EL PASO, Texas — I sat beside my best friend in the waiting room. We waited to hear his name called for his appointment with an immigration law expert.
Filling out paperwork in an office is an unnerving experience for people like my friend. Living with illegal status means being careful with personal information. I knew and trusted the place, however, and he trusted me. So, we took a chance.
The Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services (DMRS) is part of the ministry of the Catholic Diocese of El Paso, TX. Their mission is to provide legal services to those wishing to become legal citizens of the United States. They specialize in helping families. If part of a family is legal, they can help the other part gain their green cards and come to the U.S. They also advise and give legal aid where possible to victims of domestic violence and human trafficking. They are active in community outreach programs that support their mission to help immigrants.
One of the programs they support is SHINE-Citizenship, a program sponsored by the nearby University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). The DMRS works closely with UTEP to recruit volunteers from among the university’s students. These volunteers act as aids or teachers in free citizenship classes that last one semester at a time. The classes are designed to help legal residents get the information and the practice they need to pass the test for citizenship.
At the beginning of the Fall semester, 2009, a representative from UTEP’s Center For Civil Engagement came to my communication class. To my surprise it was Rebecca Soto, a friend I’d known in high school. She gave her presentation to the class, and perhaps it was because I knew her that I decided it wouldn’t be a bad idea to teach a class. Not only that, but our professor was offering some extra credit points to anyone who signed up and completed their program satisfactorily. “Shine Citizenship, is one of 11 thematic programs of the Center… where students tutor adults in the community, teaching the U.S. history and civics lessons needed to pass the citizenship exam,” said Soto.
I hadn’t yet acquired a job that semester, so I decided to take advantage of my free time and teach two of these classes. I was delighted when I found out I would be the teacher, and not just an aid. I wanted to prepare each class and be the one who really made a difference.
It was a great learning experience. I learned as much or more than my students about U.S. history and government, and was able to see what kind of background my students were coming from. Most were middle-aged, had families and were working hard as in occupations like nursing, teaching, and even business ownership. Some wanted their full citizenship status so they could go on to get higher education and even better jobs.
When the semester was over, I was sad to leave my classes behind because my students and I had become friends. A few of them had signed up for their citizenship interviews, and one had already passed his test. Others wanted to repeat the class one more time so they would feel prepared. Since I’d managed to find a job and was going to school full time I knew I couldn’t stay.
Near the middle of that semester, I found out that one of my close friends is considered an illegal alien. He was brought to the U.S. when he was only six years old by his mother, and since then has worked, studied and graduated from high school. There’s nothing about him that would indicate his illegal status. He dresses and speaks English like anyone born in the U.S.
I decided I would help my new friend if I could. So, the first place I took him was to the DMRS. After about five minutes with his interviewer, my friend came back through the door into the waiting room. “She said I don’t have a case,” he told me. We learned that, in order to become a legal resident, one needs to have an immediate family member that already is one. That person can then petition for other members of the family. My friend, however, doesn’t have a family member who can do that for him.
After that, I wrote to a local immigration lawyer for advice. He told me the same thing, almost in the same words: “Your friend doesn’t have a case.” I did research on the government website, uscis.gov, and though there are other paths to citizenship, none seem to extend to my friend in his current situation.
It’s frustrating to think that my best friend is limited in what kind of life he can have because of his illegal status. He didn’t have a choice when he was brought here as a child. Since then he’s worked and graduated from high school. I want him to be able to go to college and travel wherever he wants, but right now all he can do is stay in El Paso and try to avoid running into the local police. We pray that proper legislation will be passed soon that will give people like my friend a chance to become full citizens.