Last week, Proskauer was honored to host a summit in its New York office, led by United States Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, on efforts to ensure public safety and economic opportunities for Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities. The event, moderated by Frank Wu, the president of Queens College, brought together over 50 business, academic and community leaders, including the presidents of the Ford Foundation, Fordham University, Teachers College (Columbia University), Baruch College and the Asian American Business Development Center. The discussion focused on ways to battle anti-Asian xenophobia and racism and offered ideas to build capacity and investment in AAPI communities through federal policies and action.
I vividly remember waiting impatiently for my “Fresh Air Fund Sister” to arrive that first summer. It was the summer of 1973. As a young child, it was impossible for me to imagine the girl who would be spending two weeks with us at our home in suburban New Jersey. We were told that she lived in Manhattan, and her name was Judy. She was three years older than I. Would she be taller than I was? Since she was a city girl, I was sure she would be wiser. I recall being more than a bit apprehensive, with butterflies in my stomach. I also couldn’t imagine that she wanted to spend two weeks out of her own magical city. My town was a place where the mundane such as eating ice cream, seeing fireworks for the 4th of July and catching fireflies were the most memorable highlights of my suburban summers.
It turns out, she wanted that too. During that summer, and many summers after that, she joined my family. Our families kept in touch during the school year, we got to know Judy’s mother, and eventually Judy began spending winter break with us as well. Judy became a member of my family, and the experience of having an older sister from a different background and with a nearly opposite world view was one of the most impactful experiences of my life. It kindled within me a desire to learn about people. It taught me that a generous spirit is a gift to the giver even more than the receiver, and that no matter what our differences are, it is possible to take a deep dive and find a commonality that was hard to imagine could exist.
Following my experience assisting immigrant families at the border, I have shared the story, the urgent challenges, and the need for change with many audiences. I have presented the same PowerPoint of my experience enough times that it’s now possible for me to click through the slides and images, words flowing easily, despite the devastating reality of the problem which is that families seeking asylum are freezing cold and hungry, held in cages and separated to disastrous effect. Over the past several months, I have at times felt numb to the injustice. But not last week.
Last week, for the second year in a row, Proskauer launched a series of Lawyering for Social Justice Workshops at John Jay College in Manhattan. The audience of mostly prelaw students are highly motivated and engaged. The students eagerly raised their hands with questions before I even got into a rhythm with the slides. Our lively conversation not only addressed recent changes in policy but included a broader discussion of immigration and how it fits into American ideals. Many of the students are either immigrants themselves or first-generation Americans. Many are also the first in their families to attend college.
For those of you who have not had the experience, allow me to share with you the magic of doing a “build” with Habitat for Humanity. First, while most everyone has heard of this organization, many may not fully understand what it does and how it works. In short, Habitat is a non-profit that helps families and improves places to call home. But this includes more than simply building new residences (both homes and town-houses), but also helping renovate homes for the disabled and those in need.
The scope and benefits that Habitat provides extend beyond the family living in the houses served, and include improving the surrounding communities. I have seen this firsthand as a member of the board for the local Habitat chapter here in Los Angeles.
Three years ago Habitat built houses in a distressed area of Long Beach. Having the new homes, and owners that took good care of them, has really turned around that community. Not only did we build new homes in Long Beach, we also made cosmetic and capital improvements to others in the surrounding areas, in houses where the owner was disabled, senior, or otherwise unable to do the work. This area now has playgrounds, parks and a sense of community.
It was unlike any courtroom I had seen before. The Immigration Judge appeared on a video screen a little blurry but larger than life. My client, an eight-year-old girl, sat next to me at a long table. This proceeding in Dilley, Texas was not open to the public but was held behind two locked doors in a trailer secured within a sprawling “family residential center” that despite its friendly name, had all the indicia of a jail.
This was an expedited removal proceeding, and I was appealing an asylum officer’s negative credible fear determination for my young client. Her mother’s appeal already had been denied so this was our last chance to prevent the two from being deported. Especially considering my client’s age, I wanted to marshal the evidence and explain why the legal standard had been met in this case. “May I be heard Your Honor?” I asked. “No, you may not,” he responded. The Judge asked my client a few questions with little follow-up and denied the appeal, wishing my client, “good luck in your home country.”