As acting director of the Stuart H. Smith Law Clinic & Center for Social Justice at Loyola University College of Law in Louisiana’s 1st Congressional District, Ramona Fernandez oversees between 400 and 500 cases at a time. Roughly 40 percent of those are part of the clinic’s immigration law branch, which has an annual budget of almost $1 million and include visa and green card applications and asylum for unaccompanied minors and crime victims. These cases, in particular, are close to Fernandez’s heart. “I’m an immigrant, so these are my people,” she says. She’s passionate about reform because she knows that, given the chance, immigrants make significant contributions to their local economies. “When you put people in the shadows, they get scared,” she says. “And when they get scared, they don’t feel like they can do the right thing. So why not give these people, who are contributing, a way to continue to do that the right way? At end of the day we all want the same things: To be safe and a productive member of society.”
Originally from the Dominican Republic, Fernandez immigrated to the United States to join her family when she was 11 years old. She grew up in New York City and later settled in New Orleans with her husband and their young son. To complete her undergraduate degree, she started taking night classes at Loyola and spent her days working as the general office manager at the university’s law clinic. That job inspired her to become a lawyer. “There was a lack of resources for immigrants at the time, so they were turning all these people away,” recalls Fernandez. “It made me feel powerless when people called with questions and I knew what the answer was but I couldn’t tell them because I didn’t have a law degree.”
After graduating with her law degree from—no surprise here—Loyola, Fernandez was promoted to staff attorney at the clinic and soon started teaching classes at the law school aimed at serving the underprivileged community. Currently, she oversees the children’s rights section of the law clinic where she supervises third-year law students who are representing unaccompanied minors and abused and neglected children. She also teaches Street Law, which takes students into inner-city high schools to teach kids about their basic rights and obligations as responsible citizens.
Whether you’re a person with legal status or not, you still shop in your local community, you still pay for rent, you buy cars, clothes, food—all of that is boosting the local economy.
“People think immigrants are here to take jobs away from citizens, that they’re sucking the life out of the community financially because they’re here illegally,” says Fernandez. “That’s not true. Whether you’re a person with legal status or not, you still shop in your local community, you still pay for rent, you buy cars, clothes, food—all of that is boosting the local economy. And the majority of people want to do the right thing, so they will get a pin number to pay taxes. Many of them will never see a penny of that money back, but they do it because they are hoping for some legal stability in the future.”
Immigrants also play a crucial role in the New Orleans workforce. “They do jobs no one else wants to: Cleaning houses, working in hotels and restaurants—the tourism industry gets a huge boost from the immigrant community,” says Fernandez. “They’re doing construction, cleaning our streets, taking care of our kids and our elders. From an economic standpoint, it would by incredibly harmful to our local community and economy if these people were to just immediately erased.”
Fernandez knows the system is broken, especially when all family and employment-based petitions require a sponsor in order to obtain a visa, a process that can take up to 40 years depending on how many slots are available in a given category when the application comes through. “I’ve had clients from the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and Mexico who petitioned for their immediate families and it has taken over 10 years,” she says. “A U.S. citizen petitioning for a sibling, the wait period can be up to 40 years. How do you get in line when you’re waiting that long? Do they have to apply for a visa before their siblings are born? We need reform and we need a vehicle for people to self-petition.”
Fernandez worries that the current system, where an estimated 11 million people are living in the shadows, also exposes undocumented immigrants to abuses of their basic human rights. “In New Orleans, we have Latinos, Africans, Asians, Russians, people from all over the world” she says. “Americans know the laws and will demand their rights, especially when it comes to housing. But when it comes to immigrants and housing, it’s a totally different story. They live in constant fear of being detained by immigration, so they just accept whatever conditions are imposed on them and stay quiet when a landlord doesn’t provide basic services. They will rent apartments and pay for housing that are often in deplorable conditions, and then fix everything themselves in order to make it inhabitable.”