Idaho Community Leaders Work To Mitigate Fear After White House Push To Change Immigration Rule
Benjamin Reed has been a staple on Spanish-language radio in the Magic Valley for 20 years. When he started doing his primary show, La Perrona on 99.1 FM, Reed realized he was filling a gap that extended beyond playing Latin music.
“I was basically that guy who was filling in that large brecha – canyon – or basically that void there was between the Hispanics and the rest of the area," Reed said.
Jerome County, where Reed sits behind the mic in a closet-like studio owned by Lee Family Broadcasting, is 36% Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Reed is primarily a DJ, but over the years, he’s started to talk more about current events and how they affect his audience.
Lately, a frequent guest on his show has been Brian Tanner, an immigration attorney in Twin Falls. The two hold legal chats that are broadcast on air and on Facebook, where the live videos regularly have 1,000 viewers.
Reed said people call in with questions about legal status or citizenship. One common thing on people’s minds, he said, is their health.
“A lot of people have asked about SNAP benefits, about WIC, about CHIP. These are very close to their hearts because they affect their children," he said.
These benefit programs are top of mind, Reed said, because of something called the public charge rule.
Last August the Trump administration announced a change to make it more difficult for people to get green cards if the government believed they would need to rely on public assistance programs. It expanded the definition of what would make someone a "public charge" to include things like food stamps, Medicaid and housing subsidies. The administration said it was intended to limit immigrants from depending on the government.
Months after the rule was proposed, it was blocked by federal judges in five states. Some of the injunctions were lifted by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in December. But because a nationwide ruling by a New York judge remains, the public charge expansion still can't be implemented.
Brandy Perez was just finishing law school when she heard about the public charge rule about a year before it was formally announced.
“I read up on it myself," she said. "I thought I should know more about it so I could educate my clients.”
Perez is now an attorney with Familias Unidas – the newly formed legal arm of the Community Council of Idaho, which assists migrant families with housing, childcare and health services.
But Perez knew the implications wouldn’t stop with the legal challenges to the rule change.
“The amount of fear and uncertainty that it causes, I think, [is] having a bigger impact than the rule actually will," Perez said.
Fear is causing people to make real decisions that affect their health, Perez said. The Urban Institute, an economic policy nonprofit, found one in seven adults inimmigrant families reported avoiding public benefit programs in 2018 out of fear that it would implicate their ability to get a green card in the future.
In Idaho, Perez has heard many anecdotes of people considering avoiding things like food stamps and Medicaid.
“They're taking them out of even the lunch program which [is] not even listed as one of the public benefits that's affected by this. But it’s all because of misinformation," Perez said.
The number of students signed up for the National School Lunch Program in Blaine County fell by 10 percentage points – from 33% to 23% – between the end of last school year and the the start of the current one, according to the school district.
The Idaho Mountain Express reported the decline was within the Hispanic student population. Some community leaders said a general climate of fear among immigrants there might have been responsible. But it’s difficult to know the root cause for certain. Perez said it’s unclear how participation in other programs will change, as well.
The Community Council of Idaho tried to understand this better through a survey of its clients. About 1 in 5 people surveyed in October and November of 2019 said they had decided not to apply for, or receive, a government benefit out of fear that it would impact their ability to get a green card.
But the sample size for this question was small – around 120 people. So Perez said while the results aren’t surprising, it still doesn’t answer all her questions.
“We won’t be able to see a complete picture of how it’s affected all the social services programs in our area until maybe we get some numbers for next year," Perez said.
Madison Allen, who works for the Center for Law and Social Policy, a non-partisan nonprofit, said one way communities can mitigate the effects of public charge is to make people better informed about what will and won’t affect them.
“One of the most important things groups can be doing is making sure that trusted messengers have correct, up to date information,” Allen said.
That trusted source might be a radio host like Reed or someone working the front desk at the Community Council.
It’s why Perez has been giving presentations throughout the state – in Idaho Falls, Burley and Nampa – about the public charge rule.
She talks about what it would mean if it went into effect and what it means now that it’s blocked. The audience might be community members, but often it’s other employees who want to know how to best serve clients.
Both Perez and Reed continue to watch for legal updates to make sure people have access to information about policies that may affect their well-being.
Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen
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