DALLAS — Oscar Torres Mendez and his co-workers at a downtown construction site were confused when Dallas County’s safer-at-home order first went into effect last month.
Their employer explained that they would continue working because they were considered an essential business. But some of the workers, who are unauthorized immigrants, Torres Mendez said, feared that moving around the city without a special permit would get them in trouble with the law.
“Some of the workers were afraid that police were going to stop them to ask where they were going and arrest them to be deported,” Torres Mendez said.
Though county officials later clarified that Dallas residents didn’t need to show any special proof of employment to leave their homes, civil rights groups and community members say that kind of confusion shows a breakdown in communication between government officials and Spanish-speaking immigrants as the coronavirus pandemic worsens.
Dallas County is about 40% Hispanic, and of those households, about 42% speak English “less than very well,” according to U.S. Census data.
The Rev. Juan Rios, of the Lake Highlands United Methodist Church and the New Room Community Church, said he’s spending hours every week texting or calling immigrant families he regularly works with about local resources that may be available to them.
“I’m talking to these moms, and they have no idea what to do with their kids at home,” Rios said. “A lot of them didn’t know schools were serving lunches.”
Rios said he feels that some news they have gotten from TV broadcasts have been more frightening than helpful.
The digital divide also concerns him. A few Sundays ago, Rios said, he tried to host a teleconference Bible school session but only one family was able to figure out the login.
“A lot of our parents don’t even have internet at home, so they can’t even access that information that’s out there,” Rios said. “A lot of them just don’t know what to do.”
While some parents do use social media, they’re coming across a lot of misinformation.
Francisco de la Torre, consul of the General Consulate of Mexico in Dallas, said that it is fundamental in a time of crisis for a city like Dallas, where 42% of the population is Hispanic, to be able to quickly share critical information in Spanish.
“We have to be creative in reaching our audiences,” de la Torre said. “And for that, we need partnerships.”
But there’s an added challenge, de la Torre said: All Hispanics don’t consume information the same way. He said there are generational differences and not all Hispanics read or watch the news.
“Every office has a responsibility to inform where it can,” de la Torre said. “Mine is to inform the Mexican immigrant community about resources.”
The Mexican consulate has been sharing information on its Facebook page to the local immigrant community because it’s the most effective way to reach the population it serves, de la Torre said.
And about two weeks ago, de la Torre said, he was enlisted to help Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins’ office film a Spanish-language public service announcement about the importance of staying home.
Jenkins, who has led Dallas’ emergency response to the coronavirus outbreak, has been working with area nonprofits and media outlets that serve Spanish-speaking immigrants. His office has also been sharing news releases and other information in Spanish on Facebook and Twitter.
But during a teleconference call last week with reporters, Jenkins said that though members of his staff were trying their best to make resources available in Spanish, the information wasn’t getting out fast enough to those who need it.
“I would agree that it’s not going well at all. Everyone is trying their hardest, but that’s on me,” Jenkins said. “It’s my job to get the word out, and it’s not going as well as I would like with that.”
Aurora Salazar, a 46-year-old mother of four who cleans offices, hasn’t worked in two weeks and is worried about how her family will make ends meet.
The restaurant where her husband works gave him two choices: stay home or work for reduced pay. He took the latter option. Their 19-year-old son, who is working toward being an electrician, is still working and contributing to the family’s expenses.
Still, she, her husband and her four kids — two high schoolers and two live-in adult sons — have been cramped in their two-bedroom Lake Highlands apartment since mid-March.
And she’s itching to go back to work because “Los biles no esperan” — “The bills don’t wait.” But she said she’s not sure what that’s going to look like for her and she doesn’t know what kind of financial aid might be available to her or her family.
Families across Texas are feeling the threat of looming evictions, missed bills and possibly not having a job to go back to after the pandemic is over, said Laura Perez-Boston, organizing director for the Workers Defense Project, a membership-based nonprofit that works to protect immigrant workers’ rights.
The nonprofit — which has offices in Dallas, Houston and Austin — has an emergency fund that it is now using to help some of its members pay for their basic needs, she said.
“The economic risk feels heavier and like more of a threat than the virus itself,” Perez-Boston said.
Lindsey Rosales, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of State Health Services, said that the department’s website is available in Spanish and that coronavirus “communication efforts are designed to reach a variety of audiences.”
The agency also offers communication tool kits, including flyers and social media posts, in Spanish and Chinese and is in the process of setting up interviews with Spanish-language media, she said.
The agency’s site features FAQs about coronavirus; guides about what to do if someone is feeling sick, applying for unemployment and how to prevent spread; and information about Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s statewide orders, all in Spanish.
Outreach to immigrants, particularly unauthorized immigrants, has been slow and poor across Texas, said Domingo Garcia, national president of civil rights group League of United Latin American Citizens.
LULAC has been publishing information in Spanish since March after seeing information trickle out, Garcia said. He added that county governments across the state are “grossly behind” in outreach and that it’s up to groups like LULAC to reach these groups.
“We’re going to continue to monitor to make sure that vital health information continues to go out to the undocumented population in the United States because they are in the community,” Garcia said. “We need to make sure that they’re taken care of and they have the information to protect themselves and protect our communities.”
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