After growing up in the United States as the daughter of two undocumented immigrants, Llamilet Gutierrez decided to dedicate her career to protecting the rights of immigrants by becoming an assistant public defender for Maryland’s Prince George’s County. Yet current deportation fears have made life harder than ever for this vulnerable population. Although the state of Maryland recently passed a law so that undocumented immigrants could apply for driver’s licenses and allows childhood arrivals to apply for in-state tuition, Gutierrez says many immigrants are hesitant to take advantage of such resources.
“They’re scared they will get picked up when they go to the DMV to get their licenses,” she says. The head of the county’s public school system also recently reported that such anxiety was behind a drop-off in school attendance by Latino students. “Children also live with the constant fear they will come home from school and their parents will be gone,” she says.
The majority of immigrants are here trying to contribute to society. We should all be protected under the law.
Gutierrez would like to see immigration reform that gives undocumented immigrants a pathway to permanent residency so they will be better protected under the law. In her role as a public defender, she’s seen that many people in her community are at risk of being deported for relatively minor crimes. “I’m so sick of clients getting deported over alcohol offenses,” she says. “They do a weekend in jail, but they might get held for months. These are clients with no record [who are] getting deported.”
Gutierrez also hopes legal status would help them receive better legal representation, such as having attorneys who speak Spanish. She knows of several cases in which undocumented immigrants were arrested for driving without a license, but after speaking to them in Spanish, she learned they had the proper documentation after all. “Because of the communication issue, the attorney didn’t know. It’s frustrating because it could have been resolved quickly,” says Gutierrez, explaining that only a handful of attorneys at the Public Defender’s office are fluent in Spanish.
Gutierrez became determined to help immigrants after she saw how helpless her own mother was in trying to navigate the language barrier as an undocumented immigrant from Mexico. (Her father is from El Salvador.) She recalls an incident when she was 15 years old and had accompanied her mother to a K-Mart. After taking a backpack to the cash register for purchase, the clerk found the bag had been previously stuffed with toys. The store guard accused her mother of shoplifting and tried to fine them $500, ignoring her mother’s pleas to look at the store security cameras so they could see she was innocent. Her mother hired an attorney and ended up not having to pay the fine, but Gutierrez never forgot how disrespectfully her family was treated. “I thought, ‘We can’t let people get away with this!’” she says. “The legal process is hard enough to navigate when you speak the language. But when you add in the cultural and language difficulties, it’s frightening for clients. I see my mom in all my female clients, so it’s a big part of what keeps me going. It’s very personal.”
Widespread reform that gives immigrants the right to stay here will be key to helping them be better treated by the legal system and their neighbors. “The majority of immigrants are here trying to contribute to society,” she says. “We should all be protected under the law.”