“We don’t have anybody representing individuals in immigrant detention here in Santa Barbara County,” Anahi Mendoza explains to me in a soothing and calm demeanor. She’s the executive director of the Santa Barbara County Immigrant Legal Defense Center (ILDC), a new nonprofit coalition that’s enlisting volunteer attorneys to represent undocumented immigrants during their removal proceedings. The center is also educating the community about their rights when they encounter agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Born in Mexico herself, Anahi’s crusade is deeply personal. “When I was 4, my mother came to visit her family in Santa Barbara with her two daughters,” Anahi says. “Dad stayed in Mexico and we overstayed their visas. I knew I was undocumented since I was little.”
Anahi attended Isla Vista Elementary and Goleta Valley Junior High. When her dad came to the country, they moved the family to Santa Maria. For one year, Anahi commuted to Dos Pueblos High School in Goleta, but then tired of the trek and switched to Santa Maria High. There, she founded a Dream Club to help undocumented students to apply to college, and graduated as valedictorian in 2011.
Her dream school was UC Berkeley. They offered her a full scholarship, but she couldn’t accept it because of her immigrant status. That was before Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) became policy. Fortuitously, she also received a full scholarship to attend Harvard University, which is private so can offer financial support to all.
She experienced culture shock at Harvard. “I felt like I didn’t belong,” Anahi recalls. “The other Latinos were affluent.” She majored in social studies with a focus on U.S. immigration policy and social change. She served as the director of Act on a Dream, a student organization dedicated to advocating for comprehensive immigration reform and providing resources to undocumented students at Harvard and beyond. She received a Champion of Change Award from President Barack Obama and wrote her thesis on immigrant detention.
After graduation, Anahi got a fellowship from the Immigrant Justice Corps. “To practice immigration law, you only need to be accredited to represent someone,” she explains. “I asked my fellowship if I could go to Texas in 2016.” She went to work at the South Texas Family Residential Center — “a nice way,” she explains, “to say ‘a jail for asylum seekers.’”
The center was full of women and children, and Anahi assisted families with their “credible fear” interview. That’s the part of the American immigration system where asylum-seeker must demonstrate credible fears for their life if they were to return to their home country. As their cases are processed, they cannot be deported. “I was working 90 hours a week,” explains Anahi. “At one time, there were 2,000 detainees.”
Anahi was planning to go to law school when the offer to run ILDC materialized. The nonprofit was convened by The Fund for Santa Barbara when the Trump administration tightened the Department of Homeland Security’s stance on immigration. The ILDC is a coalition of immigrant-serving organizations on the Central Coast, including Immigrant Hope Santa Barbara, Importa, Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE), the Legal Aid Society, Mixteco Indigena Community Organizing Project (MICOP), and Future Leaders of America.
“We have 35 attorneys, but they need to be trained on how to do bond,” explains Anahi of one of the nuances of immigration law. “When people get detained, they’re taken to a processing center where they’re held between two to six hours. They cannot afford representation, nor do they know they can ask for a consultation. So they ask for deportation instead of asking to appear in front of a judge.”
That’s where the ILDC comes in. “Ideally, we want them to contact us,” she says. “It takes about a month and a half before they go to a judge. There and then they can request bond. They have a better chance to gather documentation and evidence to support their case. We want to educate community members about this process.”
Anahi shares that her parents are still undocumented. “I grew up in this region,” she says. “I need to help this community.”
Anahi Mendoza answers the Proust Questionnaire.
What is your most treasured possession?
There are some letters that my uncle sent me from detention before he was deported. I was 9 years old at the time and looked forward to seeing his words written ever so gently on coarse, yellow-lined paper. The cover of each envelope is detailed with a beautiful drawing.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I was once invited to Vice President Joe Biden’s house for Hispanic Heritage Month. I had received a White House Champion of Change award a few months back, and I was told that Vice President Biden would mention me in his speech. His garden was full of dignitaries, senators, congressmen, etc. When my name came up in the middle of his speech, he decided to call me up to the stage, saying, “Anahi, why don’t you tell them about yourself?” That moment when I took the microphone and didn’t embarrass myself, I’m pretty proud of that.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
I’m drawn to something Nelson Mandela said: “It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.”
What is your greatest fear?
Right now, it’s the uncertainty of what can happen to so many immigrant families in the U.S. I spent a few months at the U.S.-Mexico border working at the South Texas Family Residential Center. It’s the largest family detention center in the U.S., detaining recently arrived asylum-seeking mothers and their children. Every day I met with dozens of asylees to help them prepare for their Credible Fear Interviews before the Asylum Office. I worked with hundreds of women and children secure release from detention, but I also worked about 90-plus hours a week; I’m fearful that that will become the new normal.
What do you like most about your job?
There is a moment, only a few seconds long, where, at the end of a court hearing, the judge tells the client that they will be released from immigrant detention. It takes time for the news to trickle down to the client via the interpreter, but as the interpreter relays this information to the client, you can see the client’s face light up in relief as the news sinks in and they realize they’ll have their freedom back. That moment, those split seconds, are the best part.
Whom do you most admire?
Many of my former asylee clients. I can’t imagine what it would be like to live in a country that cannot protect you, to leave everything you’ve ever known behind — your family, your friends — to scoop up your child in your arms as you run through the desert, and to survive immigrant detention.
What is your greatest extravagance?
Traveling just to visit friends. My friends are trickled around the country and the world. Every once in a while, I indulge in their company.
What is your current state of mind?
Been thinking about a hike.
What is the quality you most like in people?
Passion. Ambition. Drive.
What is the quality you most dislike in people?
What do you most value in friends?
A great sense of humor.
What is your most marked characteristic?
A good work ethic.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
“Oh my!” “Nice.” “Wow.” “Oh, no!”
Which talent would you most like to have?
I wish I could sing. It would make karaoke a lot less embarrassing.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
To be better at saying “no.” It’s my greatest weakness. I just want to do everything and help everyone!
Where would you most like to live?
I’ve never been outside of the U.S., so I’d like to travel the world and visit refugee camps. I wouldn’t want to stay in one particular place forever.
Who makes you laugh the most?
Probably my friend Aaron who is now living in Switzerland. He always sends me the funniest recordings of him singing to gospel music and embarrassing videos/pictures he’s taken of me over the years, of course, without me noticing.
What is your motto?
Where there is a will, there is a way.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
Maybe a bit expected, but Frida Kahlo. I admire her resistance.
On what occasion do you lie?
When I’m late. I’m always late.