Jenny Landau was a young child when she first started hearing her family’s stories: her father born in a displaced persons camp after World War II; grandparents losing their relatives to Auschwitz but fleeing to Russia, only to be sent to work camps in Siberia; a great-grandmother coming to America alone when she was 16.
That history, along with Landau’s own experience working with refugees in Ghana led her to co-found the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center in 2010. At the time, there were no options in the state for people who faced deportation and could not afford a private lawyer.
“… I think I always have been drawn to the connections between different experiences of people who have migrated or sought refuge in other countries,” says Landau, executive director of the law center.
Landau recently accepted a 2021 humanitarian award the law center received from the Jewish Community Center of Greater Albuquerque.
The founding of the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center stemmed from a two-year fellowship Landau secured in 2007, shortly after she graduated from the University of New Mexico School of Law. She was hosted by the Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services of El Paso, but worked out of an office in Albuquerque provided by the State Bar of New Mexico. At the time, there were hundreds of migrants housed at the privately run downtown jail. Landau had help from UNM law students who she mentored and supervised.
However, the diocesan arrangement was not meant to be long term, so Landau had to find another route.
With the support of several nonprofits, she and attorney Megan Jordi launched the Immigrant Law Center with a budget of $50,000 in 2010 and watched their creation boom.
The budget is now just under $3 million, the staff numbers nearly 30 pro-bono attorneys and along with other volunteers more than 300, while the mission has expanded to include a range of legal issues affecting low-income migrants.
“So even though the project was initially around the gap in services for individuals facing deportation … there were a lot of other gaps as well,” Landau says. “And the immigration policy climate changes so rapidly, that really to be useful or relevant, you have to pivot and adjust continually.”
Is there something in your work that you’re particularly proud of?
“There’s different ways you can make an impact, right? There’s helping individuals, and then there’s … figuring out how to change something that’s a systemic issue. One of our lawyers — her name is Jazmín-Irazoqui Ruiz — her family personally experienced barriers that you face to obtain professional or occupational licenses when you don’t have citizenship or legal permanent residency. Due to her leadership and partnership with multiple community organizations, she was able to advocate for a statutory change that removes immigration status as a barrier for professional and occupational licenses. That was a tremendous victory and really a collective effort. It has made so much of a difference to so many.”
Can you think of a case that broke your heart?
“I remember when I was first doing this work, meeting a man who was from Ecuador. He was around my age and had a fiancée who was from Costa Rica. They had a daughter together. One day on his way to work, it was something like his blinkers or something with his car that caused him to get pulled over, something minor. And then they asked to see his driver’s license. In New Mexico, anyone can get a driver’s license, but he was from Ohio, so that day he was arrested and … was going to be deported to his country. His fiancée, even if she went back to her country, it would have been very difficult for him to go from Ecuador to Costa Rica. So overnight — he didn’t know when next he was going to be able to see his child, and they didn’t have any opportunity to say goodbye. There was nothing that I could do for him legally. It was one of the first experiences of just that hopelessness and just how these laws or policies affect families in such profound ways that this child may not ever be able to be with both of her parents again. That happens all the time, but I think that was the first time I experienced it. It was just such a random event. He went to work every day, and on that one day got pulled over.”
What do you do in your free time?
“Especially during COVID and even before, I love hiking, camping — spending time in the national forests and exploring New Mexico. Any chance I can get, I try to go somewhere that’s without cell service. One of my favorite things … is during Balloon Fiesta, I love biking from up the bosque trail in the middle of the night when it’s still dark. As the sun rises, I never see as many people biking in Albuquerque as during Balloon Fiesta in the early morning, and then once you arrive, there’s free valet for bikes. Just a neat community biking time. It makes me think that if we had more biking infrastructure …”
What’s on your bucket list?
“It’s funny. I think my focus on the outdoors has been impacted by COVID. It’s made my perspective much more local. I enjoy coming up with adventures and then making them happen. For example, a few weeks ago, I hiked from Santa Fe through the Pecos, a 14-hour hike. Biking cross-country, hiking the Appalachian Trail, or Camino de Santiago (in Spain).
What has made you successful?
“I like to think outside the box. When there weren’t services available, well, where are there services available, and who can help make this happen? I don’t know how to articulate it, but maybe not taking things as they appear and trying to think of how they could be or how to create it. Immigration work isn’t necessarily something that it’s easy to find funders for, so (you have to) think about what really matters to people. Legal services don’t necessarily matter to a lot of people, but if you think of what legal services can achieve, it’s multi-faceted and has health care implications, workforce implications. It impacts whole industries, impacts people who are here and have been here for a long time. If we had always been, as we started, just, ‘oh, we’re helping people facing deportation,’ we would still be two attorneys on a very narrow issue.”
What gives you hope for the future?
“On the one hand, I would say the depressing part is that there’s this xenophobia, scapegoating immigrants or refugees or people that look differently. It just seems to come up again and again and at some point, it becomes a useful political tool. But on the other hand, it’s inspiring to see all these students and kids who grew up in the United States who have no other place to call home to create a movement — the Dreamer movement — around ‘we have dreams, we belong here’ and to create such enormous public support. You know, New Mexico is a really hopeful place to be in many ways. The state has just led the way in terms of inclusive policies. I feel very proud of New Mexico.”