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2014: The fight for just immigration policies continues

11 Jan

On December 3, 2013, a group of activists, including labor leader Eliseo Medina, ended a 22-day fast on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The closing of this fast marked an official end to the legislative efforts of 2013 to pass an immigration reform bill.  Despite powerful acts of protest and activism in support of policies that might improve the well-being of immigrant communities, the year resulted in many disappointments.src.adapt.960.high.1381527192055

Despite the historic passage  in June of a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the Senate, which included provisions for a path to citizenship, it would have also ramped up enforcement and border militarization.  In the second half of the year, the Republican leaders of the House continued to drag their feet, giving lip service to both their conservative base and the rising Latino and Asian electorate.  Instead of taking up the Senate bill, the House leaders introduced (and, fortunately, failed to pass) many piecemeal bills, such as the KIDS Act, SAFE Act and Border Security Results Act, that came far short of achieving justice for undocumented immigrants.

As in previous years, there were a very high number of deportations in 2013, reaching nearly 2 million since President Obama took office. A recent New York Times article helped bring attention to the many struggles that families continue to face as a result of the deportation of a family member.  These deportations have become a the central and incredibly harmful component of our nation’s immigration policy.  Yet, President Obama continues to claim that he lacks the power to halt deportations, despite the mounting demands that he exercise his executive power.

On a more positive note, 2013 was the first full year of implementation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy.  Reports indicate that many eligible young people have yet to apply, indicating that outreach efforts and legal clinics in 2014 will be critical to ensure all who are eligible can apply.  Data as of August 31, 2013 indicate that about 567,500 people, only about 52 percent of the eligible, had applied, with significant differences across different ethnic groups and immigrants in each state.

As the fight for immigration reform continues, the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) tumbles along. The latest development for the ACA has been the online health care marketplace, Each new provision is a political battle, with talking heads making predictions of the impending success or doom of the ACA.  While the ACA is touted as a policy that will bring health care access to millions of Americans, its exclusion of many immigrants will not only harm their health, but the well-being of the entire nation. Legal permanent residents are included in the new system of health insurance options, with burdensome barriers. Undocumented individuals and those who have received DACA, however, are not eligible.

As a result, access to health care will continue to be a major problem for the health of immigrants. For example, Mexican immigrants have the highest rate of uninsurance at 13%.  Now under the ACA, Latino’s are enrolling at lower rates than other racial groups. This may be due to reports of mixed-status families avoiding government programs for fear that they may be entangled with ICE.

Although access to health care is lower for immigrants, there are counties in California where all people have the right to access health care. Progressive counties like San Francisco have a health care system that gives access to all, whereas other counties, such as Fresno, provide health care to a smaller proportion of their population. The evolving and varied landscape of health coverage can be demonstrated by the report from the Health Access Foundation ”California’s Uneven Safety Net: A Survey of County Health Care.” The report describes access to healthcare for undocumented immigrants in counties throughout California. In each county the complex systems of care are the result of political battles over inclusion of undocumented individuals in public programs.

Immigrant’s rights battles will continue in 2014

Political battles to include all immigrants, regardless of legal status, are critical to ensure that individuals benefit from public programs such as the ACA, and are included in all aspects of national life – from the workplace, to schools, to communities.  Indeed, it was the many movements and protests of 2013 that give us hope for 2014.  One journalist titled 2013 The Year of the Immigrant Rights Movement.

The year’s bold activists, including the Washington Mall hunger strikers, did much of their work outside of the halls of Congress, taking their message directly to the source to critique the injustice of not creating a path to citizenship and the deportation industrial complex.  In the California Central Valley, immigrants protested weekly outside of the home office of House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy.  One protest included a sit-in by women whose presence forced the Representative and his wife to eventually show face and meet with them.  Protests sprung up around the nation after a group in Tucson used their bodies to stop a bus filled with individuals en route to deportation. Other protests sprung up in San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles.  Finally, a brave group of youth, the Dream 9, attempted to enter the country (after leaving or having been deported).  This act of civil disobedience highlighted the injustice of deportation, the border, and the lack of citizenship.  While these actions did not show immediate results at the national level, state legislation in California, for example, moved to ameliorate the challenges that immigrants face because of federal policies.

New research will advance the health of immigrants

In 2013, the scientific literature on immigration status as a social determinant of health saw tremendous growth. One big problem with the public health literature concerning immigrants, and specifically undocumented immigrants, is the focus on access to health care. Here we have selected a few examples of articles that examine the consequences of undocumentedness, and how it can impact health outcomes.

Housing and neighborhood quality among undocumented Mexican and Central American immigrants

The home is a place of safety and refuge. This article investigates the housing quality of undocumented Central Americans and finds few surprises. Poor housing quality indicators abound, such as crowding, poor structural conditions, and high concern regarding neighborhood environments, indicating that undocumentedness can impact the living conditions in which immigrants and their families find themselves.

Undocumented Latina Networks and Responses to Domestic Violence in a New Immigrant Gateway: Toward a Place-Specific Analysis

In this article, the authors argue that networks of undocumented Latinas who have recently immigrated and who are without their familiar networks are vulnerable to domestic violence because they can become socially isolated and are not able to find help seeking safety. Undocumentedness results in a reduced set of rights for immigrants, and this articles explores the impact of reduced rights for victims of violence.

Evaluating the Impact of Immigration Policies on Health Status Among Undocumented Immigrants: A Systematic Review.Summary:

Authors of this article develop a framework for how immigration-related policies affect health and conduct a review of studies that examine how policies, specifically, affect health.  The findings primarily focus on health care access, a reflection of the state of the literature more than the actual factors that affect health. From their findings, they recommend research to focus on health outcomes.

(Un)Healthy immigrant citizens: naturalization and activity limitations in older age

Using national data, this article investigated how naturalization among older immigrants related to their health outcomes. This may be one of the first studies to asses the effect of “receiving citizenship.” The authors make a strong argument for how naturalization affects political, social, and economic experiences and could potentially lead to differential health outcomes. The study found that older immigrants who naturalized earlier had better health than non-citizens. Curiously, a news article that reported on this study quoted Interim Dean of Portland State University who dismissed the importance of citizenship status.

How do tougher immigration measures affect unauthorized immigrants?

Another much-needed paper on how immigration policies are having a wide range of damaging effects on immigrants and their families. This article uses data from interviews with Mexican immigrants who had been deported Mexico. Although they do not find that anti-immigrant policies affect access to services, they find these measures are linked to deportation fear and interstate mobility.

Undocumented status: implications for child development, policy, and ethical research

The authors of this article provide an argument for a deeper focus on on how undocumentedness can impact children’s development. These authors conducted an ethnographic study in New York of Chinese, Dominican, and Mexican families and have a clear understanding of the various life factors that are linked to undocumentedness that can impact the development of children.

The Criminalization of Immigrants & the Immigration-Industrial Complex

This article was part of series written by social scientists on immigration.  The entire series can be accessed here. This article, in particular, describes the exponential growth of the detention and deportation systems, a key factor in the lives of undocumented immigrants and their families. Other articles in the series describe other policies and social processes that shape the lives of immigrants.

2014 will be a critical year for the immigrant rights movement as activists maintain the momentum from 2013 and continue to pressure Congress and the President.  All of the efforts of 2013 – from activism to research – suggest that there is hope for achieving just immigration policies that can improve the well-being of millions of immigrants.

Senate Immigration Bill, a harmful compromise that’s about to get worse

3 Sep

us-immigration-protest-1Last week our nation celebrated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, presenting us with an opportunity to take stock of the future “jobs and freedom” of undocumented individuals. The greatest hope for a dramatically different system of immigration came when the Senate voted 68-32 in favor of the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act.” It was hoped that this solid majority was would pressure House Republicans to take up the bill, or to pass a similar comprehensive reform bill that then could be taken to conference with the Senate bill. The problem is that in recruiting Republican (and some conservative Dem) votes, the Senate bill is a dangerous way forward that will exacerbate the harmful and inequitable aspects of the current immigration system. While there are many positive elements in the bill, there were too many concessions that have ultimately poisoned the effort.

Below we outline the major health implications, both the provisions that are positive (¡Bien hecho!) and the provisions that are harmful and should be deleted (¡Qué pena!).

¡Bien hecho!  Finally, there may be a pathway to citizenship. This is major. Many undocumented immigrants living in US will have the opportunity to gain a full set of rights as citizens. Immigrants who are allowed on the path to citizenship will have increased job opportunities, be less likely to be exploited in the work environment, have increased educational and economic opportunities, and be able to vote.

¡Que pena!  However, it’s too long of a pathway and it would not be an easy one. The Senate bill requires up to 15 years for undocumented immigrants to become citizens. That is 15 more years of diminished rights, including being barred from health care reform and other public benefits.  Individuals who are unemployed for more than 60 days will lose legal status.  Not to mention many individuals who will be ineligible to even begin this path.  Ultimately, around 4 million people, out of 11.5 million, will not ever enter or finish this path.

¡Que pena!  To entice the support of a handful of conservative votes, Democratic leaders added a boatload to the already bloated border spending. This $40 billion breaks down into 20,000 more agents (each armed with a lot of new and dangerous equipment); 700 miles of double-layered fencing, estimated to cost between $400,000 and $15 million per mile; at least $4.5 billion for surveillance technology in an effort to watch 100 percent of the southern border at all times, including drones at $18 million a pop and $3,000 and hour to fly; and millions more in contracts to IT companies to establish the national E-Verify system.  This is at a time when the sequester has slashed health and education programs indiscriminately. Any concern about this price tag was conspicuously absent from those who, traditionally, are eager to bring attention to the “cost” of immigration.  Plus, many corporations lobbied hard for extra security dollars that will ultimately please their shareholders.

¡Bien hecho!  Allows an expedited pathway to citizenship and legal permanent residence for DREAMers, some agricultural workers, and some individuals will temporary status.

¡Que pena!  However, these expedited pathways are based on a value judgement about the worth and deservingness of different classes of immigrants. Economic policies that have been instituted by the US (NAFTA is a biggee) are a major reason for the influx of immigrants.  Instead of acknowledging its own role in immigration, the Senate instead paternalistically dispenses rights and benefits based on how “useful” or “sympathetic” different immigrant groups are.

For more info on the Senate Bill, check out the Summary & Analysis from National Immigration Law Center.

Intransigent House Republicans

Any compromise with the House is going to introduce even more repressive measures to punish undocumented immigrants and their families. In fact, even Grover Norquist, one of the nation’s most conservative leaders (usually eager to cut taxes for the rich and cut social programs for the poor), has stated that legislation hasn’t passed because opponents (meaning mostly Tea Partyish Republicans and their ilk) are “anti-people.” Anti-people leaders, who are overwhelmingly white men with no concept of their privilege, have made it clear that they are not willing to share the benefits of this country with migrants. If a compromise must be made with these conservatives, it will water down many of the good provisions in the Senate bill, gained at a high cost of the punitive enforcement measures.
Next week Congress will be back in session (with a full plate of legislative issues), so it remains to be seen how the House decides to act.  However, it’s clear from the bills that have stumbled through House committees earlier this summer that the House is not serious about a comprehensive reform package and would rather cherry-pick policies appealing to their conservative base.  Here’s a summary of some of those policies:


In July, House Republican leadership announced this act to, supposedly, support undocumented youth brought to the United States as children. In actuality, they were probably just trying to support their own image. The act has been called DREAM Act Lite and the National Immigrant Law Center called it out for what it really is: “Certain House members want to create a perception that House leaders are interested in DREAMers’ contributions to our country. Unfortunately, the House’s actions over the past few months speak louder than their words.”


On June 18, 2013, the Judiciary Committee approved this bill by a vote of 20-15. This enforcement-only bill would increase the reach of the deportation dragnet by further integrating local law enforcement with Federal immigration enforcement. This bill would essentially mandate more enforcement and tie the hands of Federal, state, and local authorities to practice discretion over detaining and deporting individuals.  It would significantly expand enforcement policies and activities at the state and local level by allowing state and local governments to create their own immigration enforcement laws (remember Arizona’s SB 1070?) and expanding their immigration enforcement abilities – this is at the same time that it would restrict states and localities from noncompliance with involvement with ICE.  It would also restrict the Federal government from implementing the DACA policy and increase its responsibility to take custody of undocumented individuals apprehended by local jurisdictions.  It would also increase data collection and monitoring of undocumented individuals, including collection of information into the the National Crime Information Center database, while expanding criminal definitions of illegal entry and overstay of visas, gang membership and DUI driving.  Finally, it would subject individuals who transport or “harbor” a person with the knowledge that the person is undocumented to severe criminal penalties under a so-called “alien smuggling” provision.

Border Security Results Act

This bill would establish metrics for “security” – essentially trying to measure and track the level of border enforcement – and include the US-Canada border in these efforts under the pretense of preventing terrorism.  It would require that the metrics demonstrate that the Department of Homeland Security achieve 100% real-time surveillance of the borders and a 90% “effectiveness rate” (i.e. stopping unauthorized entries).  This bill has been touted as a more moderate and reasonable approach.  While it sounds a lot better than the SAFE Act, bill authors, Candice Miller (R-MI) and Mike McCaul (R-Texas) are using the influx of border enforcement funding to justify “accountability” for the success of these efforts.  More funding, they argue, requires proof of “success.”  This circular logic uses the increased funding to justify further militarization.  The bill passed the House Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security and the House Committee on Homeland Security unanimously.  Yes, that means it received bipartisan support.

As you can see, these are all enforcement and no path to citizenship.

When it comes to negotiations, sometimes the best move is no move at all. Even if the House were to pass a comprehensive reform bill, then it will be even worse, with more elements that blame immigrants and create toxic social environments. The Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act can only get worse. For these reasons, we should say no to reform as it currently stands.

People of color strongly support a true path to citizenship, what we like to call healthy immigration reform.  People of color are growing in number. There will be a price to pay for this hate-legislation, now is not the time to settle for a bad deal.

Immigration Reform in 2013, A tale of two frames

29 Jul

US-Mexico_BorderLast month, on June 27, 2013, the nation witnessed history on the floor of the Senate. Through a formal floor vote, utilized to mark the momentousness of the occasion, 68 Senators voted for the The Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 (S.744). Two broad “frames” – perspectives and conceptualizations – have surrounded the debate over the bill: one, on the left, emphasizing immigrants’ contribution to the nation, the other, on the right, claiming that immigrants harm the nation.

While this is the most significant piece of immigration legislation in almost 30 years, many of us were left with strongly mixed feelings. The reality of this bill is the coexistence of a few pro-immigrant rights provisions and unprecedented enforcement provisions. A path to citizenship for the nation’s 11 million undocumented individuals is critical for both health and human rights; yet our nation’s immigration enforcement and deportation policies have proven incredibly harmful to immigrant communities. Now, with S. 744, this proposed pathway to citizenship will not only be long and dubious (and open to only about 7.5 million individuals), but was purchased through the concession of $40 billion in border militarization, increased employer enforcement, and additional interior enforcement.  For more details on the bill, check out the National Immigration Law Center’s summary and analysis.

Framing the debate

The Senate bill is a product of two frames that have been wielded in the debates over immigration reform in the US. Each side has strategically used frames to make their case. Framing is the process by which our brains package and process information. As we gather information and experiences, frames are the means by which we associate our values, perceptions and attitudes with cues, such as images, sounds or words, from the world around us. Frames are powerful because the values, perceptions, and attitudes that are conjured up by these cues can influence how people view an issue.

Here’s a quick example: The federal enforcement program, Secure Communities (SCOMM), utilizes a frame that taps into perceptions of undocumented immigrants as dangerous lawbreakers. It is described by ICE as a program that “protects the communities that [ICE] serves…[and] prioritizes the removal of criminal aliens, those who pose a threat to public safety…” Tapping into anti-immigrant attitudes, the word “secure” and the idea of “protection” imply that SCOMM is necessary for community safety.  As we know, it is a harmful program and, perhaps, all the more so because it has been rolled out on the premise of safety. As evident in this example, social values, perceptions and attitudes can be both shaped by and reflected in frames.  Looking at those utilized to shape the immigration bill debate can give us some insights into current attitudes, perceptions and values around immigration.

Harm vs. Contribution

Two principal frames have been used in the immigration debate. On the left, is the frame of contribution – by all immigrants.  On the right, is a frame of harm – caused by undocumented immigration.  Both aim to frame the debate in a manner that taps into American values.  Within each frame are arguments around what it means to be “American,” with each side laying claim to the definition, and arguments that link immigrants with either positive or negative economic impacts.

The contribution frame makes the case for the indispensability of all immigrants, including those who are undocumented, to our society, culture, and economy.  This frame helps to make the argument that their vital role has earned undocumented immigrants the right to citizenship. Many advocates for a path to citizenship focus on the economic benefits of immigration and citizenship.  Undocumented immigrants add to the economy, with a path to citizenship contributing an estimated $832 billion increase in GDP.  Undocumented immigrants pay taxes, including an estimated $115 billion surplus contributed to Medicare. There is also a significant focus on supporting the unity of immigrant families – highlighting the negative impact of the 1.5 million deportations in President Obama’s first term and the 5,100 children in the foster system following their parents’ deportation.  This frame builds from the nation’s history of, and appreciation for, immigration and humanizes the experience of undocumented individuals.  If asked about the contribution of immigrants, most people in the United States could provide multiple examples and invoke images of immigrant college students or service members.  Therefore, it is no surprise that there is strong support for a path to citizenship among the public.  Multiple polls demonstrate that a majority of voters, and a large majority of Latinos, want undocumented immigrants to have the chance to stay in the United States as citizens.

The harm frame, on the other hand, taps right into the nation’s pulsing vein of xenophobic sentiment.  In the debate over the bill we have heard outright race-based fear mongering.  For example, undocumented immigrants are portrayed as a threat to “cultural cohesion” or as invaders who change the American way of life by their reluctance to assimilate. Opponents of a path to citizenship argue that there are not enough resources to share with undocumented immigrants and those undocumented immigrants take jobs and public benefits.  These arguments strategically construct a frame that cuts right to the core of many people’s fear of immigrants.

Criminalization wins out

At the heart of the harm frame is the attitude that undocumented immigrants are rule-breakers, at best, and criminals, at worst.  Sadly, the frame of harm has been very effective at criminalizing undocumented immigrants.  Political debates, media coverage, etc. are chalk full of explicit portrayals of undocumented immigrants as a threat to the “rule of law.”  Remember 2010 Senate candidate Sharron Angle’s anti-immigration ad? Or Mitt Romney’s famous idea for “self-deportation”? In the recent Senate debate, despite the extraordinary border enforcement concessions, Senator Session (AL) declared that Republicans want “a lawful system.”  The union of ICE employees declared that the bill will legalize “thousands of dangerous criminals.” Just this week anti-immigrant leader and US Congressman Steve King said, “For every [undocumented individual] who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there who weigh 130 pounds and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling marijuana across the desert,” bringing together both racism and criminalization in an offensive attempt to prove the harm of immigrants.

Over the years, pro-immigrant groups have launched campaigns with messages such as “no human is illegal.” However, the frame of contribution has yet to effectively counter the criminalization of undocumented immigrants. Even in many arguments advanced by the contribution frame is an implicit finger-pointing – that those who are undocumented have done something wrong or are solely responsible for their legal status.  Therefore, upsetting as it is, it should come as no surprise to learn that among the public and even more progressive members of Congress, there also strong support for enforcement and border militarization measures prior to achieving citizenship.

The Senate bill contains both of these frames.  The coexistence of citizenship provisions and enforcement and border militarization provisions is a reflection of the coexistence of these two frames in our national dialogue around immigration.  Politicians and the public are willing to accept the contributions of some immigrants, while still believing in the harm and criminality of other immigrants.  The result is a piece of legislation that acknowledges, at some level, the important contribution of undocumented immigrants and the need to provide them with a (lengthy) path to citizenship, but that also makes damaging investments in border militarization. And, as for the House, the Republican majority would rather avoid the topic of immigration altogether.

Re-claiming and -shaping the frame

It is critical to frame the pro-immigrant debate beyond the contribution of immigrants.  Among supporters of a path to citizenship, efforts to oppose the border militarization provisions are reclaiming the harm frame.  A National Day of Action Against Border Militarization took place on July 17th to bring attention to how harmful border militarization is to everyone.  Detention Watch Network developed an infographic spelling out the huge costs (and harm) of the bill.  provisions in the bill. Most recently the DREAM 9, a group of young who had previously returned or been deported to Mexico, made a public attempt to cross back into the United States.  Their action of leaving and then trying to return to the US has highlighted the arbitrary and unjust nature of our immigration system, turning the frame on the system, rather than on immigrants themselves.  Frames serve as filters for how the public views and understands debates around immigration.  It is imperative that we promote frames that support basic decency and rights for those who are undocumented.


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