For two decades, Maria Alejandra Hernandez and her family have attended St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, because it provides the only weekly mass in Spanish. The towering brick cathedral is situated in the historically dangerous Allison Hill, but as immigrants have steadily flocked to the neighborhood — drawn to the church and a Mexican grocery store — the scenery, and atmosphere, has changed.
Hernandez still remembers being an 8-year-old girl, new to America, riding past the shuttered storefronts on her way to church. The barren streets felt haunted, empty except for the occasional homeless person or drug-user slumped on a porch. “Imagine a city street you never want to walk on,” she says.
But immigrants have since moved into Allison Hill and revitalized the neighborhood. Documented and undocumented immigrants alike have rented empty houses, fixed them up in the face of landlord neglect, and opened restaurants, food trucks, and markets. As services expanded, more people moved to the neighborhood. Today, Allison Hill is in revival mode. “You see families of every race,” Hernandez says. “People are not indoors. They are outside, sitting on their porches. Houses are occupied. There’s a tapas bar, a Dominican restaurant, and Mexican restaurants. There’s this creation of economic injection from immigrants.”
Many of Hernandez’s clients aren’t seeking citizenship or the right to vote. What they want is much more basic. ‘They are saying, ‘I want to be able to work. I just want to stay with my family and lawfully work and have a social security number,’
Hernandez knows exactly who is behind this economic revitalization; as a paralegal, she guides immigrants through the complicated process of applying for documentation. She sees how much these individuals face: The obstacles to getting a driver’s license or finding transportation; the daily deportation risks; the fear that any day their life could change such that they won’t be able to provide for their children.
Today, Hernandez is a U.S. citizen. She has earned a community college degree and is studying for her bachelor’s. She has security. But her daily interactions with undocumented immigrants have made her an advocate for immigration reform. She sees how newcomers contribute significantly to the Harrisburg area economy. Beyond Allison Hill, they are the workforce that keeps the region’s food packaging industry alive. “To outsiders, there are either no immigrants here, or they are here and abusing the system,” says Hernandez. But as an insider, Hernandez says, “they are working every day.” By way of example, she says that when an egg packaging company was recently raided and a sizable portion of its workforce was deported, the business owner, the company, and the local community suffered.
Many of Hernandez’s clients aren’t seeking citizenship or the right to vote. What they want is much more basic. “They are saying, ‘I want to be able to work. I just want to stay with my family and lawfully work and have a social security number,’ ” she says. This, Hernandez says, is the common goal of her clients and their employers.
But the immigration system stands in the way. “Immigration laws right now are very antiquated,” says Hernandez. In addition to a huge backlog in applications, fees are unaffordable for most clients and the process is complicated, often requiring professional help. In Hernandez’s view, the country’s leaders need to prioritize immigration reform; without reform, the common goals to maintain order and boost the economy become unreachable.