Monday, March 6, 2023
Ana Rodriguez Soto - Florida Catholic newspaper
MIAMI | Calling today’s immigrants and refugees the “modern-day Lazarus,” Archbishop Thomas Wenski reminded an audience at a local town hall that the rich man in the parable didn’t go to hell because he was corrupt or did anything bad.
“He went to hell because he didn’t see Lazarus on his doorstep,” the archbishop said. “This is our brother, our sister. We have to see the modern-day Lazarus.”
The Miami Herald convened the town hall Feb. 23, 2023 to reflect on “Crisis in the Caribbean: The impact on South Florida.” (Watch the livestream here: http://bit.ly/3SMn9Wy.)
Archbishop Wenski was one of five panelists, all deemed experts on immigration, who discussed the crisis in light of South Florida’s history, the current reality at the local, state and federal levels, and the added crises of inflation and lack of affordable housing.
Reuben Rojas, refugee resettlement outreach manager for Church World Service, characterized the combination of increased immigration from Haiti, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, combined with several years of funding cuts for refugee resettlement agencies, the effects of the pandemic, and smaller numbers of Afghans and Ukrainians who also are resettling here, “a perfect storm... It’s crisis on top of crisis. That’s a lot of rain for a resilient city.”
But the word “crisis” may not mean what it used to in South Florida.
“If you want to call it a crisis, it’s a quiet crisis,” Archbishop Wenski said, noting that for this tropical paradise “surrounded by islands of pain,” it’s merely history repeating itself.
“What we have now is a greater number of Cubans coming than came during Mariel,” the archbishop said, while the number of Haitians is similar to 50 years ago.
In 1980, the influx of Haitians and 125,000 Cubans combined with simmering ethnic and racial tensions to spawn riots.
“The community was really shaken to its core,” Archbishop Wenski said. Today, South Florida is handling the latest influx “with a certain amount of equanimity.”
“We are not seeing any type of overwhelming of county services,” said panelist Johanna Cervone, chief of staff for Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava.
The lack of affordable housing “would be a challenge even if we didn’t see this uptick in immigration,” Cervone added. “That is a crisis that would be happening no matter what.”
She referred to Miami-Dade County as “a welcoming community” where “50 percent of our population is actually foreign-born.” Because of that, the region has “a lot of systems in place” to deal with immigrant influxes “quickly and with compassion,” she said.
Among those systems is the Office of New Americans, started by Mayor Levine Cava when she was a county commissioner to help eligible immigrants apply for citizenship. The office, now part of the county, has expanded its role to serve as “a convener and coordinator” between the county and non-profit organizations that work with immigrants, Cervone said. It also provides trustworthy information and referrals to immigrants, who often fall prey to misinformation conveyed through social media and scammers within their own immigrant communities.
Still, “this moment is different,” said Krystina Francois, who used to direct the Office of New Americans and now serves as co-director of CUSP (Communities United for Status and Protection), a national collective of Black, Arab and Asian immigrant rights groups.
“We’re operating with our hands tied behind our back,” she said, because the refugee resettlement system has been “broken for six years, severely defunded.” That forced many major agencies to shut down while those who survived are working with less staff and less funding.
She also noted that “we’re operating in a very hostile state,” where over the past three years, legislation has been introduced to “criminalize the very act of empathy toward immigrants.”
South Florida’s “vast diaspora” however, has helped the area absorb the new arrivals and come up with innovative ways of welcoming them. “I feel hopeful about the South Florida model which has really been a model for the country,” Francois said.
Another panelist, Guerline Jozef, founder and executive director of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, said rather than a silent crisis this is a “silenced crisis.” The Bridge Alliance is the only Haitian American-led organization serving migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Immigrants are facing “such a hostile environment,” even from some of their countrymen who were immigrants themselves not long ago, that “sometimes you just have to keep your head down and do what needs to be done because it’s a matter of life and death,” Jozef said.
“We like going under the radar screen so as not to poke the bear of anti-immigrant sentiment that we know is out there in this country,” agreed Archbishop Wenski.
Whether the crisis continues to be a “quiet” or “silenced” one will depend on “reasons beyond our control,” he said, referring to the policies being implemented by the federal government – and the continued lack of action on immigration from Congress.
All the panelists agreed that work permits are key to ensuring a smooth transition for the newly arrived. The status they are given upon entering the country means some are not eligible, but even those who are eligible face long months waiting for the permits to be issued.
“These people need to be able to work and work legally,” Archbishop Wenski said, noting the dire need for workers throughout the U.S., especially in the service sector.
He joined the other panelists in pointing out that those coming through the border are not “illegal” but simply have “irregular status.”
“They were admitted. The federal government waved them through,” the archbishop said. “It’s unconscionable that they would do that and at the same time not give them the means to support themselves.”
Work permits also lessen the strain on any particular city, because “once people get their permits, they will go where the jobs are,” added Archbishop Wenski. “They’ll distribute themselves across the country.”
Jozef stressed the need to “move away from the negative part of the narrative” and highlight that new immigrants who are allowed work pay taxes and pay into Social Security.
“They are funding the federal government with their tax dollars as well,” she said.
FAST FACTS ON IMMIGRANTS
The following statistics were cited by CBS4 anchor Elliot Rodriguez, who was serving as moderator of the panel discussion on “Crisis in the Caribbean: the impact on South Florida.”
- 221,000 encounters with Cubans at the southern border in the last fiscal year (October 2021-September 2022)
- 54,000 encounters with Haitians at the southern border in the last fiscal year
- 6,182 Cubans apprehended at sea in the last fiscal year; 5,300 Cubans apprehended at sea since October 2022
- 7,000 Haitians apprehended at sea in the last fiscal year; 2,000 Haitians apprehended at sea so far this year
According to research released by Miami-Dade County’s Office of New Americans in August 2021:
- Without immigrants, the county’s total population would have shrunk by 2.5% between 2015 and 2019. Instead, total population grew by 1.8% and its immigrant population grew by 8.4 percent. As of 2019, immigrants made up 54.7% of the total population.
- In 2019, immigrants held close to $33.9 billion in disposable income, or 60.3% of the county’s total spending power.
- The foreign-born contributed $4.3 billion to Social Security and $1.1 billion to Medicare in 2019.
- Despite making up 54.7% of the overall population, immigrants represented 65% of the employed labor force in Miami-Dade in 2019. Immigrant residents also made up 86.4% of agriculture, 76.9% of manufacturing, and 61.5% of STEM workers.
- Immigrants represented 73.9% of the entrepreneurs in the county in 2019. About 145,100 immigrant individuals worked for their own businesses, generating $2.9 billion in business income.
- In 2019, 13,394 students enrolled in colleges and universities in Miami-Dade County were immigrants. International students in Miami-Dade County helped support 4,627 jobs and contributed over $424 million to the local economy in 2019-20 alone.