Work in Immigrant Advocacy Brings Delight and Challenge

By Mara Weaver (’13)

After graduating from Goshen College I moved to Mexico City for a year with Mennonite Central Committee’s Serving and Learning Together program. There I worked and lived at Casa de los Amigos, a Quaker center for peace and international understanding. The Casa focuses on offering hospitality, fostering inter-cultural relationships and education, supporting immigrants and refugees as they establish their lives in Mexico City, and growing alternative local economic networks.

As a volunteer at the Casa, I worked directly with the immigrants and refugees who became a part of our home. Many of the migrants I met in Mexico still had dreams of making it to the United States some day. I returned to the United States wanting to better understand my place and understand the legal obstacles that prevent so many individuals from also belonging to this place.

I found work as a paralegal at the National Immigrant Justice Center, a Chicago-based non-profit with an office in Goshen that offers immigration legal services to low-income individuals. I have had the opportunity to work on a wide variety of cases, including “U visas” for victims of crimes, individuals qualifying for relief under the Violence Against Women Act, family petitions,  refugee adjustment of status, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, asylum, and more.  I have worked most frequently with persons from El Salvador, Honduras, and Mexico, but I have also worked with people from Iraq to Sudan to Cambodia to Rwanda and beyond.

It turns out that everything history professors tell their students about how applicable academic training in history can be in the job field is true!  With my background in history, particularly in research and writing, I have been able to begin to dive into writing legal arguments, working with primary sources, and analyzing details in the law and its implications for a client’s particular case.

Studying history also poised me to interact with clients with an open mind. By and large, I love working with the people who come to our office. I admire their strength and resilience, especially the survivors of domestic violence I have come to know. I also have a deep appreciation for my female supervisors and consider myself lucky to work with brilliant, empowered women who are gracious enough to share their wisdom and expertise with me while offering trailblazing leadership in the field.

Much to my surprise, I have found learning to navigate immigration law to be extremely interesting. Working through legal puzzles and applying the law to real people and specific circumstances, is actually a lot of fun.

At the same time, while I have been glad to gain knowledge about the U.S. immigration system, it is frustrating to know that even when we accomplish something important for a client, I am still working within the constraints of a system that is deeply flawed. My coworkers have done a lot to show me that even though comprehensive immigration reform is the goal, we can continue to push the limits of the system through interpretation of the law, litigation, and advocacy.  Maintaining hope for such reform and for improvement in individual situations, however, has been a major challenge, and the last two years have taught valuable lessons on secondhand trauma, self-care, and finding way to keep hope alive.

As I am sure anyone who with a liberal arts education will love to hear, at Goshen College I learned how to keep learning, and it has been an amazing gift to have the opportunity to do that while working with people from Michiana communities, individuals who want desperately to live with a sense of safety and belonging. More than anything, I hope that if I master one tangible skill in this work, it will be that I can extend the dignity, understanding, patience, and love that each person warrants as a holy creation of God.