2013 Founders Fellowship
American University Washington College of Law
Jessica Alatorre, Tahirih Justice Center
Personal Essay: Summer Internship at the Tahirih Justice Center
One day a client came in unscheduled, hoping to speak to someone about her situation. The client spoke Spanish, and she knew that the Falls Church office of the Tahirih Justice Center conducted screenings on Tuesdays. She was unaware that screenings were typically conducted over the phone, but as she was already there, the interns were approached to see if someone was available for an in-person screening. As a fluent Spanish speaker, I was tasked with interviewing her to collect her story. She described to me how she had recently moved into a shelter, fleeing the domestic violence she experienced at home with her husband. Her move to the shelter was recent, and she wanted to know whether, as an undocumented woman married to a U.S. citizen, she qualified for any immigration status. My role was to interview her, to ask questions to build a narrative, which the attorneys would then use to call her back and offer legal advice. This past summer I was given multiple opportunities such as this one to engage with clients, hear their stories, help them collect evidence, and assist the attorneys preparing their applications for immigration officials.
My past experiences travelling and working internationally led me to care deeply about women’s rights; but I increasingly I found myself wanting to localize my focus. I wanted to be closer to women’s rights in my own community. It was this interest in supporting women that drew me to the Tahirih Justice Center. Through my internship I gained practical experience in immigration law, developed my client interviewing skills, and used my Spanish skills to communicate with potential clients on a regular basis. The experience also gave me an opportunity to truly test whether I could see myself working with survivors. The Tahirih Justice Centers works with courageous immigrant women and girls who seek justice in the United States from gender-based violence. At the beginning of the summer I was unsure whether I would be able to listen to client’s difficult stories of fleeing violence. However, by the end of the summer I learned that hearing survivors tell their stories can be the fuel to make me work harder on their case as they seek access to justice. I am grateful to the Women’s Bar Association Foundation for giving me the opportunity to explore the intersection of gender-based violence and immigration, while learning from incredibly insightful and thoughtful attorneys, inspired by courageous immigrant women and girls seeking justice.
My most rewarding experiences revolve around two women in particular. One client, client A*, is a survivor of domestic. When the police sought to investigate and prosecute A’s abusive boyfriend, she cooperated and was thus able to secure a U visa. By the time I met A, she had lawful status through her U visa, worked full time, took care of her three children, and was now eligible to adjust her status to become a lawful permanent resident. In my last week of work we finalized the details on her declaration and prepared to file her application to become a lawful permanent resident. After enduring years of domestic violence, and constantly worrying that she would be deported, A finally had a pathway to stay in the U.S. As we said our goodbyes she thanked me for helping her prepare her application and crossed her fingers that in five years time she would be submitting a similar application for citizenship. For now, with a green card in sight, she rejoiced at the idea that she would finally be able to travel back to her home country to visit her very ill mother. The green card afforded her the opportunity to travel and to visit her old life, while she continued to rebuild her new life locally.
My most rewarding experience involved helping a client collect evidence for her U visa application and drafting her accompanying declaration. In person, client B* was constantly smiling, approachable, and easy to work with. She was open about her past experiences and now works as a nanny, because she likes taking care of people. I quickly learned that she came from a difficult past, facing verbal and physical abuse in her home country at the hands of both her father and her ex-boyfriend. Fearing for her life, she came to the U.S. to start over. It was after her arrival into the U.S. that B sought legal assistance through the Tahirih Justice Center. Once here, B was the victim of an assault. A stranger attacked her while she walked home from work, which sent her to the hospital. She reported the incident and served as a witness at trial. As a result of this incident, Tahirih hoped to get her a U visa.
Working on this case required more than filling out immigration forms; it also required reaching out to the police station to get her police report, finding the transcript of the trial, asking her questions about the night in question to build her declaration, and taking supporting declarations from the friends who responded to her call the evening of the assault. From this experience I learned about narrative and allowing a client to retell a story. I also learned about how important evidence can be, such as police and medical records, in building a record to support a client’s immigration application. And above all I learned that clients are resilient. As B retold me her story, walked me through the fears she felt that night, and told me about her recovery, she did so with warmth and openness, hopeful that she will be able to remain in the U.S., safe from any further harm. By the end of the summer, B’s declaration was complete; we obtained important supporting declarations from friends, and awaited the arrival of B’s police report. With those final pieces, her attorneys are able to submit her application, so that B might be granted a U visa.
I already knew I was drawn to women’s rights, but after this summer I have become even more committed and feel more compelled to be an advocate for immigrant survivors. The women who call or walk through the doors of the Tahirih Justice Center are courageous women wanting to right wrongs. After this summer I know I will continue to lend my skills to their needs and I am grateful to have been chosen as the 2013 Founders Fellowship recipient as I solidified my legal journey.
Names have been changed to protect client privacy.