I am Latinx, a mother, the daughter of immigrants, a lawyer, an advocate, and I am queer. I am the literal face of the American dream. I will tell my own story to find my calling at the intersection of immigration, health, family, and housing.
Immigration is a big part of the story of our country; it’s also a big part of my story. My story begins with my parents. In Hidalgo, Mexico, they each lived on rural farms replete with outhouses and outdoor kitchens. They had no access to education, and thus had limited options for work. My parents came to this country without permission to fulfill their American dream. I could say they were undocumented or illegal, but I use “people first” language, as we are all people first, before any identity we hold or is thrust upon us. Language is important, and no one is just illegal or just undocumented.
I grew up in Chula Vista, CA where the cultural border is far more permeable than the expanse of the barbed wall. At night, when I walked on the hill behind my house, I could see Tijuana’s glittering lights illuminating the desert hills. It felt like I inhabited two countries, never feeling fully Mexican or fully American.
My parents’ sacrifices included my dad standing all day, inhaling metal dust while working in a metal finishing factory so that I could go to Yale College, attend law school, and teach at UW Law School. One year ago, I opened a nonprofit law firm that represents people without permission to be in the U.S. in their housing cases. In the last year, the Peoples Law Center (Centro de Derecho de la Gente) represented 300 individuals and families to either keep their housing or stabilize it.
Health & housing are inextricably linked.
Most people don’t understand just how vital the connection between health and housing is, but it has been thoroughly established that housing is the number one social determinant of health. It’s the most stabilizing force in a person’s life. The pandemic taught us all how important it is for everyone to access health care so that the public at large may remain healthy. Health care and housing are basic human rights.
I didn’t always understand the connection between health and housing. Before becoming a lawyer, I was an immigration and education research assistant. After graduating from Yale, I helped conduct a qualitative study on schools that were successful in meeting the needs of young immigrant children. I was only 21 when I traveled the country, up the snowy, slippery, winding, narrow and treacherous roads in rural Colorado, where Latinx immigrants commuted to a five-star ski resort. I will never forget the stench of the meatpacking plant in Iowa where a principal was so accessible that he met with Latinx parents at the plant at lunchtime. As I collected data, interviewing the mostly Latinx immigrants, I felt as though I was collecting pieces of myself.
During my research, people in interviews repeatedly said that they needed lawyers. Instead of staying in research, I decided to become a lawyer. When I was at Boston Medical Center, I learned about the connection between housing and health. I learned how to practice law in a preventive way, by addressing social determinants of health. This was the start of my journey to representing people in their housing cases. It was at Legal Action of Wisconsin, Inc., a legal aid organization, where my generous colleagues taught me how to successfully litigate housing cases.
Immigrants make our country great, but without a path to citizenship, they face constant exploitation.
Many LGBTQ+ people migrate to the United States because their home countries are unsafe due to war, persecution, and lack of economic opportunity. LGBTQ immigrants experience violence and discrimination at home because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. This explains why transgender individuals disproportionately represent LGBTQ asylum-seekers in the U.S.
Immigrants that do not have legal status are predominantly from Latin America. Immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador make up 70 percent of the undocumented population nationally. In the U.S., an estimated 22 percent of the LGBTQ immigrant population is undocumented and approximately 4.7% of the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program) population are LGBTQ.
Without any kind of path to permanent legal immigration status, immigrants are more vulnerable to exploitation and discrimination in housing and health care. Paradoxically, people without permission to be in the U.S. pay taxes, have credit, purchase cars, and even homes. Whenever I tune into La Movida, our Spanish Language radio station, I hear auto dealerships and banks touting that ITINs are accepted for loans. An ITIN is something used instead of a social security number on a tax return for immigrants. The IRS essentially acknowledges that immigrants are a vital part of our economy.
Even the DACA program creates harm for those that have it, as it is impermanent and precarious. “DACA-mented” people were often brought to the United States as children and previously did not have lawful status. The DACA program, however, may end. In September of this year, a Federal Judge in Texas rejected DACA status, citing that President Barack Obama exceeded his authority when he created DACA, by executive action in 2012. The case is likely on its way to the conservative Supreme Court. DACA is not the answer; there needs to be a more permanent and direct path to citizenship.
Recently, I had a client that worked at a grocery store. Her employer owned the house she lived in, exerting a lot of power and control over her. She practically only spent time sleeping there. She was not allowed visitors, she was forced to work 12 hours a day even on weekends, without a break. Her landlord transported her to and from her job and she didn’t have a real life outside of work and “home.” She lost her job and her home when she asked to have Christmas Day off.
There’s a high cost to a community when someone like my client loses their housing. This kind of housing instability puts pressure on other social service safety nets like shelters, health care, foster care, and jails. When someone can preserve their housing, these costs are avoided. For communities and states that have implemented the right to counsel (representation for tenants in housing) every report has stated they will save far more than is spent on legal representation. While we would have to find the funding at the front end, representation makes sense for our community. In New York City for example, the program to provide tenant representation cost $200 million, but saved the city $320 million in housing-related costs, such as the homeless shelter system, preservation of rent-regulated affordable housing, and unsheltered homelessness. Pennsylvania also found that it would save $3 to $6 for every dollar invested in tenant representation.
Dane County and the City of Madison used the pandemic funding to create an innovative program that’s similar to right to counsel when it took the reins of the federal rental assistance funding to pair it with legal representation. The result was the Eviction, Diversion and Defense Partnership, which is composed of Tenant Resource Center, Legal Action of Wisconsin, The University of Wisconsin Law School, The Peoples Law Center, and Community Justice Inc.
The immigrant community faces constant fear.
For many immigrants that can’t legally obtain a driver’s license, a speeding ticket can mean deportation and family separation if there’s an arrest. For immigrants the possibility of detention is very real. For LGBTQ people living with HIV, this can be deadly, as detention means denial of vital gender-affirming health care.
I can’t begin to adequately describe this gripping fear. Immigrants without permission to be in the U.S. experience an incredibly magnified stress at the individual, interpersonal, community, and socio-political levels, which result in adverse health effects such as PTSD and depression. They also live in segregated neighborhoods—not only because of financial reasons but also to avoid punitive contact with law enforcement that could result in deportation and family separation.
In Dane County, it was well known that law enforcement used to have a close partnership with ICE (Immigration, Customs and Enforcement). The current Sheriff denies this continues to be a practice. The program is called S-Comm, which is a collaboration between local law enforcement and ICE. Law enforcement can check fingerprints of people in jails against Department of Homeland Security (DHS) immigration databases. If there is a “hit” ICE is notified even if the person has not been convicted of a criminal act, and then the person can be transferred into ICE custody, where they can face detention and deportation.
This creates a domino effect, where people fear exercising their rights. When I’m at a community presentation, immigrants ask me if going to court is safe. (Going to court does not pose a significant risk of deportation.) According to Eviction Lab, many Latinx immigrants do not go through formal judicial processes and end up being evicted informally. This means that my clients often just move out even if they are being forced out illegally. Even when I counsel them about their rights, they simply can’t cope with the stress and risk. They think their legal status erodes any rights they may have.
Health outcomes are protected when housing for the most vulnerable is protected.
LGBTQ+ people that do not have permission to reside in the U.S. are at the highest risk of poor health outcomes. Legal representation for this community in housing is vital to preserving the health and wellness of the community while saving vital resources. Retaining the housing of the most vulnerable in our community should be considered emergency preventive health care.
Unfortunately, in the next few years my work is at risk of not being funded in the same way, as the federal rental assistance dollars used to fund our work will be spent. Our community needs to rally and urge elected officials to invest in providing free legal representation to our community. It protects and benefits us all. The Wisconsin Trust Account Foundation, Inc. (WisTAF) recently completed a report on the economic impact of legal aid in Wisconsin and found that for every $1 spent on legal aid, the community receives a positive impact of $8.40.
Fictional Case Study
Most immigrant families I represent live in multigenerational family homes with mixed immigration statuses. I’ve represented LGBTQ+ immigrants in their housing cases. To paint a better picture, I’m going to share the story of a fictional client that is representative of some of the people I work with.
Ana is 23, and a proud trans woman who transitioned after moving into the apartment she was being evicted from. She lives with her aunt, uncle, cousins, and grandparents. Her uncle lost his job after his disability worsened, so the family could not pay rent. Ana’s uncle is undocumented and has no access to federal disability. He has no access to a doctor unless he can pay out of pocket, so he tries to manage his chronic pain alone. There is simply no access to resources like welfare even though her uncle has children that have U.S. citizenship.
When Ana initially applied for the apartment, she was forced to use her legal name and the identity documents she had at the time. Unlike many of my other clients, Ana had just received her naturalization documents, and they did not match the name used in the eviction. If Ana had been unrepresented, she would have to attend zoom court that is live streamed. The court commissioner would have used her legal name to see if she was present, which could have been really uncomfortable and unsafe.
Thankfully, Ana applied for federal rental assistance after the court case was filed, and the case was referred to me. I was able to walk alongside Ana through the process of defending the eviction and her dignity. I asked her what she wanted to do about her name and pronouns in court, giving her the choice. I ended up writing a letter to the court to state her preferred pronouns and name. The court was very responsive and changed the name on the filing. Eventually, we filed papers with the court asking them to erase the eviction, which was granted.
Erica López is the founder and Executive Director of The Peoples Law Center, Centro de Derecho de la Gente, a non profit law firm representing marginalized and undocumented people in housing civil matters.