I am Kensy Zelaya, a fourth-year student at Antioch College with a self-designed major in political economy and social psychology. For my last co-op, I found an internship at CARECEN, located in Houston, Texas.
What is CARECEN?
Under the slogan “No Human Being is Illegal,” the Central American Resources Center (CARECEN) is a non-profit organization that provides legal services to Central American immigrants and beyond. Since 1985, CARECEN has empowered the immigrant community by assisting thousands of people in their citizenship path. In an effort to respond to the growing demand of Central Americans due to the immigrant reform of 1986, CARECEN offered a “hands-on” response to the increasing numbers of Central Americans entering the United States. CARECEN’s mission is to improve the living conditions of immigrants in Texas by providing legal services and advocating for the immigrant community. The CARECEN located in Houston is part of a larger network of other offices located in major cities across the USA (Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, and Washington D.C.).
My Role at CARECEN
At CARECEN, I work in the reception area, and I also translate legal documents as well as complete forms in the National Visa Center (USCIS) for our clients. My most significant role is organizing all the work coming into the office while also meeting the deadlines I am given with translations or client applications. My morning in the office starts at 9: 00 am when I open the office and make sure everything is ready to start receiving clients. Our walk-ins and appointments start arriving trying to get different services done, like DACA, Citizenship forms, or their residency card. I make sure that they have the qualifications and the documents they need to get their processes done. I compile and organize the forms and documents before giving them to my supervisor, who distributes the job amongst the other paralegals.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of working in a place like CARECEN is that there is a community feeling with my co-workers and the clients due to its small size. I get to do my job like the translations or filling out forms, but I also know who I am doing it for. I think it is important because as a worker I am not detached from the work I am doing or the clients receiving the service. There is not only a monetary value to what I am doing, which is a great criticism for our current capitalist society. Many elders want to renew their green card or apply to other services but are illiterate. I help them to fill out their forms, and we end up laughing and forming a bond. It is meaningful to see their faces full of joy after knowing that someone was willing to help them. Since we help low-income people who cannot afford an expensive immigration lawyer, our focus is not the financial means, but helping those who need their legal services done.
I enjoy what I do and have the opportunity to build meaningful relationships with the people I work with—they say that I am part of their family. As a worker, I think this is important because I feel that I belong here and that besides being relatively new, they do not alienate me. I think that my job is essential because they are always supportive and at the same time, they give me responsibilities that I am held accountable for. Interestingly, the people I work with are older than me yet at different stages in their lives. I find it interesting that I have learned a lot from them in our conversations and their experiences in life and the professional field.
Meaningful impact on the immigrant community
I think my job directly impacts the immigrant community, their daily lives, and their accessibility to good working conditions, healthcare, and the certainty of living the “American Dream.” Now, more than ever under the current administration, the undocumented community is pushed into the shadows, and thousands of people protected by working permits walk on a “tight rope.” The fear of deportation increases daily. Our current administration promotes anti-immigrant policies and some of the most impacted communities have been the Dreamers that are protected under the DACA program and the “Tepesianos” that fall under Temporary Protected Status (TPS). Every day I receive calls from people at the brink of despair because our current administration eliminated the TPS programs that had thousands of Central Americans as recipients. We are talking about thousands of people that might be left jobless, separated from their families, and there’s also an impact on the economy for the companies that hire them. Many of their contractors threaten them to fire them if they don’t provide other documentation that extends their program longer. Dreamers finding out the shocking truth that DACA might gradually be eliminated and their renewals are just for one year now.
Working in a place like CARECEN, allows me to offer this community help and a sense of hope, even when the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Department is getting even more rigorous to prevent people from obtaining their permanent residence or citizenship. Our biggest hope is for a change in our current administration after the elections in November. If the Democrats win the presidency, there might be a path to obtain legal status for people with work permits. We work as hard as we can every day because our commitment is with the people we serve. We are also making a statement that we are fighters, and we are here to advocate for those who are busy running the economy of this country.
Working at CARECEN aligns with my educational goals and beyond…
Working at CARECEN is meaningful to me because I feel that it connects to real life and all of my academic preparation throughout these years at Antioch. It fits perfectly within my major since it focuses on immigration and the political, economic, and social components within this area. Every day I see the people directly impacted by decisions made in the White House and the importance of politics in our daily lives, even when people think that politics should be left to politicians. Working at CARECEN also provides me with more insight into the population I intend to focus on in my Senior Project and the challenges they face daily once they live in the United States. I am certain about what I want to do once I leave Antioch and enter the professional field. I can see myself working in a place like CARECEN.
At Mills Lawn Elementary School, the main goal is that students achieve everything with excellence. Mills Lawn School integrates art and science into the curriculum and encourages its students to explore these areas. They make several projects throughout the school year that include the theory they learn in class and how to apply it in the real world.
As a Miller Fellow at Mills Lawn, my job is to assist teachers in the three kindergarten classes that the school has. I help with anything that the teachers need and I also work one-on-one with students that need extra help. My day-to-day experience is interesting because, even though the students and teachers go to school every day, it is never a routine. Every day, I have a new schedule provided by the teachers in which I rotate between the three classes to help students. I also have a lunch duty where I make sure that the kids are safe and help them out if they need something. When the students leave, I usually sharpen pencils and do some cleaning in the classrooms.
Like I said before, Mills Lawn does projects during the year. During my spring co-op term, the teachers were working on their spring projects. Two of the kindergarten classes were learning about aerospace engineering and how to make gliders, while the other class was doing their project on the different professional careers the students want to pursue when they grow up. I helped with the logistics of the projects and provided different ideas for their exhibition night.
I believe that my work in the education field impacts the community directly because all the efforts we make every day in the school help build mentally strong, healthy, and confident future adults. It might not seem very impactful at the moment, but we will make a better world one child at a time. It is amazing knowing I am part of that and am able to encourage the idea that we should learn for fun and not out of obligation. Kids are psychologically affected by their environment or problems at home. It has been a great experience for me looking at the different behaviors that students in a different classroom can have and all of the variables that can affect them even when they are as young as five or six years old. They have their own personality and learn based on everything they see. By being a good example, we are all making a difference in their lives.
As a second-year student with an interest in immigration law, I decided to do my co-op at RAICES (Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services), located in Houston, Texas.
What is RAICES?
RAICES is a non-profit organization that provides free and low-cost legal services to immigrants and refugees in Texas. RAICES’ holistic objective is to make the immigrant community stronger by providing them with legal aid, education, advocacy, and social services. RAICES main office is located in San Antonio. RAICES is divided into three major departments that include: legal services, social services, and outreach. Their official website is: https://www.raicestexas.org/.
My role in RAICES: “Multidisciplinary Intern”
My official title at RAICES is a multidisciplinary intern, which gives me the enormous advantage of working in various departments. I get a chance to work directly with the attorneys or legal assistants. I also engage in outreach to the Houston community because the office is relatively new to this city. I think that having the flexibility of rotating throughout the different departments gives me an advantage of learning how each area works and the effectiveness of collaborative efforts, as well as how a non-profit runs.
My role as an intern at RAICES is to assist the attorneys with their cases or help the outreach program. In outreach, we give presentations to immigrants about their rights or we can tailor a presentation depending on their needs. Until today, I have helped the legal program by writing Country Conditions of the Northern Triangle Countries (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras). These are research documents specifying conditions in each country that may help to build the legal case for asylum.
One of the attorneys in charge of the affirmative cases (asylum seekers) assigned me the project of working on the asylum-seeking applicant’s personal statement. I was to explore how could he make his claim for persecution stronger. A personal statement is a document that is written by a person that gives a detailed description of how specific situations in their country of origin makes them fear for their life. I looked in his personal statement and saw keywords that represented current issues back in his country of origin. I did research to understand his claim. As part of this project, I read three articles that talk about asylum and how attorneys can help their clients in making a stronger claim. I also learned how cognitive psychology connects with the personal statement when presented to the judge. When I had a good amount of knowledge about this, I started highlighting and annotating the most important part of his claim. We are now waiting for him to come to his scheduled appointment so we can ask him more about his petition. Additionally, I translated (Spanish to English) all of the legal documents of this individual, because every document presented in court as evidence need to be in English.
As part of the outreach program, I send many emails to different institutions offering the services that RAICES provide. As a result, I am scheduling a “Know Your Rights” presentation for late February. Another role that I have is to call clients and ask questions regarding their cases or to schedule appointments. These are just some of the various tasks that I do during the day within different departments.
“A day at RAICES”
My day-to-day in the office is always different. Some days are slower than others, but I always get to work on my projects. My day starts at 7:30 a.m. and I usually start doing translations or research on current conditions in different countries. Afterwards, clients start to arrive at the office, which is usually one of the best parts of the day. I think it is the best because knowing that RAICES is here to help them get relief is good. Lunchtime at RAICES is a very harmonious experience because we usually all have lunch together at the same time around a table. This is usually the time where my colleagues ask how is our morning going or what plans do we have for the weekend. Sometimes, we have “the question of the day,” which is usually a question about our favorite thing to do or childhood. In this way, we get to know each other better and build a stronger team. Occasionally, we have presentations like “How to do Strategic Planning,” which for me is very enriching to learn this in-depth from a non-profit organization. My afternoons are not long and I usually return to my project work.
How does RAICES influence the community?
I think the most rewarding part of being part of RAICES is knowing that they have a direct impact on the immigrant community. They have a direct impact because they give low-cost legal counseling for people all over the world who are persecuted in their home countries. They help people gain some type of relief, if they are eligible, such as reuniting them with their family members, advocating and educating immigrants about their rights and also providing social services. If they can’t give direct representation to a client, the attorneys will still help them prepare for court because RAICES believes that the right to be heard in court should be respected no matter what. All of these services help strengthen the community to feel empowered and to know that they belong here. They fight for immigrant’s rights and that their integrity is respected.
For more information on the issues that RAICES is targeting you can visit : https://www.raicestexas.org/news/
RAICES helping me reach my Professional & Educational Goals
A big reason of why I am working in RAICES is because I believe that immigrants are a major part of the United States. Over the years the environment has become even more hostile for immigrants, and I wanted to do something to help. As a professional career, I specifically want to pursue Immigration law. What RAICES stands for motivated me to feel that I am in the right place. It fits my educational interests perfectly. I get to see people from Latin America, Africa or the Middle East together in the same place, and I’ve never been exposed to such a diversified environment before. I find it fascinating. Helping with the legal department gives me first-hand experience on the procedures to follow and how to treat the clients. I also read articles that are recommended by attorneys or go to presentations that are extremely educational regarding law procedures and how should a successful non-profit work.
Events and Trainings