Local lawyers help undocumented Medford girl
By DAMIAN MANN
Of The Mail Tribune
MEDFORD — Nothing could stop Yaremi Mejia from becoming a star basketball player for South Medford High.
She tore up the court, racked up points, dished out assists and watched the accolades pile up. In 2012, the team's point guard not only led South Medford to the state championship — the first time a team from Southern Oregon won the large-school tournament — she was named player of the game.
As her athletic prowess increased and universities began offering her scholarships, Mejia faced a personal struggle that many sports fans probably didn't realize.
She was a champion, but she was in the U.S. illegally.
“I was very discouraged about that,” the 20-year-old remembers. “It was scary, but I'm here.”
Mejia sought help from the Center for Non-Profit Legal Services in Medford to become a legal resident of the U.S.
Local lawyers have an ongoing program to help Mejia and others who don't have the financial means to tackle complex legal issues.
The Lawyer's Campaign for Equal Justice recently recognized Jackson County — for the second year in a row — for the large number of lawyers contributing to help the poor.
Local lawyer Dominic Campanella, statewide co-chair for the Campaign for Equal Justice, said that in addition to their pro-bono work, 137 lawyers in Jackson County (out of 300) donated $26,321 to the legal defense fund — the highest percentage of lawyers contributing in any Oregon county.
Statewide, $1.25 million was raised, he said.
“It's pretty incredible what we were able to pull off,” he said.
The money goes to support cases involving child custody, immigration, landlord-tenant disputes and other issues.
Non-Profit Legal Services has helped 40 young people in the valley file applications for legal residence.
In the case of Mejia, the group helped provide a clear direction for what could have been an uncertain future for the young woman.
Mejia's family left Mexico when she was 6. They lived first in Los Angeles, then moved to Medford, where Mejia enrolled at Oak Grove Elementary as a fifth-grader.
Over the years, as she went to McLoughlin Middle School and South Medford, she worried about getting deported.
Then, in September 2012, she attempted to board a plane to go to a basketball tournament in Southern California. She had no identification, so she wasn't allowed to get on the plane.
Mejia said a tearful goodbye to the team that she helped put in the winner's circle.
“I was humiliated, and I was angry,” she said. “But what happened that day made me weak and made me strong.”
In June 2012, President Obama signed the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which provides a path to legal residency for children brought into the country illegally by their parents.
Mejia said her inability to board that plane made her realize that her future was limited if she didn't take action. She wouldn't qualify for college scholarships unless she could prove she was in the country legally.
Tom Cole, director of Kids Unlimited and Mejia's coach since she arrived in Medford, encouraged her to start the legal process.
“We did all we could to support Yaremi's dream, but we needed the professionals to navigate the hurdles,” he said.
With a lot of legal help, Mejia received her Social Security number and an Oregon driver's license a few months after her moment of humiliation at the airport.
Now legal, she has received a full-ride scholarship at Portland State University, majoring in criminal justice with a minor in psychology. Mejia plans to become a police officer.
Josh Medina, Mejia's immigration attorney with the Center for Non-Profit Legal Services, said the basketball star considers this valley her home.
“She is as American as anyone else,” he said.
When her family arrived in Medford, there weren't a lot of support programs for the Latino community, he said.
After she got involved with Kids Unlimited, she started to excel, Medina said.
Mejia was one of the first applicants for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, he added.
“Now, she wants to be an example for other children,” he said.
Mejia's parents, Pedro Mejia and Julia Hernandez Mejia, still live and work in Medford. She has four sisters and two brothers.
She said nearly her entire family now has legal status to stay in the country, though they are awaiting approval for one of her brothers.
“I persevered,” Mejia said. “Everyone in my family persevered.”