December 12, 2019
I’m so honored to be here among all of you this evening, and to have spent some time with so many of you today, particularly during Eve Ensler’s magical healing circle this afternoon. May everyone be so fortunate to experience an ecstatic dance party and raucous energetic tantrum guided by Eve Ensler’s loving exuberance.
You are all here to improve your skills and knowledge as legal providers. But it seems to me that part of the reason you are here, perhaps a secondary purpose for this gathering, is not just to share resources and information, but to connect with one another. And not just in a “let’s exchange business cards” kind of way, or in a “good to see you again can you help me with my case,” but in a deeper way– and forgive me, here, I’m from California—a connection that’s on the soul level. The people in this room are some of the only people who can understand what it is you are going through, how at once urgent and impossible your work is, and what it means to wake up every day knowing what you know, seeing what you’ve seen and hearing what you’ve heard, and soldiering on day in and day out. It seems to me that you all need time to connect with one another and remember the extent to which you are not alone, and to know your triumphs and losses big and small are seen and felt by others. We can’t change the work—not in the big picture, anyway, and not anytime soon, I’m afraid. But there’s something transformative, and I think we all felt it in that circle today, about merely having our work and our struggles named and understood. The acknowledgement of our pain and hard work makes a mark.
So let me take some time to acknowledge the work you do. The work you all do is so, so hard. I have had the privilege of seeing some of it up close, both as a school administrator at Oakland International High School in California, where over 1/3 of our students arrived as unaccompanied minors, and most are still in active court proceedings. I’ve also seen this work up close as a journalist.
What I’ve noted is that one of the remarkable things about what you do is that it’s almost impossible to wholly capture the vastness of your job description. This is true in any social services field. (My first job out of College was at the International Rescue Committee, where my boss explained, during my interview, that at least forty percent of everyone’s work there fell under the category of “other duties as assigned.”) But for you, immigration legal providers – the scope of your work is monstrous, as is the fortitude required to pull it all off. Yes, you have to go to court and prepare declarations. You have to drive to hell and visit detained clients. You need to do intake after intake, you need to remember to pack snacks for your clients as well as stress relieving tools like stress balls and crayons, you need to make the impossible decisions about whose cases you take and whose you don’t. You need to track down missing clients, deal with judges who rule the same way every single time no matter what you do. You need to go to the post office. To the school district. To the sponsor’s home. You need to stay abreast of the recent policy changes and precedent-setting cases that have eviscerated years of work with the single stroke of a pen. You need to figure out how to help a client whose family is stuck in the MPP program, for example—the nature of which is somewhat complicated because MPP is both completely unprecedented in this country’s history and a total violation of international law. Which is to say: you have to figure out how to navigate a legal system that is consistently shifting, undermining itself, and acting outside of the bounds of what is legal. You have to listen to and litigate cases of abuse, find mental health practitioners for your clients, homeless shelters, to enroll your clients in school and make sure that they attend. You have to answer the calls of pesky journalists – and who has time for that, except, if you don’t spend the time explaining simple crap to journalists like me, then how will the public know about all of the abuses that are occurring, and how will there ever be change?
Just saying this list out loud is exhausting.
So few people understand the nature of what you do, and how many fires you have going at once, how many massive battles you are fighting, and how many tiny, bizarre inconveniences and challenges gum stuff up along the way. I don’t mean to counteract the transformative work from the afternoon with this reminder of all that is on your plates – I promise, I’m going somewhere with this.
There’s a small section from my book that I’ll read right now because people who are not lawyers often comment on it, and you’ll get why:
WILBER signed the papers three weeks before April 8. To complete the transfer of guardianship, their parents also had to sign off. Amy and the boys somehow had to get the papers to La Colonia, wehre their parents had no computer and only an intermittently working phone. Mail was tricky-- even if it reached the family, which could take weeks, it would be complicated and expensive to send back. Emailing a scanned copy of the paperwork would be faster (the family could go to the town's copy shop, where the proprietor could help them), but this wasn't ideal. The document would be less reliable in the eyes of the court because it would be hard to prove its origin. Fax was preferable becauset he transmission carried a marker of the date, time, and phone number from which the fax was sent, which would prove, at least, that the document originated in El Salvador. Amy devised a plan with the twins to email the papers to Maricela, who would print it at the copy shop, bring it to her parents to sign, and then fax it back to Amy from the shop.
The Internet and printer worked fine, but then came a hitch.
A broken fax machine in a rural Salvadoran town – that could be the lynchpin of a person’s case? And the urgency of a fax could put a person at mortal risk? And a lawyer—a lawyer—has to figure out a workaround so that that letter can make it on time and, maybe, save someone’s life? This is inexplicable to people who read my book. I’m a writer with an MFA in fiction and let me tell you something: if that scene with La Colonia’s broken fax machine was in a novel, there’s no way it would fly. The workshop leader would laugh it out of the room, or suggest it be thrown in the trashcan and set on fire.
I said something similar to an immigration attorney recently, one of your colleagues who was on the government watchlist (because oh, yeah, I forgot to mention in my previous list that sometimes you all need to, you know, file lawsuits against the federal government for surveilling… you.) When I told her that her story was so perversely upsetting, so neatly, grotesquely mirroring of that of her clients, she looked me dead in the eyes and burst into tears. I thought I’d done something horrible, or she’d taken what I’d said in a way I hadn’t intended. But actually, she was crying because she felt validated. Someone saying, “what happened is horrible, and I’m so sorry, and it’s messed up and unfair,” – it helped.
Something I’ve noticed is that many of us who are experiencing trauma secondarily through this work can be very, very wary of acknowledging its impact, or even calling it trauma, lest it overshadow the immediate, far more horrific trauma of the people we serve. I get that in a really big way. As a social worker type person, I soldier on – who has time for my feelings? I have people to help! I’m working on an article now about vicarious trauma for immigration attorneys, and here’s the interesting thing I’ve learned: trauma makes a mark on the brain, and trains us to feel danger based on the past danger we’ve experienced. It is a protective system that our bodies have developed out of a place of deep biological intelligence. But here’s what’s wild: Vicarious trauma works in the exact same way. If we are traumatized vicariously, our bodies, our brains, often don’t know that the trauma wasn’t ours to begin with. The symptoms are often quite similar (if less potent for those of us vicariously traumatized). But trauma and vicarious trauma mark our brains in the same way.
This is upsetting, and hard to stomach for lots of reasons. But, scientifically, it’s true. And as a writer, I actually think there’s a really lovely metaphor nestled in this science: what happens to one of us matters to all of us. And while I don’t want to center secondary pain or elevate it’s importance above that of people seeking protection from vicious violence and persecution, I also know that you are no good to my students if you are broken.
I’m going to read another short section of my book about the day that the young men –spoiler alert-got their green card approvals.
THE twins' green card approval notice arrived at the end of September. Katie called me early in the morning-- the twins weren't answering their cellphone, so she was hoping to track them down at school. They'd showed up in class that day, their teachers informed me, but had suddenly walked out. I got in the car and drove around the neighborhood hoping to find them, and sure enough there they were, two blocks from the school on the corner of Forty-eighth and Telegraph, Ernesto squatting on the sidewalk and Raúl leaning against a pole, smoking cigarettes with furrowed brows. I told them Amy had news.
"We know," Raúl spat, shaking his head. "We already know."
I was confused. "What do you mean?"
"We got the letter," he said, pulling it from his backpack. The approval notice had arrived in the Hillside mailbox last night.
"It's bad, right?" Raúl said.
I looked at them in disbelief. "What? No! It's good news. It's really good news!"
"Don't joke around with us," Raúl said gravely. "Just tell us the truth."
I told them. The twins looked at each other, then back at me.
"Are you sure?" Ernesto snapped.
"Sure?" repeated Raúl.
"Yes," I said. "Your applications were approved!"
They looked at each otehr again, then smiled. Their smiles became embarrassed laughter. Raúl shook the letter.
The paper, a slim ornament of bureaucracy that resembled a juror summons or a DMV receipt, was crowded with austere, automated-looking text. They hadn't been able to read it. "We thought it said we'd been rejected."
I looked at the paper. "Why did you think that?"
They shrugged. "Just didn't look like good news."
Good news is so hard to come by, and often, your clients have been trained by life and by circumstances to disbelieve that any good news is even possible. Today, Eve Ensler reminded us that we have to celebrate the victories, no matter how small. It can be hard, as some of us discussed today, to celebrate the victories when there is so much work still ahead, and when it feels perverse that we even had to fight for such a thing (one attorney in California mentioned a ruling by a judge that said that withholding water from children as punishment was unlawful – like, seriously, that’s something you all had to fight for?) But let me remind you: when our students get an asylum approval, or a green card, forget all that, when our students even get a LAWYER, we jump for joy.
And Ensler also said that we are all relying on you. We are counting on you. I can tell you as a school administrator that lawyers have, time and time again, not just saved the lives of our students, but saved our school’s existence on a psychic level, our ability to do what we do because you do what you do.
The minute I sat down in the circle with many of you today, I felt an immense welling of emotion. Part of it was the just fact of slowing down, of stopping – very few of us engaged in any kind of social justice work ever do that. But for me, it was more than that. I realize that welling of emotion was, at its heart, about gratitude for all of you and all the work you do, and a tenderness toward you all for what it has cost you, and will cost you, to do this work.
Eve Ensler said it best. Have mercy on yourselves, and one another. I celebrate you, and every single victory past and present, and every single moment, victorious or not, that you dedicate toward a better world, and to yourselves in the process.
Thank you for all that you do.