Seeking Justice, Sharing Burdens

Seeking Justice, Sharing Burdens

On the evening of July 30, immigration attorney Anali Looper, BA ’07, JD ’14, drove a client to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Looper works for American Gateways, an Austin-headquartered firm and one of Texas’ largest immigration legal services providers. The client (referred to as Belén in this article for the purpose of anonymity) was to greet two special arrivals at the airport.

Nine years ago, Belén was forced to flee her home country in Central America when a local street gang threatened her life. She left her two daughters, then ages 4 and 1, in the care of her mother and headed to Mexico. Before long, she was kidnapped and trafficked to the United States.

“She was being held against her will in a forced domestic labor situation,” Looper says. “Often, these types of labor trafficking situations go undetected because they look like domestic violence.”

Belén, who escaped her trafficker was approved for a T visa thanks to Looper’s assistance. T visas allow certain victims of human trafficking and their immediate family members to live and work temporarily in the United States, usually with the stipulation that they assist law enforcement in testifying against their traffickers.

Belén’s daughters, now 13 and 10, were also approved for visas to join their mother in the United States. Their emotional airport reunion was recorded and posted to the American Gateways Facebook page, where it was viewed nearly 3,000 times within three days.

“I cry every time I watch the video,” Looper says. “I really should take a break from it, but it’s just so great.”

Working in a tucked-away, two-room office on Waco’s Franklin Avenue, Looper juggles about 120 active cases at any time.

“It’s more cases than I would like, honestly,” she says. “But, it’s hard when there are so few of us who do this work in the Waco area. If I take on more cases, I can’t provide good services to my clients.”

The majority of Looper’s clients are survivors of human trafficking, domestic violence and other abuses. Many come to her with stories of unimaginable suffering. Looper visits a secondary trauma counselor weekly to process and cope with the emotional burden.

“I also lift heavy weights,” Looper says. “I enjoy the intensity of it because I can get competitive with myself. I put on as much weight as I can stand, until my mind can’t think about anything.”

Happy endings like Belén’s are not guaranteed in Looper’s line of work. Nevertheless, these stories serve to fortify Looper’s unflagging commitment to serving Waco’s immigrant population. They also lend even greater meaning to those pivotal experiences throughout Looper’s life that led her to become Waco’s only Spanish-speaking, non-profit immigration attorney.

Hometown Hero

Looper and her older sister, Gabriela Colmán, BA ’03, MSEd ’08, grew up within a tight-knit community in North Waco, and their parents always modeled faith-motivated service. Their father, Joe Gatlin, founded the Waco chapter of Habitat for Humanity in 1986. Meanwhile, their mother Nancy, who grew up in Montevideo, Uruguay, as a missionary kid, founded and directed The Potter’s Workshop, a Christian cooperative school in their neighborhood.

“It was a community school in the late ’80s and early ’90s and very ethnically and socio-economically diverse,” Looper says. “At its height, there were 35 students. Classroom sizes were really small, basically a 5-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio. My sister and I loved it.”

By 1994, Looper’s family co-founded what is now Hope Fellowship, a bilingual Mennonite church. It began as a community living under one roof. Today, Hope Fellowship boasts close to 80 regular congregants.

“My family lived and participated in an intentional Christian community,” Looper says. “It was our family and another family in one communal house. We shared meals together, and we also shared finances in a common treasury.”

Looper first attended public school in 1993, the year of the Branch Davidian compound siege. She says it was difficult having friends visit her house until they knew her family.

When Looper started fourth grade at Mountainview Elementary School, she began to realize her home life was rather unconventional. She noticed something strange about the world map in her classroom; it appeared to be hanging upside down.

“I remember this vividly,” Looper says. “In my house, we had a map. But, on our map, the poles were flipped. This wasn’t by accident; the whole purpose was a different perspective, and I hadn’t ever realized until attending public school that this wasn’t how most people knew the world. Typically, we see North America on top of Central and South America. But, how does that shape us? How does that influence our worldview?”

Looper says she loved her life the way it was, although she could pick up on the differences between herself and her peers.

“I didn’t feel bad,” she says. “I wasn’t like, ‘Oh, man, I just wish we lived by ourselves.’ I liked that I had other adults in the house that I could talk to. Meals involved more than our immediate family. That part was exciting.”

While the communal arrangement dissolved around the time she started at Waco High School, these childhood and adolescent experiences were absolutely formative.

“I think it shaped some of my identity, who I am even today,” she says. “It made me comfortable with being different or even counter, which Christians are. I was never out to be different just for the sake of being different; rather, I learned to be OK it happens.”

Students for Social Justice

Looper enrolled at Baylor in 2003; however, there was a shortage of space for undergraduates in the residential halls. She and many other Waco-area students lived in off-campus apartments. Without the benefit of on-campus living, she had to be intentional about finding her niche and joined Baylor Students for Social Justice (BSSJ) her freshman year.

Dr. Jon Singletary, BA ’93, dean of the Diana R. Garland School of Social Work, was the BSSJ faculty advisor at the time.

“For many of the students, social justice was a new biblical concept about which they were becoming passionate,” Singletary says. “It was clear Looper had been raised in a context where biblical justice had long shaped her.”

As a sophomore, Looper became BSSJ president and helped launch the 1 John 3 Campaign at the University, also known as the Baylor Living Wage Movement.

“Our goal was to increase the minimum pay for permanent service workers on campus whose wages are set by contracts with outside vendors,” Looper says. “I knew people in my church community who worked full time in roles like these and still did not make enough to support their families.”

The 1 John 3 Campaign was instrumental in the 2005 formation of an Adequate Wage Task Force under William D. Underwood, who at the time served as Baylor’s interim president. The task force remained intact under the subsequent presidency of Dr. John M. Lilley, BMEd ’61, BM ’62, MM ’64, and after Looper graduated in 2007.

“Dr. David Garland was serving his first term as interim president in 2008, and he made a commitment to increasing the base wage in certain contracts,” Singletary says. “The BSSJ students were thorough in researching similar contracts at other universities. They were persistent; they didn’t give up. Looper never gave up.”

Baylor Immigration Clinic

In retrospect, Looper’s decision to apply to law school looks more like a slow, reluctant realization.

Following a brief, post-college stint in inner-city Chicago where she worked for a housing ministry called Good News Partners, she moved back to Waco in 2009 to work for Waco Habitat for Humanity.

“As I worked for Habitat for Humanity, I realized that I wanted to do more work with the immigrant population here. I just didn’t know in what capacity,” she says. “All my friends in undergrad had been social workers. I thought social work was the route, but … it wasn’t an exact fit.”

Looper then attended a conference that kindled her interest in immigration law. At the time, law school seemed inaccessible, and she was hesitant to discuss the matter with her parents.

“My dad had gone to law school and became so disillusioned by the time he graduated and passed the bar that he never practiced,” Looper says.

To her great surprise, her family felt a career in immigration law was a natural fit for her. In fall 2011, Looper began Baylor Law School, where, she says, she’d never been pushed so hard in her life.

“I almost quit that first quarter,” she says. “I was still working full-time, which I don’t recommend while in law school. I also learned I have anxiety. Since then, I’ve been very vocal about the importance of addressing mental health issues by seeking the appropriate treatment.”

Looper persevered, keeping in mind her ultimate goal of serving the immigrant community in her hometown.

The following year, President Barack Obama directed then-Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano to put into place the program that became Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). The program allowed some undocumented individuals who were brought to the United States as minors to receive a renewable, two-year deferment from deportation and, most importantly, made them eligible for a work permit. 

“I was listening to these stories and thinking, ‘This is something we can do at Baylor Law.’ I knew we had the resources,” Looper says.

She approached Baylor Law School Associate Dean Leah Jackson Teague, BBA ’83, JD ’85, about launching a clinic to help Waco’s immigrant population complete and process DACA applications. Baylor Law professor Laura Hernández says the endeavor involved a heavy workload, especially for Looper.

“Before the physical clinic was set up, there was a lot of legwork in ensuring our full understanding of the policies, getting and understanding the appropriate forms, making sure we selected the proper evidence to support the DACA applications and so forth,” Hernández says.

With Hernández on board in a supervisory role and Looper as student clinic co-coordinator with cohort Siobhan Ray, JD ’14, the Baylor Immigration Clinic recruited the help of law students, social work students, and Spanish-speaking undergraduate and graduate students. They translated birth certificates printed in Spanish and interpreted for parents of DACA applicants and local attorney Susan Immon Nelson, BSEd ’80, MA ’85, JD ’90—the only full-time, private immigration attorney in Waco at that time.

“We operated in one big room with applicants moving through several stations. We were open Tuesdays and Thursdays,” Looper says. “People had to call in and schedule an appointment with us. Then we would have law students meet with them, go through a screening form, collect their documents, make necessary copies and start filling out the application. Susan Nelson or Laura Hernández would review the applications and make sure everything was done correctly.”

Each application took as long as two hours to complete, but the clinic processed 150 DACA applications in its first year and upward of 400 to date, according to Hernández.

“In addition to bringing DACA-eligible non-citizens living in the Waco area ‘out of the shadows’ and allowing them to work legally, the success of the Baylor Immigration Clinic proved that Baylor students are as eager to participate in an immigration clinic and to help non-citizens as they are to participate in other pro bono legal efforts,” Hernández says.

American Gateways

Looper graduated from Baylor Law School and passed the Texas bar exam in 2014; but, her career did not begin at American Gateways’ Waco office. The Waco office did not exist until 2017.

“I worked half-time at Mission Waco Legal Services (now Greater Waco Legal Services) and half-time at the law school, coordinating the immigration clinic,” Looper says. “I was looking for an organization that focused exclusively on immigration law to train me and then be willing to come to Waco with me.”

Looper applied for a position with American Gateways in Austin and moved there in March 2015, not knowing whether they would ever want to open an office in Waco. At the time, their bylaws dictated that their service area did not include McLennan County.

“I would stay the week in Austin but spend Friday afternoon through Sunday evening back in Waco,” she says. “My husband Joel was in Waco; we began dating during that time and knew pretty quickly that we would be married.”

In October 2016, a small grant from the Texas State Bar Foundation allowed Looper to establish a part-time presence in Waco with American Gateways. The following spring, a generous grant by the Rapaport Foundation allowed her to open a full-time Waco office. Luz Rueda joined Looper in October 2017 as a part-time employee and converted to a full-time position in May.

“It’s because of Luz that I’m able to take on so many cases,” Looper says. “Honestly, I don’t know how many calls she takes during the week, and we have people drop by the office without appointments. Sometimes callers are not actually dealing with an immigration issue, and we’ll refer them to another attorney.”

Somehow, Looper also finds it in her schedule to enlighten the public about the ever-changing landscape of immigration law, particularly by speaking at local churches, schools and other organizations.

“I get a lot of requests for ‘know your rights’ presentations in the immigrant community,” she says. “At American Gateways, we see our role as two-faceted: We provide direct legal services and also community education and advocacy.”

Oftentimes, Looper says, immigrants who have been trafficked to the United States or are victims of domestic violence feel that it is too risky to contact authorities.

“If you’re undocumented, you’re outing yourself in some way,” Looper says. “Many are taught to stay in the shadows for survival, and they don’t seek help. Abusers will say, ‘If you call the police, they’re going to deport you.’ This leaves undocumented victims very vulnerable.”

Looper says her colleagues in the Austin and San Antonio offices of American Gateways are working in the detention centers handling numerous cases of parents and children who have been detained and separated at the United States-Mexico border.

“If they can provide private, individual representation in those instances, they do,” Looper says. “When we’re talking about 500 women in one detention center, we simply can’t provide individual representation for everyone.”

However, American Gateways provides community workshops inside Texas’ many detention centers, bringing volunteers and attorneys and offering line-by-line guidance through the asylum application and the bond application for their release.

“Even though we can’t represent everyone,” Looper says, “we can walk people through the process and hope it can help them.”

More than a decade has passed since Looper’s BSSJ days. Nonetheless, Singletary says Looper’s passion for social justice and personal motivation are as strong as ever.  

“I have been working with her lately, learning as much as I can about current immigration policies and practices,” Singletary says. “She is doing everything in her power to serve her clients, to educate others negatively affected by immigration policies, and to educate pastors, lay leaders and the community about how we can participate.”