Kate McCabe / Gavel Media

Interactive Workshop Explores Immigrant Rights in MA

The Boston College Center for Human Rights and International Justice (CHRIJ) hosted the Immigrant Rights and Public Benefits in Massachusetts, “an interactive mini-workshop” that explored an array of social programs implemented at both the state and federal levels to assist low-income people, on Wednesday night.

Led by Timothy Karcz, assistant director of the Center for Human Rights and International Justice, Heather Friedman, an immigration attorney working with the CHRIJ, and two undergraduate research assistants, the event highlighted how access to social services is “affected by type or lack of immigration status.”

The workshop began with Friedman unpacking some of the main classifications of immigrants, including naturalized citizens, lawful permanent residents, undocumented immigrants, asylees and refugees, as well as highlighting some of the nuance and distinctions in these categories that many overlook. One point that Friedman made is the fact that “in a given household, you might have different members with different [immigration] statuses,” further complicating their already tenuous positions.

As part of the workshop, each table was assigned one hypothetical immigrant profile, and were asked to examine the government services available to them based on the information provided. One group was told to look at the case of Berta, a 21-year-old pregnant and undocumented immigrant with two children, including one child who is also undocumented and another child who is a citizen, as an example of the mixed household dynamic referenced earlier.

Based solely off her immigration status, Berta would be ineligible for most forms of federal aid, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps, as well as housing subsidies. At the state level, Berta would find more luck, such as with the MassHealth Limited health coverage program.

However, as research assistant Audrey Hersman, MCAS '19, pointed out, “healthcare for anyone in the United States is a complicated issue,” and even more so for immigrants, who may have difficulty overcoming the language barrier or navigating the labyrinthine network of programs and their associated regulations. Although fictional, the case of Berta is not one far removed from the reality many immigrants face, and helps shed light on their struggles.

One important takeaway from the workshop is the disparity between the services offered by various states, as well as the federal government, in the way they relate to immigration status.

Massachusetts, for example, is considered “particularly generous” to immigrants, offering limited healthcare and subsidized housing. However, there are far more restrictions on which classes of immigrants can receive federal aid, and some states have even more stringent regulations than the federal government. Specifically, in Indiana, Georgia, and Arizona, undocumented students are prohibited from receiving in-state tuition rates at public universities, while Alabama and South Carolina forbid undocumented students from even enrolling.

Encapsulating what they saw as the main goal of the workshop, research assistant Elizabeth Wollan, MCAS '19, said that they hoped this event could help “start the conversation” about immigrants in our community, including those immigrants who proudly take their place among BC’s student body, and the various struggles they face that may go unnoticed by the general public.

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