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Saturday, June 3, 2023
June 3, 2023

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Top Washington immigrant rights lawyer, stepping down, lays out ‘win-win’ strategy

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SEATTLE — Jorge Barón has joked that the board of Northwest Immigrant Rights Project committed malpractice by hiring him as the organization’s executive director.

He had a prestigious degree from Yale Law School but little experience. Almost fifteen years on, however, he seems to have worked out.

The organization has grown from 36 to 130 employees and established a reputation as one of the country’s largest immigrant legal services providers and a steady source of nationally significant lawsuits aimed at safeguarding and expanding immigrant rights.

But Barón is stepping down in June. He says it’s time to give others a chance to lead and himself, at 50, an opportunity to try something new.

He doesn’t yet know what that will be. The son of a famous TV star in Colombia, he’s not likely to go back to Hollywood, where he once trained to be a director. But he says storytelling, which helps to illustrate why changes to the immigration system are needed, may still play a role in his life.

Speaking in his Pioneer Square office the day before last week’s midterms, Barón reflected on the election’s implications for immigration policy, why he believes Democrats and Republicans have made mistakes, and the local and national immigration landscape — including a wrench in state plans to force the closure of the federal Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What’s on the table after the election?

There’s a limit to how much can change. (President Joe) Biden can veto legislation or take executive actions. However, I think the question is: What will it mean for prospects of any kind of changes to immigration policy? Given what we’re expecting, that at least one of the houses in Congress is going to change from Democrat to Republican, I think it’s going to be very difficult for any kind of compromise in the next two years.

And if there is compromise, there are things that frankly give me a lot of pause. Like DACA (the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, allowing many immigrants who came to the U.S. as children to live and work legally here.) The DACA program is in this very severe limbo.

I’m concerned that if the Republicans are controlling one of the houses, they’re going to basically hold DACA recipients hostage — and say, ‘We will only provide protection if we dismantle asylum protections or make some very bad changes to family-based immigration policies.’ (Such policies allow American citizens or legal residents to sponsor family members for immigrant visas.)

One of the most damaging impacts of the (Donald) Trump era is the impact Trump has had on the Republican Party. When I look back at the aftermath of the 2012 election (when Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney) … there was this whole examination of what happened. Some Republicans said, ‘We are too anti-immigrant, and that’s hurting us.’

And here comes Trump, who says, ‘No, I think the approach is actually being super anti-immigrant. That’s the winning strategy.’

What about the Democratic strategy? Are there things you think Democrats have done wrong?

They have pursued this idea of trying to play the Republican playbook, which could be summarized as: ‘We’ve got to be really tough on immigration enforcement. If we’re tough, that will convince Republicans to come to the table and negotiate on immigration reform legislation.’ The problem with that approach has been: Republicans have never really been in good faith trying to negotiate.

So (Democrats) play this defensive game … instead of being proactive and talking about values and family unity, about this country being a refuge for people in danger.

It’s mind-numbing to me: Hearing people talk about shortages of labor in all kinds of fields — health care, industry, restaurants, hospitality — and we’re at the same time rejecting the opportunity to provide protection to people who could fill those jobs. Democrats could be talking about the fact that this is actually a win-win scenario.

You say that, but there are record numbers of people coming to the border. And there is concern about that from a wide swath of the public. Is it a mistake for Democrats and immigrant advocates not to acknowledge that?

I would push back on a couple of fronts. First of all, we’re not seeing record numbers of people crossing the border. We’re seeing a record number of encounters, meaning instances where people were arrested.

The problem with Title 42 is that it’s created this dynamic where people are just expelled (on public health grounds, an order used by Trump early in the COVID-19 pandemic and continued by Biden). They never get a chance to present their asylum claim. And so there’s a high level of repeat crosses, because people are just trying to see if they’ll get a chance to present their asylum claims. So when (Customs and Border Protection officials) are describing the same person crossing seven times, they report that as seven encounters.

The other problem (with focusing on record numbers) is that the border is much more ‘secure’ than it was in 2000, for example. A much smaller percentage of people actually make it across without getting caught by Border Patrol. Back in 2000, we were only catching like 1 in 3 people crossing the border. So there’s very strong evidence that the numbers were much much higher back in the late ‘90s and early 2000s.

One thing you hear time and again from the right is that Democrats believe in open borders. And it’s true, you do hear some people talk about open borders. Is that a mistake?

I hear that a lot from Democrats actually.

I think we should think critically about why borders exist. There is tension with the concept that you get certain privileges and rights if you happen to be in Tijuana than if you are in Chula Vista (California), just a few miles away.

There’s a lot of good arguments when people say: ‘We would love to see people being able to live the way we think of in the U.S. of moving to another state.’ That’s not the reality we operate in today. We need to focus on what is the policy right now.

I say to Democrats … There’s no bill in Congress that says, ‘Let’s dismantle the borders.’ You’re not going to get to vote on that. But you are going to get to vote on the DREAM Act (allowing DACA recipients a path to citizenship).

What is the difference in the immigration landscape between when you first became executive director and now?

The good news is that I see so much optimism and hope because of the kind of leaders that have been emerging from the immigrant community itself. DACA was probably the most evident success story of immigrant rights leaders advocating for changes that actually became policy.

I’ve also seen big changes in Washington. The state and local immigrant rights movement have been successful in getting a lot of policies enacted like the Keep Washington Working Act (prohibiting local law enforcement officials from helping enforce federal immigration law), the Courts Open to All Act (limiting immigration arrests at courthouses) and the Washington Immigrant Relief Fund (for those shut out of other forms of COVID-19 relief because of their immigration status).

On the other hand, there’s been the political changes we talked about.

What’s the next frontier, statewise?

There’s two important things we are supporting. One is a bill to create a state unemployment insurance system for undocumented workers. There’s also an effort to increase health care protections for families that don’t qualify (for Medicaid) because of immigration status.

Washington passed a bill to close the immigrant detention center in Tacoma. The GEO Group (the private company running the facility) sued and said it would have to close in September 2021. That didn’t happen. What’s going on?

We’ve had some negative developments on that front. There was a similar bill — not identical but similar — that passed in California. GEO and the Trump administration sued. The initial ruling by the district court was against GEO and the Trump administration. But unfortunately they appealed those decisions. The Ninth Circuit (Court of Appeals) ruled California could not enact that law because it was interfering with federal responsibilities.

There are still some arguments as to why that policy could be found lawful in Washington. But that’s being litigated.

One thing I hear that surprises people — no matter how many times I write about it — is that just because you marry an American doesn’t mean you won’t be deported …

Or if you have U.S. citizen children.

Right. Is there something else you hear that always surprises people?

People assume if somebody is in danger in their home country, that’s going to be sufficient for them to be able to stay here. I often have to explain the nuances of asylum law. The reason you can be harmed is really critical. There are situations where you might be in danger because you pissed off the local drug cartel and they want to kill you. And you might have very good evidence. And the government might agree. But that’s not enough.

The reason you can be harmed needs to fit into one of those five boxes … race or ethnicity, nationality, religion or membership in a particular social group.

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