October 29, 2020

A conversation with kids about immigrants and fairness

Two lawyers posed a challenge to 13 elementary school children: Think of a time when you were in a faraway place, you didn’t have your favorite toy, you couldn’t eat your favorite food, and everything was new and different.

How did you feel?

So began a virtual 45-minute program on immigration and fairness sponsored by the Washington Council of Lawyers. Michael Lukens and Jeannine Gomez, two immigration lawyers in Washington, D.C., led an online discussion, a scavenger hunt and a coloring session aimed at explaining the plight of immigrants and how lawyers help.

The program was part of National Celebration of Pro Bono, which was launched in 2009 in response to the increasing need for pro bono services during harsh economic times. Every October, legal organizations across the country participate in events to draw attention to the need for pro bono participation and to say thanks to those who give their time year-round. The celebration has grown from 600 events in 2009 to more than 10,000.

Lukens, associate director of the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, told the children that lawyers “try really hard to make things fair. We spend our days trying to help people get the right answer in court, to make sure they are able to tell their story, and to have fairness when they do.”

Gomez, a staff attorney with Kids in Need of Defense, started the conversation with a question about how the children felt when they were far away in a strange place.

I would feel shy,” Gomez said. “I would feel alone. I would feel different. I would feel disoriented. These are all feeling that immigrants may feel when coming to the United States of America.” She asked the children: “What can you do to help them feel welcome?” She urged them to write or color their answer on a piece of paper.

One child wrote the word “Welcome” and drew a U.S. flag. Another drew cupcakes. Another, a smiley face.

And what could you do, Gomez asked, to make them feel less lonely? Ask them if they want to play, one girl suggested. Share my Legos, a boy said. Ask them to hang out with you and your friends, a girl offered.

“Inviting people into your group is so welcoming and such a great idea,” Lukens said. “I love that.”

Lukens read a short story — “I’m New Here” by Anne Sibley O’Brien, the tale of three immigrant children from Guatemala, Korea and Somalia who have trouble speaking, writing and sharing their thoughts in English. Afterwards, a boy in the group said the book “reminded me when we were in a new country and we were scared.”

Later, Gomez asked, “What does it mean when we say America is a better place because of immigrants?”

“More diversity,” one child answered.

Exactly, Gomez replied. “If we’re all the same, that’s so boring.”

Next came a scavenger hunt: “Find one thing you love that you would not want to leave behind if you left your house,” Lukens said. The children returned with a blanket, a Wolverine figure, a toy train, a stuffed unicorn, some books, even a live guinea pig named Tommy.

As the program ended, Lukens gave the children a big smile. “This was the best 45 minutes I’ve spent in a long time,” he said. “This was a lot of fun.”

As the children waved goodbye and logged off their computers, Lukens bid them farewell. “Everybody have fun,” he said, “and be kind!”