PITTSBURG — Elsa Hernandez’ brown eyes are luminous as her thoughts turn to the possibilities that beckon now that she has a green card.
Cradling her newborn son, the 24-year-old Pittsburg woman recalls her high school aspirations of becoming an FBI agent, a goal she had to abandon when she realized that U.S. citizenship is a prerequisite.
The young mother then considered a career as a physical therapist, but that, too, was out of reach because financial aid for the schooling was only available to legal residents.
Then, after four years of trying to get her papers in order, the window of opportunity finally widened this year.
Hernandez owes her shot at the American dream to the Immigration Institute of the Bay Area (IIBA), a San Francisco-based nonprofit that provides immigrants with free and low-cost legal help.
“Now … I have higher hopes,” said Hernandez, who has been working as a medical assistant but is thinking about nursing school, and after that, perhaps a master’s degree to become a nurse practitioner.
“And maybe, just maybe, look into a doctor’s degree,” added the mother of two.
With offices in seven cities from Napa to Brentwood and Redwood City, IIBA touts itself as the largest provider of immigration legal services in Northern California, with clients representing a dizzying array of countries from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. Last year, the organization submitted applications to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) on behalf of 2,828 clients; this year it held 3,646 consultations with prospective clients and opened 2,855 cases as of October.
It also offers classes that prepare clients to take the citizenship test and it advises social services organizations as well as local government agencies on changes to immigration law.
IIBA is hoping to raise $25,000 through the East Bay Times’ annual Share the Spirit campaign, which highlights nonprofits serving those who need their services the most.
IIBA plans to use the funds to provide legal consultations and legal representation to the low-income immigrant communities in Contra Costa and Alameda counties. The need is especially acute this year, as the nonprofit lost a longtime grant. The money raised will support immigration legal services for 250 individuals.
Two of IIBA’s most common services are for people wanting to become naturalized citizens and individuals seeking to apply for a green card on behalf of a relative. IIBA also frequently helps victims of violent crimes requesting visas, most of whom are already in the United States illegally but want permission to remain in the country.
And then there are those, like Hernandez, who lacked the proper papers when they came to the United States as children and now want protection against deportation and the work permit that’s provided under the 10-year-old federal policy known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.
Hernandez is among the estimated 800,000 immigrants who have taken advantage of the temporary reprieve that’s available to those who meet the age and residency criteria.
A native of Nieves in Zacatecas, Mexico, Hernandez was just 6 when her mother brought her and her older sister to Pittsburg to join their father.
The undocumented parents turned to IIBA seeking a measure of security for their daughters; following in her sister’s footsteps, Hernandez obtained DACA status at 16 after about a year-long wait and since has renewed it four times.
But her husband, Victor — a U.S. citizen — wanted his wife to become an American as well, and that meant she first needed a green card.
He petitioned USCIS on her behalf in fall 2018, but three years dragged by before he received an email notifying him that Hernandez had an appointment at the U.S. consulate in Cuidad Juarez at 7 a.m. sharp on Dec. 1.
“I cried of (sic) happiness,” said Hernandez, who had harbored fears that even a minor transgression like a speeding ticket could result in her repatriation.
“With DACA you feel a little safe because you don’t always have to be looking behind you, but having my green card, I have an official status here — a step closer to becoming a citizen.”
But she had to scramble; the last-minute news meant she had just 11 days to gather the documents needed and buy a plane ticket: Because Hernandez had entered the U.S. illegally, the rules dictated that she had to return to Mexico for the interview.
An IIBA employee swung into action the next day, helping Hernandez schedule a routine physical exam and appointment to be fingerprinted, both of which had to be done in Mexico before meeting with the immigration official who would be reviewing her application.
Her hopes finally were realized in January when Hernandez received her green card. She’s now waiting again, this time to apply for her citizenship next year.
Not all stories end well, however.
Julia Preza, who worked with Hernandez as one of IIBA’s Department of Justice accredited representatives, has seen her share of disappointed clients.
She recalls the woman who made it impossible for IIBA to help her obtain a green card when it came to light that she twice had remained in the U.S. after her visa expired. In another case, a man had been planning to bring his wife to the United States, but IIBA had to inform the couple that they no longer met the eligibility requirements after they divorced.
“Sometimes it can be very frustrating, You don’t know how to … not shatter their dreams,” Preza said.
When IIBA successfully navigates the complexities of the law so immigrants can bring loved ones they haven’t seen in years to this country, however, her job pays off in spades.
“They just cry in front of you because they’re so happy, so thankful,” Preza said.
Share the Spirit
The Share the Spirit holiday campaign, sponsored by the Bay Area News Group, provides relief, hope and opportunities for East Bay residents by helping raise money for nonprofit programs in Alameda and Contra Costa counties.
How to help
Donations will help Immigration Institute of the Bay Area provide legal consultations and legal representation to the low-income immigrant communities in Contra Costa and Alameda counties. Goal: $25,000
How to give