‘Key Moment': Vermont Immigration Rights Groups See Pandemic as Game-Changer

Advocates believe new awareness of undocumented laborers’ contributions to the economy may help blaze a path to citizenship

NBC Universal, Inc.

Immigration rights advocates in Vermont hope their calls for reform reach the nation’s capital, believing now is the time for progress on blazing paths to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

“I do think this is a key moment,” said advocate Yovani Perez Moreno, of the group Migrant Justice, through an interpreter.

Migrant Justice was one of several Vermont-based immigration rights groups that gathered Thursday in Burlington, saying the pandemic could be a possible turning point in their yearslong effort to see expansive reforms.

“This is a moral cause,” said Rev. Earl Kooperkamp of Vermont Interfaith Action.

President Biden's plan features an eight year path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants.

The advocates said there are more than 5 million people in the U.S. without government permission who fill needed gaps in the workforce. Those include fields that during the coronavirus crisis became widely seen as essential: farmhands, meat packers, grocery employees, sanitation crews and more.

“So many services literally we can’t live without,” Kooperkamp said of undocumented workers considered essential to the economy.

Chicken and beef are hard to come by at grocery stores as a result of meat processing plants dealing with coronavirus outbreaks.

Vermont Interfaith Action and its partners at Thursday’s gathering said they hope the greater appreciation for previously unsung groups’ contributions will inspire the nation’s leaders to find a breakthrough on what’s been an elusive goal for advocates: seeing permanent protections for 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country.

“The pandemic created a new level of consciousness among the citizenry of the country,” Perez Moreno said. “People really realized that here is a community that never took a day off, that continued to work throughout. And I think that really did change minds. People saw that work and saw how essential it was.”

The U.S. Border Patrol is tallying the highest number of apprehensions of migrants trying to cross into the country in 20 years, NBC News reported. 

Sue O'Connell sat down with Boston College associate professor Kari Hong to talk about immigration problems and priorities under the Biden administration.

Vice President Kamala Harris met this week with leaders of Mexico and Central American countries, urging them to address root causes like corruption and violence. 

“Do not come,” Harris said this week in a message to migrants considering traveling to the U.S. “Do not come.”

Meanwhile, the Vermont activists said they want to see federal policies that protect and support farmworkers who are already here. 

Ashley Smith of Community Voices for Immigrant Rights was among those at Thursday’s rally calling on Congress to approach the debate as an issue of human dignity, public health and justice — not of party politics.

Smith said both Republicans and Democrats have work to do.

“We must remember when Biden was vice president in the Obama administration, the U.S. deported more immigrants than at any time in its long history,” Smith said. “Now is the time for reckoning with that history. Now is the time for reforms.”

The advocates predicted Vermont’s U.S. senators will play leading roles in these discussions since Democrat Patrick Leahy is Senate president pro tem and Independent Bernie Sanders chairs the powerful U.S. Senate Budget Committee. 

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