A group of advocates met at a local church in 2017 to brainstorm ideas on how to help the immigrant community in the county.
After meeting a concerned family and experiencing their struggles first hand, the Immigrant Justice Network was born.
“A family showed up there that was distraught because a family member had just been arrested by ICE and sent to the Frederick County Detention Center,” said Suzanne Martin, founder of the Immigrant Justice Network. “Through that whole process of taking the family up to the Frederick County Detention Center, we realized the importance of legal representation for immigrants and we realized there was a real void here in Anne Arundel County with quality immigration attorneys.”
The organization connects immigrants in Anne Arundel County with legal representation to pursue their immigration cases as well as provides financial assistance to help cover legal fees. Over the last four years, the all-volunteer organization has been able to grow to the point that Martin was able to become its first paid employee as its executive director.
Under Martin’s leadership, more than 350 people were able to receive legal counsel and case management support, and more than $200,000 in legal fee assistance to families and individuals in Anne Arundel County was provided, AIJN Board President Monica Rausa Williams said in an announcement about Martin’s new position.
Martin worked at a law firm in Washington D.C. for 20 years and had just retired before deciding to get involved in advocate work.
“I realized that immigrants in our community had a right to due process and they did not have access to quality legal representation for their immigration cases and the stakes couldn’t be any higher as they’re facing deportation and going through the deportation process in court,” Martin said.
An estimated 48,000 immigrants resided in the county in 2018, making up about 8.3% of the total population. Immigrants contribute about $282.2 million in state and local taxes in the area, according to the county website.
County Executive Steuart Pittman signed an executive order creating the Anne Arundel County Commission on Immigrant Affairs in 2020 to serve as an advisory board for immigrants to speak on the issues they face in the community and to get them involved in county government to provide feedback on how to improve access to county services.
“I’m looking forward to seeing our organization grow and serve more immigrants in our community who desperately need legal representation for their cases,” Martin said.
Martin said hiring an executive director was a big step for the organization and they will be evaluating their next steps to help the organization to continue growing.
Javier, who asked to only be identified by his first name, arrived in the United States with his mother and two brothers four years ago after escaping gang violence in El Salvador. He got connected with Martin after researching ways to get help for the family’s immigration process.
“Where we lived, gangs were starting to become more influential in the community, influencing people, mostly young people,” Javier said in Spanish. “When we would go to visit my grandma, gang members were waiting at the entrance of the neighborhood to question and intimidate us.”
Javier’s older brother got involved in a gang after gang members threatened to hurt his family if he didn’t join. He kept his involvement with the gang a secret and was only asked to run errands for the members at the beginning but once they began asking him to commit crimes such as robbing, he attempted to leave. When the gang found out that he was trying to leave, they murdered one of his friends.
“That’s when my mom decided we didn’t have any other alternative, we had nowhere else to go and it got really difficult for us,” Javier said. “She asked her brother that lived in the states for help getting here.”
Javier and his family arrived at his uncle’s house in Delaware and eventually moved to Annapolis with their stepfather. He and his younger brother were enrolled in school and Javier recently graduated from high school.
The family overcame a number of different obstacles along the way including the fear of running out of food and water. They were detained in Mexico but eventually released after Javier’s mom pleaded to Mexican authorities to let them go as they were concerned about their safety back home.
When they arrived in Texas, the family was detained by ICE and sent to a detention center. Javier said he was separated from his mother there and was starting to question if they had made the right decision. They were held for a week and Javier said he struggled with the cold because he wasn’t dressed appropriately for cold weather. He said he wrapped himself in the shirt he was wearing to try to keep warm at night.
Javier is getting ready for his first semester at George Washington University and said even though his family went through rough times, he is thankful to have an opportunity to make something of himself in this country.
“I feel so happy because I’m opening a door, a legacy, in my family as well as the Hispanic community,” Javier said. “Even though we’re not from here, we can accomplish anything.”