Churches Ease Immigrant Fears in Wake of New Arizona Law
PHOENIX, Ariz. -- In a small meeting room at Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church, dozens of people listened eagerly one day recently as facilitator Vel Piña told them in Spanish, “You don’t have to answer questions about your immigration status.”
Piña, a parishioner in the church, was trying to ease immigrants’ fears of applying for health insurance and food stamps for their U.S.-citizen children, now that a new Arizona law requires state employees to report undocumented immigrants to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Some in the audience are “mixed-status” families, in which one or both parents are undocumented. Several are now afraid to apply for public benefits for their children.
“In their eyes, this new law turns any government official into an immigration agent,” said Connie Andersen, an executive member of Valley Interfaith Project, an association of churches, schools and neighborhood groups that is organizing meetings across Maricopa County to quell panic caused by the legislation. Since December, volunteers have conducted 20 of these “toolkit training sessions” in churches and schools to inform people about their rights and how to navigate the application process for public benefits.
HB 2008 was passed unexpectedly last summer as part of a budget package proposed by Republican State Senator Russell Pearce. Since the law went into effect on Nov. 24, the group has heard alarming testimony from pregnant women who went without pre-natal care and parents who were afraid to request health care insurance for their sick children.
The number of applications for medical and nutritional assistance dropped 14 percent from November to December. Cash assistance decreased by 11 percent, according to the Arizona Department of Economic Security, which administers most of these benefits.
Members of the Valley Interfaith Project met with department director Neil Young on Jan. 12 to make sure their training was consistent with official interpretation of the law.
“We continue to enforce the law as we have,” said Steve Meissner, a department spokesperson. He said the department is always willing to investigate when people feel they were wrongfully denied benefits.
HB 2008 doesn’t change eligibility requirements. Undocumented immigrants are not entitled to public benefits under federal law. Nor is it meant to keep parents from applying for their U.S.-born children, according to Juliete Puccini, a volunteer with the Valley Interfaith Project.
However, there has been some confusion among state employees over how to implement the new law.
In the first weeks after the legislation took effect, more than 700 people were reported to ICE after applying for public benefits. In the months since then, the rate of cases referred to immigration authorities by the Department of Economic Security has slowed, with 877 cases reported.
Andersen believes her organization’s efforts to clarify the law have been successful. But, she says, it is too soon to tell if people will continue to apply for the services that their children need.
“We didn’t know what to do. Work is slowing down and medicines are expensive,” said Juan Mendez, who attended the meeting at the Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church. The father of a two-year-old, Mendez says he initially was afraid to apply for health insurance for his U.S.-born child.
Meetings have been essential in the Sunnyslope neighborhood, where for decades the Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church has been a hub for migrants from Asia, Mexico and Central America. The parish has more than 1,200 registered members, the vast majority of them Latino.
Piña, who runs a paralegal service in the area, said she gets daily visits from immigrants who are nervous about the new law. She said some are considering moving to another state. That phenomenon is not new; since 2008, media have reported cases of migrant families leaving the state after passage of a law that penalized employers for hiring undocumented workers.
“We have a flood of legislation here that doesn’t align with reality,” said Andersen, referring to a recent bill to criminalize the presence of immigrants in the state. “We are ill-equipped to deal with the consequences of these laws."
The Valley Interfaith Project is among several organizations that have decided to take a grassroots approach to the legislation. The Phoenix Repeal Coalition, for example, is going from door to door to inform people about their rights under the new law.
“These laws are unjust. It’s not okay for someone to create a law that will scare people away from receiving services that are needed,” said Cecilia Saenz, an organizer for the coalition that aims to reverse Arizona’s anti-immigrant policies.
Saenz said that they have been successful at dispelling some of the fear produced by the law, which she believes was an intended consequence.
“There’s still a lot of fear,” said Jennifer Allen, executive director of the Border Action Network (BAN), a human rights group in Tuscon.
BAN is considering taking legal action against HB 2008.
“We’re looking for potential plaintiffs. There are attorneys that are interested and willing to bring a suit against this law based on its wrongfully denying people benefits that they’re entitled to,” said Allen.
There are still a number of questions pending about the scope of HB 2008. The Arizona Attorney General’s Office is expected to issue a legal opinion that was requested two months ago by the Department of Administration.
“On the one hand we don’t have to worry. I’m a U.S. citizen,” said Debbie Halsey, a volunteer with the Valley Interfaith Project. “On the other hand, when I look at my self-interest, I think I want my children to grow up in a healthy and vibrant community. My children are not well served if the neighbor’s kids are [going] hungry.”