A Different and Better Future

A Different and Better Future

La Paz Chattanooga Latino Community Survey Informs Programs and Services

Twenty years ago Chattanooga was home to a very small Latino population – mostly young, working men. A generation later, Chattanooga’s Latino community has grown roots, and families are choosing to make the city their home. La Paz Chattanooga, an organization promoting inclusion of the Hispanic and Latino community in Southeast Tennessee, has been there every step of the way. Now, as it celebrates its 20th anniversary, La Paz has completed its second comprehensive Community Needs Assessment to provide insight into the changes, opportunities, and challenges facing this growing segment of our community. The results affirm the organization’s ongoing work and inform future initiatives. 

Key Findings

“The biggest surprise since our last survey is how much the demographics of the Latino community have changed,” says Vivian Lozano, Director of Social Impact. “In 2015 the vast majority of our Latino population was from Guatemala and Mexico. Today we have many more cultures represented, including growing numbers from Venezuela, Honduras, and Colombia.”

In addition to changing demographics, topics of interest and need are also evolving. “A lot of individuals are working and self-identifying as entrepreneurs and business owners,” Lozano says. “Chattanooga prides itself on its entrepreneurial spirit. This is a powerful empowerment opportunity.” 

La Paz has already begun conversations with people to explore how the organization can support entrepreneurship. Potential businesses run the gamut from domestic services to fashion to construction. 

Attitudes toward education have also changed dramatically, with 94% of respondents stating that higher education for their children is important to them. 

Lozano explains, “This is great news because many of the adults we surveyed come from rural areas and don’t have access to more than an elementary or middle school level education. They really care about their children having access to education, and higher education is increasingly important to them.”

Barriers to Opportunity

While education is highly valued, members of Chattanooga’s Latino community face numerous barriers to achieve their goals. If students are undocumented, they are not eligible for in-state tuition, federal aid, or programs like Tennessee Promise. 

Vanessa Parras is the Legal Access Coordinator at La Paz Chattanooga. “I was born in Atlanta,” she says, “and I identify with kids who come over because I had classmates without alternatives or opportunities to progress in the U.S. I want to be able to help children and educate them on the opportunities they rightfully have so they can have a better life in the United States.”

After the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) law changed, La Paz Chattanooga met with churches, community members, and representatives from other organizations to explore how best to navigate the immigration system. During their research, they discovered a decades-old federal law created to help unaccompanied youth obtain their legal residency: Special Juvenile Immigration Status (SJIS). Now, Parras is leading a pilot program to educate the community and connect qualifying youth with immigration attorneys to begin the process. 

Special Juvenile Immigration Status

SJIS was passed in the 1990s to provide humanitarian protection for noncitizen children eligible for long-term foster care. To qualify in Tennessee a child must be under 18; unaccompanied by one or both parents; there must be proof of child neglect, abandonment, or abuse; and returning to the country of birth is not a viable option. 

“The guidelines for SJIS are very clear, the process is streamlined, and the benefits SJIS provides are life changing,” Parras says. 

Special Juvenile Immigration Status allows individuals to qualify for a work authorization and a driver’s license. After four years with the status, holders can apply for residency and after being a legal resident for five years, people are then eligible to apply for citizenship. 

“Many people do not know that this immigration status exists,” Parras says. “It may be the only option they have to obtain legal status.”

Because youth must be under 18 to begin the SJIS application process, it’s critical that La Paz Chattanooga connects with students as early as possible.

“This process requires a lot of trust,” says Lozano. “La Paz and Vanessa spend a lot of time building bridges with community leaders and organizations that work with children this age and with this life experience. It’s important for people to understand how important and life-changing this opportunity really is, but it also requires children to be vulnerable and willing to share traumatic experiences as part of the qualifying process.” 

“People do not understand the complexity of immigration law,” Parras explains. “I’m grateful to help educate the community and connect people with attorneys who can advocate on their behalf.”

La Paz Chattanooga credits local immigration attorneys for the progress the SJIS pilot is making. 

“We are offering this service at as low a cost as possible, which wouldn’t be possible without the immigration attorneys who offer their fees at “low” bono prices,” Lozano explains. 

Looking to the Future

“The hope SJIS offers is incredible,” Lozano says. “This is an opportunity that can change how youth will look at their life and approach their goals. Where continuing education once wasn’t an option, with SJIS it is. SJIS offers an option for a different and better future.”

The SJIS pilot is representative of how La Paz approaches all of its work – a result of listening to the community about what they want and need. 

“From immigration relief and entrepreneurship classes to inclusion in the community and education, La Paz is not just helping, we’re creating networks and connecting people together,” Lozano says. “The Latino community has been here longer than we have. We feel lucky and privileged to help them achieve their goals.”

Learn more about La Paz