For Gabriela Castillo, who came to the U.S. from her native, war-torn El Salvador in 1985, entering the country as an undocumented immigrant would leave an indelible mark on her five-year-old mind and ultimately set her on a path to help struggling immigrants.
Like many other immigrants, Castillo and her family fled El Salvador at the height of its civil war with their hopes set on starting a new, safer life in America.
But, Castillo carries with her the hardship that many young parents, hers included, experience having to leave young children behind out of necessity.
“The situation has to be really bad for parents to make a decision to leave first and make a life and then figure out how later to get their kids here,” Castillo said.
She added, “It’s incredibly heartbreaking to see that and to hear my own mother’s story of having to leave us behind even if it was only for three or four years; she says she never wants to relive that moment.”
“I think this country for me is all I know,” said Castillo, who has made the U.S. her home from a very early age.
“We [her family] were fortunate enough to gain legal status, become permanent residents and eventually all of us became U.S. citizens and we’ve been active in the process ever since,” she said, recalling being apprehended at Miami International Airport with her sister for being undocumented immigrants.
She recalled that uncertain time, after being detained in Miami and then held in a detention center, as being her first contact with the legal system. That experience, even though Castillo recalls that officials were kind to her and her sister, would have a profound effect on young Gabriela, “…having to deal with immigration, my mom having to go to court, having to get an attorney, and for some reason that’s what impacted me and knowing what that attorney did for my family,” Castillo explained.
“We were lucky enough that we were able to get status shortly after, but that stayed with me and it made me realize as I got older that I absolutely wanted to get involved in some way, shape or form in immigration [work].”
Castillo started her journey towards law and immigration work by attending public school in Freeport before going to Molloy College and finally getting a law degree in 2007 from Touro Law School.
But, it wasn’t until she moved from Long Island to Charlotte, NC, that she got her first taste of immigration law by working for a legal service organization helping victims of domestic violence, crime victims and young children.
Along the way, Castillo found time to start a family and have two daughters, Sofia and Juliana.
Castillo’s husband Frank (Jose) is also from El Salvador, having also fled the civil war that took the life of an uncle and similarly threatened the lives of his family.
Frank would also demonstrate his allegiance to his new country by joining the Marines while still in high school and then fighting in Iraq when the war began in 2003.
When Castillo and her family finally returned to Long Island from Charlotte, Gabriela found herself working in immigration law for organizations including SEPA Mujer and Make the Road NY, two immigrant advocacy organizations based on Long Island and active in LI-based immigration issues.
Feeling a growing need to get involved with more advocacy and policy issues, instead of solely practicing law, Castillo eventually made her way to the Long Island Civil Engagement Table (LICET), where she now works with community groups and community members on issues ranging from immigration reform, voter registration as well as door-to-door canvassing during major elections.
Talking about her work with LICET, Castillo said, “It’s also a matter of community education, in the form of workshops, knocking on doors, explaining when elections are happening in a non-partisan way, getting the information out about the importance of registering to vote and how that is the initial step in order for communities to fully participate in the democratic process, so it’s definitely heavy on electoral work, but we also work on issues.”
In the current highly-charged presidential campaign where immigration policy has been a key platform issue, Castillo feels it is her duty to both empower the Latino community and also help dispel some long-held myths about how immigrants impact the country.
Castillo adds that one of the biggest myths she’s heard for years is that undocumented immigrants are not paying taxes and also lean heavily on government benefits.
“Having the experience of being an immigrant, having family that are immigrants and working with hundreds of immigrant families throughout the years, I know for a fact that is not how immigrants live,” she said. “My family worked every single day, paid taxes from the day they got here…”
Castillo adds that undocumented immigrants are not eligible for government benefits and she doesn’t know why people assume that they apply for them “left and right” when they’re not even eligible.
“This idea of ‘I’m going to have a U.S. citizen child and my luck is guaranteed’ there is no such thing, this anchor baby theory is completely false,” she said.
All in all, Castillo says that immigrants want the same things in life as everyone else.
“The truth is immigrants are incredibly hardworking individuals, they don’t come to take anything; they want to add to the diversity of this country…my parents can’t imagine living anywhere else.”
Maryann Sinclair Slutsky is the executive director of Long Island Wins, a communications organization promoting common-sense policy solutions to local immigration issues. The views expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the publisher or Anton Media Group.