How a New Mexico Nonprofit is Keeping Immigrant Families Together

By Katherine Mancera

Last year in New Mexico, a private prison was shut down after investigators found it had been neglecting its prisoners and providing inadequate medical treatment.

A few months ago the same facility reopened its doors, this time to house a different population: immigrants. The Cibola County detention facility now holds more than 700 adult men, and growing.

Many of these men came to the U.S. because they are fleeing violence in Central America, and they may be eligible for asylum. But they are unlikely to ever be granted that aid because most lack the money to pay for legal representation.

That’s where the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center (NMILC) is stepping in. Last week, I spoke with Steffi Ostrowski, NMILC’s technology, development, and volunteer coordinator, to learn more about how the organization is responding to this urgent new need.

Scene from the border in New Mexico

First things first. What is NMILC, and what is its mission?

Our mission is to advance justice and equity by empowering low-income immigrant communities through collaborative legal services, advocacy, and education. We were founded seven years ago as the first nonprofit in New Mexico to offer free legal services to immigrants facing deportation.

What a lot of people don’t realize is that in the immigration system, unlike the criminal justice system, you’re not guaranteed an attorney. If you can’t afford one you’re out of luck. The statistics are pretty bleak—63% of immigrants facing deportation don’t have an attorney. But those that do are five and a half times more likely to not be deported.

These statistics matter, because access to an attorney can be the difference that allows a family to stay together instead of being separated because of deportation.

With the new administration, immigrants are facing a whole new host of challenges. What are the most urgent needs you’re seeing in the community?

The biggest change we’ve seen in the last few months is increased uncertainty and fear. No one knows if there will be workplace raids, or if DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] will be revoked.

Uncertainty makes life very hard for the community, and it also makes a tough job for our attorneys, who often can’t give solid answers to clients because this administration is prone to sudden, unexpected policy changes.

We try hard to make sure our services are dynamic and meet new needs as they arise. For example, since the election we’ve seen more individuals interested in putting together power of attorney documents—documents that indicate who can pick up their kids from school, pay their mortgages, or access their bank accounts. These are parents that are preparing for the worst.

This May, NMILC is running a crowdfunding campaign on HIPGive. What’s the campaign all about?

We’ve recently had an unexpected need come up. Last year, a private prison in Cibola County was shut down because of poor medical conditions, but recently the same facility was reopened. It’s being run by the same company, but now it’s an immigration detention center housing over 700 men.

Because the detention center is in such a remote location (it’s almost two hours from the nearest city) and because most of the men don’t have money for an attorney and don’t speak English, it’s very difficult for them to get any legal help. Many of the men being detained fled from violence in Central America and have had a “credible fear interview” finding that they have legitimate fears of returning to their home countries, which makes them eligible to apply for asylum. Nationally, only 14% of immigrants in detention centers are able to access an attorney, and those that do are almost seven times more likely to be released.

NMILC is organizing trips to the center once or twice a week to provide free legal orientations and consultations. The goal of these orientations is to support the detainees so that they can be self-advocates throughout their case. We’re raising funds to support the time and supplies that go into these trips.

Why did you choose crowdfunding as a way to support this particular project?

This need popped up very suddenly. We rely on individual donations and crowdfunding because it’s not the kind of project we could apply for a grant for—we need to start acting now. Crowdfunding gives us the financial flexibility to take on projects that aren’t in our yearly budget, and to address the needs of the community as they arise.

There are so many people in our network who are really passionate about immigration reform, but our organization isn’t always that visible (legal work isn’t the most glamorous!). Crowdfunding campaigns are a great way for us to spread our message to people who want to get involved but haven’t heard about our work.

There’s a lot of reason to be anxious in this climate, but do you see any upsides?

We’ve seen a huge increase in the number of people who are passionate about immigration reform and are now deciding it’s time to act. We’ve been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support for the immigrant community since the election.

There are so many ways to get involved—volunteering, donating, protesting, reaching out to your local representatives. All of these things will fuel the fight for the progressive immigration reform that’s so desperately needed. People really can make a difference.

Inspired by NMILC’s work? Check out their HIPGive campaign, “Fighting for Justice for Immigrants in New Mexico,” and consider donating today!