In West Phoenix, mothers are creating safer and healthier neighborhoods in one of the most populous U.S. cities by organizing know-your-rights clinics that ensure immigrant families understand both their rights and power in communities.
PHOENIX – As the sun sets on a Tuesday evening in West Phoenix, mothers trickle into Poder in Action’s office, kissing each other on the cheek as they put out bowls of mole sauce and straighten up the bustling office.
Over the years, these mothers have seen their children deported, detained, arrested or killed. Through it all they were told to keep their heads down and stay in the shadows because many were undocumented, treated like criminals in a country they were told wasn’t theirs. But these mothers learned they had rights that had been hidden by a fear that can settle on the city’s immigrant families like Phoenix’s smog.
“Simply because we don’t have a driver’s license, we are a criminal,” said one of the mothers, who requested anonymity because of her immigration status. “Everything we do we are criminalized…It’s a fear that it consumes you because you’ve separated yourself.”
These mothers came to Poder this evening to do something about that fear.
Within an hour of arriving, seven mothers have gathered around four folding tables pushed together in the middle of Poder’s open office. Most are in their 40s or early 50s, and they come from the surrounding Maryvale neighborhood, home to a vibrant Latinx community.
Five of the mothers came this evening to learn from the other two how to educate others about their rights – including the right to know the status of a detained husband, wife or child. Those two mothers created and now lead know-your-rights clinics for both undocumented and documented families in West Phoenix.
“It is a way to defend ourselves, to protect ourselves,” said Berta, one of the clinic’s co-founders. “[To] start to understand that we also have rights, and that we also have a lot of power to create change.”
In January of 2018, Berta and her co-founder came up with the idea of a legal clinic that would help prepare families for being detained or deported. Within three months, they were leading the inaugural session for 30 people. Five months later, 50 people were at Poder in Action for a clinic.
At these clinics, parents learn how to create Family Emergency Packets, including plans for their children if a parent is detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement or deported, and how to grant another individual power of attorney. They also learn how to make a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request about the status of a detained or deported family member. And attorneys are available for free 15-minute consultations to parents and other people, including some who have never had access to an attorney.
The cost of this type of work can quickly reach thousands of dollars – a FOIA request alone can cost up to $3,000, clinic leaders point out. A Family Emergency Packet also can save a family valuable time by giving an attorney permission to start work on a case before visiting a parent or child in detention.
But the clinic also serves a deeper role. It has become a way for families, both citizens and undocumented, to deal with the corrosive fear that their family could be torn apart. Parents and children began meeting monthly to share their stories and fears.
“ ‘Mom…we are scared that one day you are not going to pick us up from school because the police are going to pick you up,’ ” Berta recalled her youngest children, 10 and 12, telling her. “I had no idea…”
That fear is one of the reasons Berta started the clinic. She grew tired of living in fear simply because she came to the U.S. to give her children a life she couldn’t in Mexico.
“That’s why I like being here…to continue to build power as parents and for parents to see and understand their children and know what their children are going through.”
Now, together with Poder in Action, they want parents to lead more than 20 clinics in 2019, sometimes in their homes and their children’s schools. By leading the clinics in this city that is home to more than 1.6 million people, they will join Berta, her co-founder and a broader movement of families who are addressing the problems their communities confront every day.
“It is also a leadership development opportunity for me and my team and for the moms that I work with…to train them to know know-your-rights work, so they can do these workshops in other places,” Berta said.
The seven mothers meeting this Tuesday evening are taking a risk by speaking up at a moment when immigrant families are demonized, and children are separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“I don’t regret it, because it was one step I took to start a fight, to start doing something, to create change,” Berta said. “We, who have been affected, have the power to know and make change.”
Paul Nyhan is the storytelling and partnership manager at Marguerite Casey Foundation. Equal Voice is Marguerite Casey Foundation’s publication featuring stories of America’s families creating social change. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America. All original and contracted Equal Voice content – articles, photos and videos – can be reproduced for free, as long as proper credit and a link to our homepage are included.
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