Immigration: the Waco Story
By Analí Gatlin and Joel Looper
If you’ve set foot outside or turned on the T.V. recently, you may have noticed that immigration is a hot topic. There’s so much fear and emotion involved that even a total media blackout might not fully isolate you from the pandemonium. Unfortunately, some of the loudest voices don’t have the right information about immigration laws or undocumented immigrants, and that misinformation has often dictated the direction of public conversation. There’s not enough space in this blog entry to correct all the serious misconceptions out there, but we’d like to clear up a few things that have an impact on Waco.
Lately the word “immigration” has covered a multitude of topics: policy debates, questions about the constitutional validity of birthright citizenship, talk of a new construction project (“the wall”), and even thinly veiled racism. That’s part of the confusion. The other part is the labyrinth of laws that affect every aspect of an immigrant’s life. We’ll get to that in a moment. First, a little background.
The 2010 U.S. Census revealed that almost 40 million people living in U.S. are foreign born. Over half of the foreign-born population lives in just four states: California, New York, Florida, and Texas.
Unfortunately, the United States has one of the most complicated systems of immigration law in the world. Depending on an immigrant’s country of origin, it can be virtually impossible for many to immigrate legally to the U.S. And, once an immigrant is here, there’s no “line” to stand in where an undocumented person can just pick up their papers. In the vast majority of situations, a non-U.S. citizen will have no shot at getting a legal immigration status without the help of a qualified immigration attorney or Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) accredited representative.
This is all the more true in Waco. With a population of around 125,000, Waco is home to thousands of immigrants, undocumented and documented. According to the 2013 American Community Survey (ACS), 10.8% of the total Waco population was not born a U.S. citizen. But even with the thousands of immigrants here in town, we have only one full-time immigration attorney.
The ACS reveals that nationwide 43.7% of the foreign-born population has naturalized; yet this is true of only 25.7% of the foreign born in Waco. The disparity here may be startling to some of us, but with the limited services in our city, it’s easy to see why our community is in this situation.
Though many Wacoans enjoy the occasional weekend trip to Austin or Dallas, that’s just not feasible for many immigrants in our community seeking legal counsel. Seeing an attorney in these cities would mean not only paying the travel expenses but also frequently missing work. Practically, this means that many immigrants in Waco, especially low-income immigrants, aren’t receiving the legal services they need to gain an immigration status in the United States and eventually become citizens.
Why should this matter to Wacoans, both immigrants and U.S. born? Those without a firm legal immigration status often become part of a shadow population, folks without actual or perceived access to many of Waco’s public resources. It helps no one to have a significant number of Wacoans living in constant fear of deportation, feeling as if they can’t fully participate in society or contribute fully to our community.
If that weren’t enough, shadow populations often become targets for criminal activity, and that’s no different in our city. Undocumented immigrants who are victims of a crime may be less likely to contact police out of a fear that they will be deported because their immigration status is discovered.
A prime example is the practice of notario fraud. Notarios are people who practice immigration law who actually aren’t licensed to practice law at all. What might be confusing to many immigrants is that notarios are often qualified to practice law in Mexico and Central America, but only licensed attorneys and BIA accredited representatives are authorized to practice immigration law in the United States. Frequently notarios take advantage of low-income immigrants and give faulty and unauthorized legal advice that can further jeopardize an immigrant’s legal standing. When there’s a lack of qualified immigration legal services, notarios often fill the void, and they continue to practice with impunity because undocumented immigrants often fear contacting police after they have been defrauded. Waco isn’t immune to notario fraud, and hundreds of Wacoans have fallen victim to these predators. Fraud on such a large scale weakens our entire community.
Thankfully, immigrants in our community do have a couple places they can turn. Baylor Immigration Clinic at the Law School is one such resource. Law students volunteer their services to help area youth complete the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) applications. Waco is also fortunate to have Susan Nelson, an experienced immigration attorney, and Mission Waco Legal Services, which assists low-income folks with a variety of legal needs including immigration services.
But even with these resources, Waco and McLennan County still have a lot of work to do. This year alone many Waco immigrants will be separated from their families and friends and even deported into life-threatening situations because of the lack of legal resources in Waco. As a city, let’s work together to welcome some of our most vulnerable neighbors with compassion, legal and social resources, and, yes, Waco hospitality.
Analí Gatlin is a Waco native who is currently practicing immigration law at a nonprofit organization in Austin, TX. She loves Waco and naturally spends her weekends at home here. Joel Looper, originally from Michigan, has made his home in Waco and teaches religion and Language Arts at Live Oak Classical School. Joel and Analí are also busy planning their upcoming wedding.
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