Annaliza Gourneau, a Commissioner of the Mesilla Valley Public Housing Authority and a Program Coordinator with the nonprofit HELP-New Mexico, Inc. (HELP-NM), knows firsthand what it’s like to grow up without a permanent home. “As a migrant child you experience homelessness,” she says. “You’re borderline homeless, or you are homeless. You end up sleeping in the car, and you experience hunger often.” And yet children in this situation — many of whom are permanent residents and U.S. citizens — help uphold the American economy through agriculture and crop production. For this reason, Gourneau is committed to helping these young people blossom into adulthood equipped with an education.
Born in Uvalde, Texas, Gourneau began moving along with her seven siblings and parents at age 11. Every March, the family would pack up and travel up the state of California, then onto Oregon, Idaho, North Dakota, Minnesota, Colorado, and finally circle back home to Texas in November. The life was difficult, and the young children worked long hours in the fields alongside their parents while also attending various schools, including those that explicitly served migrant youth. “Being a migrant child, I was kind of was raised all over. I experienced culture shock, racism, and discrimination,” says Gourneau, who went on to earn a master’s in education with honors from the University of North Dakota, where she is also finishing up her doctorate.
The experience of constant flux shaped her and has helped carve her path to advocacy for many. “That’s why I advocate so much and so strongly for immigrants and for my own people in my community,” she says. Today, Gourneau does this through HELP-NM Inc., where she is the Southwest Regional High School Equivalency program coordinator. The federally funded program helps migrant and seasonal farm workers and their families obtain high school credentials. To qualify for the program, individuals must have worked for 75 days within the last two years in agriculture. Undocumented individuals, legal permanent residents, and U.S. citizens alike are eligible. “Once they qualify for our program, we do anything and everything to remove barriers to success for them,” Gourneau says. That can include defraying medical costs, providing gas vouchers, or childcare assistance.
We’re leaving our millions of American families in immigration limbo.
Yet even with resources and help, a lack of legal status in the United States prevents some of the students in Gourneau’s program from achieving their goals. “The thing that I have to put forth is that yes, school is very important, but you also simultaneously need to be working toward your path to citizenship,” Gourneau says. “Because even with a GED or high school equivalency credential you can be deported.” She often assists students applying for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which allows some young immigrants to work legally and shields them from deportation. But immigration policy, she says, often makes this incredibly difficult.
“We’re leaving our millions of American families in immigration limbo,” she explains. “I believe that everybody needs to have a chance to thrive. If there are things in place like the Deferred Action program, I think that would really assist the millions of American families who have anxiously been awaiting a decision, and continue to wait. We need to be unified and cohesive, and keep pushing forward so that we can get new laws passed for immigration reform.”