Nothing is where you think it is.”
“The West Wing,” season 2, episode 16, on the Gall-Peters Projection map
Analí Looper, immigration attorney, has a map in her dining room that shows the world from a different perspective. The poles are flipped, so South America is above North America. The map is a metaphor for Looper’s work as a legal representative for immigrants. The traditional ways we’ve viewed the world don’t always reflect reality. That’s especially true in the field of immigration law.
“I find even allies don’t know a lot about how the system actually works,” Looper said. “I’ve met congressional representatives who don’t know how immigration works. Sometimes the people who make the laws don’t even know. Judges often don’t know how it works. It’s very complicated.”
Looper grew up in Waco and graduated from Baylor University in 2007 and Baylor Law School in 2014. With the help of two other immigration attorneys, she started Baylor Law’s Immigration Clinic. She comes by her can-do attitude naturally — her father founded Waco’s Habitat for Humanity chapter, her mother started a Christian cooperative school called The Potter’s Workshop, and her family launched Hope Fellowship, a bilingual Mennonite church, which she still attends.
Since 2015 Looper has worked with American Gateways, a nonprofit that provides legal services for immigrants, refugees and survivors of trafficking. She started the Waco office and serves as its director. She is fluent in Spanish.
Wacoan writer Megan Willome spoke with Looper by phone about the complicated field of immigration law, how she takes care of herself amid the never-ending needs of her clients, and that unusual map.
WACOAN: Explain what American Gateways does.
Looper: We serve immigrants at 200% of the federal poverty guidelines and below. We provide assistance with crime victim visas, asylum and detention work, free of charge. Other immigration legal assistance is provided on a sliding fee scale based on the household income.
To do this work well you need a large organization that can keep up with all the changes in immigration law. We have extremely experienced attorneys. We all have different niches within our experiences. We communicate all the time about different cases we’re working on, supporting each other. I was finishing a brief this morning with two colleagues from the Austin office. We’re able to team up and have a pretty dynamic team. To be able to stay on top of all the changes in immigration law is impossible for someone on their own to do, if you’re keeping your hands in all the things we’re doing.
WACOAN: What is your specialty?
Looper: I am our team lead for family-based cases. I also present trainings to our staff. I’ve also done quite a bit of asylum and removal defense, especially with crime victim visas.
Because I know I have a huge team to reach out to, I take on new types of cases that I wouldn’t take on if I were a solo practitioner.
WACOAN: What is removal defense?
Looper: Removal defense is when a lawyer represents someone in deportation proceedings. An immigrant can file an immigration case affirmatively with USCIS [U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services]. This could be something like an application for permanent residence or for naturalization.
But if an immigrant has been apprehended by immigration authorities, they will likely be placed in removal proceedings (aka deportation), where they will have to fight their case defensively in front of an immigration judge. If they lose their case, they are deported, so the stakes are very high in these cases.
WACOAN: Can you explain the tagline on the American Gateways website?
Looper: I need to update that. We’re not going to use that anymore. That is still a primary focus — ‘legal advocacy for immigrant survivors’ — but we also do work with other immigrants as well. ‘Immigrant survivors’ would be working with crime victims, also a lot of asylum work. But we also work with family-based immigrants, like people seeking permanent residence, permanent citizenship, DACA applications (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals).
WACOAN: Where do things stand with DACA?
Looper: At any point now there will be a decision about DACA. This has allowed many young people here without status, who came with their parents, to have a work permit and be able to work. In 2017 President Trump revoked DACA, and it’s been in the middle of this legal limbo. The Supreme Court is going to issue a decision at any moment, to either revoke it or it can continue in this limited fashion. [Editor’s note: The U.S. Supreme Court ruled June 18 that the Trump administration failed to provide the justification needed to terminate DACA. The program will continue, though the ruling does not prevent further legal challenges.]
That’s terrified a lot of first responder DACA folks. It’s been extremely stressful. They’re worried about what’s going to happen with their legal status, if they can continue working. Renewing the DACA application costs $495 — that’s not nothing.
On top of all of this the administration has announced a significant increase in fees for all forms.
WACOAN: Each form has a fee?
Looper: Yes, and this would significantly raise those fees. The government is reviewing all comments made to the proposed fee increase, so we don’t know if it will go through or when, but it could be within 60 days, possibly. I would think sometime this year.
WACOAN: When you were at Baylor Law you helped start the school’s immigration clinic, correct?
Looper: Baylor didn’t have any immigration clinic at that point, so I reached out to the dean of the law school, [Brad Toben], as well as Laura Hernández, now professor of immigration at the law school. Together Laura and I and Susan Nelson, an immigration attorney here in town, started the clinic. It’s changed because of COVID-19, but they still do citizenship applications.
WACOAN: And you joined American Gateways in 2015?
Looper: March of 2015. At the time I was in Waco, had been out of law school for about a year, close to a year. My goal in going to law school was to do nonprofit immigration law in Waco. I never wanted to be a lawyer other than to provide that service in my home community.
When I graduated I was trying to do that, but because no one could train me in that field, my mentor, Susan Nelson, suggested I look outside of Waco. I applied for a job at American Gateways in Austin and started commuting. I would stay the week in Austin and come home on the weekends.
In January of 2017 we opened the Waco office. It was just me when we started, but now we’re four staff members.
WACOAN: What made you want to pursue immigration law?
Looper: That’s a complicated answer. It’s the only reason I went to law school. I would not have gone otherwise.
Before law school I was working at Habitat for Humanity, getting to know families applying for homeownership. I got to meet a lot of folks in the community, some of whom were connected with people who are undocumented. (Let me be clear: Undocumented immigrants don’t qualify for Habitat homes.)
I am also a member of a bilingual Mennonite church in town, so I grew up hearing the stories of immigrants and people who experienced immigration as part of their life story. That influenced me. American Gateways is not religiously affiliated in any way, but I come to the work in large part through my relationship with my church and community.
WACOAN: That church is Hope Fellowship?
Looper: Yes. My mother was for many years a bi-vocational Spanish pastor. I remember as a child being taken along with her on pastoral visits in homes of Spanish speakers and, many times, immigrants.
WACOAN: Your mother is from Uruguay?
Looper: Yes, but she’s not a Uruguayan citizen. My grandparents were missionaries there for 40 years. She was born in Costa Rica, considers Uruguay home. She was born a U.S. citizen. She’s a third-culture kid. She has the benefit of U.S. passport, but Uruguay is also her home.
WACOAN: I think a lot of us in Texas, when we think of immigrants, think of people coming from Mexico. What other countries have you had clients from in your Waco office?
Looper: I have clients from Cameroon, Senegal, Honduras, Guatemala, South Africa, Australia, Vietnam.
A year ago I added it up, and we had 23 different countries in our Waco office, people from all over the world. They’re not all people of color. Immigrants are white too. You can’t just look at someone and decide if they’re an immigrant or not.[Pauses, then adds to the list.] Kuwait, India, Germany, Cambodia, Iran, Jamaica, Belize, Ukraine, Russia, Zambia, Israel, Jordan, Nigeria, Cuba, Iraq, Ecuador, Nepal, Philippines, Haiti, Eritrea.
Some of these are because we work in the detention center in Groesbeck. Or we did work in the facility until COVID-19. We’re not going in physically anymore.
WACOAN: There’s a detention facility in Groesbeck?
Looper: It’s the Limestone County Detention Center, and last year it started housing detainees, all men, mostly West Africans right now. Last year we were going in once a week to provide Know Your Rights presentations. Also to help people fill out asylum applications.
All three of our American Gateways offices [Austin, San Antonio, Waco] work with detention centers and detained populations.
WACOAN: Let’s bring this back to Waco. What do we not know about immigrants here in town?
Looper: A lot. The simple fact is there are immigrants here. The majority in our country are here legally. My clients want legal status and want to do it the right way. They’re not trying to break the law. I start presentations in Waco by letting people know my job is to help people follow the law, not break the law. There’s confusion about what I do as an attorney. A lot of people miss that folks want to do the right thing, don’t want to have to live in the shadows and be undocumented.
I’m constantly surprised by other things I’ve encountered when I’m talking with folks. One time I was called by a man who lives out in the country, owns a dairy farm. He said he needed some immigrants to work his farm. I said that’s not the service we provide. He said immigrants are the only ones who want to work on his farm. It’s hard work. He’s tried to hire U.S. citizens, but they don’t want to do that kind of work.
I’ve had people that sound rather closed on having immigrants come out of the shadows or on new laws that would allow those without status for decades to gain status. These people will be vocally opposed to that, like on social media. But then they’ll call me and say, ‘I have a friend,’ or ‘So-and-so works in my house, and she needs a work permit.’ I tell them, ‘Comprehensive immigration reform — that’s the only solution.’ People often think if [immigrants] only paid enough money or waited enough time they’d get status, but it just doesn’t work like that.
WACOAN: Why doesn’t it work like that?
Looper: Our immigration system is very complex. Someone who is wanting to gain permanent immigration status in our country cannot just do so simply by filling out a form and paying money. They first need a way into the system.
Generally someone can become a permanent resident through specific family members who already have status, on humanitarian grounds (this includes asylum and crime victim visas) or with specialized employment. There is a fourth way, which is the diversity visa lottery program, but this is only allowed for folks from countries that have historically low numbers of immigration to the U.S.
All of these routes are complicated and potentially time-consuming. For example, someone who applies for a U visa as a victim of a violent crime committed in the U.S. will likely need to wait 10 years or more before a visa is actually available. A Mexican citizen will be waiting over 20 years before a visa is available.
WACOAN: There are visas specifically for crime victims?
Looper: There are three primary ones. T visas [T nonimmigrant status] for trafficking. U visa [U nonimmigrant status] for victims of violent crime, including armed robbery, domestic violence. That one requires a certification from law enforcement or from the prosecutor’s office or a judge. Sometimes when someone experiences a violent crime there’s no arrest made, so there’s no ability to move forward with a U visa for certification.
The third is VAWA [Self-Petition], part of the Violence Against Women Act. It’s for folks who are married to an abusive U.S. citizen or permanent resident (or a couple other options we don’t get into very often). If a woman has a crime committed against her and is in deportation proceedings, it’s called VAWA cancellation [of removal].
There are very few ways into the immigration system. One is having a family member who lives in the U.S. who can sponsor you. But if they are abusive, they can use their status as a tool of manipulation. That applies to men and women. The VAWA visa allows them to leave or remain in the relationship but apply on their own for immigration.
WACOAN: You work with victims of trafficking. What kinds of trafficking do you see?
Looper: There are two types, labor and sex trafficking. We typically think of sex trafficking — someone being forced to work in the commercial sex industry through force, fraud or coercion. But labor trafficking is the greater occurrence. Often what we will see is labor trafficking along with sexual violence. It can be tool of manipulation. We’ve worked with Unbound and The Heart of Texas Human Trafficking Coalition to identify those cases. We get them other services they need as well.
WACOAN: What is labor trafficking?
Looper: Labor trafficking is tricky. I rarely have someone walk into my office knowing that they were a victim of trafficking. I did represent one of the victims of the Vegas Buffet case.
I also had a labor trafficking case that looked like domestic violence at first but also involved labor trafficking. The woman was brought by force to the U.S. by a man who saw her working in a restaurant in Mexico and decided she would be his woman. Before bringing her to the U.S. the man violently abused her physically and sexually for several months. Once in the U.S. she was not physically held captive in his home, but he would threaten her by saying things like, ‘If you leave the house you will be arrested and deported because you are here illegally.’ Or, ‘You’re in the U.S. now; nobody is going to believe anything you say.’ She was forced to cook and clean for him while he would leave and work for the day.
He used physical violence, sexual assault and verbal threats about her immigration status to coerce her into remaining with him and working in his house. The cooking and cleaning was the labor in the labor trafficking. After she left that situation, she tried to report what had happened to the police department (not in Waco), and was almost arrested because they thought she was making up a story and did not know how to identify labor trafficking. My client eventually won her T visa and was able to safely bring her daughter to the U.S. on a visa.
WACOAN: Talk about the vulnerabilities of immigrants.
Looper: Those that are undocumented can’t work in the formal work sector because they don’t have legal documentation. If you’re undocumented, you don’t have a work permit or a Social Security number that is valid. That lends itself to people being exploited when being paid under the table. Sometimes employers are not heeding the labor laws because they think these laws don’t apply to them — not true. Labor laws apply whether or not people have status.
Then immigrants may feel like they can’t make an outcry if an injustice occurs. They need that job and that money, and employers know that. There’s a lot of labor trafficking, here in Waco too.
Another common vulnerability is when crimes occur people won’t want to contact law enforcement for fear they will be deported. Police officers know that undocumented immigrants — especially those who run small businesses or food trucks or paleterias (the men who push ice cream trucks) — they are extremely vulnerable to robbery, to armed robbery. Often immigrants are unbanked, and criminals know that. It makes them extremely vulnerable.
Undocumented women face extreme vulnerability in our society. It’s possible they come from a culture that doesn’t allow for reporting violence or punishes women for reporting. On top of that you add the fear that they’re here without status. They become afraid if they report [the authorities] will look into why they’re here. We work with Family Abuse Center and the Advocacy Center [for Crime Victims and Children] to identify crime victims who would like assistance with crime victim visas that are available.
WACOAN: What role does community education play in your work?
Looper: One of the things we do at American Gateways is community education, not just in immigrant communities but in communities at large. If people continue to have misinformation about the system, they will take that with them to the ballot box and continue to vote for politicians that harm the immigrant community.
Beyond the human component, bad immigration policy even harms our economy. Numerous studies have shown that immigrants benefit our economy.
WACOAN: How do you think immigrants see Waco?
Looper: Different people have different experiences. If you’re from Mexico, you probably have a community you can plug into that can help you navigate the system and understand how things work.
I had an Australian client a couple years ago who was pregnant and didn’t know what to do because there’s no Australian immigrant community here. Family Health Center stepped up and helped her. That was something she was not expecting. She was out of her element.
It depends on is there a community of folks that help bring people into the fold. I’ve heard that people are pleasantly surprised by what a strong community Waco has, the resources that are available and that people are willing to help. There is an amazing network of nonprofits and service providers in Waco, and we’re fortunate to work alongside those groups.
A few years back, as part of La Puerta Waco, [a ministry through First Baptist Waco to connect the Hispanic community in Waco to available resources], we helped establish Waco Immigrant Resource Task Force, an interdisciplinary group of providers. We identify gaps in services for noncitizens and figure out how to address those gaps. We look to how to provide services and language access. That’s been a really meaningful experience and has brought a lot of folks to the table, immigrants and organizations. We all share what needs are there, what we’re doing. Sometimes people learn about things they didn’t know were happening.
WACOAN: You worked with Waco ISD to find alternative forms of ID that parents who are undocumented could use so they could still come on campus and see their child or meet with a teacher. Tell me more about that.
Looper: That was two years ago, but it feels like just yesterday. That came about when WISD started changing security policies for accessing the campuses. They were using the Raptor [visitor management school security] system for making sure folks have proper background checks and IDs. WISD is involved in our task force group, so we started bringing up, ‘What about noncitizens? What other forms of ID would you accept?’ We want all parents to be involved in their student’s education. That’s crucial.
For WISD, we have a close relationship with the Mexican consulate in Austin. We connected the two entities so parents could use Mexican consular ID, with all its security features, as a form of identification. WISD was able to make those adjustments, not just for Mexicans, but for citizens of other countries as well. Often immigrants are more interested in being involved in their kids’ schooling than a lot of U.S. citizens. It builds up the school district to have parents involved in that way.
WACOAN: You seem like the kind of person who sees a need and then finds a way to fill it.
Looper: I’m fortunate to have a great support network here and also a wonderful organization to work for. I literally do my dream job.
WACOAN: How has your worked changed since COVID-19 made an appearance?
Looper: We are all still working remotely. We’ll be making the transition back to the office at some point. We have a union, so that is being discussed. Thankfully, although our executive director did not foresee a worldwide pandemic, she did set us up with the technology right before this hit, so that we were all pretty much up and running within a day. For the Waco office, we set up a client drop box that’s secure. Clients can communicate with us that way. We’re doing all appointments by phone right now. We’re mailing documents for signature.
We’re still getting new calls. I assumed we’d be getting less calls because of the economy’s downturn and people making sure they have money for food and housing, but we’re getting calls for new cases.
What coincided with the pandemic is a new rule from the administration related to public charge [grounds for inadmissibility]. It’s been around for decades. It says someone applying to become a permanent resident will not be allowed to become one if they are primarily dependent on government benefits. That’s been around for a while, but the administration changed the way they determine who is a public charge. It’s had a huge chilling effect on people receiving medical benefits they qualify for. A lot of people don’t understand it’s only limited to the application for permanent residence. They’re worried, ‘If my child uses the benefit, immigration is going to arrest and deport me.’ There’s a lot of fear. We’ve done trainings with doctors. We did a presentation with the Family Health Center on Facebook Live for immigrants still seeking services for which they qualify. They can get tested for COVID-19, and it will not affect their immigration case.
WACOAN: There was a great interview with you in Baylor Magazine in which you talked about the map you grew up with, the one that has the South Pole on top and the North Pole on the bottom. Was it a Peters Projection map? My husband has one in his office.
Looper: We have a map where it’s just of North and South America, and South America is on top. That one doesn’t have a name. We were able to find the man who made it. He’s since deceased, but his children still had a few copies of the map. My mother was always upset that Greenland was portrayed as bigger than South America.
When we got a lot older my family had a Peters Projection. I have it in my dining room. It’s a new way of understanding the world. How does it shape our understanding if we always see the U.S. and North America on top? It’s just a perspective; it’s not a reality. It’s also a conversation-starter (prior to quarantine) when people were able to come over.
WACOAN: What kind of local support have you found for your work?
Looper: We have been extremely grateful for local support here in Waco. [The Bernard & Audre] Rapoport Foundation helped us open our Waco office. Waco Foundation, Cooper Foundation and United Way have all helped.
It’s funny, talking with our staff in Austin. The development director is always so impressed with Waco and what we have going on here and how people support one another.
WACOAN: With such a stressful job, how do you practice self-care?
Looper: That’s changed since the quarantine. I have become a bird-lover. In the last few months I’ve set up bird feeders and a birdbath. I get a lot of joy sitting on my front porch, watching them.
Exercise is important to me. I like high-intensity things.
I do counseling through the Advocacy Center. They provide first responder counseling, and a few years back I reached out and asked if they’d consider us first responders. They have, and they give our staff counseling. That’s been a tremendous help and is the reason I’m still able to do this work.
It’s gut-wrenching work at moments. There are men in the detention center who have health conditions, and they’re begging me to take their case. If I can’t take it, they will likely lose their case because statistics show that almost 50% lose their case if they are not represented. We can only do what we can do.
WACOAN: If people want to get involved or learn more, what do you suggest?
Looper: Donations to American Gateways help immigrants locally. Immigration law is civil law, not criminal. The U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to an attorney in the criminal context, not the civil. That means that immigrants have to hire an attorney to help them navigate the complex system. Low-income immigrants cannot afford what it costs our office to provide legal assistance on a case, especially considering many cases pend for years. We rely on support from local donors to allow us to continue doing this work.
Additionally, we welcome invitations to speak to groups who are interested in learning more about immigration law. They can contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org if they want to inquire about a presentation.
Reading good sources about immigration law and engaging with updates on our Facebook page allows folks to participate when they hear people spreading misinformation about immigration.
Finally, I would say folks can get involved in two other local organizations that are serving immigrants, Waco Immigrants Alliance/Alianza Waco and La Puerta Waco.