21Progress works to empower undocumented community through leadership

By Megan Herndon

Wendy S. Martinez Hurtado lives to give back to her community. Through her work at 21Progress, an organization geared towards empowering undocumented communities through leadership, she has given many people opportunities to break barriers and chase their dreams.

“I’ve always had an orientation towards wanting to give back,” Hurtado said. “I think a lot of that is because of my faith and the community that I grew up in, but I think I’ve also always had an eye for injustices- feeling not okay with something and doing something about it.”

For Hurtado, who recently graduated from Pacific Lutheran University with degrees in Political Science and Hispanic Studies, helping undocumented students has been a lifelong interest. She was an undocumented student herself, and was drawn to helping others avoid the challenges she faced.

“Because of my own experience and that of my siblings I’ve always wanted to make sure there were more resources out there for folks like myself,” she said.

Help from her mentors fueled her desire to give back to the next generation. She said most of her high school teachers didn’t know she was undocumented until she shared her status with them, but they were willing to do whatever they could to support her.

“It was great to hear them say ‘I have no clue what (being undocumented) really means but let me figure it out and support you,’” she said. “They believed in me and that was really impactful. I want to provide that same support and mentorship to other students who are experiencing challenges.”

Hurtado put this desire into action by running 21Progress’s Build Your Dream (BYD) program, which helps undocumented students benefit from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration policy that allows certain undocumented immigrants who came to America before age 16 to obtain a renewable work permit and be exempt from deportation.

“A lot of times people don’t know what resources are available,” said Ruby Alvarez, an intern at 21Progress. “Sometimes things go unheard, things that will help us out so we just need to get the word out.”

BYD educates people about resources that are available including who is eligible for DACA how they can apply. The two main barriers to achieving this status are the $465 application fee and the necessary legal representation to obtain it, for which 21Progress offers a loan program, access to scholarships, and access to legal consultation.

Marissa Vichayapai, 21Progress’s Special Projects Manager and
Asian and Pacific Islander DACA Coordinator described Hurtado’s work with BYD as “bridging the gap” of services that undocumented people often need such as translation services, legal support, or help writing their resume.

“Wendy has connected the dots,” Vichayapai said. “She’s invested in young folks and she’s helping them invest in themselves as well. We were a new concept to a lot of folks and I think Wendy is really helping bridge that gap.”

Enrique Renteria Hernandez, who went to 21Progress for help renewing his work permit, said the first time he applied for his permit he had to pay over $2,000 in legal and other fees. When he needed to renew it, 21Progress helped him with financing and his fees were significantly less.

“They were really helpful,” he said. “It’s not just about immigration but they continue to help with the process after getting DACA status. They help you find a job if that’s the route your taking, and they also help with school and scholarships.”

Hurtado also runs a series of “success after DACA” workshops focused around applying and affording college, career success, and leadership development.

“We want folks to feel empowered to meet their goals, to become professionals,” she said. “We want them to be leaders, and to recognize that they have a voice and that those voices can change institutional structures that are barriers for their communities.”

In only a few months working with 21Progress, Hurtado has already impacted many people and has given them the foundations to succeed. She hopes to continue doing so and to one day fulfill her long-term goal of becoming an immigration lawyer. For now, she hopes to embrace the action-oriented mindset at 21Progress to continue empowering the undocumented community through leadership.

“(At 21Progress), someone comes up with an idea and we all pitch in to make sure that get done,” she said. “There are only three of us on staff, but the work and the vision that we have is a powerful one: (a vision) of creating leaders in our communities who can speak, change, and transform our communities.”