School-Based Project Meets Families Where Community Already Thrives

March 19, 2019
[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="232"] Mindy Phillips, Deputy Director Immigration Program[/caption]

As the Deputy Director of EBCLC’s Immigration Program, Mindy Phillips spends plenty of time filing applications, supervising law students, and appearing in Immigration Court. On any given Tuesday, though, you’ll find her somewhere in Oakland, surrounded by tongue depressors and toothbrushes.  Through EBCLC’s School-Based Immigration Project, Mindy has connected with hundreds of undocumented students and families during her weekly rounds at one of four school-based health centers run by La Clinica de la Raza. These robust physical and behavioral health clinics- which serve as community spaces and primary pediatric facilities for many Oakland students- provide the perfect place to connect with parents and kids in need of immigration legal aid. “I think the model really leverages the fact that students and families already have these strong relationships with school staff, administrators, and medical providers,” commented Mindy, reflecting on the project’s great success over the last three years. “When someone they trust says they can see a lawyer at the same health center the very next week, the barriers to accessing services are just so reduced.”

Our School-Based Model

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="243"] Rosa Bay, Director, Education Defense & Justice for Youth Program[/caption] Rosa Bay, director of EBCLC’s Education Defense and Justice for Youth Program, innovated the first School-Based Project in 2010. Working with Oakland Unified School District administrators and school staff, she started showing up at schools and providing legal advocacy to families on a wide range of issues, including housing, immigration, and public benefits. In 2015, as a law student training in EBCLC’s Immigration Clinic, Mindy designed and applied for an Equal Justice Works fellowship to expand the school-based model in the immigration context. She was granted the fellowship and launched the project the next year. Today, it’s one of the only school-based medical-legal partnerships of its kind in the country, and continues to thrive under her leadership. “The program utilizes EBCLC’s three-tiered legal aid strategy,” said Mindy, who visits each health center site twice a month. “The groundwork is community education- I deliver Know-Your-Rights trainings to parents and give rapid-response presentations when there are changes in the law, like we saw with DACA. I also meet with individuals one-on-one to answer their questions, evaluate their eligibility for different immigration remedies, and explain their options. Finally, I take on a portion of those cases for direct representation and help them to apply for legal status.” The program’s success speaks for itself. In the just-over three years that the School-Based Immigration Project has been running, Mindy has provided free legal consultations to almost 1,000 people- many of whom had never worked with a lawyer before meeting her.

An Unprecedented Challenge

Venturing out into health center sites enables Mindy to keep a finger on the pulse of the immigrant community in the East Bay. Since Trump’s election, she’s noted an undeniable rise in fear and anxiety- even among the extremely young. “There’s always been a significant level of anxiety for people who are undocumented and the immigrant community more widely, and it’s only gotten more acute,” said Mindy. “Before, we used to have some ability to shelter children. Now, I’m seeing very, very young children who know who Trump is, who are very frightened about what could happen to their moms and dads, who are literally asking each other at recess, ‘Are your parents gonna get deported?’ It’s just so tragic because we know that chronic stress has huge implications for people’s learning outcomes and long-term health. This administration has brought on a heightened level of insecurity that will have lasting impacts on everyone it’s touched.”

Rising Up Together

As much as the current political climate dismays her, Mindy takes hope in the strength and unity she’s witnessed through the School-Based Project. “The environment has, yes, caused people to be more sheltered and conservative, but I’ve also observed counter-responses of people asserting their rights, of people saying, ‘I refused to be terrorized, I refuse to be scared, you’ve gone so far that I refuse to be bullied anymore.’" That boldness takes the form of undocumented kids participating in protests, and immigrant parents being willing to speak out and tell their stories publicly. Just as significantly, it’s led to many community members actively exploring their legal options for the first time. "People feel motivated to find out what might be available to make their families more secure," she said. Now that she’s developed a rock-solid model in Oakland, Mindy has begun to help nonprofits in other areas develop their own site-based clinics. “The next step is in equipping other legal organizations and medical organizations to duplicate this style of service delivery. We’re working to provide technical assistance and support to people interested in implementing this model in their own communities,” said Mindy. “Our advocacy can help so many more people when we’re creative about expanding access. We can do that by thinking about where people already go, who they already know, and where they already feel safe.”