Five State Policy Proposals with Big Impacts for Michigan’s Immigrant Communities
Elinor Jordan, Supervising Attorney; Christine Sauvé-LMSW Macro; Jenika Scott, Social Work Intern
At the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, we serve immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers from around the world and across Michigan. We have seen and heard first hand many of the barriers these populations face establishing their lives and maintaining the health and wellbeing of their families. While there are countless examples of such hurdles warranting examination, we’d like to shine a light on five key policy areas that the broader legal community and policymakers should be aware of, chiefly because there are commonsense solutions at hand. By taking action on these proposals, state legislators have the opportunity to dramatically increase inclusion and access for Michigan’s immigrant populations.
Expanding Access to Driver's Licenses
Michigan is a state with limited public transportation. Breadwinners generally need to drive to survive. Nearly every day, we work with clients facing a crisis because a loved one, who cannot access a driver’s license under current Michigan law, is detained or deported after being pulled over for a routine traffic matter. Previously, driver’s licenses were available so long as an individual could prove their identity and that they were a resident. But for over a decade and a half, Michigan has required applicants for driver's licenses and state identification cards to provide proof of “legal presence.” This requirement prevents many people who are in the process of obtaining immigration status, as well as those who are undocumented, from accessing driver’s licenses. This also translates to more people on Michigan roads who are unable to obtain proper insurance.
Ever since this state policy shift, the human consequences are everywhere we look across the state. Most immigration attorneys know that one of the most dangerous things our clients do is drive on Michigan roads. Unfortunately, many noncitizens must take this risk because there is no other way to care for their families.
As Elvira from rural Northwestern Michigan explained, "I know many people who risk their livelihood and ability to live in this state everyday because they don’t have a driver’s license. But the fact of the matter is that they still have to be able to get to work, to go to the doctor, and to get their groceries. The fact is that people drive with or without a license because they have no other choice. I live out in Sparta and as everyone knows, it’s a rural area and there’s a big need to drive from place to place. There is no public transportation system, there are no cabs, and Uber is too expensive to use to get to and from work everyday when you live out in the country. What other choice are the people who live in Sparta, and other rural part of Michigan, going to do? We need driver's licenses for everybody. It will keep undocumented immigrants safe and keep other Michiganders safe too. Whether that’s properly learning traffic laws or feeling just a little bit safer if a police officer pulls you over for a faulty blinker."
The Michigan Legislature end this suffering by introducing new legislation similar to the Drive SAFE (Safety, Access, Freedom, and Economy) package of bills that have been introduced in the past, but have yet to receive a committee hearing. This proposed legislation would make noncommercial Michigan driver's licenses and state identification cards available to applicants who do not have proof of U.S. citizenship or immigration status. The bills eliminate the "legal presence" requirement for standard licenses, and they specify types of documentation allowable for proving Michigan residency and identity. These proposals are consistent with all applicable U.S. law including the REAL ID Act and still allow Michigan to issue REAL ID to applicants who can meet the REAL ID requirements.
This simple and commonsense fix would be a sea change for newcomers and immigrants living in Michigan. Anyone interested in supporting driver’s license reforms should engage with the efforts of Drive Michigan Forward, an effort led by affected populations and those serving them to achieve driver’s licenses for all. Representatives should act swiftly to uplift the dignity and safety of all Michiganders by restoring access to driver’s licenses.
For native English speakers, it is difficult to imagine walking into a service provider and not being able to understand or participate in conversations about our own health care, essential permits or licenses, or other critical services. But this is a hardship endured by many Michiganders today. Indeed, approximately 324,042 Michigan residents, or about 3.4% of the state population, have limited English proficiency or speak English “less than very well”. When English is not an individual’s primary language, they may need an interpreter or translation in order to have meaningful access to public information and services.
Federal law offers protections to individuals who, because of their national origin, are limited in their English proficiency (“LEP”). In turn, recipients of federal funding must take reasonable steps to make their programs, services, and activities accessible to eligible LEP persons. While these policies created a significant foundation and basic right for language access, they only apply to federally-funded programs. States have increasingly recognized that the denial of language access by state-funded entities may also constitute national origin discrimination and have enacted laws requiring state agencies and state-funded programs to ensure language access.
The need for this extension in Michigan was recently illustrated when reports about immigrant youth working long hours in Michigan factories gained national attention. As state agencies, schools, and social service providers wondered how children could have been left out of protections of the Michigan Youth Employment Standards Act, advocates navigated to the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity’s website on that program, and found that all of the information about these protections was offered only in English. Not surprisingly, immigrant youth had no knowledge of the Act’s protections or requirements because it was offered only in a language in which they were only minimally proficient. Michigan can do better to be sure that all people have access to protections and services offered by state agencies.
Michigan is taking action to fund state agencies and provide support that would allow agencies to offer language access to all Michiganders. The final 2023 state budget included an investment to support the development and implementation of a statewide LAP program, to be coordinated by the Office of Global Michigan (a part of the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity). The funding amounts to $700,000 (General Fund/General Purpose) in one-time appropriations along with $268,700 (GF/GP) in ongoing funding for two positions.
Michigan could join states such as Minnesota, Maryland, New York, Hawaii, and California, as well as the District of Columbia, in passing a state language-access requirement. Senator Stephanie Chang has led the charge to close critical gaps in state language access by introducing legislation that would require agencies to provide equal access to all Michiganders. The legislature should pass legislation similar to that introduced by Senator Chang in the past so that state agencies build a framework for full access and LEP individuals who are denied access have a mechanism for seeking a remedy. This would have an enormous impact for Michigan’s foreign-born populations, as well as U.S.-born individuals with limited English proficiency.
Justice for Injured Workers
A number of factors come together to make immigrant workers especially vulnerable to abuse in Michigan. In general, due to a lack of permanent immigration status and other protections, foreign-born workers are more likely to work in dangerous occupations. In particular, agriculture is both one of the most dangerous industries and is also one of Michigan’s chief economic engines. Over 35% of the state’s agricultural workers are foreign-born. In addition to working more dangerous jobs, according to the US Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, immigrant workers are 15% more likely to be fatally injured on the job than those who are native-born.
When workers are hurt on the job in Michigan, current state law makes it especially difficult for immigrants to seek workers' compensation. This is because a current loophole excludes immigrant and agricultural workers from equal access to lost wage benefits. The proscription on wage-loss benefits comes from an interpretation that undocumented workers would have been committing a crime if they continued to work, and so paying wage loss can be denied where the employer shows the reduction in pay is the result of an employee’s commission of a crime. Working as an undocumented person is not a crime, but this interpretation has nonetheless meant that workers lose their benefits. Further, because immigrant workers are deprived the most meaningful type of worker’s compensation benefits, the majority of the bar that practices on contingent fee is unable to represent them even for their basic needs like medical expenses. In turn, when immigrant workers get hurt, there is little accountability for the employer, and the worker is forced to bear the brunt of their injuries without any assistance. This is true despite the fact that immigrant workers have paid into the fund that is meant to be there for them when they get hurt. The Michigan legislature could close this loophole by passing legislation to ensure injured immigrant workers’ eligibility for lost wages through the worker’s compensation system.
This proposal would not only provide a safety net to prevent workers from returning to dangerous environments too soon after being injured to maintain an income, but would also create greater accountability among employers. Equal protection for immigrant workers would encourage safer and healthier workplaces for all workers. Several other states have seen the importance of leveling the playing field so that immigrant workers can be fully protected by worker’s compensation.
Fairness in Sentencing
Most people would be surprised to know that Michigan law currently allows a long-time permanent resident to be deported because they shoplifted. But due to a mismatch between Michigan law and federal immigration law, currently when long-term legal residents are charged with a so-called “one-year misdemeanor” in Michigan, they are subject to deportation and removal, even if they only serve a day or two in jail. This is because, under federal law, a single conviction for certain crimes can make a noncitizen deportable if “the offense carries a maximum possible sentence of one year or more.” Michigan has several misdmeanors with a maximum sentence of 365 days that could be deportable offenses.
It is difficult to say with precision how many parents, teens, and community members have been permanently separated over a misdemeanor. However, immigration court statistics show that over 1,500 Michiganders were deported in recent years when their most serious criminal conviction was a misdemeanor. Our lawyers often field calls from defense attorneys seeking to assist a noncitizen in making a plea and mitigating immigration consequences. We regularly talk to attorneys and noncitizens alike who fall within the crosshairs of the one-year misdemeanor and its deportable consequences. For each family that is torn apart when someone is deported, the impacts on the noncitizen’s children and community far outweigh the societal cost of these misdemeanors.
Reducing one-year misdemeanors by a single day would not impact immigration outcomes for undocumented people. It would also not change the government’s ability to deport lawful permanent residents who commit crimes involving domestic violence, stalking, child abuse/ neglect, or violations of protection orders. Instead, the reduction in possible sentence by one day would allow legal resident individuals who have committed crimes such as larceny of property worth $200-$1,000; driving a motorcycle more than once without a license, hunting a moose without a license, or refusing to provide a DNA sample when required. Anecdotally, it is highly unlikely that a person who is convicted of such crimes would actually serve 365 days. Most people would also agree that no one should suffer a life sentence of deportation because they committed one of these crimes.
A one day reduction in the maximum possible sentence for these misdemeanors would prevent many offenses from being grounds for deportation. Many other states have taken notice that the wording of their misdemeanor sentences are causing their residents to bear this injustice. States like Utah, Colorado, Nevada, Washington, Rhode Island, New York, and California have already passed one-day reductions that prevent deportation. The Michigan legislature could follow their lead and pass legislation to reduce the maximum 365-day misdemeanor sentences by one day to 364 days to prevent immigrant Michigan residents from being deported for minor crimes. What a difference a day makes!
Investing in Immigrant Communities
As world events, conflicts, and economic instability continue to affect countries abroad, federal immigration policies have recently favored the increased use of humanitarian parole, meaning more populations are coming to Michigan without a clear pathway to permanent legal status. State leaders are glad to welcome populations from Afghanistan, Ukraine, Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, as well as other countries, not only for humanitarian reasons but because it helps our state stem population loss and meet labor demands. States across the country are increasingly filling gaps in service to these populations and allocating state funding to fill it. Now Michigan has the opportunity to do the same.
Heeding this call, over one hundred nonprofit organizations, institutions of faith, businesses, and units of local government have expressed support for a Newcomers Fund. The Newcomers fund would be supported through an appropriation from the state legislature to the Office of Global Michigan in the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity. Funds would be granted to nonprofit organizations providing services in the following key areas: housing support, immigration legal services, and outreach.
Newcomers arrive with increasingly pressing needs for legal services. In FY2022, Michigan nonprofit organizations helped resettle and integrate well over 6,200 new arrivals across all corners of the state, a 719% increase from the FY2021 total of 759. The state expects to welcome at least 6,500 in FY2023, and this number is expected to increase again in FY2024 as additional parole programs have been recently announced at the federal level. Unlike previous populations arriving with refugee status, most individuals arriving with humanitarian parole status must apply for asylum within one year of arrival or seek another form of immigration benefit for which they are eligible. This requires the activation of Michigan’s nonprofit network of immigration legal service providers. Several other states have led the way in investing in the provision of legal services to ensure immigrant residents are able to contribute their full potential to local communities.
Michigan’s immigrant and refugee communities also identified housing assistance and other outreach staffing as needed areas of support. When newcomer clients first arrive, most are waiting one to two months to be matched with housing, due to severe shortages in affordable housing. The State of Michigan lacks any temporary rental assistance programs, and the few federal funding programs in existence require months or years before newcomers are eligible. Community navigators can effectively address barriers related to trust, language, and cultural competence. State funding would help newcomers access already-existing programs that are not meeting their full potential.
By the time this article is published, state legislators will be close to finalizing the FY 24 budget and determining whether Michigan will join the ranks of fellow states like California, Washington, Massachusetts, Oregon, Virginia, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, and Illinois in investing in services for immigrant communities. Whether or not the legislature makes the investment in this budget, the service needs for new arrivals will continue to persist and it will be in the best interest of the state to consider state support for these communities in future budgets.
Conclusion and Call to Action
The five policy areas highlighted above would all enhance access and inclusion for Michigan’s foreign-born population. These steps are not only an investment in immigrant communities, they are an investment in Michigan’s future. The Michigan Immigrant Rights Center looks forward to collaborating with partners, legislators, and our client communities to advance these priorities in the Michigan legislature. To stay informed on these and other important state policies for immigrants in Michigan, join the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center’s email lists by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org, like and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and check our website, www.michiganimmigrant.org frequently.