Co-founder of the volunteer grassroots organization Washtenaw Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights (WICIR), therapist, lecturer and professor at the University of Michigan School of Social Work, Laura Sanders wears many hats, several of which converge around the issue of immigrant rights. She co-founded WICIR with her partner, who was undocumented at the founding of WICIR, and other community members, in response to increased levels of immigration enforcement in Washtenaw County, Michigan. Washtenaw County is located within 100 miles of the US-Canada border, which means the region has several border patrol officers and other immigration enforcement officials who are empowered to question and detain residents about their immigration status. This also means the Department of Homeland Security can set up fugitive operation teams to facilitate deportations, which have increased since 9/11. In her role with WICIR, Laura is a community organizer, coordinator and immigrant rights advocate. She works with communities that have experienced numerous immigration raids and heightened surveillance by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), local police, and law enforcement. Immigration enforcement has tightened since 9/11, to the point where Laura calls this issue “perhaps the most intensively negative civil rights issues of our time.” Laura’s dedication to responding to the effects of immigration enforcement on the lives of individuals, families, and communities traumatized by immigration raids, and her and WICIR’s work to create change among law enforcement agencies make her a true public health hero.
Career in Profile
- 1982 – BA in Women’s Studies, minor in Psychology from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI
- 1982 – Youth Employment Counselor, Washtenaw County, MI
- 1982-1983 – Counselor and Medical Assistant, Womancare, Ypsilanti, MI
- 1983-1984 – Outreach Health Educator, The Corner Health Center, Ypsilanti, MI
- 1983-1985 – Co-Director of Women’s Programs, University of Michigan Human Sexuality Office, Ann Arbor, MI
- 1984-1985 – Project Coordinator, Student Health Advocacy Board, The Corner Health Center, Ypsilanti, MI
- 1985-1986 – Community Liaison and Administrative Assistant, The Corner Health Center, Ypsilanti, MI
- 1985-1987 – Health Educator and Project Director, The Corner Health Center, Ypsilanti, MI
- 1988 – Family Therapist Intern, Child Sexual Abuse Treatment Unit, Children’s Center of Wayne County, Detroit, MI
- 1988 – Master of Social Work from the University of Michigan School of Social Work
- 1989-1991 – Therapist, The Family Awareness Center, Adrian, MI
- 1996-2002 – Associate Clinical Director, Family Assessment Clinic Child Abuse and Neglect Program, University of Michigan School of Social Work, Ann Arbor, MI
- 2002-2013 – Trainer and Consultant, Vista Maria Residential Treatment Center for Girls and Clara B. Ford School
- 1994-2012 – Director of Creative Counseling for Families and Youth, Ann Arbor, MI
- 1991-NOW – Clinical Social Work Therapist, Group Therapist, Program Coordinator, Ann Arbor, MI
- 1996-NOW – Faculty member at the University of Michigan School of Social Work, Ann Arbor, MI
- 2008 – Co-Founded Washtenaw Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights (WICIR), Washtenaw County, MI
What inspires you and the work that you do?
My personal values around equality are fundamental to who I am and all the work that I do. But what really inspires me is anger. It angers me to see people mistreated, or that our community and society finds discrimination acceptable! I’m also inspired by my personal experiences. Certainly my relationship with my partner [who was undocumented when we met] has been very inspirational. I’m not sure I would have understood – and been as close to this issue – if I hadn’t met him. Knowing him, being with him, his community becoming a part of my community: this taught me so much. Without him, I don’t know that I would have understood this issue enough to get this close to it.
Our organization keeps me going. And really, what keeps us going is this incredible relationship with the immigrant community, especially the undocumented community. The undocumented community is still very vulnerable to scapegoating and harm by our immigration policies. It’s also inspiring to meet community members, empower people, watch change happen, see policies slowly begin to shift, and work with people to manage the conditions they’re in.
What is a career success or highlight that you are particularly proud of?
In terms of our organization, I’m very proud of our relationship with our county sheriff. We have really struggled to nurture a relationship with the police and our local police force. We take calls from the community when they’re facing immigration issues, and have documented about 480 calls. Of those calls, half include at least one person who has been detained or deported; hundreds of children have lost their parents or significant providing adults. 30% of those detainments and deportations started with some kind of local traffic stop.
So there’s a process by which people end up getting tagged for immigration enforcement through local police involvement. It’s been very important to raise police consciousness around this issue, especially the devastating effects in the community. We’ve also pushed for policy shifts that separate local police enforcement from federal immigration law enforcement. We got a resolution passed in the Ann Arbor City Council that states that the Ann Arbor police will not be involved in immigration enforcement.
But there are thirteen municipalities in Washtenaw County and then there’s also the sheriff. We’ve really nurtured the relationship with our sheriff, and he’s been very communicative with us. A few cases that came to his attention helped him shift internal policy around how the police will deal with immigrants and immigration issues. That feels like effectiveness.
We’ve also worked with the Coalition for Tuition Equality. We have a group of undocumented teenagers who are DREAM Act students, and we participated in running a program called Sueños that brought parents and undocumented students together for mentorship from social work students. That group became a very powerful voice and became involved in tuition equality. We just won tuition equality for undocumented students at the University of Michigan, and for students who are eligible for Deferred Action Childhood Arrival (DACA) at Washtenaw Community College! So we see these effects happening. These are small local policies, but we believe that these are very important changes because they’re setting our community up for whenever our government gets around to creating real immigration reform. These changes create a base to make people’s lives a little bit more livable. Unfortunately we’re in this big political quagmire that isn’t delivering on immigration reform right now. So, we think very broadly and globally about immigration issues, but we act locally.
What is a challenge that you’ve faced or you continue to face in your career?
There can be a tension between the micro work and the macro work that WICIR does. One of our missions is to provide urgent response for families facing increased immigration enforcement. So we might get a call from a devastated, crying mother where Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has taken her husband on his way to work. He’s disappeared into some detention center. She has no idea where he is, who took him, why he didn’t come home, her three children are all upset and he’s the provider. Her first order of business is to find her husband.
So this is a micro activity – helping one woman and her family. It’s a crisis intervention. On the other end, we could channel all of our energy towards community organizing around immigration reform, because ultimately we need a policy shift to change this situation. So it’s challenging to figure out how much to pay attention to people’s individual needs, and how much energy do we have to shift policy? Keep in mind, we’re a volunteer organization.
I believe that when we meet the needs of the community, we involve the community. The community then becomes more self-sufficient and more engaged, and those most affected engage in community organizing to change policy. That’s certainly how it’s played out over the last five and a half years. We are proud of it, but it’s challenging to do both. It’s very tough to have enough energy to meet people’s individual needs but also work towards systemic change. Some community organizations decide not to bother with people’s individual needs because it’s just becomes too consuming.
We have a diamond that demonstrates the activities of our organization. Urgent response is at the top. If we do this well, we learn what the community needs in order to be well educated. We learn what policies need changing. Policy change is another mission. By this I mean local and national activism towards policy change. A third mission is to bring the undocumented community into the center of the organization, so that they make decisions about our projects. Our organization is a very nice partnership between the undocumented community and the “allied community” – people of privilege who are linked and partnered with the undocumented community to create change. It’s challenging to continually keep the undocumented community in the decision-making role, and I feel very proud of the way our organization has kept that as a primary mission.
When it comes to public health, what matters to you and why?
Access to resources matters most to me. I’ve learned so much about what it means to be a US citizen and how many privileges that truly entails. Undocumented immigration status gets in the way of accessing nearly every resource in every system. The new policy strategy, especially among conservatives, is to put the squeeze on undocumented immigrants until they can’t survive. Then they can “go home.” Many people experience the United States as their home! We’ve always had undocumented migration and we know that. But no one really cared as much as they care about it now. Since 9/11 The Department of Homeland Security has focused on deporting people. The undocumented community has been scapegoated.
About four years ago, the Michigan Secretary of State instituted a rule where you have to have a social security number in order to get a driver’s license. This comes from the federal government’s REAL ID Act. Michigan’s never had that before. People drove without social security numbers, but they could get car insurance which kept people secure. Now, all of a sudden, if you can’t get a driver’s license, you don’t have an updated photo ID, and that means all sorts of resources are no longer accessible. You can’t legally drive. If the police stop you for something legitimate or illegitimate – racial profiling – or maybe you accidentally run a stop sign, then you’ve got another problem.
Access to resources has become increasingly difficult for undocumented people in areas like driving, health care, and school including access to education, higher education, and financial aid. People are afraid to go to the doctor or the hospital because of their undocumented immigration status. You can get food stamps if you’ve got US citizen children. Otherwise, there are no benefits. We give them a Tax ID Number so they can pay taxes, but we won’t give them a Social Security Number so that they can reap the benefits of paying taxes. It’s silly to say that undocumented people are sucking up our benefits. They’re not eligible for most of them! That’s a major public health issue. The ability to function in the various systems that we interact with daily. All those systems we take for granted, like the ability to have a valid driver’s license or access health and dental care.
Is there a persistent public health problem that still concerns you today?
This may seem like a stretch, but I’m very concerned with our very broken immigration policy, our broken system, and the politics behind it. The undocumented Latino community has been particularly targeted and scapegoated. Until 9/11, we never really had a Department of Homeland Security. Then, we poured a lot of money into that department to prevent terrorism. This is a bit simplistic, but there aren’t that many terrorists to go after, and because so much money was moved towards the Department of Homeland Security, their mission shifted to also focus on the US-Mexico border.
That border happens to be the world’s largest land border between a more developed country and a less-developed country. Whenever you have that situation you’ll definitely have people coming over the border. Our free trade agreements have contributed to the problem by exacerbating poverty in Mexico, Central, and South American countries. Our large US-subsidized agricultural companies put a lot of small farmers out of business. We’re focused on locking down the border, but we’re contributing to the conditions that drive illegal immigration.
There’s just a lot of economic and immigration enforcement policy that needs to be rethought and reworked. This immigration policy is very, very broken. My spouse had an approved application and he waited 16 years for a visa. He would have had to wait 23 years. If you’re in a drastic situation and trying to improve your life, you can’t wait that long. The system is broken for the people who need it. It’s not broken for the businessmen and the others who benefit from undocumented labor and the way the system is set up. Privileged people have benefited. There may not be much impetus to change.
On that notion, what do you think it will take to address this issue of the broken immigration system?
It will take a Congress that’s willing to work – realistically – on something. We’ll need continued organizing and empowerment of the affected community. Change comes from the bottom up for almost any civil rights issue, as opposed to a top down decision made by policymakers. Although I’m frustrated that comprehensive immigration reform has not moved faster, the reform packages we’ve seen so far have included things like an additional $40 billion for border patrol. That will only result in more undocumented immigrants’ deaths as those at the border try to hide and survive. Increased border enforcement and fences have resulted in increased immigrant deaths because people were pushed into more and more dangerous areas. You’re not going to stop undocumented immigration, so you might as well work with a policy that helps. Border enforcement does not.
So even though I’m unhappy with the lack of movement around immigration reform, we also don’t want a bad bill that worsens conditions for immigrants. The more time it takes, the more education and organization occurs at the grass roots level. The DREAM Act students – the young, undocumented youth – have made so much progress in their organizing efforts. The issues they brought to light won the Deferred Action Childhood Arrival policy from President Obama. That’s one indication that grassroots level work creates real, sustainable change. So often we see a Band-Aid approach, or a policy with so many compromises that it’s not even good for the community.