© 2021 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Government, Politics & Issues

Advocates for immigrants, refugees lobby Missouri lawmakers

Krissy Lane | St. Louis Public Radio

Updated at 8 p.m. with Senate giving first approval to immigration bill — Advocates for immigrants and refugees in Missouri have more on their minds than the revised executive order President Donald Trump put out this week suspending the U.S. refugee program indefinitely.

They also have to monitor the Missouri legislature, which is considering at least one bill that advocates say would make life more uncertain for immigrants and refugees. That’s why roughly 60 people traveled from St. Louis and Kansas City to the Capitol to lobby lawmakers Tuesday.

“They are not here just to take jobs, they’re not here for handouts, they’re actually fleeing – they’re here for security,” said Marie-Aimee Abizera, the executive director of Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates, or MIRA. “The thought that they could come as terrorists when they’re fleeing terrorism is kind of insulting.”

Abizera, 34, and her family fled Rwanda in 1994 to escape the genocide that was ravaging the country.

The advocates who traveled to Jefferson City broke into smaller groups and fanned out through the Capitol. They had an easier time talking to Democratic lawmakers, who support their efforts.

Their intended targets, Republicans, proved to be more elusive. Most of the GOP lawmakers they sought were either in committee meetings or “out to lunch,” they said legislative staffers told them. In those cases, they left fliers containing their arguments against the bill.

MIRA and other immigrant advocacy groups specifically lobbied against Senate Bill 34 on Tuesday. That measure, which is expected to be debated on the Senate floor soon, would make it a felony to enter Missouri illegally.

In short, any immigrant who is deported, re-enters the U.S. and Missouri and then commits another crime while here would be guilty of illegal re-entry. The proposed law would also apply to any immigrant in the U.S. illegally who commits a similar crime in another state and then enters Missouri.

The bill received first-round approval from the Senate on Tuesday night, and needs another vote by the full chamber before moving over to the Missouri House. It’s sponsored by Sen. Mike Cunningham, R-Rogersville.

“There are illegals that are committing felonies in the United States, and I’d just assume they weren’t committing them in Missouri,” he said. “We’re talking about the worst of the worst, the scum of the earth that commits these felonies … it does not affect any other illegals other than the ones that commit dangerous felonies.”

Joan Suarez, MIRA’s founding board chair, wants lawmakers to drop the bill.


“It’s bad enough that we have to now deal with President Trump on immigration, just leave the issue alone,” Suarez said.  “It is a federal issue, it’s always been a federal issue – they don’t need to double-down on this kind of nonsense.”

Abizera added: “If this bill passes the Senate and the House, it’s going to be challenged on the Supreme Court level. Not only is that a waste of time, but it’s also a waste of our tax money.”

Advocates also expressed concern about Trump’s order, which bans immigrants from six predominantly Muslim countries – Iran, Libya, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen – from entering the United States for a 90-day period, beginning next week. It also suspends the country’s refugee program indefinitely.

“This is going to threaten family reunifications,” Abizera said. “Very few refugees come here as a unit – my father came first and we joined him two years later.”

One Republican, Sen. Dave Schatz, of Sullivan, agreed to meet with one of the groups.  Sara John of St. Louis spoke for them; in addition to volunteering with MIRA, she’s the program coordinator for the St. Louis Inter-Faith Committee on Latin America.

Credit Marshall Griffin | St. Louis Public Radio
Left to right: Joan Suarez, founding board chair of Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates, and MIRA executive director Maria-Aimee Abizera.

“It feels very important and urgent to me … because we do have immigrants in your district,” she told Schatz about the bill. “They pray in the same churches as we do, and they go to school where our kids go to school. Help me understand why this bill sounds like a good idea to you.”

Schatz replied that the bill deals with immigrants who are also criminals.

“The people you’re talking about, if they don’t fall in that category, I don’t think they have anything to fear,” he said. “It’s the bad actors is what we’re talking about, and I don’t know why anybody would be opposed to deporting those bad actors.”

John also expressed concern about language that would require city and county jailers to transfer custody of arrestees to federal immigration authorities as soon as possible. She suggested it could threaten their right to due process in Missouri.

Schatz noted that the same bill was filed last year because Cunningham felt that former Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, was “doing a good enough job to address the issue.”

Krissy Lane contributed to this report.

Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter: @MarshallGReport

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.