Protecting Immigrant Families and Children in Massachusetts

While under the “doctrine of preemption”, most law and policy pertaining to immigration is made at the federal level, we do have a say in how we treat both documented and undocumented immigrants once they are here in Massachusetts. Before describing state-level initiatives, and given the moment, it seems appropriate to briefly share some of my broader thoughts on the current state of our national conversation about immigration.
Now more than ever, we must remember that immigration is the root and fabric of our society, the very essence of who we are as Americans. E pluribus unum – “out of many, one” – is not just a national slogan;  it has been the key to American progress and success, as wave after wave of immigrants has renewed our democracy and boosted our economy.  In fact, among the other advanced economies of the world (the G-7 nations), none has created a society, and an economy, so deeply rooted in a wide embrace of immigrants. The simple and unassailable truth is this: we are infinitely better off for being “a nation of immigrants”.
And so, it would be all but impossible to fully describe the depths of our thoughts and emotions as we have watched a morally bankrupt Administration turn a uniquely American strength instead into a weapon deliberately designed to turn Americans against one another. While our society has been convulsed by other anti-immigrant periods such as those that led to the rise of the Know-Nothing party of the 1850s, the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, most of us thought we were long past the days in American history when racist rhetoric would be so blatantly employed to stir up fear and resentment. That this has been an orchestrated effort by a President and other high-ranking government officials shocks our collective conscience. Yet we know that frustration and anger is not a strategy and ours must become a steely resolve.  
Over the past two years, we’ve seen a deeply misguided, bigoted and useless “Muslim ban”, traumatic scenes of children separated from their parents and placed into “detention centers”, and dramatic changes to immigrant protection policies and voting rights. Just recently, there was a shameful proposal to end medical deferments for those among us who are seeking crucial health care services under a special visa. On a national level, the federal government is pursuing a mass deportation agenda, and we are facing an immigration crisis. Comprehensive immigration reform has eluded leaders in Washington for far too long. While the reasons for the failure to address immigration issues at a national level are complex and varied, in many respects it has been the nativist instincts of some know-knowing national politicians that have led them to label any sensible proposals as “amnesty”. Current leadership in Washington has fanned the flames of fear and resentment and not provided a single meaningful solution as to how we are going to address immigration issues. Their “big idea” is a wall, a wall that most credible security experts say will not work.  It would be laughable if it were not so venomous. The solution to these problems will not be one dimensional, and certainly will be the result of a collaborative effort on multiple fronts.
With all of this in mind, I set out to ensure that one central focus of my work this legislative session would be to try to advance new law and policy initiatives designed to offer sensible care and protection to our immigrant communities.  I cannot guarantee the success of these proposals, but I can and will be giving it my all to move this agenda.   
State-Level Initiatives
As we craft legislation that affects immigrants in Massachusetts, we must keep in mind that over 50% of the immigrant population in Massachusetts has been here since at least the early 2000s. This is their home. So it is essential to create legislation that is inclusive and ensures protections for immigrant civil rights, health care, and voting rights, while also increasing the quality of life for those individuals within the Commonwealth. We cannot allow individuals and families that migrate here from other countries, already facing long odds and difficult circumstances, to feel unwelcome and under attack. And wherever possible, we must do so in a way that pushes back against the darker forces at work in Washington.

Massachusetts has been at the forefront of implementing policies that expand protections for residents regardless of immigration status. However, there remain areas of law and policy where we could improve our practices and ensure better access to services for children and families across the state. Although an estimated 98% of the children in Massachusetts have health insurance, a large portion of low-income immigrant children are left without sufficient access to many basic health care services, including emergency care and prescription drugs, dental coverage and mental health services. A lack of access to this important care hinders the health and developmental process of a child. For this reason, I have filed An Act to Ensure Equitable Health Coverage for Children. This necessary legislation would expand MassHealth (Medicaid) coverage to low-income children that are otherwise ineligible for comprehensive healthcare coverage due to their immigration status and is needed to increase the quality of life for immigrant children and families in Massachusetts. It would allow over 20,000 children in the state to get access to the comprehensive coverage they need. Many important and respected state advocacy organizations such as Health Care For All and the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition are working in partnership with me and have provided their strong support to this legislation. Currently, the bill has been referred to Joint Committee on Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities and our goal is to see the bill reported out favorably for a vote in the House and ultimately signed into law. After all, this idea is sensible, inclusive, and has been effective in the few other states where it has been enacted such as California, Washington, Oregon, Illinois, and New York. Our national leaders may want to deepen divisions and separate children from their parents. Here let’s send out a different message.  Here let’s set a different tone. Here let us show both our compassion and our common sense.  Every child in the Commonwealth, regardless of their immigration status, deserves access to good health care!
It is evident that immigrants play a vital role in the Massachusetts economy. Their presence here benefits us all. And yet, when it comes to access to justice and health care services, we need to do more to protect them. Immigrants have become increasingly wary of seeking medical treatment and emergency services for fear of deportation. In addition, they are increasingly cautious about interacting with law enforcement, which should never be the case in our state, or anywhere else. Numerous studies indicate that immigration is linked with lower crime rates in major U.S. cities, and some studies show immigration doesn’t have an effect on crime rates at all. In 2017, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in Commonwealth v. Lunn that Massachusetts law does not grant the authority to Massachusetts court officers to detain a person solely based on a civil federal immigration detainer. These civil detainers are used by federal immigration officers to request that state officials hold an individual in custody for up to two days longer than when the individual otherwise would be free to go under state law for the sole purpose of allowing federal immigration officers time to get to the individual and place them in federal custody. Currently, legislation has been filed that is aimed at restoring strong lines of communication and transparency, and most of all, trust and respect between immigrant communities and law enforcement.  For this reason, I have co-sponsored An Act to Protect the Civil Rights and Safety of All Massachusetts Residents also referred to as “The Safe Communities Act.” This legislation would prohibit law enforcement and court officials from seeking to obtain information pertaining to an individual’s immigration status unless authorized by law. This will benefit victims of violent crimes such as domestic violence who are skeptical and simply unsure if they can safely report a crime without being questioned about their immigration status or in some cases detained and deported. Similarly, witnesses to crime could come forward to state courts without fear of negative repercussions. The Safe Communities Act will also require law enforcement to provide a consent form that explains their right to decline an interview or have their own attorney in a scenario where ICE is seeking to question the individual about their immigration status, similar to a “Miranda” warning in a criminal context. Another benefit of this legislation is that it will require law enforcement to implement these guidelines into training programs. This will give police an opportunity to internalize these practices. Of course, it should go without saying that those who commit state crimes will be held. But we should not deputize our entire state law enforcement apparatus as an extension of federal immigration authorities.
As we work to expand services for immigrant families, it is essential to understand how immigrants have positively contributed to the Commonwealth. Immigrants in Massachusetts provide a tremendous boost to our economy and workforce. In fact, immigrant households in our state earn $43 billion dollars per year combined. Immigrants’ presence here has generated over $8 billion in federal taxes and $3.5 billion in local and state taxes. In addition, immigrant business owners are responsible for providing over 130,000 jobs and, in total, generate $1.9 billion in business income in Massachusetts. With such an impact on our economy, immigrants deserve to have their voices represented in local elections as every other American does. I considered this factor and decided to file An Act Enabling Cities and Towns to Extend Voting Rights in Municipal Elections to Certain Noncitizens of the Commonwealth. This legislation would allow cities and towns to expand access to voting for immigrants in town and city elections (but not state and federal elections). The bill will allow their names to be entered on a list of voters established by municipal election officials and will allow those individuals to vote in any municipal election for a school committee, school committee questions, city council and board of selectmen as long as they remain residents in the municipality, and intend in good faith to become a U.S. citizen and intend to begin that process, if eligible. It would be up to each municipality to pass a local ordinance to allow non-citizens to vote in their town, so it is a “local option” proposal.  I believe this is more than fair for working immigrant families that contribute to our economy and workforce. Currently, eleven local governments allow noncitizens to vote in their local elections; ten of them are in the state of Maryland. Additionally, in San Francisco, noncitizen parents are allowed to vote in School Board elections. Several towns in Massachusetts, including Arlington and Cambridge, have passed ordinances on a local level to allow non-citizens to vote, but those local laws cannot take effect unless state law changes. I will be working to move this legislation forward and allow cities and towns an important option that allows immigrants to become more deeply a part of their communities!
We know that that the presence and contributions of immigrants make the economy and our communities much stronger and resilient – not only in Massachusetts – but in the country as a whole. We must continue our efforts to combat anti-immigrant practices. The Trump Administration will continue to pursue retrograde policies for the deliberate political goal of dividing communities and creating barriers that move society backward. We must take a stand!  We must continue our efforts by creating and implementing policies that will protect immigrant civil rights and ensure access to proper education. Immigrant families deserve to experience the same quality of life as any other American living in Massachusetts.
Immigration – Humanitarian Crisis at the Border – See How You Can Help Below  At times we might feel powerless to impact the situation at our border. But we can do something to help!  The Center for Public Integrity is looking for volunteers to help sort through complaints filed with Homeland Security about family separation. Read this article to find out more about how you can get involved.
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Phone: 617-722-2263
Mail: State House Room 473B, Boston, MA 02133