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Report: Those working with Utah refugees, immigrants say housing a top concern

Access to mental health services can also be out of reach, analysis finds

Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A housing crunch, lack of transportation and difficulty finding good jobs are among the top concerns immigrants and refugees are sharing with those who are helping them to find their footing in Salt Lake County, a new report finds.

Access to mental health services can also be out of reach for many new Americans as they adjust to life in a new country or cope with trauma, according to the study released this week by the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

Yet the group is contributing significantly to the Beehive State, fueling much of its population and economic growth in the last two decades, said Pamela Perlich, director of demographic research at the Gardner Institute.

“While it’s true that our new Americans are overrepresented in highly technical and scientific opportunities at the university, they are also among the hardworking and low-wage service workers,” Perlich said in a Thursday announcement of the findings. The blue-collar and service industry workers, she noted, have been harder hit by the economic and health effects of the crisis.

Perlich and her colleagues dove into census data and conducted more than 40 interviews with nonprofits, government agencies, religious groups and schools in fall 2019. Their work comes at the request of the Salt Lake County Office for New Americans and The Community Foundation of Utah, who wanted to know how the newcomers could better be served.

Utah’s capital county, home to 1 in 3 Utahns, has also welcomed most of the state’s immigrants, with 120 languages spoken in the homes of its schoolchildren. Foreign-born residents make up about 12% of the total county population.

Rising rents on the Wasatch Front have posed new challenges for the group, said researcher Marin Christensen. The newcomers are moving away from city centers in search of more affordable apartments, Christensen said, dragging out commutes for many who work multiple jobs and also must visit downtown agencies for services. Often, after the first of the month, there’s nothing left to pay bills for insurance, cars or schooling.

One person mentioned in the report had a one-way commute of more than two hours and multiple transfers each way, Christensen said.

For those who don’t speak English, obtaining a driver’s license is not an easy task. And when it comes to employment, degrees and certifications often don’t transfer to the American system, so many opt for lower-wage, less-skilled work, the report notes.

Many of the agencies interviewed for the report said they are doing the best they can with the resources available, but are aware they’re not meeting the need, Christensen added.

Many she interviewed said a shortage of bilingual counselors and therapists, coupled with a lack of mental health services for youth, also pose concerns.

Just over half the state’s foreign-born population comes from Latin America, with most from Mexico, followed by Asia at about 25%. European-born residents comprise just over 10%. In the last 10 years, more than 8,279 refugees have arrived in Utah from 46 countries.

For an estimated 100,000 undocumented Utahns, signing up children for health care, calling 911 in an emergency or even visiting a food pantry can stoke fears of coming under scrutiny of immigration enforcers, said Diana Sanchez, board chairwoman for Comunidades Unidas.

“There’s always a big trust issue,” Sanchez said. Over time, her group has developed strong ties with the state’s Latino community, and is now recognized as a trusted source that can help connect Utahns to health services, information on workers’ rights and enrollment in a federal food assistance program, among other sorts of help.

Nationally, just 16% of Latinos have jobs that allow for remote work, Sanchez said, so the agency’s role is especially critical during the pandemic.

Perlich said insights from the study and the virus create an opportunity for a possible course correction.

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson agreed. Just before the virus hit, Wilson said she and other senior county leaders met to plan how they could keep diverse and disadvantaged Utahns top of mind in each county endeavor.

“Those goals are still in place, regardless of COVID,” Wilson said. “It’s just going to look different, and it’s going to have to.”

The report delves into other barriers, including in education, learning English, food security and legal needs. It recommends more robust translation efforts, the creation of a coalition for the groups and a single website or other one-stop shop where a newcomer can find help.