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Immigrant Families In Mass. Shouldn't Have To Live In Fear Of The Police

Angela Henriquez, second from left, hugs her children Jessica, left, and Fernando as they listen to speakers at a news conference announcing a lawsuit against the Trump administration over its decision to end a program that lets immigrants live and work legally in the United States outside of a federal courthouse in San Francisco, Monday, March 12, 2018. (Jeff Chiu/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
Angela Henriquez, second from left, hugs her children Jessica, left, and Fernando as they listen to speakers at a news conference announcing a lawsuit against the Trump administration over its decision to end a program that lets immigrants live and work legally in the United States outside of a federal courthouse in San Francisco, Monday, March 12, 2018. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

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“Father arrested by ICE” was listed as the “reason for visit” next to the second patient on my morning schedule, a 15-month-old I'll call Danny. He sat in the lap of his anxious young mother.

“A few nights ago Danny watched ICE come in the house and arrest his father,” she said. “He has been behaving abnormally since.”

She explained that her son, who was usually well-behaved, had become aggressive, pulling her hair and hitting and refusing to eat solid food. “Worst of all is at bedtime,” she said. “My husband always comes home from work in time to read him a bedtime story. He won’t accept anyone else.”

Danny looked well, and his physical exam was completely normal. I explained that these were likely signs of exposure to trauma and stress triggered by his father’s absence.

... in the Trump era, encounters with police can be terrifying for immigrant families.

Danny’s father, I later learned, was arrested during a work dispute when his employer refused to pay him. After he was released on bail, he was taken into custody by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The social worker in my clinic told me she sees similar cases about once a week.

This is why in the Trump era, encounters with police can be terrifying for immigrant families.

Far too often, they lead to a loved one’s deportation — even if the person is never charged with a crime. Knowing this risk leads many immigrants to avoid reporting crimes or from calling 911 in emergencies, which makes all of us less safe. Meanwhile, unscrupulous employers use the threat of immigration enforcement to commit wage theft, which has been described as an epidemic in Massachusetts.

We can’t stop ICE from breaking up families in our commonwealth, but the least we can do for children like Danny is to ensure that our local police and sheriffs don’t actively help round up their parents. Right now we have a crucial opportunity to do that.

Jose Briceno is 41-year-old undocumented immigrant from Nicaragua. He was present at Faneuil Hall for the MIRA protest against the decision to end DACA on September 5, 2017. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Jose Briceno is 41-year-old undocumented immigrant from Nicaragua. He was present at Faneuil Hall for the MIRA protest against the decision to end DACA on September 5, 2017. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

In May, in a historic 25–13 vote, the Massachusetts Senate adopted a state budget amendment to protect immigrant families that shares much in common with proposed legislation, the Safe Communities Act. The amendment protects against ethnic profiling by barring police from questioning people about their immigration status unless required by law. It also ensures that people in custody are informed of their rights before any ICE interview, prohibits collaboration between Massachusetts sheriffs and ICE, and bars state participation in any registry based on ethnicity, religion, country of origin or other protected characteristics.

The budget now goes to conference committee, which will issue the final version by the end of June. The challenge now is that House leaders do not seem to see protecting immigrants as a political priority. Gov. Charlie Baker has promised to veto this legislation -- should it reach his desk — so House Speaker Robert DeLeo feels little pressure to take a strong stand. Changing their minds will require mobilizing support all across Massachusetts.

Danny’s father was recently deported, after months and multiple hearings with immigration judges. Yet Danny is lucky to remain with his mother, unlike the thousands of U.S. citizen children in foster care after their sole guardian was deported.

As a family doctor, I have become keenly aware of the connections between immigration status and health.

Children in mixed-status families, like Danny’s, must live with the unrelenting fear of losing a parent. Developing brains are sensitive to this kind of toxic stress, which can negatively impact children’s long-term health and development. Fear of immigration enforcement can even affect babies before they are born, as one study showed babies born to Latina mothers after an immigration raid in Iowa had lower birth weights.

Danny’s story is far too common. As a family doctor, I have become keenly aware of the connections between immigration status and health. I believe Danny and all children of immigrants deserve to grow up happy and without fear. Immigrants pay more in state and local taxes than the richest 1 percent and are part of the backbone of our economy. They are our neighbors and coworkers, and they deserve to be treated fairly.

We need to stand up for our beautiful, diverse communities — especially the most vulnerable among us. As the Massachusetts legislative session nears its end, we must urge Governor BakerSpeaker DeLeoChairman Jeff Sanchez and our own representatives to ensure that immigrant families don’t have to fear their local police.

It’s time to do the right thing and make the commonwealth safe and welcoming for all.

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Lara Jirmanus Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Lara Jirmanus, MD, MPH is a primary care physician working in Everett

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