Sitting on their family couch in Teton Valley, Cristy Liaw Gabel talked to her 4-year-old son, speaking in Indonesian.
Liaw Gabel’s story sounds like that of many who’ve moved to the Tetons.
“Originally I thought, I’m only going to live here for a year,” Liaw Gabel said. “Sixteen years later, I’m still here.”
But for a while, Liaw Gabel wasn’t sure if she’d be able to stay at all. She’s from the Indonesian island of Sumatra. And when she first came to Jackson to be near her sister and work in finance at St. Johns Health, she received a deportation letter over some incorrect paperwork. She only had 60 days to figure it out.
“When you’re in your early twenties, just graduated from college, that’s the last thing you want to worry about and think about,” she said.
So, Liaw Gabel turned to one of the only immigration lawyers in town.
“I was finally able to hire Rosie as my attorney,” she said. “And it’s worth every penny because I’m here now, still with a family and a house.”
She’s referring to Rosie Read — a household name for many immigrants in Jackson.
“I think there are about five of us, five immigration attorneys in the whole state,” Read said.
Serving immigrants in the Tetons
Back when she helped Liaw Gabel, Read was practicing immigration law at a private firm in town. But she said her goal was always to offer services for free or at a low cost.
And that’s finally coming to fruition. Earlier this summer, she began launching a nonprofit legal center to help immigrants in Teton County.
“We’re definitely on the takeoff,” Read said. “I wouldn’t say we’re at cruising altitude yet.”
Currently in the fundraising stage, the Wyoming Immigrant Advocacy Project has been in the works for over six years. Read got the idea around the time Former President Donald Trump was elected in 2016, after he ran a campaign centered around cracking down on border policies.
Read said she saw a groundswell of support for immigrants.
“I started thinking maybe there’s a way to create a vehicle to kind of channel that support and help out this population that was looking like they were going to need a whole lot more help in the very near future,” she recalled.
A few years ago, Read launched part of the program at the state’s ACLU, focusing specifically on violations of civil liberties. Now, she’s expanding that program, saying the scope of needs have become much broader as the immigrant population grows in Teton County.
“Immigrants play a major role in making this place run,” she said. “But also, immigrants are now your kids’ friends. It’s your neighbor. They’re business owners.”
Filling a gap
Lura Matthews leads Immigrant Hope, which has provided legal aid to immigrants in the region for about seven years. She said there’s a big need here, but her organization can only help with specific cases.
“So, they might have married a U.S. citizen or people who have had DACA for a few years, need to renew their DACA, or people who have been green card holders for a while and need to apply for naturalization,” Matthews said.
Roughly 30% of Wyoming’s Teton County community is estimated to be Latino, many who’ve immigrated from Mexico. Read said Central Americans also travel here seeking asylum, and Eastern Europeans come for summer work in the region and often decide to stay.
According to Matthews, Immigrant Hope can’t help with all the cases the region sees since it doesn’t have attorneys on staff. She said she welcomes the new nonprofit addressing that need.
“There has been a gap for more complicated cases and more difficult situations,” Matthews said.
According to the National Immigrant Justice Center, immigrants are five times more likely to win their case and be able to stay in the U.S. with an attorney.
Read said she gets calls from people asking for help all around the state, in places like Casper and Laramie.
“I’m just hoping people feel less desperate about getting that information,” she said, “finding someone that can sort of walk alongside them in the immigration journey.”
Read said launching the Wyoming Immigrant Advocacy Project has been overwhelming, but that the community — and donors — have been supportive so far, as it’s been a long time coming.
“When I’m able to sort of pause and lift my head up from all of that, I kind of can’t believe this is finally happening,” Read said.
‘I survived to be here’
Back in Liaw Gabel’s house in Victor, Idaho, she said – in the late 2000s – Read helped relieve a lot of her anxiety when she got that deportation letter. Liaw Gabel got a green card shortly after, and in 2015, she officially became a citizen of the U.S.
“I survived that whole immigration ordeal, and I survived to be here. It’s a huge accomplishment personally, and now [for] us as a family,” Liaw Gabel said, sitting next to her husband on the couch.
Their son, Asher, squatted in the corner of the living room, playing with green toy garbage trucks, wearing a traditional batik shirt from Indonesia.
Liaw Gabel said she’s trying to raise her son bilingual to have ties to her native culture, adding that she hopes Read can help more immigrants have a success story like her.
“There’s a big need for it in this community and in the country, and I’m very thankful that I’m done with that chapter of trying to get documentation and paperwork and all that stuff,” Liaw Gabel said. “Now I can live the life and raise our kid.”
The Wyoming Immigrant Advocacy Project is slated to begin accepting new clients next spring. And while it’s mainly focused on Teton County, Read said the goal is to help immigrants across the state down the line.
Rosie Read is a former board member at KHOL.