“It’s like a family here at Centro. People come and go and they have different ideas and everybody contributes. I do really enjoy what I’m doing,” says Jacqueline Suárez. “Even after 13 years, I am still learning all the time and it is still very interesting to me.”

Suárez is the general support and immigration services coordinator for Centro Hispano of Dane County, or, for many of the people who come in the agency and rely on her to help them solve a problem, she’s the Coordinadora del Programa de Apoyo General y Servicios de Inmigración.

In October of this year she will have served 13 years at Centro as one of the longest-tenured Centro Hispano employees. She is actually tied for the longest with Jorge Quintanilla, the New Routes for Adults Coordinator, and Gilma Arenas, Sherman Middle School Juventud Program Coordinator.

“I was supposed to be replacing a person for a few weeks, and I never left!” Suárez tells Madison365, laughing, about her humble beginnings at Centro. “I fell in love with the agency and what we do and how we do it. We find out exactly what the community needs, and then we do it. That’s how immigration services came about … because there was a HUGE need in the community for it.”

Centro Hispano of Dane County was founded in 1983 by a group of community volunteers to meet the emergent needs of Cuban refugees recently settled in Madison. However, as the Latino community throughout Dane County grew and diversified over the years, so did Centro’s programs and services. The agency now serves an average of 2,500 families and 4,000 individuals through its programs and services each year.

Originally from Chile, Suárez moved to Madison and found the job that she really loved in 2004 at Centro. She has worked for three different executive directors – Peter Munoz, Kent Craig, and now Karen Menendez Coller.

“I remember the first week Karen was working at Centro and we were talking and one of her first questions was: ‘What is it that you are really wanting to do here at Centro?’ I mentioned immigration and she said, ‘Let me know what we need to do and how we can do it and we’ll move forward with that.’ That really just stays with me,” Suárez says. “Karen is great. She really has a passion for Centro.”

Jacqueline Suárez (third from right) and the staff at Centro Hispano
Jacqueline Suárez (third from right) and the staff at Centro Hispano

Linguistic and cultural barriers can create difficult situations for immigrants, but Centro Hispano has proven to be a trusted place in Madison where they can turn for support. For over 25 years, the General Support Program has provided that support through advocacy and language assistance. As general support coordinator, Suárez is there to help answer questions and to point people in the right direction. Sometimes Centro can help people right there on the spot, other times they give referrals to existing services and resources to get people on the right track.

“General support can mean just about anything other than legal or court-related cases that go to New Routes for Adults and health. Other than that, I handle everything else,” Suarez says.

A year and a half ago, Centro added immigration services at Centro which includes assistance with consultation, naturalization, permanent residence, DACA (Deferred Action) and family.

“Jacqueline is so incredibly committed and has been for 13 years here at Centro,” Centro Hispano Executive Director Karen Menendez Coller tells Madison365. “For such a long time she was our single general support specialist at Centro – that means she was the front line for many cases that came through the door looking to sit down with someone. Now we have been able to advance her dreams of becoming BIA accredited and she is able to deepen her support around immigration.”

Centro and Suarez hosted DACA community clinics and presentations back when Barack Obama was president and they were very popular.

“We offered a few presentations about DACA. The first presentation that we organized here [at Centro] we had over 300 people for DACA,” Suárez remembers.

More than 762,000 young people who came to the country as children are currently enrolled in DACA, which also allows participants to work legally in the U.S. The program, created by Obama in 2012, has strict qualification criteria, including requirements for proof of long-term residency in the U.S. and an extensive criminal background check.

Due to President Trump’s harsh stance on immigration, those DACA sessions at Centro have ceased. Still, Suárez’s immigration caseload is still very heavy.

“Last year, obviously, it was citizenship because of the elections,” Suárez says. “Many of our clients were permanent residents for 10-15-20 years and were never interested in becoming a U.S. citizen until last year. There are a large amount of clients doing the citizenship classes this year and since the election of Trump.

“The clients in the community are looking to see what they qualify for,” she adds. “Like many victims of a crime or domestic abuse that they never did anything or reported are thinking maybe they can qualify for that U-Visa because I was a victim of a crime.”

Jacqueline Suárez leads an informational session on immigration at Centro Hispano.
Jacqueline Suárez leads an informational session on immigration at Centro Hispano.

The U-Visa is a nonimmigrant visa which is set aside for victims of crimes (and their immediate family members) who have suffered substantial mental or physical abuse and are willing to assist law enforcement and government officials in the investigation or prosecution of the criminal activity.

Immigration and immigration law are changing all the time, so Suárez says she never stops learning.

“Being a legal representative is complicated and it can be hard work and a lot of responsibility,” she says. “But it’s a very valuable service. A lot of people have no idea where to go. In many cases, the first appointment with an attorney will cost $180 or more.

“I’m not replacing that, by any means, but that first consultation can find out exactly what type of services a client is looking for or think that they may qualify for,” she adds. “That’s where we come in to review their information and find out if we can help with it or we will make that referral.”

Many people who may have no connections and no idea who to talk to can set up an appointment with Suarez and let her know about their immigration concerns. “I do the intake. I’m not an attorney, so many of the cases are referred to a list of attorneys that we have or if it is something specific, I will contact the agency or attorney and get that connection … that contact for the client,” Suárez says. “If it’s a case I can help with, we set up follow-ups.”

Her boss, Menendez Coller, has been impressed with Suarez’s commitment to her clients.

“Given the climate, she is so incredibly busy but she continues to be so committed – works hard, and does it quietly, consistently, with meticulous attention to detail, while not looking for any recognition,” Menendez Coller says of Suárez. “I appreciate her so much for all she has done for the community we serve at Centro. She is so dedicated to them.”

The work Suárez does can change people’s lives and it will change their children’s lives, too.

“I like to think that I’m doing family reunification; getting families together,” Suárez says. “All of the processes that we do. I know that immigration is not something that people like to talk about and can be very complicated, but it is very important to our clients at Centro.

“I had a case with a young, single mom and she had a U-Visa approved and she needed to adjust her status at that time,” she adds. “We were able to get her the help she needed. We got the mom permanent residency. Those are the stories that the community doesn’t know about that are important. I really like to see the positive impact we can make on families.”

Suárez’s job does come with a downside.

“The hard part of my job is when clients are here with me in my office and we’re trying to figure it out what type of benefits or relief they can get and sometimes it’s nothing,” Suarez says. “They have nothing and they aren’t qualifying for a family petition or anything. It’s my job to let them know that, in my opinion, that there is nothing that they qualify for and that is difficult. Even now, I’m still not used to it and I feel horrible when it happens.

“Nonetheless, it’s important to keep the Centro clientele informed because there are a lot of people taking advantage of the Latino community,” she adds. “We are in that position where: what can we do? Many people feel helpless and have nowhere to turn to. We are a place where they can come to for support. And if they like, we always offer other resources where they can get a second, third, or fourth opinion.”

Centro Hispano does satisfaction surveys for all of its clients to make sure they are on top of their game.

“We are always wanting to improve and to keep offering more and more services that the community needs,” Suárez says. “We really try to stay in touch with the community as much as possible. Not just the program that I am running, but that’s what we try to do at Centro in general.

“I do like doing the general support, but I think I’ve fallen in love with immigration because of the difference we can make with our clients,” Suárez adds. “Sometimes it can take a very long time to get to that point – maybe a year or so until you can see results from what you did or helped to accomplish. That is my favorite part of the process … getting to the end. Getting a phone call or a visit from my client just showing me their certificate and that ‘I’m a U.S. citizen now; I can vote.’ To see how proud and excited they are … that just makes my day.”