Anahi Mendoza is executive director of the Santa Barbara County Immigrant Legal Defense Center, which was recently formed to help the 43,000 undocumented immigrants residing in the county.
Paul Wellman

Anahi Mendoza left her Santa Barbara County home seven years ago to begin her college career at Harvard University. As an 18-year-old undocumented young woman who had lived in this country since she was 4, Mendoza had always had her eyes set on going to college. Finally, her dream was becoming a reality. Since then, her journey has taken her beyond Massachusetts to Sacramento, New York, Texas, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C. But today, Mendoza has come home.

She returned to apply to law school but found herself accepting a job as the executive director of a brand-new organization in Santa Barbara County, the Immigrant Legal Defense Center (ILDC), formed to help the 43,000 undocumented immigrants residing in the county, especially those facing threat of deportation.

In Adelanto alone, more than 73,000 detainees have gone through the facility since its opening in 2011. Of those, only 13-14 percent have received representation before a judge.
Paul Wellman

The center, the first of its kind in Santa Barbara County, will focus on helping people who have been arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents and are being held in federal detention centers. It will provide all county residents eligble for bond with an attorney to represent them at their bond hearings and will then help them find legal counsel to defend them in their upcoming court hearings. Judging by the long list of applications already piling up on Mendoza’s desk, the ILDC is answering a serious need in the county.

Coming Home

Today, Mendoza is the one-woman band behind the organization. As the sole paid employee, she is managing everything from attorney trainings to fundraising. Just last week, the ILDC successfully represented its first client, Felipe Lopez (whose name has been changed), who was able to be freed on bond.

Lopez’s case is a familiar one. In June, he was arrested on misdemeanor charges and taken to county jail. After a struggle, his family was able to post his bail. Just as he was about to be allowed to leave, ICE agents arrested him on federal charges of being in this country illegally and transported him to the Adelanto Detention Facility near Victorville. This scenario is not new. It’s not even particularly tied to President Donald Trump’s current campaign against undocumented people. ICE has been in operation in the United States since 2003.

Around that same time, Lopez came to the United States without proper documentation and made Santa Barbara his home. He lives with his wife, his three school-aged daughters, and his ill mother and works in construction. His family depends on him financially and emotionally. The three months he has been at the detention center have been devastating for them. Though Lopez’s eldest daughter has started working to help her mother pay rent, the family recently received a 30-day eviction notice.

When the Adelanto Immigration Court, with ILDC’s assistance, granted Lopez a $5,000 bond, his family, once again with the help of their community, was able to raise the money, but that is just the beginning of his legal battle. Now, Mendoza and her team of volunteers must find Lopez the legal help he needs as his case winds its way through the immigration courts, which typically takes a year or two. But in the meantime, Lopez can return home.

Area court interpreter Jose Navarrete reviews documents with Mendoza before leading an interpreter training on September 15.
Paul Wellman

Mendoza herself knows all too well the hardship of having a family member detained. “Everyone in my family has a similar status, so it’s not too strange,” she said about her own status. Like Lopez’s youngest daughter, who canceled her elementary school graduation party, Mendoza too was not in a celebratory spirit when her favorite uncle was picked up by ICE just days before her First Communion when she was 9 years old. Her family home was just around the corner from where Lopez’s family now lives. His children are enrolled in the same schools Mendoza and her sister attended.

Mendoza, who speaks with calm conviction, said, “There is something about coming back to your hometown and helping people you know and grew up with and went to the same school with.”

Fleeing Home

Mendoza has worked within the U.S. immigration system in many parts of the country since she left college, learning its processes, its rules, and its flaws. In New York, she had a fellowship with the Immigrant Justice Corps, which represents people applying for citizenship, and she earned an immigration law accreditation through the U.S. Department of Justice. Eventually her fellowship allowed her to work with asylum seekers in Texas.

The South Texas Family Residential Center houses up to 2,400 women and children. There, she worked through CARA Pro Bono Project to help women prepare for their credible-fear interviews, during which immigration agents determine whether a person has a credible reason to fear returning to their country of origin. Mendoza talked with more than 20 women a day, often listening to stories about beheadings, family murders, and domestic violence. One story stuck with Mendoza.

A Salvadoran woman seeking asylum with her three young children did not pass her credible-fear interview. Mendoza requested the decision be reviewed by a judge, but she feared that her client did not have a strong enough claim.

While waiting for the hearing, the woman and her children were transferred to a long-term detention center in Pennsylvania that holds 90 families. Mendoza visited the center to work on the appeal and described the conditions there as “very bad.” The woman’s children had become visibly depressed. The 4-year-old was scared of the guards because she thought that since they carried guns, they must be gangsters. And when her 5-year-old brother saw Mendoza, he said accusingly, “You forgot about us. You don’t care.”

Eventually the family was sent back to Texas, where Mendoza pressed her client to speak more fully: “I knew there was something she wasn’t telling us.” This time, her client opened up. “You can’t tell anyone,” she made Mendoza promise. In El Salvador, the woman operated a small store from her home where gang members frequently came to take free snacks. On their last visit, three gang members demanded the women take them to her bedroom. They took turns raping her.

Mendoza organized an interpreter training for volunteers who are fluent in English
and Spanish or Mixteco to act as court translators during bond hearings.
Paul Wellman

Mendoza requested another interview for her client, but it was denied. “That’s the issue with expedited proceedings,” said Mendoza. “You don’t give people a moment to explain or process.” The woman and her children were deported. There was nothing more Mendoza could do legally. The 5-year-old boy did all he could, too. “I told them I’m not leaving,” he shared with Mendoza. “I kicked them.”

Mendoza and her team were able to get the family into a Salvadoran safe house via the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, but after a couple of months, the woman gave up on getting back to the U.S. She was safe, but she and her children were in the middle of nowhere. Her children needed schooling and freedom. “She couldn’t live like that anymore,” said Mendoza.

Fighting for the Home Front

Mendoza now works to get people out of detention centers to be with their loved ones as they fight within the legal system to stay in the country that has become their home.

The ILDC was born out of an immigrant-serving coalition organized by The Fund for Santa Barbara. It recognized an increase in the number of immigrants being placed in removal proceedings since the toughening stance of the Trump administration. The coalition is made up of six organizations: Immigrant Hope of Santa Barbara, Importa, the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE), the Legal Aid Foundation of Santa Barbara County, Mixteco/Indígena Community Organizing Project, and Future Leaders of America. Though these groups already offer the immigrant community a variety of services, none perform the work of the ILDC.

The ILDC serves Santa Barbara County residents being held in four of the closest federal facilities: Adelanto, Theo Lacy, or James A. Musick detention centers or the Victorville Federal Correctional Complex. Though the ILDC does not yet have the funding to provide further legal services, the services it does provide are critical. Aside from avoiding the notoriously poor conditions of detention centers, detainees out on bond can also build stronger cases and increases their likelihood of avoiding deportation.

Immigrants facing removal offenses that want to be represented by an attorney must pay out of pocket—an almost impossible task for those detainees who are their family’s primary wage earner. Unlike criminal hearings, defendants in immigration proceedings do not have the right to an attorney if they cannot afford one.

Mendoza’s 1st-grade school picture from Isla Vista Elementary
Courtesy Photo

In Adelanto alone, more than 73,000 detainees have gone through the facility since its opening in 2011. Of those, only 13-14 percent have received representation before a judge, according to Mendoza. Prior to the ILDC, Santa Barbara County offered no such service to its immigrant residents.

The center currently has 40 volunteer attorneys and law students, 25 of whom have already gone through a training process, and it is looking for more interpreters, social workers, and mental-health specialists. Soon, the center will begin placing in the county jail and detention centers posters informing inmates and detainees about their rights and listing the ILDC’s contact information. Critics of such services have complained about the center providing inmates and detainees with this legal help. But Mendoza reminds them, “We’re not in the business of defending criminals,” she said. “We’re in the business of ensuring due process.”


Mendoza grew up in Isla Vista when it was more of a neighborhood, before UCSB students came to dominate the area. After her parents moved, the family’s apartment was turned into student housing. But before then, Mendoza attended Isla Vista Elementary, and she praises her teachers there for their support. “I remember my 1st-grade teacher, Ms. George, telling me, ‘You’re really smart,’” said Mendoza. “I held onto that.”

Her 5th-grade teacher, Ms. Zimmerman, also had a big impact. The two share a birthday, June 5, and once Mendoza and Ms. Zimmerman celebrated it together with a few other teachers. “We watched Harry Potter and went to Chili’s,” she remembered. But when Ms. Zimmerman picked her up at home, “she must’ve seen how terrible it was,” said Mendoza, because her teacher suggested the family apply for Habitat for Humanity, a program that helps low-income families build homes.

Mendoza attended an information session with her mother but quickly learned recipients of the program had to be U.S. citizens or legal residents. Mendoza and her mother left the meeting early. “We were ashamed,” said Mendoza about their status.

Mendoza graduated to Goleta Valley Junior High School and continued excelling in school. The Isla Vista Youth Project and Isla Vista Teen Center became places of mentorship for her and her older sister. They offered homework help and held girls’ nights where “we would paint our nails, but talk about important things,” said Mendoza. “That’s where I learned about college.”

Before Mendoza started high school, her family moved to Santa Maria, but she and her sister refused to attend Santa Maria High School. They had heard rumors about gangs and fighting, and Mendoza’s older sister, a senior, wanted to graduate from Dos Pueblos. Her parents agreed to let them continue there, though they had to commute every morning on the Clean Air Express, about an hour and 15 minutes each way.

After her sister graduated from Dos Pueblos High School, Mendoza decided to transfer to Santa Maria High School and was happily surprised. “It wasn’t what everyone talked about,” said Mendoza. “I really enjoyed the fact that the students were all Latinos.” She had often been the only Latina in her advanced courses at Dos Pueblos.

Though Mendoza’s sister had been accepted to both her dream schools, Cal Poly and UC Berkeley, she would have had to pay full tuition because of her undocumented status, so she attended Allan Hancock College instead.

Fearful that she wouldn’t be able to afford college herself, Mendoza put everything into doing well at school. “I needed to get good grades so I could get scholarships,” she remembered thinking. Mendoza graduated as valedictorian in 2011 and was accepted to all the schools where she applied. Her dream school was UC Berkeley because of its activist campus, and she received early acceptance, with a chance to apply for the Chancellor’s Scholarship that provides students with a full ride. But she learned that even if she got it on merit, she would not be able to accept because of her undocumented status. “This was before the DREAM Act,” she said.

Mendoza with her 2nd-grade teacher, Ms. Pack, at Isla Vista Elementary
Courtesy Photo

Luckily, Mendoza was accepted to Harvard. She had read an article about an undocumented student who had been accepted to Harvard with all expenses covered because it was a private university. At Harvard, Mendoza was able to focus on the immigration system and on those who experience it. She concentrated in social studies, an interdisciplinary major that involved government, sociology, and economics, and wrote her senior thesis on the New Bedford, Massachusetts, raid in 2007 on a leather factory that made belts and backpacks for the U.S. military. Agents arrested 362 workers, most of whom were deported to Guatemala.

During her years at Harvard, she was able to intern with Senator Dianne Feinstein, and in 2013, she worked with Alliance for Citizenship on a comprehensive immigration bill. It passed the Senate, but the Republican-controlled House rejected the bill.

After President Barack Obama signed Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, commonly known as DACA, into law via an executive order on June 15, 2012, Mendoza was able to be honored as a Champion for Change Award recipient at a White House ceremony in 2014. “It was so ironic,” said Mendoza. Prior to DACA, Mendoza would not have been allowed inside the White House because a government-issued ID is required to enter.

Her DACA status had protected her from deportation and allowed her to accept internships where she was able to work closely with ICE. However, over the last year, Mendoza has been in limbo along with 690,000 other beneficiaries since the Trump administration rescinded the program. Now everyone must wait as the DACA case works its way up to the Supreme Court.

“We’ve been undocumented so long,” Mendoza said. “Personally, I know what it’s like to not have DACA.” She was accepted to and attended Harvard prior to DACA. “It takes a lot of resilience, but nothing’s impossible. … We need to come together to support our kids and make them believe in themselves.” Often, the most important work is done right at home, in Santa Barbara.

Mendoza acknowledges the monumental role her community had in her resilience. “The biggest difference was made by my parents, teachers, mentors,” she said. “[My parents] were really nervous for me sometimes,” said Mendoza about working in detention centers and alongside ICE. “I think it’s funny and ironic,” she said, “but they are proud. They are really proud.”


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