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‘A lovely mix of community’

Keep Tucson Together provides legal services, care and outreach to its undocumented neighbors

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE — On Monday, Margo Cowan took the 50 or so people engaged in the four-week Matthew 25 study “Civil Initiative and the Engaged Church” into the work that the nonprofit Keep Tucson Together is doing to prevent the breakup and deportation of immigrant families.

“I am a woman of faith,” said the attorney with the Pima County (Arizona) Public Defender’s office who co-founded the group No More Deaths and is the founder and primary driver behind Keep Tucson Together, an organization that for nine years has worked to halt deportations by immigrant courts. “As a lawyer I believe strongly that knowledge should not be sold, but shared. I believe the job of a good lawyer is to demystify the law.”

Keep Tucson Together operates a clinic held at a Tucson high school and at Southside Presbyterian Church. The services offered go far beyond dispensing legal advice: the organization trains volunteers to help complete required paperwork and provide undocumented residents with the services they need while awaiting a decision in immigration court. Many of the volunteers are themselves undocumented. One volunteer is a university dean, while another is a retired judge.

“We have somebody who can do anything we need done,” she said. “It’s a lovely mix of community.”

Their work has buy-in, even from law enforcement. On the first clinic day following the mass shooting last year at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, the Tucson police chief and his command staff showed up to deliver this message to the undocumented: This department will protect you. For the next few Thursdays, patrol officers were assigned to keep watch at the clinic. Elected officials came by to say to clients, “We’re glad you’re here,” she said.

“When you dive deep into the community and put together people who ordinarily wouldn’t come together, there’s a real magic,” she said. “People bond, and it’s very empowering for everybody, not just for the folks asking for help.”

Volunteers are trained “on what the law is” so they can “work collaboratively to stop the removal of our neighbors in Tucson,” she said. Working groups are organized around asylum, family unification, and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). A naturalization team has helped complete more than 3,000 successful citizenship applications since 2015. That team, she said, is made up entirely of undocumented women.

“I’ve very proud of them,” she said. “They’re rock stars in the community and I intend to make them rock stars in the wider community when it’s safe.”

Margo Cowan

One of the organization’s most important roles, she said, is to “remind the community how powerful it is. All they need is the information and ability to work in concert with people like me or their neighbors who are also undocumented. It’s quite an honor and privilege to work in the community doing God’s work of keeping families together.”

The only limit she can see is “the limits of our creativity,” she said. “We aren’t willing to accept it’s OK to tear families apart.”

Steps can be as simple and direct as creating and distributing signs that can be posted at any address. The signs say, “Do not enter without a lawful search warrant.” Cowan also places a letter she wrote into the hands of undocumented clients. The letter urges local law enforcement to call Cowan first before sending the person to immigration authorities.

“It can be scary to resist, but it’s easy to hand them a piece of paper from my lawyer,” she said, a letter that’s “telling them to get out of my face.”

The larger issue, she said, is that “the community can organize and address the issue, and we can use our skills to help facilitate connecting those dots so the community understands where the power lies and what to do with it.”

After the pandemic, Keep Tucson Together plans to gather the 58,000 valid signatures required to force a vote to change state law to allow for an attorney to be provided free of charge to anyone facing deportation. As the law now stands, anyone facing a day in jail over a shoplifting charge is entitled to free legal representation if they can’t afford to hire an attorney, Cowan said. But families who face being torn apart through deportation are not entitled to free legal services.

Cowan said she has “no doubt” the initiative will pass in the 2022 election. “When it’s safe to collect signatures, we will,” she said.

Asked about whether the organization is seen as a “white savior,” Cowan said that every Keep Tucson Together volunteer is there for one purpose only: to keep families together.

“People of color are shocked that people without families in removal would care for them,” she said. “Those barriers of racism and class are not torn down with words, but with deeds … We want people to stay in our community because they contribute to our community.”

The takeaway, she said, is that “we can never be satisfied. I am proud of our clinic and the cases we win, but we can never be satisfied because there’s always more. We keep doing what we can do as our small contribution to making our community a more just place.”

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