After a 30-year career as a telecommunications executive, Ray Garrido had planned a quiet retirement. But while volunteering as an English tutor in Bremerton, Washington, for immigrants from Mexico and Central America, he heard stories of struggle and hardship that kept tugging at his heart. “I realized there was no one in the area who could help them. Most can’t pay for a lawyer,” he says.
Garrido was not a lawyer, but he discovered that the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Legal Access Programs would accredit trained non-attorneys to offer legal advice to immigrants on a variety of issues, from navigating citizenship applications to resolving landlord and labor disputes. So, two years ago, he went to the Kitsap Immigrant Assistance Center, a nonprofit that offers citizenship workshops, medical and dental clinics, and English classes to immigrants, and created an accredited legal program there. Garrido now oversees 35 volunteers, 10 of whom have completed 40 hours of DOJ training.
Many immigrants have their own businesses and have children who are U.S. citizens.
“I was moved by the unfairness of this system and how we treat people from other cultures,” says Garrido, 72, explaining that immigrants often have little guidance in a complex system or experience long delays in the application process for residency or citizenship. Others have been living in legal limbo for decades and do not have a pathway to achieve status and qualify for health insurance, financial aid for college, or Social Security benefits. He believes comprehensive immigration reform is necessary to make life better for the millions of undocumented immigrants already living and working in the United States. “There needs to be an easier path to a more permanent status. Many immigrants have their own businesses and have children who are U.S. citizens,” says Garrido. “Yet every one of them is in danger of getting deported if something unfortunate happens to them.”
Although Garrido was motivated to help immigrants for humanitarian reasons, he says their presence is also good for the economy. In 2014, undocumented immigrants contributed an estimated $21 billion in federal, state and local taxes nationwide. In Washington state, more than 57,000 immigrant entrepreneurs have created more than 141,000 jobs. “We ought to be more open to people coming to the U.S., instead of focusing on militarizing the southern border,” he says.
Since Garrido created the legal-assistance program, recognized by the DOJ in February 2014, he has accepted nearly 1,000 cases, including from individuals and families seeking asylum or fighting deportation. He works with several unaccompanied children who have fled gang violence in Central America.
And, as emotionally taxing as his work may be, it is also incredibly rewarding. He recently accompanied a young woman from Mexico to take her citizenship test. “She didn’t have anyone with her at the ceremony. So I went to watch her graduate and cried,” he says. “She’s an American now. She can vote. She can’t get deported. She’s free from fear.”