Area nonprofits fearful after ‘sanctuary cities’ law’s passage


El Buen Samaritano saw an initial 50 percent drop in health clinic visits after the February ICE raids.

SAFE has seen 80 percent increase in sexual assault victims who weren’t willing to report assaults to police.

In the aftermath of the Austin-area ICE raids this year, fear ran through the Central Texas immigrant community. Some nonprofit volunteers and community organizers found themselves making grocery runs for unauthorized immigrant families afraid to leave their homes, making sure children had diapers and milk.

At the time, some local nonprofit groups that serve mostly Hispanic clients noticed a sharp drop in people showing up for services, a drop that for some still hasn’t bounced back.

And with Gov. Greg Abbott signing Senate Bill 4, the “sanctuary cities” ban, into law this week, which will punish counties that fail to comply with federal immigration requests to detain jail inmates suspected of being in the country illegally, local nonprofits are fearful about what this could mean for the safety of their clients as well as the future of their organizations.

At El Buen Samaritano, a faith-based nonprofit that provides medical, wellness services and educational classes, officials said they saw an initial 50 percent drop in clinic visits after the February Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids and that there has been a steady decline since. Its CEO, Iliana Gilman, said some people had returned, “but only to thank our staff for providing them with resources (over the years) and to say goodbye.”

El Buen Samaritano serves about 10,500 Central Texans and about 91 percent of them are Hispanic.

“We’ve been actively trying to reach those folks (who left) that we have contact information for — calling, emailing or going to our health fairs,” she said.

El Buen Samaritano doesn’t require clients to disclose residency status to receive services. “It’s important for them to maintain their health and that of their families, but it’s difficult to assure them that it’s safe to come,” Gilman said.

Many local nonprofit leaders, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to fear of retribution, said they’ve also been seeing a drop in people seeking services and are focusing on educating their clients and staff about the new law and their rights.

Related: Austin ICE raid: Deportation separates ‘noncriminal’ man from family

At SAFE, a merger of the Austin Children’s Shelter and SafePlace, a monthly “Know your Rights - Immigration” training program has seen attendance triple since the beginning of the year. About 57 percent of SAFE’s clients are Hispanic and are typically victims of violence or abuse.

From February to April, the organization saw an 80 percent increase in sexual assault victims, compared with those same months the previous year, who weren’t willing to report their assaults to law enforcement despite receiving a sexual assault forensic exam, according to SAFE.

“We’re seeing a lot of fear,” SAFE CEO Kelly White said. “And we’re staying focused on how to keep people safe.”

Other cities across the country also have reported a climate of fear affecting crime reporting and deterring people from social services.

In the aftermath of SB 4’s passage, the Austin Police Department’s legal advisers are reviewing the law’s language. According to a statement by interim Police Chief Brian Manley, the department expects to better understand the effect to its operations “and any necessary changes to policy or procedures once this review has been completed.”

“The Austin Police Department has worked hard to build and maintain trust, communication and stronger relationships with our communities through outreach programs and community policing. This effort and engagement will continue,” Manley said. “With the passage of this law, we want our minority community to maintain their trust in us. If you see or are a victim of a criminal act, we want you to call us and report it.”

Supporters of the new state law have said it is necessary to slow the flow of illegal immigration and ensure that communities are secure.

Many area nonprofits depend on federal, state and local funding to operate, and there’s concern among the various groups about the political climate and what it could mean in the future.

“We’re very worried about our funding,” said White, the head of SAFE. “We have a lot of governmental grants.”

The nonprofit already has noticed a drop in community donations compared with last year. “It’s the perfect storm,” she said.

The “sanctuary cities” law goes into effect Sept. 1, but nonprofit leaders already are identifying potential long-term effects that it might have, not just on their clients but on the entire community.

“As health care organizations, we are required to really monitor whether we are making people healthy,” said Gilman of El Buen Samaritano. “Help them control their diabetes; provide prenatal services. We’re really hurting the larger community because if people (are fearful to reach out for services), they will wait until they are so sick that they end up in emergency rooms and then the burden and cost becomes exponential.”

One Voice Central Texas, a coalition of health and human services organizations, has been bringing various nonprofit leaders together since February to discuss the challenges now facing nonprofits. “We’re trying to inform and equip our staff to be as knowledgeable as they can,” said Gilman, who is part of the coalition.

From trauma to violence, SAFE staffers “deal with tough issues,” White said. “Particularly for me, it’s a big deal that we’re trying to build that resiliency of our staff under difficult circumstances.”

On days when things become overwhelming, Gilman said she focuses on the responsibility to the community and her staff: “That’s what motivates me to get out of bed.”

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