The Employee Rights Center offers nonprofit immigration services in City Heights

Peter Zschiesche is the Employee Rights Center’s founding director. Photo courtesy of the Employee Rights Center

Many people in City Heights are afraid to move around in the community because of their immigration status, making it difficult for them to attend school or access health care.

The California Endowment, sponsor of the Building Healthy Communities initiative in City Heights, is trying to address this issue. It’s partnered with the Employee Rights Center to provide technical assistance to Building Healthy Communities grantees working in City Heights.

The Employee Rights Center offers nonprofit immigration services and has two attorneys in its City Heights office and many resources beyond that.

“Last year, we generated over 12,000 volunteer hours from law students in San Diego that were giving their services to serve low-income people in City Heights and elsewhere in San Diego,” Peter Zschiesche, the center’s founding director, said. “It’s a tremendous resource we have to offer.”

The center plans to work with the Mid-City Community Advocacy Network’s Momentum Teams to connect with grantees and educate them about how immigration issues affect people’s lives. Center Program Director Alor Calderon and Community Organizer Eneh-Lieh Ancheta are already working together with Mid-City CAN teams to address immigration issues facing City Heights residents. The center will expand its efforts in early 2012.

Immigration status is far more complex than most people realize.

“It is not just a matter of being undocumented or a citizen. There are a lot of different people in-between,” Zschiesche said. “There are a tremendous amount of mixed households in City Heights, where there are different immigration statuses between the parents and kids, or the two parents, or with some of the kids and not with some of the other kids.”

With support from the Employee Rights Center,  grantees who provide services to City Heights residents are better prepared to address the complexity of immigration status.

The center has plenty of success stories. Sarah Loftin, an immigration attorney at the center, shared one in an email:

“We recently finished legalizing status for a City Heights family,” she wrote. “In 2009, we helped the father obtain citizenship despite his complex criminal history. Once we got his citizenship approved, we then helped him petition for his wife and minor son who were both undocumented.  His wife had a complex case because of overstays with her border crossing card.”

After a lengthy process, the center helped the family visit Mexican relatives for the first time in six years. “This was a really important victory for the family,” Loftin wrote.

Adam Ward is the Mid-City CAN staff writer and a former San Diego Union-Tribune editor. Adam has lived in San Diego for nearly a decade and is the father of a young son. Contact him at or (619) 283-9624 ext. 210.