Immigrant Hope Santa Barbara Is Doing God’s Work
Christian Nonprofit Helps Immigrants Find Legal Pathways to Citizenship
By Tyler Hayden | October 29, 2020
The idea was already there, but the courage to carry it out came to Diane Martinez in a dream. “It was so vivid,” she said. “Like no other dream I’d had before.”
“I was in this big old mansion,” she remembered, “and in this mansion were all these hallways, and in these hallways were door after door after door. There were people behind every one. Every age and color and race you could think of. And each time I would open a door, I would hear a voice say, ‘God is faithful.’
“Right away when I woke up, this [Bible] verse came to mind,” Martinez went on. “It’s from First Thessalonians: ‘The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.’ That’s the backbone of Immigrant Hope, and that’s what faith is to me ― it’s stepping out and doing what I can do and trusting God to do the rest of it.”
That was 2011. It would take four years of hard studying, training, and praying for Martinez to launch the Santa Barbara chapter of Immigrant Hope, a national faith-based nonprofit that helps eligible immigrants secure pathways to citizenship. Since then, out of a modest San Andres Street office space connected to Shoreline Community Church, Martinez and her staff have dispensed low-cost legal advice and services to nearly 1,300 people, 412 of them in 2019 alone. They also share the Gospel, but only when it’s requested.
Just last month, one of their staff members completed the rigorous process of becoming Santa Barbara’s first and only fully accredited Department of Justice (DOJ) representative. She now acts in an attorney capacity for clients in Immigration Court and charges them a fraction of what a lawyer would typically cost.
Martinez believes, and Immigrant Hope’s many success stories show, that this type of alternative legal representation is often the best, most practical way for individuals and families of modest means to navigate the minefield of U.S. immigration law. As America’s profoundly broken immigration system keeps generating national controversy and personal traumas for the men, women, and children mired in its bureaucracies, demand for the small organization’s services only continues to grow.
It is an unfortunate reality that the cruelest attitudes toward immigrants tend to come from those professing to follow the teachings of Jesus. They often overshadow the work of Christians toiling quietly to better the lives of their neighbors, such as those working at Immigrant Hope.
“I was led on a journey through the Bible to discover God’s heart for the immigrant, and He broke my heart for what breaks His,” Martinez said. “I realize that immigration is a very controversial issue both inside and outside the church’s walls. However, I do believe that the Bible is the word of God, and I have no doubt that the conflict is with individuals, not with God. The Bible is clear of God’s love for the immigrant.”
Martinez and her husband moved from Arizona to his hometown of Santa Barbara in 2005 to care for his ailing parents and eliminate his grueling interstate commute to an oil-drilling platform in the Channel. “Another controversial topic,” Martinez acknowledged. “But honestly, it was his job,” which was especially well-paying, “that allowed me to quit my job and do this.”
It was around this time that violent gang activity in Santa Barbara was on the rise. Stories of fights and stabbings dominated the news, and Martinez’s home on the Westside was regularly graffitied. When she wasn’t working at Santa Barbara City College in its Early Childhood Education program, she was locked inside her house. “I also spoke very little Spanish back then and totally felt like an outsider,” she said.
Slowly, as the city clamped down on gang crime and “God worked on her” to venture out more often, Martinez began to understand her neighborhood, especially when she got to know the families of her young SBCC students and the congregation at Shoreline Community Church, where she’d become Children’s Ministry Director.
“One of the kids we were working with told me, ‘My dad has been deported and my mom’s never worked and we don’t know what we are going to do,’” Martinez said. She soon began to hear about undocumented mothers and fathers being taken advantage of by their bosses and landlords. The terrible living conditions of Dario Pini’s properties came up frequently. So did employers withholdings wages and workers’ compensation. Then there was, of course, the fear of federal agents around every turn.
Martinez and her friends did what they could ― they opened a food pantry, ran clothing drives, and intervened if they heard a child was living with no electricity or water ― but the problems were so many. “I’m a fixer and I wanted to fix these things, but I couldn’t,” she said. “I had to ask myself: ‘How can we really help in a tangible way that’s going to make a difference in people’s lives?’”
Shortly thereafter, Martinez learned of a ministry called Immigrant Hope that was being created by the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA). The idea was to equip churches around the U.S. with the education and means to assist undocumented people in need. “We believe that God calls all Christians to love and serve those around them, regardless of their race, culture, language, economic status, or legal status,” the EFCA says. “Churches that provide affordable, reliable immigration legal advice can make a huge impact on the lives of vulnerable people.”
Martinez presented the program to Shoreline’s pastors and elders, who gave their blessing, and she started taking the required long and tedious law courses. By the end of each week, her brain hurt, but she kept on. Then, out of the blue, an anonymous donor who’d somehow heard about the budding program gave enough money to cover her salary for four years.
To this day, the donor’s identity remains a mystery. The funds allowed Martinez to quit her job at SBCC and devote herself full time to her new calling. Immigrant Hope Santa Barbara ― one of only seven chapters throughout the country ― was born.
“That was the journey God put me on,” said Martinez. “There was still the fear of like, ‘Gosh, am I doing the right thing?’ But I kept pushing forward because I felt like God was saying, ‘Just go. Just keep going.’”
The San Andres Street center is a busy place. Volunteer paralegals gather information from clients, who mostly hear about Immigrant Hope Santa Barbara through word of mouth. Accredited representatives then meet with the clients to decide on a course of action, such as applying for a green card, petitioning for U.S. citizenship, requesting asylum, or finding other paths to legal status. Some cases that are too difficult for the representatives to handle are referred to attorneys in the Immigrant Hope network.
It can take more than a year for a client to obtain legal status, but with dedicated work and patience, many clients will receive their Social Security cards, and most importantly, they will eventually get citizenship and be able to vote.
Karla Can was one of the center’s earliest accredited staffers. A first-generation American whose parents came from Sinaloa, Mexico, she was born and raised in Santa Barbara and studied political science in college. After graduation in 2015, Can came across an Immigrant Hope flyer and visited its office to find out more. She will never forget her first meeting with Martinez.
A call came in from a woman who only spoke Spanish, and Diane Martinez asked her to translate. It turned out that a family member, who had been detained in Texas, was looking for immigration attorneys there. When Martinez and the Immigrant Hope network were able to connect the family with a lawyer in Texas, the moment stuck with Can. “I was like ‘Wow, this is a really very special place.’” She told her mom and her fiancé that she’d discovered what she wanted to do.
The first step was to earn enough accreditation to work with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Can enjoyed the intense training program and was able to pass her tests fairly quickly. It was when she started meeting one-on-one with clients that she understood how nerve-wracking the work could be. “I thought to myself: ‘Who am I to do this? What if I get something wrong?’”
The stakes were high, and the consequences for mistakes were severe ― loss of status; imprisonment; deportation back to starvation, war, and persecution; or decades-long separation from family. The anxiety would keep her up at night. But like Martinez, Can took comfort in knowing God had a plan for her, and she pressed on.
Last month, Can graduated to full DOJ accreditation. A Facebook video shows her smiling and holding her certificate. She thanked those who donated to Immigrant Hope through Santa Barbara Gives!, a new fundraising initiative created by the Fund for Santa Barbara and the Santa Barbara Independent. “Without you guys, this would not have been possible,” she said.
“I’m just very, very grateful to work with our clients, and to see their faces and their reactions when we find a solution for them is amazing,” she said. However, the work also takes its toll, Can admitted. Oftentimes, she has to ask a client to recount traumatic experiences of violence and loss. She finds talking and praying with her colleagues can ease some of that burden.
Though some Immigrant Hope clients come from Central or South America, and even a few from Canada, most are from Mexico. They’re usually between ages 25 and 45 and frequently seek assistance as a family unit. “A husband and a wife with three or four children ― that’s the typical demographic we see,” Can said. Most parents work in Santa Barbara’s hospitality or agricultural sectors. Can herself works 60-plus hour weeks, splitting her time between Santa Barbara and a law office in Ventura.
Immigration law is not only Byzantine, but it’s also a constantly moving target. A lot of Can’s time is spent just keeping abreast of the latest legislation, executive orders, and court rulings. The Trump administration’s ongoing effort to impose the Public Charge rule, which can deny immigrants green cards or citizenship if they have previously relied on public assistance programs, has been particularly maddening, she said. So has the fight over DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and the back-and-forth decisions to raise application fees.
And then there’s the discretion of the individual federal officers, some who seem to arbitrarily apply the rules. “One day it’s a yes, the next day it’s a no, the next time it’s like, ‘Oh yes, but you have to meet this criteria,’” Can said. “It takes such a toll on people because they don’t have the language, they don’t have the skills, and then they don’t want to apply for anything because they’re afraid.”
Sometimes, officers intentionally try to trip up applicants, Martinez said. They’ll ask something in English like “Have you ever committed polygamy?” and if the applicant says no but then can’t properly and fully define “polygamy,” the officer will fail them.
The uneven and ever-changing policies serve as a reminder of how broken America’s immigration system truly is, and how badly reform is needed. “It just goes back to the reality that it’s not doing what it was designed to do,” Can said. “They’re just using Band-Aid solutions.”
Life is coming full circle for Litzy Castro. Her mother was pregnant with her when she crossed the Mexican border, and they moved to Santa Barbara. As long as she can remember, she’s been part of Shoreline Community Church. Martinez saw something in Castro and thought she would be a good fit for Immigrant Hope. She was right.
“I knew that no matter what career I chose, I wanted to help people,” Castro said. Now a student at SBCC, she is training under Can to get her USCIS accreditation. As a first-generation Mexican-American, she is able to build rapport with clients who are wary of people supposedly working in immigration law. Many have been burned by a “notorio,” predatory con men who pose as attorneys. “My background sometimes allows me to recognize the struggle they’re going through, especially right now with Trump,” she said. “It’s just scary.”
Even on the darkest days ― like when she learned one of her young clients was being abused ― Castro is able to hang onto the moments of joy she was helping to create. “Seeing husbands, wives, dads, siblings reunite, seeing them be together, that’s what keeps me going,” she said.
One of the most important things everyone working at Immigration Hope must learn is how to handle the emotional weight of their clients who are living in such anxiety and fear. “Diane and all the women here have helped me to realize to just give it to the Lord,” said Castro. “There’s only so much I can do to ease a person’s stress or pain.”
When the pandemic hit, the lives of their clients became even more desperate. “Right now,” Castro said, “so many people aren’t working. They have no real income, so they’re unable to pay their electricity bill, and with no Wi-Fi, there is no school for the kids….”
The organization is doing what it can to cover the gaps, distributing laundry detergent, food gift cards, and other resources. They continue to provide regular legal services, to teach U.S. civics, English, driver’s ed, and computers. They’ve also begun partnering with the Family Service Agency, the police department, and the school system.
As a faith-based organization, Immigrant Hope Santa Barbara can’t receive funding from many foundations, said Martinez. So it relies on smaller grants and the generosity of donors. She emphasized, however, that they require no religious preconditions: “To get our services, you don’t have to listen to a spiel. You don’t have to do any of that.”
Still, Martinez worries — especially now, when there’s plenty to be anxious about. But rather than get discouraged, Martinez and her colleagues take pride in knowing they’re fulfilling a desperate need. “I think this is the time we must excel and shine even more,” Can said, “because who is going to take that role? Who is going to guide all these people through the fear of the unknown?”
A Flight from Violence
Mayra Perez Huaste’s abusive father wanted to kill her, so she fled Mexico to the United States in 1991. She crossed the border without papers by what she called “jumping the hills,” or trekking over the mountains. Huaste said she was very lonely for two years until she met the man who would become her husband. They married back in Mexico, then returned to the U.S.
Huaste’s husband worked for a landscaping company, and in 1998, his boss submitted an employment visa for him, but before it was approved, ICE agents arrested him and put him in detention. He was released and had to regularly check in with federal officials as his removal proceedings commenced. He fought his deportation for seven years and was ultimately allowed to apply for permanent legal residency.
“We waited eight more years to get help with our English and civics,” Huaste said. “I tried taking college classes but did not feel comfortable. Then I heard about Immigrant Hope and my husband and I started attending. From the beginning, we felt like it was a place of blessing and that the teacher was instilling confidence in the students.”
Huaste and her husband studied for 16 months as they submitted their applications for naturalization and waited for their interviews. Her husband was called first. “We were very nervous,” she said. A month later, she was called. They both passed. “I felt the Lord was there before us and had even prepared the officers’ hearts who interviewed us,” she said.
Huaste now teaches the U.S. civics and the driver’s license classes at Immigrant Hope. “I feel very blessed to do all these things,” she said. “I believe the Lord goes with me into every class.”