California is offering free immigration legal services for community college students

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ZAIDEE STAVELY | CONTRIBUTOR

If you’re a student, staff or faculty member at a California community college, you’re eligible for free legal immigration services. Since 2019, California has been investing $10 million yearly in a program that provides legal services to help community college students renew their status under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, identify options to apply for permanent residency or for permanent residents to apply for naturalization, among other services.

Anyone affiliated with any community college campus can sign up online for a consultation with an attorney or paralegal. Most campuses offer either in-person or online consultations, while some more remote campuses only offer online appointments. Armando Martinez Vega came to the U.S. from Mexico in 2009, when he was in third grade, after his father obtained permanent residency for the family. Martinez Vega finished elementary school, middle school and high school in Watsonville, California, and then began attending community college.

When his dad finally obtained U.S. citizenship, Martinez Vega was 19, too old to naturalize automatically through his father’s application. He knew he had to apply for citizenship himself, but he had no idea how to go about it. Then, his sister brought home a flyer about free immigration legal services at Cabrillo College, where both siblings were taking classes.

Martinez Vega made an appointment to talk with an attorney, and last month he was sworn in as a citizen. “I was really happy. It feels great, and you just feel more sure and more secure about yourself,” Martinez Vega said. “Maybe somehow I would have done it on my own, but it would have been a lot harder, I know for sure, and maybe it would have taken a lot longer.” Those offering the legal services are worried that many students aren’t aware they exist. Since the program began, about 7,600 community college students, faculty and staff members have received a legal consultation, according to Alonso Garcia, senior program manager at the Foundation for California Community Colleges.

But there are an estimated 70,000 community college students who are undocumented, he said. Many more are permanent residents, who could benefit from naturalization services to become citizens. Part of the reason behind the lack of awareness is that the program was first fully launched in March 2020, right before the global Covid-19 pandemic. “We were super excited: ‘Hey, we’re here, and we’re going to serve all these students,’ and then the world shut down,” said Kate Hinnenkamp, operations manager of the immigration project at Community Action Board of Santa Cruz County, one of 10 organizations statewide that partner with the community colleges to provide legal services. “We were going to have outreach tables, and people were going to see us around, but none of that materialized.

It was a struggle for that year and a half where classes were virtual.” However, Hinnenkamp said she has seen a big spike in appointments since last summer when the program launched a website called Find Your Ally, where students can easily schedule a legal consultation from any community college campus. Offering immigration consultations to help students identify whether they are eligible for some kind of visa is particularly important now that the federal government is not processing new applications for DACA, Garcia said. DACA offers temporary protection from deportation and permission to work for about 650,000 young people who came to the U.S. as children.

Tens of thousands of people who are eligible for the program have not been able to turn in applications, because they turned 15, the minimum age to apply, after the government stopped accepting new applications in 2017. “For students who have not been able to take advantage of DACA, you don’t know what options are available to you, so coming and scheduling a consultation and talking through past experiences, that could trigger some form of relief,” Garcia said. Sofia Corona, directing attorney at the UFW Foundation, which offers services to students at community colleges in the Central Valley and Central Coast, said that her staff has found many students who are eligible to apply for visas but were not aware. “We’ve been able to find very vulnerable students who have gone through really abusive, traumatic events and didn’t know that, because of the context of that struggle, they were eligible for a form of immigration relief,” Corona said.

Even when students find they are not eligible to legalize their status, Hinnenkamp said, it’s important for them to find that out, so that they don’t end up paying notaries or other attorneys who may tell them they do have a legal pathway, when they do not. “We’re hoping to avoid people falling victim to fraud. We really want to provide that trusted information to people, whether it’s the answer they want to hear or not,” Hinnenkamp said.

The legal service providers are also able to help students who have DACA status apply for advance parole, immigration paperwork that allows them to leave the country and return. After applying for advance parole, one student from Riverside City College was finally able to travel to Mexico to visit her grandmother, right before she died, said Luz Gallegos, executive director of TODEC, another organization that provides legal services to students in the Inland Empire area. “Her grandma played a big role in her upbringing and was one of the biggest cheerleaders for her to go on with her education and achieve her goals,” said Gallegos.

Gallegos said she’s encouraged by what the program has accomplished. “Seeing the opportunity that it brings to the students and that they see the college campus not only as their educational institution, but as a community space where they are cared for and they have a support system, it does make a difference,” said Gallegos.

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