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Immigration legal services office opens in Roswell

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Cecilia Najera, a Roswell native, heads the local office of Catholic Charities of Southern New Mexico. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

As U.S. politicians continue to wrangle over immigration policy, a Las Cruces-based charity has opened a Roswell office to provide legal assistance on immigration issues to southern New Mexico and West Texas residents.

The reduced-fee services are provided by Catholic Charities of Southern New Mexico, a nonprofit founded by the Diocese of Las Cruces.

But the manager of the Roswell office, Cecilia Najera, said that the services are available to anyone in the region with immigration-related needs.

“There is not an accredited representative or attorney based in Roswell to help with immigration matters,” said Najera, “so we feel that we will be productive. We know that the need is there.”

The online directory of the State Bar of New Mexico lists 16 New Mexico lawyers who specialize in immigration issues, with those based in Bernalillo, Dona Ana or Santa Fe counties. Low-cost immigration services are also offered at seven different law centers in Albuquerque, Gallup, Santa Fe and Las Cruces, including a few associated with other Catholic Charities groups. In addition, the Office of the Consulate General of Mexico based in El Paso visits southeastern New Mexico cities periodically for a day or two to assist Mexican nationals with legal issues.

The Catholic Charities’ Roswell office, located in an office building of St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church at 510 S. Lincoln St., opened the first of the month.

Najera said she had seen six people the first four days and arranged for five to meet with Catholic Charities’ lawyers from Las Cruces who can represent the clients in court or official proceedings and are scheduled to travel to Roswell twice a month.

Najera is a Roswell native who worked for 25 years with the Nancy Lopez Elementary School as a teaching assistant after receiving an associate’s degree in education. She is working to obtain her paralegal degree with a certification in immigration law.

Before her career in education, she had worked for about five years during the 1990s with the diocese in its Immigration Service Center. During that time, she was able to obtain permanent residency and then citizenship, having arrived here from Mexico at age 6 with her family. She said her prior work and her own experience helps her understand what her clients are experiencing and need.

“My interest has always been there to help the migrant people,” she said. “They need to know that we are here to help, not to turn them in.”

She said that the office will assist migrant workers seeking asylum, visas, permanent residency cards, renewals of their Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals grants or to initiate family petitions to allow spouses or immediate family members of U.S. citizens to live and work here. The office also will help the victims of domestic violence petition for residency status.

Najera said that without the Roswell office, people have been traveling long distances and perhaps paying significant fees to work with lawyers based in other cities. Others have relied on notaries public for advice.

She also explained that immigrants with expired permits or cards cannot travel to the Las Cruces office of Catholic Charities because they will be stopped at U.S. Border Patrol checkpoints and might not be allowed to return.

She said that a significant percentage of Catholic Charities clients are in the United States legally and are seeking assistance with renewals. She also said that most clients are migrant workers.

Kenneth Ferrone, executive director of Catholic Charities of Southern New Mexico, which works in 10 counties in the state, said the aims of the local office include to serve known clients in the area, assist new clients and reach out to the migrant worker population.

“It has just been tremendous, the need there,” said Ferrone about this region of the state.

According to the Pew Research Center, the United States has the largest number of immigrants in the world, reaching a record high of 43.7 million in 2016, or about 13.5% of the population. The vast majority, about 76%, are in the country legally, with 45% of legal immigrants having obtained citizenship.

In New Mexico, about 9.4% of the population in 2015 was foreign-born, with most of those legal residents or naturalized citizens, according to the American Immigration Council, an immigrant advocacy group. In 2014, 85,000 unauthorized immigrants were in the state, about 37% of the total immigrant population in New Mexico and 4% of the total state population. That same year, unauthorized immigrants represented about 5.6% of the state’s workforce. Total immigrant workers in the state in 2015 was put at 119,556 people, or about 12.6% of the workforce.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 311, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.