February 26, 2020
(HOUSTON, TX) - Late this past February, an unusual amount of people filled the Commissioners Court. After filling every seat that was available to them, late-comers had no choice but to stand along the back due to capacity. Many among the crowd held signs that read, "Apoyamos El Fondo De Defensa Legal" "We Support A Legal Defense Fund."
The hearing and subsequent vote taking place before them were for a resolution, proposed by County Judge Lina Hidalgo, to allocate $500,000 towards establishing a Harris County Legal Defense Fund for those who face deportation and are unable to afford a lawyer.
"We are very excited to propose a measure that will inject a measure of fairness into our justice system," County Judge Lina Hidalgo said before the vote.
GCSW students, faculty, alumni, and affiliate organizations were also present to testify to the five voting commissioners during public hearings. A wide-array of data-backed findings from researchers, along with personal testimonies from DREAMers, were presented before the vote took place.
One such research testimonial was from GCSW Associate Professor Jodi Berger Cardoso gave a testimony based on her research that focuses mainly on how trauma and stress during the migration process can significantly affect the mental health of Latinos and their children.
"For the last eight years, I have evaluated the mental health of children and adults in multiple settings, including detention centers in Harris County. I have consistently observed the mental health of children and adults decompensate the longer they are in detention," said Berger Cardoso. "Without an attorney to advocate for detained children and vulnerable adults, they are at risk of medical neglect, physical and sexual abuse, and deportation, which—for asylum seekers—can mean persecution and even death."
Current MSW student Micaela Rodriguez was also in attendance to advocate on behalf of the students she serves at Young Emerging Leaders and Scholars--a monthly workshop program of Mi Familia Vota. It is at these monthly workshops where she engages with youth leaders in guided discussions about leadership and civic engagement to learn about what they needed from adult-allies to feel empowered and represented.
"I urged the Commissioners Court to support the Immigrant Legal Defense Fund to provide our youth leaders a sense of protection that Harris County would defend their right to live in the country where they grew up and guarantee their right to an equitable future and education," said Rodriguez. "It was incredibly empowering to face the County Judge and Commissioners to advocate on behalf of the students I serve."**
Also in the audience were numerous alumni of the GCSW who sought to show their support for the passage of the Legal Defense Fund. One alum in attendance was Naiyolis Palomo Garcia (MSW '18). Palomo Garcia currently works for the Immigrant Legal Resource Center as their Texas Campaign and Partnerships Strategist and helped co-organize a coalition with the Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative.
Another alum in attendance was Amanda Rocha (MSW '17). Rocha has been a staunch supporter of Latinx Rights throughout life, career, and education and expressed a deep sense of compassion for those who sought to escape the hardships, especially hardships faced by Latina women.
After public hearings from those on both sides, The Commissioners Court voted 3-2 in favor of the passage of the Immigrant Legal Defense Fund that evening, becoming the first county in Texas to have such a program.
"I've seen the impact of a federal immigration system that is so broken and convoluted that folks are desperate to have an answer to their case," said County Judge Lina Hidalgo. "They should have a shot at a fair process, and they can't possibly navigate the complicated, confusing system, without the legal support this fund will provide."
Information for this story was obtained via the Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative's press release.
**The original version of this digital story did not originally include the perspective of MSW Student Micaela Rodriguez. In this updated version, she has been added. 6/4/2020.