A lifeline for Spanish-speaking immigrants in Maryland
Feb. 04, 2018
WHEATON, Md. (AP) — Four days after the Trump administration announced that it would end temporary residency permits for roughly 200,000 Salvadorans, Lilian Mass leaned into a hot mic in Wheaton to begin her weekly Spanish-language radio show.
Flanked by an immigration attorney, a financial planner and a real estate agent, she took rapid-fire questions from one worried listener after another.
Should I stop paying my house payments and just leave the country? asked one caller, a county resident with temporary protected status. What do I do with the business I built? asked another.
In the corner of the recording studio, a television tuned to CNN showed pundits discussing President Trump's derogatory reference to immigrants from certain nations.
Mass, 40, has spent the past 14 months as a bilingual communications officer for Montgomery County, a period that coincides with Trump's election and his administration's crackdown on undocumented immigrants.
Her job is to be a lifeline between local government agencies and Montgomery's growing Latino population — often the first point of contact between officials and newly arrived residents who know little about American civic life.
The weekly radio show, broadcast on Radio America (WACA 1540AM), is one of the most public aspects of Mass's work, which can involve translating a live-streamed County Council session on Facebook Live in the morning and working the phones all afternoon to connect immigrants with the resources they seek.
"It's a two-way road," said Mass, who immigrated from Honduras and is a naturalized U.S. citizen. "It's a way of the county serving residents, but also knowing what the needs of the residents are . . . because they don't want to come to (council) offices, they don't want to come to the police."
Council member Nancy Navarro (D-Mid-County), whose district has the highest concentration of Latinos in Montgomery, said she pushed for Mass's position because "there's so much that happens at the county level, so many decisions that are made, and the Latino community oftentimes does not even know what's happening."
The role has taken on added urgency as the federal government announced plans to rescind temporary protected status (TPS) for Salvadorans, Hondurans and other immigrant groups, and to phase out Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the Obama-era program for undocumented immigrants brought to this country as children that is at the center of budget negotiations.
There are 19,800 Salvadorans and 1,900 Hondurans with TPS in Maryland, and 9,700 DACA recipients. Many of them live in Montgomery County.
"Especially during these times, there is so much misinformation and there's a lot of anxiety in the Latino community in general and other immigrant communities," Navarro said.
After immigrating in her 20s, Mass learned English, attended Montgomery College and worked as a reporter for the Spanish-language television network Univision. At first, she worried that being hired by the county would mean less face-to-face interaction with immigrants whose stories resonated personally.
It turned out the opposite was true.
In one instance, she connected a Guatemalan immigrant who never finished high school with a Montgomery County Public Schools program that teaches adults trade skills such as construction and car maintenance.
She also has been contacted directly by women trying to escape domestic violence who are afraid to go to the police. Mass directed the women to the county Department of Health and Human Services, which found them and their children shelter.
But there are also problems she cannot solve, such as the frantic parents who tell her that when their TPS expires, they will be separated from their American-born children.
"Sometimes you hear stories and you just want to go cry," she said. "It becomes your burden."
George Escobar, senior director of human services at CASA de Maryland, said Mass has worked to keep local officials accountable to Latino residents, challenging them, for example, to do all they can to protect otherwise law-abiding undocumented residents.
Mass, whose salary and benefits cost the county about $100,000 a year, helps answer "what are the local impacts" of government and "what is the local responsibility," Escobar said.
After video surfaced last week of Border Patrol officials demanding proof of citizenship from passengers on a Greyhound bus in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Mass retweeted the phone number for an immigrant rights hotline.
She has brought experts on her radio show to answer TPS holders' questions about credit scores and mortgage payments, and hosted the consul general of El Salvador to talk about how the country is preparing to receive Salvadorans reentering from the United States.
In December, Mass effortlessly switched from Spanish to English and back while interviewing County Council President Hans Riemer (D-At Large) about issues from gang suppression to a resolution to protect undocumented immigrants. The CNN monitor looped footage of Trump, who had just called immigrants who come to the United States through visa lotteries "the worst of the worst."
"Wherever you're from, we're glad you're here," Riemer said.
Mass bent toward her microphone. "Let me translate that for the listeners," she said.
Information from: The Washington Post, http://www.washingtonpost.com