Above: Dozens of residents gathered in Winton earlier this year for one of several Know Your Rights events hosted by community groups and immigrant advocates throughout Merced County. Photo courtesy of MOP Merced Facebook page.
By Hannah Esqueda
MERCED, Calif. — Immigrant rights groups and health advocates are keeping a close eye on national, state and local immigrant communities for signs of social and health issues they say are connected to President Donald Trump’s flurry of executive orders and federal policy changes.
“We need to be clear. This is one of the most horrendous periods of American history for immigrant families,” said Angelica Salas, executive director at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights.
Since taking office, Trump has promoted and enacted a number of policies targeting the nation’s immigrant communities, she said. From attempts to ban refugees and immigrants from certain countries from entering the United States to expanding deportations of those with no criminal record, to threats to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and federal assistance for sanctuary cities, each new immigration policy has targeted an already vulnerable community.
Salas spoke during a recent press call hosted by New America Media and Ready California that focused on how immigrant communities nationwide are responding to these sweeping changes.
But while Salas and other advocates touted successes in organizing immigrant populations in Los Angeles and the Bay Area, local groups warn of the difficulty facing more rural immigrant communities in the Central Valley.
“The focus here is more on having smaller conversations, more one-on-ones with local leaders rather than the big marches you see in major cities,” said Tania Pacheco, research scientist with the Central Valley Health Policy Institute (CVHPI) at California State University, Fresno.
“But when there are public displays, I think having those advocates be seen helps give people a sense of community and know people are watching out for them,” she said.
Eliminating that sense of helplessness is crucial, as many immigrant residents suffer from feelings of isolation and hopelessness.
“That sense of community can be a big protective factor for people’s health. That feeling of, ‘I’m not alone, someone does care for me,’ that’s really huge,” Pacheco said. “Self-efficacy is so important to the community right now and It has a proven effect on mental health and behavior.”
Even though rural communities in Merced County may be unable to stage large marches or demonstrations, the small “Know Your Rights” events popping up at schools and churches can have just as big of an impact, she said.
California Rural Legal Assistance has hosted several such workshops, offering legal advice and helping identify pathways to residency, said Luis Castillo, a community worker with the group.
Over the last few months, CRLA and other advocacy groups have organized events in communities like Planada and Beechwood-Franklin, informing residents–regardless of immigration status–of their constitutional rights and how to respond if federal agents approach them.
The turnout at each event has continued to grow. Castillo said residents have a lot of questions, particularly if their children qualify for DACA.
He said the workshops are helpful because many residents already qualify for some form of immigration relief, but they don’t know it.
“They only have one or two ideas of a route that would get them to legal residency,” he said. “But in reality, there’s a bunch of different ways.”
For example, some crime victims may qualify for U-visas; and some victims of trafficking may qualify for T-visas.
Pacheco said it’s important for residents to know all of their options so they can begin to see pathways for a secure future in the country.
There is an added benefit to seeking information and applying for some form of of immigration relief, health advocates say. Addressing these concerns not only helps alleviate fear, but can also go a long way toward reducing negative health outcomes associated with stress.
“By having this much stress imposed on a community like the immigrant community because of the policies and fear of deportation–and it’s a policy that is itself really driven by fear and intimidation–you’re talking about implementing something that is going to have an effect on this whole community at the molecular level,” Pacheco said.
Just one year after state legislators successfully expanded coverage to all of California’s children–regardless of immigration status–health care providers are noticing a trend of parents calling to unenroll.
“They’re afraid. They don’t want the government to have their children’s or family’s information anymore,” Pacheco said.
A recent survey by California Healthline found that medical providers, local clinics and public health departments are also seeing an increase in skipped appointments and cancellations. Pacheco said she expects to see a similar decline in participation in other government programs like CalFresh, which provides critical access to fresh and healthy food to many California families.
“It’s really unfair, because undocumented immigrants pay local taxes, pay state taxes and pay federal taxes, all of which support these programs,” she said. “This idea of them being a drain to the community simply isn’t supported by fact.”
According to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, Merced County’s undocumented residents contribute more than $8 million in local taxes annually. For state taxes, which are used to support programs like Medi-Cal and CalFresh, Merced County’s undocumented population contributes an additional $9 million.
Statewide, undocumented residents contribute $3 billion annually in state and local taxes, “which, by the way, would be higher if they had a path to legalization,” Pacheco said.