As families of the Key Bridge collapse wait, how a Baltimore County employee translates a complex system for them

BALTIMORE — For Giuliana Valencia-Banks, the difficulty of the past week has only been compounded by how personal it felt.

Valencia-Banks is the Baltimore County chief of immigrant affairs, a role that is much newer than its city counterpart. But since the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapsed March 26, sending six immigrant, Latino construction workers to their deaths in the depths below, Valencia-Banks has emerged as the face of the county’s efforts to guide victims’ families through an unimaginable tragedy.

“What this week has highlighted is the importance of immigrants, the importance of a community that comes, that works, that contributes, that builds families, builds communities, and how we need to create the system and make the changes so that immigrants are welcomed, so that immigrants have access to the supports that they need, so that language barriers don’t exclude them,” Valencia-Banks, 42, said. “It’s made me even more determined to continue to work in this space.”

The day the bridge fell, Valencia-Banks was supposed to be at a conference in Montgomery County, but she “physically couldn’t sit there.” So she made her way to the emergency site to find the people she’s been working with ever since. On that first day, she deployed bilingual social workers and members of faith communities to sit with families as they processed the fact that their loved ones were missing. Since then, the bodies of two victims have been found and the rest are presumed dead.

“The most terrible noise that you can hear is when a human is suffering and grieving the loss of a loved one,” Valencia-Banks said. “That sound will stay with me the rest of my life.”

Valencia-Banks said she’s been working with Gov. Wes Moore’s office and the Baltimore City Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, known as MIMA, to respond to victims’ families needs. Catalina Rodriguez Lima, the current and founding director of MIMA, said her office activated an existing case management program that works with nonprofits to provide bilingual resources to the families as they navigate a flood of calls and applications.

Working together helps ensure that efforts are not duplicated and families are not re-traumatized, Valencia-Banks said.

“This is an all-hands-on-deck moment for our state and we are thankful for leaders like Giuliana who are putting their passion and their skills to work on behalf of our fellow Marylanders,” Moore said in an emailed statement.

To provide short-term relief, the Baltimore County Department of Health has distributed gift cards to the families to buy food, Valencia-Banks said. But to cover the families’ upcoming needs, such as housing payments, funeral costs or sending the bodies of the victims back to their home countries, MIMA and the Baltimore Civic Fund are collecting money. As of Wednesday afternoon, they have raised $418,000, Rodriguez Lima said. That’s in addition to the $98,000 raised by the Latino Racial Justice Circle last week.

Rodriguez Lima said in the coming weeks, the city will either start paying bills on families’ behalf or giving them money directly out of the established fund, depending on individual situations.

Valencia-Banks said she’s currently acting as a liaison between the different organizations and as point person for contact with the families, work she called a privilege to do. Eventually, case managers will take over families’ long-term needs and she’ll take a step back.

“My role is to create the systems that meet the needs of our immigrant community and [that] addresses the realities of their lives and ensures that they’re treated in the same way that native-born folks are,” Valencia-Banks said.

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. said Valencia-Banks and her office, which consists of one other full-time employee and a fellow, has been an “absolute vital link for these impacted families,” adding he “couldn’t be more proud of or grateful for her.”

“I just couldn’t imagine going through this moment without her on this team,” Olszewski said.

Olszewski said while Valencia-Banks, who he described as tenacious, dedicated and a breath of fresh air, has connected his administration with individuals, families and communities who were previously underserved or not served at all in the county, her importance has been particularly underscored following the bridge collapse.

Though MIMA has been around since 2014, Valencia-Banks’ role wasn’t established until Nov. 2021 by the Olszewski administration.

“I’ve been in this work for the last decade and it’s so refreshing to have someone who can work in partnership,” Rodriguez Lima said. “I’m really excited that the county has a person and more importantly a person like Giuliana who is extremely committed and dedicated to this constituency.”

The work isn’t unfamiliar territory for Valencia-Banks, who emigrated from Peru and grew up in central Florida.

“My work is deeply personal. I’m an immigrant. I know what it’s like to interpret and to translate for your parents. I know what it’s like to navigate a complex system that wasn’t created to bring people in — it was created to keep people out,” Valencia-Banks said. “It’s not work for me. It’s my life.”