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A Santa Maria immigrants rights activist has been recognized by Rep. Salud Carbajal as one of six congressional women of the year.

Awarded annually to coincide with the conclusion of Women's History Month, the award recognizes women in the 24th Congressional District "who have left a positive impact on their communities," according to Carbajal's office.

Anahi Mendoza, of Santa Maria, joins Jill Anderson, of Lompoc; Tania Israel and Yessenia Marroquin, of Santa Barbara; Sandi Sigurdson, of San Luis Obispo; and Dr. Leola Dublin Macmillian, of Morro Bay, as this year's recipients. 

"I was honored," Mendoza said. "There are a lot of great people in Santa Maria that are making big efforts to create change out here."

For the past year, Mendoza has headed the Santa Barbara County Immigrant Legal Defense Center, a nonprofit organization that recruits volunteer attorneys on the Central Coast to represent detained immigrants during federal immigration proceedings. The group also conducts Know Your Rights workshops to ensure community members are aware of their rights if they ever encounter U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials.

For Mendoza, the work is both vital and highly personal. Rural areas often lack access to resources available in large metropolitan areas, she said. 

At the age of 4, Mendoza and her family moved to the United States from Mexico City, ultimately overstaying their visa and settling into a one-bedroom apartment Isla Vista. Though she currently benefits from the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, Mendoza said she has been aware of her legal status — and all the limitations that come with it — since childhood.

"There were a lot of different coming-of-age moments, where you weren't on the same track as your peers," she explained. She skipped out on a trip to Washington, D.C., for youth leaders and could not participate in the now-defunct U.S. House of Representatives Page Program.

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"I would get so frustrated," Mendoza continued. "I was nominated for things and would get them, but I couldn't do them."

Mendoza and her family relocated to Santa Maria at the start of her freshman year. For a year, she boarded the Clean Air Express, making the predawn commute to Dos Pueblos High School in Goleta. She transferred to Santa Maria High School the next year.

"All I heard about Santa Maria was the traditional stereotypes — that there were a lot of fights and that nobody went to college," she recalled. "But then I went, and it was not what I thought it would be."

At Santa Maria High, Mendoza helped establish the school's Gay-Straight Alliance and founded a Dream Club to encourage tolerance and understanding of undocumented students. Her history teacher, Jeff Cooper, encouraged her to apply to Ivy League schools and other elite universities. She was also named class valedictorian.

Mendoza was admitted to her dream school, the University of California, Berkeley, on a full scholarship, an opportunity she was unable to take due to her legal status. She ultimately enrolled at Harvard University on a full ride (the school is private and able to offer financial aid regardless of immigration status), and majored in social studies with an emphasis on U.S. immigration policy and social change. She wrote her thesis on immigrant detention at the southern border and was recognized by the White House as a DACA Champion of Change.

After graduation, she accepted a fellowship with the New York-based Immigrant Justice Corps, working primarily in Texas to conduct "credible fear" interviews with asylum seekers. She took a job heading the group when she returned to the Central Coast, splitting her time between Santa Maria and Santa Barbara.

Under her direction, the Santa Barbara County Immigrant Legal Defense Center has recruited more than 40 attorneys to represent cases on a pro-bono basis. They successfully represented their first client last fall and secured a $5,000 bond for a man detained at the Adelanto Detention Facility, west of Victorville, after he was released from Santa Barbara County Jail.

Mendoza said they are also working to expand community education and direct service efforts.

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Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga

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Education Reporter

Mathew Burciaga is a Santa Maria Times reporter who covers education, agriculture and public safety. Prior to joining the Times, Mathew ran a 114-year-old community newspaper in Wyoming. He owns more than 40 pairs of crazy socks from across the globe.