MASSACHUSETTS AND THE nation are reckoning with their racist past during a devastating pandemic where blacks and Latinxs are twice as likely to die from COVID-19. But, any efforts addressing racial equity and police reform here and beyond must include immigrants, a majority of whom are black and Latinx in the Commonwealth.
Spurred by racial justice protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, state lawmakers have proposed police reform to transform public safety and improve police training and accountability. This month, legislators are also weighing two other policies that can transform residents’ interactions with police: the Safe Communities Act and Work and Family Mobility Act. Though both measures seem to primarily affect immigrants, each has racial equity components essential to improving police-community relations.
Pre-COVID, my research examining Latinx immigrants’ health care access demonstrated crucial links between policing, racialized immigration enforcement, driving concerns, and public health. With COVID cases spiking elsewhere amid racial unrest, now is the time to move these two bills out of committee and closer to passage.
The Safe Communities Act would limit information sharing between state law enforcement and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and make the state safer for residents regardless of documentation status. Just as black and Latinx citizens fear interactions with police, black and Latinx immigrants fear ICE and the police. An immigrant advocate I interviewed shared: “If you see a policeman or a state trooper at your T stop or your bus stop, you’re just going to assume ICE is in the house.” Because immigrants perceive law and immigration enforcement as one and the same, Massachusetts immigrants worry that interacting with police could lead to detention and deportation. This makes them afraid of leaving their homes and reporting crimes in their communities. Passage of the Safe Communities Act would remove that fear.
Another proposal with racial equity implications for immigrants is the Work and Family Mobility Act. This law would allow all qualified state residents to apply for a standard state driver’s license. Currently, undocumented immigrants must either take public transportation, arrange alternative transportation, or take the risk of driving unlicensed. As 78 percent of state workers rely on personal vehicles to get to work, not having access to a driver’s license limits economic stability. Possible arrest and deportation loom for immigrants compelled to drive unlicensed to maintain their livelihood.
A Brazilian immigrant I interviewed was targeted by police due to stereotypes that immigrants drive unlicensed: “The police stopped me one day, which made me so nervous. I understood that he thought I was an immigrant without a license.” The Work and Family Mobility Act would reduce that stereotype and concern, make it easier for immigrants to provide for their families, and improve everyone’s public safety through ensuring all Massachusetts drivers are licensed and insured.
The Safe Communities Act and Work and Family Mobility Act also may benefit public health, which is especially important amid a pandemic that hit the state’s black and Latinx communities like Chelsea, Everett, and Dorchester hard. Concerns about information sharing between police, ICE, and public health authorities have made black and Latinx residents reluctant to seek COVID-19 testing and treatment and participate in contact tracing. Those working in essential jobs who rely on public transportation due to being unlicensed are also at increased risk of COVID transmission.
A health care provider I interviewed discussed how fear of being pulled over deters immigrants from seeking needed medical attention: “They are more afraid of driving around Massachusetts than to go to a health care center and come to a physician.”
Given President Trump’s draconian immigration policies, both these measures are vital now for making immigrants feel safe obtaining preventive and emergent health care in a COVID world. Immigrants’ well-being is central to public health and keeping the state’s COVID cases and deaths low.
For those who think racial equity efforts are separate from immigrants’ rights, one need look no further than the devastating impact that law and immigration enforcement has had in black and Latinx communities. The system of enforcement that killed George Floyd and countless other black citizens is connected to the one that locks children in cages and disproportionately detains and deports black and Latinx immigrants.
If state legislators are serious about creating racial equity in the Commonwealth, they must pass police reform and the Safe Communities and Work and Family Mobility bills. Concerned residents should call and encourage their representatives to make these policies the law of the land. Doing so will make Massachusetts safer and healthier and demonstrate that black, Latinx, and immigrant lives matter.
Tiffany Joseph is an associate professor sociology at Northeastern University.