Both the federal government and the state of Massachusetts are waging a heartless war on immigrants. While the Trump administration actively blocks asylum seekers, imprisons families, deports unaccompanied children, and withholds Covid-19 protections and CARES Act benefits, our state legislature has dragged its feet in allowing undocumented resident immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. A safe communities bill that would respect the human rights of migrants and ensure due process for all immigrants has languished in the State House. Yet now, more than ever, is a time for action.
Federal. Repeating last year’s family separations at the border by another means, a new Trump policy presents detained families with a Hobson’s choice: surrender your child by signing an English language-only form or subject him or her to continued incarceration while the lethal virus runs rampant. If the parent consents, the child will be sent alone to another location for caretaking. Such a separation would again likely cause toxic stress and severe trauma. Not consenting condemns the child (along with the parents) to continued incarceration in unsanitary prisons, many operated by for-profit corporations that fail to provide adequate blankets and hygienic supplies.
Violating both national and international law, the CDC has indefinitely extended (on the pretext of the pandemic) its order to expel migrants at the border — increasing the numbers of those mired in squalid conditions on the Mexico side. Now, as reported by the New York Times, unaccompanied children as young as 10 are being deported alone “without the opportunity to speak to a social worker or plea for asylum from the violence in their home countries.”
State. While federal policymakers condone immoral attacks on immigrants, Massachusetts continues to practice harmful inaction. After failing to give the bill a favorable report last session, the Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security is stalled in considering the Safe Community Act (S.1401/H.3573), which was re-introduced in the current session. Notwithstanding several public hearings, the support of many state law enforcement officials, and the negotiation of amendments, it has been delayed twice — first, awaiting amendments, and now because the coronavirus has disrupted State House operations.
The Safe Community Act would protect due process, limit notifications to ICE, and outlaw 287(g) agreements, which allow state and county personnel to act as federal immigration agents at taxpayers’ expense. It needs a favorable report from the committee by June 1 to get to the next step. The problem: the House, where the Outer Cape’s own Sarah Peake holds a leadership position, is apparently reluctant to see this bill get out of committee.
Ironically, it is the virus that makes passage of this bill more pressing than ever. First, as the committee heard from immigrant survivors, abusers use the threat of deportation to oppress their victims. Under Covid-19 stay-at-home orders, domestic violence has spiked, and a study from Utah State University shows that so-called sanctuary policies are effective at reducing domestic homicide. Second, the risks of packing people into detention centers are clear. Our own sheriff’s referrals to ICE were up 30 percent in 2019, according to his website. And most people taken into detention of late are arrested for traffic infractions like driving without a license. Now’s the time to release people who pose no threat to public safety, not send them to prison.
The Work and Family Mobility Act (H.3012/S.2061) is another case of State House inaction — this one dating back over a decade. Resident immigrants who lack the required documentation cannot obtain a driver’s license. For most of the undocumented, this means no grocery shopping and no transport to job or school or the doctor.
Without legal access to a motor vehicle, many of the 255,000 undocumented residents in the state must rely on inadequate or nonexistent public transportation or risk driving without a license (which usually means without passing driving and rules-of-the-road tests). Or it means driving in fear that an accident, a minor infraction, or nothing more than having dark skin will prompt a traffic officer to report the unlicensed driver to ICE, possibly resulting in deportation and family separation.
The driving law would benefit all state residents during the current pandemic, since private car transport limits exposure to the virus. And when immigrants are properly licensed and insured, they make the roads safer for everyone. Sixteen U.S. states have already enacted work and mobility laws. Now it’s time for Massachusetts to follow suit.
After years of public hearings and committee debate, and the endorsement of a coalition of more than 300 mostly nonprofit organizations (including the Cape Cod Coalition for Safe Communities), several district attorneys, chiefs of police, and legislators, the bill has finally cleared the Senate Transportation Committee and now awaits Ways and Means action.
We cannot expect action without raising our voices. With strong voter advocacy, Congress can impose limits on federal immigrant abuses and Beacon Hill can pass the SCA and driver’s license bills.
Michael Hager of Eastham is cofounder and former director general of the International Development Law Organization in Rome. Mark Gabriele leads the Cape Cod Coalition for Safe Communities.