For years, few of Morella Aguado’s Miami neighbors wanted to talk too deeply about their immigration status with her. Some were in the United States legally; others were not. But regardless, they preferred to keep their chatter with an immigration attorney who lived down the block on safer subjects like how their families were doing.
That all changed when Donald Trump was elected president on promises to get tough on undocumented immigration. In Miami, local officials largely ignored federal immigration laws until February, when Miami-Dade County dropped its sanctuary city status under threat of the Trump Administration cutting off federal money.
“It is chaotic. People are very, very worried about their situation,” says Aguado. “One of the things that has been a positive thing through this stress that people have is that they’re more interested in becoming U.S. citizens. She now spends time volunteering to help her neighbors and strangers alike to figure out their immigration status, get papers in order and, in many cases, start the process of converting their legal status into citizenship.
The patrons who organize these consultation? The conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch and their deep-pocketed pals who are continuing to spend millions to help promote free-market ideas in Latino communities across the country. Through the Koch network’s LIBRE Initiative, volunteers and advisers are helping immigrants study for drivers’ license exams so they have some form of government ID, others prepare for citizenship tests and still others earn a G.E.D. And it doesn’t matter if they are here legally or not.
“We do not ask what anybody’s legal status. To us, that’s irrelevant. We want to help people drive. We let the politicians worry about whether someone is documented or not documented,” said Daniel Garza, a longtime Koch lieutenant who manages the network’s work in Spanish-speaking and Latino communities. “Our immigration system is broken. Real people are getting tied up in this,” he said as he awaited a plane in Abilene, Texas, bound for Orlando, Fla. “We want people to become legal as fast as possible and to get on with the business of assimilation.”
That’s one reason Koch-backed programs are experiencing a major boost in interest. In Miami, the citizenship study classes averaged 68 participants in December of last year, but last month that number rose to 210 people. Last summer, about 80 people joined the typical session in Orlando; since January, the number now averages 170. There are now 350 people on a wait list for an English-language class in Phoenix, and the citizenship efforts there have more than doubled between December and February, climbing from 30 to 80 participants at each session.
It’s the same across the country. Immigrants who previously had little interest in claiming citizenship are suddenly looking at the political landscape as a potential threat. “You can be denied access to this wonderful country if you’re not a U.S. citizen,” Aguado says. “This can happen with anyone.”
Aguado has the credibility when she walks into community centers, high school cafeterias and church basements offering her help to these at-risk immigrants. Born in a small town in Nicaragua, she and her family fled to the United States as political refugees when she was 5-months old. “We were running. My uncle was a political prisoner,” she tells TIME. But at age 10, her parents moved the family home to Nicaragua, where Aguado studied law and worked as a corporate litigator, a job she found dreary. She moved back to the United States, earned a second law degree—this time from the University of Miami in Florida— and started a career as one of South Florida’s hardest-working immigration attorneys. “This is a country where the sky is the limit. I’m proof of that,” the 34-year-old says.
But Aguado recognizes the threats to that dream for many immigrants. The current threat goes far beyond what many Latinos said was an over-aggressive push under Obama, whom many sneered at as the Deporter-in-Chief. Now, instead of merely families from Mexico and Central America, all immigrants find themselves at risk of being sent out of the country. “Sometimes, people don’t have good legal representation and they lose rights,” Aguado says. It’s why she’s spending hours at a time trying to help immigrant families reconcile their often-decades-old paperwork and prepare to petition for updated legal status in local immigration offices.
But for her — and the Kochs, as they say repeatedly — the push to help those in Latino communities is based on the desire to expand economic opportunities to help all Americans. LIBRE has the stats at the ready: Roughly a third of Latinos only speak Spanish, roughly one-third of Latino adults do not have a high school diploma, as many as half of some Latino adults in some states don’t have driver licenses. (In each case, older Latinos are the biggest laggers and younger ones are outpacing their white peers.) Each is a barrier to higher wages and civic engagement. “If you’re faced with these conditions, you’re shut out of the marketplace,” Garza says. By one measure, Latinos who learn English have a lifetime earning ability that is quadruple those who speak only Spanish.
That’s not to say politics is completely excluded. The lessons about driving laws and citizenship are infused with sermons about the virtues of the free market and other priorities central to the Koch ideology. But it’s not as if candidates are coming to speak to these sessions. For one, many of the people in the audience simply don’t have time to hear the politicians as they improve themselves between their two jobs.
“I don’t get involved in political matters,” Aguado says. “If this were political, I wouldn’t be involved. This is about opportunity and freedom. ‘Libre’ means freedom.”
And LIBRE is well aware of the political challenges ahead. Part of the billion-dollar policy and politics hub that the Kochs control, LIBRE is a rare voice on the right that pushes for a comprehensive immigration plan.
As the Koch network sees it, any immigration overhaul should have four major components: workers cannot be tied to a single employer in a way that leaves them little change for career advancement at rival companies, immigrants with legal status should be able to leave the country to visit their homelands, families should have the right to stay together and the system should not be overly punitive for immigrants in the country illegally. “Let’s not further disadvantage them. Let them get in the back of line,” Garza says.
Those positions run to the left of many conservatives. Mitt Romney famously called for immigrants to participate in “self-deportation” and Trump led his giant rallies in cheers of “build the wall.” But that’s precisely why Garza and his colleagues see a chance to repair the GOP’s image among Latinos, who tend to be conservative on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage even as they consistently vote for Democratic candidates.
It’s possible for Republicans to make inroads here. George W. Bush in 2004 worked hard to woo Latino and Hispanic voters; they rewarded him with 44% support for his re-election bid. Romney carried just 27% and Trump earned 29% of the fastest growing demographic in the United States — as non-Hispanic white voters’ share decreases with every voter registration cycle. Trump is certainly doing other Republicans few favors.
And what about that wall with Mexico? Garza and the Kochs are not huge fans, but Garza is coming at the broader challenge of immigration overhaul, a topic that many conservatives will only take up after they see a giant pile of concrete and barbed wire along the Rio Grande. “To me, it’s not a priority. It’s a small thing,” Garza says. “Let’s build a wall and let’s get on with immigration reform.” After all, real people—many of them future Americans who will vote—are caught up in the political fight.
“We have 11 million folks who are here,” Garza says. “And they’re not leaving.”
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