PORTLAND — Jorge Martinez has first-hand knowledge of the immigrant experience. He came to the U.S. from Costa Rica when he was 11 years old.
This summer, Martinez will put that knowledge to work as an intern with the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project in downtown Portland. His goal will be to help those who came here looking for a better life.
Martinez, a first-year student at the University of Maine School of Law, said working with the immigrant population is all about “building relationships and helping them to create a very different life for themselves.”
Prior to attending law school, Martinez worked as a paralegal at a law firm in Long Island, New York, that specializes in assisting immigrants, particularly those seeking asylum or protection from criminal activity and those, like him, who were brought here as children.
Martinez, 24, speaks fluent Spanish. He recalled helping a 13-year-old boy who came to the U.S. from El Salvador by himself several years ago.
The boy’s father was attacked by members of the Barrio 18 gang and Martinez said the youngster felt “he had to leave for his own safety and to have any chance at a future.”
That’s the kind of life-changing help he would like to provide while working at the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project.
Julia Brown, the advocacy and outreach attorney at the project, said her organization has a staff of 13 that serves more than 3,000 clients a year, so “having a summer intern really helps us to expand our services and help more clients.” The internship “also provides an opportunity for law students to learn about immigration law and working in legal services.”
Brown said interns do research, assist clients in completing applications for immigration and help with the asylum program. “We try to expose them to all of the work that ILAP does,” she said.
The Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project caters to low-income clients, and Brown said that while providing such assistance “is just as important as ever, the (Trump) administration has (also) caused a lot of fear in the immigrant community.”
“The Trump administration is ramping up the criminalization and deportation of immigrants,” she said. “This includes the ending of vital programs like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and Temporary Protected Status for some countries including El Salvador and Haiti.”
She said the there’s also been “a rise in Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrests in places like schools, courthouses, and homes. Indeed, ICE arrests overall have increased during the past year.”
Brown said this activity, “Not only jeopardizes lives and destabilizes entire communities, but it also affects thousands of businesses that rely upon the immigrant workforce.”
Along with assisting individual clients, she said the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project also advocates “for systemic change to the immigration system at the local, state and federal levels.”
Brown said the most important thing the project does is help “Maine immigrants keep their families together, gain protection from persecution and domestic violence, attain residency and work authorization and become proud U.S. citizens.”
“ILAP builds stable families and improved opportunities, allowing Maine’s immigrants to contribute to their communities for generations to come,” she added. “The United States began as a nation of immigrants (and) there is no difference between today’s immigrants and those who’ve been coming for centuries.”
Brown said the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project felt Martinez would be a good fit because he “has a passion for helping people navigate through our complex immigration system. He also brings a lot of experience in immigration law, which will benefit ILAP and our clients tremendously.”
She said Martinez would receive a stipend for his work from the Maine Association for Public Interest Law, a student-led organization at the law school.
“We are lucky (that) Jorge was awarded the MAPIL Fellowship, otherwise, we would not be able to afford summer interns,” Brown said, adding the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project mostly operates on grants and donations because it’s ineligible for federal funding.
Derek Van Volkenburgh, director of career services at the law school, said summer internships are critical in helping students “acquire real world legal experience and get acquainted with practicing lawyers.”
Martinez originally wanted to become a police officer, but after being exposed to law courses at his criminal justice academy, he began to realize he could have more of an impact as a lawyer.
He called law school “very difficult,” but also said, “I’m very happy I made this choice. When it gets tough I just keep looking forward and focus on why I came here in the first place.”
Immigrants rally in Monument Square in downtown Portland several years ago to show they’re Mainers, too.