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March is Women's History Month, and WGLT is recognizing 21 women who shaped Bloomington-Normal. New episodes every weekday in March.

Charlotte Alvarez keeps focus on the people at the center of immigration

 Charlotte Alvarez
Emily Bollinger
Charlotte Alvarez is executive director of the Normal-based Immigration Project.

Charlotte Alvarez never expected to be in Bloomington-Normal this long. But she's always been clear on her career path.

As high schoolers in Lafayette, Ind., Alvarez and her boyfriend sat down for a serious talk.

“He said, ‘I need to tell you something that’s shaped my entire life. I am illegal,’” Alvarez said.

It set Alvarez on a path that eventually led her to the Immigration Project, a nonprofit organization that helps immigrants navigate the system and connect with service providers in their communities.

“He literally thought his existence was a crime,” Alvarez said, when in fact he was undocumented and lacking immigration documents. “It shaped every part of his decision-making process and how he was living his life.”

The need for competent, trustworthy immigration attorneys was made crystal clear as they navigated the system together. Charlotte studied immigration law at Harvard, working on behalf of people facing eviction for the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau and helping to start the Harvard Immigration Project, which trains students to represent detained individuals.

“I went to Alabama thinking rural spaces are where the need is at," she said, "and then really found my home here in the heartland in a similarly situated city to my hometown in Lafayette—making sure, regardless of where people end up, they have access to legal services.”

The Immigration Project serves 86 counties in Central and Southern Illinois, with a headquarters in Normal. The scope of the work is intentionally broad and flexible to meet fluctuating needs. It also intentionally excludes metro Chicago, where service agencies are far more plentiful.

“We’re looking at making sure no one is forgotten in the in-betweens,” Alvarez said. “There’s no ‘flyover country.’ There’s no ‘pass-through country.’ There are people in our communities who need help and services.”

As executive director, Alvarez drove an organizational expansion including a new welcome center and eight-fold increase in staff—a testament to both her leadership and the need for the Immigration Project's services.

“She stepped up and was immediately a perfect fit for this,” said board member Laurie Bergner, who was part of the team that hired Alvarez. “She’s not only a great attorney; she has vision. The word that everyone says when they talk with her is ‘amazing.’”

Part of the work is simply pointing immigrants in the right direction by connecting them with existing resources within their communities. Another part is promoting visibility between and among immigrant communities—and in the community at large—while fostering welcoming, inclusive spaces.

The nonpartisan Immigration Project is not focused on policy making; rather, their purpose and passion is to support immigrants in navigating a confusing, inefficient and convoluted process—regardless of how or why they came to the United States.

“Our mission is bigger than us and unachievable,” Alvarez said. “We want to help people reduce those barriers and get roots so they can excel and be awesome members of our community long term.”

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.