Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Immigrant Rights, Social Justice and Post-Pandemic Planning

Sonja Diaz, a lawyer and scholar, talks about immigrants, who are disproportionately represented among essential workers but have received little in the way of COVID-19 aid. The pandemic has left them in limbo.

Sonja Diaz is the founding director of the Latino Policy and Politics Initiative (LPPI) at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. A civil rights attorney and policy adviser, she served as counsel to Sen. Kamala Harris during her first and second terms as California attorney general. In this role, she directed policing and immigrant rights working groups and acted as lead counsel for a voting rights investigation. Diaz has supported litigation by the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, the California Bureau of Children’s Justice and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF). 

LPPI research and analysis provides policymakers with data and facts that can inform policies on issues that affect Latinos and other communities of color. Diaz spoke with Governing about the vital role that immigrants are playing in pandemic response, their importance to economic recovery and a path forward that could benefit all Americans.


Sonja Diaz, founding director of the Latino Policy and Politics Initiative, with Matt Barreto (left), faculty co-director and Gary Segura, dean of UCLA's Luskin School of Public Affairs.

How does immigration policy fit in the current dialogue around institutional racism?

Fair and just immigration that finds a pathway to citizenship for all of our undocumented neighbors, friends and family members in this country is necessary. The coronavirus pandemic has made clear that our frontline and essential workers, who represent so many immigrants and so many workers of color, are doing everything to keep America running and safe. Yet because of their immigration status, they're at risk for deportation, devastating not only their families but their communities. They also are explicitly denied access to coronavirus relief and recovery benefits. This includes the CARES Act. It includes other types of social service and human welfare benefits necessary to put food on the table, to keep electricity going and to have housing to shelter in place during the pandemic.

Immigrants deserve to not be held in limbo. This was true prior to the pandemic and prior to the movement for Black lives on the streets, but these things have only reinforced the pivotal role that our immigrant workforce has in keeping Americans safe. Ultimately, recovery is going to be on their backs and we most certainly should have a pathway to citizenship for them.

Is it better to go deep and fix as much as possible, or to take up one thing at a time and fix that?

The country is facing three existential crises: the coronavirus pandemic and our failed health-care system; the continued proliferation of anti-Black sentiment and the loss of lives of Black and Brown residents at the hands of police abuse; and worsening economic inequality. Cumulatively, these three crises make clear that incremental change is not going to solve anything. We find ourselves recognizing failed leadership, failed systems and failed structures.

I've been reminded of what happened after the civil disorders that occurred in the summer of 1967 and the U.S. Riot Commission Report that came out of that which included a lot of voices, most of whom were moderate. No activists were appointed by the president at that time. The solutions that it laid are solutions that ring true today: access to health, housing, education and jobs. None of those recommendations were ever implemented in full, and sustained, for a variety of reasons, politics being one.

What does the country need today? We need a health-care system that can support us as we try to get through the coronavirus pandemic and whatever comes after it, because any single person being sick threatens the public health of entire communities and jeopardizes our economic stability. We need to ensure that workers that are doing essential jobs, whether in our hospitals, in our senior care centers, in our grocery stores or in their cars as they deliver food, have a living wage and protections like paid sick leave and retirement security. We need these because their jobs are important, and because our economic recovery is actually attainable and winnable with their support.

The other thing that I think is really clear, and this is going to come up in the coming weeks and months, is our housing crisis. Many people who are out of work not only lost their employer-based health insurance, but are now in limbo in their rental or home ownership situations, facing eviction or foreclosure. Social science research tells us that the most important thing in addressing housing insecurity is to keep people housed.

These are not easy fixes. There are no Band-Aids that could collectively cover all of the issues that leaders are being asked to confront. Instead, the path forward is taking a step back and recognizing the structures that need deep repair.

What should happen at the state and local government level?

State and local governments have an outsized role in safeguarding our democracy and reopening our economy so that it works for all of us. We saw this prior to all the crises that we find ourselves immersed in. The coronavirus laid bare the inefficiency within our systems, whether public or private, in dealing with the global pandemic.

States, and local governments in particular, that are in charge of infrastructure, public safety and public health, have an important role to play in improving quality of life for their constituents and in helping the entire country find a pathway back to shared governance and a society that works for everybody.

Physical distancing, the use of masks, increased testing, especially at sites where essential workers work, access to care and beds in the ICU, the health-care workforce necessary to triage not only a global pandemic, but the health issues that were already occurring for all Americans — decisions about these are executed and in the dominion of local officials and state officials. We can even look to the November election, and wanting to ensure that everybody can participate fully in our democracy. The capacity for this rests squarely with our state and local election officials, to ensure that nobody has to risk infection or unnecessary loss of life to cast a ballot.

Local and state officials really have a huge, extraordinary job to get this right. It can only be done together, ensuring that their leadership is informed by data and by facts, with the clear goals of saving lives and improving the quality of life in their communities.

What’s most important right now?

The most important things for state and local officials at this moment are to expand testing and tracing for the coronavirus, to provide concrete benefits, to keep food on the table and constituents housed until it is safe to fully reopen the economy and to think big about reinvesting in the things that we know work. Those are education, workforce development, affordable housing and access to health care, so that we are not dealing with problems when they've already become crises.

How should government be engaging with citizens?

Citizens have been engaging in civic life, even as they are following and abiding by the physical distancing protocols in their respective jurisdictions. People are Zoom calling into city council or county board of supervisors’ meetings. People are on the streets protesting against police abuse. We've seen widespread mutual aid, neighbors providing essential services like food, child care and transportation to those in need. 

It’s really important for elected officials to embrace the moment, to recognize that it calls for bold action. The absence of that will result in too many lives lost, too soon. It requires folks working collectively and to not be siloed, which is really difficult in any government bureaucracy. It requires thinking through how you can increase and structure communication between health, public safety, transportation and housing in real time. You need every team member at the table to deal with this pandemic and the issues that it's laid bare.

In terms of state government officials, it's really important that we have leaders who are leading. Local officials see the problems acutely, but the pandemic necessitates us moving together in lock step. Reopening jurisdictions, not being clear about mandates like masks, and not increasing testing means that people can get in their cars, cross a boundary, and infect other people in a community that thinks that it’s safe. 

We need leadership and instruction. If they have the food, the housing security, the money that they need for utilities and daily expenses right now, Americans will stand with our elected leaders so that we can overcome this pandemic together.

What can citizens do to sustain current momentum? 

Continued activism is important, whether from your home or in your community. Every generation has something to do with where we are right now. Every American has a role in ensuring that we come out on the other side. If that simply means engaging in conversations with your family members about what's happening, that's a step. It could mean providing aid to others, acknowledging anti-Blackness and being generous with our Black neighbors and our family members. All of those things are necessary.

There are other things that can provide real change in the near future, and that starts with the ballot box. I am very fearful that the pandemic and our contemporary attacks on the rights of voters, whether strict voter ID laws or onerous voter registration requirements, will make it very difficult for Americans to cast a ballot during the coronavirus pandemic.

Sustained, vocal engagement can lead to the structural transformations that we need. We cannot go back to a “normal” with so many Americans living on the streets, so many Americans without health insurance, so many Americans being targeted or racially profiled by our police.

We have to re-envision what a post-coronavirus America looks like. I hope that our leaders agree that it looks like vibrant, prosperous communities where everybody has access to dignity and a job, whether they’re in South Los Angeles or Selma or Atlanta or Milwaukee, or even Appalachia.

How can we sidestep the divisive rhetoric that has become so common?

Divisive rhetoric, coupled with inaction or barriers to common-sense solutions, will keep America behind. We have shown the world that we are not a sophisticated society that can overcome a global pandemic with swiftness and effectiveness, in the way that our peer countries have been able to do.

Our peer entity now is Brazil, and what we share is leaders who are making decisions and public policy that are not rooted in science, not rooted in facts, and leading to abysmal loss of life. One of the things that those who swore an oath of office must do is to ensure that they are leading by preserving American life. To do otherwise is not only harmful, it is un-American. 

If science shows that we need testing, that we need tracing and we need to get them to levels that mean all people are safe, particularly the essential and frontline workers who are driving this economy, to do otherwise is essentially saying that those low-wage workers are disposable. It says that so long as some can afford to get their food and necessities delivered and have the capital to continue to pay a mortgage or pay a rent, they don't care and they don't have to abide by or buy into public health mandates. That's not American.

We're seeing the devastating consequences of this across the country. LPPI has done research on the health and wealth impacts of the virus on communities. We have found overwhelming evidence that this is a racialized pandemic. Blacks and Latinos in Los Angeles County are least likely to be able to shelter in place because there simply are no supermarkets or restaurants in their area and they have to leave home.

Asian Americans and Latinos were hardest hit by the closures to the retail and service industries, leaving them in precarious economic situations. Latinos were explicitly left out of the CARES Act because of the number of immigrants and mixed status families within that demographic group, meaning that they don't have access to relief or benefits because the government said that they were not worthy. We can't keep going on like this because we are tied to a demographic landscape with an aging white electorate and a growing youthful population of Asian Americans and Latinos.

An economy needs workers that have access to the skills training and education necessary to keep us competitive in the 21st century. That simply cannot happen if changes do not occur today.

How can LPPI support government efforts?

We are a resource for state and local governments. We do rapid-response research on issues and challenges that confront policymakers. To the extent that they want to think about criminal justice, the economy, immigrant rights and voting, they can look to us for reports and analysis, or any one of our 40 experts, to think through how to craft policy that's data-informed and will lift up Americans from communities of color. 

Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
Special Projects