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Immigrant and climate activists protest state budget

Angered that measures stalled in House, demonstrators call out legislative leaders

Catherine McGloin
Immigrant and climate activists protest state budget
Demonstrators gather in front of the State House. Banner Photo

Climate and immigrant justice advocates crammed onto the steps of the State House last Thursday to protest the omission of new immigrant protections from the 2019 state budget.

Rushed through both chambers and approved by Gov. Charlie Baker on July 18, the $42 billion state budget does not include any of the four provisions to protect immigrants sought by advocates and approved by the Senate previously, prompting groups like 350 Mass, Toxics Action Center and the Coalition for Social Justice to quickly organize Thursday’s protest.

“It’s really sad that it took a tragic failure of leadership, or rather a failure of moderate action by the House to bring us here together,” said Craig Altemose, executive director of 350 Massachusetts’s clean energy campaign, the Better Future Project.

Altemose called the 2019 budget “dramatically weaker,” without the four-point budget rider, a trimmed-down version of the Safe Communities Act that he and other advocates campaigned for and the Senate approved in May.

The removed provisions would have prevented local police from inquiring about people’s immigrant status; ended agreements between county sheriffs and federal immigration authorities; ensured immigrants in police custody understood their legal rights; and made it illegal for state resources to pay for a religious registry.

Last Wednesday, a six-member committee, co-chaired by Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez and Senate Ways and Means Chairwoman Karen Spilka, dropped this language from the bill. The bill was then passed by both chambers in a speed vote and signed by Baker, three weeks into the fiscal year.

In an attempt to make sure the Legislature heard their cries from beneath the golden dome, climate and immigrant justice groups co-hosted the protest, because, as Altemose pointed out in his speech to the 300 protestors present, climate change is a significant driver of migration.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change reported last year that, on average, 26 million people were displaced by weather-related disasters annually between 2008 and 2015. By 2050, this number could reach 200 million, according to a 2015 study conducted by the Institute for Environment and Human Security of the United Nations University.

Maria Fortes, a Coalition for Social Justice’s New Bedford organizer and Cape Verdean immigrant, spoke of the “vulnerability of immigrant populations to climate change,” often living in areas with poor infrastructure and increased risk of air pollution.

“We must join together in September and November to make sure it doesn’t continue to happen,” said Fortes, alluding to the state primary and the upcoming mid-term elections.

“This isn’t new with Trump, these policies have been in place for years,” said Peter Lowber, an advocate for immigrant rights from the First Parish Church in Cambridge who has campaigned on this issue for more than a decade. “This legislature has never put it forward for a vote because they’re fearful and won’t stand up [for immigrants],” he said.

Not so progressive

Lowber was not the only protester to suggest political expediency might be influencing the Legislature’s decision. Altemose accused lawmakers of “going after voteable populations,” while one young voter from Newton, Miranda Alperstein, said the removal of these protections would certainly affect how she votes on Sept. 4.

“Massachusetts likes to think of itself as a progressive state,” Alperstein said, “but it’s pretty damning that it’s not able to make the simplest changes to protect its people.”

Calling the Legislature “disinterested,” Vignesh Ramachandran, a first generation Indian immigrant now living in Watertown, said “They’re really pushing back against their constituents, and they’re on the wrong side of history.” That sentiment was echoed by Rep. Mike Connolly, who took part in the rally.

After the budget was passed, Connolly tweeted “I am disgusted and disappointed that the FY19 budget agreed to by @SpeakerDeLeo and @jeffrey_sanchez leaves out the basic immigrant protections approved by the state Senate in May. History will judge the House for being complicit in Trump’s racist deportation machine.”

Sanchez, in particular, has come under fire for his role in removing immigrant protections from the bill, with advocates and liberal lawmakers accusing him of listening to House Speaker Robert DeLeo, rather than his Jamaica Plain constituents.

Both Sanchez and DeLeo were visited by protesters, who filed into the State House shortly after speeches. Lining the corridors, they approached the legislators’ offices, attempting to present the two men with photographs of the loved ones and family members their decision will impact. During a 25-minute wait, Sanchez’s office declined to send a representative out to witness the assembly.

“I don’t know what’s going on in their minds or their pockets,” said Amy Tai, a Newton resident and participant in Thursday’s rally.

“Climate justice should be their number one priority, but they’re putting fossil fuel money before people,” Tai said, “and that’s just greed.”