Keep Tucson Together

How Tucson friends and neighbors are keeping undocumented families together and fighting a broken immigration system

A dozen families wait in a high-school multi-purpose room, some murmuring, greeting friends and neighbors, others weaving their legs under cafeteria tables. Children chase each other, laughing. Papers rustle in and out of brown envelopes and nondescript manila folders, some aged and rumpled, dull and official-looking.

No more than a handful are native Tucsonans; everyone else is here by choice. They hail from Illinois, Sonora, Minnesota, Chihuahua, and Virginia. Some might be called immigrants, others, volunteers. Many are both.

A few are quiet, eyes occasionally darting about, not certain whether to trust their surroundings, their very purpose. It's their first visit to a Keep Tucson Together legal clinic. They will leave visibly relieved and with newfound confidence. This is now their community, devoted to preventing their deportation. No one here is afraid.

"We're here to keep everybody together until there's some kind of relief," says attorney Margo Cowan, pro-bono advisor to Keep Tucson Together clinics in Green Valley, Sahuarita and Amado, as well as Tucson.

The relief they're awaiting is immigration reform. It can't come too soon. Now, immigrants must navigate a vast and growing maze of shifting policy, interpreted and enforced differently in virtually every jurisdiction in the country, sometimes case to case. Cowan says the clinics' role is to "demystify the law. It's sharing information with everybody, getting people accurate information so they know how to take care of themselves and keep their family together."

The clinics have been so successful that, according to the TRAC Immigration Project, Tucson closes more immigration cases than anywhere else in the U.S. except Seattle.

With organizing skills honed leading a year-long strike for Cesar Chavez, Cowan set up her first immigration clinic in the mid-70s. She was 27 years old and newly named director of the War-on-Poverty-funded Manzo Area Council, a social services center and community hub for addressing discrimination against the Westside's largely Mexican population.

"The Border Patrol began to do raids at soccer games and after mass at St. Margaret's," Cowan says. "So we set up an advocacy program for undocumented people. We taught ourselves how to fill out all these crazy forms because we were kids and we could learn anything."

But in 1976 Federal officials raided the council's office. "They seized several 100 client files and we were all indicted," Cowan says. The community launched a public campaign to get the indictment dismissed, and with Jimmy Carter's election, it was done.

With that, Manzo Area Council became the first community-based organization authorized to prepare documents and represent people in immigration court. In the decade following, with the influx of Central American refugees over civil wars in the region, Cowan helped set up the Sanctuary movement. At one point she represented 3,000 refugees across the country. "I organized defense projects in 32 states," she says. "They all became lawful permanent residents with the amnesty of 1986."

Cowan went on to law school at Antioch University. She worked 10 years as counsel to the Tohono O'odham, and a stint with Congressman Raul Grijalva before settling into what she says was always her dream job as a Pima County Public Defender. There, her clients are immigrants who have broken the law.

No More Deportations

As North American Free Trade Agreement's full impact was felt in Mexico and the Central American Free Trade Agreement's was felt in Central America, the number of immigrants from those countries was expected to surge. The U.S. responded with Operation Gatekeeper, closing off traditional routes that had for millennia allowed seasonal movement across the U.S. Mexico border, and regular passage across tribal lands.

People accustomed to crossing the border for work or family followed new and dangerous routes through forbidding desert wilderness and difficult mountain terrain. Many died in the crossing. Several groups formed to try to help struggling travelers and reduce the deaths. Of these, No More Deaths attracted the most attention to the carnage, calling out abuses to the human and civil rights of migrants with demonstrations and political action as well as hands-on humanitarian aid.

Sarah Launius, a UA Ph.D. candidate in geography and development, and a passionate advocate for social justice, was drawn to No More Deaths, and ultimately also engaged in what she calls the protection network, a loosely organized super group dedicated to fighting against abuses and for the human rights of all Tucsonans. That network, including members of Coalición de Derechos Humanos, the End Streamline Coalition, No More Deaths, Tierra Y Libertad, Corazón de Tucson and the Southside Workers Center, among others, sprang into action in response to SB 1070, a measure widely believed to encourage racial profiling and discrimination in law enforcement.

When SB 1070 passed in 2010, it imperiled the status of close friends of Launius, and of activists who were emerging as important leaders in the self-determination of Tucson's immigrant community. Some began considering self-deporting.

"We wanted to make sure that as people were building this community-based defense network and advocacy groups, that if the worst happens, someone would have their back," Launius says. "A community has to be intact if it's going to be able to fight and gain ground."

And how could it stay intact when every minor traffic infraction was a first cause of an order of deportation? "What we saw was it really emboldened police officers who were already collaborating with Border Patrol to do so even more."

With fellow No More Deaths activist Kat Sinclair, a Ph.D. and research methodology specialist in the UA's Norton School, Launius began sketching solutions. "We have to actually be able to fight for people who are being threatened with deportation, and that requires some legal mechanism and what would that look like?"

She put the question to Cowan, with whom she had worked successfully on stop-deportation campaigns for some Panda Express employees, and for Sandra Lopez, who later became a central figure in the nationwide, youth-led actions supporting the DREAM Act. The answer was the semi-monthly Keep Tucson Together legal clinics.

In the summer of 201l, acting director of ICE John Morton issued a memorandum defining a framework for "prosecutorial discretion," fleshing out President Obama's 2010 directive that ICE officials focus on priority targets for deportation—people with certain felony convictions, for instance. The memo suggested factors ICE prosecutors should consider in closing deportation cases. The guidelines were to help draw down a court backlog, created in part by the Obama administration's aggressive deportation policy. Obama has deported more immigrants than any other president in U.S. history.

Seizing on the memo, and with advice from Cowan, Launius used its criteria to shape a strategy for stopping deportations of people already in removal proceedings. She says "We worked up a prosecutorial discretion request packet and did it for 69 people. (Then) we all met at Santa Monica parish and walked three miles to the ICE office at Country Club and Valencia (Road). We delivered those requests (for closure( to the prosecutors and we did so with the media to make it very clear to them that the community knew about this memorandum and was watching. Our ICE prosecutors largely got the message."

Although the guidelines for prosecutorial discretion changed somewhat with Obama's November 2014 executive action, they haven't been made any more intuitive or less documentation-intense. The persistent and supportive approach clinic volunteers provide has been crucial to making Tucson a national leader in closures.

Volunteers often have been through the process themselves or with family members. They roll past language difficulties and help think creatively about how to locate records and sources of supporting documents. They also help generate letters of recommendation.

"It's like filing taxes like United Way does." Launius says. "The goal is to dispel a kind of teacher-student relationship so everyone's a teacher. We hope we can get to a point where people don't feel the need to come to us at all because they feel like they know it. But it's nerve-wracking, so it's always good to have additional assurances."

Every clinic participant's completed bundle or binder of paperwork is typed neatly by office volunteers and signed by Cowan. If they need legal representation at any step of the process, she's their attorney. The volunteers never give legal advice. Launius calls Cowan when legal hurdles surface, and five additional attorneys offer pro-bono back-up.

When a person's request for prosecutorial discretion is approved, they receive a letter from the prosecutor or the court indicating they are not a priority for deportation. It doesn't mean they can never be deported, but it means a traffic cop probably will let them off with just a ticket, and Border Patrol officers probably won't round them up in a workplace raid. ICE already has decided they're not interested.

Asked to describe a case that gave her the most satisfaction, Launius singles out that of her friend Alma Hernandez, a community leader and activist in Corazón de Tucson. "She wasn't (an activist) when she first started working with us, but she was stopped and arrested and held in a CCA (Corrections Corporation of America) prison in Louisiana for months. That turned her into an activist. She was one of our first clients and has volunteered with us ever since."

A Home for DREAMers

Ray Montes moves back and forth a foot or so from his laptop to the commercial-sized printer-copier, less than a yard from the desk of Lupe Castillo, in the sunny, cozy former living room of a Barrio Viejo adobe. The house serves as headquarters for Cowan's pro bono projects, office space for the Keep Tucson Together's weekly DACA clinics and a launch pad for a dozen migrants' rights campaigns.

Montes is known as a DREAMer, authorized to live in the U.S. provisionally under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. Set forth by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano in 2012, the policy covers people brought to this country illegally as children. DACA papers must be renewed, with a sizeable fee, every two years.

The name DREAMers comes from a bill that failed in Congress, but inspired a movement among youth nationwide. Using the symbol of a butterfly, which knows no borders, they demonstrated, rallied and held sit-ins throughout the political season of 2012. Their motto was "All Humans Have a Right to Migrate." Symbolic butterflies everywhere seemed to speak volumes about their numbers and their commitment. DACA is believed to have been influenced by their efforts.

Montes now attends Pima Community College and plans to become a high school music teacher. He volunteers at the DACA clinics, and most weekdays he's also in the office helping with other students' paperwork. Now that DREAMers are renewing, he says, most of them are able to do it themselves, and, importantly, to coach others.

"Usually the mom or dad will take over, but I say 'I only have one rule. You fill it out (yourself),'" Montes says. "For me that's a way to teach them your mom and dad are there for support when you need addresses and dates. (Applicants) have to understand the importance of this. Then when they renew, they usually come back, 'Here's my renewal application. Can you check it?' And it's perfect."

People who do their own forms usually still submit them through the office, to be typed by volunteers and signed by Cowan. Castillo refers to volunteer Moira Silverman as the superstar of preparation. Silverman has single-handedly typed more than 1,000 DACA applications, in addition to volunteering at most of the Tucson legal clinics.

Montes is often joined at the DACA clinics by another DREAMer, Mical Alvarado Diaz, who began volunteering after helping her younger brother apply. She is studying to be a nurse and, so far, has had scholarships to cover nearly all her expenses.

Castillo oversees the clinics' DACA process. Now retired from a career as a distinguished teacher and lecturer, and a leader in developing Chicano studies programs, she still enjoys working with students and their families, helping them learn to navigate DACA requirements and gently advising them about their future.

"Young people being young people," Castillo says, "Once they have that permit they already feel like U.S. citizens because they know nothing else but this country, they face risks their friends may not." Typical kid stuff, like spring break in Puerto Peñasco, let alone drugs or any other kind of felony could mean deportation and separation from their families. DREAMers must not leave the U.S., even to visit family.

Castillo marvels at the transformation she sees in DACA youth. "When they come to pick up their renewal packets, (we) hear where they're working, what they're doing and see how empowered they feel. They walk with a sense of pride and they have hopes, you know? They're not in a swamp of not being able to do anything because they're neither here or there." Many also volunteer with the clinics, and some even have begun to donate funding to cover DACA application fees for others.

Everything You Know Is Wrong

Two things everybody knows about naturalization are wrong. The truth is, marrying a U.S. citizen does not necessarily make you a U.S. citizen, and your mother and dad may not have to have been born in the U.S. for you to be a citizen. As with everything else in current immigration law and practice, the truth depends.

A naturalization clinic within the weekly DACA clinic helps people sort out whether they could already be living legally in the United States, or are qualified to do so, and coaches them about how to become naturalized. The work is overseen by Blanca Bay, who has for years hosted naturalization fairs for Derechos Humanos.

Silvia Herrera is a volunteer coach. She is among the many mothers of DACA students who regularly help out with the clinics. You may have heard her promoting the clinics with PSAs on Tucson's Spanish-language radio stations.

"They come three times," she says of her naturalization applicants. "The first, I get information from them and we give them some papers about what kind of (documentation) they need. The next one we help them figure out what else they need and how to get it." Herrera says the approval process can take four or five months.

Herrera says that lately the naturalization clinic has been bustling. President Obama authorized a temporary waiver of the $640 fee for anyone applying for naturalization. But the rush doesn't owe entirely to the fee waiver. "People want to become U.S. Citizens because they want to vote," Herrera says. "That's why they're coming right now."

Cowan elaborates. "We want people who are long-time lawful permanent residents, who are eligible to naturalize, to do it now when you can get the fee waived, and then register to vote and participate in the democracy, and respond to all of the vicious rhetoric that we hear coming from candidates running for president. That's really important work."

Regardless of the more immediate motivation, Castillo points out that "Beneath all of this there's a lot of tragedy—parents detained, people waiting for their bonds ..." She might have mentioned whatever tragedy drove families to migrate here in the first place.

But she adds that even before they know the outcome, after signing their submissions, "You can see their sense of pride."

It's a feeling they seem eager to share with their not-yet-documented neighbors. That, too, is really important work.

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