New England Justice for Our Neighbors transforms our clients' lives by helping them obtain lawful status. This status changes immigrants' lives in obvious ways but also in ways that may be less apparent. Lawful status prevents deportation and provides authorization to work, but it also comes with a host of other benefits.
New York Justice for Our Neighbors recently published an article highlighting the experience of undocumented unaccompanied minors, a large focus of our work here at New England JFON. While they are waiting for green cards, these children and young adults are still at risk, even if they have SIJ status (an interim step in the process that does offer some protections). "SIJ status does not make the young person eligible for financial aid or health insurance—and without health insurance, traumatized clients cannot access the mental health counseling that they need. SIJ status also does not give the recipient authorization to work. This leaves many of our clients—those who are 16 years or older and have no parental or familial support—without any means to earn an income. They can then become more vulnerable to depression, exploitation, and homelessness. Finally, SIJ status does not protect these young people from detention or deportation. Until they have their green cards in hand—which could take as long as five years—this is the threat and the fear they must face every day of their lives."
Undocumented adults face all of these challenges and more. Many activities and circumstances can put them in increased danger of deportation, causing additional fear. Unemployed undocumented immigrants are not eligible for federal or state unemployment benefits. In addition, even when they or their children are eligible for social services, undocumented immigrants are often reluctant to seek them out, due to language barriers or fear of being discovered, or are unaware of these opportunities. In most states, including Massachusetts, an immigrant without lawful status can't obtain a driver's license, leading to difficult choices. (See Call to Action below.) When it comes to their legal proceedings, immigrants are vulnerable to predatory lawyers who are happy to take their case (and their money) even if it is without merit.
The majority of immigrants without lawful status lack work authorization and therefore are not able to work legally. Because of this, they are restricted to particular sectors of the economy where employers often do not insist on legal status and where wages tend to be lower. These workers suffer from a lack of access to jobs that match their skills and interests and from limited job mobility. Their employers may take advantage of their undocumented status and treat them poorly or fail to pay their wages. These factors mean that undocumented immigrants are often members of the working poor if they are able to work at all.
A recent study from the White House states that "legalization encourages immigrants to improve their language skills, induces them to complete additional education and training, and improves their health outcomes." This report also points to improved physical and mental health, once healthcare can be accessed and fear is allayed. The effects of lawful status ripple out from our clients themselves, who are often heads of household, to their children and eventually additional generations.
Facts and Figures
- According to the MassUndocuFund, approximately 250,000 undocumented immigrants live and work in Massachusetts, and those who are employed predominantly work in sectors that have been greatly impacted by the COVID pandemic, including service, hospitality, child and elder care, day labor, and agriculture more broadly.
- In 2019, approximately 70% of this population was employed and 50% lived below 200% of the federal poverty line.
- Unauthorized immigrant workers have been estimated to earn about 40 percent less per hour than native-born workers and about 35 percent less per hour than immigrants with authorization
- When someone without proper immigration papers secures documentation, they can also gain up to a 25 percent increase in income.
- According to the Migration Policy Institute, at least 41,000 undocumented immigrants in Massachusetts have at least one child living at home.
- Hiring a private immigration lawyer costs thousands of dollars - $5-20K for an asylum case and $3.5-10K for an unaccompanied minor.
- Appearing in immigration court without representation significantly reduces the chances of a successful outcome, by 50% for detained immigrants and by 80% for never-detained immigrants, even if the case has merit.
Call to Action: MA Work and Family Mobility Act
After years in the Massachusetts legislature, the Work and Family Mobility Act may finally be passed, and soon. The Act allows Massachusetts residents to obtain driver's licenses regardless of immigration status.
Just like other Massachusetts residents, undocumented immigrants require access to vehicles for a variety of reasons. Says Heloisa Galvão, Executive Director of the Massachusetts-based Brazilian Women's Group, "They need to buy groceries, to take their kids to school, to doctors. They need to work." In addition, she explains that local insurance companies have recently stopped accepting non-US driver's license as documentation for obtaining insurance, leaving immigrants unable to drive for lack of insurance. "It's been hell," she says of the new developments.
Obtaining a MA driver's license also opens up new employment opportunities, as many jobs require a valid license. Perhaps even more importantly, driving unlicensed can put an immigrant on the path to deportation, and the passage of this act will remove that danger.
Sixteen other REAL ID-compliant states, plus Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico, already issue licenses to all qualified residents, and we hope that Massachusetts can become the seventeenth.
Massachusetts lawmakers have just voted today to approve this important act! However, Governor Baker is expected to veto it. Activists believe that there is enough support in the legislature to override the veto, but let's not leave it to chance. To encourage your representatives to override the veto, here's how to contact them:
Email State Representative: https://bit.ly/2022-dff-email-house
Call State Representative: bit.ly/dff-click-to-call
Did You Know?
37% of the legal services New England JFON provided to our full representation clients in 2021 supported unaccompanied minors. 44% of our new clients in 2021 came to the United States from Central America.