As immigration raids loom, Santa Rosa doctors bridge gap between immigrants and health clinics

Mayra Martinez has been taking free wellness classes to learn how to monitor her heart rate and do simple daily exercises in order to improve her health and share the information with her husband, an undocumented immigrant.

Grappling with heightened anxiety about leaving their Roseland house, her husband has stopped going to the doctor and doing routine tasks like grocery shopping because of ongoing threats against Latino immigrant communities across the nation.

Despite weeks of watching her husband shudder each time he hears a passing police or fire siren, Martinez, 27, said she is doing what she can to ensure he and their 6-year-old daughter stay healthy during this stressful time. She did not want to disclose her husband's name because of his undocumented status.

“I am taking exercise and nutrition classes because I have hopes of becoming a nurse,” said Martinez, who was at the free blood pressure stand at the LandPaths Bayer Farm food donation event last week.

The Bayer Farm and Garden is a 6-acre urban farm and city park in Roseland managed by LandPaths in collaboration with Santa Rosa's recreation and parks department.

“My husband is from Oaxaca (southern Mexico) and most days, especially right now with the threats, if he is walking in our neighborhood and he sees an SRPD (Santa Rosa Police Department) patrol car drive by, he will cross to the other side of the street or stop walking until it passes because he is afraid,” she said.

He's one of the estimated 30,000 Latino immigrants living in Sonoma County with increasing worry of being deported.

Threats of impending immigrant roundups by agents with Immigration Customs Enforcement increased after President Donald Trump said June 22 that raids would occur in 10 U.S. cities, including San Francisco.

Trump quickly called off those raids, saying he would give Congress time to come up with asylum legislation and figure out how to slow the flow of migrants at the southern U.S. border. Then Saturday speaking at the G-20 summit in Japan, the president said the nationwide raids would happen sometime after the July 4 holiday barring “something pretty miraculous.”

Though the raids were temporarily suspended, the fear of being deported has driven many Santa Rosa families with immigrant ties into hiding, said Michelle Escobar-McGarry, health promoter at the Santa Rosa Center for Well-Being.

The center offers free classes on healthy living to help prevent diabetes, obesity and arthritis. It also organizes community events, such as the free blood pressure stand at Bayer Farm, to educate people about healthy lifestyles.

“We just want to give everyone assistance, a step up, in taking care of their health, especially with all the stress on immigrant communities right now,” said Escobar-McGarry, who has been working in the health care sector in Santa Rosa for 13 years.

Meanwhile, area hospitals including St. Joseph Health - operator of Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital - Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa and Sutter Health, have been doing outreach to patients by attending community events, going to schools and handing out “Know Your Rights” pamphlets as threats of immigration deportation loom.

In Santa Rosa hospitals, medical providers are directed not to inquire about a patient's immigration status.

“The last line of our mission statement says, ‘We are steadfast about serving all, especially those who are poor and vulnerable,'?” said Terri Dente, chief mission officer for St. Joseph Health. “People should feel safe with us.”

Local doctors and health providers said the emotional and physical toll the possible raids have on residents is concerning. Health is often the last priority for Latino families, when really it should be a primary focus in times of acute stress - like right now in this political climate, said Dr. Jennifer Fish, a family medicine physician at the Santa Rosa Community Health Center.

“The patient population we take care of does have a high amount of immigrants and they are at risk for raids and deportations,” Fish said.

“As doctors, we see the effects of what happens when fathers and mothers are deported or separated from their families.”

People may be surprised to learn these stressors on the immigrant community contribute to long-term health ailments like diabetes and heart conditions, Fish said.

“We are seeing it to an extent in immigrant families like never before,” she said.

Even simple efforts, like the weekly free blood pressure screenings at Bayer Farm, are a step in bridging the gap between Latino families and health care providers, said Yareli Villagomez, community health director for the Santa Rosa well-being center.

“We screened about 50 people in just two days,” Villagomez said last week. Her own parents did not seek traditional health care for most of their lives, until Villagomez urged them to be proactive about their health just a few years ago.

“When I started learning about my own health, I took it home to my family and now the next generation of kids in my family will treat health care like a normal part of life,” she said.

EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this story incorrectly contained a photo of Irma Oregon, who was photographed while getting her blood pressure checked through a program operated by the Santa Rosa Center for Well-Being. Oregon is a U.S. citizen.

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