I woke up yesterday incredibly saddened. As I began to process the outcome of the election and its impact on immigrants, I thought of my father, who was born in a displaced persons camp in the wake of World War II. He and my grandparents were there as a result of exclusionary policies and nativist state actions. The president-elect’s proposed immigration policies draw from the same type of nativist playbook. They include building a wall, deporting millions, and closing doors to those in need of protection. His proposals are fundamentally at odds with the values of a nation in which all people have the opportunity to live in safety with the ones they love. It is the United States of America that offered my family refuge and welcomed them. Sadly, at this moment, the country does not resemble the one that welcomed my family in the 1950s.
Nevertheless, I was inspired to come to work today because of the vision we share at the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center; a vision for a vibrant country where all people—regardless of their immigration status—can achieve their full potential and are treated with dignity and respect. This vision seems a lot harder to achieve now—but we are not about to let up. We have worked, and will continue to work, to increase access to justice to thousands of New Mexico’s immigrant families. We look forward to expanding our network of partners who share our mission, and together, we’ll stand for the principles of a just and welcoming society.
In the wake of the election, we are evaluating how best to support the immigrant community. With our partners we will keep a vigilant eye on legislation and policies proposed by the president elect and incoming Congress. Stay tuned for updates. We will continue our Wednesday walk-in hours from 1pm-5pm for anyone who has a question about a pending DACA or naturalization application or is considering filling one out.
The election results do not undercut the fact that Americans overwhelmingly support immigration reform. There are millions of Americans who welcome immigrants with open arms and appreciate the strength immigrants bring to our national fabric. Our nation needs an immigration system that fosters immigrant contributions, fuels our economy, protects families and benefits all Americans. Election results will not deter us from continuing our advocacy in a nation of laws that protect human rights.
With your support and the continued courage and resiliency of the immigrant community, we will keep fighting for the rights of immigrants in New Mexico and throughout the country.
If you plan on moving from Minnesota to New Mexico, prepare for some surprises. You may find yourself asking questions like “Why is everyone putting on their winter clothes in this 70 degree heat?” or “Where did all the Norwegians go?” But there are also many surprises when you go from the Canadian to the Mexican border that have nothing to do with the weather or the lack of Vikings fans. When I moved to Albuquerque in August to work at the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center (NMILC) as part of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, I knew very little about the myriad challenges and dangers facing immigrants in the US with uncertain or no legal status.
While I am still only beginning to understand how these challenges play out in the day to day life of the 23 million people in the US who are not citizens, I have had the incredible chance to join a group that is actively working to ensure more people can enjoy the benefits and security that legal immigration status can bring. This year in particular, in response to calls from activists in our community and the challenging (read: terrible) political climate for immigrants, NMILC has focused on creating more opportunities for New Mexicans to apply for citizenship. One of my favorite examples of this is our weekly walk-in clinic.
These workshops are pro se, a suave Latin legal term that means advocating on behalf of oneself. What this means for the participants is that they choose when they want to attend the workshops and how much of the process they want to work on that day. Our workshops are also held in the same building as Encuentro and El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos, two Latino advocacy and adult education organizations in downtown Albuquerque. These partnerships and the decentralized nature of the Pro Se process allows our workshops to be both community-based and client-centered, something that can often be a challenge for legal aid organizations. Because we know the high cost of the application itself can be a barrier (almost $700 for citizenship cases!), we provide assistance free of charge and help those who qualify fill out fee waivers.
For me, seeing participants bring in their children and parents highlights the importance of citizenship. Last week while assisting a client fill out the enormous stack of papers needed for the application, I got to know her precocious three year old daughter as well. For this participant and many others, becoming a citizen is about the benefits this status can bring to their family.
Becoming a citizen has many benefits: safety from deportation, increased access to public benefits, and, perhaps most notably, the right to vote in federal elections. The upcoming election will shape immigration policy in the coming years; the politicians we elect in November will be making decisions on critical issues such as DACA, border security, and how many refugees will be allowed into our country. They will also be making decisions on issues such as health care and education that affect all of us, immigrant and non-immigrant alike. However, without access to citizenship, the voices of many immigrants are left out of our political system. Over 19,800 immigrants in Bernalillo County alone are eligible for citizenship. If even a fraction of those eligible immigrants were to naturalize, it could have an impact on elections and increase the volume of their political voice.
In an election cycle where immigration has taken center stage, we at NMILC believe it’s important to combat the voices that portray immigrants as dangerous criminals and economic burdens. We already know the incredible positive economic and social impact that immigrants have made and continue to make in New Mexico and the rest of the US. Now let’s help amplify the voice of the people who are directly impacted by immigration policy.
The New Mexico Immigrant Law Center (NMILC) has created an innovative and unique program to help students and young adults apply for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
DACA, which was announced by the Obama administration in 2012, allows people born after June 15, 1981 who arrived in the U.S. as children to obtain temporary permission to stay in the U.S., along with work authorization, for 2 years. DACA recipients can now apply for a 2-year extension. DACA has allowed hundreds of thousands of young people to lose the fear of imminent deportation. They can focus on schoolwork, work legally, buy cars and are in a better position to contribute to their families and communities.
Many organizations around the country are running programs to help young people enroll in DACA. But the NMILC project—unlike all the others —doesn’t just wait for students to show up. Instead, NMILC has set up programs with several Albuquerque schools to provide screenings and services for DACA-eligible youth. The partnership is a win for all—more students get access to legal services and schools increase their students’ ability to enter the formal workforce upon graduating.
Schools in Partnership
NMILC currently has programs at three charter schools, which have welcomed the chance to participate, offering funding, staff time, and their facilities. These schools include South Valley Academy, ACE Leadership High School, and Health Leadership High School. Additionally, NMILC will be starting programs at two Albuquerque public schools in early 2016—Highland High School and Albuquerque High School.
Building on the relationships between the schools and their students, the staff at several of these high schools provide preliminary screenings for DACA-eligibility. NMILC’s legal assistants and a Jesuit Volunteer then follow up weekly or bi-weekly to let students know how they can apply for DACA, answer questions and help the students gather the required documents.
Partnerships Expand Legal Services and Increase Capacity
NMILC attorney Jessica Martin, who currently oversees the school partnerships, reports that NMILC staffers, simply by appearing regularly at the schools, have lessened students’ fears of applying for DACA. Fears arise from the fact that applying means revealing students’ undocumented presence to the government. But students who see NMILC staffers interact with teachers and social workers are more willing to step forward.
Once the students have been interviewed and know what documents they have to gather to meet DACA requirements, they are offered individual representation for more complicated cases or are signed up for a free DACA Workshop, where NMILC’s legal staff assists the students to prepare their applications.
The DACA screening process at the schools also gives NMILC staff a chance to see if the students, and their family members as well, are eligible for other forms of relief. These include “U” visas for crime victims or Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, a form of relief available for youth who have been abandoned, neglected or abused by a parent. In other words, the school-based DACA program can serve as a gateway to legal status for the whole family.
NMILC’s staff goes to the schools at the beginning of the academic year to train new staff and students to provide preliminary screenings and to set up a sign up system.
With the addition of Alejandro Macias, a Public Ally through AmeriCorps, to NMILC’s staff in fall 2015, the DACA school partnerships have expanded to three new schools. “Because the schools decide to take a more active role in assisting their students, they’re able to connect services not only to the students but to their families. This creates a more open space to talk about immigration status and to get more students to apply.”
NMILC’s Staff Invested in Creating More Opportunities for Students
NMILC staffer, legal assistant and Victim Advocate Lizdebeth Carrasco, was one of the first to set up the program at South Valley Academy. The program carries special meaning for her. She graduated from SVA and is herself a DACA recipient. “I was once in their shoes,” she says. “I knew DACA was good, but I was scared. With NMILC’s help, my DACA application was approved. So I know how to approach the students and can explain that they can do it too.”
Lizdebeth knows first-hand what DACA can do. She and her family had been living on Pajarito Mesa in a house with no water or electricity. She and her sister did their homework by flashlight and petroleum lights that gave them headaches. Now Lizdebeth is a University of New Mexico graduate, hoping to attend law school someday. In the meantime, she will apply to be an accredited representative, approved by the Board of Immigration Appeals to represent people, under NMILC’s supervision, in filing immigration applications. Her sister, who studied architecture, is working in Carlsbad.
Currently, Javier Garcia, a second-year law student at the University of New Mexico School of Law, meets with students at South Valley Academy (SVA). Javier taught health and New Mexico history at SVA for one year before going to law school. Now, as a legal assistant at NMILC, he provides consultations to SVA families. He also helps his former students apply for DACA in order to help them have the opportunity to work and save money for college.
Martín Zaldivar, Jesuit Volunteer, who holds a master’s degree in Social Work, goes to ACE Leadership High School once a week to promote NMILC’s DACA program. The school makes a point of ensuring that students have legal representation, food, and career goals.
DACA can’t fix the U.S. broken immigration system. The program simply offers a temporary fix for some undocumented young people. Yet immigration reform foes are up in arms over the program. Proposed expansion of DACA, and attempted creation of a similar program for parents of citizens and lawful permanent residents, have been stymied by a lawsuit filed by 26 states with mostly Republican governors. But for hundreds of students whom NMILC staffers have helped to gain DACA, the DACA program has changed their lives.