Archive

Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Omaha Area Sanctuary Network: Caring cohort goes the distance for undocumented residents caught in the immigraton vice grip


Part I
Going the distance
Omaha sanctuary network gives refuge to family separated at the border
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico (el-perico.com)
Editor’s Note:
Welcome to Part I of a two-part story about the Omaha Area Sanctuary Network, which supports undocumented individuals embroiled in the immigration justice system. Part I focuses on a family separated at the border that’s found reunification and ongoing aid from the network. The parent’s names have been changed. The interview was conducted with the assistance of a translator.
In January 2018 Carlos and Sofia fled gang-ridden Acapulco, Mexico with their four young children. They risked everything in a run for the border. At the San Ysidro port of entry they sought asylum only to be forcibly separated and detained. They’ve since been reunited with support from the Omaha Area Sanctuary Network (OASN). The nonprofit aids undocumented individuals whose immigration status is in question.
Rampant violence in the family’s homeland created an environment of fear. The children witnessed shootings. Family friends went missing. The last straw was Carlos getting beaten and stabbed.
“Our family felt threatened,” said Sophia, adding that leaving seemed the only option. “Sometimes one doesn’t act for one’s self. We do it for the kids.”
Their odyssey’s ultimate destination was Omaha, where Sofia’s sister already lived, Even though the U.S. immigration crackdown was not yet in effect, this intact family seeking refuge from a credible threat still found themselves separated. Sofia and the kids did not get to say goodbye to Carlos before their release.
“I tried to get his attention to tell him we were leaving, but he didn’t understand. They wouldn’t let you speak with anyone. They wouldn’t let us get close to him.”
A desperate Carlos was transferred to detention centers in Arizona and Georgia. He pestered officials until the Southern Poverty Law Center took his case via its Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI).
An attorney arranged for his parole to Omaha pending a local sponsor coming forward. Calls to local immigration organizations led to then-sanctuary network president Lawrence Jensen. Meanwhile, Carlos and his family anxiously awaited a resolution to a separation that lasted four months.
“To go from every day interacting with your family and in one moment they’re taken away, there are no words to describe it. One feels, I don’t know, incomplete,” Carlos said. “While incarcerated you feel that urge to see them, to hold them, but you’re not able to do anything. When I would talk with her (Sofia) on the phone, I would feel good but at the same time bad because it wasn’t the same thing, I would tell her that sometimes i wouldn’t even eat because I could not stop thinking about them.”
Image result for urban abbey
As bad as it was being separated at the border,”being so far away from them was much worse,” he said.

It was no easier on Sofia and the children.
“It’s was very difficult,” she said. “The kids would cry a lot for their dad and that makes you feel bad. Every day they would ask, ‘Is my dad going to be home yet?’ I would say, ‘I don’t when he’s going to be here, but he’ll be here.’ I would talk to him (Carlos) and he would cry. It would make me feel bad.”
Separation trauma made the oldest children ill.
As Spanish-speakers, the family faced hurdles trying to explain their plight to English speakers.
OASN, which does education and advocacy work around immigration, stepped up to help the family only months after making accompaniment its first priority. The group was frustrated in efforts to find a church offering physical sanctuary. Now, volunteers attend immigration court hearings, provide food and personal items in emergencies and make detention center visits.
“The focus on accompaniment seemed to revitalize the group. Participants find it rewarding,” Jensen said. “Thus, the ground was prepared when we connected with Carlos. Here was a need we could help. Sponsorship would be accompaniment at a deeper level. We agreed we would legally sponsor him but also fully support his wife and children.”
OASN secured resources and volunteers to satisfy federal sponsorship requirements of a supervised place to live, financial support for a year and ensuring Carlos attended all court hearings and Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) check-ins.
With $20,000 in pledges raised and commitments for more as needed, OASN got approved as sponsors in April. Due to red tape another month passed without his release. The one direct conversation Jensen had with Carlos was a brief phone call. Jensen only had time to share an OASN contact. More weeks passed, until, without advance notice, Carlos was released.
“The officer was like, ‘Hurry up, grab your stuff,’ because it was my time to go,” Carlos said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
He was taken to a Greyhound Bus station and left to fend for himself. Angela only found out about his release once he was on the road.
A sanctuary supporter got him much needed food and money at a stop en route. He didn’t know what to expect upon arriving in Omaha.
“Then I heard the kids screaming, ‘There’s my daddy.'”
The emotional reunion was a huge relief after months apart and uncertanity.
Jensen and Carlos finally met. “Despite the language difficulty, we were instant friends. He was good-humored, outgoing and amazingly composed considering the ordeal he had been through,” Jensen said.
The network went all out for the family.
“When Carlos got here they gave him a welcome party,” Sofia said. “We met a lot of people. They brought us bikes. Everything that we have here – furniture, food, clothes, they have given to us.”
Jensen became a frequent visitor to the apartment the family shares and OASN pays rent on.
“They’ve become good friends and an important part of my life,” Jensen said. “They are good, responsible people. The children are delightful.”
Though Jensen’s since moved outside Nebraska, he still stays in touch. Local sanctuary members make sure the family has what it needs.
“They have helped us a lot,” Sofia said. “We don’t know how to thank them.”
The family’s school-age children are thriving since their father’s return. Staff at Field Club Elementary, Sofia said, are sensitive to their emotional needs.
Through it all, not knowing has been the hardest part for this family that left everything they knew to find safety. The couple’s asylum cases are still pending.
“I have my hearing in July and Carlos has his hearing in April,” she said. “Our attorney (paid for by the network) is working on getting the cases joined. It’s been a journey. We don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Meanwhile, the network’s close to finally confirming a church to provide a dedicated physical sanctuary space. It’s also working to create an immigration crisis hotline.
What to look for in Part II:
Evolution of the Omaha Area Sanctuary Network
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.
______________________________________________
Part II
A caring cohort supports the undocumented through uncertain times 
©by Leo Adam Biga
Editor’s Note:
Welcome to Part II of a two-part story about the Omaha Area Sanctuary Network, which supports undocumented individuals embroiled in the immigration justice system. Part II focuses on how the network has evolved to respond to needs and crises that arise around individuals facing detention, separation, adjudication and deportation.
In 2017, some concerned area citizens formed the Omaha Area Sanctuary Network (OASN) in response to draconian immigration enforcement raids, detentions and deportations.
The U.S. government’s crackdown on the undocumented affects not only new arrivals but people long living and working in the country. With the specter of arrest and separation a more tangible fear for many, the local network offers refuge and support.
OASN is part of a loosely affiliated nationwide sanctuary movement. Many group members belong to progressive churches.
Sanctuary can mean different things in different situations. Thus far in Nebraska, said OASN president Yvonne Sosa, “it is just being there and bearing witness to what the immigrant is going through,” including  shows of support by attending court hearings and providing financial assistance.
“To me, personally, sanctuary means being part of a community that is safe and accepting of all people, regardless of where they are born, the color of their skin, their religion, sexual orientation, their personal beliefs. Sanctuary is the act of honoring the dignity of others,” said OASN vice-president Jeri Thurber. “Our organization is defining sanctuary as creating a safe community for all people, but we’re specifically focusing on immigration issues right now. In the immigration arena this can mean advocacy or resistance or bearing witness. It is an active way of protecting others from injustice and hate.
“Specifically, we provide accompaniment to hearings and to checkins if requested by people. We’ve had as few as three and as many as 20 members at a hearing.”
The women believe the group’s actions make an impact.
“When judges see that the defendant has community support there, it can lead to lowering or not issuing a high bond,” Thurber said. “The compassion we’re showing the judge in the courtroom is showing that we all see this detainee as a human being.
“I am very vocal about the fact I attend hearings in support of people in our community. I think it’s important  others know these hearings are happening and I think they should be there, too.”
Since early last year, OASNs aided a family that fled gang violence in Acapulco, Mexico and sought asylum in America. The family was detained and separated. The father, Carlos. ended up in a Georgia detention center. The mother, Sofia, and her children were released to join her sister in Omaha. The family was reunited on humanitarian grounds in May after OASN pledged to support Carlos, Sofia and the kids. Network members will be at the couple’s hearings later this year.
Thurber is sure OASN assurances of support convinced officials to release Carlos to rejoin his family. Otherwise, said Yvonne Sosa, Carlos’s confinement “could have been longer.” She added, “I feel like because of the organization’s efforts and commitment to provide housing and financial support we were able to get them reunited. But for those commitments, he may still have been in detention.”
The network found an apartment for the family and pays rent on it. OASN also provides food, clothes, incidentals and pays for the couple’s legal defense.
In the event other undocumented individuals need shelter to avoid deportation, the network wants a church to make a dedicated physical sanctuary space available.
“We have not been successful in that yet, but we’re still working on it.” said Thurber, adding that an area church has recently expressed interest in accommodating the need. “I truly think if someone needed physical sanctuary somebody would provide it. I think for a lot of congregations right now an immediate need would be more attractive than merely a plan.”
Sosa surmises the reason no local church has been willing to put itself on the line yet is due to the politics and threats opponents attach to sanctuary. In such a rancorous climate, she said, “there’s a hesitancy to commit” the resources and to run the risks. “But I want to believe, too, if there were an immediate need there would be sanctuary for that person.”
Network volunteers learn the ins and out of sanctuary in all its various forms through educational forums.
“We have had representatives from the Austin (Texas) Sanctuary Network and Grassroots Leadership flown here to provide training on Sanctuary in the Streets and ways to resist ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) that are nonviolent as well as on accompaniment as a formal process,” said Thurber.
Image result for lawrence jensen omaha OASN
OASN’s local community partners include Latino Center of the Midlands, Immigrant Legal Center, United Women of Nebraska, Omaha Together One Community and several churches. The group holds workshops on sanctuary strategies and on immigrant rights.
Much of the network’s focus is on information and mobilization.
“We send out alerts via email whenever someone requests accompaniment at a court hearing or checkin,” Thurber said. “We have had training about how to be present and resist at raids. However, ICE has gotten more sneaky about how they pick people up or raid businesses and so t is very hard to get notice that these things will happen. For example, instead of going to someone’s home where they can call for assistance,  ICE will follow them and pick them up somewhere else, such as when they’re dropping a child off at school. “
“We feel like the immigration system is making it difficult even for us to advocate in a companioning way,” Sosa said. “On several occasions ICE has sent notices for hearings that ended up moved or changed or false. We’ve sent out requests for people to come and several have shown up only to find out it’s a fake date. There have even been instances where the individual detainee is there for a hearing that was never scheduled.
“They’re trying to discourage us. It’s just unfortunate. We try to verify dates before we send out the request.”
OASN is also working, Thurber said, “to get a hotline up and running where we could take phone calls from members of the community that need support.”
Thurber and Sosa hope to increase awareness of the network and to attract more supporters.
“There’s certainly enough work to go around,” Thurber said.
The surge in immigration rights events, she said, often finds OASN members onsite making the organization’s presence known.
Most of all, OASN wants the undocumented to know they are prepared to render support.
“We want people to know that if they reach out to us for help, we’re here,” Thurber said. “If we cannot provide help, we will do what we can to find somebody who can.”
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

 

Marta Nieves: Woman with a purpose

December 24, 2018 Leave a comment

Image result for marta nieves omaha

 

Marta Nieves: Woman with a purpose

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico (el-perico.com)

 

Community advocate and organizational development expert Marta Nieves, 81, nearly always finds the silver lining.

“I’m a visionary. I can envision so many positive things,” said Nieves.

The bilingual Nieves has family roots in Cuba. Born in Tampa, Florida, she grew up in New York City, where she learned life lessons from her grandmother Theresa.

“Her philosophy has really impacted me,” Nieves said. “She was very open and thought everybody is worthy of being treated with dignity if they are honest and respectful. The word spread to anybody coming from Cuba, ‘Go to Theresa’s house and she will give you a good meal and be supportive.'”

Nieves comes from a strong line of women.

“The women in my family were brilliant but they didn’t get far in school. If they had the opportunities I had, they’d be in the history books. I said, ‘It’s not going to be that way for me or for my kids.’ I was the first one in my family to go to college. I’ve been a determined person my whole life and I’m not going to change now.”

Her family moved from Tampa to escape discrimination. NYC’s melting pot shaped her life.

“I’m very grateful I grew up in a multicultural environment. That diversity’s helped me to get along with many different kinds of people. I’ve developed a natural trust of people. That belief has held me in very good stead my entire life. I make a choice to set aside any preconceived notions.”

Before pursuing higher ed, she used her hand-arts skills.

“I went through the Central Needle Trades High School in New York. I got placed in one of the better (fashion) houses when I graduated but then I got married and moved to Washington D.C. I’ve always been a doer, so I went to work at a milliner shop in Maryland.”

She moved with her career U.S. Air Force husband from station to station, including Ankara, Turkey, the Philippines and Great Falls, Montana. When, in 1969, they moved to Bellevue for his final post at SAC headquarters the couple had four kids. Upon his retirement, they made Nebraska home.

Through all her travels and experiences, she’s never wavered from core beliefs.

“I care about what happens to people. I have an undergraduate in psychology and a master’s in social work. I chose social work specifically because it gives me many avenues to work on the positive side of things. A lot of social workers try to fix problems. My philosophy is you need to do prevention so the problem doesn’t arise in the first place. The different organizations I have worked with all have prevention in mind.

“If I can make the world a better place for others, it’s making it a better place for me and my family.”

Though she’s mostly worked with nonprofits, she enjoyed an 11-year career at United Healthcare, where she guided “culture change.”

“I still run into people who tell me they never found another work environment like we had there.”

For the national Girl Scouts council she helped develop programs that allowed Latino employees to increase their educational attainment and get promoted. One program enabled her to finish college and become local girl scouts program director.

She’s taught cultural competency, change management, conflict resolution and team work for many groups. She facilitates enhanced interpersonal relationships within organizations. Clients learn to identify biases and negative attitudes and to adopt positive mindsets.

“A big part of the work I’ve done in all these organizations is build self-awareness. The decision making is up to the person. but the self-awareness has to be there or nothing changes.

“I’m a systems person. If I have a vision and can gather people around me to share that vision, it’s amazing what can happen. You can’t tell me something can’t be done because I’ve done things people said couldn’t be done. I’m a problem-solver.”

She balanced her consulting work with Nebraska Democratic Party politics. She helped form and chaired the state party’s Latinx Caucus. At the last state convention, she passed the torch to others.

“I’m so proud of the new Latinx Caucus team,” Nieves said. “They are a dynamite group.”

She’s paved the way for more Latino involvement in the party as volunteers, voters and candidates.

But these are hard times for her party.

“We’re battling two things: the fatigue people feel because of this president and the tremendous divide.”

Nieves wants people to know their voice matters and they can make the change they want by voting.

She mentors young Latinos she views as future leaders  through Latinas Unidas and other groups.

“We have so much talent in the Latino community. Lots get recognized but not enough. They don’t always have the connections. The key thing is that you see the opportunity. Latino people are very humble people as a rule. That sometimes makes it difficult to navigate this competitive environment and fight for what you want.”

“It’s important emerging leaders get on track, meet the right people, so they can blossom to their full potential. I’m always keeping my eyes open for possibilities to enhance other people’s lives. That’s my legacy.”

Her children and grandchildren are also her legacy. The opportunities given her have benefited her family.

“It’s a true gift. I feel we have been given so much I have a responsibility to contribute, so I want to pay it forward. That’s the story of my life. I want to see people happy and fulfilled. It’s such a joy when that happens.”

Her human relations and civic engagement work has netted her many honors and awards.

The energetic Nieves vows, “I will continue to mentor, support, empower and encourage. It’s a passion.”

Follow Marta on Facebook.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

Community activist Dulce Sherman follows servant-leader path set by her minister father

December 24, 2018 Leave a comment

 

Community activist Dulce Sherman follows servant-leader path set by her minister father

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico (el-perico.com)

Dulce (Mejia) Sherman has spent years campaigning for Nebraska Democratic Party candidates, but one office seeker’s bid consumes most of her time now: her own. The novice candidate is vying for an at-large representative spot on the Millard School Board in the November general election.

This self-described community activist’s desire to serve comes from the example set by her late father, Rev. Mario Mejia, who was a Spanish Assemblies of God minister.

“He was a very compassionate, patient person,” Sherman said. “He was not judgmental. He would take a step back and observe and not be reactive – even if people were not very kind to him. He was very committed to helping people in his ministry.”

Her parents were from Mexico, where her father was a muralist. Sherman and her five siblings were born and raised in the U. S. Their first language was Spanish, not English. The family lived in Grand Island and Minden, Neb. as Majia established churches around the region.

“My mom didn’t speak English or drive, so there was limited adult interaction for her. Her life and my dad’s life was really about the church.”

It wasn’t unusual for the family to leave home Saturday for services, then attend a weekend-long church conference, and get back Monday morning.

“I always admired my dad because after he would finish ministering during the day, he went to work at a factory job. It was a huge commitment. He had a really strong work ethic that’s very much embedded in me.”

Sherman remembers helping her late mother pick potatoes in a field. But her real focus was on getting an education – something her parents always stressed.

“Four of us completed college. Two of us have a master’s level degree.”

Sherman earned her bachelor and master’s degrees at Bellevue University. She may pursue a law degree. Her attainments are part of how she honors her father.

“I was really close to my dad and I learned a lot from him. He was my role model. I wanted to be like him. I really wanted to help people.”

That calling led her to Human Resources as her career.

“I love meeting new people. It feeds my soul to have conversations about their dreams and help them be the best that they can be.”

After years in HR positions at Omaha for-profits, she joined One World Community Health Centers in 2017.

“I didn’t really feel I was making a difference in where I was at before. I decided I needed to go work for a nonprofit and give back to my community. Now I feel I’m able to help the Latino community in that servant leadership role just like my dad did.”

She likes that One World walks the talk.

“Other organizations have a mission on the wall. Here it’s a mission people live by. They really care about what they do. It’s very rewarding working for a place that’s really making a difference.”

Culturally, it’s a good fit, too.

“For the first time in a workplace, I’m called by my Latino name. It’s a really diverse organization I can call home. We currently employ about 86 percent Latinos and 85 percent women.”

Politically active since the 1990s, she said, “I’m very passionate about ensuring our Latino vote is represented. Women, children, healthcare, immigration and DACA – all things I’m passionate about – I feel are at risk and need representation.”

She feels obligated to help because of what she’s done.

“I’m a first-generation American who’s been able to go to college, learn two languages and go somewhere and do something with that. Not everybody has that opportunity.”

She was indecisive about seeking office when fellow politico Christian Espinosa Torres encouraged her to run. The school board made sense since her four sons graduated from Millard Public Schools.

Besides, she said, “some board members have been there a long time and I want to shake it up and bring some change.” Her platform emphasizes “making sure we have enough funding for special education and  suicide prevention.”

Two of her sons are gifted and two have special needs. Her experience with the district’s processes for students with learning and attention issues motivates her to be “an advocate” for parents navigating the system.

“I can be the voice for them.”

“Suicide prevention has impacted my home as well,” she said. “Anytime there’s a child with a disability, there’s going to be some emotional aspects tied to that. I am passionate about equipping these kids so they can be successful in life and handle that.”

She wants to make the district more “inclusive of everyone regardless of race, gender, abilities.”

She participated in a July 25 Women Who Run event, where, she said, “It was empowering to see how many women are running for office. I am especially proud there are several women of color running.”

Canvassing has convinced her that most “people don’t know much about the school board and its purpose and how the education system and budget process works.”

Family members working on her campaign include her sister Esther Mejia, owner of E Creative, her husband Allen Sherman and her four sons.

Balancing a campaign around work, family and volunteering is a challenge. She’s an at-large delegate for the state Democratic Party, a member of the professional networking-educational group, Latinas Unidas, and she’s active in the Women’s Fund Circle advocacy group. She also serves on the Latino Center of the Midlands board.

In June. the Women’s Center for Advancement honored her for her community service at its “Tribute to Women” event. That same month at the state Dem convention she was elected Latinx Caucus Chair – succeeding her political mentor, Marta Nieves.

With so much on her plate, she said, “I’ve learned that no matter what you stay grounded to your values and you don’t waver in times of conflict.”

In this divisive era, she said, “I think it’s really important we aren’t viewing things as a bi-partisan situation. We should be thinking about how we want our children and grandchildren to be taught and treated and what we’re willing to do to make sure the course were taking as a society respects humanity.”

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

The healthcare war: Round and round it goes again, and where it stops, nobody knows

August 18, 2018 Leave a comment

The healthcare war:

Round and round it goes again, and where it stops, nobody knows

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

As we go to press with this issue, the Republican-led attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare struggles on..

One of the most controversial things the GOP plan broached was severely cutting Medicaid, the nation’s largest health care program. Critics see it as an entitlement grown far beyond its original scope. Most recipients are children, mothers, the disabled and the elderly. The proposed $770 billion cut – spread out over several years – would have impacted millions, particularly the working poor in rural regions, who account for many of those added to the rolls through the ACA’s Medicaid expansion.

One World Community Health Centers CEO Andrea Skolkin said far from an automatic hand-out, qualifying for Medicaid is actually “very difficult.” She added, “There’s a lot of myths about Medicaid and who’s eligible to be enrolled. If you’re an able-bodied adult, you’re not really eligible. You really have to be an advocate for yourself in getting enrolled with all the paperwork because you have to prove your income. It’s an arduous process.”

The program, said Skolkin, places severe limits on not only eligibility, but coverage for certain things. Any tightening of eligibility and reduction of spending, she said, would result in even less access to care.

“As Medicaid ratchets down what it pays to providers, providers are less likely to want to accept Medicaid and so this vulnerable population doesn’t have as much choice of provider of where to get care, and that’s a problem.”

Currently, one in five Americans is enrolled in the program. In Nebraska, which refused Medicaid expansion, one in eight or some 230,000 people are enrolled. Skolkin estimates about 70,000 Nebraskans fall in the gaps – either not eligible for the marketplace or not covered by a private plan or by Medicaid.

Nebraska Methodist Health System vice president and CFO Jeff Francis was most troubled that “draconian cuts” to Medicaid were even on the table for so long.

“The thing that still looms out there that bothers me is that there wasn’t much budge on that,” Francis said. “I  understand the partisan divisions on that, but at the end of the day that degree of cut to Medicaid is going to really impact individuals and individuals’ coverage. In Nebraska we get a bit of a double whammy, no matter what happens with the cuts because, one, we weren’t a Medicaid expansion state, so we’ve not benefited at all from some of the expanded coverage in federal dollars that went along with that. And, two, historically we’ve been lower on the Medicaid spending spectrum, and so as that translates into cuts and block grants for the states, Nebraska’s going to get hit pretty hard.”

Medicaid is crucial for millions getting treatment for maladies, and Skolkin said, “It also has an impact on long-term care in a tremendous way.”

Low weight new babies, infant mortality, STD and teen pregnancy rates are at crisis levels. The opioid epidemic got highlighted in the recent care plan debates. Mental illness is increasingly recognized as an acute public health problem. In the proposed Medicaid cut, some public schools would have lost funding for screenings and other care that students from low income families rely on.

In this high needs scenario, cutting access to care means some people will delay or defer treatment, and those with conditions that could be prevented or controlled will get sicker, while others will seek care in emergency rooms, all of which puts more pressure on providers. The system’s closely interwoven nature is such that pulling hard on one strand, like public health, will fray or undo other strands in this fragile crazy quilt.

“The tapestry doesn’t work without all the threads,” said One World pediatric nursing practitioner Sara Miller.

Nebraska Medicine CEO Dr. Daniel DeBehnke appreciates how those outside the industry often fail to see just what a tightly-knit fabric it is.

“I don’t know if it’s a disconnect or just a reflection of the complexity of it,” DeBehnke said.

In the event of cuts, he said, “low income individuals are going to need to make really tough choices about how to pay for a roof over their head and feed their family and pay for healthcare, and some may put off healthcare, and that has several domino effects. People become less healthy and when they do access healthcare, they require more services. Once they do require services, a lot of that financial burden gets shifted to the facilities caring for them, be it a local clinic, provider or large health system.”

Sara Miller envisions “life expectancy decreasing because you don’t have the opportunity to intervene in the early years, especially for kids to have healthy habits, and to do preventive medicine, so that folks don’t have diabetes or high cholesterol by the time they’re in their mid-20s.” She added, “My fear most is for the families that it affects and their deciding between food and electricity and healthcare. That’s a decision nobody should ever have to make.”

Exacerbating it all, DeBehnke said, is the “skyrocketing” cost of care.

“We should be focusing on that as well and not just in cutting the dollars that go for healthcare – but how can we decrease the cost of healthcare, the cost of prescription drugs driving a lot of the cost. How can we drive healthcare systems like ours and others to be more efficient and cost-conscious. We’re working on that every single day because we know that’s how we’re going to be paid in the future,” DeBehnke said. “But there are all those other things we should be working on as well so that we pay less for healthcare as opposed to just giving less money for healthcare.”

No matter where this all lands, he said, “When we talk about Nebraska Medicine and our mission, we’ll take care of anybody that walks in our door. That’s who we are and that’s what we do and we’re big enough to be able to do that.”

As a Federally Qualified Health Center, One World takes anyone, too, but it doesn’t have as deep of pockets as Nebraska Medicine.

“When we have increases in numbers like we have seen – we cared for over 18,000 patients last year who were uninsured, which is more than half of all of our patients – that’s an increasing burden as an organization in trying to leverage other funds so we can take care of all people,” Skolkin said. “If Medicaid reduces what it reimburses for certain services, again that’s a reduction to every provider, including us. So, whether you need an x-ray or some lab work. as things get reduced we get less payment for that and then it just has a ripple effect.

“So, cuts do impact us and at some point we won’t be able to provide the extent of care we provide. I would hate to see that happen, but at some point you have to be able to make your budget.”

DeBehnke said no matter what happens, “there’s going to be people left behind,” adding, “The idea that I hope legislators are thinking about is how do we leave the least amount behind.”

Jeff Francis said this is no time to be complacent even as Nebraska Methodist Health System is “operating well under the Affordable Care Act.” He added, “It took some time for us to be able to understand it. We’re now into the fourth year of the federal exchanges and the insurance aspects of it. Other parts of it we’ve been operating under for about six years. And so it’s going on. We’re seeing better outcomes because the focus is on quality and outcomes as opposed to just the fee for service or being paid for services.”

But just as the ACA was never meant to be a panacea for all the system’s faults, Francis said major cuts to public health would have negative consequences.

“To the extent there are less insured and so people are doing less preventive, that would be a step backwards from a public health standpoint. We still have the vulnerable populations – those with chronic conditions, in some cases multiple chronic conditions, those with mental health challenges, the working poor.”

Methodist Health and others are working to fill the gaps where they can.

“We’re reaching out to try and address that,” Francis said “by opening up a community health center in downtown Omaha to work with other entities-services to reach vulnerable populations. That center is going to have Lutheran Family Services associated with it to try to deal with that behavioral health component.”

The center is part of the Kountze Commons project on the former KETV site at 26th and Douglas. It’s an expansion of existing Kountze Memorial Lutheran Church health and food services.

Andy Hale, Vice President of Advocacy for the Nebraska Hospital Association, said his organization has been lobbying the state’s congressional delegation to “ensure all Americans can access the compassionate, patient-centered and affordable healthcare they deserve.”

“Nebraska’s hospitals serve as the safety net in each of their communities,” Hale said.

Hospital programs benefit the state, he said, by “providing free care to individuals unable to pay, absorbing the unpaid costs of public programs such as Medicare and Medicaid,” as well as “subsidizing health services reimbursed at amounts below the cost of providing the care … and incurring bad debt from individuals that choose not to pay their bills,” according to Hale.

Hale said hospitals serving more rural regions typically to treat “older, poorer, sicker populations” who tend to be on Medicare or Medicaid.

“Medicaid plays a critical role for Americans who live in small towns and rural areas,” Hale said. “Almost half of all children living in small towns and rural areas receive their health coverage through Medicaid. Research shows Medicaid provides families with access to necessary health services.”

He said any drastic cuts will be felt most in rural areas.

“Many hospital margins are already thin, but when you begin cutting reimbursement rates, it hits their bottom lines and drives those hospitals to significant losses.”

One World’s Andrea Skolkin said even in this repeal and replace mania, vital aspects of public care should not be lost in the shuffle.

“The expansion of Medicaid funding for children through CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program) expires on September 30. All of these things are tied together.”

DeBehnke would like whatever process follows this latest effort to undo the ACA to be deliberate.

“President Trump said at the beginning of all this, ‘Who would have thought this was so complex?’ Well, we’ve all known it’s this complex and we’ve been trying to warn it’s this complex all along,” DeBehnke said. “As opposed to rushing to try to get something done because it was a campaign promise lawmakers made to their constituents, let’s take our time and try to figure it out and get it right. Obamacare wasn’t perfect either. There are good things we can pull from there that are in the right direction.”

Behind-the-scenes, executives like DeBehnke and Francis are bending elected officials’ ears.

“We’re wanting to make sure legislators and policymakers keep that longer view perspective. I think that’s coming out in some of the town halls the senators and congressman are hearing,” Francis said.

Meanwhile, the leadership of Nebraska Medicaid is in transition. Longtime director Calder Lynch left for a federal job in May. Former deputy director Rocky Thompson is serving as interim head until a permanent replacement is found.

Andrea Skolkin is unsettled, too, by the unknown but feels something like universal care will emerge and retain a public health haven.

“We are having those conversations – trying to make our representatives aware of the patient base we care for and what the impacts of cuts would be. Many of our patients, almost all of them, fall into this vulnerable bracket. If you cut too hard, then that social compact becomes less available for the people that need it most.

“I do believe there will be something for everyone. I think Medicaid is still going to be there. There’s a lot of argument-dialogue going around right now. It hasn’t been as productive as it could be. But I am hopeful it will end in the right place. Whether the Affordable Care Act is repealed or not, there has to be a safety net in place for people who are more vulnerable.”

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

Roger Garcia: Servant Leader

August 8, 2018 Leave a comment

Garcia Makes Community Service his Life’s Work

©by Leo Adam Biga

Origiinally appeared in Omaha Magazne

 

Roger Garcia fits squarely in the mix of young professionals taking their turn at leading Omaha.

As a former special assistant to Mayor Jim Suttle on urban affairs and community engagement, Garcia kept close tabs on issues impacting Latinos. Today, he continues doing the same as a community volunteer and activist with his eyes set on earning a master’s degree in public administration to prepare for the non-profit leadership role he expects to assume one day.

His community focus right now extends to serving on the boards of Justice for Our Neighbors Nebraska,the  Nebraska Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Brown-Black Coalition of Greater Omaha. He also works with the Latino Academic Achievement Council and the South Omaha Violence Prevention-Intervention Initiative.

He chairs the Nebraska Democratic Party Latino Caucus, which actively addresses issues like redistricting and immigration.

He’s so busy he’s had to hand over the reins of the Omaha Metro Young Latinos Professional Association he founded and led.

His deep concern and involvement keep him attuned to what’s going on and to where he and the organizations he represents can help.

“I do need to know what’s going on in the community and to see where we can help out if at all possible,” he says.

Everywhere he looks, he sees young professional making a difference.

“It’s definitely a growing community that’s being sought after more and more. Lots of people are wanting to know where we stand and what our opinions are. They want us to get involved because we bring that new energy or new mind frame. Our technology-social media skills are in demand.

“I think it’s a population that will definitely gain in influence. Clearly, we’re the leaders of tomorrow.”

He’s glad the distraction of the mayoral recall election has passed and the city administration and the community can move forward as one.

“Luckily that’s over and we can focus on just bettering the community.”

For Garcia, there’s no higher calling than public service.

“I love working with people, I love trying to help people better themselves. It’s just something I truly enjoy doing. I’m blessed to have the opportunity to serve.”

Roger Garcia: A Young Man on the Move

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico (el-perico.com)

 

Roger Garcia is a young man in a hurry.

He took a job in Mayor Jim Suttle’s office last June at age 22, a full year short of graduating from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Now, eight months into his position as Community Liaison this dual psychology and Latino/Latin American Studies major is slated to earn his bachelor’s degree in May.

He can hardly wait. Next up is an Omaha Board of Education bid and then either law school or pursuing his master’s in psychology, an educational-career path he said he chose “because of my love of interacting with people, which ultimately leads to a love of helping people and serving people.”

Growing up, first in Los Angeles, then in Schuyler and Columbus, Neb., Garcia was precocious, alway excelling in school and involved in community activities. His parents’ split-up in L.A. precipitated his Honduran immigrant mother Margarita coming to Neb. with Roger and his two older brothers. His mother had a cousin living in Schuyler.

The culture shock was profound.

“It was completely different going from a humongous city to a tiny Midwestern town of about 6,000 at that point,” said Garcia. “I had never seen snow, I had never seen cows. The demographics were completely different. I was just one of about three maybe four Latinos in my class. Today, if you go to Schuyler it’s like 95 percent or more Latinos in the elementary school. It’s pretty interesting how it’s changed.

“It did require adjusting but ultimately I truly liked the Nebraska lifestyle, even the small town lifestyle.”

After two years in Schuyler, where his mother worked in a meatpacking plant, the family moved to Columbus. The Garcias again found themselves part of a small minority community.

“Being a Latino newcomer, especially to those small towns, there’s a lot of good experiences and there’s a lot of bad experiences as well,” he said. “I don’t like to dwell on the bad experiences but they did happen. Of course, there’s a lot of racism in smaller towns, going as far as violent acts I saw towards my friends. Luckily no physical violence was done to me but there were things like random yelling at me and my family.

“But there’s a lot of good things that came from living in those small towns. It’s a great peaceful atmosphere. Most of my friends were Caucasian and I learned a lot from them and their families. And I am bicultural as far as having that small town Nebraska experience and learning the cultures of my parents.”

His father’s from Mexico and his step-father’s from Guatemala. His dad’s been out of his life for some time, his mother only remarried a few years ago and his brothers don’t share his passion for education. His mom pushed him to achieve.

“She’s always promoted my getting an education and she’s been there for me through my process,” he said. “She always wanted me to get those straight As and that really influenced my desire for knowledge in general, something that’s very big in my life. I love to read — history, literature. I have a passion for knowledge and learning.”

His interest in politics and government was stoked by the events of 9/11. He became a news junkie fixated on U.S. policies, issues. Upon graduating high school and enrolling at UNO his interest shifted to events closer to home. Two important figures in his life became UNO’s Lourdes Gouveia and Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, who gave direction to his social justice bent.

“They got me involved in some political and voter mobilization campaigns. I learned a lot about policy that directly affects the Latino community. So they’ve definitely been mentors to me. I appreciate both of them.”

Garcia became an advocate and organizer with grassroots initiatives aimed at overturning anti-immigrant legislation. His role: educating the community about the impact of bills and encouraging people to participate by letting their voices be heard.

“I have a passion and a drive to just help people, stand up for them, in an educated and professional manner of course. I need to be informed on the topics.”

He worked with the American Civil Liberties Union, the Office of Latino/Latin American Studies, the Anti-Defamation League and the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute. His interest and experience coalesced when he worked on the Suttle campaign doing bilingual phone calls, canvasing South 24th St. and connecting then-candidate Suttle with local Latino leaders.

After Suttle’s victory Garcia posed ideas to the new mayor and staff about interacting with the Latino community and they liked his ideas so much, he said, “they offered me a position.” He chairs the South Omaha Advisory Committee he created himself.

“One of my main objectives coming into this is just making sure people within the community have a direct line of communication to the mayor’s office,” said Garcia. “Some people feel detached from government, that it’s hard to get straight answers, so I wanted to make sure people felt they could contact us directly and they had a source that would reliably reply to them.

Since the mayor can’t be everywhere, as a community liaison I can go to meetings for him. That’s a big part of it, being in the community, seeing what the needs are, what the happenings are.

“That’s why it’s so important to meet so many organizations and people, so they can feel comfortable that if they have any question they can just call me and they will get an answer. Sometimes I’ll join a committee or a board just to be at the ground level in the community with some projects, helping out in whatever we can utilizing city services.”

There’s no where he’d rather be.

“Doing community service is just something I love to do, so to incorporate it into my job, that’s beautiful.”

Red tape, red flags – H-1B Visas pose real consequences

June 8, 2018 2 comments

Red tape, red flags – H-1B Visas pose real consequences

©Story by Leo Adam Biga

©Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Originally appeared in the May-June 2018 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com)

 

“People need to understand [H-1B] is particularly vital for small states like ours where we’ve got low unemployment and a high need for STEM jobs,” says Amy Peck, an immigration attorney with Jackson Lewis, P.C.

One recent search on the popular monster.com job searching database revealed more than 30 software development jobs in Omaha posted within one month—jobs for a field where the overall unemployment rate is 1.6 percent.

That’s why many in IT or other STEM-related fields paid attention when, in July 2017, President Donald Trump signed the “Buy American-Hire American” executive order, which subjects already hard-to-obtain work visas to even greater scrutiny.

This was a blow to those employers recruiting skilled labor on H-1B visas. The visa allows for 65,000 employees to be hired from abroad and 20,000 to be hired from students enrolled in U.S. colleges (under the H-1B advanced degree exemption). More than 200,000 applications are expected for H-1B visas in 2018.The application process opens on April 3, and, if the trend continues as it has in the past several years, applications will only be accepted for five to seven days.

Unlike hiring an employee from the United States, when the start date is often two weeks from the acceptance of a job offer, the earliest an H-1 B-status employee could begin work is Oct. 1…if the application is accepted.

Fortunately, there are plenty of folks who can help navigate the legal system. On behalf of clients, Peck fields increasing government reviewer challenges.

One of the biggest impacts this executive order may make is that employees seeking an extension to an H-1B visa will now face the same scrutiny they faced to obtain the visa.

“When we file extensions on cases that got approved without challenge before, they now get challenged even though the facts have not changed,” Peck says.

That means an employee on an H-1B visa who has worked hard, innovated, and generated income for a company could be denied an extension and the company could lose an employee for no reason other than checking the wrong box
on the paperwork.

Each denied visa extension would cost a company a skilled, trained worker, filing fees, lawyer fees, and much more.

“This change is very disturbing to employers who want to keep a good employee but fear they may lose them during the extension process,” says Omaha immigration attorney Mark Curley. “Foreign workers feel less secure in their employment. They understand their H-1B extensions could be denied.

“Employers could lose a good employee after three years if [U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services] re-adjudicates the petition and determines the occupation or employee do not meet H-1B requirements…There is already a backlog in the employment-based green card process for applicants from India and China working high IT-related jobs in Omaha.”

“The H-1B is a specialty occupation visa with very specific requirements,” Peck says. “The job must require at least a bachelor’s degree in a specific field or related field. The government has certain wage levels you’re required to pay. A very sophisticated analysis goes into that.

“So, this is not something employers are eager to do. Often, it can be the last resort because they can’t get U.S. workers to do the job. As an economy we rely on this visa category in ways many people don’t want to admit and would like to deny.”

Vetting is done by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services center officers. Requests for evidence usually challenge specialty occupation designations.

“We spend a lot of time and effort with employers to describe what the job is,” Peck says. “We cross reference that with the government database. Then we look within the company sponsoring the H-1B to determine if others in that job have a similar degree and we use that to support our submission. The vast majority of our cases are getting approved, but we’re having to really fight. It’s taking all of our skills, tools, and resources to maneuver successfully in this environment.”

First Data is among several Nebraska employers using H-1B visas due to a shortage of skilled U.S.-born workers.

“There’s a myth employers are undercutting the U.S. labor market by hiring H-1Bs, and it really isn’t the case because with H-1B labor there is a cost involved not present with a U.S. worker,” Peck says. “The filing fee alone if you’re an employer with 25 or more employees is $2,460. If you want your case expedited you add another $1,225—and then attorney fees on top of that.”

Pending federal legislation aims to further scrutinize H-1B visas.

“The practical effect will be fewer petitions filed,” Curley says. “It will decrease the number of foreign students who enroll in U.S. colleges and universities.”

One thing is certain. H-1Bs are a hot item—as a topic of business and political discussion.

Amy Peck


This article was printed in the April/May 2018 edition of B2B.

%d bloggers like this: