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In West Tennessee, All Saints Immigration Services assists with pathways to citizenship

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In West Tennessee, All Saints Immigration Services assists with pathways to citizenship

Jun 11, 2024 | 6:01 am ET
By Gabe Hart
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In West Tennessee, All Saints Immigration Services assists with pathways to citizenship
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A family at the U.S.-Mexico border. (Photo: John Partipilo)

While politicians on both sides of the aisle continue to grapple with the topic of unauthorized immigration, a group in West Tennessee is providing low-cost legal services for pathways to citizenship for one of the state’s most vulnerable population groups.

Led by Executive Director Stacy Preston and Dulce Maria Salcedo, All Saints Immigration Services (ASIS) became a U.S. Department of Justice Recognized Organization in 2020, but Preston said the idea had been percolating long before that. 

“In 2017, the idea started to form,” she said. “I found out that immigration law could be practiced by a non-attorney through the Department of Justice. In college, I was very involved with Spanish-speaking groups in our community and quickly realized the biggest barrier a lot of them faced was having a legal status. Without it, many of them were vulnerable and being taken advantage of.”

Both Preston and Salcedo have received accreditation to provide legal representation from the Department of Justice.

Since its launch, ASIS has served nearly 300 undocumented immigrants in West Tennessee by providing legal advice and resources for pathways to citizenship.

The narratives surrounding immigration — especially during an election year — can be fraught with racist tropes and stereotypes geared to inspire fear. Preston believes the realities of the lives immigrants lead, however, don’t align with the hostile language often used to describe them. She thinks that undocumented immigrants are held to much higher standards than U.S. citizens.

Stacy Preston, Executive Director, All Saints Immigration Services. (Photo: Submitted)
Stacy Preston, Executive Director, All Saints Immigration Services. (Photo: Submitted)

The majority of the work Preston and her team perform deals with immigrants who are in the process of escaping violent and untenable situations in their home countries. Most of the immigrants in West Tennessee have made their way to the U.S.  from Central America.

“We see a lot of low-income immigrants. They experience trauma in their home country and leave that country and are now here and re-experiencing trauma all over again,” she said. “This isn’t most immigrants’ first choice.”

“Living as an undocumented immigrant is horrible. A lot of them don’t realize how bad it actually is until they get here,” said Preston.

According to Preston, most undocumented immigrants in West Tennessee simply have survival as their top priority. For many, survival means fleeing their home country and figuring out what comes next once they reach their destination. Many immigrants often don’t realize the challenges they will face once they cross the border.

Undocumented immigrants cannot acquire a driver’s license or a Social Security number. They are also unable to receive any federal benefits and are unable to work legally. The vulnerabilities that accompany such situations are numerous and burdensome. 

Among the services ASIS provides is education about the potential for fraud in navigating the path to citizenship as well as illuminating early warning signs of victimization.

“Immigration fraud is extremely high because people are so desperate,” Preston said.  “If an immigrant doesn’t have a pathway to citizenship and isn’t eligible for a green card, they can easily be taken advantage of by people who promise them one, the other, or both. And, in the end, it’s just a lie. 

“There’s only one way to get a green card; no individual can provide that regardless of what they say.”

Preston says that the victimization of immigrants doesn’t start when they arrive in the U.S.; it usually begins during their journey to the border. Transporters will sell the benefits of making it to the United States, sometimes even lying about what is and is not required to have a stable life. For many undocumented immigrants, the realities of living in the United States are nothing like the stories they were told.

While immigration law can be highly perplexing, the starting point on the road to full citizenship is reasonably straightforward: Is there a pathway to citizenship?

In America, immigration is built on a family system. If an immigrant doesn’t have a relative who is a citizen or a green card holder who is a parent, spouse, child, or sibling, pathways to citizenship become severely limited.

If an initial pathway is found, ASIS takes the case and begins to build evidence. ASIS also handles the paperwork and represents the client in the immigration interview. If everything goes smoothly, a green card is issued, which will last for five years before the official application for citizenship can begin. 

Even if a pathway is not initially found in the discovery interview, clients are encouraged not to lose hope.

We see a lot of low-income immigrants. They experience trauma in their home country and leave that country and are now here and re-experiencing trauma all over again.

– Stacy Preston, All Saints Immigration Services

“About half of the people who call us for services don’t have pathways to citizenship, or those pathways are so narrow that we’re unable to help them,” Preston explained. “We sit down with each of them and explain the law, show them where they are in the process, and tell them to stay in touch because U.S. Immigration law changes fairly often. What may not be a pathway now could be a pathway in the future.”

Other than a clear familial pathway, an undocumented immigrant could also be considered for a humanitarian pathway. ASIS serves a large number of clients who qualify for this particular pathway.

“Well over half our cases are humanitarian cases,” Preston said. “These are pathways the U.S. government has created for undocumented immigrants who are victims of crime, assault, domestic violence, or a child who has been abused or neglected. An advocate isn’t necessary in those situations.”

Like many GOP governors in conservative states, Gov. Bill Lee has vocalized his concerns about the influx of immigrants coming to America and Tennessee. Lee recently signed a bill into law that requires local law enforcement to report undocumented immigrants to federal authorities should the immigrants be detained or discovered to be undocumented. Lee also authorized members of the Tennessee National Guard to help with immigration at the southern border.

There are roughly 128,000 undocumented immigrants in Tennessee, or about 1.8% of the state’s total population. It’s within this small percentage that organizations like ASIS do the heavy lifting of providing affordable legal services to vulnerable populations of immigrants. 

“ASIS is the only service of its type in rural West Tennessee. The only other immigration services that offer paths to legal citizenship are in Memphis and Nashville,” Preston said. “Now that we’re in our fourth year, we’re seeing the fruits of our labors. In certain cases, some of our clients have obtained green cards, work visas, and even full citizenship.

For more information about All Saints Immigration Services, visit https://www.allsaintsimmigration.com/.