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How do Sanctuary Policies Affect Immigrant Health and Participation in Public Programs?

Pregnant mom hugs two children

May 3, 2024

UHC faculty Dr. Brent Langelier and Dr. Alina Schnake-Mahl were recently awarded funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to study how state preemption laws affecting immigrant sanctuary policies impact the lives and health of Hispanic and Latino people in the U.S. Preemption laws are enacted by upper levels of government, such as the state or county, to prevent lower levels of government, such as cities and towns, from enacting certain policies. Many states preempt a number of policies related to firearms, zoning, and workers’ rights.

This project focuses on state preemption of sanctuary policies. These are laws and practices that shield immigrants from the enforcement of federal immigration laws, such as being detained or questioned about their documentation status. Sanctuary policies can also provide services to support immigrants’ quality of life, such as English language classes or state-issued drivers’ licenses.

States can preempt sanctuary policies by preventing local governments from implementing their own policies that limit the enforcement of federal immigration law. Langellier and Schnake-Mahl explain how the resulting policy environments can affect people’s lives:

“Sanctuary and antisanctuary policies can fundamentally change the deportation risk faced by undocumented immigrants by either requiring or limiting the extent to which large local law enforcement workforces cooperate with ICE and enforce federal immigration law. High levels of enforcement can create a 'culture of fear' that prevents eligible individuals from interacting with the government out of fear of revealing undocumented immigrants in their social networks.”

This culture of fear can affect non-immigrants as well, who risk being profiled by law enforcement based on their ethnic identity. With this study, Langellier and Schnake-Mahl will examine the effects of preempting sanctuary/anti-sanctuary policies on voting, public program participation, and low birth weight, among Hispanic/Latino people.

“This work is really important because states are increasingly passing preemptive legislation that limits the policies and practices that cities and counties can implement. Several states – including Georgia very recently – have used preemptive legislation to limit local policies that provide services and offer integration resources to new immigrants,” Dr. Langellier said.

“This study will help us shed light on the impact that preemptive state policies have on the health and social outcomes of immigrants and their families.”