Table of Contents:
Colonia residents are disproportionately uninsured or underinsured. Colonia residents find it hard to get an attorney when they need one, enroll in public benefits programs, or access consistent, quality healthcare. The Center is dedicated to engaging in administrative advocacy to remove some of these barriers, as well as to systematically training colonia residents and their advocates in order to expand access to services.
Public benefits are a critical source of support for low-income New Mexicans. Programs such as SNAP, Medicaid, and TANF enable families that would otherwise not have access to quality medical care or adequate food and clothing to obtain assistance that makes a critical difference in their everyday lives.
A variety of barriers make accessing the public benefits to which they are entitled difficult for colonia residents. First, colonias tend to be rural and isolated, so distance alone – combined with expensive gasoline, or even no car at all – makes a visit to the local Income Support Division office a hardship. Colonia residents in New Mexico frequently speak Spanish as their first language, and accessing adequate services, including written materials, in that first language can be difficult. Confusion about immigration status and eligibility may lead the parents of U.S. citizen children to conclude they cannot apply for benefits, even though their children would qualify. And documentation requirements sometimes don’t mesh well with the realities of life in the colonias. Many colonia residents, for example, use propane gas for heat, but cannot obtain receipts for the propane when they purchase it; this can make it difficult for them to take advantage of programs designed to help families pay high heating bills during the cold winter months.
The Center has engaged in systemic advocacy to help eliminate many barriers to enrollment in public benefits programs. Those efforts are described in more detail on the Public Benefits page of our website. The Center has also worked with community groups in the colonias to perform outreach designed to educate residents about their rights. We focus on debunking myths about eligibility that may prevent colonia residents from applying for benefits, providing information about the types of public assistance available, and identifying ongoing barriers to enrollment. What we learn through this work informs the Center’s systemic advocacy efforts.
Colonia residents, who are disproportionately low-income and often are immigrants to the U.S., are also disproportionately uninsured or underinsured. Immigrant families often do not enroll in the state’s public healthcare programs – Medicaid and CHIP – because they are unaware they are eligible or have difficulty applying because of language barriers, burdensome documentation requirements, and fears about confidentiality of information. Low-income families who do not qualify for Medicaid or CHIP are unlikely to have access to employer-sponsored insurance, and generally cannot afford to purchase coverage in the individual market. Even those families who have health coverage often have difficulty finding a healthcare provider because of the severe provider shortage in New Mexico’s rural communities.
The Center works to eliminate systemic barriers so that eligible colonia residents can get – and keep – Medicaid and CHIP. In addition, federal healthcare reform has the potential to change this situation for a substantial number of colonia residents who will become newly eligible for Medicaid or for tax credits and subsidies to help them purchase private insurance. We provide trainings in colonia communities across the state on current healthcare resources and how healthcare reform will expand access to coverage. For more information about how healthcare reform will increase access to healthcare, visit our Healthcare Reform page.
Colonia residents have a variety of legal needs, some unique to the colonias, and some common to low-income New Mexicans across the state. However, because colonia residents are disproportionately poor and Spanish-speaking, and because they live in rural areas of the state, it can be even more challenging to obtain high-quality civil legal assistance than for low-income New Mexicans living in cities. People living in colonia communities can rarely afford an attorney for matters of family, property, landlord/tenant, or other types of law.
The Center is committed to improving access to civil legal services for colonia residents through several means. We have successfully advocated to increase state funding to all legal services providers. We work as part of the State’s Access to Justice Commission to revise the state civil legal services plan, with an eye particularly to expanding services in our rural communities. Recently, the Center convened a series of meetings with advocates from around the state to develop a plan to increase access to legal services within our immigrant communities. We are currently seeking funding so we can put that plan into action.
The core of the Center’s philosophy when it comes to colonia communities is working in collaboration with community members and community groups, and responding to needs identified by individuals living in the colonias. To that end, a large part of our work in the colonias has been based on outreach, community education, and training of advocates to respond to common issues experienced by colonia residents. The Center has worked to train attorneys, social workers, and other advocates who regularly work with colonia residents to help ensure that when those residents experience problems with access to public benefits, healthcare, or civil legal services, they can turn to informed advocates to find solutions.
The Center has a variety of materials available, in both English and Spanish, designed to provide information about public benefits, healthcare, workers’ rights, and hearing rights. Visit our Center Resources page to see these and other available materials.