Service-Learning in Alamosa

Over the next few months, we hope to share some snapshots from our service placements. The first of these reflections comes from Elsa:

The familiar squeak of the San Luis Valley Immigrant Resource Center’s front door carries a spectrum of emotions and stories. Sometimes it opens with hesitance, perhaps even trepidation, while other times it shuts with a confident thud. The clients who walk into our office have every combination of needs and questions, ranging from immigration legal assistance to domestic violence relief to translation for employment application forms. SLVIRC is the only place within Colorado’s entire San Luis Valley (an area the size of Connecticut with a Latin@ population of nearly 50%) that offers these services at minimum cost, and we routinely assist clients who come from places as far as Colorado Springs and New Mexico. During my past few months at this small but vital organization in Alamosa, it has seemed daunting to untangle and process everything I’ve learned into a single reflection piece. So I’m offering just a few of my observations, recognizing that they come from my limited perspective and cannot begin to encapsulate all the stories that are present here.

To supplement the legal knowledge that I’ve been absorbing in the office, I just completed an online course in basic immigration law that offered a whirlwind introduction to the field’s jargon, key concepts, and skills for immigrant advocates. While grateful to begin harnessing knowledge that has significant impacts on people’s daily lives, I couldn’t help but wonder if the endlessly dry and convoluted legal regulations would obscure my awareness of the human experiences that they govern and numb my sense of empathy. Years of legislative activity and court decisions have created seemingly infinite ways of categorizing people, often paired with arbitrary dates that determine who is eligible for an immigration benefit and who is not. Despite this dehumanizing way of determining a person’s “worthiness” of residing in the U.S., the clients who utilize SLVIRC’s legal services place enormous trust in our staff to bridge the chasm between them and the anonymous immigration officers who adjudicate their applications thousands of miles away. Sometimes people come in states of extreme vulnerability, such as undocumented survivors of domestic violence who risk revealing their status to law enforcement and immigration officers so they can receive help and petition for immigration relief. The thick stacks of paperwork that document their lives are carefully sealed in manila envelopes for inspection in Vermont, hopefully bearing the key to safe residence in this country.

SLVIRC’s services are indispensable partly because they offer an alternative to immigration attorney’s exorbitant rates, which compel clients to pay thousands of dollars in addition to the sizeable fees required for application processing. Our accreditation from the Board of Immigration Appeals allows certified staff to provide consultations and complete the same legal paperwork that lawyers do, but on a minimum-fee basis where no one is turned away. Maintaining this accessibility through donations is challenging. In the United States’ increasingly xenophobic political climate, many people are reluctant to support organizations that serve undocumented folks. My heart grows heavy with the upsurge of anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiment, fueled by the fear-mongering of counterterrorism discourse. This reactive trend threatens to diminish the resources of migrant services around the world, even as their work becomes more urgent than ever.

While offering legal assistance meets critical needs of immigrants in the San Luis Valley and elsewhere, it requires us to work within the flawed, unfair immigration system that currently exists. Fortunately, SLVIRC also takes part in a statewide group of immigrant rights activists working to transform these very structures. The Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition (CIRC) leads the movement, connecting advocacy organizations and immigrant communities over a wide geographic area to push for policy changes and encourage greater hospitality toward newcomers. In October we put these initiatives into action, coming together as a statewide community at the annual CIRC assembly in Silverthorne. The weekend provided a great opportunity to discuss policy priorities and learn about each other’s work across the state. But perhaps the most powerful component was the group’s commitment to movement inclusivity. Immediately upon our arrival, organizers handed us nametags with designated lines for our preferred gender pronouns, referring participants to interpretation headsets and childcare as needed. As we moved through the sessions – conducted in equal parts Spanish and English – it became clear that organizers recognized the necessity of everyone’s active inclusion and involvement in CIRC’s work. Immigrant justice intersects all aspects of identity, and the acceptance and celebration of these differences makes the formation of grassroots coalition possible and ultimately transformative.

Working at SLVIRC has helped me reflect on the complexities of language, which often operates as a site of exclusion, shame, and isolation, yet has the possibility of both affirming cultural diversity and dissolving the borders of racism and xenophobia. As a society, the United States squanders its children’s intellectual and empathetic potential by failing to offer widespread dual-language programs. Clients at the SLVIRC often hesitate before speaking Spanish with me, skeptical that my whiteness could coincide with bilingualism. Their expectations are well-founded. I barely knew a word of Spanish until I began college, and I’m still making up for lost time. But for the immigrant community in Alamosa, English acquisition (and retention of native languages) is fraught with much deeper insecurities related to social belonging and economic survival. Recently I began teaching one-on-one English classes to adult learners in Alamosa, who overcome enormous hurdles (work pressures, family commitments, transportation challenges, self-doubt) in order to simply arrive at our door. Once they’re in class, my admiration for them amplifies every time I consider the counter-intuitiveness of English grammar constructions like the verbs do +have, or the challenges posed by “relaxed” everyday conversation (which I’m gonna hafta work on toning down). The best classes have been full of laughter, allowing both me and my students to make mistakes without the fear of holding ourselves to impossible standards.

Nearly every day I have the privilege of concluding my work at the local farmworkers’ housing complex, where migrant children of all ages gather for an after-school tutoring program. The kids – most of whom are bilingual – infuse the dim, drafty room with energy. Sometimes this cheerful atmosphere masks the things they’re learning to deal with in their unique locations of social power. At school, at home, in the media, and even in the books they read aloud to me, they are bombarded with mixed messages about what it means to be a girl, a boy, an immigrant, an American. I hope that the tutoring sessions can, at the very least, encourage the kids to develop confidence in themselves, in their learning abilities, and in their capacity to help others learn.

Last week the kids were delighted to find an enormous pack of picture flashcards designed for English language students, realizing that they could become my teachers by quizzing me on the same vocabulary in Spanish. But they have much more than just words to teach me. The other day I walked over to a table of three elementary-age girls who had finished their homework and were quietly focused on writing. One of them had read aloud the first few pages of The Secret Garden, encouraging the other two to imagine the subsequent storyline and write their own endings. They beamed as they explained this innovative project to me, excited to compare their different versions. Why do so many of us lose this imaginative drive as we grow older? Too often we forget the joy (and necessity!) of creating and sharing together to expand our collective knowledge, generating ideas that can liberate us from the bonds of the status quo. Let’s challenge ourselves to hold the stories we hear – lived and dreamed – in sacred space, forging human connection in a world that desperately needs it.

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