in fear that a parent will leave the house and be detained and ordered deported by ICE, leaving a spouse and children not knowing where the detained person has been taken. The Rural & Migrant Ministry offers a booklet called “Menu of Hope” that lists resources for immigrants and people who want to help them.
The ministry also teaches immigrant families how to prepare for the possibility that a family member will be detained.
Cristobal Morales, owner of the Taste Box in the Village of Chatham, a catering and food take-out shop, said he entered the US by crossing the border from Mexico and walking through the desert for three days. “I thought I was going to die,” he said. He was 15 years old at the time.
Through a program of the Obama administration, he is now a legal resident of the US and has a “green card,” which authorizes him to work here. As recently as three years ago, he said, he would have declined an offer to speak publicly about his situation. Now he is married, runs a small business and is working on a memoir.
Mr. Morales said he grew up one of eight children with only his mother to provide for the family. He read from the manuscript of his memoir, recounting a story his mother told him and his siblings on nights in Mexico when they had nothing to eat. It was called The Man Who Cooked with Pebbles, a retelling of the Stone Soup folktale but with a twist that helped explain why he risked the trip north to the U.S.
Jody Bolluyt of Roxbury Farm spoke about the efforts of the Columbia County Sanctuary Movement, saying she became involved “because I was a farmer” and the effort by ICE to detain and deport farm workers and their families “seemed crazy to me.”
“We’re looking to be advocates for our neighbors,” she said, explaining why the group had worked, successfully, to help convince the City of Hudson Common Council to adopt a resolution identifying Hudson as a sanctuary city.
“ICE is showing up in Traffic Court in Hudson and taking [people] away to ICE detainment,” she said. But when local residents attend immigration hearings at the ICE office in the Albany suburb of Latham, the detained person may be released. She said the goal was “telling ICE it’s not okay to separate families.”
Don Moore, a county supervisor from Hudson, said that the federal government is taking action against municipalities that, like Hudson, describe themselves as sanctuary cities. He said Hudson had followed guidelines offered by state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.
But Prof. Gerety advised caution, saying sanctuary is not a legal doctrine and would not stand up in court as a defense for actions that do not comply federal laws on immigration.
According to the website of the state attorney general, as of last month, Hudson was one of nine localities in the state that has declared itself a sanctuary city.