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Anson Stevens-Bollen

Dreams on Wheels

Santa Fe attorney takes free immigration legal services on the road

August 31, 2016, 12:00 am

Two teenage boys sit in front of Allegra Love seeking legal services for their immigration paperwork. It’s a sweltering Saturday morning in the small southern New Mexico city of Roswell, where Love has traveled from Santa Fe in a newly painted RV to spend part of the weekend. A few hours earlier, she’d rolled out of the bed in the back of the vehicle, popped on a pair of pink hoop earrings and taken a walk.

Lawyers like her are few and far between in the capital city, much less in this rural dairy community. So this summer she’s taken to the road, launching a free multi-city mobile legal clinic.

Both 15, the boys were brought by their parents to the United States without the government’s permission and have lived here since they were kids. Now that they are old enough to apply for jobs in auto parts stores, furniture warehouses or restaurants, they want to secure working permits—which would ensure federal immigration enforcers won’t deport them. They want to save for college.

Yet, the young attorney is about to deliver a smile to one boy and a thin-lipped nod to another.

One is eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. His parents show visible relief. All Fernando has to do is send the paperwork and wait.

“I’m going to be more calm,” Valentina Escobedo says in Spanish as she smiles at her son. “I know he will have more chances and more opportunities.”

The other boy, Jesus Castro, is not eligible for the program known as DACA. His mother wipes at her glitter-lined eyes.

The difference? Fernando arrived in the country before June 15, 2007. Jesus arrived in November that year.

The Escobedo family drove about 40 miles from Artesia to show up at the first Roswell law clinic in late July and returned at the next one two weeks later with all the necessary documents, namely transcripts going all the way back to elementary school. After he pays a $465 fee and gets fingerprinted at a government office, Fernando just has to wait—maybe a month, maybe eight months—for a card in the mail. After that, he stands to gain an economic status heretofore unforeseen. People who get a DACA permit, Love says, see an average 45 percent bump in wages.

“I’m looking forward to seeing how successful you are,” she tells him, handing over an envelope already addressed to the Department of Homeland Security.

“We were trying to find somebody for a long time,” Fernando says later.

“It’s not easy,” says his dad, Sergio. “If you don’t have nobody to help you, it’s not easy.”

On the other side of the room, Lizeth Castro, Jesus’ mother, had brought her three children to see la abogada after hearing about the clinic on the radio. So far, the family had not found anyone to help them understand how DACA works, and she was grateful to meet with Love, even if the news was bad. Lots of families pay large sums to notarios who offer consultation about immigration matters but who aren’t lawyers. Love says much of that advice turns out to hurt applicants. Unfortunately, in this case, Jesus can’t get the card—not unless the rules change.

Love takes a deep breath. “Lo siento,” she says, “I’m sorry,” continuing in Spanish, “It’s not a question of good character, it’s a question of the date. It’s ridiculous.”

It’s her shorthand for explaining the nuances of DACA and its arbitrary cutoff date: Applicants who are now at least 15 years old must have been in the country before that day. But, they can’t have been older than 31 at the time of its June 15, 2012 enactment.

Allegra Love (left) tells a mother that her son doesn’t qualify for a deferred-action work permit because of an arbitrary date. UNM Dream Team volunteer Miriam Garcia listens.
Julie Ann Grimm

According to the Migration Policy Institute, those restrictions mean about 1.3 million people are eligible.

Far from the sweeping immigration reform that the president had sought to acknowledge the vast number of people who live in the country without residency documents, the program was a way to get some relief. A subsequent effort at broadening deferred action would fail to secure affirmation from the Supreme Court and remains stagnant. Plus, the outcome of this fall’s presidential election could result in more rule changes.

That’s why community organizers don’t want Jesus to just walk away. Miriam Garcia, a volunteer who works with the University of New Mexico’s Dream Team, spends a few minutes telling him about policies in New Mexico that allow undocumented people to enroll in and graduate from college. She chatters at Lizeth about mobilizing to continue advocacy for reform. Then, the family glumly heads out.

It’s not even close to lunch time yet, and already the clinic has seen the swell of this wave.

“It’s kind of hard to wrap your head around,” Love says. “I spend more time telling families that they don’t quality for anything than I do saying, ‘We can help you.’”

The night before, a storm had formed a bulky slate gray cloud on the horizon to the west. As the miles rolled by between Santa Fe and Roswell, some of the stress of a typical week melts away. A sandwich and a beer don’t hurt either.

Love watches out the window of the RV as Hector Aveldaño, her partner in the adventure and a longtime volunteer with the New Mexico Dreamers in Action advocacy group, navigates down the highway.

She is exhausted, but still pumped about what they’re doing. A nonprofit she formed last year called Santa Fe Dreamers Project bursts the stereotype about civil law: Clients don’t pay, even though some make donations when they can. Since the beginning, in March 2015, all of the operation’s funding has come from grants and individual contributions. This month, with money from the city, the McCune Charitable Foundation, the Lannan Foundation, Santa Fe Community Foundation and others in place, the nonprofit welcomed two new employees: women who graduated from the UNM and Georgetown law schools and are awaiting their scores on the state bar exam. A new intern who plans to start at Stanford Law in 2017 is also here for the next year.

A private fundraiser in Chupadero recently netted donations of $8,000 toward the nonprofit’s goal of $200,000 for the next year, and Love has just hired a part-time development director whose mission is to grow the donor base.

Fernando Escobeda’s father, Sergio, accompanies his son, who is expected to soon receive a permit through DACA.
Julie Ann Grimm

Love’s path to this point has not been straight. In 2005, she moved to Santa Fe and began work as a teacher in a bilingual classroom. She taught in the Santa Fe Public Schools for three years, meeting immigrant students who struggled with adult concerns—deportation, paying the rent and feeding the family—as they earnestly fought to keep up with studies. Those challenges, largely based in the tangles of legal status, inspired her to head to law school. She wanted to help students with more than reading, writing and arithmetic. Then, after she passed the bar, Love found herself among candidates to become a prosecutor in the district attorney’s office.

But her heart wasn’t in it, and those inspiring immigrants had not left her head. She went back to the classroom and started training with second-generation local immigration lawyer Victoria Ferrara. In 2012, the school district’s Adelante program, which works to combat child poverty, hired Love to represent students and their families in DACA applications.

“There was no other school district in the country that was supporting this kind of work,” she says. “It was a way of recognizing that there are bigger social problems contributing to their failure. … We have to stop pretending we can overcome poverty with less recess and more standardized tests.”

As it turned out, a huge demand for legal services was bubbling under the surface. Her case load was 200 clients, and a line frequently formed outside her door.

Then the school district yanked the rug out from under her. Officials wanted her to pull back on the advocacy.

Rather than abandon those cases, when her employment contract ended she kept fighting to keep them afloat.

“It actually worked out great,” she says of starting her own nonprofit. “I just had to put one foot in front of the other.”

Since last spring, Love has overseen more than 800 deferred-action filings. So far this year, she’s plugged in 200 new applications, largely from people living in Santa Fe and Rio Arriba counties. She’s also currently representing about 30 others facing deportation—mostly people who fled violence in their home countries and who are hoping to stay in Santa Fe. Plus, when she can, she travels to the family detention center in Dilly, Texas, with lawyers who help women and children secure asylum status.

Love has been conducting weekly DACA clinics in Santa Fe at St. Bede’s Episcopal Church on Friday afternoons for nearly three years now. But she wanted to take the show on the road because she saw an influx of clients who were driving hours for help.

An admittedly low-tech gal, Love faces hundreds of emails and a nearly-full voicemail every day. She finally gave in and started using Facebook to message clients. She learned that she’s popular on a group housed with the social media network called “La Yarda de Santa Fe,” where locals buy, sell and trade.

That’s all to say that “non-traditional” doesn’t even come close to describing her approach to lawyering. It’s not pro bono for a pat on the back. It’s a core philosophy.

“This is just my stubborn ass being like, ‘I want to know if this can be free,’” she says. “I believe in access to justice and access to a lawyer.”

"This is just my stubborn ass being like, ‘I want to know if this can be free.’ I believe in access to justice and access to a lawyer."

By that way of thinking, it’s not just immigration matters, but family court and other judicial proceedings are legal services that deserve the same treatment as public schools and public health initiatives.

“There is not a whole ton of talk about public law access outside of the criminal justice system because we focus too much on the individual impact and not on the collective impact that it has on our society and town,” she says.

For now, the RV is staying parked for a few weeks while the team evaluates how the inaugural mobile clinics worked in Farmington and Roswell.

“It will be rolling again soon,” Love says. “Ideally, I’d like to send a team of three to four people who travel and work remotely. I’m thinking about all over the West.”

One key, says Italia Aranda, the state coalition leader for United We Dream, is for Love’s team to partner with someone already working in the community where they’re heading. In Roswell, the key player was Bobby Villegas, a local insurance agent who also runs a community center. SOY Mariachi hosts not just music classes and quinceañeras, but a congress of Latina elected leaders and events like the Dreams on Wheels legal clinic. He also has his own radio show.

“We strategize to make sure we create deep and meaningful connections within the community,” Aranda says. “Really they are the experts in their communities and know the struggles of the people.”

Community organizer Hector Aveldaño pilots the 34-foot RV to rural New Mexico.
Julie Ann Grimm

The “low-drama, high-frequency” clinics are important, too. In order to fill out the seven-page form and provide the required documentation, most people need to return several times.

At Love’s side through most every road trip is Aveldaño, a Dreamer who lives in Española and works as a handyman. His vast community organizing skills run the gamut from taking passport-style photos for applications to making T-shirts with spray paint and stencils. He’s also excellent at piloting the 34-foot-long RV, which he drove on nearly all this summer’s clinic trips.

He greets almost everyone who arrives at the event and he’s optimistic about its results.

The Dreams on Wheels RV becomes a karaoke bar for a few hours after volunteers set up a room for legal clinic in Roswell.
Julie Ann Grimm

“It’s pretty good,” he says, looking around. “No one else has done anything like this. We’ve been doing this in Santa Fe for longer and we have helped a lot of people. It’s working if we can get just a little bit like Santa Fe somewhere else.”

The Dreamers who hang around to volunteer at the legal clinic are a jovial bunch. They’re studying biology to become doctors, taking engineering classes, and learning about business development and international relations. Most are students at UNM, where programs like El Centro de la Raza are helping undocumented students navigate academia and an active immigrant-rights group is at work.

When they’re done setting up tables and chairs on Friday night for Saturday morning’s clinic, they pack into the RV and use a portable projector and screen plus a mic and amp to create a makeshift karaoke bar.

Love kicks it off with a rendition of Shakira’s “Estoy Aqui,” and soon the vehicle is rocking on its wheels. Outside, on a quiet residential street in the older part of Roswell, the air is thick with the smell of cow manure and the hum of a generator drowns out the jeers and the music.

Love’s easy laugh and low-maintenance manner shouldn’t belie the toll the cause is taking on her. Last year, after returning from the Dilly facility that she refers to as “baby jail” for Central Americans, she began therapy with a counselor. Knowing the likely violent fate of women and children who are deported is a huge burden. Some days she feels like she’s getting better at bearing it all. Other days, not so much.

“I realized that I’m not emotionally prepared for children being killed, and really who is? … I don’t know if you can ever get used to how unfair it all is,” she says.

With no room within the professional sphere to unload that emotion, it sometimes “comes out sideways,” as her therapist explains. That might be a panic attack while she’s driving down Agua Fría. Or it might be unleashed on a Verizon customer service agent or someone else who has nothing to do with the injustices she sees on a regular basis.

But she does have moments of victory. At a hearing last week, the government agreed to stop deportation proceedings against a woman and her three children she represents. Having an infusion of staff helps her cope. Even the summer road trips make her feel better.

Fresh-faced Emma O’Sullivan read about her work a few months ago and called Love to offer assistance.

“How about a job?” she remembers Love saying.

Now equipped with a desk and a mission in Santa Fe, she sits listening as Love talks to clients in a cinder block room off the church lobby.

“I think this is a place where I can do some good,” O’Sullivan says. “The immigration system is so broken and byzantine. It’s just not like a lot of other things people can do themselves.”

Right on cue, Love’s face lights up to see a young computer programmer who got his DACA with her help last year. His sister’s permit has expired and the pair drove from Albuquerque for the Friday clinic. Gabriela Pedregón-Quezada says she didn’t feel confident filling the paperwork herself. She didn’t want to jeopardize her plan of saving money that she earned working the carnival retail circuit to launch a clothing company.

Gabriela Pedregón-Quezada, one of Love’s DACA clients, is saving money to start a clothing line.
Julie Ann Grimm

“These are the kind of stories we need to tell so people stop thinking you are a murderer and see that you are a businesswoman,” Love tells her, only half-kidding that she wants to start a business incubator for immigrants as well. (One idea: a brewery for the Mexican, South and Central American palate.)

“I’m kind of a hippie,” Pedregón-Quezada says when Love walks away. “I think everything has an aura and hers is a warm aura.”

Love isn’t into the praise, though. She wants people to pay attention to the economics and how immigration reform makes sense.

Take Roswell, for example, where the mayor recently spewed anti-immigrant rhetoric. The dairy industry centered in the city that’s the fifth largest in New Mexico (right behind Santa Fe) wouldn’t survive without immigrant labor. A recent report from New American Economy estimates that 42 percent of the state’s workers are foreign-born, some legal, many without papers. Why spit in the face of that?

The report says the state is home to about 72,000 undocumented immigrants who paid local taxes of $49 million and earned $1.1 billion in wages.

“Immigrants start business fast. They are entrepreneurial. They are hardworking. They are job creators,” Love says. “People fetishize and fixate on the border and the crossing and don’t want to talk about empowering accomplishments and economic development. No one wants to watch a documentary about graduation from high school. When you want people to pay attention to the less sexy and dramatic things, you can’t get them to. I wish more people could see that immigration strengthens our economy. Helping people get permission to work, that’s a good investment for the community, for our tax dollars.”

Her dreams continue to spin.

“The legal services aspect is just one part of it,” she says as she tries to ignore the ringing phone in her office on Cerrillos Road. “There’s so much more to empowering people to organize and change the law, to fight racism, it’s about a lot more. But for me, this is what I can do.”


 

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