Bridging The Gap Between Us And Immigrants

As third-year law students and student-attorneys of the Immigration Clinic at The George Washington University Law School, we have the honor of representing immigrants from around the world while guiding them through our very complex immigration system.

Through this experience, we’ve learned that immigrants are just like us. They share our values of family and community; education and opportunity; freedom and security. They’re individuals who are trying to make the best decisions for themselves and for their loved ones.

But in many ways immigrants are not like us. There are some things that you and I will never fully understand. There are some things that we, having grown up under the cloak of privilege afforded us by our status as natural born citizens of the United States, will never have to endure.

So how do we bridge this gap? Why should we take time from our uniquely challenging lives to appreciate and understand our privilege? To what end?

For many student-attorneys, the answer is simple: I am an immigrant. I was an immigrant. My parents are or were immigrants. For the two of us, and countless others, however, what we view as our obligation to welcome and accommodate immigrants has been challenged regularly by our government, our communities, and even our families.

IN THEIR SHOES

The summer after my freshman year of college, I worked at a peach orchard near my hometown in Western Colorado. On most days, I manned the farm stand and gave tours of the orchard. On some days, however, I was invited to cull peaches in the packing facility alongside migrant workers. I had few opportunities to interact with these workers and knew little about them, other than that they performed the unenviable job of picking peaches all day. Which they did with a smile and few complaints.

I also knew that they spoke Spanish.

“De d¯nde es Usted?” “Tiene familia aquÌ?” I asked, fumbling over peaches as well as my limited Spanish vocabulary. “Vengo de MÈxico…”

These conversations, though brief and unpremeditated, revealed a powerful narrative: my new friends were fathers, husbands, and sons. They worked long days, in a strange town with sometimes unfriendly neighbors, to send money home to their mothers, wives, and children. They were selfless, fearless, and determined.

How, then, are these men and other immigrants deemed unworthy of acceptance into my community?

Why have my friends and family praised the contributions of migrant workers but maintain a paternalistic attitude toward them?

I hope that I will never have to make the sacrifices that so many immigrants make for their families.

But I’m thankful that someone before me did.

THE RIPPLE EFFECT

Growing up in a small, rural town in Western New York, it has been an upward battle explaining to my family that I am pursuing a career in immigration law. Without fail, the first question I have always been asked is: “On whose side?”

“On our side,” I reply, knowing that such a response is likely to ignite my relative’s nationalistic fervor. Sadly, I’m right, and the battle begins. “So you are working to help people stay in our country? People who are here illegally?” they reply.

By this point in the conversation, no less than five buzzwords or talking points from Fox News have been thrown at me. With every word, I can feel their disappointment. I am not who they raised me to be.

Still, I continue to fight back. I use factual evidence, personal anecdotes, and emotional pleas, more or less begging them to reconsider their outdated beliefs.

And, just when I thought my message had gone unheard, I received a text message from my father out of the blue. The text simply read, “I’ll have you know I’m taking your stance on [refugees]. I’m with you on that one.”

“Why?” I asked. “What was it [about refugees] that made you change your mind?” He immediately recalled two experiences. First, a movie, based on a true story, that I had asked him to watch about the journey of Sudanese children seeking refuge in the US to escape civil war in their home country. Second, a personal encounter he recently had with two brothers who had come to the US from Kenya as refugees.

These two experiences – small in theory, but powerful in impact – have put names and faces to those who are constantly placed at the center of debate. Now, instead of seeing these individuals as pieces in a political game, he sees them as individuals whose humanity and value is not, and will not, be up for debate.

We have learned countless lessons from working in the Immigration Clinic. Not the least, we have learned that, although our privilege may protect us from ever having to stand in the shoes of our clients, it has afforded us the extraordinary opportunity to confront the status quo and encourage reconciliation.

Sarah DeLong is a student-attorney at the George Washington University Immigration Clinic. She is a resident and native of Frewsburg. Maley Sullivan is a Grand Junction, Colo., resident.