Hundreds attend immigration event in Cooperstown

Erin Jerome | The Daily StarSUNY Oneonta student Jessica Soriano, 23, writes down her contact information for upcoming immigration events and volunteer efforts at the First Presbyterian Church of Cooperstown Sunday.

Ninety-three percent of people working on upstate dairy farms are undocumented immigrants, according to a study released in June by The Worker Justice Center of New York, Workers’ Center of Central New York and partners.

That statistic was shared by Beth Lyon, clinical professor at Cornell Law School, at a presentation on “The Immigrant Crisis in our Communities” at the First Presbyterian Church of Cooperstown on Sunday. Three experts on immigration law gave presentations to a crowd of about 200 at the church, offering perspectives on immigration issues, informed by their practices and activism.

“The cases we are talking about today, there’s no question that they are meritorious cases,” said organizer and attorney Faith Gay. She said she received about 20 phone calls in the days leading up to the event from people with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status who were seeking advice. Lawyers were available for counseling and questions after the event, and Gay said First Presbyterian was working on becoming a sanctuary church.

Enforcement is still politically popular over protection when it comes to federal immigration law, said Lyon, touching on the unavailability of work visas and difficulties in attaining citizenship.

Looking at immigration issues through “big data,” the type that the Department of Homeland Security began collecting after the September 11 attacks, is essential, Albany lawyer Barbara Brenner said. There is no opportunity for many immigrants to regularize their status in the United States, with scores of people waiting to attain a green card or naturalization in a system that can take decades, she said.

“When people talk about getting in line, they really don’t know what they’re talking about,” Brenner said.

DACA, which doesn’t provide a pathway to citizenship, shouldn’t be described as amnesty because of its restrictions, she said. With President Donald Trump’s action to repeal the program by next year, the status of 790,000 people who have received its protections since 2012 is in question.

“America wants to hire low-wage workers who are afraid to assert their rights,” said Lyon, who founded a legal clinic at Cornell to provide pro bono representation for farm workers.

It’s a unique program, Gay said; first-rate law schools don’t do rural legal practice.

Attendees included attorneys interested in doing pro bono work on immigration cases. Nicholas Tishler of Schenectady County took on a case for the Department of Homeland Security in March, assisting a woman whose husband remains in detention. Tishler came to the event to see how the panel would approach the topic, and will be speaking soon on immigration issues to a group called Progressive Schenectady.

Students and faculty from area colleges also lingered after presentations to leave their contact information for future immigration events and discuss local issues with the attorneys. Jessica Soriano came with a professor and students from the State University College at Oneonta’s Assistant Migrant Program, a mentor and scholarship program for children of migrant farm workers. The senior is a recipient of the scholarship, double-majoring in psychology and Spanish, and she assists with language classes.

There are 8 million undocumented workers in the United States, according to a 2014 report from the Pew Research Center.

The first round table at the church was intended to broadly inform rather than springboard local organizing, Gay said.

“Everyone wrings their hands over the situation. We wanted to help people learn about the framework and ways to volunteer,” Gay said.   

Erin Jerome, staff writer, may be reached at (607) 441-7221, or at ejerome@thedailystar.com. Follow her on Twitter at @DS_ErinJ.

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