ORANGE PARK – When Andrea Reyes was in elementary school, she and her sister were playing on the playground swings. Despite minding their own business, a boy pushed both off the swings before …
ORANGE PARK – When Andrea Reyes was in elementary school, she and her sister were playing on the playground swings. Despite minding their own business, a boy pushed both off the swings before calling them a racist name and spitting in their faces.
Born in Colombia, she was an immigrant who moved to America as a young girl. Reyes said that day on the playground was the first time she experienced racism.
And while she doesn’t experience such direct bouts of racism and today, she does find herself catching glances left and right from people passing by, people wondering if she’s Latino, Greek or Middle Eastern.
“I look very Hispanic, but I don’t have an accent, so I’ve been able to swing by with people not really knowing who I am,” Reyes said. “People are always confused about where I’m from because I don’t have an accent, so I don’t think I’ve experienced as much of that [racism] as an adult. There are those who have an accent and look like me that likely do, though."
While that day on the swings might not have been a direct causation, Reyes went to Florida State University, where she started her journey to pursue a career in law, specifically helping immigrants through the country’s legal systems.
“I immigrated to the States and my father petitioned for us, through work visa, my sister and [me]. A lot of my family was able to fix their statuses through the amnesty that President Reagan did those decades ago. So, my family, like many immigrant families, had mixed statuses – some were documented, and some were not – I kind of just grew up knowing that ... and my passion for immigration really developed in undergrad through [a] mentor. From there, I just dedicated everything else around immigration.”
Now, years later, Reyes is the owner and immigrant attorney of Reyes Legal, a Jacksonville-based legal office with arms that stretch to even Clay County. Reyes and her staff help immigrants make their way through the legal system, including deportation defense, family-based immigration and family reunions.
They also handle humanitarian visas where individuals who are victims of crime, domestic violence and human trafficking are able to get help through immigration relief, she said, and they work with a lot of waivers. In Reyes Legal’s five years, a lot has changed in the field of immigration.
“When I came into the practice of law in 2014, it was an absolutely different time,” Reyes said. “President Obama, in November of 2014, laid out some things that he wanted ICE to focus on in terms of priorities for enforcement of deportation and he created these priorities that basically said, ‘if you’ve been here undocumented 20 years, you’ve paid taxes, you have a family, you don’t have any criminal record, then you’re not a threat to our society. You are not a risk to the public.’”
Since then, things have changed.
“Under this new administration, in February of 2017, they immediately brought forward travel bans and a lot of changes to immigration policies,” she said.
According to Reyes, the most devastating blow to the immigration community came when President Trump’s administration took away Obama’s priority enforcement for ICE.
“There isn’t priority enforcement for ICE anymore,” Reyes said. “ICE is told that anyone is a priority to deport.”
Beyond that, Reyes said that there is an overwhelming feeling throughout the immigration community that there is a systematic and intentional erosion of due process, something Reyes said many of her colleagues feel too. According to Reyes, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions required immigration judges to adjudicate 800 cases a year.
“There’s 365 days in a year,” Reyes said. “Let’s give the judges 10 days of vacation. There’s 104 weekend days. After all of that, the judges are working for 251 days. They have to adjudicate 800 immigration cases in 251. Do the math. They have to do three cases a day."
“An immigration judge has to make a decision, listen to evidence, listen to testimony, read the briefs that the attorneys file, look at the supporting documents and supporting evidence that we’re submitting, right? They’re supposed to do all that three times a day. It’s not possible, and what it’s creating is a pressure on immigration judges to adjudicate these cases without really focusing on the evidence and everything presented, which is a violation of due process.”
The Hispanic population in Clay County is about 10 percent, she said. Reyes said she is doing all that she can to not only help those who must endure the harsh legal parameters set on an immigrant’s court case, but educate the public on what immigrants are currently going through.
“I want immigrants in Clay County to know their rights and my biggest goal is to educate the population, both immigrant communities and people who are interested in learning about the real immigration system, because unfortunately, what you hear on the news is not what is true,” Reyes said.
According to Reyes, without immigrants, Florida’s economy would find itself in the throes. The American Immigration Council found that in 2017, immigrants, documented and undocumented, made up 20.2 percent of Florida’s population. They found that these immigrants hold $73 billion in spending power and pay $17 billion in federal taxes and another $6 billion in state and local taxes. Undocumented immigrants themselves pay another $600 million in state and local taxes.
“What would happen if you deport these immigrants?” Reyes asked. "Think about what might happen to the economy."
Despite the uphill battle Reyes finds herself in with the country’s current legal system set up for immigrants, she finds great joy in the success stories, and often finds herself looking back at former president Ronald Reagan’s final speech as president, a speech many, including Reyes, have dubbed a love letter to immigrants:
“I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind, it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it – and see it still."
“And she’s still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.”