Before becoming a CLINIC Fellow at Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama in Birmingham, Alabama, Andrea Vazquez had an intimate knowledge of the American immigration system – she had been excluded by it since she was 10.
“I would tell my friends, 'You need to finish high school, because maybe one day we'll be able to (use our education.) I was the only Latina who graduated in my class.”
Vazquez’s optimism paid off. President Obama approved Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals in June 2012, just a few months after she graduated from high school.
"Getting DACA was one of the best days of my life. I was able to get a driver's license, a job and attend college as an in-state student. It was a big change."
DACA actually led Vazquez to her job. She worked with the Hispanic Interests Coalition in 2012 to apply for DACA and was offered a receptionist position with the organization. She declined because she wanted to focus on school. A few years later, when she saw the position posted again she did not hesitate to apply.
“I thought I wasn’t going to get hired because my resume wasn’t that great,” she said. “I graduated high school and had only ever worked in a cell phone store. I was barely going to college, but they gave me the opportunity and I’m really thankful for that. Now I’m here!”
While immigration law was not her primary interest when she entered college – she wanted to be a nurse – Vasquez said her time at HICA led her to change her career goals. As a receptionist, she often volunteered to help the immigration staff with administrative tasks, such as translating documents and promoting outreach events.
“In my head, taking care of people meant taking care of their health, but working here at HICA I realized you can change people’s lives in so many different ways.”
Her hard work did not go unnoticed. When a position with the immigration program opened up, Vazquez’s supervisor at the time, Lucia Gaona, recruited her for the positon.
She is settling nicely into her role, and like other CLINIC Fellows, Vazquez feels that the ability to help people is the most rewarding aspect of her job.
“I’ve been doing a lot of know your rights [outreach] and I’ve seen how the community gets scared,” she said. “They think, ‘Nosotros no valemos’ – we don't get a vote – and I tell them, ‘Yes, you do have rights, people can listen to you. Don't let anyone step on you just because you're undocumented.’”
Vazquez’s words carry extra weight because she is a member of the immigrant community. She is a primary witness to the struggles of both her clients and her loved ones, which makes telling people they are not eligible for an immigration benefit the hardest part of her job.
Despite those difficult moments, Vazquez appreciates having guidance from experienced advocates like her boss, Isabel Rubio.
“She created the organization and she does great things. She’s just so smart and strong. I always tell her, ‘You’re a role model. I hope I’m like you when I’m your age.’”
In the meantime, Vazquez intends to finish her college education and continue serving her community through CLINIC’s Fellows program.
The CLINIC Fellows program aims to increase the reach of immigration legal services and public education in underserved areas by funding additional full-time legal representatives that work with select CLINIC affiliates. Currently it targets eight states in the Southeast, in response to the heightened need for services in that region. For more information, visit https://cliniclegal.org/clinicfellows.