Introduction: Rory Smith and Kay Maldonado
From the moment we walked into Catholic Charities Legal Services, we could tell there was so much to be done. Not because the attorneys were not doing their part or because the organization wasn’t doing enough, but because there weren’t enough resources for the thousands of immigrants crossing the U.S. border daily.
Yet, in the midst of all the chaos, we met Joseph Kano, who we came to know as Joe. He taught us everything, from basic legal terminology to how to work directly with clients. After meeting Joe, we knew that CCLS was different. Attorneys were handing us assignments like we had years of experience. Joe even taught us how to complete an asylum application. From the first came the second, and eventually we continued to fill out asylum applications, each time making them better and better.
Asylum is a form of protection that allows immigrants to remain in the United States instead of returning to a country where they fear harm or persecution. Applicants can base their asylum applications on one or more of six reasons: race, religion, nationality, political opinion, membership in a particular social group, and torture convention.
As the number of immigrants in deportation hearings increases, the demand for attorneys to represent asylum seekers exceeds its supply. At CCLS, we worked to assist with as many “Pro Se” asylum applications as possible. In other words, we helped more than 25 clients navigate the first step of the asylum process. We spoke with them, often in Spanish, about their reasons for seeking asylum, and mailed applications on their behalf. However, the attorneys at CCLS lacked the capacity to represent these applicants in court. 180 days after applying for asylum, clients are able to apply for work authorization. In the best case scenario, completing a Pro Se would allow each client time to save money and hire an attorney to represent them. We completed Pro Se’s in the office, at Notre Dame Catholic Church, Camillus House, and Lotus House – Women’s Shelter. Each applicant taught us valuable, indelible lessons. But due to the nature of a Pro Se, we will never know whether each individual is granted asylum. What remains is twofold: the striking stories each applicant told us, and the lessons behind each story offered knowledge we treasured and appreciated. Though this might have just been a story to us, it was and is their life.
Internal Thoughts on Asylum: Kay Maldonado
I have experienced so many once-in-a-lifetime moments; I often remember them with joy and some with sorrow. However, never had I experienced life through the lens of someone else. I had read books and news articles about people who were stalked, those who were followed, and others who suffered the unthinkable. Yet, the books, podcasts, and news articles almost felt fictional because they had never happened to me.
However, this summer, I worked with a community of people with mind-blowing stories. True stories. It was no longer the pages of a book telling me the story of what it meant to have a fear of returning to your country; it was no longer reporters telling me the story of others; it was finally a person who experienced it. After I heard people’s stories, my heart felt heavy, knowing I was doing Pro Ses and the non-profit I worked for wouldn’t be able to represent them in court. I knew that we would help them fill out the application to the best of our ability, but once they went to their individual asylum hearing, they would be on their own. We were giving them a step, but due to the volume of migrants entering the United States daily, we wouldn’t be able to help them through.
Day by day, I experienced something different; one day, I would be translating someone’s story to an attorney, worried that I would mistranslate something. On other days, I was preparing someone’s asylum application, hoping it was perfect. Other days I was at the homeless shelter helping those who often had no one else to turn to. Day after day was different, but every day felt the same; every day I felt guilty, I felt guilty for not doing more. I feel guilty that I would get to go back to Duke without any worries, and they did not have that option.
Yet, by the end of the program, I was hopeful; I was optimistic because I saw how many people cared about the immigrant community. Although it felt like all the odds were against them, attorneys like Joe made me hopeful. Those who cared so much about the immigrant community, they would do everything in their power to obtain a good outcome.
During my time at CCLS, I encountered multiple Joes. I discovered a community of people who understood immigration from a different perspective. I understood immigration through a different perspective.
From the moment we walked into Catholic Charities Legal Services, CCLS, our lives changed. Through the sorrow, we found hope. We found hope when we translated, and there was relief on their faces. We found hope through the attorneys who found fulfillment in helping these communities of immigrants. But most importantly we learned to see life through a different lens, we began to see life through the eyes of dozens of immigrants we helped at CCLS.