If meaningful immigration reform ever comes, it could be thanks to Andrea Huerta.
The daughter of Mexican parents who emigrated to New Jersey in 1989, two years before she was born, the Rutgers-Newark senior hopes to parlay her experiences at Rutgers’ Eagleton Institute of Politics into a career in public service – mayor of New Brunswick, perhaps.
From her seat at that table, Huerta says, she would reach across countless divides – legal immigrant versus undocumented resident, Democrat versus Republican, older generation versus younger – to bring warring parties together on such issues as in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants and easier pathways to citizenship.
“I want to bridge the gap, and I think education is the best way we have to do it,” says Huerta, who helps run Citizenship Rutgers, an Eagleton initiative designed to simplify the process by which permanent legal residents of New Jersey become U.S. citizens.
The oldest child of parents from Puebla in central Mexico, Huerta began kindergarten in New Brunswick not knowing a word of English. Like generations of young immigrants before her, she grew up serving as a go-between, explaining American ways to her parents and interpreting their needs to school administrators and municipal officials.
“My father tried to keep the burden off me, but as the oldest sister with two younger brothers, a lot fell to me, especially making doctor appointments and helping my father deal with his diabetes,” Huerta says.
Now 21, she works at Eagleton every Tuesday, Thursday and Friday as an AmeriCorps member. The program, sponsored by the federal government, was created under President Bill Clinton as part of the National and Community Service Trust Act of 1993. Members play a large range of roles, from tutoring disadvantaged youth to cleaning parks and streams.
In keeping with her commitment to serve the immigrant community, Huerta signed on for Citizenship Rutgers, which offers one-stop workshops on Rutgers campuses in Newark, New Brunswick and Camden to guide prospective citizens through the labyrinth of paperwork and bureaucracy the process requires.
A key goal of the initiative is to lessen the fears that often keep green-card holders from taking the next step.
“The assistance is very much needed,” says Huerta, who spends a great deal of her time recruiting volunteers among students, faculty and alumni. “A lot of people would like to seek the help of an attorney, but it’s too costly. Everyone at our events is very appreciative, not only because the service is free, but also because they know they can rely on Rutgers.”
Her job also is to help spread the word about Citizenship Rutgers within New Jersey’s large and diverse ethnic populations. Huerta regularly reaches out to organizations in the Spanish, Haitian, Korean and Indian communities in search of free advertising and support.
More than 500 applicants from 60 countries have taken part in the programs since their inception in April 2011. One of the most recent, held in New Brunswick, drew 80 future citizens and 70 volunteers. It also caught the attention of TV Asia, which sent a camera crew to the Rutgers Student Center to capture the event.
Huerta says her political science classes in Newark and her experiences at Eagleton have helped forge her deep commitment to public service, particularly hearing from speakers that Eagleton regularly brings in. Among them she cites Camden mayor Dana Redd and immigration attorney Robert Frank.
Like a sizeable number of Rutgers students, Huerta is the first in her family to attend college. “My parents are so proud they’ve been planning my graduation party for months!” she says. “It’s very rewarding for them to see me make it in the country they came to in search of a better life.”
After commencement, she hopes to continue with Citizenship Rutgers, with an eye to law school a year or so down the road.