By Pam G. Dempsey / CU-CitizenAccess.org — Socorro Alvarez can name off each country of origin where the small trinkets of gratitude came from that sit carefully on top of the file cabinet in her office.
This one from Colombia, she said, that one from Mexico.
Once someone brought Alvarez a live chicken as a “thank-you” for her help in getting the client’s children enrolled in pre-school.
“That’s the thing with the families, they want to thank me with whatever they have, if I say ‘no’ it’s like an offense,” said Alvarez, director and 17-year-veteran with the Hispanic Outreach Program.
The program offers case management, referrals and resources for the area’s Latino population from its one-room office inside the Western Avenue Community Center in Bloomington.
“Basically we’re the bridge of communication between the Spanish speaking and English speaking community,” Alvarez said.
Alvarez, 54, moved from Mexico nearly 40 years ago with her family to join her father, who had moved ahead of them to Bloomington to work for a railroad company.
She met her husband, Eulogio, in Bloomington, though ironically he was from her hometown in Mexico. They now have five children and five grandchildren.
Through her work and life, Alvarez has become the key problem solver in the Latino community.
The problems range from simple ones, such as setting up medical appointments or notarizing documents — Alvarez is a public notary — to more complex ones such as assisting with translation services at the local courthouse or helping clients navigate paperwork.
“They have a lot of respect for Socorro and they trust her and they feel better,” after talking to her, said Veronica Contreras, an intern from Illinois State University who is working with Alvarez this year.
Alvarez’s office is one of the few of its kind in an area where nearly 6 percent of the population is Latino.
That population has more than doubled over the past 10 years – from just over 2,000 residents to more than 4,000 residents, according to the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau.
Alvarez said most immigrants come to the area because of families or friends who may already be here. She said those that are undocumented often work in restaurants or cleaning or laundering services.
The area has little to offer by way of services and assistance for Spanish speaking residents beyond the few programs such as Alvarez’s. In recent years, the demand for help from the program has increased because of the policy of the McLean County Sheriff’s Department to report all undocumented residents to federal immigration authorities, Alvarez said.
The sheriff’s policy means that an undocumented resident can end up in jail for weeks while they wait for an immigration hearing before being released. When this happens, families of detainees often do not know where their relative is taken or when they will be back.
As a result, Alvarez’s office has seen an increase in requests for interpreter services at the courthouse as well as requests for help from families navigating the legal system. The economic recession has added to the burden, she said.
Jobs are more scarce than before and more people are requesting help with rent, food and their bills. And with limited resources, the Hispanic Outreach Program can’t offer any financial help.
“Not being able to help them financially … it’s heartbreaking,” Alvarez said. “But unfortunately we don’t have the funds; we don’t have the money to give out to the community.”
The sheriff’s new policies also have prompted many undocumented families to withdraw into their homes instead of interacting more with the community, she said.
“They can’t do a lot because of the fear to get caught,” Alvarez said.
Better immigration policies would create change for the better, Alvarez said, because it is the foundation for transportation, education, housing and financial assistance. What’s more, she said, she would love to improve local attitudes about immigrant families.
“I could change their thinking about our families. They are not here to take the jobs,” Alvarez said. “I was an immigrant myself and I was undocumented at one time, so if they give these families an opportunity, the (families) can become good community members.”