By Gardenia Casillas, Maria-Elena Young, and Daniel Madrigal
Joaquin Luna came to the US as an infant. In high school he began applying to college with a dream of becoming an architect or civil engineer. In his application he is confronted with many questions: Are you a US citizen? No. A Resident? No. Social Security number? None. The pressure to support his family through an education and not being able to afford it are overwhelming. At 18 he takes his own life.
José Antonio Elena Rodríguez walks along the US-Mexico border in Nogales, Mexico. At the same time local US Border Patrol agents are chasing two drug dealers. In the chaos, the agents fire several shots towards the border. Six bullets tear through his body, leaving him dead.
Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez, a pregnant 17-year old pruned vineyards in Lodi, CA. One particularly hot day, the sun is too much. She loses consciousness into the arms of her fiancée who works with her. The job did not provide basic safety protections including drinking water, shade, or training on how to deal with heat. She dies of heat stroke.
As public health professionals our goal is to keep people healthy and we often believe that everyone has the right to be healthy – that neither a person’s race, gender, nor socioeconomic status should be a predisposition to good health. There are many factors that prevent this ideal from being attained. Sometimes, laws and policies are the factors that prevent good health. US immigration policy is one example of a factor that creates an underclass of people with fewer rights, fewer resources, and less safety. Joaquin, Jose and Maria are victims of US immigration policy.
On a daily basis, immigration policy shapes the social and political environments in which immigrants and their families live. Yet, as the public debate over immigration continues, rarely do we hear discussion of the enormous impact of immigration policy on the health of immigrants. Policies influence the circumstances of immigrant’s lives, specifically their rights, resources, and safety. Take a minute to answer the following questions for yourself:
> Can immigrants access appropriate and affordable health care services?
> Are there protections for the rights of immigrant workers to ensure fair wages and safe workplaces?
> Are immigrant children able to attend schools and universities?
> Do immigrants feel respected and safe in their communities?
All of these questions are decided by specific federal, state, and local policies that expand or limit the rights and resources that determine the opportunities for immigrants and their families, as well as their overall safety in this nation as they pursue those opportunities. When protective factors – such as access to health and educational services – align, immigrants will experience greater health and well-being. The lack of any or all three of these, such as limited access to employment and educational opportunities, stress and fear due to discrimination and anti-immigrant legislation, or vulnerability to violence, result in significant health risks.
On April 17th, 2013, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 was officially introduced in the United States Senate. This bill, if passed, would significantly change our current immigration policy context. It has the potential to offer a pathway, albeit a long one, to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the US. However, it also introduces harsh enforcement measures, such as increased militarization of the US-Mexico border and mandatory implementation of an electronic employment verification system. The National Immigrant Law Center provides an excellent overview and analysis on their website.
Immigration policy is health policy, and those interested in working to create healthy and strong communities should pay attention. Given the potential positive and negative impacts of the proposed immigration bill, this is the time for public health professionals to be active in the policy process, making critical assessments of how existing and proposed policies may protect or harm the health of our nation’s immigrants!
Creating just policies that provide a pathway to citizenship will provide immigrants with rights, resources, and safety. It means that undocumented individuals and their family members will be able to live without being afraid that their immigration status will backfire and that they will be deported. It means that undocumented students no longer have to hide in the shadows, it means that farm workers will be able to bargain wages sitting as equals at the negotiation table, it means that youth and community members will be able to stand up against toxic hazards.
Fortunately, the Bay Area is a hub of activity with many passionate individuals fighting for a more equal system. We encourage you to stand in solidarity with immigrants is to finally address the systemic exclusion. First, on Wednesday May 1st, there will be a large parade winding through Oakland. It will start at Fruitvale BART Station at 3:30pm.. The second event will be a 5k Run/Walk for Migrant Justice put on by 67 Sueños, a youth led organization out of Oakland. The event will take place May 4th at 11AM at Lake Merritt’s at the Pergola. For more details check out run.67suenos.org.
If you think the system is unfair, unjust, and unhealthy, come out to support the movement for equity. Let your voice be heard!