MLRI’s Immigration Unit engages in systemic law reform initiatives to secure and defend low income immigrants' social and economic opportunities via the acquisition and preservation of their legal status and ability to work in the U.S.; ensure fair treatment by immigration authorities and fair and equal treatment, regardless of status, by federal, state and local government entities generally; and promote greater racial equity through progressive reforms of immigration law and policy.
The greatest challenge facing immigrant communities in Massachusetts (and nationwide) is the persistent and growing socioeconomic oppression of low-income immigrants. They are denied the opportunity to improve their circumstances (through access to stable legal immigration status and work authorization) and to move out of poverty. Immigrants have significantly higher poverty rates than the rest of the population: 20% of all immigrants are poor; 31% of immigrant children are poor, and it is estimated that 51% of undocumented immigrants are poor.These inequalities contribute to the disproportionate levels of poverty in the Black and especially the Latino communities in Massachusetts.
MLRI addresses this challenge in two ways: first, by advocating for administrative agency reforms to expand the pathways to legal status and employment authorization (without foregoing advocacy for federal legislation currently stalled in Congress), because improving status demonstrably affects wage-earning potential; and secondly, by pursuing multiple public and private advocacy efforts to make higher education more affordable and accessible for immigrants, since a college education is demonstrably well-correlated with higher income levels as well.
Providing Access to Higher Education for Immigrant Youth:
MLRI advocate for & will monitor affordable college education access policies for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) DREAMrs & other low-income immigrant youth. A November 2012 policy clarification issued by the Massachusetts Department of Education--which was based on legal analysis and memoranda by MLRI--made an estimated 10,000-20,000 Massachusetts DACA beneficiaries eligible for in-state tuition. MLRI drafted and helped implement these DACA policies and is playing a critical role in ensuring compliance. Given the impact of a college education on moving young people out of poverty, this statewide policy victory – the first of its kind in the nation – is significant but will require monitoring at the institutional level, since problems have already surfaced there. In addition, we plan to seek expansion of federal and state financial aid and scholarship programs, in-state tuition at public colleges, and institutional aid at private colleges in MA. To the extent necessary, MLRI may pursue litigation to challenge the state’s denial of merit-based Adams Scholarships to lawfully present immigrant youth.
Advancing Remedies that Improve Immigration Status of Low-Income Immigrants:
Aggressive enforcement activities by federal authorities in recent years has resulted in an large increase in Immigration Court removal proceedings. This has clogged an already backlogged and overburdened Immigration Court system. At the same time, over 160,000 undocumented immigrants in Massachusetts (and thousands more with statuses that do now permit them to work lawfully) are both exploited and trapped in a cycle of poverty. Until Congress enacts comprehensive immigration reform that creates a pathway to obtaining legal status for undocumented immigrants, the burdens on the Immigration Court (and poverty among these immigrants who cannot legally obtain employment) will only be exacerbated unless other avenues are used to normalize immigration status.
To systemically address this issue, in collaboration with local partners including Catholic Charities, Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy (MIRA) Coalition, and others, MLRI will engage in advocacy with the Obama Administration to press for expanded use of existing but underutilized administrative avenues to regularize these immigrants’ statuses. For example, MLRI will advocate for expanded Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Haitians who have arrived during the last two years because of dire conditions, including earthquake reconstruction failures, and for expanded use of other humanitarian programs such as “parole in place”, “deferred enforced departure”, “deferred action”, and “administrative closure” to benefit more low-income immigrants, along with greater access to work permits.
Developing a Statewide Plan for Federal Immigration Reform Enactment:
Federal immigration reform legislation that would include a pathway to legalized status for undocumented immigrants would, if enacted, have a far-reaching impact in Massachusetts, given the estimated 163,000-179,000 undocumented people who could be eligible (most of whom are low-income because they cannot lawfully work).
If a legalization program is enacted, MLRI will play a statewide leadership role in two ways. First, given the importance of legal status to reducing immigrant poverty we would target administrative advocacy on implementing regulations, application forms, and procedures that are likely to have the greatest impact on low-income people – e.g., legalized immigrants’ eligibility for safety net programs, reasonableness of application fees and fee waivers, and the interpretation of criminal disqualification grounds that typically disadvantage low-income immigrants of color, given their disproportionate numbers in the criminal justice system. Second, MLRI would convene the immigrant legal services community to ensure coordination, funding, and staffing of an effective legal services delivery system for our state. In view of the number of people likely to seek legal assistance and existing constraints on the civil legal services delivery system for the poor, effective service delivery will depend on combining well-coordinated screening procedures, local or regional self-help workshops using non-attorneys as well as legal professionals, legal clinics providing limited lawyer assistance, and full legal representation by attorneys in the free legal services programs, the reduced-fee programs, and the private bar. MLRI has been working with its Immigration Coalition partners on a plan to address federal immigration reform, if and when it comes to pass, so that legal services and other immigration providers can be prepared to address client needs.