By Kristin Fitzharris, Domestic Relations/Immigration Managing Attorney
This summer Southern Arizona Legal Aid, Inc. (SALA) is excited to welcome rising third year law student, Milca Altamirano, as the second-annual David A. Paige Clerk. This position has graciously been funded by the David A. Paige Foundation for a second summer in SALA’s Immigration Unit. Starting June 1st, Altamirano will be working with Staff Attorney Mary Day, Partially Accredited Representative/Senior Paralegal Yolanda Figueroa, and Paralegal Maria Delgado.
About SALA: SALA is a non-profit 501(c)(3) public interest law firm, established in 1951, which provides free, civil legal aid to low-income individuals and families in 9 of Arizona’s 15 counties and in 11 of Arizona’s 21 Native American Communities. Since 1951, SALA has been a trusted resource and an effective voice for low-income people in southern and southeastern Arizona. In the area of immigration law, SALA is the only federally funded legal aid organization in Arizona providing immigration legal services to undocumented immigrants, and, in other words, one of the only options for low-income non-detained individuals to receive free legal representation with immigration law since the early 1980s.
About Immigration Unit: SALA assists victims of crime, primarily domestic violence and sexual assault, with obtaining immigration status and work authorization. Immigrants without legal status are among the most vulnerable of those impacted by domestic and sexual violence, because their immigration status makes them fearful of seeking protection from authorities. This population is further isolated by language and cultural barriers, lack of knowledge of legal rights, and lack of access to legal employment. Access to immigration legal services enables victims to understand their rights and seek legal protection and benefits through VAWA and U visa petitions and related immigration applications.
The majority of these cases are U-visas for victims of qualifying crimes under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). VAWA covers protection from removal for victims of domestic violence who are married to an abusive United States Citizens or Legal Permanent Residents (LPR). VAWA also allows us to work on removal of conditions on LPR status when a marriage gets violent and the victim cannot rely on the abusive spouse to petition USCIS. This can leave open a path to citizenship. All of these remedies also help us obtain legal work authorization for clients so they can provide for their families and gain economic independence from their abusers. Additionally, the Immigration Unit provides advice to SALA clients on whether or not filing for divorce might impact their immigration status.
About the David A. Paige Clerkship: Mr. David A. Paige gave Arizona his incredible legacy of excellence in lawyering, commitment to his community, mentoring, and passion for volunteering. His family has established the David A. Paige Clerkship in his memory and to carry on his legacy. Mr. Paige grew up on the west side of Phoenix and came to law school at the University of Arizona in 1972, an experience that “transformed him,” according to his family. He spent thirty-five years practicing law and mentoring other lawyers and future judges in Tucson. His volunteer work with a soup kitchen and with Haitian refugees left him with a commitment to serving those in need and with a sense of the importance of access to civil legal aid. It is our hope that this opportunity will similarly transform those law students who serve clients in this grant-funded position at SALA.
About Milca Altamirano: Milca Altamirano was born and has grown up in Tucson. She chose the University of Arizona for both undergraduate studies, where she earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Gender and Women’s Studies, and for law school. She plans to graduate law school in May 2023 and is currently working on her finals and two substantial notes papers of thirty pages each, for a grand total of sixty pages of legal writing. It took a while for Milca to settle on her undergraduate degree but she took a class in Gender and Women’s Studies and was fascinated. She studied this discipline as applied to environmental issues, HIV/AIDS, and immigration. During undergraduate studies, Milca worked for a personal injury law firm. This allowed her to get practice going through evidence and learning legal terms. After this, she felt more comfortable with her decision to go to law school.
Milca always knew she wanted to do immigration law and she’s always been ambitious, disciplined, and driven. She is a first generation law student and did not know any lawyers growing up but she credits her mother for supporting her so she could go to law school. Milca’s mother is very proud of her. Growing up, Milca would prove her point so her mother probably always knew she would go to law school! Additionally, Milca’s partner is supportive and excited for her. Even though she was planning on doing Americorps work for gap year after graduation, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she made the decision to go straight into law school. She decided to attend the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law after she read a journal of environmental law and policy article on climate-induced migration and the impact of environmental change.
During the summer of 2021, Milca interned with the Florence Immigrant and Refuge Rights Project. This was difficult and she learned about second-hand trauma from interviewing children in immigration detention. The conditions during the pandemic with remote interviews challenged her because as she says, “empathy doesn’t really translate well over screens.” She would ask the children questions about themselves unrelated to the case to establish a connection because it would be easier to explain dense legal concepts, such as confidentiality. Additionally, she did interviews in the Spanish language, a skill that will serve her well doing further work in immigration law.
Milca has enjoyed the Worker’s Rights Clinic and is currently trying to experience more externships to gain practical experience. Her last year of law school will not be a time for slacking off. Along with more externships, she plans to take conflicts of law, employment law, another immigration law class and advanced legal writing (she has already taken immigration law and refugee law classes). She plans to take the July 2023 Arizona bar exam. She wants to remain in Tucson and work for a nonprofit. She really enjoys her time here with her family and lifelong friends. Her family has two cats and eventually she wants to adopt a dog. She enjoys going out to eat, hanging out with friends, family, and her partner of two years, and having adventure weekends in Phoenix, trying out new things and exploring.
At SALA this summer, Milca can look forward to continuing to strengthen her skills as an emphatic lawyer and putting together compelling applications to USCIS. She will sharpen her legal writing skills and client interviewing skills in English and Spanish. She will gain some important exposure to the non-profit legal environment, improve in communication with attorneys and support staff. She brings many skills to SALA’s immigration unit this summer and we are very excited to work with her.
For questions or comments about the blog, please contact us at: Connections@sazlegalaid.org