by Cindy Knoebel

This continues our series highlighting women whose work and activism are helping immigrants caught in the dragnet of our country's immigration system.

Lucia Martel-Dow is Director of Immigration and Social Services for Canal Alliance, a nonprofit champion of immigrants challenged by a lack of resources and an unfamiliar environment headquartered in San Rafael, CA.

Cindy Knoebel: I know you’ve had quite an interesting and varied career, but let’s start by having you describe what you do in your current position with Canal Alliance.

Lucia Martel-Dow: I manage the Immigration and Social Services team. On the immigration side, we focus on offering representation and outreach to the immigrant community here in Marin County. I assumed responsibility for Social Services in August, so my work in this area is relatively new, but it involves working with case managers and behavioral specialists helping individuals with mental health, housing and financial crises, both in terms of early intervention as well as prevention. Now that we’ve merged the Immigration and Social Services teams we’re able to offer more wrap-around services to our clients.

Lucia Martel-Dow

CK: OK, now let’s hear about the path that led you to this position.

LMD: My background is law, so from an immigration perspective, my position at Canal Alliance is a great fit for me. I went to law school in Venezuela, but public service and human rights have always been my passions. In 2002 I earned a Master’s Degree in International Law and International Relations, thinking I’d work in foreign affairs where my background in policy would be relevant.

I was a career diplomat in Venezuela for four years, but my situation became difficult due to political circumstances, so I moved to Spain where I got another Masters Degree, this time in International Development, Humanitarian Aid and Migration Studies. While living abroad I was involved in helping to provide both corporate and humanitarian aid.

I came to the U.S. after I met my husband, an American citizen. After spending time in the private and nonprofit sectors, I decided I wanted to return to practicing law; I received my LLM (Master of Laws) degree from UC Hastings College of the Law. I started at Canal Alliance in San Rafael as Operations Manager in 2015, and while I wasn’t yet licensed to practice law in California, I became an Accredited Representative through the Department of Justice, which allowed me to represent people with immigration issues prior to passing the Bar Exam last year.

Migration moves in a circular fashion: economic conditions affect the flow of migrants to other countries, who then impact their host countries in both positive (as in the benefits of having more highly skilled labor) and, as perceived by some, negative ways (in the sense that countries feel “invaded” by immigrants). I was interested in the economic factors that lead people to either leave their countries or stay. Very rarely in conversations here do we hear about the “push factors,” or why people migrate to other countries, but in Europe those conversations are taking place. Basically, if you can help societies improve economic conditions at home, you can also stem migration out of the country or at least feel that you have more control over migration flows.

I learned a lot about immigration law and humanitarian while in Spain, and that’s exactly what I’m doing here at Canal Alliance. A lot of what I do is intervention, and connecting people with resources they don’t have access to.

CK: Who are Canal Alliance’s main clients?

LMD: Low income Spanish speaking immigrants residing in Marin County. We have also seen indigenous women and children coming from Guatemala in the last few years.

CK: Describe what a typical day looks like for you.

LMD: It varies a lot.  We’re always juggling client emergencies but I also monitor changes in policies and laws that could impact how we serve our clients. We’re constantly adapting to a wide range of external factors that have implications for them. There’s also education, both inside and outside my team. Then there are internal meetings on finances and budgets, as well as on ways we can build and strengthen collaborations and partnerships.

CK: What percentage of Marin County’s population are immigrants? What are the primary issues and challenges they face living in the least diversified county in the state?

LMD: About 18%, or 48,000, of those living in Marin County are “foreign born,” of which 44% come from countries in Latin America. Undocumented individuals represent 6% of Marin County’s total population. Also, almost 40% of children under 17 live with one or more foreign-born parents.

Housing is the number one challenge, but the language barrier is also significant, especially for those in low-income brackets. Then there’s access to legal services, including assistance with immigration issues. Education, too. The performance of Latino students here is dismal. For example, while 30% of white students in our schools are not prepared for college, that number jumps to 70% for Latino students.

CK: California has, of course, sanctuary policies, but you and others have taken Marin County Sheriff Doyle to task over certain procedures. Can you tell us about that?

LMD: First let me say that when we get involved with local issues, we choose those that our clients are struggling with, or where we’ve identified a gap in advocacy.

We view our relationship with law enforcement in two ways; one is building relationships and working together on policies affecting immigrant communities. The other is to advocate against things we think are wrong, or violates California policies or law, especially as they relate to local issues of detention and deportation.

For example, we learned that the Sherriff was transferring immigrants from the county jail directly to ICE within the jail’s premises – which we believe is legally problematic within the context of SB 54, otherwise known as the California Values Act. I remember when this happened to one of our clients; he said to me, “I thought we were a sanctuary state. I didn’t think ICE would come to the jail.” SB54 is not perfect but we think the spirit of the law is to decrease cooperation and protect immigrant families.

Our advocacy on this issue was to submit a public records act to obtain more data, and partner with ILRC and ICE out of Marin. We presented at a Truth Act forum to heighten awareness of Sherriff Doyle’s actions. As a result of local advocacy efforts, he has indicated he will not proactively cooperate with ICE in the hand-over of people who’ve been jailed for certain crimes. But access to the jail by ICE remains and so we’re evaluating next steps.

CK: You’ve worked with many immigrant families and individuals. Are there one or two cases that stand out for you?

LMD: I remember one woman who fled Guatemala because of domestic violence. I saw all the evidence, including photos, of the brutal attacks and beatings she endured from her partner. Seeing that evidence was shocking and difficult for me to deal with on a personal level. That woman was forced to leave her two young daughters behind. We connected her with a pro bono attorney, and she gained asylum. She’s now trying to get her kids here, but it seems virtually impossible that the father will agree to reunification.

CK: You have family in Venezuela. How are they faring in today’s tumultuous political climate?

LMD: They’re worried, because they fear things may not change. A humanitarian crisis is taking place right now in Venezuela, and people aren’t paying attention to it. Three million Venezuelans have left the country in the last 20 recent years. Colombia has taken in over one million refugees.  

I’m afraid for my family’s safety every single day.

CK: What’s on your wish list for Canal Alliance?

LMD: I want to bring our advocacy to the next level – to attack the systematic and structural issues in our communities that force people to live in poverty. A full-time advocacy person would certainly help, if only we had the funding.

Author’s note: To support Canal Alliance, please donate here.