Beyond sanctuary: Use state policy to protect immigrants
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It’s hard to focus on patching up that leaky roof when your house is on fire. For immigrants or refugees and those who care about them, that’s how things have felt since even before the inauguration, the executive order banning travelers from 7 Muslim countries, or the recent deportation raids.

The advocacy response has largely focused on the sanctuary movement – students and faculty advocating for sanctuary campuses, mayors lining up to declare that their cities are sanctuary cities, and even Samantha Bee doing a segment on sanctuary cities.


However, the intense focus on sanctuary cities has distracted us from the many other strategies through which states can improve the lives of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States without necessarily getting into a legal tangle with the federal government.


In a recent study, we demonstrated that a state’s policy climate towards immigrants affects the mental health of all Latinos, regardless of their immigration status.

Our research showed that in states with a more exclusionary policy climate for immigrants (as measured by an index of 14 policies, including access to driver’s licenses, state-level versions of the DREAM Act and English-only laws), Latinos had more days of poor mental health.

Concretely, an unmarried, unemployed Latina in South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, or Alabama would have four more days of poor mental health compared to a similar Latina woman in New York, California, New Mexico.

Critically, the majority of these Latinos are citizens, people whose forebears were in the country long before mine schlepped through Ellis Island. And if that policy climate is toxic for all Latinos, it’s likely that much more noxious for the undocumented.

So, not surprisingly, a hostile policy climate makes people feel bad. But this is also an advocacy roadmap. Those 14 specific state-level policies could buffer the impact of the President’s anti-immigrant vitriol and policy actions.

The variability across states shows that change is possible: at least 12 states allow undocumented immigrants to obtain some form of a driver’s license or permit. Having a driver’s license means that a routine traffic stop for a busted taillight need not lead to deportation; it means access to jobs, health services, and supermarkets. (It also means that people on the roads will have taken a driving test and bought car insurance, so that’s a win for everyone). The twelve states that have passed legislation have all managed to do so, in different ways, without running afoul of federal laws. New York State has pending legislation right now, introduced by Assemblyman Francisco Moya (D-N.Y.), to permit the undocumented to secure driver’s licenses.

Laws regarding agricultural labor, which were also in our index, provide another state-level route to improving the lives of our most vulnerable neighbors.

The exclusion of agricultural workers dates back to FDR’s deal with Southern Democrats, securing their support for the National Labor Relations Act by leaving out two categories of workers who, at that time, were mostly Black.

This legacy of the Jim Crow South means that to this day many of the agricultural workers in the United States, three out of four of whom are from Mexico (with about 1 out of every four being undocumented), do not have the same rights as other workers. As with driver’s licenses, our research found that the inclusion of agricultural workers in state minimum wage laws and their eligibility for worker’s compensation were associated with better mental health for Latinos. Again, there is actual pending legislation on this: the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act, sponsored by newly-elected New York State Assemblywoman Marisol Alcantara (D-Manhattan).

There is a moral argument for these policies: Latino immigrants sustain our food system, and it is the rankest hypocrisy to enjoy the fruits of their labor without doing what we can to make sure that they can walk the streets without fear. But if that doesn’t move you, consider the multiple ways in which these legislative changes would improve all of our lives.

Our research found that an exclusionary policy environment affected everyone’s mental health – not just Latinos. Moreover, millions of American citizen children live in fear of losing a parent to deportation: the Pew Hispanic Center estimates that 350,000 babies born are in the United States each year who have one parent who is undocumented. Or if cold cost-benefit is all that moves you, consider the analysis that suggested that passage of New York's driver's license bill would produce $57 million in state revenue.

This is the moment to push our elected officials hard to do more than grandstand. Governor Cuomo recently announced a plan to increase access to college in New York State, but real leadership would include guaranteeing in-state tuition and loans to students regardless of documentation status. He was quick after Nov. 8 to stand up and declare New York State a safe haven for immigrants – but the proof will be whether he uses his political muscle to pass the driver’s license legislation.

And he was all too ready, last year, to remind us that New York is a state where all workers deserve equal protection under the law, but apparently it’s one thing to say that about nail salon workers — where there is no organized opposition to their protection — and apparently quite another when you are talking about farmworkers, whose right to equal protection is opposed by New York State’s powerful Farm Bureau.

Our house is, of course, actually on fire – just ask Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos’ children: she went in for her routine annual check with the immigration authorities, as she had been doing without event for the past eight years, only to be deported.

Even those who had felt some measure of safety under President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals may, apparently, no longer be safe from the reach of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. However, as liberals awaken to the possibility of a states’ rights strategy to mitigate the potential harms of Trump’s domestic policy agenda, we need to think audaciously about how to use this moment.

Enduring the Trump administration, however long it lasts, will require facing it neither as a sprint nor a marathon, but rather as a multi-event relay. Some of us will be out in the streets, using our bodies and voices and signs to demonstrate outrage and solidarity, throwing buckets of water on whatever seems most on fire.

Some of us will be working to rebuild from the ground up, with an eye towards flipping Congress, taking back Governors’ mansions, and even unseating a spineless Senator or two.

But as the tweets roll, the rumors spin, and Trump fulminates, others of us should be working, policy by policy, to build an America where the roof provides equal shelter to all, and where those whose labor puts food on our tables can drive to the supermarket for a quart of milk without fearing that they’ll never see their kids again.

Jennifer S. Hirsch is professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health and former fellow of the Op-Ed project Public Voices Fellowship.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.