All hardworking New Mexicans need an equal access to unemployment aid

By Alicia Saenz.
This article appeared in the Albuquerque Journal on August 15, 2020.

Immigrant families like mine work hard to provide for our families and contribute so much to our communities. I work in maintenance at a local hospital to support myself and my son. With the layoffs brought on by COVID-19, I, like many of us, lost my job and had to seek out unemployment benefits.

Even though I am eligible for unemployment, I was never able to successfully submit my unemployment insurance application because I couldn’t get help in Spanish.

There were no Spanish instructions on the online application to help me with an issue that I had. I called the Department of Workforce Solutions to ask for help, but all of my calls except one went unanswered. The person I got a hold of did not speak Spanish, and there was no interpreter available. He told me that they would call me back, but no one ever did.

People who qualify for unemployment should be able to submit an application. For the process to be fair for all, it should accommodate the different languages of our state’s communities.

My experience trying to apply for unemployment made me feel powerless, like I didn’t exist. I didn’t get the unemployment my family desperately needs and that I qualify for just because I don’t speak English.

Like so many other people in our state, I worry about surviving this pandemic and getting back on my feet. I worried constantly about how to pay the bills, take care of my son and buy basic necessities for weeks without my income or unemployment benefits.

I am really worried about my community. Many of my Spanish-speaking friends have had the same kinds of problems with their unemployment application and haven’t received any benefits. They can’t support their kids. They can’t afford basic necessities for their families. I worry about them constantly, and I try to support them in any way that I can.

Even though we are resilient, my community is hurting. We have been left behind to fend for ourselves during this pandemic. We deserve better.

I support the efforts of the Asian Family Center, El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos, Catholic Charities, New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and many others that wrote a letter to DWS urging the department to provide the language support and other services our communities need to access unemployment insurance. I encourage the Department of Workforce Solutions to not delay taking action any longer.

Unemployment benefits are a lifeline during this time when work opportunities are scarce.

Now more than ever, everyone that qualifies for unemployment needs equal access to it so we can keep our families healthy and strong and come out the other end of this pandemic with the means to rebuild our communities.

Elisa Cibils, who interned at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, assisted the author with writing this in English.

Unemployment application process fails immigrants

By Huong Nguyen, New Mexico Asian Family Center
This article appeared in the Albuquerque Journal on September 7, 2020.

It is hard to believe the undue barriers Tram Tran and thousands of workers and out-of-work New Mexicans are going through to get the help they need and deserve during this difficult time.

Since April 2016, Tram has been a nail technician at Princess Spa and Nails. Her workplace shut down in March of this year. With the loss of income, Tram, her husband and their 18-month-old baby struggled to survive.

It was their first time experiencing unemployment. Tram went online to apply for unemployment benefits, but there were no applications or assistance available in Vietnamese. The process was unclear and misleading. The page crashed before she could submit, forcing her to start over again. Her account then got locked, and she didn’t understand what had happened. She called the Department of Workforce Solutions (DWS) hot line.

For weeks, it took her hours of waiting only to be randomly disconnected, or connected with representatives who said they could not address her problems. There were times when the line was transferred to a supervisor but then suddenly disconnected.

“I called DWS every single day, and I know the numbers and options by heart now,” said Tram, “It would have been OK if I just knew what was going on with my account.” She believed she put in the correct information, but the system kept saying her account wasn’t working and there were no explanations.

During this time, Tram and her family dipped into their savings to pay for groceries, diapers, mortgage, car payment and utility bills. She didn’t know how long it would last and what they could do to survive. “I am not getting much sleep, I have no idea what is next. So many people are mentally and emotionally checking out and I do not want to be one of those.”

By the time her benefits were approved, the system denied her three weeks of back pay. “It’s really unfair being denied because the system fails,” Tram said. When she called again, she was automatically sent to voicemail, and her problems went unaddressed. She was very disappointed and felt DWS didn’t listen to her. After months of waiting, Tram called and told us that she finally received her back pay on July 27.

At the New Mexico Asian Family Center (NMAFC), Tram’s story is only one among many. Since March, NMAFC, the only nonprofit in the state that provides culturally and linguistically tailored programs and services to the Pan-Asian community, started to hear many stories from community members who lost their jobs in the pandemic but couldn’t access the unemployment system. We heard these kinds of phrases over and over again: “How am I going to pay rent? How am I going to feed my family? What should I do if the bank forecloses my house?” The current system is leaving behind thousands of workers like Tram, especially non-English speaking immigrants and refugees.

On May 1, after working for weeks with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and other partners, NMAFC sent in a letter with sign-ons from over 40 organizations and individuals to DWS Secretary Bill McCamley. Since then, we have barely seen any changes.

The unemployment system is built to provide a safety net for all working New Mexicans when they need it. NMAFC and organizations supporting workers’ rights in New Mexico call on DWS to fix problems and remove barriers to unemployment benefits so that all our working families can access benefits. Tram calls on DWS to provide applicants clear in-language instructions and applications, such as a video to help non-English speakers fill out their applications correctly so that no one has to experience the same situation as she.

Yazzie/Martinez plaintiffs present education plan to Legislative Finance Committee Friday

SANTA FE—On Friday, August 28, counsel for families, students, and school districts in the landmark Yazzie/Martinez education lawsuit will urge the state to develop and implement a comprehensive plan for overhauling New Mexico’s education system. Plaintiffs’ counsel will also share an assessment of deficiencies in the educational system. 

Detailed recommendations for how to reform the education system have been developed by hundreds of parents, families, tribal leaders, and educational experts and supported by research as detailed in the Transform Education NM platform for educational equity and a tribal remedy framework endorsed by New Mexico’s Pueblos, Tribes and Nations.

WHAT: 
LFC hearing on Yazzie and Martinez v. New Mexico plaintiffs plan to improve educational outcomes

WHO:
Counsel for Yazzie plaintiffs

  • Daniel Yohalem
  • Preston Sanchez, ACLU-NM
  • Melissa Candelaria, New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty
  • Alisa Diehl, New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty

Counsel for Martinez plaintiffs

  • Ernest Herrera, Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund 

WHEN: 
Friday, August 28, 2020 at 10:00 a.m.

REMOTE ACCESS:
Webcast live at www.nmlegis.gov

Groups ask governor for rent relief fund to prevent homelessness

Thousands of New Mexicans can’t pay rent due to pandemic-related economic downturn 

ALBUQUERQUE—To prevent a dramatic spike in homelessness as New Mexico navigates the COVID-19 crisis and its economic aftermath, social justice and housing organizations asked Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham this week to prioritize legislation creating a rent relief fund at the upcoming special session. Their letter also asks her to support a legislative moratorium on evictions and expanded protections for low-income homeowners.  

“If we don’t get some help with rent soon, I don’t know what’s going to happen to me and my family,” said Allyssa Garcia who lives in Albuquerque. “I’ve worked hard my whole life, but I have lupus, which puts me at high risk of getting the virus. I had to cut my hours back. My daughter, who has a heart defect, lost her disability for awhile. I had to appeal to the Social Security Administration to get it back. There just hasn’t been enough money to pay rent. Now my landlord has evicted me. They can’t force me to move out right now because of the health emergency, but once things open up, my three children and I might find ourselves on the street.”

New Mexico was already struggling with a crippling housing crisis before the health pandemic. In 2019, the state experienced the highest increase in chronic homelessness in the nation–up 57.6% since 2018. The most recent data from the Mortgage Finance Authority shows that 50% of New Mexico’s renters are housing cost burdened, meaning they spend upwards of 30% of their income on housing costs.  

Housing relief programs like the one the New Mexico advocates are calling for have already been established across the country to support local recovery. 

“Everyone deserves access to safe, stable housing, especially during a pandemic,” said Maria Griego, director of Economic Equity at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. “Unfortunately, temporary Supreme Court rules and federal moratoria only postpone evictions. While no one can be removed from their homes immediately, homelessness will increase as soon as the state of emergency ends.”

Griego added, “As New Mexico families face the COVID-19 crisis and its financial aftermath, including record levels of unemployment, we urge the state to actively respond to the real threat of a dramatic spike in homelessness and for the governor to put responsive legislation on her call at the special session.” 

“We need our elected officials to match the efforts of the people organizing on the ground,” said Tomás Rivera, executive director of Chainbreaker Collective. “Many people hardest hit by the pandemic live in neighborhoods already teetering on the edge of widespread displacement and gentrification. Without bold housing relief measures, the COVID-19 crisis may be the push that will tip whole neighborhoods over that edge. People will be forced into the street from neighborhoods where they have deep roots.” 

The groups and individuals that sent the letter to the governor include the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, Chainbreaker Collective, ABC Community School Partnership, Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless, Catholic Charities (Archdiocese of Santa Fe), Disability Rights New Mexico, Enlace Comunitario, Native American Disability Law Center, New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness, Prosperity Works, Santa Fe Housing Action Coalition, Senior Citizens’ Law Office, Inc., United South Broadway Corporation, Elizabeth Elia, and Karen J. Meyers.

The letter to the governor can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Group-Letter-to-Governor-housing-relief.pdf

The Case for Education Equity in New Mexico

Education is fundamental to our future, but our students don’t have equal opportunities in our school system—a reality aggravated by the COVID-19 crisis. Now more ever, we need to fight for the public schools New Mexico’s students need and deserve. 

A new video on the landmark Yazzie lawsuit makes it clear why we must transform our education system now.

The Case for Education Equity in New Mexico follows the personal story of parent turned education advocate Wilhelmina Yazzie. Her story is one of love and perseverance, culture and language, and the reality of how opportunity gaps harm New Mexico and its children. 

Every child deserves to graduate ready for college and career and to pursue their dreams. This was the reason Wilhelmina, along with other families and school districts across New Mexico, brought the lawsuit against the state for violating students’ constitutional right to a sufficient education.

The video is especially timely now. Last week, on behalf of the Yazzie plaintiffs, our legal team responded to the state’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit. The legal brief argued that court oversight is essential to protecting students’ constitutional right to an equitable education and that the state should be required to develop a comprehensive plan to overhaul the public education system as soon as possible.

There will be a hearing June 29 on the Yazzie plaintiffs’ and state’s motions.

Watch the video and share it with your networks and on social media these next few days and through the date of the hearing.

5 things you should know about the new public charge rule

By Teague González, director of Public Benefits

Changes to the “Public Charge” rule go into effect today. Some of the changes include allowing the government to deny permanent residency (green cards) and visa renewals to certain lawfully present immigrants who participate in basic need programs like Medicaid, SNAP food assistance, and housing assistance.

The Trump administration is counting on fear to harm immigrant families and turn lifesaving programs against families. But the new public charge rule change applies to very few immigrants. Get all the facts and always talk to someone to make the best choices for your family.

Here are 5 important things you need to know about public charge:

Number 1: The test does not apply to people who are already legal permanent residents — as long as they don’t leave the US for 6 consecutive months. 
Number 2: The rule does not apply to people who want to adjust from legal permanent resident to citizens. 
Number 3: It never applies to US citizen children. A US citizen child’s use of benefits is never counted against their parent no matter the parent’s immigration status. Please do not disenroll or cancel your US citizen children from Medicaid or Food Stamps without talking to someone first. 
Number 4: There are important exceptions to the public charge rule, for example, pregnant women may receive Medicaid during their pregnancies and up to 60 days after delivery and this will not be counted against them when they try to become legal permanent residents. The same goes for Medicaid use by children under 21 years of age who want to become legal permanent residents. 
Many categories of immigrants are exempt from the rule like T and U Visa holders, as are VAWA beneficiaries, and many other statuses. 
Number 5: Many government benefits are not included in the public charge rule like school breakfast and lunch, WIC, CHIP, unemployment benefits and many more. 

This is why it is very important that you talk with someone about the rule change before you make any decisions about canceling your benefits or your children’s benefits. 

Please call 505-255-2840 with any questions. Watch the video in English and Spanish. Get the handout in English or Spanish.

Court hearing Thursday on HSD compliance with orders to remove barriers to food and medical assistance

LAS CRUCES—On Thursday at 10:00 a.m., in U.S. District Court in Las Cruces, Judge Kenneth Gonzales will hear an update on the New Mexico Human Services Department’s compliance with multiple court orders to remove barriers to food and medical assistance for eligible families.

In September 2016, Judge Gonzales held former HSD Secretary Brent Earnest in contempt for failing to remove barriers to assistance for eligible families. The court appointed a Special Master to monitor and make recommendations to the department. In April 2018, the judge set a series of deadlines for HSD compliance with court ordered reforms.

In July of 2019, the court approved a jointly-developed corrective action plan to address systemic barriers to food and medical assistance. Thursday’s status conference will include updates from both parties and the Special Master on the status of HSD’s implementation of the plan.

WHAT:

U.S District Court status conference on HSD compliance with court orders in Deborah Hatten Gonzales v. David Scrase, No. 88-385 KG/CG    

WHEN:

Thursday, November 21, 2019 at 10:00 a.m.

WHERE:

United States Courthouse, 4th Floor, 420 Mimbres Courtroom (North Tower), 100 N. Church Street, Las Cruces, New Mexico 88001

WHO:

New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty attorneys,Court Appointed Special Master Lawrence M. Parker, HSD Secretary and Attorneys

The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty report on it’s case review can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/nmclp-report-on-hsd-case-review-2019-02-25-redacted/

The jointly developed corrective action plan can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/hatten-gonzales-v-scrace-joint-motion-to-approve-two-corrective-action-plans-2019-07-10/

Medicaid Buy-in option already helping my family

Daisy Lira
This appeared in the Las Cruces Sun News on September 24, 2019.

I am a successful businesswoman, operating three child learning centers, and a Sunland Park City Councilor. I’m happily married, a devout Catholic and a mother of four. But until my husband started working for the City of El Paso a few weeks ago, I never had private health insurance. 

As a young, single mom, I had Medicaid. After I opened the centers and started making a small profit, they kicked us off. I thought that since I was finally making money I’d be OK. I was wrong. 

When it was absolutely necessary, I paid for doctor’s appointments out of pocket. Most of the time, I’d go to Juárez where a doctor’s visit was more affordable. Regular checkups for my kids were not an option. 

But there’s another option: Medicaid Buy-in. My fellow Sunland Park city councilors and I unanimously passed a resolution in support of it last year. The Legislature and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham have been working to put it in place. It would allow families like mine to pay monthly premiums to buy-in to the trusted, affordable care that Medicaid has provided for more than 50 years. 

When I met my husband, we started looking for insurance. We wanted to have more children. Obamacare wasn’t affordable. I tried to offer healthcare to my employees and myself through my business. I told them how much the center could pay and how much they would have to pay for private group insurance, but no one could afford to be covered. We all went without. 

My husband and I were thrilled to have a son. We made too much to qualify for Medicaid and still couldn’t afford private insurance. I paid out-of-pocket for my son’s urgent care visits for recurring ear infections. It was horrible to see him in pain and to scrape together the money to help him. 

When I got pregnant again, I couldn’t find a gynecologist who would accept someone without insurance. I finally went for a checkup with a doctor in El Paso. I had no idea that within a week I would miscarry. I didn’t know what was happening. I went to an urgent care that sent me to another urgent care. They told me that my body would get rid of the pregnancy. I lost that pregnancy in pain, crying with my husband. 

When I got pregnant again a year later, I was determined to get the care I needed. To pay for prenatal care, I leveraged a piece of land we bought to build a house on. Thankfully, I had a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby.

Now that my family has health insurance, I’ve been making all kinds of appointments for my kids. My daughter hasn’t been eating well and I take her to see a nutritionist. My son has two cysts in his stomach and I’m finally able to pay for his surgery. I even made a dentist appointment for myself. 

I’ve started speaking out about healthcare access. At 5 p.m. Wednesday, Sept.25, please join me for a screening of the film “The Providers” at the Doña Ana Community College Espina Campus, 3400 Espina St, Las Cruces, Rooms DASH 75 & 77. After the movie, there will be a discussion about healthcare in our communities. 

I’ve been waiting five years to build a home for my family on the land we bought, but doctor bills have kept that dream from happening. Maybe now that dream will come true. Maybe now, with the promise of Medicaid Buy-in families like mine won’t have to go without the care they need and deserve.

Daisy Lira is a Sunland Park city councilor.

New Mexico must take action on health care

Cecelia Fred
This appeared in the Gallup Independent on September 3, 2019.

“Always take care of each other.” That was my parents’ advice to me and my brothers and sisters before we lost them both to cancer. We took that to heart. We are in close touch to this day.

I know that of the nine of us, though, my parents were likely most worried about who would take care of me after they were gone. I’m a paraplegic, the result of an accident with a gun when I was a little girl.

When I lost my parents, I didn’t realize how hard it would become for me to access health care.

Back then, specialists from Craig Hospital, a rehabilitation hospital in Denver that helps people with spinal cord injuries, came to New Mexico to take care of me and others in the community. Those doctors taught me about my body and my injury. They helped me understand how to care for myself. They held a Spinal Clinic on the Navajo Nation to check our kidneys and bladder, and make sure we were in good health.

That’s all changed over the years.

The specialists don’t come anymore. At the Gallup Indian Medical Center, the doctors and nurses are not spinal cord specialists and don’t know how to take care of us. When I was in the hospital, I couldn’t even move the bed and I had to ring the bell all the time. The staff got frustrated with me.

I’m also under a new plan through Medicaid and I’m struggling to figure out how it works. I don’t know what services are covered. And Indian Health Services doesn’t provide the supplies I need anymore. I have to pay for my catheters out-of-pocket.

My own doctor doesn’t really know how to take care of me; I have to tell her. At least she listens. When I told one doctor that I was developing a bladder infection, he didn’t believe me. “How do you know that? You’re a paraplegic. You don’t have feeling in that part of your body.” I know how my body and I deserve to be taken seriously and cared for. Getting health care should not have to be a fight. I have two sons. Like my parents, I worry about who will take care of my children when I’m gone. I’m not worried that they won’t take care of each other; I’m worried that the health care system won’t take care of them.

With the changes in access that I’ve seen and with the high cost to just see a doctor, I worry that my sons will have to choose between buying food and getting the care they might need.

That’s why I’m fighting for change. Yes, I go up to the Fourth Floor at the hospital and complain when I can’t get services or supplies. But the fight is bigger than that. New Mexico needs a health care system that works for everyone.

Through my advocacy work with New Mexico Together for Healthcare, I am supporting the effort to bring health care to every New Mexican. A promising option – Medicaid Buy-in – received start-up funding during the last Legislative Session. I’m excited to see Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the Legislature taking steps to improve health care access and to reduce costs. Medicaid Buy-in would simplify the health care system and lower costs by allowing people who make too much for Medicaid and who can’t afford private insurance to pay for the quality, trusted care Medicaid has provided for more than 50 years.

But, really, I don’t care what new program is put in place – Medicaid Buy-in, a public option. No matter what you call it or how the details shake out, New Mexico must take action. We need a health care system that guarantees everyone access to the care they need and deserve.

My mom and dad were right. We all need to take care of each other. But it’s not just families that need to stick together. All New Mexicans need to stand together to build a health care system that works for us all.

Join me Wednesday, Sept. 4 at 5:30 pm at the Gallup Bingo Hall and share your story at the McKinley Townhall on Health care and Disabilities. Alice Liu McCoy, Executive Director of the New Mexico Developmental Disabilities Planning Council, will attend and share updates on where the state is headed and take questions.

Let’s raise our voices, tell our stories and work together to fix our health care system.

Cecelia Fred lives in Red Rock. She is a local health care advocate and an ambassador for the Christopher Reeve Foundation.

Bernalillo County Commission to Vote on Paid Sick Leave/Paid Time Off Ordinance

Bernalillo County– The Bernalillo County Commission will vote on a paid sick leave/paid time off ordinance Tuesday, August 20 at 4:00 p.m. in the Vincent E. Griego Chambers at One Civic Plaza. Supporters and advocates of paid sick days will be attending to share testimonies in support of having paid sick leave for hardworking families and urge commissioners to vote “Yes” to help build a thriving community and economy. 

WHAT: County Commission to Vote on Bernalillo County Paid Sick Leave Ordinance

WHEN: Tuesday, August 20, 2019 at 4:00 p.m.

WHERE: Vincent E. Griego Chambers, One Civic Plaza, Albuquerque, NM

WHO: Supporters and Advocates of paid sick leave

###

Supporters of the paid sick leave ordinance includes: AARP, Center for Civic Policy, El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos, Enlace Comunitario, Equality New Mexico, the New Mexico Center on Law & Poverty, New Mexico Voices for Children, New Mexico Working Families Party, OLÉ, Strong Families New Mexico, and the United Food & Commercial Workers.