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Research for Social Change: Mobilizing My Work for Migrant Rights

October 01, 2020

Clustered on the marbled steps outside City Hall, triumphant expressions hidden by dark face masks, members of Unidad Latina en Acción (ULA) awaited the mayor of New Haven. Two children strung up a banner that shouted, “Nada sobre nosotros sin nosotros”: Nothing about us, without us, a rallying cry for these immigrants’ rights activists. A mother and her son held another banner declaring “Black Latino United,” a reminder in a time of trending #BlackLivesMatter hashtags that Latinx communities share many common struggles with Black Americans.

Within a few minutes, Mayor Elicker emerged from behind the vaulted glass doors, his pale blue button-down shirt fluttering along his lanky frame. John Jairo Lugo, ULA’s key organizer, kicked off the event: the signing of an executive order to make New Haven a “Welcoming City” that grants equal protection to all migrants, regardless of their citizenship status.

“This is something we have been fighting for… for so many years,” John said. He described initiatives dating back to 2006 and the improvements in the new order, specifically its commitment to disciplining city employees who violate it.

“New Haven has a history of being a welcoming city and today we are here to reaffirm that history and to strengthen protections for our residents,” Mayor Elicker said.

Following the mayor, activists and community leaders shared their stories fighting for this change and the promise of security it meant to them. As a crowd, we felt their pain and frustration but also hope. Soon it was my turn to speak.

“As a researcher, I can tell you that the data are clear: cities, states, and counties with ‘sanctuary’ policies have lower crime rates and better economies,” I urged the crowd.

“My own research on intergenerational trauma, and the research of so many other scholars, shows that locking people up and separating families is bad for our health. Not only does it cause trauma for the people caged and deported, but it negatively impacts the health of their families, their children, and entire communities.”

Under harsher immigration enforcement, migrants experience more mental distress, worse health, and are less likely to seek health services and public benefits for their citizen children. U.S. citizen families have more than three times greater odds of reporting good health relative to mixed status families under unfavorable immigration policies. Pregnant women fearing deportation receive inadequate prenatal care and citizen children who worry about losing a caregiver suffer from higher rates of depression, anxiety, emotional distress, and hypervigilance. In the wake of immigration raids and mass deportations, entire communities grieve through isolation, fear, and chronic stress.

ULA had invited me to speak as an expert: an academic authority on intergenerational trauma and the health impacts of immigration enforcement. But I had the audience of the Mayor, the Community Services Administrator, local representatives, and community leaders and so I used the end of my speech to advocate for policy.

“Nada sobre nosotros sin nosotros”

“We need to follow in the footsteps of California and New York City to achieve publicly-funded healthcare for undocumented adults—especially in this moment of unprecedented uncertainty,” I claimed, pointing to the raging pandemic that had claimed the lives of so many vulnerable Latinx community members.

Following my remarks, I introduced myself to the mayor and handed him a pamphlet with additional data on the associations of strict immigration enforcement with adverse health.

“Do you know of any policies like this in the state of Connecticut?” Mayor Elicker asked.

“No,” I said, “but there is an opportunity, particularly amid the pandemic, to push for an executive order.”

Merging with ongoing efforts at HAVEN Free Clinic, we sent the Mayor a policy memo and letter the following week. We have since met with advocacy organizations, local clinics, healthcare leaders, and representatives who support expanding Medicaid to undocumented families. We have not won, but we remain committed to progress.

As a future physician-anthropologist, I seek to improve the lives of my patients. Whereas many of my MD/PhD colleagues imagine their work “from bench to bedside,” I envision my impact “from bedside and beyond,” or informing social policies that shape individuals’ lives beyond the clinic. Whether protein or policy, I trust we can work together across disciplines to improve health and health equity for our community.

If you are interested in supporting advocacy efforts for expanding Medicaid to undocumented families, please email Jes at

Submitted by Reiko Fitzsimonds on October 01, 2020