Monday, July 27, 2009

"Immigrants Not Draining Ripon's Resources"

Nationwide, foreign-born individuals make up about 12% of the population, and of these, nearly one-third are Mexican. While there are no definitive numbers available for Ripon, most observers agree that the number of Hispanic immigrants rose sharply starting in 1998-99. From being virtually invisible locally in 1997 to comprising nearly 6% of school age children today, they are sufficiently numerous to justify special school programs, new products on the shelves of local retailers, new employment patterns in area businesses, bilingual materials in some area institutions, and new cultural offerings. While there are other, non-Hispanic immigrants as well, including Asians, Africans, Canadians and Eastern Europeans, they are far fewer in number locally than the Hispanic immigrants.

How have Ripon’s public institutions been affected by immigration? In this article, we’ll look at three: the Ripon Police Department, the Ripon Medical Center, and the Ripon Public Library. In a future article, we will explore the Ripon Area School District’s experience with immigrant children and families.

Law Enforcement

Nationwide, statistics show that first generation immigrants commit fewer crimes on average than native-born Americans. In Ripon as elsewhere, however, certain patterns emerge. Chris Stieber, Captain of Ripon’s police force, notices that “Since the Hispanic population has gone up, we’ve had more traffic violations. A number of immigrants haven’t gone through the process of getting a license – maybe they don’t know how. English may be a barrier. Especially in the summer, we have an unusually high number of cases involving immigrants who are operating without a license, or after their license was revoked.” The higher rate of violations in the summer suggests that many of these workers may be seasonal construction, food processing or agricultural workers who are not in the area year-round.

Stieber does not notice any other correlations between immigrant status and crime. “As the Hispanic population has gone up, we’ve had an increase in the number of crimes involving Hispanics [both as victims and perpetrators], but you’d expect that. I couldn’t say that it’s disproportionate.” He does note that the department has faced occasional linguistic challenges. “We do try to be sensitive to language and cultural needs. Any time we have a victim or a perpetrator who is an immigrant we try to get an interpreter – often a family member. Other times we get community members. Some of the younger members of our department know some Spanish. The language is an issue, but it’s not a big problem for us.”

The Department of Homeland Security has recently been trying to obtain the voluntary cooperation of local police forces in immigration enforcement, and is offering special training for cooperating departments. In the past, only immigration police were charged with enforcement of immigration laws, not regular police departments. Supporters of the DHS effort say that illegal immigration is a crime and all law enforcement personnel ought to be working to enforce immigration laws. Critics of the new DHS efforts to involve local police forces say that it will create a climate of fear that will make immigrants less willing to come forward as witnesses in crimes, lead to widespread racial profiling, reduce trust and goodwill in the community towards police officers, and take already-scarce law enforcement resources away from more important crime-fighting activities.

Stieber’s view is that “We haven’t been influenced by Federal edicts. We treat people the same. We’re not going to put special emphasis on any one group of people. I’m all for cracking down on immigrants who are here to break the law. They ought to be accountable like everyone else, and I don’t want them in this country if they came here to commit crimes. My personal feeling about people who are here illegally but not causing trouble, I’m not so sure I see that as a crime. I don’t see using the policing resources of a small department like us to crack down on illegal immigrants – we don’t have the manpower for that.”

Health Care

Ripon’s hospital is another community institution that has experienced the impact of immigration in recent years. Many observers fear that an influx of immigrants -- who may not speak English, whose health may be poor, who may lack health insurance and/or the funds to pay for the care they need -- will put a strain on the system, particularly emergency departments which are required by law to treat all comers regardless of ability to pay. Certainly there have been widely publicized cases, particularly in Texas border towns, where poor and undocumented immigrants have disproportionately burdened emergency services, sometimes shutting hospitals down entirely.

On the other hand, according to extensive nationwide studies, immigrants (both documented and not) are actually more healthy and less likely to seek emergency services than their American counterparts. Overall, these studies suggest they are unlikely to greatly affect emergency service departments in the interior of the country. How about in Ripon? Should we be worried?

Certainly, immigrants are a felt presence at the RMC. Tami Keenlance, Director of Acute Care Services at RMC says she has seen a significant increase in the Hispanic population coming into the hospital. She considers that the language and cultural barriers can be a challenge, but notes that “All staff are now trained in cultural diversity; we are better equipped to handle it.” She also notes that during the summer, with an increase in tourism, the hospital serves immigrants and visitors from a wide range of countries.

In the past the hospital made use of Spanish-speaking community volunteers to interpret. Over time, as the job grew, this approach became increasingly unworkable. “Now we have Language Line,” Keenlance says – a phone-based interpreting service that can handle a wide variety of languages pretty much instantly on a pay-per-minute basis. Many patients also bring other family members and friends to interpret for them, often making Language Line unnecessary.

Michelle Fuerch, professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Ripon College and long-time volunteer interpreter for immigrants, says that in her experience, most of Ripon’s year-round Hispanic residents, both documented and not, have health insurance through their employers. She has never interpreted for one who didn’t.

Does the Medical Center experience a financial loss from its immigrant patients? By law the hospital is prohibited from asking patients about their legal or immigrant status, making precise numbers hard to come by. However, Marcia Baenen-Goplin of the RMC business office suggests an answer. “Immigration affects us,” she says, “but not to the extent that it does in states like California, Texas and Florida. The whole problem of uninsured patients affects us, and that problem is growing nationwide. Immigrants are a part of that, but they’re not a huge part of it. The majority of our uninsured patients are Americans.”

She says the problem for RMC tends to be seasonal. During the summer and fall, larger numbers of temporary and migrant workers, who typically lack a primary health care provider, show up at the hospital – usually the Emergency Room – for services. “Usually when they come in, they need the treatment. They don’t abuse the system. But our Community Care [reduced price charity care] and bad debt always go up while they’re here.”

She notes that many immigrants find the form they must fill out for Community Care to be daunting, and even those who may qualify for financial assistance in some form are afraid to ask for it. There are Medicare funds for catastrophic care available to some immigrants, but the paperwork to obtain this assistance, and the vulnerability that many migrant workers feel, means that few seek help. Baenen-Goplin says, “I feel bad for these people. You don’t want to scare them away, so you beat around the bush a lot trying to find out if they are eligible for assistance. It’s hard to help them – so many of them don’t even have a telephone!”

It appears that where immigrants have been a burden for RMC, the problem is poverty and lack of insurance more than immigration status per se. Native-born Americans without insurance similarly burden the system, and on a larger scale than immigrants. Overall, Baenen-Goplin concludes, “Immigration affects us. Does it affect us a lot? No.”

Library Services

Linda DeCramer, the Children’s Librarian, has long been an advocate of enhanced services for Hispanic immigrants. In 2001 she wrote a grant to jump-start the development of a Spanish language collection, and to offer a series of bi-cultural, bilingual family events to welcome Hispanic newcomers to the library. She visited local factories to recruit (mainly Mexican) collaborators, and involved these volunteers in defining the shape of the collection. As it turned out, their needs and interests were very specific, including such items as a bilingual dictionary of construction terms, video-based ESL materials, popular magazines, and bilingual children’s materials and picture dictionaries. Over time, the library also developed a Spanish-language library card application and informational brochure.

Have these outreach efforts been successful? According to Chris Smieja, another library staffer, “There are more immigrants coming in now than in the past… It’s good to see people using the library! They don’t always need our Spanish application, but I’m glad we have it.” The library staff also notices that Americans hoping to teach their children some Spanish are also frequent users of the bilingual children’s materials.

Ben Sprague, Circulation Supervisor, notices that the Spanish language collection has been circulating more lately, and that like the rest of the community, the immigrant community appears to be making good use of the computer resources the library offers.

“I would hope,” says DeCramer, “that we can become more of a community resource for the immigrant population. I would hope that people can feel comfortable here, and that they would know of the many resources that we have. I want us to be on their radar!” She points out that many larger businesses now have their job applications on-line. “We want people to know they have a place to come and use the computers.” USCIS (US Citizenship and Immigration Service) also has its materials on-line, and the only way to make USCIS appointments is on the internet. The library sometimes links Hispanic computer users with bilingual community volunteers who can help with their immigration or job-related computer work.

Currently, DeCramer is facilitating an informal committee that is meeting to address the recent loss of local ESL and family literacy services. The committee, composed of a diverse group of Advocap and Ripon Area School District personnel, Ripon College and UW-Oshkosh students and faculty, community activists and immigrants, is an illustration of the kinds of synergies DeCramer hopes to encourage – and is part of her vision of what a public library should be. “You never know who you reach, but in hindsight, those interludes [like the bilingual, bi-cultural programs, and the current committee meetings] create bonds. It’s important to try to lift everyone up. That was Carnegie’s goal: to give everyone free access to the same level of services and information.”

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