Battle Creek

Safe space at Battle Creek’s Voces helps immigrants navigate legal landscape

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
BATTLE CREEK, MI — The opportunities they see for a better life in the United States drive residents from south of the border to make huge sacrifices and the long and often dangerous journey north.
As arduous as that journey is, many of these individuals aren’t prepared for the challenges they face once they successfully make it across the border and into communities including Battle Creek. These are the people Belinda Orozco tries to assist once they’re here.
Orozco, Co-Executive Director of Voces, spends the other half of her time with the organization as an Immigration Attorney. She is the only attorney in Calhoun County specifically focused on immigration issues.
“Currently we are providing family-based petitions for those who are married to U.S. citizens or are lawful permanent residents,” she says. “The Humanitarian-based work we do would be for victims of crimes that happened while they were in the United States, people who are victims of human trafficking or victims of domestic violence at the hands of a partner.”
They are most often in search of U Visas, T Visas, or VAWA.
Since September when Orozco began doing immigration work at Voces, she has seen an average of 15 clients per month. The majority of those seeking her assistance are from Calhoun County with others coming from neighboring counties such as Branch and St. Joseph and some coming from as far as Flint.
Although other attorneys in Battle Creek and neighboring communities do immigration work, they are in private practice and don’t offer the sliding fee scale that Orozco offers.
“We won’t turn anyone away because they can’t pay,” she says. “The majority of these families who cross the border don’t have the means to pay a private attorney for Immigration services. Then there’s the language barrier. There are only two private practice attorneys in the area that I know of who specialize in Immigration that speak the language.”
When she asks her clients why they chose Battle Creek, they tell her they see it as a welcoming community where they can access resources.
“We have had generations of people who have emigrated from their native countries and established themselves here. It’s a safe and embracing community.”
Yet, there continue to be vocal critics of this access to assistance and resources who perpetuate stereotypes that aren’t necessarily accurate, says Asad L. Asad, a Sociologist at Stanford University and author of the book “Engage and Evade: How Latino Immigrant Families Manage Surveillance in Everyday Life”. In his interviews with undocumented immigrants, he found that they don’t want to fulfill stereotypes that they know others had of them.

As a result, "they would delay their own health care, or go without food for a while if they had to, just to make sure they weren't seeking out public benefits that they were already not entitled to in the country," says Asad in an article about his book published in June 2023.
Orozco says the immigrants who come through the doors at Voces aren’t asking for assistance they’re not entitled to and they are very aware that the journey they took to get here may not result in the outcome they hope for. She says successfully navigating a path to permanent residency or citizenship is not the norm.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported more than 142,000 immigrants in fiscal year 2023, nearly double the number from the year before, as the Biden administration ramped up enforcement to stem illegal border crossings, according to an article in the Washington Post.
“The increase in deportations is more a reflection of the high numbers of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border than interior enforcement, which Biden has discouraged in most cases,” the article says.
Before coming to work for Voces alongside her husband, Jose, her current Co-Executive Director, Orozco was with the Michigan Immigrant Rights (MIRC) Center where she worked with people who were being deported. Her focus there was going to court to fight to keep them from being removed.
Many of them, she says, were sent back to their home countries where they faced the same violence and uncertainty that drove them to leave in the first place.
This part of her work with MIRC was heartbreaking, she says. "You have to have a passion for it."
The lengthy and painful pathway to that better life
Those looking to become lawful residents are looking at a process that could take two or more years. For those coming to the United States via a Humanitarian pathway, the process could take six years and the path to U.S. Citizenship could take up to 14 years.
“It is a very difficult, arduous process and it’s very taxing on families and individuals who are separated while residency or citizenship is being achieved,” Orozco says. “Physically and mentally it’s a struggle to get here. When I meet with clients who have just emigrated to the United States they appear like wilted flowers. They’re fearful and they’ve experienced trauma.”
The applications and paperwork they face are complicated and require details that Orozco gets them to share using a combination of patience and gentle persistence.
“I work with them at their pace while keeping deadlines in mind. I use trauma-informed tactics to get the information.”
Information sharing is very difficult for people living here without the proper requirements or documentation.
“They live in a world of fear and mistrust,” Orozco says. “They don’t know what specifically to say to me when they’re seeking my help but they don’t want to hinder the process of becoming legal. It’s a literal struggle because of the mistrust. They hear so many stories from others in their situation. I try to mitigate their worries and concerns. I’m not here to judge them.”
Asad says in an article that undocumented immigrants have to find ways to work that won’t raise the suspicions of institutional authorities who may audit their hiring documents.

"But, outside the workplace, undocumented immigrants also have to pay extra attention to behaviors that many U.S. citizens might take for granted, such as ensuring that they buckle their seat belt or that they don't run a red light," Asad was quoted as saying.

Orozco says this fear continues to be an issue among the immigrants she interacts with and has prevented some of them from coming forward to report crimes against them or identify housing or childcare options.
“I have had a percent of clients that were victims of certain types of crimes that did not come forward out of fear,” she says. “Without being able to have conversations with someone who could guide them, they had opportunities that were missed.”

Orozco says this is another example of not knowing that they should seek help from law enforcement and speak up to get the help they need. Not being well-versed on the intricacies of what’s available to them surfaces in other areas.
“I have clients who need housing and childcare and they don’t know where to go. I guide them down to Jose’s areas of focus where incredible work with housing and childcare is being done. A lot of the clients feel relief.”
No matter how deftly these conversations are handled, the fear and mistrust continue in many cases even after they become legal residents.
“It manifests itself in different ways. They tend to be very reserved,” Orozco says.
Speaking from experience
For the first 32 years of her life, Orozco lived on the border separating Mexico from the United States. Her mother was an immigrant from Mexico.
“I was almost desensitized to news about immigration, people washing up on shores of the Rio Grande, and the trauma.”
After earning a Bachelor’s degree in Education from the University of Texas, Orozco worked as a teacher, met and married her husband, and gave birth to three children. The couple relocated to Grand Rapids when Jose Orozco was offered a job with a school system there in an administrative role.
Meanwhile, Belinda Orozco was looking for a program that would enable her to pursue a law degree while supporting her husband and their children. She enrolled at Cooley Law School in Grand Rapids and earned her Juris Doctorate in 2017.
She took a position with MIRC where she focused on looking out for the needs of unaccompanied minors. She says this work was rewarding but not easy.
“What I was hearing out of the mouths of little children and what they endured and witnessed during their journey to get here, it was so inhumane how people can treat children. Hearing their stories does take its toll,” Orozco says.
She continued to work for MIRC in its Kalamazoo office after her husband was offered the job of Executive Director with Voces in February 2020.
In late 2023, she joined her husband at Voces.
Battle Creek, she says, has become a more welcoming place for immigrants like her.
“For the most part, people will help if they’re able to help. A lot of it is knowing who to try to collaborate with and where to go. I like to highlight the work Jose has done bringing key players and community partners to the table to spread the word that we are here and always available to anyone who needs us.”
Clients who have come in looking like wilted plants, beam and glow and come to life after connecting with the Voces staff, Orozco says.
“I think for many and even our forefathers coming to this country gave them opportunities to start anew and escape crimes of torture and violence they witnessed in their home countries. Some of the stories I would hear. It was just devastating,” she says. “They haven’t really lived and it’s just heartbreaking.”

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Read more articles by Jane Parikh.

Jane Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.