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Community Builder: 'Planting trees we may never see'

Editor’s note: Community Builder is a periodic Q & A series providing perspectives from local people who have been involved in significant change in Southern Oregon. Today’s conversation is with immigration lawyer John Almaguer and poet Alma Rosa Alvarez.

Q: Your law practice is focused on immigration law. What attracted you to that branch of law?

John: I’m second-generation Mexican-American. My parents married in Mexico and immigrated to the United States. The immigrant experience was something that I lived firsthand. My father served during Vietnam as a captain in the U.S. Air Force. They’ve always been legally present in the United States, but they didn’t naturalize until I was in law school. Because of my background and being part of that community, I saw the need.

I thought I was going to do estate planning, wills and trusts. Wills and trusts would line my pocketbook, but immigration would save my soul. I took the only class on immigration that was offered at law school at the time. The professor had to create his own collection of articles, there wasn’t even a formal textbook for us back in the day. I started working for Catholic Charities doing immigration work. And 20 years later I’m still practicing immigration law and looking for salvation.

Q: Tell us about the William Deatherage Pro Bono award that you received.

John: I was honored when my colleagues recognized me. It’s certainly not something I strived to attain. I actually was surprised because I’m not a member of the Oregon Bar. My license is in California. I can practice immigration because it’s federal law. I’ve represented people from nearly all 50 states.

Q: Who are typical clients that you represent?

John: Typically, clients are U.S. families who are looking to stay together. I practice family-based immigration, which means the petitioner is a U.S. citizen or a resident.

Q: What resources are available for people with legal immigration issues?

John: There are legal options in our valley for all price ranges. In addition to private practitioners, we have the Center for Nonprofit Legal Services, Catholic Charities in Portland helps statewide, and we have representatives accredited through the Recognition and Accreditation Program of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Q: Alma Rosa, you teach American literature with a focus on ethnic literature. What do you enjoy about teaching?

Alma Rosa: I enjoy my students and literature, of course. I enjoy the challenge of winning over students who don’t think they like reading and literature. When they don’t like poetry, I take it as a personal challenge. Some of the students who claimed they didn’t like poetry end up writing amazing poems. Our English majors at SOU are high caliber and love literature. Students are amazing, even the ones who initially don’t want to be in the class.

Q: Tell us about your poetry and your recent book, “Promised Fruit.”

Alma Rosa: I’ve been writing poetry for a long time, and some of it was pretty horrible. In the last 10 years, I’ve found my voice. I work with a writing partner, Michelle St. Romain Wilson. She’s helped my poetry growth. About a year ago Michelle said, “I think we have enough work to try to put something out, what do you say?” I pulled all my poetry together. I had over 100 pieces. We write about interesting themes, particularly poems that connect to our sensibility as mothers. For example, my consumption of food versus my aunts and father who grew up impoverished in Mexico. That’s how “Promised Fruit” came about.

Q: How did Southern Oregon become your home?

Alma Rosa: We’ve lived here for 24 years. I was offered a professorship at Southern Oregon University and that’s how we came. I grew up in Paramount, California, it’s next to Compton. I grew up in the hood. I didn’t know it was the hood until I left. We met at University of California Santa Barbara in grad school. I came for a job at SOU and I loved what I saw. The department members were really cordial and kind.

John: I grew up in Pasadena, so this was a different world for me. People here leave their doors unlocked and their cars open. Southern Oregon was a change of pace for us. Life is pretty slow here. It’s a very casual and relaxed pace.

Alma Rosa: Which I love.

John: We’ve grown accustomed to it, but it took some getting used to. When we were looking for a place to live, the Realtor took the day off to go fishing. And it was a Tuesday! “What the hell? Don’t they work here?”

Alma Rosa: I was picked up at the airport for my interview by Lawson Inada in 1996. My plane was 45 minutes late. It was January. We walked to Lawson’s car in the airport parking lot and it was running. “You left your car on and open?” Lawson said, “I wanted it to be warm for you.” I thought, “I’m in a different world. This would never happen at LAX.”

Q: What do you think needs to be improved in Southern Oregon?

Alma Rosa: I think this region has a lot of racial issues to work on. A lot of people think they’ve already worked on the racial issues, and they haven’t really. It’s what we have to work on throughout the United States. We really have to have a racial reckoning that is honest and real. And it’s not just for white folks. It’s all of us, because people of color have their own kind of biases.

The George Floyd murder has certainly brought up some ugly anti-Blackness within the Latino community. As a community, we don’t talk about it openly. And it’s not just anti-Blackness, because you’ll find sectors of people that are anti-immigrant or anti-Latino. Other might be anti-Indigenous. There’s a lot of things we’re afraid to talk about.

I read two great books on the anti-racist front. One was by Layla Saad, called “White Supremacy and Me.” She had a 28-day Instagram challenge where she offered digestible comments on race and then personal reflection. I thought it was really insightful. I also read Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to be an Anti-Racist.” A friend said, “After reading these, the veil has been lifted.” More people in Southern Oregon need to lift the veil.

John: We need to recognize the contributions of immigrants to the Rogue Valley. A lot of people are unaware how many wildland firefighters come from Mexico with work visas to help fight fires in the U.S. I have represented people seeking immigration status who are risking their lives for the property of others. People don’t recognize that.

I don’t do employment-based immigration, but I’ve had many calls from owners of orchards who are desperate to find immigrant workers because the mainstream population doesn’t want to do agricultural work. Our godson, who is a U.S. citizen, told us, “I was working out in an orchard with a crew and cars were driving by and screaming horrible names. I understand English. I knew what they were saying. My co-workers turned to me and asked in Spanish, ‘What are they saying?’ I wasn’t sure what to say to them.” These are people responsible for getting food on our table and keeping us safe in the fire season, but some people are quick to run to one example of a documented criminal and cast this wide net over the whole population.

Q: What can we do?

John: We can help our neighbors realize that there’s human dignity in all of us. It’s important to treat each other with dignity and respect. We can recognize everyone’s humanity and try to get others to recognize that humanity. I’ve told many young Latino colleagues and students who feel they’re not politically active enough that their political action is just being. “Put your best foot forward and let people know that their perceptions may not be accurate. Show them we have a lot to offer and we have offered a lot for so long.”

Alma Rosa: When we talk about racial diversity, those processes can be very messy and painful. We should be prepared for that and that mistakes will be made. We may put in a good amount of work and not see the results. We’re planting seeds for trees we may never see grow.

Q: What are social justice conversations like at your house?

John: We help each other think through the issues from different points of view. She’ll joke that lawyers have an odd way of viewing the world. Sometimes it’s good to have a poet’s sensibility on some legal issues.

Alma Rosa: I’ll suggest, “Oh, let’s go and pick up these folk and take them” John might say, “The liability on that” And I’ll realize, “Oh wow. I didn’t think about that”

John: Lawyers are taught to think of the worst-case scenario; hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

Q: What’s clearer to you now?

Alma Rosa: There are a lot of people writing insightful poetry. In terms of our social justice work, we’re building one grain of sand at a time.

John: We want to create a community for our son to make it a little better, more understanding and accepting. We’re trying to leave it a little nicer than when we found it. We’ve seen growth. We’ve been here for a number of years. When I first got here, the local immigration office was notorious for being the wild, wild west. Now the local ICE office does their job but tries to work with people. We’re seeing a lot more Latino professionals in our region coming through Guanajuato program and getting status.

Alma Rosa: Many local Latino kids have grown up, gone off to college and are coming back home.

John: We believe in education and community outreach. We have good people here. I would not want to come off sounding like we live in a closed environment where people don’t want to learn. We live in a place that is getting more diverse, and so people are having to adjust to that change. Most people are willing to adjust, willing to learn. That’s where we need to dialogue. We have hope. We have seen this place grow so much in the time we’ve been here. And we’re sure it’s going to continue to grow.

Steve Boyarsky is a retired educator and longtime resident of the Rogue Valley. He continues to be involved in educational and youth programs.


Bio: John Almaguer and Alma Rosa Alvarez

Alma Rosa Alvarez is a professor of English at Southern Oregon University, where she primarily teaches U.S. ethnic literature. In her spare time, she writes poetry. She has just published a book of poetry, “Promised Fruit.” They have a son who is in college.

John Anthony Almaguer is a lawyer with the Idiart Law Group, LLC. His practice focuses primarily on naturalization, DACA and family-based immigration. In the span of his 20-year career John has practiced for a nonprofit organization, as a sole practitioner and now in a small law firm.

He is collaborating with UNETE, Unite Oregon and Southern Oregon Education Service District on “Saber es Poder,” a web-based show for the Hispanic community in Southern Oregon.

John Almaguer and Alma Rosa Alvarez Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune