This past week from Wednesday - Saturday, I had the unique opportunity to give immigration legal services in four different parts of New York City. Like the rest of this 1+ year pro bono journey thus far, I've realized that so many of the issues I've been seeing have so many similarities yet are uniquely different. I feel that more of these stories need to be told as a reminder that behind the topic of immigration policy: there are always real people being affected by it.
Day 1: Jackson Heights, Queens
On Wednesdays, I take the 6 train and then the 7 train from the South Bronx to Jackson Heights in Queens where I volunteer with Make the Road NYC.
I've been helping out some of the attorneys there with their caseload -- namely a handful of cases affecting immigrant clients who also identify as part of the LGBTQ community.
One of the reasons why I decided to specialize in immigration law in the first place was because immigrant rights intersects with nearly every other type of social justice issue today -- and fighting for LGBTQ rights is certainly one of them.
I've been working on cases where LGBTQ immigrant youth have been the target of workplace sexual harassment here in New York City.
One particular client who is a transgender woman was the target of an employer's physical and verbal harassment and abuse. Reading the transcript of what occurred was tough to read -- how this young woman endured abusive sexual contact from her employer. The client felt she had no other choice but to go to work as she needed the money in order to survive. And we were going to do what we could to get this client relief -- hopefully in the form of a U-Visa (reserved for victims of certain crimes).
The NYC Commission on Human Rights is also involved in working with cases such as these (and by the way, the number of city agencies in New York City is mind boggling).
We will be meeting with this particular young client soon and one question is left on my mind: on top of immigration concerns, how many immigrants in this country are facing other intersecting human rights abuses? There are so many stories to tell.
Day 2: New York City Immigration Court, Lower Manhattan (26 Federal Plaza)
One of my colleagues/friends at Make the Road told me that the organization handled the Unaccompanied Alien Youth (UAC) docket at the NYC immigration court once a month and asked me if I wanted to come and help all of last Thursday. And so I did.
The purpose of having lawyers at immigration court then was to screen the unrepresented youth, give advice, and possibly give referrals.
One of the main things we were looking for was to see if these unaccompanied youth may have been eligible for what's called Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJ) -- which is a certain immigration classification available to certain undocumented immigrants under the age of 21 who have been abused, neglected, or abandoned one or both parents.
I met with a handful of immigrant teenagers that morning/afternoon in immigration court.
First, the NYC immigration court itself is a sight to behold with 32+ courtrooms. It was akin to something of an immigration factory of sorts -- the sound of administrative stamping going on from every direction; clients filing into various courtrooms; and the overwhelming feeling that I had thinking about whether or not every client who walked through those doors was receiving their justice.
The first teenager I spoke with was 15 years old from El Salvador and never had a relationship with her father. She walked/used different transportation alone to get to the United States and told me things about El Salvador that I already heard of when I was working in the Texas detention centers last spring.
I heard other stories of unaccompanied youth fleeing their countries and coming here alone, seeking refuge here in the United States. We were huddled in the small corner of one of the rooms on the floor that happened to be unoccupied (the pro bono room was already being used for something else).
I thought about how the conversations in that corner of that room were so pivotal to the outcome in these immigrant teenagers' cases.
The main thing that struck me was how pleasant the teens were who I was working with. Really delightful young people, with a generous smile and even sharing a light-hearted joke or two. If this is what America's future looks like, I assure you it looks very bright.
Day 3: St. Luke's Church, South Bronx
I've written about my experience running an immigration legal services clinic in the South Bronx before, and I've been learning so much not only about immigrant life in the South Bronx -- but the history of the South Bronx overall.
Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to check out an exhibit at the City Museum of New York on the Upper West Side, called "In the South Bronx of America."
There were photographs everywhere just like the one above -- of the South Bronx eerily looking like present-day Detroit -- which I had the opportunity to see earlier this summer.
The South Bronx and Bronx today is still the poorest out of NYC's 5 boroughs, and the South Bronx is home to the poorest congressional district in the country -- with 38% of its residents living below the federal poverty line.
There was a woman who walked into my clinic with all the documents needed to petition for her husband to come to NYC from Honduras. She told me that she went to a notario who not only charged her a ridiculous sum of money, but also messed up her case -- and her spouse wasn't able to come to the US the first time she filed.
Notario fraud is something quite notorious in the immigration community -- individuals who purport themselves to be legal experts or lawyers, but who are not.
It was difficult observing her tell her story but her resiliency stuck with me: she had filed again and was ready to submit all the documents to prove their bona fide marriage.
It angers me how much the immigration system in the US is dysfunctional not only on that systemic level -- but individual participants, like the notario this woman previously consulted -- who contribute to that dysfunction.
She is coming back to another Friday clinic so that we can do a final check of all her documents and she can finally petition for her spouse to join her here in the US.
Day 4: Citizenship Day, Lower Manhattan
This past Saturday was the American Immigration Lawyer Association's Citizenship Day, which I was happy to participate in through CUNY here in New York City.
There were individuals from all over the world there: I worked with a woman from Hong Kong, a man from Trinidad and Tobago, and there were probably a total of 100+ immigrants there who were taking that next step towards naturalization.
Over this past year, I've often thought about how much of a privilege it is that I am a US-born citizen and as such, I will never have to self-navigate through the utterly confusing and frustrating immigration process here in the USA.
And it's all because I happened to be born here in St. Louis, Missouri instead of somewhere else in the world.
The woman from Hong Kong brought in her naturalization forms and other paperwork and told me that "the process is so daunting." And that she "didn't want to complete the forms alone."
I told her that I was super happy to help and validated her feelings on the daunting immigration process. We both talked about how if there was one little mistake on the form, it could set the process back considerably.
Before she left the table, she looked at me with such utmost sincerity and told me thank you. She said that she was grateful for my time and taking time out of my busy schedule to help her.
I told her it was no problem at all. I then immediately thought about all of you who are reading this -- who have supported me both emotionally and financially since I left for this journey on that summer day in July 2015. And when she told me thank you, I in turn, reflected a thank you to all of you.
Thank you for your support which enables me to continue doing this immigration legal services work. I can't wait to see what's ahead here in New York City and beyond, and it's truly because of you that stories like these get to be heard and told. Thank you.