This Team of Young Lawyers are Offering Free Legal Services to Undocumented Immigrants in Santa Fe

Lead Photo: Photo by SoleilC / iStock / Getty Images Plus
Photo by SoleilC / iStock / Getty Images Plus
Read more

Navigating the immigration system without a lawyer is incredibly difficult. With even native English speakers struggling to make heads or tails out of the labyrinthine system, it can be especially daunting for someone who may speak English as a second language to go it alone. And while some turn to legal help, it’s not a viable possibility for everyone. That’s why Allegra Love launched the Santa Fe Dreamers Project – a nonprofit organization offering free legal services in rural areas of the country. Love and her team mainly work with the undocumented community in Santa Fe, offering necessary services at a time when they’re being vilified.

Originally a teacher, Love changed careers after she saw how an encounter with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement affected her students. Agents came to the former third-grade public school teacher’s class one day in 2006 to conduct a raid. The next day, her class of 20 was down to three. “Kids just stopped going to school,” Love told Fast Company. She then learned that for many immigrant families in Santa Fe, legal resources weren’t available. That’s when she decided to head to law school, eventually enrolling in the University of New Mexico School of Law.

After law school, she began working with Adelante – a nonprofit helping children from homeless families. Once again, she saw how the undocumented community lacked resources. She began raising money to start the Santa Fe Dreamers project in order to help those eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) – that is, undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States at a young age. DACA, a Barack Obama-enacted program, protects parts of the undocumented community from deportation and grants them a work permit.

Two years ago, she changed gears a bit when she and a lawyer she hired set out in her turquoise RV to help the undocumented community. “All these people were driving in [for legal advice], so we thought: Why not bring the services to them?” Love said. With the help of United We Dream – which connected her to the undocumented community – the business quickly expanded, forcing Love to learn how to manage a business. Currently, the Santa Fe Dreamers Project has eight staff members, who work between 60 to 80 hours a week and have about 500 clients. The nonprofit has three programs – one in Albuquerque, one in Santa Fe, and Dreams on Wheels, which is the team’s traveling office.

A year ago, the Project operated on a $60,000 budget. Since then, their budget has almost quadrupled. The organization doesn’t receive any state or federal funding. It makes most of its money from donations – mostly between $20 to $200, though there are a few big donors. This money is especially important so that they can continue offering free services to the immigrant community. A private immigration attorney may charge a couple thousand dollars. The Santa Fe Dreamers Project, however, is completely free and the lawyers walk clients through the entire process.

For Love and her team, building a relationship with this community is fundamental. When they head to a new district, they may see 10 people show up seeking help. But because they continue returning and building trust, they can have as many as 50 people waiting for the RV on subsequent visits. “You have to be there [physically],” she said. “You have to establish trust in the community.”

Dreams on Wheels isn’t currently in operation. After Donald Trump won the presidency in late 2016, the Project hasn’t had the opportunity to head out of the district. They’re constantly receiving calls from immigrants worried that DACA – which the Trump administration hasn’t made an official decision on – will come to an end. They’re also dealing with more than just DACA cases now. At the beginning of the year, Love and her co-workers set up in an elementary school gym to write power of attorney documents to help undocumented parents prepare for a worst-case scenario in which they are taken away from their children. 500 showed up to this event.

For the time being, the Trump Administration has halted Love’s plans, which include taking Dreams on Wheels to more rural areas, helping DACA beneficiaries own homes, and setting up an economic incubator for immigrant women. “It’s a huge wasted opportunity,” she said. “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.”

Eventually, she hopes to get back on the road. As the RV undergoes a makeover – its bed and microwave are being removed to make way for more computers and a printer –  Love hopes that she and her team can spend weeks or months at a time helping undocumented immigrants across the US. You can help her get closer to this goal by donating to Santa Fe Dreamers Project here.

Update, July 10, 11:00 a.m. ET: This post incorrectly stated that the Santa Fe Dreamers Project charged clients $150. The post has been updated to reflect that the services the nonprofit offers are completely free. The title of the article has also been updated to better reflect the services the Santa Fe Dreamers offers.