Imagine driving your elderly mother to a doctor’s appointment and being charged with a third-degree felony. Or, having your neighbor over for dinner only to be arrested. Imagine your pastor giving a young couple shelter in your church, only to be taken into police custody.
If passed, SB 1718 would criminalize lending a helping hand if the object of that help is an undocumented immigrant — it tears up the very fabric of social ties and trust that brings cohesion to a community. This isn’t about punishing immigrants who help immigrants — U.S. citizens would be criminalized2 too for lending support. Which leads to the question: What is the real purpose of this bill?
SB 1718 is intended not only to completely isolate undocumented immigrants from their support networks, but it will instill harm; it is sanctioned state violence against immigrants and U.S. citizens alike, and it is bad policy likely intended to be weaponized politically.
Take for example, mixed-status families, those which may include undocumented members alongside U.S. citizens. There are an estimated 5.9 million children in mixed status families who are U.S. citizens — three-fourths of all immigrant children. Children of undocumented immigrants represent 7.25% of all U.S. children. These U.S. citizens could be convicted of a felony for simply taking their parents to the grocery store under this bill. Because U.S. citizen children or those with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) often act as institutional brokers for their families, this bill will place them at risk of arrest, for the mere act of caring for their families.
This bill will not just divide families, it will further marginalize undocumented immigrants, including those who came to the U.S. as children. In research that my colleagues and I have done over the past decade, we find incidence of depression and anxiety among undocumented youth and young adults, as they navigate the world “without papers”. These young people were resilient, however, thanks to access to networks that provided social support.
This bill, however, would exacerbate their struggles with mental illness by criminalizing the existence of these very networks. For example, youth and young adults who are undocumented could put their U.S. citizen friends at risk if they so much as ride to a party together. Some undocumented youth already self-segregate, often to keep their status a secret. This bill would drive them further underground, ripping them from the networks that have helped them stay afloat throughout their teenage years.
Understandably, religious leaders, lawyers and landlords are among those who are deeply concerned about this bill. But we should all be worried — how do you even know that someone you are helping is undocumented? Do we ask about people’s status? Are we supposed to rely on racial profiling and not assist anyone who “looks” like an undocumented immigrant (which will lead to a sharp increase in racism toward the Latino community)? Or will legislation in the future propose that we ascribe some physical marker to anyone who is an undocumented immigrant? This sounds dangerously familiar, and it will sweep all of us into the process of immigration enforcement.
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Moreover, given the full scope of this proposal, the medical community in particular, should also be alarmed. SB 1718 requires hospitals to ask patients for their legal status at intake. Undocumented immigrants are already reluctant to seek medical treatment for fear that their status will be revealed — this bill confirms their worst nightmares, and most will simply avoid seeking care. Their U.S. citizen children will mostly likely not receive the health care they need either, or the vaccines they are eligible for, given this bill’s chilling effects. Playing these very real scenarios out to their logical conclusions, illnesses will go untreated, and people will die. This bill embodies state violence not just toward immigrants, but U.S. citizens who have the right to seek health care and not be persecuted for helping their families and community members.
A bill very similar to this one, HR 4437, was introduced in Congress in late 2005 by Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin. This bill would have criminalized anyone who assisted undocumented immigrants, just as SB 1718 does. In the ensuing months in 2006, millions of immigrants and Latinos protested in cities across the country. Ultimately this bill died in the U.S. Senate — it was simply too harsh to pass.
SB 1718′s purpose is unclear, and the bill is unnecessary. The undocumented population already has been declining for more than a decade without draconian measures such as this one. And though many believe SB 1718 will likely become law, it is imperative to anticipate the results of this kind of state violence toward citizens of this country. U.S. citizens who simply want to help their neighbors will be criminalized and charged with felony offenses, diverting needed resources from other, much more pressing societal problems. The larger question is: Is this the kind of society we want to be, where we are all forced to become the immigration police?
Elizabeth Aranda is professor of Sociology and director of the Im/migrant Well-Being Research Center at the University of South Florida. She is also co-leader of the Florida Chapter of the Scholars Strategy Network. The views expressed here do not represent those of the University of South Florida.