Philanthropy award given to local advocate for immigrants

Fabiola Hamdan is given Women United Philanthropy Award by United Way of Dane County.
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Fabiola Hamdan (Photo by Marcus Miles Photography)

Fabiola Hamdan, who in 2017 became the first immigration specialist in the Dane County Department of Human Services, received the Women United Philanthropy Award from United Way of Dane County on Sept. 30.

The award recognizes women who are “committed to helping make our community a better place to live for all” and recognizes “achievements in educating, empowering and inspiring women and young girls to be philanthropic leaders in Dane County.”

This year the United Way of Dane County gave the award to one of its own. Hamdan’s involvement with the local organization began in 2007, and in 2017 she joined the executive board.

“For almost 20 years, United Way of Dane County has been made stronger because of the expertise, lived experience and passion for social and economic equality she has brought to her volunteer work with us,” United Way President and CEO Renee Moe says. “She is a pillar in our community, and we’re so thrilled to be honoring her.”

“I am humbled to receive this prestigious recognition,” Hamdan says. “I am so very fortunate to have the daily opportunity to help people who are very vulnerable. Now more than ever, it is imperative for us to be there for those in need.”

Thirty-five years ago, Fabiola Hamdan was a teenager when she and her family arrived in Madison. They left Bolivia hoping Hamdan’s mother, suffering from a rare brain tumor, could undergo surgery at the University of Wisconsin Hospital. The journey was undertaken at the suggestion of a distant relative who lived here.

Hamdan, her two siblings and their father found whatever work they could and learned English over the many months the matriarch of their family underwent medical testing, treatment and recovery from the procedure. Hamdan, meanwhile, would earn an undergraduate and a master’s degree in social work at UW–Madison and embark on a two decades-long career helping members of the Latino community settle in Madison like she did.

Three years ago, Hamdan became the first immigration specialist in the Dane County Department of Human Services. She has since settled into a new office conveniently located next door to Centro Hispano on the east side, where she frequently meets immigrants seeking her help and guidance.

The following Q&A, conducted earlier this year, was edited for length and clarity.

How did you get into social work?

Growing up, in our apartment complex [near Memorial High School], we started to see some other Latino families moving in. My mom would volunteer me to them, like, “Fabiola — she can make an appointment for a doctor for you.” So maybe it started there. Also both of my parents were teachers in Bolivia. They used to travel a lot in the rural areas of La Paz and were always helping people. That type of helping was normal for us.

Does your path to Madison inform how you relate to other immigrants and address the issues they face?

I do, because as an immigrant who overcame obstacles and challenges when I first came here, this job speaks loudly to me about the work that needs to happen. The immigrant community in general, not only Latinos, face a really tough atmosphere with all the new policies and rules coming down. They almost always seem to punish immigrants for being here. So it is super hard for them. At the same time, for undocumented immigrant people — who we’ve always had in this country — it’s nothing new. It’s harder now but the population is very resilient. No matter what, they try to take care of their families, protect their children and move on despite this very anti-immigrant atmosphere.

How has the widespread shutdown to stem the spread of COVID-19 affected the Madison-area immigrant community?

The immigrant community in Dane County is marginalized due to national anti-immigrant sentiment and the burden of public charge legislation poised to deny citizenship status to immigrants who use public benefits. The lack of access to a driver’s licenses for the undocumented community is also a huge barrier. This has resulted in less trust and engagement between the immigrant community and formal systems of support.

What assistance have you been asked to provide and how have you been able to help?

Our office is working with the Latino Consortium for Action, or LCA, to aid undocumented individuals, families and small business owners who are not eligible for public benefits through the Emergency Relief Fund for COVID-19. We continue to work closely with the Immigration Enforcement Response Team in cases of emergency … [and] local law enforcement to clarify misinformation. The hope is to bring some peace of mind to folks fearful of leaving their homes during this time.

Is concern and fear for changing immigration policies causing the people affected to be less inclined to seek help from you and other organizations?

Because I have been in the community as a social worker for 18-plus years I feel I have earned the trust of the community. And not only me. We have an army of people like myself, especially in the Latino community. So I don’t feel that people are afraid to come and ask for assistance from me or my office. But we do have organizations that are providing classes and workshops and Latinos are not coming to them. Even food pantries are seeing a decrease in Latinos coming. It’s just that people are afraid.

What my office does is provide a holistic approach to the situations that we encounter. For example, let’s say somebody gets detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Immediately I get this person an immigration attorney, [then] I work with the family left behind. Usually it is a mom and kids. I see what they need. Since I’m a social worker, I do that case management. With the county I cannot pay private attorneys, I cannot pay bonds. I can pay rent, basic needs, maybe consultation fees. Or maybe if someone is trying to become a U.S. citizen, application fees, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program renewals [required every two years], things like that.

I have a pool of private attorneys I know that are awesome who sometimes take cases pro bono, or what I call “low bono.” So when people call, I try to connect them with resources. I don’t have one single boring day, let’s put it that way.

Over the past two years you have worked in this capacity, what has changed and what are you seeing immigrants needing?

Right now we have a lot of asylum seekers and they need legal representation. I don’t know where to send them, I’m telling you the truth. If you’re an asylum seeker right now, you don’t have work authorization. And if you have kids, what’s going to happen to them? What about housing? You know how expensive it is living here. Asylum seekers need legal representation and they don’t have the means to get that, so it’s a crisis. Connecting asylum seekers to pro bono or low-cost legal assistance is nearly impossible due to a lack of capacity. At the market rate, asylum cases can cost from $6,000 to $10,000 from start to finish. Private attorneys usually need a $5,000 retainer to take a case. Consequently, asylum seekers are forced to represent themselves in court putting them at great risk of deportation. Low-cost options and more capacity needs to be cultivated from our existing partnerships. I don’t know in total how many asylum seekers there are here because not all of them are coming to me. But every month I see one to four or more people seeking this assistance.

People are fleeing Central America — El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala — to save their lives. I have a couple families that were separated from their children. My very first case was a dad and his 12-year-old daughter who got separated when the father was sent back to El Salvador. That was my first case — when I learned how you find people. I was calling all these numbers and filling out a lot of paperwork to get those two united.

There are people not directly involved in immigration issues who are concerned and sympathetic. Do they reach out to you?

I get so many invitations from the faith community, many synagogues and churches. So people generally care. They are like what can we do? Can we do something? I work closely with the Dane Sanctuary Coalition.

What was the response to the raids by ICE agents on Sept. 21, 2018?

Across Wisconsin there was 83 undocumented immigrants detained, including 20 in Dane County. I worked with all of them [detained in the county]. Of the 20 here, seven got deported. Local authorities were not informed that ICE was going to do this raid. It was on a Friday morning, I remember, and by noon I had several people calling me saying so and so had been detained. [The calls continued to come in] Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday — those four days of terror. So the city put out a press release saying, “We didn’t know, stay calm, the MPD is not after you, don’t worry about it.” [Because my phone number was on the press release, I got] 500-some phone calls from people saying, “I’m scared.” The Latino community was really in a panic. I also got some [voicemail] messages asking “What the heck are you doing with those illegal immigrants?” Hate calls. But also a lot of calls asking, “What can I do? How can I help?” I think that crisis created an awareness in the community, and many, many people responded very positively.

Has that fear and concern leveled off since?

I don’t know if it will ever be the way it was before. Things were still settling down in June 2019 when the Trump administration said it was going to crack down in 10 major cities, including Chicago. Right away I got phone calls. That brought anxiety up again. So anytime you hear, for example, that maybe DACA is going to go away, people are on pins and needles. Yeah, it’s not good.

But it is unique to have an immigration specialist like myself, a county social worker, trying to do triage and to understand better what is happening, and at the same time being the voice of the people that are really living in the shadows.

The support I have from the county and the community in general makes me want to do more. [With a county-budgeted fund], I can pay maybe half a month of rent for a family, a DACA renewal, pay for [electricity] or food. Sometimes an immigration application requires a medical exam which can cost $300, and I can help people pay to get their U.S. passports.

Do you feel Madison is friendly to immigrants?

I think so. There’s always room to get better. I think there are people who had racist sentiments who now feel free to express them. It’s tiring for us [in the immigrant community] to talk about why this is happening. We don’t want to speak up but we have to or someone else is going to get hurt by it. But to your question about Madison, I feel that because of what I’ve been able to accomplish in my life, I have access to government, which is not easy in third-world countries. I really love Madison. This is a city that welcomed me.

Joel Patenaude is associate editor of Madison Magazine.