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A Front Line Hero: Queens immigration specialist honored for her tireless work

Jackson Heights resident and immigration specialist Carmen Gutierrez was recognized as a Front Line Hero for going above and beyond in her work with local immigrant families.
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The ongoing efforts of quiet, dedicated heroes — who work closely with people in need to help them do better — seem to go unnoticed.

But that’s not always the case. Every year, New York Nonprofit Media (a news source for local non-profits), recognizes Front Line Heroes from that industry who work in the field helping clients, while making their organizati­ons’ goals a reality.

This year, Queens Community House’s Immigration Specialist Carmen Gutierrez was named a 2017 Front Line Hero and recognized at a recent ceremony. The longtime Jackson Heights resident said she could not be more appreciative of the honor.

“It was an honor to be nominated and awarded, and it was wonderful to be surrounded by hardworking people from many different organizati­ons,” she said. “Thank you to my family, friends, and co-workers at Queens Community House for giving me the inspiration and strength to keep doing what I do every day. I hope I can continue to help the lives of immigrant families for the better.”

There were 29 people from other non-profits who were given awards that day, and approximately 150 attendees at the event.

Providing ‘tools’ and compassion

Serving more than 20,000 children, youth, adults, and older adults every year, Queens Community House’s mission is to provide individuals and families with the tools to enrich their lives and build healthy, inclusive communities. Through a broad network of programs operating out of 25 sites in 11 neighborhoods, it offers local residents a much-needed support system at every stage of life, helping them to develop the knowledge, confidence, and skills to change their lives for the better and become active participants in their larger community.

Gutierrez mostly receives Queens-based clients who range in age from 20 to 90, but the organization’s clients may also come from all five boroughs, as well as Long Island and New Jersey.

“I just try to give them all that I can and let them know that they can be confident in what they are doing,” said the awardee, who was born in Ecuador and raised in Venezuela.

Once she arrived here, young Carmen promised herself that she would always aim high. During her first week in the U.S., she attended a free English class in her Queens community. Later, she got into college and graduated at 33, because she was a part-time student and full-time employee, working to provide for her mothers and sisters. And in time, she started her own little family and became a dedicated wife and mother.

Later, Gutierrez worked as a paralegal for about 20 years. Then, after getting her Board of Immigration Appeals certification, she worked at Queens Community House for 14 of those 20 years. Now, she says she would love to be a lawyer and would like to take her LSATs in the near future.

Most of her work as an immigration specialist involves providing consultations and applications, such as family petitions for parents, spouses, or children seeking to come into the U.S. and be reunited with their families.

“We assist people with their applications to become U.S. citizens. After a parent has obtained their citizenship, their children have an opportunity to derive their own U.S. citizenship from their parents, and we file their child citizenship certificate application. We also do DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) applications for young adults,” she explained.

Advocating for immigrants’ rights

With Gutierrez’s guidance and support, thousands have achieved their own version of the American Dream, just as she has.

Struggling to adjust to difficult circumstances and a new way of life, more than 700 families and individuals, locally and beyond, were fortunate enough to have her working tirelessly by their side and advocating on their behalf, in their quest to gain citizenship or legal residency within the U.S. (and that was just in the last six months). And, because of her unbridled compassion and empathy for those who are trying to make it here, Gutierrez feels compelled to take that extra step whenever she can; going above and beyond, she accompanies frail candidates to their hearings, provides community workshops, and volunteers at citizenship clinics.

“I remember [when] Carmen helped a Colombian woman obtain her permanent residency after her son was murdered,” said Queens Community House Associate Executive Director Mary Abbate. “She showed true courage by going straight to the immigration office and asking them to approve the woman’s application, so that she could go to the funeral in Colombia and still come back to her family here in the U.S. Carmen has made it her mission to stop deportations, and she is a true advocate for the immigrant community.”

According to the organization, her work also involves assisting those who were targets of immigration scams get back on track, and helping refugees obtain their permanent refugee status. In addition, she has aided students who have been in the U.S. since they were toddlers to continue their education and to stay in the country they’ve known as their home.

“It’s very important to me and all of us at QCH, to help facilitate the families immigrating to the U.S. through the process, with minimal confusion and frustration,” said the Front Line Hero. “As an immigrant myself, I feel immensely passionate about the work I do helping families stay together and reunite in the U.S., knowing that many of them are coming here for a better life and future for themselves and their children, just as I did years ago.”

There are certain cases that need to be referred to an attorney, so Gutierrez said she refers some clients to lawyers at trusted organizations.

“We have a monthly immigration clinic and outreach with Legal Aid Immigration Unit attorneys and a weekly immigration clinic with the CUNY Citizenship Now attorneys; I decide which cases could benefit from an appointment with them.

“Sometimes, I provide a brief consultation and a referral to another agency specialized in the matter they need assistance in, if I feel that they are better suited to address a specific issue or concern of the client,” she explained. “It could be a family issue, such as domestic violence, or another related family issue; in this case, we could refer them to Family Justice Center, Sanctuary for Family, Family Court, etc. There are different issues that could be addressed in a phone call or an in-person consultation and we could direct them forward depending on their particular need.”

Endless resources

Queens offers a wide variety of resources for immigrants and Queens Community House is proud to serve that community in a multitude of ways, including library services, adult English classes in public schools for those learning English as a second language, and through local organizations dedicated to serving the borough’s communities.

According to Gutierrez, it also has a department for eviction prevention, as well as housing specialists. Even college advisers in middle and high schools in Corona, Forest Hills, Elmhurst, and Jackson Heights, to name a few. In Forest Hills, it has a special department for seniors, with two social workers, that provides activities, Meals on Wheels, and other programs.

With regard to funding for resources, it subcontracts with the Legal Aid Society and the Immigrant Opportunities Initiative. And this year, it was very lucky to receive a grant of $7,500 from an anonymous donor, said Gutierrez, who refers many clients to the Queens District Attorney’s Office for Immigration Affairs. Queens Community House also works with Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, whose office has been committed to enhancing services for immigrants and multicultural understanding across the borough, thanks in part to her Immigration Task Force initiative, which has served as a bridge between diverse immigrant communities and local government.

‘The World’s Borough’

Recent immigrants, regardless of where they come from, can benefit from a cornucopia of resources made available to them, especially in sanctuary cities like New York. And, because so many have settled in Queens, nowhere else on the planet is that diversity reflected and celebrated more, than in “The World’s Borough,” which prides itself on the cultural richness of its immigrant communities.

“I’m very proud and happy to live in Queens, which is known to be the most diverse place in the world, and I love knowing that the work I do and the work done by everyone at QCH, is helping to make that possible and to keep that diversity thriving,” said Gutierrez.

With nearly half, or 2.3 million, of its residents born abroad and speaking more than 135 languages, families that hail from 120-plus nations have called Queens neighborhoods home. And, while each community enjoys its own traditions and is known for its unique ethnic foods, the bounty of local offerings is meant to be shared with others.

Most New Yorkers and savvy visitors alike know that a ride on the No. 7 train will take you on an international gastro and shopping tour of the borough. So, for example, if you happen to exit the subway at the Jackson Heights-Roosevelt Avenue stop, you’ll probably feel like you’re in India. Taking up two blocks along 74th Street between Broadway and 35th Avenue, Little India’s main shopping thoroughfare boasts colorful shops selling sari fabric and Bollywood movies, as well as restaurants serving South Asian fare, while the Jackson Heights library branch offers texts in Russian, Bengali, Korean, Hindi, and Portuguese, among others.

By the way, did you know that students at Jackson Height’s elementary school PS 69 — which has the most diverse student body in the country — speak approximately 84 different languages?

Advocating for immigrants’ rights

Helping those who come here integrate into local communities and adjust to the American way of living while advocating for their rights is no easy task. It requires a wealth of knowledge and expertise in the field of immigration, including its legal aspects. But beyond that, it requires a mix of essential qualities: a giving spirit and an innate desire to make people’s lives better, combined with an ability to problem-solve, troubleshoot, and make things happen despite daunting challenges. As a Front Line Hero, Gutierrez seems to have all of those valuable attributes.

“Carmen has been a beacon of hope for many immigrant families; not only is she compassionate and kind, but she guides her clients through their application processes seamlessly. She understands the needs of Queens families and their hope to stay together in the country they now call home, and she does everything she can to make that dream a reality,” said Queens Community House’s Executive Director Ben Thomases.

What does the future hold for these families?

“Our immigrant population is concerned for its immigration status. I understand that in this current moment in time, many immigrant families have fears for their future, but I hope to help them achieve their dreams of citizenship in the best way that I can,” said Gutierrez.

“I hope to see them reunite with their families and loved ones, and to become proud and hardworking citizens of the United States. I will do my best to help each individual case, but I know that many times, the process can be quite difficult and some cases can be harder than others. We are providing the information to families that may need to plan in case of an immigration detention.

Just like everyone else, hardworking immigrant parents raising their children here in the U.S. wish for success and better lives for their kids, as they grow up in an open society that strives for equality.

After all, no matter who you are in America, the world can still be your oyster.

That was what Gutierrez taught her daughter, who has been in the gifted and talented program in school since kindergarten. She reminds her: “Today is a new day. Do your best!”

Like most parents, she feels that her family gives most meaning to her life, but says her work does as well.

Talking about her favorite pastimes and hobbies, Gutierrez said she loves family gatherings, parks, and picnics, as well as spending quality time with her daughter, working on arts-and-crafts projects like origami and painting.

“We used to attend library activities for kids and spend hours there reading great books. We love to visit museums and parks, and we did volunteer work with other kids at Flushing Meadow Park recently for Earth Day.”

But she says what she likes most about her job is “listening to people’s concerns and providing the best solutions and services that they deserve.

“I like to see the happiness people feel when they finally become citizens or reunite with their families. Even when a client doesn’t pass the test or their application request gets denied or complicated, I am happy to console them and encourage them not to give up.”

Tammy Scileppi is a Queens-based freelance writer and journalist, parent, and regular contributor to New York Parenting.

Posted 12:00 am, June 18, 2017
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