Monday, October 3, 2011

Marlen Santana-Perez named Social Services Commissioner; personal tangle with immigration bureaucracy informs her social work

Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and Metro Social Services Commissioner Marlen Santana-Perez,
upon her appointment as Commissioner in July 2011. Source:

On the same day that Ana Escobar was being named Metro Clerk, the Council named Marlen Santana-Perez as one of only six Metro Social Services Commissioners. Her term will run five years, through April 2016. Santana is a licensed clinical social worker with Saint Thomas Health Services.

Santana was an attorney in her native Cuba and is a student at the Nashville School of Law.

On the day she became a U.S. citizen last December, Santana described to the Tennessean her harrowing personal story of immigration to the U.S.  The journey started in 1998 when she and her then four-year-old daughter left Cuba for Venezuela. Months later they arrived in Cancun, and then Reynosa, Mexico. It was 1999 when mother and daughter joined other Cubans in a two-day walk from Reynosa to McAllen, Texas, on the other side of the U.S.-Mexico border. The group navigated the Rio Grande in inner tubes.

Santana's Cuban status theoretically protected her from deportation, but the federal government nonetheless ordered her out of the country in 2004 before rescinding that order in 2007.  It took three more years before Uncle Sam invited her to raise her right hand in a naturalization ceremony.

Santana described to Hispanic Integration Hub how her own transition and struggles with the immigration bureaucracy help her identify with her social work clients:
This clinic gave me the opportunity to help people that—at some point in my life here when I came to the United States, I was in the same situation. Due to the wrong legal advice from an attorney, I ended up with a deportation order, and it was very hard for me without legal status. So when I was able to go to school, I always said to myself, “This is what I want to do. I want to help people in the same situation.” I was a practicing attorney in Cuba before I came here, it was really hard for me to adjust to and understand the system here. So for me, this is an opportunity to show that it's possible, that they can do better things, that there is opportunity here and that's very rewarding and very good for me.
In 2009, Santana painted a more detailed picture of her ordeal with the immigration bureaucracy in an interview with Nashville Public Television, as part of the Hablamos EspaƱol installment of the local PBS affiliate's award-winning "Next Door Neighbor" series. Watch her tell the story in her own words in the 11-minute video, available online.

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