Colectiva Legal del Pueblo serves more than 1,000 clients out of a small office in Burien, a south King County suburb of about 50,000, and a satellite location on the east side of the Cascade Mountains in Wenatchee. The nonprofit offers legal, educational and advocacy services to immigrants.
“They’re superhumans,” said Christina Guros, citizenship program and policy specialist with the city of Seattle. “I don’t know how they do it.”
Guros has seen Colectiva’s team in action. She and a team of city employees put on an event called Seattle United on Inauguration Day, which offered legal help, education on people’s rights and planning for family separation to more than 1,000 people in fewer than 10 hours at McCaw Hall in the Seattle Center.
Colectiva was part of that effort. Norma Gonzalez, Colectiva’s resource development director and legal advocate, and Alma Gutierrez, Colectiva’s cofounder, conducted “know your rights” workshops that day, in English and Spanish respectively.
The effort was a natural extension of the work that Colectiva does every day, Gonzalez said, speaking from Colectiva’s main office in Burien.
Colectiva held 12 workshops educating people on their rights in 2016, prior to the election of President Donald Trump, who promised tougher policies on immigrants and refugees. Since November, they have had at least 17 more, Gonzalez said.
“People are fearful, and we want to support them,” she said. “We’re getting calls we can’t answer because people are coming in scared.”
Gonzalez got involved with Colectiva in 2015 as a law student at Seattle University after hearing about Colectiva’s response to the hunger strike at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility in Tacoma.
The organization has three goals: First, to break down barriers, so that people are enabled to access the help that they need. Second, to inform people of their rights, regardless of their immigration status. Third, to organize people and create campaigns to fight for the rights of documented and undocumented immigrants.
“There’s nobody better to address the problems than those that are being attacked,” Gonzalez said.
Colectiva’s commitment to empowerment goes back to its founding. It was created as a legal cooperative by a group of undocumented people and immigration activists in 2012, and has grown in partnership with organizations like the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, which works with Colectiva closely.
Gonzalez and three other Colectiva employees work out of an office located in a strip mall in Burien, although not for long. Colectiva plans to expand, moving into new offices nearby and hiring at least two more staff to help them contend with the deluge of calls the office has received since Trump’s election.
The organization has an answering service, but the staff is still swamped with the volume of people worried about their immigration status, or the fear that parents who are undocumented might not be able to stay with their children who are U.S. citizens.
That fear has only been compounded in recent days, given the rapid pace of executive orders and rhetoric out of the White House regarding a “deportation force” and empowering local law enforcement to help federal agents in their efforts to deport even law-abiding people.
It seems that no one is safe, even those who qualified for and were vetted under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program such as Daniel Medina Ramirez, who was swept up in a raid in Washington and whose case is currently working its way through court.
The current climate feels fraught, Gonzalez said, but the new president isn’t doing anything unique to Trump’s party.
“We’ve been seeing this for years,” she said. “Obama gave him a blueprint.”
The Obama administration deported 2.5 million undocumented people over the course of eight years in office, more than any other president in U.S. history. Obama, in turn, built upon a program created by the George W. Bush administration, the 287(g) program, allowing local law enforcement to work with federal immigration officials.
The Trump administration seems to be more ambitious, aiming for several million in the first years of his presidency, if his statements are to be believed. Trump has already declared that Sanctuary Cities such as Seattle and Burien will be cut off from federal funds, and that new groups of people will be deported. Still, Colectiva is aware, engaged but not deterred.
“These strategies have been tried, and they failed,” Gonzalez said.