Free Legal Lifeline for California’s Community College Students
Amidst the ongoing, decade-long legal struggle surrounding the DREAM Act and the legal protection of California’s undocumented population, Find Your Ally, offers legal lifelines for some 50,000-70,000 undocumented community college students. If you are a student, staff, or faculty member at any of California’s community colleges, you can get free legal immigration services. Eligibility extends to both full-time and part-time students, students pursuing credit or non-credit courses, engaging in dual enrollment, and participating in adult education programs. The services persist regardless of when a student’s affiliation with the California Community Colleges ends.
Designated through AB 1809, the State of California’s Budget allocates an annual investment of $10 million to the California Department of Social Services (CDSS) to contract with nonprofit organizations that can provide immigration legal services to the California community colleges, supporting that population. The state of California appropriates 10 million dollars every single year to the California Department of Social Services.
Navigating Legal Challenges
At a recent Ethnic Media Services (EMS) briefing, college students, administrators, and statewide immigrant legal service experts helped break down the program and outlined crucial services to help immigrants achieve the future they want and navigate legal challenges.
Since the program began, about 7,600 community college students, faculty, and staff members have received a legal consultation, according to Alonso Garcia, Senior Program Manager, Equity Foundation for California Community Colleges.
Through Find Your Ally, students can sign up online to gain access to free immigration consultations, eligibility screenings, and case management services right on campus. These services are available in various languages and settings, encompassing in-person, virtual, and hybrid options.
Supports and Caveats
Garcia adds that in November 2022 the program expanded to support all 115 brick and mortar colleges across California. “But we are really excited that starting November first will be able to provide additional supports with filing fees for naturalization as well as advanced parole filing fees.
The only caveat to receiving the financial assistance for DACA renewals, naturalization and advanced parole is that they must connect with one of the 10 legal service providers, supporting this program.” In order to be eligible for that financial assistance, it is very important that students sign up through the portal. “So, if they have, connected with an organization or someone else we unfortunately cannot provide a refund or reissue a check. They have to connect directly with us,” cautions Garcia.
Manoj Govindaiah, managing attorney at Immigrant Legal Defense, a nonprofit legal services organization based in Oakland, says that there are several barriers facing DACA recipients. They don’t know what options are available to them. “For potential clients, the first is finding quality legal services, and then the second is sort of all the logistical obstacles of reaching that lawyer. If you live in Northern California, for example, in a very rural part of the state you might have a USCIS office that is many, many hours away from you. And so often the lawyers are concentrated in urban areas. And so, it’s really hard to find a lawyer that you can access. And if you are undocumented, you may not have easy access to transportation. You may be living in a mixed-status home and dependent on family members and their work schedules and what have you.”
Reaching students where they are
This is what makes the program so wonderful, it reaches students where they are, accessing them on their campuses where they are going to be anyway. And so, they don’t have to worry so much about coming to or finding lawyers. “The 10 legal service providers have already been vetted by the state and selected for this work. And so, these students, faculty, and staff, regardless of what part of the state they’re in, whether rural or urban, are able to easily find quality legal services,” adds Govindaiah.
Many of the immigrants have a very lengthy, complicated immigration history, which takes a long time to unravel says Govindaiah, “I’ll give you, an example of one of my current clients, a man in his forties, who lives in a pretty rural part of the state, in the Central Valley and has had DACA for many, many years and actually came to us, when we started services at his school. In order to renew his DACA and in the process of doing a consultation with him, we determined that he was eligible for a green card because his dad had filed a petition for him many years ago. He had known this, but he had spoken to many other lawyers who had all told him that he was not eligible for his green card. And when we spoke with him, we realized that the people he had been consulting with were relying on an old interpretation of the law. Case decisions, court decisions in the past couple of years had changed that interpretation and made him eligible now.”
He’s been waiting for 25 years to get this green card and if these services had not been available to him he would have ever been able to find quality representation that could have directed him into this path towards permanent residency.
Undocumented resource center
Dr. Kelly Fletes, Dean of Student Services at Monterey Peninsula College, oversees the undocumented resource center. She says that all the other California community colleges have also been mandated to have at least one formal liaison to represent their college and to provide these services to students. “And that has been a game changer coming off of the last administration and having folks, you know, really just be interested with all the inequities and all the challenges that they experience in COVID really was an opportunity for us to be able to bridge that relationship with our colleges, our community and our students regardless of status, right? Regardless if they’re undocumented, documented immigrant, newly arrived.”
The core objective of this initiative is to empower students with accurate and current information about immigration law and policy. By increasing their access to qualified legal representation, students can channel their energy into advancing their educational and career aspirations.
- Free Services: Legal assistance is provided at no cost to students, with the State of California covering the expenses.
- Fee Support: Application fees for those requesting or renewing DACA status are also covered.
- Convenient Scheduling: Students enrolled at a California community college can easily book consultations with legal practitioners through findyourally.com.
- Extended Eligibility for Family and Faculty: Referrals are available for immediate family members, and services extend to California Community Colleges faculty, staff, students with dual enrollment, non-credit programs, and adult learners.
- Flexible Meeting Options: The program is designed to support students on-site, whether through undocumented student support centers or online appointments, offering convenience and safety.
- Comprehensive Services: Legal support includes screening for various forms of relief, assistance with DACA renewals, family-based petitions, and citizenship/naturalization requests. Referrals to other trusted direct service organizations may also be offered for services not currently funded.