August 29, 2019

Student-led Immigration and Labor Project Fights for Immigrant Justice in DC

Georgetown students working with the university's Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor (KI) played a major role in the DC Mayor's Office's approving a huge increase in its Immigrant Justice Legal Services (IJLS) grant program.

ILP members testify in front of DC Councilmember Brandon Todd.
ILP members testify in front of DC Councilmember Brandon Todd.

Founded by DC Mayor Muriel Bowser in 2017, the IJLS program funds vital legal services for DC’s immigrant community.

After ILP students attended local budget forums as part of an immigrant rights coalition with other organizations in the DC area, Mayor Muriel Bowser approved an increase in IJLS funding from $900,000 to $2.5 million.

“IJLS allows legal service providers to apply and provide services to immigration communities, which we see as a huge and growing need,” said Juan Belman, program manager of the KI. “And that was one of our goals, not only to increase it, but also to make it accessible to people going through deportation proceedings. Many times immigrants do not have the resources to pay an attorney for their legal cases that at times take several years to conclude.”

‘A Living Issue’

The Kalmanovitz Initiative was founded at Georgetown in 2009 as a vehicle for engagement with workers’ rights and the labor movement.

The Immigration and Labor Project (ILP), a program of the KI, advocates for immigrant and workers’ rights on Georgetown’s campus and in the greater DC area.

ILP started as a program focused on empowering day laborers and addressing the rights issues they faced. Since its start, ILP has expanded to encompass research, grassroots organizing, and advocacy on issues that affect low-income immigrant communities in DC.

“The students who have gotten involved with the ILP recognize that the immigration issue isn't confined to our border, it is a living issue here in our own community as immigrants struggle to make better lives for their families,” says Joseph McCartin, executive director of the KI. “The students are living out Georgetown's call to be women and men for others in a special--and in these days, vitally important—way.”

ILP members with the DC immigrant rights coalition.
ILP members with the DC immigrant rights coalition.

Driven by Students

ILP comprises the KI program manager, project coordinator, and a small team of student coordinators. Members participate in local budget forums, host events for on-campus workers, join tenant rallies, and testify in front of the DC Council on immigration-related issues.

Students are essential to the conversation and the execution of ILP projects.

“Juan and I think of ourselves as facilitators,” said KI project coordinator Alex Taliadoros. “Students are coming from different places with a lot of lived experience on immigration and work, so they have a strong sense of how these issues impact people, how to talk about it, and which issues matter most.”

“The way that ILP is set up is that the students drive the programming with help from the KI to realize said projects,” said Mizraim Belman (SFS’20). “I remember coming onto the team my first year and right away being able to bring in my ideas and experiences as an undocumented immigrant to see how we can best support the immigrant community on campus and in DC”

A Local Approach to a Global Conflict

Immigration is a global issue, but ILP approaches immigration on a local level.

“It brings you closer to the community. It’s less abstract,” explained Taliadoros. “You’re meeting the people who are being evicted, you’re meeting the people who are worried about ICE coming, you’re meeting the workers fighting for a living wage. The personal connection makes the work so much more meaningful and durable—that’s why the focus is so local.”

In April, ILP members testified at the DC Council budget hearing chaired by Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd to ask for the IJLS program to fund legal services for DC residents who have been detained by ICE. After their testimony, they teamed up with DC immigration advocates to encourage other councilmembers to support this expansion of the fund’s reach.

“There hasn’t been comprehensive immigration reform on the federal level in Congress in 43 years,” said Taliadoros. “But here, a student can sign up a couple days in advance and be face-to-face with a Councilmember who will decide how millions of dollars will be spent for a major policy that will change people’s lives.”

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