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This RV Full Of Lawyers Is Touring Rural America To Save Young Immigrants From Deportation

The Santa Fe Dreamers Project hopes to change the way we view immigrants, but it’s facing more challenges than ever.

This RV Full Of Lawyers Is Touring Rural America To Save Young Immigrants From Deportation

“Right now, I’m representing a 1-year-old facing deportation to El Salvador, where her life is in danger,” says Allegra Love, an attorney and founder of the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, a legal nonprofit serving immigrant youth. Tens of thousands refugees have fled El Salvador due to rampant gang violence.

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Another client includes a Mexican immigrant who was separated from his 4-year-old son on the border several months ago. He is in jail, while the child remains detained in El Paso.

Love is a lawyer tirelessly devoted to an immigrant sector most in need of legal aid: the rural one. In 2014, she launched the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, which serves immigrant families where there is traditionally no legal aid. Love and her team of three other lawyers go out to the people—via a roaming RV office, community center, and church pop-ups, and by organizing community leaders.

The team of lawyers and community organizers at the Santa Fe Dreamers Project.

The Project primarily focuses on assisting individuals in deportation defense (specifically political asylum and special immigrant juvenile status) and through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) process, the immigration policy founded by the Obama administration in June 2012.

DACA allows certain undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as minors to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and receive eligibility for a work permit. Currently, more than 750,000 people are part of the program, and 1.5 million are potentially eligible.

With total staff of just eight, the Santa Fe Dreamers Project counts 500 immigrants as clients. It runs three programs: in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and via a van that runs across the state called Dreams on Wheels.

“All these people were driving in [for legal advice],” recalls Love, “so we thought: Why not bring the services to them?”

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“Kids Just Stopped Going To School”

This catalyst for her mobile legal aid clinic came in 2006, before she was a lawyer. At that time Love was a  24-year-old third grade public school teacher.

She was teaching a class of 20 children in a small immigrant town in the Santa Fe school district when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) conducted a raid on her school. The next day, her class was reduced to just three.

“Kids just stopped going to school,” says Love.

Appalled at the politics in play within her classroom, Love decided she wanted to advocate for these families whom she had grown to respect and cherish during her brief teaching career.

“Why were we terrorizing these people?” she wondered. “They’re good people … They work hard.”

After learning that legal resources were scarce for immigrant families, Love applied and enrolled in the University of New Mexico School of Law. Following her graduation, she worked with a nonprofit called Adelante that helps children from homeless families within the Santa Fe school system. There, Love learned the complications that arise with children from immigrant and lower-income families, specifically in terms of legal status.

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With that experience, Love began fundraising for her own endeavor, the Santa Fe Dreamers project, to guide youth through the labyrinth-like DACA process. Two years ago, she hired another attorney and hit the road in her old, kitschy turquoise van, an attempt to bring a playful aspect to an otherwise dreary sector.

The Project partnered with United We Dream, the largest national immigrant youth-led organization, which executed the fieldwork in rural areas prior to the van’s arrival. United We Dream’s community organizers reached out to schools, churches, and community centers to drum up interest. Then, each weekend, Love and her colleague would drive out to meet their potential new clients.

In fact, several of her clients included a handful of her former students.

Francisco, 23, is a client of the Santa Fe Dreamers Project. He plans on one day studying law because, as he says, “Law is super important, and the people who need it the most are the broke, poor people.” [Photo: Kerry Sherck]
Business “exploded so fast,” says Love, that she quickly had to learn how to manage a business, an area she has no experience in. She herself set up a payroll, researched health insurance for her team, and more, all while managing hundreds of cases. The team now works an average of 60-80 hours a week.

“It takes a lot of management–and customer service,” says Love. “You’re working with clients who are very traumatized and very scared.”

“Being A Lawyer Means Standing By Someone’s Side Till The End.”

From the RV, they help immigrants fill out forms, understand legal language, and set up teleconference calls to keep tabs on their progress. Scheduled videoconferences, weekly calls, and checking in on documents is part of the job.

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“The case isn’t over once you submit [the application] to the government,” explains Love; “that’s when all the trouble starts.” In fact, the majority of the legal work she provides is in the form of government correspondence following filed applications, or as she puts it, “when the shit hits the fan.” This a full service that guides immigrants from first to last steps, no matter the complications that come in between.

It’s also why, she explains, it’s so difficult to recruit volunteer lawyers. They need to be able to commit all the way through. “You need more than one day in a gym with someone,” asserts Love. “Being a lawyer means standing by someone’s side till the end.”

Theoretically, immigration processes are meant to be done without the assistance of a lawyer, but they are so complicated, says Love, that even a competent person who speaks perfect English “would find it mind-boggling.” Expecting a 15-year-old immigrant for whom English is a second language to go to a government website, download the instructions, and figure it out on his or her own is “so unreasonable.” Legal help is simply a necessity, she says.

Not that legal aid is even in reach for most. On average, immigration lawyer services on the private market run $2,000. “That’s rent money,” says Love.

The Santa Fe Dreamers project, in comparison, charges $150. Although, it isn’t as simple as setting up shop at the local diner with clients flocking for affordable help. A portion of immigrants fell victim to scammers claiming cheap, easy legal services. Others, meanwhile, were simply guided through the initial steps. Setting up a reputation as a reliable full-scale service, says Love, is a crucial part of the process. One can’t Skype their way to building a community relationship.

In that sense, Love and her colleagues will travel out to a district, set up a booth, and then come back the very same time the following week—for several weeks. On average, 10 people would show up to an initial pop-up. But after two weeks, 50 people wait for the RV.

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“You have to be there [physically],” she says. “You have to establish trust in the community.”

Once they earn the community’s support, clients quickly spread the word to neighbors, cousins, church members. Then community organizers express interest in helping facilitate the next drop-in. Most recently, a mariachi school offered their studio space to The Project.

“But you can’t do it unless initially present,” cautions Love, “you need the face time.”

Community support not only minimizes the amount of effort the lawyers spend getting the word out, it’s also essential in the fundraising process. A year ago, The Project’s budget hovered around $60,000. Now, it’s nearly quadrupled, but so has the staff. The Project does not receive any federal or state funding. Instead, its relies on donations–the majority ranging from $20-$200–from community members who believe in the cause. (There are a few “big donors,” says Love, though she did not disclose specific amounts.)

Ali, a client of the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, hosts a music radio show called Sonic Air Waves.[Photo: Sylvia Johnson]

The Trump Effect

The RV was on, well, a roll till this past winter. Once Donald Trump was declared the presidential victor, Love and her team of lawyers found themselves flooded with inquiries. President Trump has yet to make a firm decision on the future of DACA, but his stance on immigration has made her clients nervous. The DACA program’s existence depends on the discretion of the president, and could potentially be dismantled without congressional approval.

Since January, Love reports fielding hundreds of calls from “terrified” immigrants. That effectively halted the progress of the mobile clinic, decreasing its outings by nearly half, as the lawyers focused on mounting cases in their main Santa Fe office.

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Love and associates now have to provide more than just DACA services. In January, for example, they set up an event in an elementary school gym for parents to write power of attorney documents in case they were arrested. Over 500 showed up.

“[These parents] are afraid something is going to happen to them and they will be separated from their children,” Love says with a hint of emotion. “Just one of those conversations is enough to wreck you.”

She routinely deals with parents from Central America whose children faced physical and sexual abuse in their home country. Other parents, she says, refuse to show up to spousal abuse cases because they fear U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will be there.

Apart from the emotional and physical toll of her workload, Love is frustrated. She says that so many plans and programs in the pipeline have since been paused. This includes setting up a deferred action-to-home-ownership pipeline, establishing an economic incubator for immigrant women, and expanding the roaming mobile clinic to more areas.

“It’s a huge wasted opportunity,” she sighs. “Instead, we’re having to respond and react to this onslaught from the Administration. But we’re slowly getting back to life, it’s just taking a minute.”

In 2016, Dreams on Wheels began touring rural areas of New Mexico to provide legal services to those in need.[Photo: Sylvia Johnson]

Why Effective Immigration Policies Are Good Business

The Santa Fe Dreamers Project considers itself more than a charity. Love wants to highlight how effective immigration policies go beyond humanitarian reasons—it’s just good business. She intends to change the public’s narrative, shifting the focus to what communities can expect by investing in young immigrants. “We need to stop talking about [immigration] as if it’s charity,” stresses Love. “We need to start crunching numbers.”

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DACA youth, says Love, will ultimately contribute to the U.S. economy in innumerable ways, if just given the chance. They go to college, become health care providers, own a home—as long as they have access to social services and work papers.

“It changes the game,” she says.

And she has the numbers to support it. Love has built a case with data from DACA and the New Mexico government, a model she intends to bring to other states.

According to the data that she’s compiled as part of her DACA project research, she found that Santa Fe has a 65% high school graduation rate, but deferred action children boast a 90% rate. “This investment we’re making into them is immense,” she says. “We call it a ladder out of poverty.”

On a larger scale, New Mexico immigrants contribute $915 million annually in state and federal taxes, nulling the idea that immigrants don’t pay their dues. Meanwhile, 11,440 New Mexico businesses have been founded by immigrants, and 12.6% of business owners are immigrants, with nearly 24,000 New Mexicans employed at firms owned by immigrants. In general, immigrants are nearly twice as likely to start businesses as native-born Americans.

They are also integral to New Mexico’s agriculture economy, which contributes $1.6B to the state’s GDP. Immigrants compose 51% of agriculture workers.

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The Project’s marketing campaign touts individual success stories and numbers from the DACA program, promoting the idea that DACA is less like a handout and more like an incubator program. The focus is on economic and community development.

“What if instead of wringing our hands and pitying [immigrants]… we built them up for success? Could we create momentum and get long-term data about how that impacts not just their individual progress, but their family’s wellbeing, and the overall wellbeing of our community?”

Community support has opened the non-profit into new territories, including that of prisons, to defend deportations of vulnerable children and victims of domestic violence. “All of this is through the focus of: let’s stabilize the individual and pull them in from the margins so they can contribute to our very struggling state.”

Love is remodeling the RV to prepare it for an aggressive summer tour. It is being stripped of its bed and microwave and “tricked out” with more computers, wifi hotspots, and a printer. The goal is have it better serve as “an office on wheels” so as to limit the amount of times it needs to come back to Santa Fe headquarters. It will hopefully be on the road for weeks, perhaps even months, at a time.

Love is also “perfecting” the process of her services and setting up a model for other states to follow suit. She’s outlining how fellow lawyers can ride their own mobiles into new territories and scale the service with high quality.

With that, she’s adamant on pushing her chief message—that immigrants can be a boon to one’s community and state.

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“We want the community to make the initial investment and they can expect a return on it” says Love. “We want to let them know this model works.”

“I can’t stop the Trump administration,” she continues. “I don’t have the tools to do it. So I’m trying to have faith in the idea that we can create true sanctuary for our clients if we make them indispensable—if they become integral to our communities, schools, hospitals, economy, workforce, universities … people will come around when that’s in place, that’s how my heart is getting through these times.”

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