Mawrters working with immigrants encounter shifting policies, misperceptions, and blatant cruelty. They are devoted to the work anyway.
On the best days, Nicole Ramos ’01 opens her inbox and finds an email from a client who has finally been reunited with family in the U.S., maybe with a smiling photo attached. The process could have taken months or years, says Ramos, director of the Border Rights Project with Tijuana-based legal services organization Al Otro Lado, but when an individual finally has been able to cross the border and is with their family. “That is the greatest day.”
On the worst days, Ramos hears about a client who has died. For those languishing at the border, murder is not uncommon. Neither is suicide, says Ramos. “Sometimes,” she says, “they just can’t take it anymore.”
As difficult as the work is, Ramos is committed to providing legal advice and advocacy to asylum seekers trapped in Mexico. “I can’t in good conscience watch incredibly good people that you would want to be your neighbor die for no good reason other than the racism of my own government,” says Ramos with the candor and, yes, anger that has made her a thorn in the side of the Customs and Border Patrol agents she encounters daily and the federal offices with whom Al Otro Lado is regularly in litigation.
Like Ramos, Ana Maria Schwartz ’98, a family immigration lawyer with offices in Houston and Austin, Texas, focuses on humanitarian cases. Because she works in Texas, Schwartz says, people assume her clients are all from Mexico and Central America. “And of course, those are a lot of our clients,” she says. But she also works with individuals from the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, India, China, Africa, South America, and Australia.
Meanwhile, in Detroit, Sabrina Balgamwalla ’03, a law professor at Wayne State University and director of the Asylum and Immigration Law Clinic there, says that over the years most of her clients have been from Mexico, Central America, and the Middle East. Detroit also sees a number of refugee arrivals from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The majority of Balgamwalla’s clients are seeking humanitarian immigration relief in removal proceedings before the Detroit immigration court.
Romina Gomez ’05, a business immigration attorney in Philadelphia, comes at the field from a different angle, working with hospitals and universities that are looking to bring in or retain foreign nationals. “Sometimes I work with physicians that have very niche practices and are at the top of their field,” she says. “They might say, ‘We want this person. How can we keep them?’ So, I work with them on different immigration and visa options.”
As a senior policy analyst with the National Immigrant Justice Center in Washington, D.C., Azadeh Erfani ’06 works on a broader scale to defend the right to asylum and tend to the treatment of unaccompanied and immigrant children. “The policy arguments that we’re making are informed directly by the client work,” she says. “So, we’re articulating what we think our clients need, as well as what we think is a better policy position.” She also escalate individuals’ cases to contacts in the administration, “letting them know why a particular case is egregious and how they need to right these wrongs.”
An Uphill Battle
For those in the immigration field, the last few years have been especially challenging. “The four years of the Trump administration were very difficult,” says Schwartz. “And then these past couple of years with COVID, Trump used that as an opportunity to shut down as much immigration as he could,” using the Title 42 policy, under which immigrants can be turned away on the basis of public health.
That policy has had a direct impact on Ramos’s work accompanying asylum seekers to the border. “Under the previous system, we were able to get more people in at the port of entry,” she says, though already the Remain in Mexico policy that required most asylum seekers to wait for decisions on their cases on that side of the border had made her work harder. Now, apart from escorting unaccompanied minors, who still have the right to present themselves, Ramos has shifted her focus more to political organizing, documenting human rights violations at the border and using that data in litigation and advocacy. She and her colleagues also continue to provide know-your-rights workshops to migrants at the border.
“Unless human rights could be translated into campaign dollars and votes, people are more interested in holding onto power than they are in justice.” — Nicole Ramos '01
“The work during the last administration was incredibly demanding and felt in many ways like a bottomless pit because every single aspect, every right was under attack,” says Erfani, a first-generation immigrant herself. Many of the populations she cared most deeply about, including immigrant children, became actively vilified, which, she says, “had disturbing echoes of the super predator era in this country when Black and brown children were viewed through the lens of criminalization.”
This bleak immigration picture did not start with Trump, she notes. Under the Obama administration, there were already significant grievances. “People called Obama the ‘Deporter-in-Chief’ for good reason.” That said, she feels blessed to have witnessed “a deeply moving moment in the immigration world” with the rollout of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in 2012.
It will always be an uphill battle for the populations she serves, Erfani says, and “simple acknowledgment that they deserve better, more dignified treatment is just not a given under Democrats or Republicans.” With the promises made by the current administration, there was hope of meeting goals of better treatment, but in many ways, she says, they have fallen short. “The rollback of Trump policies has been truly hesitant, and that hesitancy is costly and lays bare the way in which this country has yet to come to terms with how it wants to treat people who are coming here.”
Ramos agrees that there is little hope for one particular party or administration to solve anything. “I think it’s a mistake to assume that our elected officials have the will to fix these issues,” she says, since migrants are not a voting bloc. “Unless human rights could be translated into campaign dollars and votes, people are more interested in holding onto power than they are in justice.”
As Erfani sees it, the U.S. is “addicted to incarceration,” and that “trickles down to immigration very vividly.” Houston lawyer Schwartz comes up against this reality daily in her work. The guards at the U.S.-Mexico border are trained to try and turn away asylum seekers, she says, and once they do accept an individual into the country, they may be held in a detention facility for several weeks. “I’ve known people who have spent time in a detention facility and time in federal penitentiaries,” she says, “and the detention facilities for immigration are worse.” On top of that, she notes, there is no chance of “bail” for several weeks, no speedy trials, no right
to see a judge, and no right to counsel.
While detention patterns have changed with COVID-19, ICE alternatives to detention now include ankle monitors, apps that track location through GPS, and regular reporting through a government contractor agency, says Balgamwalla. “My clients now have to have an ankle monitor or an app and regular check-ins in order to avoid being detained,” she says. “Even a client who has been here 10 years and attended all of her hearings.”
Making more visas available to qualified individuals and providing pathways to residence for people who are eligible would change the immigration picture dramatically, says Schwartz, who herself is a child of immigrants. “I think we try and only pick the ‘best’ people, but we actually need a huge range of people. We obviously have a great deal of need for people who are laborers and construction workers. I think we need to just be more open to people wanting to be here.”
Gomez, the business immigration attorney, would also like to see an increase in visa availability. For the H-1B working visa, she explains, there is a numerical cap for first-time applicants of 65,000 per year. “A lot of times, it’s not enough,” says Gomez. “If a person can’t get that type of visa, and that might be the only thing that they’re eligible to apply for, that is a waste of talent. What is this person’s solution? Do they go back home and take that talent and knowledge with them?”
Human mobility, law professor Balgamwalla says, has come to be seen as an enormous threat. “But the reality is there are so many things that require people to move. Everything else in nature moves in a hostile environment or with climate change and people need to move as well.” Movement because of climate change is not covered in the UN Refugee Convention, she says, “and yet movement is every bit as necessary for these new ‘climate refugees’ as it is for people migrating to escape conflict.”
Conflicts are also becoming increasingly complicated, often departing from the traditional strong man politics narrative. “We see a lot of governments being destabilized and groups moving in to take power vacuums. These conflicts don’t look like traditional, state-centered conflicts.” Our protection schemes only extend so far, she says, and if you’re not covered by a protection scheme, you’re a border threat. “That’s where we start to see people needing to move and being treated like security threats even though they’re moving for humanitarian reasons.”
“They are the reason we eat, the reason our children and elderly relatives are cared for." — Sabrina Balgamwalla '03
We lose a lot by painting immigration as a threat, insists Balgamwalla, since we would all be living in a very different universe without their contributions. “They are the reason we eat, the reason our children and elderly relatives are cared for,” she says.
And of the roughly 10 million undocumented immigrants in the United States right now, says Schwartz, the vast majority are extremely good people. “One of my clients works one job during the day, another job at night and a third job on the weekends to support his two kids and his wife, and he’s been undocumented for 20 years.”
“You take your wins”
“To be completely frank, I think victories are hard these days,” says policy analyst Erfani, though she also says that small successes, such as her recent successful support of the case of a woman who was separated from her child to reunite in the U.S., feel very impactful. “And there are ways in which our advocacy also has tangible impact in terms of knocking out certain policies before they become codified and irreversible,” she says.
The general conversation remains hard, Erfani says, because “the hatred that’s spewing against immigrants is really visceral these days.” Her expectations are different since that “beast” was unleashed during the last presidency. “I don’t see any change coming tomorrow. And I see it as taking significant work and being paired with some of the racial justice barriers of this country.”
Still, Erfani says she finds the work empowering because, “I didn’t have people who look like me to help me, and I’d like to be able to provide that. I think a lot of Mawrters are fighters, and that includes me. I don’t approach justice as something that is already out there in the world, but something that we have to continuously fight hard for.”
Ramos, who began her work in Mexico volunteering at migrant shelters and who has a background as a federal defender, holds onto the idea that knowledge is power and that the more she can do to educate immigrants about the legal system, the better equipped they will be to overcome the hurdles in their path. Since 2017, her organization, which works with eight different cities in Mexico, has served thousands of people from 50 different countries. She feels committed to staying “until we have an open border” and is buoyed by a recent successful lawsuit Al Otro Lado filed against the Department of Homeland Security, in which a federal judge in San Diego found that turning asylum seekers away from the U.S. port of entry is illegal. “It’s a challenging environment for sure,” she says, “but I think that there’s hope for us as a movement, and we’re going to keep working towards that.”
Ramos credits her ability to grapple with “impossible” problems to her Bryn Mawr education. “Not only from the classes that I took and all the different kinds of people that I was exposed to but also just the rigor of it really prepared me,” she says. “That spirit of ‘meet the challenge, don’t be afraid of obstacles and barriers’ is definitely something that was imparted to me by Bryn Mawr.”
For Gomez, being able to reach a positive result that an individual was looking for after years of being in limbo makes the struggle worthwhile. She looks at her work as a puzzle to solve. “My clients have all these pieces, but they don’t necessarily know how to put them together.”
At the end of the day, “these are people’s lives,” she says, “and they look to you for answers. It can seem like a never-ending process, but when each battle we win, we have to say, ‘Good, that case is done.’ For that person, it could make the difference of only being admitted for six months versus several years. So, you take your wins in whatever way to bolster you for the next thing.”
Having a network of colleagues, some of them fellow Mawrters, in the field helps, too. “There are cases that I might not take, or my firm might not take that I will refer to other Mawrters, and they will do the same for me,” says Gomez. “It’s nice having that community in place, and of course, I’m going to look out for other Mawrters and help them in any way I can.”
Immigration law is collaborative in a way that other areas of the law are not. “We know that we can’t be successful alone, so there’s a lot of sharing of information,” says Balgamwalla of Wayne State. “There’s this feeling that we are on the same side. It’s like you’re in the trenches with other people who have your back.”
She is consistently surprised by how appreciative her legal clinic clients are, even if they get an unfavorable decision. “Accompaniment through the process really is meaningful for them,” she says. “I’ve never had a client say, ‘This happened because you didn’t care about me,’ or ‘You didn’t do a good job.’ So, it’s validating even though I would always rather see them win.”
A political science major at Bryn Mawr, Balgamwalla shifted her focus to immigration when she was in law school and realized that this was an area where she could do important human rights work.
“I tell students, we are making all these factors—the cultural context in which people live, all the things that make them vulnerable to harm—we have to make those things real for the judge. Being able to see all those different things, I directly credit Bryn Mawr with my ability to do that.”
Liz Jacobs '12
Head of Middle East Programmes, Choose Love
What is Choose Love?
Choose Love provides refugees and displaced people with everything from lifesaving search and rescue boats to food and legal advice. We elevate the voices and visibility of refugees and galvanize public support for agile community organizations providing vital support to refugees along migration routes globally.
What is your role?
I oversee Choose Love’s programmatic partners in the Middle East and lead our LGBTQIA+ work globally. Recently I have been getting support to organizations in Ukraine and border countries like Poland, Romania, and Moldova that are supporting LGBTQIA+ people trying to get to safety.
Why is the work so important?
The UN Refugee Agency estimates there are 87 million displaced people around the world. One of the most pressing issues of our time is figuring out ways to welcome and accommodate those that are displaced because of any reason, whether it’s based on conflict, climate change, or being an oppressed minority.
What kind of support do displaced LGBT individuals need?
In many countries, LGBTQIA+ people face violence and oppression simply because of who they love or who they are. In times of crisis and war, the challenges and risks they face are much higher. This is due to systemic discrimination embedded in mainstream help systems that lack an understanding of the specific needs and experiences of marginalized groups.
In Ukraine right now many trans women who have passports with outdated gender markers are not allowed to exit the country and are forced into conscription, where they can face additional discrimination from their fellow soldiers. Another issue specifically impacting trans women is not being able to access hormones. When the healthcare system is completely decimated, or only focused on supporting people immediately impacted by war, people with any kind of long-term health issue suffer.
From a Distance
Andrea Dykyj-Wang ’11 grew up in the Philadelphia area but did not speak English until she was 6 years old. Her parents emigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine and much of Dykyj-Wang’s extended family still lives in that country.
Despite opportunities to seek safety in Poland, her family members have all opted to stay in Ukraine. “We asked them if they were going to leave, and they flat out said, ‘We don’t want to,’” says Wang. “It’s a sense of pride really, and a sense of duty towards your country. I have had several men in the family who have been enlisted to fight. And the women as well are staying behind to support them. Some of them are taking up arms.”
Wang has mixed feelings about their insistence on staying. “It would definitely be easier to know that they’re in Poland, for example, safe with family friends, but that was their decision, and I respect that.”
Wang’s younger brother, Roman, recently flew to Warsaw to help with the war effort and is now staying in Western Ukraine with a family friend who is a lieutenant in the Ukrainian military. Because he has no military experience, his charge is to carry out translation work. His exact location is being kept secret from his family for security reasons.
“From what he told me it was a gut decision,” says Wang. “He felt really driven to reconnect with his country. It’s not a great feeling, knowing your only sibling’s going to a war zone.”
Sophia Javaid '95
Human Rights Attorney UNHCR, the United nations Refugee Agency
Sophia Javaid Hameed ’95 recently arrived in Dakar, Senegal, where she works as a protection officer for the UN Refugee Agency. Prior to her current post, Hameed spent several years doing similar work in Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Algeria, and Pakistan.
Hameed’s caseloads involve issues such as child protection, sexual and gender-based violence, political violence, discrimination on the basis of nationality, refugee-status determinations, and detention issues.
Some of her clients, many of whom have fled areas of ethnic conflict, live in government-run refugee camps. In Tanzania, Hameed says, “The government said, ‘Look, this is the camp. If you want to be a refugee here, this is where you go.’ There could be four generations in the same family. The children who have been born in the camp don’t know their country. They don’t even speak the language. All they know is life in the refugee camp.”
Hameed was drawn to the work because it combines her desire to help people with her interest in world affairs. “I think the crux of the matter is that you’re helping people, that you have empathy,” she says. “That’s the part that I really enjoy, not just as a lawyer, but as a human being.”
Bryn Mawr and Undocumented Students
Students who are undocumented face particular challenges at college. Unable to apply for federal financial aid, they also are not permitted to hold work-study jobs and face uncertainty about their post-graduation lives. “Students who are undocumented experience a higher level of anxiety and depression than their peers,” says Leslie Castrejon ’15, who joined Bryn Mawr last fall as the College’s first assistant dean for student support and belonging. “It’s pretty alarming to see how much additional stress they endure just to get through school.”
To ease some of that stress, Bryn Mawr has initiated programs such as the Undocu+ Support Group, where students who are undocumented, DACAmented, or from mixed immigration status families can come together to build community. “We’re able to provide counseling as well as social and emotional support for students in a space that makes them feel comfortable to share whatever’s on their mind,” says Castrejon.
To help undocumented students visualize life after Bryn Mawr, Castrejon is planning career sessions where students can receive professional development support that is specifically catered to them by focusing on the opportunities currently available to them in the U.S. She is also encouraging faculty and staff who host alumni panels to invite alumni who are independent contractors or have their own businesses, since that can be a realistic goal for undocumented students.
Because undocumented students are likely to also be low income, one of the biggest challenges, says Castrejon, is helping them to figure out how to earn funds “to buy a plane ticket home or just for personal expenses.” While work study is not an option, undocumented students are able to apply for fellowships, an avenue Castrejon explores with them.
In hopes to alleviate costs, Castrejon worked with campus partners to put together a dorm drive, in which students donated essential items such as bedsheets, towels, hangers, and laundry baskets. These items will be offered to incoming students in the fall to help them get settled.
Castrejon and her colleagues are still on a learning curve, she says, but she feels encouraged by the number of staff and faculty wanting to learn more. For students, her message is simple: “While there may be limitations, we’ll do our very best to support you.”
Lisa Klinman '12
Victim/Witness Services of South Philadelphia
After graduating from Bryn Mawr with a degree in anthropology, Lisa Klinman ’12 worked with the American Refugee Committee at refugee camps across the Myanmar-Thailand border. She joined Victim/Witness Services of South Philadelphia four years ago.
We provide support, accompaniment referrals, and case management services for immigrants and refugees in Philadelphia who have experienced severe violence. About 90 percent of the people that we work with are undocumented and living below the poverty level.
We have an advocate that specifically works with Spanish-speaking community members, mostly from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Mexico. We also have an Asian victim services program, and we work closely with the African Family Health Organization in Philadelphia and other community-based organizations to ensure we are serving people who could use support.
A lot of people raised in other countries have no idea what to do when they experience violence in this country. They are fearful of interacting with law enforcement due to the potential repercussions. We walk through the process with them and make sure they get follow-up as well as access to medical and counseling services.
It’s really hard to provide support in an environment where people are chronically under-resourced. The program I work with is the only one in the city that supports people interacting with law enforcement or who are dealing with situations of violence who don’t speak English as a first language. There’s a huge need to expand those services.