"I don't want to take any risks," explains a 52-year-old immigrant mother fearing deportation, when asked by the Associated Press why she felt it was necessary to drop her teenage daughter, a U.S. citizen, from the food stamp benefit she relied on.
Fears of deportation plague immigrant families in our community and across the United States, as chilling stories of ICE raids and families being forcefully separated circulate through the media. These fears are at a high in California, where the U.S. Census Bureau states that the immigrant population is twice the national average. The Bureau also found that here in San Mateo County, more than one third of the approximately 750,000 residents are foreign-born. Of the estimated 7.6% of these residents who are unauthorized, the Migration Policy Institute recorded that more than half have lived in the U.S. for over ten years, over 70% are employed, and many have U.S. citizen children.
Despite the fact that immigrants are deeply integrated into our communities--as friends, coworkers, peers, husbands, wives, mothers, and fathers--many still lack knowledge about their legal rights. All immigrants, documented or undocumented, are eligible under federal law for basic services such as emergency health care. However, even if they are aware of these rights, they are increasingly afraid to pursue them--even for their U.S.-born children.
Legal Aid's Linking Immigrants to Benefits, Resources, and Education (LIBRE) Project is a catalyst for action at a time when many are paralyzed by their fear of the government. When negative rhetoric towards immigrants is perpetrated by the highest of government officials, LIBRE represents a voice of compassion and justice for immigrants and their families.
LIBRE is a collaborative between the Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County and six other organizations in San Mateo County: Redwood City 2020, Nuestra Casa, Coastside Hope, Ravenswood School District, Redwood City School District, and the San Mateo County Human Services Agency. Its aim is to ameliorate the barriers that prevent immigrants from asserting their rights and accessing basic services. To accomplish this task, LIBRE connects immigrants and their families with various resources in their communities such as healthcare facilities, community centers, and other support services, to help them obtain the benefits for which they are eligible.
Immigrants turn to LIBRE because it is known in the community as a trusted source of accurate information, in a day and age where it is increasingly difficult to separate fact from fiction. For example, a common myth among immigrant families is that applying for any government benefits will label them as a "public charge," which will negatively affect their immigration status in the future. In reality, "public charge" is a term only for certain immigrants who are applying for legal permanent residence status, and who the government deems likely to rely on specific cash benefits. Obtaining non-cash benefits, such as Medicare or Food Stamps, does not raise public charge issues. Through outreach efforts like presentations at local community centers, LIBRE works to ensure that immigrants know these myths are false. LIBRE educates immigrant families about the benefits for which they are eligible, and whether their immigration status will be affected.
The opportunity for immigrants to receive these benefits is not about taking resources away from U.S. citizens, and it is not about free-riding off the government. It is about accessing the basics of life--food and health care--that every human being needs in order to survive and to be a contributing member of society. Legal Aid attorneys and their LIBRE partners do not assist individuals in thwarting the law. They assist pregnant mothers who need prenatal care to give birth to a healthy child, developing children whose parents cannot afford to feed them, and ill grandparents who could die from the flu without basic medical services.
Recently, I had the privilege of attending a LIBRE conference and experiencing these efforts firsthand. The conference was composed of representatives from each organization that makes up LIBRE, who convene regularly to discuss their work. Going into the conference, what I expected to see was a group at least somewhat discouraged by the growing difficulty of advocating for immigrants in today's tumultuous political environment. However, what I observed was a community of individuals passionately continuing to work against those obstacles.
Rather than feeling defeated, the members of LIBRE seem imbued with a renewed sense of purpose, inspired to do their job even better and to work even harder. I watched as they raised questions, shared experiences, addressed obstacles, and formed solutions as a group. LIBRE's clients need them now more than ever, and it is clear from what I observed that LIBRE has no intention of backing away from the challenges ahead. Remaining committed to serving its clients no matter what, LIBRE is a beacon of hope in a time of great uncertainty for one of the largest immigrant communities in the country.
To learn more about LIBRE, visit their website: http://www.thelibreproject.org/.