“The allure of refuge cities doesn’t exist”

Wed, 26/06/2019 - 18:01


Interview. We spoke to Lorena González, a councillor on Seattle City Council (USA), a focus of resistance to Trump’s policies on migration.

Lorena González was the first Latin American woman to be elected as a councillor for Seattle City Council, which is how she proudly introduces herself on the Seattle council website.

A lawyer by profession, she is now involved in representing the city’s most vulnerable citizens, of diverse origins, thanks to her role as the chair of the Standing Committee for Gender Equity, Safe Communities, New Americans and Education. We met her during the Cities for Rights International Conference held in Barcelona in December 2018, marking the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She was at the conference to present a pioneering experience from her city: a social defence bonus for migrants facing deportation. We spoke to her again to get more details on this and other municipal support policies for migrants and refugees.

One of your responsibilities at Seattle City Council relates to ‘New Americans’. How did you first start working in the area of migrants and refugees?

A was born in the USA but to Mexican parents. They got here and spent a few years with no papers and I clearly remember from my childhood how the lack of papers made things difficult. That’s one of the reasons I started my political career as an activist defending the rights of migrants and refugees. In this respect, my contribution from the City Council is to give these groups a voice and support them with policies that make life a bit easier for them.

Most people had no lawyers with them when they went to the hearing to decide if they’d be deported or not. As a result, they were much more likely to lose

Is the support programme for the legal defence of migrants and refugees one of these protection policies for ‘new citizens’?

Yes, it’s a programme which offers legal support from lawyers for people at risk of being deported. Based on a study we saw that most people had no lawyers with them when they went to the hearing to decide if they’d be deported or not. As a result, they were much more likely to lose (twice as likely). Right now, the number of people who have received advice is 700, of more than 60 different nationalities.

How many of these migrants request international protection?

Around 50%, mostly from Central America, people from El Salvador and Honduras in the main, but there are also a lot of people arriving from Africa now. They enter the country legally, with a tourist visa and on other programmes not related to asylum, and once the programme finishes they don’t think they can go back to their country because of the trauma or risk involved. That’s when they’re advised by their lawyers to seek international protection.

What chance do asylum seekers have of being granted refugee status?

Not much, but there’s an even bigger problem before applying. The Trump administration has a strategy of using red tape to block the process, meaning it takes up to 18 months just to get a first appointment to request asylum, pitching thousands of lives into an abyss of deportation during that waiting time. If somebody comes up against an immigration officer, the fact they’ve asked for an appointment holds no sway.

What does the City Council do in these cases? Why is Seattle a ‘sanctuary’ city along with Los Angeles, New York and other cities in the USA?

Following on from the last question, while they wait for their first appointment, the City Council is responsible for seeing that their children can go to a publicly run school, that people’s labour rights are not being violated and for integrating these families in community life as far as is possible. The latter is very important to be able to work with those most at risk and to gather data so that the government can gauge the scale of the situation.

In any event, I should point out that even before we were on the municipal government team, Seattle was already offering universal access to all council services regardless of people’s administrative situation.

You belong to a network of progressive municipal posts. What does that network consist of?

When Trump started threatening ‘sanctuary’ cities with a squeeze on funding we got organised in different municipalities and we brought a case against him. The federal court had the final say, telling us we were right and recognising that we can’t be denied funding on the basis of what types of policies we implement with migrants and refugees.

Do you think services offered to migrants by sanctuary and refuge cities have an alluring effect?

Migrants move from one place to another for various reasons, the most important being the existence of a community, relatives or more extensive groups in the place of arrival. The quantity of support is not a relevant factor, simply because they’re not in a position to make any sort of comparison.

Women councillors are in the majority and that obviously leads to a certain bias towards more feminist policies

Seattle’s city government has a Democratic Party majority, with a big women’s presence. Does that shape policies?

Indeed, the mayor is a woman and so are six of us councillors. That obviously leads to a certain bias towards more feminist policies, such as the introduction of a more political stance on care work. I can give you a specific example: childcare is very expensive in our city (over 30% of family income) and at the City Council we’re implementing measures to help working class people access nursery schools. Another example is we’re very active in promoting policies that ensure gender equity for wages and preventing or reducing the wage gap.

What policies have you been responsible for? As a democrat, as a civil rights lawyer?

There’s no paid maternity leave in the USA, neither for women nor for men. Just non-paid leave which is granted by federal law, but which is difficult for people to take because they’re not earning. That really goes against workers with few resources. Last year I worked jointly with the community and other stakeholders to put pressure on the State of Washington to provide economic support for some specific collectives. And we did it! For 12 weeks a woman (or a man) has a right to receive benefit equivalent to 100% of their wages.

We also passed an equality law for Seattle: companies or human resources staff are not allowed to ask interviewees how much they expect to earn, because it has been shown that women always ask for less.

At a municipal level there are lots of things which can be done to mitigate vulnerability and defencelessness in the face of anti-immigration laws and policies by governments

How do you see the role of cities in the struggle for human rights?

At a municipal level there are lots of things which can be done to mitigate vulnerability and defencelessness in the face of anti-immigration laws and policies by governments. We have to regain power to move towards a shared vision of economic prosperity, the equality of justice under the law, of liveable and sustainable communities and good governance to serve people’s interests.

We still have a lot of work to do in Seattle, particularly if Trump wins a second term, but I’m very optimistic. The migrant and refugee community is strong and I believe our policies make sense and end up helping people.


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