June is National Immigrant Heritage Month and, in a sea change from the rhetoric of the prior administration, the Biden administration issued a Proclamation that recognizes that America is, and always will be, a nation of immigrants. The Proclamation recognizes that “throughout our history, wave after wave of immigrants have enriched our Nation and made us better, stronger, more innovative, and more prosperous.”
In celebration of this reality, I share the accomplishments of two former refugees who the ABA’s ProBAR project in Harlingen, Texas, represented in their immigration journeys. Wilmer and Abdullahi are two men from different continents who each had a singular dream, to find safe haven and opportunity for themselves and their family members. They have both achieved much over the past two decades and remain grateful for the people who helped them along the way.
Wilmer Alvarez is a naturalized U.S. citizen originally from Guatemala.
Wilmer is a 44-year-old-man who fled his country of Guatemala in 2003 due to death threats made against him for challenging state corruption. Today, nearly 20 years later, he is a U.S. citizen and the proud father of two U.S. citizen children. He lives in California and works as a truck driver to support himself and his children.
Wilmer came to the United States in 2003 and was detained at the Port Isabel Detention Center for about a month before being released on his own recognizance to La Posada Providencia, a refugee shelter operated by Sisters of the Divine Providence in San Benito, Texas. Wilmer lived at La Posada for nearly two years while winding his way through immigration court proceedings, in which a ProBAR pro bono attorney represented him. Wilmer’s case was eventually granted, and after winning asylum, he remained at La Posada until he secured a job and training to be a truck driver.
Less than a year later, his wife and daughter were able to join him in the United States. Despite working a blue-collar job, Wilmer buys suits because he knows that someday he will have a job where he will be expected to dress professionally. He studied in the U.S. and earned his bachelor’s degree in criminology in 2010, hoping to become a police officer or work to help immigrants like himself. He is now pursuing his master’s degree in business. In 2008, three years after leaving the La Posada shelter as an asylee, Wilmer and his wife bought a home in California, one of his proudest achievements. For nine months during the height of the pandemic he volunteered to take the night shift delivering oxygen to California hospitals, working from 8 pm to 8 am, or even longer when necessary.
Wilmer has always wanted his children to have a stable home and community, something he has been able to provide in the United States. His daughter graduated this year from high school, and Wilmer tells me she is a very intelligent young lady and a good student. His California-born son just graduated from the eighth grade. He is a serious young man who expresses himself through poetry. Wilmer is thankful that in the United States, his children don’t have to worry about their parents being abducted and disappeared in the middle of the night, and he is grateful for the protection of the police.
Wilmer still remembers the immigration judge who granted his asylum case. In a recent conversation, he recalled her name, Judge Burkhart, and remembered how she welcomed him to the United States after granting his case and commended him for fighting against corruption in his country.
He tells me his goal is to be able to help others and give back with the type of assistance that he received from ProBAR and La Posada nearly 20 years ago. When he was in immigration detention, Wilmer recalls, he spent much of his time praying, and he still gets emotional when he thinks of that time. When asked about what advice he would have for himself back then, he said that he would tell himself to pray harder, to believe that God is listening and that God will open doors, that when one prays, one is connected to God.
Abdullahi Abdigaani, is a naturalized U.S. citizen originally from Somalia.
Abdullahi fled his birth country of Somalia when he was nine after his father was murdered. He grew up with his mother and eight siblings in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. During those early years, he always dreamed of obtaining an education and becoming involved in politics. Today, he is a naturalized U.S. citizen and lives in Minneapolis with his wife and three daughters, with a fourth child on the way.
Abdullahi left the refugee camp in Kenya in 2004 and migrated through at least six countries over a year and a half before entering the United States in 2006. He was detained at the Port Isabel Detention Center in Los Fresnos, Texas, for 67 days. The ProBAR attorney who assisted in preparing his case was concerned that the immigration judge would only grant him the lesser form of relief called withholding of removal and not full asylum. Abdullahi insisted he needed asylum. With representation from veteran pro bono attorney Karen T. Grisez of Fried Frank LLP, the immigration judge granted asylum, and Abdullahi has never stopped achieving his goals since that day. He earned a bachelor’s degree in clinical lab science, a master’s degree in public health, and is now working on a PhD. in international development.
Abdullahi has achieved all of this over the last 15 years while also getting married, having children, and working full-time to support his family. When I asked him if his life in the United States has been hard, he replied, “none of it is hard, given where I came from and what I went through as a young boy.” Abdullahi is very grateful for the opportunities in his life and recognizes that many people will never be as fortunate as he has been.
When he thinks back to his time in ICE detention in Texas, he says he would tell himself that “it’s worth it.” All he needed, he says, was his “freedom and opportunity.” Asylees are often misunderstood and hailed as dependent, but Abdullahi shared, “I’ve been in this country for 15 years and I have never been on welfare, I have paid for my own college and supported my family.” His dream is to work toward the change he wishes to see in the world. His goal is to return to Africa to make a difference for the millions of people who continue to live in despair due to widespread poverty, corruption, and impunity. He hopes that the education he has obtained in the United States will allow him to give back and make a difference in the lives of others. For those who are in a similar situation, his advice is to be patient, to be confident that the process is worth it, and to never give up. He is also very grateful for ProBAR’s support and believes that the people who work there represent what is right about this country and the world.
I have worked in the immigration field for nearly 35 years, and even after all that time I remain inspired by the resilience, dedication, and profound contributions of the immigrants and asylum-seekers that I have served. It is not surprising to me that Wilmer and Abdullahi have achieved so much, and both strive, more than anything, to give back. I wholeheartedly agree with the Proclamation that “immigrants historically have made and continue to make our Nation stronger,” and recognize the 11 million undocumented immigrants in our country who could contribute even more if they were only able to secure legal status and permanency in our nation.
About the Author
Meredith Linsky is the Director of the ABA Commission on Immigration in Washington, DC. She was formerly the Director of ProBAR, the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project, located in Harlingen, Texas, from 2000 to 2014, where she supervised staff and mentored volunteers working on behalf of detained immigrants and asylum-seekers. Previously, she worked as a Research and Writing Attorney at the Office of the Federal Defender in the Eastern District of California. In 2012, the American Immigration Lawyers Association awarded Ms. Linsky with the Arthur C. Helton Human Rights Award for her outstanding service in advancing the cause of human rights. In 2013, the State Bar of Texas honored her with the J. Chrys Dougherty Legal Services Award.