By Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz
On the night of May 1, reports emerged from the Bristol County jail that an incident involving coronavirus testing had turned violent. Guards had allegedly used pepper spray and K9 dogs against detainees in ICE custody, three of whom ended up in the hospital. Meanwhile, the Sheriff’s office said it was detainees who attacked guards first and destroyed property in the unit. The following morning, I drove the hour from Boston to Bristol, determined to do my job as a State Legislator and investigate. My goal was to talk with staff and detainees about what had happened.
I didn’t get any farther than the parking lot. There, I was turned away– even though Massachusetts law empowers legislators to enter the state’s correctional facilities at any time to provide exactly this type of oversight. Nor was I the only one kept out: lawyers and family members said that, in the wake of the incident, they were unable to reach their clients and loved ones. Their outpouring of concern, and the three independent investigations that have since been opened, have kept the spotlight on the Bristol County jail. But inside, detainees’ health and safety are still at risk. Twenty-six of those involved in the incident have since been placed in solitary confinement. Last week, a federal judge ruled that the Sheriff has been allegedly reckless with the health of ICE detainees throughout the coronavirus crisis. That Saturday morning, I drove down to Bristol County for a pretty simple reason: the people inside were intensely vulnerable. Two weeks later, that hasn’t changed.
But it’s not just immigrants in ICE custody who are shouldering far too high risks.
Chelsea, a city that’s 45% immigrants, has become the epicenter of Massachusetts’ COVID-19 outbreak. Coronavirus there has spread rapidly: infection rates are nearly six times higher than the state’s average. Language barriers, high levels of air pollution, and significant numbers of essential workers who don’t have the option to stay home have combined to make the virus even more dangerous than elsewhere.
And Boston’s neighborhoods with among the highest immigrant populations—Dorchester, Mattapan, and East Boston—are also the city’s coronavirus hotspots.
Beyond health and safety, immigrant communities are facing unique economic hardships. Mixed immigration-status families, which include a taxpayer who is using an “Individual Taxpayer Identification Number” (ITIN) rather than a social security number, are barred from receiving the federal stimulus checks their neighbors are getting in the mail, even when some taxpayers in the family are U.S. citizens. The Trump Administration’s public charge rule, rolled out earlier this year, has forced still more residents to put off applying for emergency assistance, weighing their future citizenship application against their need for cleaning supplies, homeschooling materials, or housing assistance in this moment of crisis. Immigrants are also disproportionately likely to hold low-wage essential jobs, or work in industries that have been hit the hardest by the pandemic. In Boston, 35% of healthcare workers and 46% of food workers are immigrants.
It’s a daunting picture, and a deeply unjust one. But it’s not one we have to accept, either. There’s a lot we can do right now to make sure immigrants in Bristol, in Chelsea, right here in Mission Hill and Jamaica Plain, and throughout Massachusetts are safer and healthier, with the resources they need to care for themselves and their families.
Some of it must be agitated for on the federal level. In the next federal stimulus package, Congress needs to address the rule that’s blocking taxpaying families with immigrant members from receiving their much-needed stimulus checks. ICE must act quickly to release non-violent and non-criminal detainees from their custody, where social distancing is physically impossible. And, critically, Congress must send additional aid to state and local governments to shore up the health, education, safety net, and worker protection systems that disproportionately serve low-income, Black, brown, and immigrant communities.
But there are also actions we can take right now at the state level to mitigate the disproportionate loss immigrant communities are bearing—as they stock our grocery shelves, care for our elders and the children of our essential workers, and help pay the taxes that fund our hospitals and stimulus checks. We can pass a strong and substantial safety net by expanding benefits for housing and cash assistance and increasing funding for Lifeline—the program that provides free or low-cost data and phone service. We can institute state-level stimulus checks to get cash directly into the hands of those who need it most. We can provide strong and unflinching oversight over our prisons and ICE-contracted detention facilities to ensure the safety, health, and human rights of those inside are protected. We can pass meaningful environmental justice legislation to clean up the toxic air in communities like Dorchester and Roxbury (which have the highest rates of asthma in Boston) and Chelsea, where decades of accumulated air pollution are now linked to a higher risk of dying from COVID-19. And we can make drivers licenses available to all qualified state residents, regardless of immigrant status. With this change, residents who have access to a car will be able to get to and from their front-line service jobs, the doctor, and the grocery store without having to fear infection on public transit.
If we do these things—if we act swiftly and deliberately to tackle COVID-19 health disparities at their source—we will enable immigrant and low-income families to be agents of solution in this crisis, rather than victims. And that, in turn, means a faster track to recovery for everyone.
Sonia Chang-Diaz is the Senator for Boston’s Second Suffolk District.