How UCSC alumnus Liliana Garcia is helping California’s immigrant population

August 03, 2015


Liliana Garcia at the Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Monterey's office in Watsonville, CA.

When UC Santa Cruz alumnus Liliana Garcia is not studying law and working in a bustling legal office in downtown San Francisco, she is interning in Watsonville and Salinas, two agricultural towns on the central Californian coast.

Garcia (Sociology and Latin American & Latino Studies, ’13, Merrill) who is about to start her final year at UC Hastings College of the Law, brought her experiences from working with top immigration lawyer Rosy H. Cho and the Legal Aid Society to her summer internship for the Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Monterey’s Immigration and Citizenship program.

For Garcia, this internship represents a culmination of her professional, academic, and personal journeys. Garcia, herself a first generation American of Mexican immigrants, knows the immigrant experience well. From seeing the migrant struggles firsthand with her family, to studying it in classrooms at UCSC and UC Hastings, to seeing it with her part time job with Cho, she is now getting a holistic understanding from a judicial perspective.

As the only legal intern at the organization, Garcia’s workload is intense and varied, challenging and eye-opening.  There are days where she and the rest of the program staff will see up to 20 cases a day. Compared to her experiences at Cho’s San Francisco law firm, she sees a very different kind of struggle in the more rural environment of Santa Cruz and Monterey counties.

While the distance between San Francisco and Salinas is only 100 miles, to Garcia they are a world apart. Separating the two cities is an agricultural expanse that produces most of the state’s fresh market fruits and vegetables. But behind the bucolic landscape lies economic disparity and injustice. Jobs in the region are seasonal, poorly paid, and incredibly precarious as one of Garcia's professors, UCSC sociologist Steve McKay, highlights in his project Working for Dignity.

“I see a different kind of immigrant here. It’s a different community. More low income, monolingual, illiterate, homeless,” Garcia says, who spends a lot of time guiding clients through the legal paperwork and forms.

She also says the population she meets is “more vulnerable.”

It is this vulnerability that makes Garcia reflect upon her time at UCSC. Garcia took Catherine Ramírez’s “Citizens, Denizens, Aliens” class, a course that explores concepts of belonging, citizens, and also noncitizens - a unique concept Ramirez and her colleagues developed to define aliens, migrants, refugees. 

Thanks to Ramírez’s class, Garcia developed a critical skillset that is helping her better understand the undocumented workers she meets at the organization. She sees people who contemplate many of the issues Ramirez’s research addresses: assimilation and alienation, socialization and exclusion.

Garcia’s clients tell her they want to be American, but often struggle with a feeling that America does not want them. Garcia says, “they are positive about what they can contribute as citizens. They want to be part of the culture, society and community. But they worry that the community will not accept them.” 

Despite the struggles Garcia witnesses, she remains optimistic.

As part of her internship with Catholic Charities, she teaches a weekly citizenship class to prepare individuals for the civics and English examination required for naturalization. She says that whenever she explains the democratic responsibilities of an American citizen to her students, she feels true determination and pride as an American. When she saw clients that the organization helped pledge their allegiance to the US at a Naturalization Oath Ceremony, she says she felt energized and empowered.

“I’m fortunate that my coursework and experience at both UCSC and UC Hastings have equipped me with the skills to help prepare future citizens.” Garcia says. “But honestly, it’s a privilege to witness such vibrant and determined individuals emerge from the shadows, looking forward to a better tomorrow.”

Garcia’s experience at Catholic Charities was made possible thanks to the San Francisco Lawyers Association Public Interest Fellowship program. She also received an Equal Justice America fellowship. Over the 2015-2016 academic year, she will serve as Co-Editor-In-Chief of the Hastings Race and Poverty Law Journal and prepare to sit for the California Bar Exam in July 2016.

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