In episode nine I talk to Edna about the amazing work she does for immigrants, what it’s like to win and lose cases with such high stakes, and how her failures have led to her successes.
A little about Edna:
Edna is the Assistant Executive Director at American Gateways in Austin (formerly the Political Asylum Project of Austin) which provides pro bono legal help to immigrants.
She represents immigrants in Immigration Court and Federal Court. She conducts training sessions for law enforcement officials and social service providers about how to work with immigrants in the community.
Additionally, Edna has has done legal work during personal travels abroad, including assisting refugee family reunification with the Community Law Centre in Wellington NZ and providing written legal commentary for international criminal trial of the former president of Liberia.
- What Edna does in a typical day – Varies day-to-day based on clients needs. Started work representing domestic violence victims, helped them get green cards without abusive spouses. Then started working with people who were fleeing persecution and violence in their home country. In 2016, US policy shifted and government began putting these people in detention centers (jails). The vast majority are women, many with children. Most clients from Central America or from Africa, some from Syria.
Where you see conflict, that’s usually where my clients come from. Because they are trying to find a safe place.
- One case that had a profound impact on Edna – First client from Uganda. Family caught him with his boyfriend, beat him almost to death, so he fled. Came to US on exchange visa as a student, but needed help seeking asylum after program ended (illegal to be gay in Uganda). Edna represented him and lost – she was terrified as a brand new lawyer about the consequences of her actions on this man’s life. Eventually won. Teaching moment: had made it about herself, recognized part of this was ego. It should be about how it affects client. Years later she was able to do his citizenship. He was going to school, had a great job, very happy. He told her that she was like his family, that she had given him the opportunity to fulfill his potential here. She felt he had given her the opportunity to learn to be a better lawyer and a better representative for people. This work can be frustrating and heartbreaking but stories like this help you keep going.
The strength of a case is not about whether you win or lose… It’s more about giving your client the opportunity to voice what he or she wants to say. To tell their story. And to explain what has happened to them and what is going to happen to them.
If you allow your clients that voice and recognize their agency, it makes your case stronger in the end.
- On choosing immigration law – Sounds cheesy but went into law school wanting to make a difference in the world. She naturalized as a baby, so while her experience was difference from her clients, she did know what it was like to be an immigrant. Started learning more about vulnerable immigrant woman can be. Realized that she could have been in these women’s shoes if circumstances had been different.
- What she wishes people knew about immigrants – that immigrants are actual people. Positive and negative talk about immigration (team refugee, brexit, Trump, etc.) is always referencing mass groups. People migrate for different reasons – political, economic, civil strife. Need to look at these people as individuals. It can be frustrating to listen to the conversation, because people don’t have all lot of knowledge. It’s not out there and easily accessible.
- Learning to leave work at work – It’s hard in this line of work but has gotten easier since having her daughter. Edna wants to be fully present for her while at home. Keeping work/life separate has made her a more effective advocate. Have a fresh perspective, less burned out. She tries to avoid feeling guilty because that’s not the example she wants to set for her daughter about a working mom.
Taking that time for yourself is really important…In the end, it makes me a better and happier person. It makes me a better and happier attorney and advocate, spouse, parent, and friend.
- Giving back while on vacations abroad – She and her husband do service work while traveling because it’s one of the best ways to get to know the local community. Did this in The Netherlands and met people who were directly effected by the trial, interesting to see first-hand. Did refugee petitions in New Zealand – was interesting to see how different the system is there vs. in the US. Also volunteered at the Legal Resources Center in South Africa.It was interesting to see how race was treated differently than here – wouldn’t have learned these nuances if she hadn’t volunteered here.
It’s a great way to make connections and really see what life is like.
- Biggest challenges / moments of vulnerability
- First lost case – Had to come to terms with what would happen to the client when she was sent back to her home country, whether she would be killed or not. Client ended up comforting Edna. Realized that she didn’t have the right perspective – it wasn’t about her. Failures happen, but they make you a better person if you learn how to deal with them. Failure is how you succeed in the end.
I learned that I don’t have to feel like I need to save everyone.. you do the best that you can and you move forward.
- Personal challenge – Career had always defined her, became pregnant at 40 and wasn’t sure how this would change her self-identify, would career take second place? Lots of doubts about whether what she was doing it right. This is one of the few times when she did not have control in her life. It’s a huge challenge – you have to learn to lose control.
Becoming a mom has made me one of the most vulnerable people ever – I have a lot of anxiety about it. Although I try not to because I don’t think that’s helpful for anyone.
Advice for others looking to get involved: Take action!
No matter what path you choose, you need to put those plans into actions. People get sidetracked very easily. It’s easy to follow through if you put your mind to it. If you want to help immigrants, you can volunteer. In your career, if you want to make a difference, there are lots of volunteer opportunities for students. Just look up the opportunities online.