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May 01, 2023

From ProBAR Client to ProBAR Shelter Services Director: Cindy Bernal’s Inspiring Personal Journey

Congratulations to Cindy Bernal on her recent promotion and on a decade of exceptional service to the unaccompanied children served by ProBAR.

Written by COI Program Specialist Katie Sheridan
Cindy Bernal

Cindy Bernal

ProBAR Shelter Services Director

Cindy Bernal vividly remembers the day she found out that there was a deportation order against her. It was early evening at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Harlingen, Texas, an austere concrete building in the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) region of the Texas-Mexico border where Cindy and her family lived. They had immigrated from El Salvador to the RGV when she was five to eventually move to Houston, and then back to the RGV. But on that day, at age 16, Cindy and her parents were taken to the back of the office and handed over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. The agents began intimidating Cindy’s parents by telling them in Spanish that ICE had the power to take Cindy away from them. Listening to the agents speaking among themselves in English, Cindy remembers remaining silent as the agents discussed giving her an Order of Supervision, and her stress turned into panic. Cindy finally spoke up, asking the agents in English what an Order of Supervision was. The agents appeared surprised when they heard her speak fluently in English, and becoming noticeably friendlier, eventually allowed her to leave with her parents. By the time Cindy and her family were released, the agents were engaging her parents in friendly conversation about whether they knew how to make pupusas, to which Cindy’s father insisted they were welcome over for pupusas anytime. The juxtaposition of the casual conversation about food with the gravity of the life-altering news she had just learned was jarring. When the agents asked if the family had an immigration attorney and Cindy confirmed that they did not, the agents handed them the phone number for ProBAR, explaining that they might be able to help.

All of this was happening while Cindy was in high school, an added stressor to an already busy time in a young person’s life. Cindy was an excellent student and took advanced classes, but as she started to apply to internships and scholarships her junior and senior years, doors began to close on her in a way that they didn’t for her documented peers. She was far along in the process of applying to AmeriCorps when it became clear that being undocumented made her ineligible to serve. As in Cindy’s case, the barriers of undocumented status often come to a head around high school, when a young person is starting to piece together the components of their future: qualifying for scholarships to college, academic programs, and eventually employment and career – things that many of us take for granted but that often aren’t available to undocumented youth even if they have grown up most of their lives in the U.S. Compounding this reality is the uncertainty and fear of deportation. Cindy remembers writing to her best friend the night before her first USCIS interview, revealing for the first time that she was undocumented. She didn’t know if they would ever see each other again, but promised to make contact if she were deported to El Salvador. Cindy remembers crying while she wrote that letter.

Thankfully, Cindy’s family contacted ProBAR after they received the number from the ICE agent. Initially Cindy’s family was told that ProBAR couldn’t take her case, but persistence paid off, and in the end, a ProBAR attorney named Gladis Molina agreed to take the case. Another pro bono attorney named Wendy Miller also assisted in reopening the old deportation order from the Houston Immigration Court. Cindy was finally granted legal permanent residency in the United States at the end of her senior year of high school.

Cindy had long known that if she were permitted to stay, she would find a career helping people the way she and her family had been helped when they were struggling with the immigration system. Once she graduated from college at the University of Texas Pan American, and encouraged by ProBAR staff, she applied to work at ProBAR.

And so began Cindy’s career at ProBAR, first on a three-month contract, and then as a permanent staff paralegal. She loved her job and put in long hours, providing legal services to the unaccompanied minors detained at the Office of Refugee Resettlement facilities across the region. As she delved deeper into the work, she felt that she was one of the privileged ones who had been able to gain legal status, and she wished she could help every single child. She tried her best and gave what resources she had to offer, whether a Know Your Rights presentation, a legal screening, or a referral to an attorney. Her personal experience with the immigration system made her more passionate and more sensitive toward the children she worked with. She understood the immense value of having competent and compassionate representation. She also understood firsthand how heavily the burden of immigration difficulties weighs on a child and their family.

Over the years, Cindy became an expert in serving tender-age children and pregnant and parenting teens. Cindy also trained and inspired countless colleagues. I worked with Cindy from 2015 to 2019, benefiting from her mentorship and unique perspective. She set the standard for empathy and being present with every child while they told their story. I saw her empathetic presence especially when she spoke with the younger children. Despite years of listening to children’s stories of trauma and pain, Cindy set the example of remaining compassionate even if you get tired or discouraged at times, and even if you don’t know whether you will be able to help the child avoid deportation.

After several promotions over the years, in 2022 ProBAR leadership promoted Cindy to Director of ProBAR’s Shelter Services Department. As Shelter Services Director, Cindy oversees a department of over 90 staff members who in 2022 alone served nearly 27,000 unaccompanied children.

She may never have imagined on that fateful day at the USCIS office where she would end up today, but Cindy's story is a testament to the importance of legal representation, the value of persistence and hard work, and the power of giving back.

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