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St. Louis aid groups say immigrants need more resources and language assistance

A little girl drives a hot pink car through her family's kitchen as they prepare dinner.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Kimberly López, 6, drives a hot pink toy Humvee through her family’s kitchen as her sister Ester López, 8; mother, Karla Meraz, and father, Juan Carlos López, get dinner ready on Monday at their home in south St. Louis.

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When Karla Meraz and Juan Carlos Lopez fled their home country of Belize, seeking medical care and refuge from violence, the married couple eventually arrived in St. Louis with pressing needs — and no way to meet them on their own.

There were big things, like getting care for their young daughter, who had been diagnosed with a degenerative bone condition in her knees. But even small tasks, like paying an electricity bill, required specific documents and the ability to converse in English.

“It can get difficult at times,” Juan Carlos Lopez said through an interpreter. “You may not have legal status, or [employers will] ask you for a passport or something to fill out a contract. Sometimes you don’t have those yet.”

Meraz, his wife, shares similar feelings with challenges she faced in St. Louis.

“I have a lot of trouble with language,” she explained. “It’s extremely difficult. Also, with health care. It’s been really difficult for myself and for my daughter — the smallest one. I spent a lot of time looking for a clinic where they could see me, and I was told I’d have to wait for four months, then six months passed and they never called me. So, that’s all been very difficult.”

Karla Meraz prepares Honduran Baleadas for her family on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024, at her home in south St. Louis.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Karla Meraz prepares Honduran baleadas for her family Monday at her home in south St. Louis.

These challenges aren’t unique, but the couple didn’t face them alone. Like other immigrants now building new lives in St. Louis, they were able to find help from a coalition of service providers. This web of aid groups aims to provide help with employment, health and medical care and education.

But with managing the needs of St. Louis' current population of immigrants, and the prospect of more on the way, these groups say they are struggling.

“There is a really robust ecosystem of service providers and agencies that are working together,” said Sarah Caldera Wimmer, who serves as the director of emotional and physical wellness at LifeWise STL. She shared her observations during a wide-ranging St. Louis on the Air panel discussion Wednesday that explored the landscape of immigration service providers in St. Louis. She said: “We all have our limitations, through funding, through capacity, through language. So we have really leaned on each other to fill holes and gaps.”

From left: Juan Carlos López, Kimberly López, 6, Karla Meraz, and Ester López, 8, share a dinner of Honduran Baleadas on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024, at their home in south St. Louis.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
From left: Juan Carlos López; Kimberly López, 6; Karla Meraz, and Ester López, 8, share a dinner of Honduran baleadas on Monday at their home in south St. Louis.

Later in the discussion, Wimmer noted that some service providers are worried that those gaps will only get wider — especially if a proposal to bring some immigrants from Chicago, and other cities, to St. Louis becomes reality.

“As it is now, our ecosystem is at its capacity,” she said. “When we think about the Chicago plan, obviously, it's heartbreaking to think that there are that many people that need quite a bit of intense and immediate services. And of course, everybody here at this table and in our community wants to face that challenge. We also are having conversations about, ‘What does that look like? How do we use our resources in a responsible way to help large numbers of newly arrived people, while not abandoning those that are already here?’”

Migrants often arrive in St. Louis with multiple pressing needs. Those who manage the risky journey from their home countries must begin building their lives without the benefit of state and federal programs open to citizens and documented immigrants. If they seek asylum, they face the prospect of a lengthy legal process and the possibility of denial.

Two girls play a game on a phone.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Kimberly López, 6, right, looks over at a phone being held by her sister, Ester, 8, as they play Roblox on Monday at their home in south St. Louis.

The process to be in the country legally is complicated, and that status can change over time, noted Kris Walentik, an immigration attorney with St. Francis Community Services, a ministry of Catholic Charities.

Walentik cautioned against making assumptions about any particular immigrant based on their legal status.

“We see people who go through the asylum process: They come as an asylum seeker, then they are eventually granted asylum, [then they] can become a lawful permanent resident, and eventually a citizen. So, it's a process — but it moves.”

Carlos Ruiz Martinez, director of client support services at the Migrant and Immigrant Community Action Project, observed that the subject of immigration is often discussed as a border issue, or a situation affecting only the country’s largest cities.

“We tend to think, ‘Oh, we should be prepared in case we face a crisis like other cities,’’ he said. “But I think what that misses is the fact that immigrants have been calling St. Louis home for many, many years.”

To learn more about Juan Carlos Lopez and Karla Meraz’s story of building new lives in St. Louis, and for the full panel discussion from St. Louis immigration service providers Sarah Caldera Wimmer, Kris Walentik and Carlos Ruiz Martinez, listen to St. Louis on the Air on Apple Podcast, Spotify or Google Podcast, or clicking the play button below.

Aid groups say immigrants need more resources in St. Louis
Listen to Carlos Ruiz Martinez, Sarah Caldera Wimmer and Kris Walentik on 'St. Louis on the Air.'

St. Louis on the Air'' brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Ulaa Kuziez is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org.

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Danny Wicentowski is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air."