Where are you from, and why there?
I grew up with five brothers and sisters on a farm in Virginia. My dad taught elementary school, and I wanted to be a teacher. Dad let me correct spelling tests for his fourth graders when I was in fourth grade, which I thought was cool. He is a writer, and I carry his writing advice with me. Like a lot of kids, I would speak up about one thing or another that I thought was unfair. My mom said I should be a lawyer. I laughed then, but eventually I did go to law school.
Which issue(s) do you work on/care about, and why?
I have worked for and on behalf of immigrants for 18 years. In immigration court, unlike criminal court, you do not have the right to a government-funded lawyer, even though the stakes can be very high. This is true even for small children. Lawyers at nonprofit organizations like mine are constantly scrambling to help ensure that children, and adults, have access to a fair hearing. To add to the challenges, the government often puts immigrants in jails and prisons while their cases proceed through immigration court. More often than not, these jails are far from legal services, or family, or community support. Even the most vulnerable people, including those who have survived persecution or trauma, can end up in immigration detention, where there may not be anyone who speaks their language or can help them understand the U.S. legal system. Knowing how hard it can be to have a fair day in court, or to get fair and humane treatment in detention, gets me to work every day.
How did you get involved?
After law school I went to work for a law firm in Boston that had a good reputation for public interest work. I volunteered to help a colleague with an asylum case, and soon recruited two more colleagues to take the cases of our client’s children. A very small nonprofit organization called the PAIR Project (which is bigger now) trained lawyers like me, matched us with experienced mentors, and introduced us to a community of people who provided pro bono case support, including doctors who would provide medical exams and experts to prepare country conditions reports. Case backlogs were long then, as they are now, and by the time our client family was granted asylum I had moved to Virginia to represent immigrants and asylum seekers full time. From there I shifted to immigration policy work at the American Bar Association, advocating for improved access to counsel and due process for immigrants, including women, men, and children in immigration detention. That work led to my appointment by President Barack Obama to lead the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). CRCL investigates complaints from the public about civil rights abuses by DHS officials, recommends changes, and reports to Congress on their findings.
What’s the biggest challenge for the issue(s) today?
Politically motivated misinformation and draconian changes in law and policy are tearing families apart. In my work, as in my community, I hear from women, men, and children who live in fear. It is hard to overstate the damage that the current Administration has caused with regard to immigration and national security. I have had the opportunity to meet people in diverse communities across the country who have been discriminated against because of their national origin, race, ethnicity, religion, or immigration status, and the challenges they face have increased dramatically under the current administration. The courts are picking up where the Department of Justice and DHS have abandoned their responsibility to uphold civil rights and privacy protections under the Constitution, the Civil Rights Act, and other laws, but we need government officials to implement the protections that remain required under our laws. Congressional oversight must also play a greater role in holding DHS accountable for its actions and policies.
Who are your most frequent allies? Any surprises?
I have been pleased to see allies in many places, from local elementary schools to the crossing guard on my street. My parents still live in the community where I grew up, and I have been surprised to learn that there are allies there, as in other small communities around the country. Last year my parents’ community organized to oppose an agreement between DHS Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and their local police, because the agreement would have required local police to take on an immigration enforcement role. Communities and law enforcement know that these agreements raise fear and discourage people, including immigrants with and without lawful status, from reporting domestic violence and other crimes. A long-time friend of my parents was quoted in the paper standing up for immigrants’ rights. It has been heartening to hear support from new and old places.
What drives you?
Knowing that people are being treated unfairly motivates me. In that way I haven’t changed much.
What do you want your career/advocacy to stand for?
One afternoon, when Obama was still President, I stopped in at my daughter’s elementary school to pick her up. Her art teacher came by to tell me about a painting my daughter was working on. The painting is in front of me now. It shows a smiling girl made of clay suspended in a blue sky above the White House; my daughter wrote on it: “I want to fly to THE WHITE HOUSE.” Working for the Obama administration meant being away from home a fair amount, but I’m happy that my daughter got to shake the hand of a President who remains a role model. I hope that as she grows up and follows the turns along her path she doesn’t lose sight of how people can make a difference in their own lives, and in the lives of others.