We Do Not Fear People Whose Stories We Know…

Back before the Twin Towers fell and the Pentagon was attacked by plane, before there was a US Department of Homeland Security, way back when ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) was known as the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service,) - a lifetime ago and yet still less than fifteen years have passed – I served as a Legal Tech for an immigration law firm in Washington, DC.  I was a twenty-something white woman, with southern working class roots and a damned fine Midwestern liberal arts college education, figuring out if I wanted to go to law school.

In addition to filing forms at the law firm, I was a narrative gatekeeper. In search of asylum, an HIV-waiver, a work visa? Sit down in that chair and tell your story to me, in all its intimate and gory details. My job was to take your story and craft a narrative that would compel government officials to consider your case favorably (or at all, in some cases).

It was extraordinary work. I met families from Iran, the Philippines, Malaysia, El Salvador, Nicaragua, the United Kingdom, Sri Lanka – from all over the world. Each had an extraordinary story - some that were exciting, some that made my stomach turn, some that broke my heart open. After just a few months of working with the firm, I added Tums® to my requested office supply list and I went through them by the bottle.

I was angry that any human being had to share the excruciating details of their torture and their trauma to a recent college graduate and pray that she told their story well enough for an officer or a judge to grant them grace. I was angry at how much harm was inflicted by my country on people who had already suffered much harm in their country. Soon I figured out that I did not want to grow up to be a lawyer. I did not want to risk growing immune to the power of these stories or becoming complicit in the process. What I wanted to do was work for systems change.

Many years later down the winding road of my life, I found myself standing in an ICE office for hours. I was bonding an immigrant – the friend of a friend of a friend, ripped away from his family and hauled out to detention in rural Louisiana.

Memories of dozens of stories from the cases I had worked on flooded over me as I waited in the reception space during the long stretches between each step of the ICE process.

I remembered the proud father terrified that his extremely Westernized daughter would be stoned to death if deport to their home country.
I remembered the gay man who had seen his friends killed for daring to hold hands and who had fled his homeland in fear of his own life.
I remembered the woman raped by an elder of her church and denied the letter of good standing that would have allowed her to become a citizen.
I remembered the sweet faced Latino youth who was infected with HIV while in detention in the US and then denied status because he was HIV-positive.
I remembered their stories and the stories of so many others who struggled to create a better life for themselves and their families here in these United States.

Because I know their stories, immigration will always be a moral issue for me. Because I know their stories, I will not buy into the dehumanizing stereotypes being peddled to me and my fellow patriots. Because I know their stories, I will stand – in an ICE office, in the pulpit, in the voting booth, in the interwebs – on the side of love. I invite you to stand on the side of love, too.

  • Louise

    Thank you so much for writing this. Thank you for standing with people who are in need and for hearing what they say. There is so much unkindness, unfairness, in this world. To know that you are doing what you do makes the world a better place.


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