Agencies that serve new Americans in Salt Lake County say even legal immigrants often avoid help not only from the government, but also churches and food banks for fear that the Trump administration may deport them as “public charges” dependent on assistance.
“Growing anti-immigration sentiment is compounding the challenges that hamper the success of service providers as immigrants do not seek services due to fear,” says a report by the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, Salt Lake County and the Community Foundation.
The study released Thursday looks at characteristics of new Americans in Utah’s most populous county, the quality of services they are offered and how they could be improved.
Dozens of interviews with providers show that overall, they rate the services provided to new immigrants at 3.2 on a scale of 0 to 5 — and would like to offer more. But they note that fear often drives immigrants to avoid the services already offered.
“Many [providers] have noticed a drop in service requests internally,” the report said. “Mostly government services are avoided because of record keeping and distrust of how that information will be used, but some are even fearful of seeking services from churches and food pantries.”
The report included anonymous quotes from some of the service providers that describe what they see.
One said a policy change by the Trump administration this year that allows legal immigrants to be deported if they become a public charge at any time “is one thing that immigrants and refugees worry about. If they receive benefits, how is that going to impact their status," the provider wondered. "So people are scared.”
The report said that has led many to keep “a low profile so as to avoid notice,” which presents a serious barrier for those in need of physical and mental health care services, food assistance, and those experiencing domestic violence.
One service provider said even pregnant women are avoiding emergency Medicaid, which is available to help with deliveries.
“Undocumented women can apply for emergency Medicaid and we have seen a notable decline in applications,” the provider said. “There has also been an increase in people requesting to have children taken off Medicaid.”
Others reported that, especially among Latinos, there is a fear of violence from those with anti-immigrant beliefs — leading them to shun classes and other group assistance that could become targets.
“They feel like pariahs in the country under this political climate,” one service provider said. Another added, “Resistance in the community is very real, which can snowball into a larger health and safety issue, like not calling 911 when hurt.”
The report suggests that the county and service providers better coordinate efforts to help immigrants learn what assistance is available and to try to ease their fears about seeking it. It also said more services are needed to address such things as affordable housing, transportation, employment, food security and language training.
"As Salt Lake County continually strives to be a welcoming community, we need to work in concert with our service providers to identify and break down barriers that prevent residents from accessing needed services. We need to identify opportunities to provide services and better serve New Americans,” said Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson.
The report also includes a demographic profile of new Americans living in Salt Lake County. Key data points include:
• Salt Lake County is home to half of the state’s quarter-million foreign immigrants. Also, about one of every eight county residents was born abroad.
• Students speak 175 different languages in Salt Lake County schools. Spanish is spoken by more than 20,000 students. Three other languages had more than 500 student speakers each: Arabic, Somali and Vietnamese.
• The county’s foreign-born population has a higher percentage of people with at least a bachelor’s degree than does the native population. However, the foreign-born population also has a significantly higher percentage who lack a high school degree.
• The majority of Utah’s foreign-born population comes from Latin America (54.5%) and Asia (24.7%). Just over 10% come from Europe. However, for immigrants arriving since 2010, the largest portion are from countries in Asia.
• Some 8,279 refugees have arrived in Utah from 46 countries since 2010. Nations with the largest number of refugees arriving in Utah are Somalia, Burma, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Iraq.
• About 22.4% of West Valley City’s population is foreign-born – a higher percentage than any other city for which data was available. The 30,298 immigrants living there was just a bit less than the 31,835 who live in much larger Salt Lake City.