Immigrants and refugees in Baltimore often face language barriers, are fearful of government and find it difficult to navigate the complex layers of bureaucracy when it comes to accessing health and social services.

As a result, says Catalina Rodriguez Lima of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, some families may not have regular access to nutritious food and face other financial challenges — issues that have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott announced Wednesday that the city is leading a new initiative that brings together organizations — including CASA, Southeast Community Development Corporation, Catholic Charities’ Esperanza Center, International Rescue Committee, and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services — to better help these families gain access to federal, state and local benefits and services.

The Baltimore New American Access Coalition is the first citywide, coordinated case management initiative targeting immigrants and refugees in the city, according to Rodriguez Lima.

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The initiative will receive about $4 million in American Rescue Plan funds to hire 11 “benefit navigators” whose jobs will be to help families access government assistance, Rodriguez Lima said. The federal COVID-19 money will also fund immigration attorneys, paralegals, technical help and financial assistance for families to address short-term needs, she added.

Scott said the pandemic exposed inequities across the country and heightened economic, social and health disparities faced by traditionally underserved immigrant and refugee communities.

“Two-and-a-half years later, new American families continue to struggle as they’re facing recovery due to a range of systemic barriers,” Scott said during Wednesday’s press conference. “We know that we cannot protect public health and well-being without ensuring that all residents, regardless of their situation, have access to appropriate levels of care and support.”

Rodriguez Lima said each of the organizations in the new coalition will have different target populations.

Catholic Charities’ Esperanza Center will support foreign-born African families concentrated in the northeastern part of the city and foreign-born families citywide, she said.

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The International Rescue Committee will focus on refugees, those granted asylum, and Asian American Pacific Islander families who primarily live in Central, Northeast and West Baltimore.

CASA will serve Latino families in Northwest and south Baltimore while Southeast CDC will provide support for Latino families in the southeast region of the city.

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services will help the coalition access best practices on immigrant and refugee case management.

George Escobar, chief of programs and services at CASA, said case managers will not only screen participants for benefit eligibility, but also for advancement opportunities, such as vocational training or English language classes.

“Recovery is not just about access to a vaccine, although [vaccines are] critical and vital to preventing a pandemic from happening again,” Escobar said. “We’re talking about economic and social investments in the community to help them rebuild.”

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