For the past two weeks, we’ve been working on updating a list of community resources in the area with things like food pantries, homeless shelters, etc. The work involves making a lot of phone calls, and it can feel a bit like we’re working a phone-a-thon. Of course, instead of asking rich Duke alums for money, we’re asking charities and NGO’s hanging on by a thread for the most up-to-date info on their services – that is, if they still exist and have the same phone number. The work is neither legally relevant, nor is it the most intellectually stimulating, but it’s valuable information for clients who have not only immigration status to deal with but also basic needs like food and shelter. The work really transitioned from “Google doc with places we have to call” to “valuable list of resources” for us when Brother Mike (our supervisor at CCLS) started directing clients towards us who needed extra clothes or a place to stay.
In addition to continuing with updating the list, we got to go to court for the first time. We spent a little bit of time at the “Help Desk,” which essentially functions as legal triage. Since immigration cases are not classified as criminal cases (although our government and media have no qualms about calling undocumented people “illegals”), immigrants facing removal are not entitled to free legal counsel. (Isn’t it nice how the state gets to make the rules it “has” to follow? That’s the sovereign nation-state for you). The Help Desk, which actually falls under the DOJ (Department of Justice) provides legal “orientation” as opposed to “advice”, which technically only the lawyer representing the respondent can do. This orientation lets people know what kinds of options are available to them (e.g. if they are fleeing persecution, they can apply for asylum). While the Help Desk is great in comparison to zero legal information before the hearing, it is simply not enough. Immigrants, whose primary language is typically not English, are in no position to be able to fairly represent themselves.
Since last week, apart from working on the community resources list, I’ve also helped lawyers around the office with tasks such as making phone calls to confirm clients’ hearing dates, scanning case files, translating documents from Spanish to English, and researching sources for grants. One thing that I particularly enjoyed was looking over a medical affidavit written on behalf of a Haitian woman seeking asylum. Reading over this document gave me a better understanding of the kinds of hardships that many asylum seekers face, in addition to providing a clearer image of the health care resources and infrastructure in Haiti. As a pre-med student interested in global health and immigration, this opportunity allowed me to explore both interests in a single context.
This week was also the first time I really put my Spanish skills to the test. On Monday, Brother Mike asked me to interpret a phone call for him with a Spanish-speaking client. While I started learning Spanish in middle school, I had never needed to use it in a professional setting until now. It’s one thing to ask simple questions like “Where’s the bathroom?”, but it’s something completely different when discussing matters of paramount importance such as someone’s immigration proceedings. Understandably, I was a bit nervous, but once the call began and I felt more comfortable speaking, the conversation flowed smoothly. Later in the week, I interpreted for another phone call; this one was a bit more challenging as I had to discuss legal and tax-related terms. Although I didn’t know all the jargon at first, I tried my best and looked up the words I was unsure of later (at which point I learned that I had unknowingly been saying “housewife” instead of “head of household” throughout the entire conversation).
This week I also got to interpret for client meetings in Brother Mike’s office. I didn’t feel as initially intimidated as I did with the phone calls, but I still wanted to make sure I was able to accurately convey the messages of both parties. While the interpretation itself went well, the content of one of the conversations is what stuck with me even after the meeting had ended. The client, a man from Central America seeking asylum, recounted in detail the violence he had suffered in his home country. I could sense the man’s pain in reliving traumatic memories, but I was also moved by his strength and resilience despite all that he had suffered. Despite having seen news segments about people fleeing violence around the world, from this meeting I was able to better comprehend the direct personal effects of such violence. Throughout the rest of my work at CCLS and beyond, this particular meeting is one that I will continue to remember.
In terms of work, last week was pretty exciting for me. I got to edit an appeals brief, do country report research, and edit a motion. Prior to that first week, my expectations, as DukeEngage graciously instructed them to be, were fairly low. I thought I’d be able to do some good work but didn’t really expect to do more than answer the phone and make copies. Instead, I got to work with real legal documents that lawyers at the office took time out of their days to meticulously explain to me. I was honestly ecstatic. What’s more, I genuinely enjoyed doing the work that I was doing. I hadn’t really considered law school until a friend told me last fall that it’d be a good fit and spent the rest of the year talking me into it. I thought this summer would be the ideal opportunity to figure out if she was right, and so far it seems like she was.
However, after my dreamy first week, this past week has seemed a little cloudier – quite literally as it has been raining and stormy this entire week. I continued working on the community resource document, but once it hits noon, successfully making a call is next to impossible. I’d rather not disclose how many hours of the workday I’ve had next to nothing to do even after several rounds of asking every lawyer I knew both on our 10th floor office and 2nd floor office if they had any work they’d like me to do. Just when I was getting to resign myself to an unproductive week, Brother Mike asked us if we wanted to go to court.
The case that we watched was similar to one that I had been researching, with the exception that the lawyer from CCLS had lost contact with the client due to the client’s homelessness and declining mental health. For me, I found that the work I had done last week actually meant that I could follow along with the cases fairly well.