Monday, July 21, 2014

The Importance of Avoiding Stigmatizing Language

When I began my work with the Feerick Center for Social Justice, for the Unaccompanied Immigrant Children Project, the phenomenon of children arriving into the United States to reunite with their families was simply an increasing trend that evaded direct media attention. However, two weeks into my internship, a wave of news relating to the Unaccompanied Immigrant Children project started to come in as a rising amount of children coming to the United States unaccompanied increased significantly. Over time, the most recent unaccompanied immigrant children migration began to take on a name in the media – it was being called “the surge” and there was a news article, op-ed piece, and short interview about it from media outlets daily. With that began a battle to represent reality, with the truth somewhat hidden within a sea of water puns in which I find myself participating. Characterization in some way creates the character itself, somewhat similar but significantly different from the real thing. Words formed the core of the reality that was being portrayed. As an advocate and student, I feel compelled to caution readers and remind myself about the power of words.

Any keen observer could probably tell you that humans have limitations. We cannot be everywhere at once and cannot see everything at once. We have multiple senses but we tend to neglect them save for the one or two that our brains favor. In light of these physical limitations, we have built artificial tools to try and extend our grasp over reality. Words are probably one of the oldest of the artificial tools that continues to be so prominent. Their functionality comes from an assumed but unfounded understanding between people that when a word or utterance is used to convey an idea, then the use of the same word or utterance should convey the same or similar idea when used at some other time. Of course, it should not take anyone a semester’s worth of Contract Law to realize that the assumed understanding of which I speak is far from the reality (but maybe it does! And it took decades for contract law and formalists to even slightly admit that such bright-line rules as the “four corners” rule may be somewhat unhelpful). Words are not necessarily just benign mediums for communication and the conveyance of ideas. They can be more like cannonballs fired from one populace to another in an effort to beat down a certain type of reality into a targeted populace and wipe out other points of view in the process.

Furthermore, any student of social science could probably tell you that the most frequent losers of any cultural shift and war on words are the weakest groups. In a battle where Republicans and Democrats, Conservatives and Liberals, or Pro- and Anti- Interests Groups are drawing lines, it is quite likely that the group who has to suffer through the imposition of such pseudo-realities and descriptions is the migrants themselves. Their stories are filtered through interviews, their lives documented and narrated through snippets and the lenses of other people, their motivations are described by people who have more control over the expression of their own motivations. Yet again, I am reminded of the centrality of participation in a framework that respects humans as having universal, unassailable, and inalienable rights owed to them regardless of their age, nationality, or migration status.

Yet, as dangerous as the use of words have the potential to be, their functionality endures because we have not yet found an equally creative solution to the problem of communication. Without words and language, and some form of standardization of them, then this blog post would make even less sense to you and to me. I wuold be iroinaclly craeting pcitogarphs deiovd of maineng foryuor veiiwng dsiplaeusre.

Language and words are so central to the work that the Feerick Center does. My current assignment is to write a legal framework memo. As I plowed through dozens of cases in New York regarding Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, I became “familiar” with the stories of several children from China, India, Honduras, Ecuador, and Guatemala, simply because I could imagine that a set of images on my screen could represent certain ideas weaved into a story about someone else’s life. The dissemination of stories through written media is also important in human rights advocacy. In the Bringing Human Rights Home Network conference, the group discussed submitting shadow reports to the United Nations. Shadow reports are reports submitted by civil society instead of government on behalf of the country. They are often submitted in the context of reviews for human rights treaties to which a particular country is a signatory – the United States is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination, and the Convention against Torture. Because the reviewers do not get to experience firsthand the experiences of people from a particular country, the data in the shadow reports and the testimony of affected people themselves becomes the basis from which they understand that part of the world. Additionally, advocates in the United States use these same reports and the review process to be able to affect better human rights policy in the context of the review. In the practice of advocacy, the written word often becomes the world view by which decisions are made, because it is otherwise impossible to experience firsthand.

In the context of human rights advocacy, labels could serve to dehumanize a particular group, and make it less sensible that they should have universal and inalienable rights. The terms “illegal” or “illegal alien” are dehumanizing. Generally, talk of aliens is about imaginary beings from the sky, yet we preserve such terminology for humans like us simply because of their birth or origin outside of our arbitrarily defined borders. The word “illegal” attempts to connote the same notion of inhumanity. A human being cannot be illegal. We can commit acts outside the provision of the law, which may be illegal. Even if we did, we are guaranteed rights to protect us from abusive process. The term illegal seems superfluous upon inspection, and unhelpful as a description of reality. Thus, advocates often use the words “undocumented” or “irregular” immigrants to be more accurate.

The term “undocumented” is not just a replacement for the word “illegal” but it is an attempt to increase accuracy. The use of the term “undocumented” or “irregular” immigrant is only accurate in a way that highlights the responsibility of our governments to uphold the rights of all people. An irregular migrant could be a person who found farm work in the United States, yet that person could end up completely undefended by the laws as soon as a farm owner decides to fire them. In this example, the person did nothing “alien” or “illegal” at all, yet such labels might allow us to presume without further inquiry. The point is also not to replace one label with another but to make the story as accurate as possible. The terms “undocumented” and “irregular” are equally criticized. The word “undocumented” presumes that only some forms of documentation are valid. Most migrants carry passports and other documents from their country of origin, and may even have driver’s licenses and other equally valid documents in the country of residence, but the veracity of such a situation may be invalidated by the use of a single word. Similarly, though irregularities in residence occur because of uneven migration policies from state sovereigns, this does not make the migrant “irregular.”

Stories of undocumented immigrants assume often that they are a surge of people coming in to take a slice out of the “American pie.” What tends to be obfuscated is that the family unit is central to the life of a person, and that the American system does not have a proper way to reunify families. We accept the support of our immigrants and yet we are currently refusing to recognize their contributions by restricting their status, and consequently their ability to achieve more for themselves. Furthermore, we have restricted their ability to see their children. Our government can justify placing restrictions on access by the happenstance of how a person comes to be part of the United States because the modern nation-state system presumes a model of a person that is somehow more deserving of rights than others – the citizens.

Yet, regardless of our national origin or migration status, we are still humans and children that possess inalienable and universal rights.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Challenge of Fostering Human Rights Movements Led by Those Communities Impacted - Thoughts on the participation aspect of the human rights framework

The National Economic and Social Rights Initiative, along with many other Human Rights based initiatives, such as the Unaccompanied Immigrant Children Project (UICP), believe that positive change led by impacted communities is the most effective approach. However intangible the idea may be, it has been an integral component of successful Human Rights organizations and something that an International Human Rights student should at least try to understand. Hence, within the first week of my placement, my mind wandered into what I think is the most important part about living the life of an International Human Rights activist – the participation of the communities most impacted by the Human Rights issue.

Beginning my work at the Feerick Center, I felt as though I were a fisherman (or a bear) thrown at the edge of a healthy stream filled with determined fish making their way to spawn in the Spring. I had to catch the fish right or they would slip outside of my reach. Right after orientation, during which we met and greeted people and learned our way around the quadrilateral path leading to offices, food, drink and printers (very important), I rushed from one meeting to the next, reading hundreds of pages worth of information in an hour, synthesizing such information, and participating in the conversation using what brain power I had left. The days were as lengthy and confusing as the sentence before this one. Yet, I had never felt so excited to be in a place so busy, because I felt that the goals of the Center aligned with those that have always led my heart.

As much as any other blog you will find here, this blog might be about passion and strange new things. It might also contain dubiously appropriate comments that may betray that the author is still (hopefully) developing a sense of introspection and accumulating an understanding about certain things – paternalism, gender issues, racialization, inequality… It will detail experiences and events and convey helpful information along the way, such as this:

The Feerick Center for Social Justice is an organization based in Fordham University School of Law, located in New York City, where the tourists flank either side of Lincoln Center and Columbus Circle. The Feerick Center, started in 2006 by the vision of John Feerick, is host to many wonderful programs and activities. It aims to address problems surrounding urban poverty, educate law students, serve low-income communities, and energize practicing attorneys through a variety of programs. In the first week, I mainly participated in the Center’s CLARO program. CLARO is the Civil Legal Advice and Resource Office, which provides limited legal advice to debtor-defendants on consumer debt cases filed against them. CLARO is an equalizing force in a debt industry that is ready to file case after case, fishing for a default judgment in order to collect on charged off debt that is being circulated in the industry as a type of security. On the whole, the Feerick Center is focused on social justice, and I came to participate in it with my fervent belief that true social justice is primarily achieved by pointing that focus on Human Rights.

I was selected to work with the Unaccompanied Immigrant Children Project. The UICP was born out of a conference hosted by the Feerick Center, which focused on the topic of immigrating children, who are coming to the United States on their own. Since then, the number of immigrant children coming to the United States has multiplied, and with each step of the journey comes different sets of Human Rights Issues – from the factors that compel children to leave (push factors), to their treatment at country borders, and then to settlement. The challenge of participation is exacerbated when the category – children – has historically been given little agency in the United States (and other places). We still like to think of our children, all “under eighteen or twenty-one,” as semi-adults – somewhat not fully capable of whatever adulthood is supposed to mean. The reality for me is that I don’t think anyone really knows what adulthood truly means, but we endow such a word and such a concept, with institutional powers – legal, social, economic, and cultural privileges, whose effects can be empowering or pernicious as you may hopefully find out in later posts.

Challenging how we normally view children and how it can affect the aspect of participation in the Human Rights Framework is also an important topic. However, it is not what this post is about (or maybe it has already been). It is about general physical alienation. During the week, I was not sure about how to stay committed to my goal of applying participatory action when I was always in some random office X. In the heat of the first 80 degree summer day of New York City, I felt confused about attaining this goal. How much does participation figure into my work when the impacted person views me as volunteer number 3, who sits on the hallway down the left, after you make a right and three doors down (this is not where I actually sit, which is more accurately in a building by Columbus Circle, up 9 floors through an elevator, through a bolted door, and then going in and left twice)? How do I, the advocate with a clipboard calling client number 42, do what I can to reach out? How will they lead me when I barely see them? How will I follow? These are the questions I am still trying to figure out.

For such a problem, the Feerick Center is my stream. In the Philippines, when the heat of the summer rose, everything around me seemed to melt. It would get so hot that I would sometimes feel confused within the heat’s coercion. Then, there was this stream. I met with it once, took off my shoes, and rinsed my feet in its shallow current. As my world blazed around me, I found a home at the soles of my feet. The cool water gave me hope. The stream’s current gave me direction. I would take a sip of the water to try out the product of industrious rocks refining its composition. As streams are, the sweetness of the water cupped in your hands is a measure of your thirst (not the actual taste of the water). This week, I was thirsty.

Thus, every day I attended every possible conference call, took on every possible task, asked as many questions as I could, and read a lot of things (fiction, biographies, studies, legal documents). Doing all of it, I pondered how to practice rights-based, participatory action when I barely met with the impacted person. I pondered the question when conference call five was nine flights up and the second door to the right from the locked door. I am probably too immaturely anxious to see the literal manifestation of a concept I have decided to live by. Nevertheless, I pondered the question when I went up another elevator ride, through an office door, through a hallway, past a stack of files, and into a door in a table when the answer struck me – the meeting where I was veritably star struck.

When I was only a few years old, I thought I knew a lot about immigration and traveling to other countries. In the Philippines, anyone who left the country was, as I understood it then, outside of the world (“naa sa gawas”) so by the time I was three I had several mothers – all sisters and relatives of my “mama sa gawas” (my real mother, the one outside) and people I call endearingly with variations of mother as the honorific to their names – Mama, Nanay, etc. However, I still felt a strong sense of attachment to the one that wasn’t there – whose honorific, though similarly “Mama,” was not a variation when I spoke it, but the original. I was able to speak to her in calls, and she occasionally came back to visit, and thus she must have been visible. As much as she existed outside my world, she was still there connected to me. She reached out to me, and I reached out to her – in small interactions, only the few short minutes available to her and to me. Her physical absence did not impede her from knowing the entirety of my life, and allowing me to participate in hers. I resorted to looking up at the stars, believing that such a visible thing is both close enough, though outside the world, to have been her residence. Motherhood and the stars were equivalent in my eyes.

It seems I have gendered the role of stars to conform to my experience. Nevertheless, my mind seemed to have turned a key to unlocking my confused search to find the answer to my alienation. In that meeting was a room full of stars: their daily work was just as buried behind elevator floor 3 and hallway 4. Yet, though they were outside, it was their hearts that reached out to the people they were eager to help. All of them, mothers in my eyes in some capacity – their thoughts doing their best to dwell with the community, and some part of me felt that the community was at least close enough.

It is no wonder my director reminds me of the galaxy. As if containing a billion little stars twinkling in my night sky, she seems to have mastered the conveyance of a dozen emotions in only a few words. In a fifteen minute conversation, you could convey to her a lifetime. It is almost as if she already knew. I guess because she is as the Milky Way – containing all these stars, and within it our Earth, home to all these people.

Participation of the impacted communities is the most important aspect in the Human Rights Framework. It is often easy to be paternalistic and to approach the problem only through our view, and our experience. It is much harder to view the problem as the person, who was affected, would see it – they bring more than a singular issue whenever they give the few minutes we have for conversation. I think that being able to understand the way another person has lived the world is only a part of the participation model, but it is a conceptual step that is important though difficult to make. The UICP has several projects including participatory research that brings this aspect more concretely – to which I am looking forward.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

“Only Rights Can Stop the Wrongs”: A Summer Spent Living and Working with the Members of the Kenya Sex Workers Alliance

Nairobi is not for the faint of heart. When I first landed here six weeks ago, I soon realized this summer wasn’t going to be filled with gorgeous sunsets, views of the mountains, and dining at fabulous cafes and restaurants as was my last bit of international travel to the south of France. Nairobi is gritty; the city is busy and crowded, and the streets are dangerous. My host family asked me to be home before dark every night as a matter of safety, and I quickly agreed.

Over the past six weeks, I have indeed found those sunsets (while on safari at Amboseli National Park), views of the mountains (while visiting my host’s family in their small village on the slopes of Mount Kenya), and fine dining (with the help of new friends who have introduced me to hidden restaurants serving fabulous Indian, Ethiopian, and Kenyan cuisine). I have also learned that my summer here in Nairobi will not be defined by the food or the scenery, but rather by the people; the people I am living and working with are kind, funny, brilliant, and brave advocates for sex workers’ rights in Kenya. Experiencing daily life as one of them has already intensified my drive to work in international human rights, as well as deepened my understanding of what it means to be an advocate for truly marginalized populations, such as sex workers.

I spend my days working for the Kenya Sex Workers Alliance, and am generously being hosted by the organization’s co-chair, John Mathenge. The first several weeks of my internship were spent drafting a training manual called “Sex Workers Rights’ Are Human Rights,” focusing on the rights found in international treaties and the Kenyan Constitution which most affect sex workers. This work was familiar to me; after two years in law school, researching laws as applied to a specific population is the norm. The challenging (and most exciting) part began when I started administering the trainings to sex workers in the Nairobi area. I have never met a more motivated, willing-to-learn, and engaged group of people, some with little education, others with paralegal training, all with an ardent desire to learn their rights and apply them to the abuses they face daily from police, clients, soldiers, and healthcare providers.

The trainings have been an emotional and eye-opening experience, as I am realizing that even if a human right is not respected by those in authority, simply owning that right and coming together to fight for protection of that right, has deep meaning for those who are told that they are not deserving of the most basic respect and human decency. The sex worker population in Nairobi is composed of hard-working, intelligent, caring, and respectable people, whose government consistently denies their human rights by allowing abuse and stigma to exist. The work of KESWA has made great headway for the cause: KESWA participates in human rights conferences and events around the world, as well as promotes HIV prevention and positive living for those with HIV/AIDS.

If my experience at KESWA had not been “real” enough so far, an event that took place recently solidified for me the importance of human rights for sex workers, as well as the ongoing struggle that activists in Nairobi must face.  In the middle of the night, John received a call and rushed out of the house. We found out the next day that two of the sex workers and major activists at KESWA, Phelister and Grace, had been spending time at a bar in town, one that is lively and popular with sex workers and clients, when the police raided the bar. Everyone found on the premises was arrested, despite the fact that no illegal activity had taken place: all the patrons, the management, even the wait staff and cooks at work in the kitchen were detained. Sixty-five people in total, including our two friends and colleagues, were carted off to jail for the night. Bail was set at 2,000 Kenyan shillings each (approximately $25).

At that point John arrived with the bail for Phelister and Grace. But rather than go home, while others who could not afford the bail remained, our two friends stayed until everyone was released. They spent the night protesting, leading chants of “Haki Yetu!” (“These are our rights!”), and keeping high the spirits of the sex workers and other bar patrons until around 11am the next morning when all were released with no charges. When I saw Phelister the next day, I was worried and scared about what had happened, but she wasn’t concerned. It had turned into a moment of impromptu activism, she said: “We wanted to show the community that sex workers support each other and we will fight for our rights. We can do good for our community.” 

Monday, August 5, 2013

New Leadership, Old Challenges at the ICC

This summer I am interning with the Open Society Justice Initiative, part of George Soros’ Open Society Foundations, in the far-flung locale of New York City (approximately four blocks from the Leitner Center). Though the Foundations’ main focus is grantmaking—giving away nearly a billion dollars a year to various human rights causes—the Justice Initiative essentially functions as an international public interest law firm, engaging in research, advocacy, and strategic rights-based litigation in national and international courts around the world. In addition to its de facto headquarters in New York, there are sizable Justice Initiative offices in Budapest, London, and DC, as well as a roving pack of lawyers, researchers, and trial monitors elsewhere. I am working specifically with the International Justice Program, doing research and writing on the International Criminal Court.

Now entering its second decade of operation, the International Criminal Court has one conviction and one acquittal. Such a batting average is uninspiring to even the Court’s most ardent supporters, especially as it is estimated that by 2015 it will have cost over $1.6 billion. In addition to its record, civil society commentators and member states alike have criticized the Court for investigatory blunders, insufficient outreach, and a perceived bias against Africa. If the ICC is meant to be the permanent international court of criminal justice it needs to be more efficient and effective. With the recent appointment of its second Chief Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda of the Gambia, and other high-level Court administrators, the Court and its supporters are taking the opportunity to push for systemic changes to its operations. 
I recently attended a briefing at the offices of the Coalition for the ICC by one of those incoming Court administrators, the new ICC Registrar Herman von Hebel. This is a person under tremendous pressure to secure a budget that will support robust investigations and successful prosecutions, in addition to instituting a reliable witness protection program (time ran out before I could ask about the alleged sexual assault of witnesses by an ICC employee in the DRC) and heading outreach efforts. I had attended a similar briefing (same conference room, many of the same attendees, same Mr. von Hebel) in April in my capacity as an intern with Human Rights Watch, just before he was sworn in. In April he was cautiously optimistic and eager for input from the NGOs assembled, saying that he planned to streamline the Registry, prioritize outreach, and work to strengthen cooperation between the Registry and the Office of the Prosecutor.

Herman von Hebel being sworn in as ICC Registrar, April 18, 2013 © ICC-CPI
Three months later, after having confronted the reality of ICC bureaucracy, I half-expected to encounter a defeated man. However, though besieged from all sides by state donors and frustrated civil society groups, Mr. von Hebel seemed fired up, not beaten down. While acknowledging the Court’s continued shortcomings, he outlined concrete proposals for structural changes within the Registry and field offices, double-digit percent budget increase, and a core focus on outreach. The Registrar’s perspective mirrors that of the most effective civil society participation (the Open Society Justice Initiative’s ICC work surely included): optimistic yet realistic, self-aware, open to criticism, and constructively critical themselves. With the tactful support of civil society, the Court’s new leadership will hopefully be able to translate their vision into successful prosecutions of the world’s worst criminals. 

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Change and Challenges in Cambodia

Cambodia in the rainy season is cool(er), verdant, and lush.  Rice paddies swell, cinnamon-hued roads soften to mud, and the jungle creeps in a bit closer.  After the thrashing madness of afternoon storms that stop as suddenly as they start, motodups and tuk tuks cruise around crater-sized puddles in Phnom Penh in the post-deluge quiet.  People emerge from behind doorways and the streets begin fill to with activity again. 

In the same way, thirty-four years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge and the end of a collective national nightmare of genocide and war, Cambodia is getting back on its feet.  This summer I am lucky enough to have the opportunity to play a small role in these reconstruction efforts as a legal intern at the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam).  As an organization dedicated to recording the Democratic Kampuchea (Khmer Rouge) era, DC-Cam variously serves as the world’s largest archive on the Khmer Rouge and as a source of research, outreach and education surrounding the genocide.  The organization has been integral to helping Cambodian society cope with the aftermath of the genocide and understand and digest the ongoing trials at the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC). This is critical in a country that is becoming known abroad for its temples rather than its war history, but where there is still obviously both the need and desire for justice —a tension visible in the split personalities of rapidly developing Phnom Penh, my temporary home.

The Lonely Planet Cambodia edition from 1991 (available at the National Library here) suggests a total of two available hotels in Phnom Penh and lists the Central Market as the only reliable place to procure a meal---that is, assuming you could even get a visa to enter the country.   Today, the city bristles with air conditioned coffee shops offering lattes that cost $2.50 and free wifi---popular with expats stopping between yoga class and a swim at a hotel pool. Outside the city, the countryside is a traveller’s dream of good roads connecting temples, jungles and beaches, staffed by tiny old ladies in checkered scarves hawking mangosteens and Vietnamese iced coffee. At the same time, Cambodia remains shackled to its past. Cambodian soil still holds between an estimated 4 and 6 million land mines that were laid during the 1970s.  Trials at the ECCC grind forward, but maybe not in time to offer survivors the full benefits of truth and accountability.  This spring, Ieng Sary, co-founder of the Khmer Rouge and one of the accused in case 002, died at age 87 while awaiting trial at the ECCC.  Ieng’s death dealt a frustrating blow to a tribunal already mired in delays and allegations of political meddling, and increased the sense of urgency in trying the remaining accused who also are largely of advanced age and in failing health.  As a Leitner Center report from 2011 chronicled, the country also faces a tremendous mental illness burden that is the result of poor treatment options and the scars of genocide—fissures that remain hidden from most foreigners visiting the country.

As an outsider and newcomer, trying to decipher Cambodia is as beautifully reflexive as the correct response to sok s’bay (Khmer for “how are you”---literally meaning “healthy, happy?"; the answer also being sok s’bay) and as complicated as giving good directions to tuk tuk drivers (extremely).

  For more information about the Documentation Center of Cambodia, visit  

Monday, June 10, 2013

Rugby, Soccer, and Race in South Africa

 My first introduction to race relations in South Africa came in 1995, when I was five. My family had just moved to Swaziland from India, and we were going to South Africa on a family holiday. Apartheid had just ended. My mother tried explaining that white people hadn't treated black people or Indian people well. "They're going to be mean to me!" I wailed. Having been born in New Delhi, having gone to an Indian nursery school, and having mostly Indian friends, I thought I was Indian. Eighteen years later, I've returned to South Africa to intern at the Southern Africa Litigation Centre, and I now understand that I'm actually white.

The last two days in Johannesburg have been an indication of how far race relations have come, but also how much is left to be done. Two days ago, I visited the fantastically-curated Apartheid Museum. It included the famous episode during the 1995 Rugby World Cup, hosted in South Africa. Mandela, ever conscious of symbolism, shocked the mostly-white crowd by appearing on the field before the game, dressed in the South African captain's jersey. Rugby is traditionally a white sport in South Africa, and thus was seen to represent apartheid. The stadium was stunned, but someone started to chant. "Nel-son! Nel-son!" The rest of the stadium joined in, and South Africa Springboks went on to defeat the New Zealand All-Blacks (whose nickname derives from their jersey) 15-12. Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, and Matt Damon liked the story so much that they turned it into a movie.

Last night, my brother's friend Warren and I went to a sports bar to watch the Springboks play Italy. Coincidentally, Bafana Bafana - South Africa's soccer team - was playing against the Central African Republic at the same time, and the bar was screening both games. To the left, where the Springboks game was being screened, the room was almost entirely white. To the right, where the soccer was being screened, the crowd was almost entirely black. Warren and I positioned ourselves in the middle, so that he could watch the rugby and I could watch the soccer. Warren leaned over and told me to notice the different reactions if a goal or a try were scored. Bafana Bafana scored! 3-0! The right side of the bar erupted, with people shouting, whistling in joy, and jumping out of their chairs to celebrate. The left side of the room didn't seem to notice. That game ended shortly after, so all screens now showed rugby. A few people left, but most stayed to watch. Italy started pressing, bringing the game to 20-10, but Bryan Habana, a star South African player, broke away from a crowd of tackles to score a try. At 26-10, the game was beyond Italy's reach. A handful of people on the right side of the bar cheered, but it was nothing like before. To my right, I overheard a lady chastise her friend for not cheering. "Habana is black!", she informed him.

But that sports bar is a sign of progress. Just twenty years ago, such a scene could not even have existed. Warren, a white South African, speaks Zulu, Xhosa, and Sesotho. The scars of apartheid are still evident, but there's hope.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Immigration removal defense at Make the Road New York

"Caminante, no hay camino. Se hace el camino al andar."
"Searcher, there is no road. The road is made by walking."

The organization Make the Road New York, where I worked during the past summer, takes its name and its mission from the above quote from Spanish poet Antonio Machado. MRNY is a very active Hispanic community organization with over 10,000 members who participate in everything from worker's rights campaigns to citizenship workshops to English classes. One of the many services that MRNY provides is legal services, and this past summer I had the opportunity to help the organization develop it's relatively new immigration/removal defense practice.

Immigration law is quite a hot topic and practice area right now, and there is a staggering, overwhelming need among low-income immigrant communities for these services. This is an already incredibly vulnerable and marginalized population, and MRNY's team of organizers and lawyers take pride in working together to provide "one-stop shop" assistance for the Hispanic immigrant communities of New York.

My role in all of this was to be a legal advocate for our members who are either in immigration removal proceedings or have an outstanding deportation order: essentially, the emergency cases. One of the strange ironies of US immigration law is that it is often the tragedies in people's lives that make them eligible for some form of immigration relief that allows them to remain in the United States. Victims of crimes or trafficking can receive U-Visas or T-Visas, respectively. Children who have been abandoned or abused by their parents can receive Special Immigrant Juvenile Status. Those who have been driven from their home countries by brutal persecution receive asylum. Much of my summer was spent simply listening to our members tell their stories, working with them to find a way that something positive could come from the difficulties they've encountered and looking for any possible basis for them to stay in the United States with their families.
MRNY members at a worker's rights rally in Union Square. July 2012.

But it was also filled with lots of joy. MRNY is first and foremost a member-based community center, so every day there are meals in the communal kitchen, bachata and reggaeton blasting on the radio, and events from open-mic nights to dance parties for LGBTQ youth. At a major worker's rights rally in July, to which MRNY sent busloads of staff and members, the common refrain during the march was "El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido" "The people united will never be defeated." MRNY does an excellent job of fostering this sense of community and unity, which helps the members feel supported and for the attorneys makes the ups and downs of the legal work much easier to handle.

It was also a historic summer to be involved in immigration advocacy because of the new deferred action policy for undocumented youth announced on June 15. The policy allows undocumented people under the age of 30 who were brought to the US before age 16 and graduated high school here or served in the US military to remain in the United States (though it does NOT confer legal immigration status) and apply for work permits. In addition to my casework, I was able to help with workshops to familiarize and prepare people for the new policy. The response from our members and the immigrant community at large was overwhelming. It has been over 25 years since the last amnesty law. Even though the new policy offers nothing close to amnesty, the response showed the strength and size of the undocumented community, and how eager people are to be recognized and live a full, uninhibited life out of the shadow of "illegality."

It was an incredibly rewarding summer- I'm grateful to the amazing MRNY staff, and most importantly to all my clients who taught me so much and made the work meaningful. ¡Gracias a toda la gente de SHCNY!