To be a More Zealous Advocate, See Yourself in Your Clients

I have been blessed to have my parents, siblings, teachers, and friends as my lifelong advocates. These people have helped shape my beliefs through good conversation and have shown me how important it is to approach all challenges with optimism and grace.

However, the attorney who enabled my family to immigrate to the United States from India was also my advocate. Without his work, I would not have had the opportunity to grow personally and professionally here. His advocacy inspired me to become an attorney and pursue externship experiences which would enable me to use my skills to serve and identify with my clients.

As a second-year law student extern with the National Immigrant Justice Center in South Bend, Indiana, I represented two Honduran children – a brother and sister – who sought asylum in the United States. They had grown up in Honduras and had been abused by their aunt, who still lived there and had ties to local gangs. Knowing about the lack of adequate infrastructure in Honduras to prevent gang violence and child abuse, I anticipated that the children were traumatized by the mistreatment that they went through. I was particularly nervous about preparing their affidavits, because I felt that it would be hard for them to open up about their abuse to me, a complete stranger.

However, I was pleasantly surprised by how the children connected with me during our initial meeting. As they came in and propped themselves into conference room chairs which were bigger than them, I was reminded of my 11-year-old self and meeting the immigration officer, years ago. Though both children seemed slightly nervous, they spoke to me in very good English and were calm as I explained who I was and why we were meeting. We also discussed the weather and school. They shared that they both enjoyed school. The brother wanted to be a soccer player. The sister wanted to be an artist.

This brief conversation helped us break the ice and served as a constant source of connection in moments which were tough. In particular, while I was interviewing the brother to prepare his affidavit, he began to disengage with me as we discussed the abuse that he went through with his aunt. I remember one particular moment, when I asked him about where his aunt would hit him. After I asked the question, he became very silent and just pointed to his arm and shoulder. After that, he told me how, instead of telling his friends about the abuse, he would lie and say that he got hurt playing soccer. He went silent, slouching in his chair.

I thanked him for sharing that, said that we should take a break, and asked him to tell me about what it was like being a goalie for the soccer team. He looked up, smiled, and bragged about how he and his teammates had won a recent game. This helped ease the tension and, more importantly, helped him recharge and focus on something positive in his life while processing a very negative memory with me.

By the end of the externship, the children had shared their experience in Honduras during our follow-up interviews and helped me prepare their affidavits and briefs in support of asylum. Ultimately, they won asylum after their interview with the USCIS officer in Chicago. It was a win for them. It was a win for me.

Working with the children helped me not only apply my skills to a real case, but helped me sympathize with their situation and, more broadly, that of asylum-seekers here in the United States. Although my immigration experience was completely different from theirs, I reflected on my own family’s journey and began to see myself in the children as I represented them.

In hindsight, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to connect with the children, gain their trust, and help them win asylum so that they could have a chance to build a life here in the United States. As I prepare to take the bar exam and begin my law practice, I look forward to continue being present and identifying with my clients in order to be a better advocate, just like my family’s attorney did for me.

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