LAS VEGAS (AP) - Brian Snoddy was at his wit’s end.
Suffering from a spinal cord injury, uninsured, his medical bills piling up, he was in danger of losing his Las Vegas house and he was sitting in the dark because he couldn’t afford to pay his power bills.
His life had become welfare, food stamps and collecting cans for recycling to feed himself when his neurological tremors weren’t too bad. To make matters worse, Social Security had over the course of two years repeatedly denied his disability claim.
“It crushed me and my dreams,” said Snoddy, 45, who had traveled the world working on private yachts until his 2010 injury handling an air conditioning line cost him his health and his job.
At his lowest moment, someone suggested he call his congressman to get help.
“I said, ‘That’s so crazy it might work,’?” he recalled in an interview.
Ten weeks after he contacted the office of U.S. Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., the congresswoman called with good news: he not only qualifies as disabled, but Social Security would cut him a $53,537.90 check for back benefits. Now, he gets $1,900 a month from Social Security for his disability, and he’s on Medicare.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Snoddy said. “I have a whole new-found faith in the political system.”
DOING MORE AT HOME
With Washington suffering from political gridlock, Nevada’s congressional delegation has been focusing more on constituent services - the official term for helping people like Snoddy who have problems with federal agencies - than on pushing legislation. The top issues the state’s two senators and four members of Congress deal with involve veterans, immigration, housing and Social Security. But anything can come up.
Titus tells of a time when she was a state senator and got a call from a constituent whose cat was stuck up a tree. Titus sent her husband, Tom, and a ladder to the rescue.
“You never know what’s going to walk through the door,” said Titus, who represents the 1st Congressional District centered in urban Las Vegas. “When Congress is doing so little in terms of moving legislation, we want to make sure we’re doing more for people at home.”
U.S. Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., said serving constituents across seven counties in his Southern Nevada district is the most satisfying part of his job. He was near tears recently when he introduced a young man whose abused mother his office helped to save from deportation.
Bryan Rivera, 20, had told his story to Horsford and two other members of Congress during a public hearing in Las Vegas on immigration. He said his mother, Thelma Martinez Soto, 49, had been held by immigration authorities in Henderson for four weeks and was going to be deported. Her ex-husband had turned her in after she complained he wasn’t paying back child support. Horsford and U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., intervened, and the mother was released within a day under a legal provision that lets immigrants living in the country illegally who are victims of domestic abuse remain in the United States.
“His story just moved me,” Horsford said.
Horsford said he purposely hires staffers with experience in the nonprofit world and contacts in local interest groups that can help. Sometimes Horsford and other members of Nevada’s congressional delegation get personally involved.
“There are times when you have to call or write a letter,” he said. “We typically have more success.”
U.S. Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., who represents the 3rd Congressional District in Southern Nevada, said he always has focused on constituent services. Before redistricting in 2010, he represented nearly 1.2 million people - now it is about 750,000 - and his office was overwhelmed with requests for help, especially on housing issues as the region saw record-high foreclosures.
Heck said he hired case workers who are experts - a Realtor to handle housing issues and a veteran for VA issues, for example. His constituent work focuses on those areas but also includes a lot of immigration and health care.
“There’s no more satisfying thing than to be out to dinner and someone says, ‘Aren’t you Congressman Heck? I just want to thank you for helping me. I had a vet claim languishing for two years, and you got it fixed in two weeks,’?” Heck said.
U.S. Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., who represents Northern Nevada’s 2nd Congressional District, said he has tried to help other Nevadans while maintaining a trim office. He has returned about $370,000 in office funds to the U.S. Treasury to apply to the budget deficit since he was first elected in September 2011.
Amodei’s office recently handled a headline-grabbing immigration case in Reno.
Paula Guzman and her husband, Ramiro, lived separately for about 31 months as he waited in Mexico to be allowed back into the United States. Their story began a dozen years ago, however, when Ramiro Guzman, a Mexican, was caught illegally working in the United States after his visa had expired. He left the country as ordered but was caught here again. As a result, he was barred from returning for 10 years.
So the Guzman family, including two daughters now in high school, lived together in Mexico for a decade. Paula Guzman, a Reno native, returned to the Biggest Little City nearly three years ago and her husband started working with immigration to return, as well. He ran into roadblocks and asked Catholic Charities for help. Finally, the family turned to Amodei.
The family was reunited on March 14 when Ramiro Guzman landed in Reno with a new pair of wedding rings for the couple, according to his wife. He proposed again, and the couple celebrated their 18th anniversary on March 23, she said.
“Oh my gosh, it’s so amazing” to be back together, Paula Guzman said. “My husband just called me a few minutes ago and he got a job, too,” at John Ascuaga’s Nugget. “He’s really excited.”
Nevada’s two senators have heavy constituent caseloads as well. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., who represented the 2nd Congressional District until he moved up to the Senate in mid-2011, said he always put a premium on constituent services.
Retired Marine Lt. Col. Richard Bowen of Reno is a case in point. A former military pilot who served in Operation Desert Storm, Bowen applied for an increase in his veterans’ disability benefits about four years ago when he began losing his hearing. Nothing happened until Heller’s office helped.
That effort took two years, and Bowen still wasn’t completely satisfied because the VA didn’t recognize his 20-year marriage and as a result was still shortchanging his benefits.
He sent in more paperwork to prove his marriage, which took place in Las Vegas. Then he waited. Nothing.
Bowen, 59, approached Heller at a Republican lunch in October.
“He said, ‘Let me see if my office can help you out,’?” Bowen recalled.
It took Heller’s intervention, but the VA finally recognized his marriage after 500-plus days of trying, he said.
Bowen said he feels a bit guilty when he thinks of his problem compared to those of veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with serious injuries and wounds.
“If it takes them that long to figure that out for me, how long does it take for guys and gals that are really hurting?” Bowen asked. “I hated asking Sen. Heller. He has a lot more things on his plate than this.”
Sometimes constituent work leads to new policies or changes in the law.
U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., for example, got the Obama administration to update its immigration policy so the law no longer penalizes minors who lie to authorities, which could block children from entering the United States.
The change in policy grew out of the case of Edith Fawkes and her son, Brahyam Zurcher, 17, who were reunited after more than a decade apart as he lived in Mexico, she in Las Vegas.
The boy was barred from entering the United States because at age 11 or 12 he told immigration authorities he was a U.S. citizen, according to Reid. It’s still an administrative violation to lie to immigration officials, but now children aren’t held responsible for statements they make, Reid said.
Fawkes said she came to the United States in 2002 to find work, but she had to leave her son behind in Mexico.
“They never gave up,” she said of Reid’s staff, who helped her cut through federal red tape.
“I’m really thankful,” she said at a February news conference with Reid in Las Vegas. “I finally get to have my son with me. I have been able to wake him up, see his eyes and take him to school. … After 12 years, we share the same roof, the same house. I’m a full-time mother again. That’s what I wanted. We’re having a normal life.”
Information from: Las Vegas Review-Journal, https://www.lvrj.com
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