In December of 2021, Granger office directing attorney Laura Contreras received a holiday card from a former client named Catalina whom she had helped nearly a decade before. Here’s what it said:
I have lugged this thank you card around for almost 9 years. This is long overdue. It has been almost 10 years since I’ve received my permanent residency card. I haven’t sent this letter because as adults we get busy. I think I finally got around to sending this, not because my life has less going on, but because there is more gratitude in my life. I really do have a lot to thank you for. An unfolding of events has led me to where I am now. Had I not gotten my green card I probably wouldn’t have gone to the WYA, a military school which I think as the first snowflake of my life. I work here now and I absolutely love it. I probably would not have been able to join the Navy and create so much needed space in my family. I’ve had two state jobs. I am now 25 and own my first home. I’ve received all of this thanks to you. You increased drastically my opportunities in this country. I know without this my life would have continued but you helped increase my quality of life. Most of all, my future kids will thank you for changing their lives forever. Have a great day, may you receive lots of blessings.
For Laura, receiving Catalina’s letter was a powerful testament to the long term impact of NWIRP’s work. With Catalina’s permission, Laura shared the card with our staff. And last month, Catalina graciously shared her immigration story with us.
Here is Catalina’s story
Since I was a child, living in Washington State is all I remember. I thought I was born here until I found out I was actually born in Mexico. I was around 12 years old when I found out I was undocumented. At the time, I wanted my step-dad to open a bank account for me and the bank needed my social security number in order to do so. He didn’t tell me why I couldn’t open the account, he just told me to leave it alone. I kind of had to figure it out on my own. Those things were very hard for my parents to discuss. I imagine it was because they didn’t know how to have a challenging conversation. As well as they didn’t want us to tell other people.
The reason my mom came to the United States with me and my siblings was a courageous one. My father was an alcoholic and had been very abusive to her. Whenever she tried to leave him he’d find her and bring her back forcefully. She was expected to stay in the marriage and domestic violence wasn’t discussed. She came here to escape the violence, for her and her kids.
I was four years old when we came to Washington but of course I don’t remember that. I grew up in the tri-cities region. Growing up here was difficult because I noticed my household wasn’t like the others.
My mom and step-dad kept us very sheltered. For example, I wasn’t allowed to have sleepovers with friends. Reflecting back, maybe one of the reasons they tried to keep us at home was to keep us safe and close-by where they could watch us. Money was also an issue, a limitation left undiscussed. I remember my mom even hesitating to take us to the doctor because of her upbringing and feeling like she didn’t have time because of the jobs she had. And most of all, they didn’t want anyone to find out that we were undocumented.
My parents grew up in a time and place where discipline was more severe and emotional wellbeing was never discussed. And since moving to the United States, my mom remained closed off from other people. As such, she didn’t have any friends who could tell her that certain kinds of discipline were abusive and could get her in trouble.
One day, my brother got in trouble at his school. In my mom’s eyes, she had to act before it was too late. She burned his hand and told him, “when you think about doing this again, look at your hand and remember that your actions have consequences.” I know that she was really worried about his future and it spiraling out of control if she did not intervene. I had a school counselor that I talked to regularly. What we discussed with him was confidential unless it was harmful to oneself or others. I guess I forgot about that second part when he asked me how I had been doing. I explained what had happened with my brother, the counselor notified Child Protective Services (CPS).To this day I still don’t know why I told him. I remember feeling like my heart fell out of my chest. I was in such disbelief because that is not what I wanted to happen, but it was out of my hands at that point.
At the time I was almost 15 years old. I felt a lot of guilt and regret about telling the counselor. Some days I thought I should have kept my mouth shut. It was a really difficult time for me but ultimately that one decision had a very positive and profound impact on my life and my families.
The CPS coordinator told me that there was a special visa that my siblings and I could be eligible for called Special Immigrant Juvenile Status or SIJS. It was for kids who had suffered abuse, abandonment, or neglect by a parent. And the coordinator knew of an organization that would help us for free – Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.
The coordinator took us to the NWIRP Granger office and that’s where I met Laura. She was so nice to me and my brothers which really meant a lot to me. There were a lot of steps to getting the visa. We had to talk about what happened and get our fingerprints taken. But Laura took care of everything and made it as easy as possible for us. I eventually got my green card and my very own social security number.
I remember when my social security card came in the mail, I showed my step-dad. He said it wasn’t something we should be proud of because the only reason we got it was because I sent my mom to jail. At the time, his words made me feel ashamed. But the years went on and the benefits of my immigration status continued to change my life for the better. I was able to join the Navy and apply to work at my military school.
Sadly, my home continued to be a toxic environment., and it was a big reason why I joined the Navy. I needed a good way to pass the time and have some space while I figured out what I wanted to do. It also helped me realize that the world is more than my household.
I ended my time with the Navy three years ago. Now I work as a Sergeant at the same military school that I attended when I was 16. I love my job and will probably do it for several years until I am ready to have a family of my own. As a Sergeant, my job consists of teaching students the operations and standards of the school so they can be self-sufficient and work with other people in difficult situations.
My relationship with my parents is slowly improving as well. I continue to empathize with them. I have a relationship with my mom again. The relationship we’ve worked on in the past two years is much better than the one we had for 18 years. I make steady efforts to talk about what happened when we were younger. I think If you keep difficult memories in the dark you give them power. There used to be a time when I couldn’t tell this story without crying. But I’ve come to terms with it. It was a part of my life and not a part of who I am. I’m grateful for what I’ve learned. I’m grateful for the doors that have been opened and look forward to the things to come. I wouldn’t be where I am now without Laura and her help from her team at NWIRP.