Law in Contemporary Society

Finding my Why

-- By IlanaDutton - 04 Apr 2023

“So, what do you do for work?”

“I’m an immigration attorney.”

Then the follow-up, “so what does that mean you do every day?”.

In the future, I’ll have specifics – whether I work with kids, survivors of gender-based violence, detained or non-detained adults – but the core of the answer will be the same:

“I help clients navigate the legal system in a variety of ways, including full representation, know-your-rights sessions, or just answering their questions. I also work on immigration reform initiatives.”

The next part of the conversation can go one of two ways.

It’s either “Wow, that’s really cool/hard/powerful/important. I could never do it.” And then we move on.


“Wow, how did you get into that work?”

Which opens the door for my “why”?

My “why” starts at the University of Puget Sound my junior year of college in a class called Politics of Detention: Criminal Justice, Immigration, and War on Terror. The class leads to a semester internship with Northwest Immigrants’ Rights Project (NWIRP), where I get my first introduction to what my future could look like. The work is hard. I don’t know how to handle hearing client stories, but I’m learning every day. As I work with clients, the deep flaws in the system are so obvious and I’m hearing conversations about reform, advocacy, and abolition. But I’m focused on the day-to-day client work, so I don’t get too involved. I stay at NWIRP for another 1.5 years.

Post-grad, I move to New York City to work as a policy legal assistant at Her Justice. As a legal assistant, I work with survivors of gender-based violence. We write declarations and file applications. I'm liking my work and thinking about applying to law school. My role as a policy assistant shows me how client experiences can and should generate avenues for reform. While my organization was committed to reform, I sought out conversations about abolishing ICE and detention centers. I spoke to people about why they were doing this work and learned so much from them.

My time at Her Justice showed me that my path forward is not only in policy or direct services. Instead, it is a hybrid. I provide clients with direct legal services, but I am also thinking about the big picture. I listen for patterns and pinpoint areas of the system that are acutely failing, like the delay in obtaining a work permit, and tackle those issues head-on.

When the work feels impossible, I'm reminded of what a professor once said: Freedom begins with the knowledge that other futures are possible. I know a different future exists, where the system is rooted in human dignity, and I spend my career working towards it.

“What can immigration reform even look like, since it seems like Congress can’t get anything done?”

I give the answer I’ve been giving since I started this work. A nod and an eye roll. The eye role is a deflection though. I spend my career seeing firsthand the pain that gridlock in Congress causes and its more dangerous than my eye roll lets on. So that’s leads to the question of why. Why can Congress not move on this issue that is critical to both human safety and the long-term economic prospects of this country?

The answer is fear.

Using Black and Brown people to scare white people is a tactic that goes back to the arrival of the first enslaved people to the U.S. in 1619. The tactic has taken different forms since then, but in its current iteration, people (typically Republicans, but not all Democrats are guilt-free on this) focus on the one-off instances of undocumented people committing acts of violence or taking “American jobs.” By emphasizing the “danger” of undocumented people in the U.S., Republicans can stir up their base and make it politically unpopular for Democrats to work towards humane immigration reform.

“So, how would you fix it?”

There are the quick answers (even though none of them are simple):

“Increase access to representation or develop a system that doesn’t actually need lawyers by simplifying forms.”

“Develop more humane policies for people fleeing from violence.”

“Hire more immigration judges.”

“Go back in time and undo the harm the U.S. did in Central and South America which has led to the increased need for asylum-seeking in the region.”

“Abolish ICE and immigration detention.”

But a lot of those are problems that require Congressional action, so the better question seems to be:

What can we do to combat Republican fearmongering and make this an issue that Democrats are willing to fight for?

Answering this question requires reflecting on how the media portrays immigration issues today and what it would take for people with a vision for a humane immigration system to take control of that narrative. People not directly impacted by the immigration system seem to only pay attention when there is an extreme tragedy on the border, an undocumented person commits a crime, or when a politician is using human lives as a political tool. When the coverage is focused on the tragedies at the border, we have a short attention span and move on to the next crisis instead of deeply reflecting on the human cost.

Immigration attorneys and organizers should use their voices to push immigration stories to the front headlines that show that the fearmongering is false. They should talk openly and often about the human tragedy that the system creates. But they should also talk about immigrant success and joy. They should talk about the value, both culturally and economically, that immigrants bring to society in concrete terms.

While this is not a fix to the system or an in-depth proposal about immigration reform, reclaiming the narrative of immigration will lay the groundwork for meaningful reform in the future.

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Hi Ilana! I found reading your essay thought-provoking both on an immigration front, and as it relates to my own career as I search for what my why is. As someone whose grandmother immigrated into the country, and told me stories about what her life was like for her when she first arrived, I commend the commitment to such important work. Also, acknowledging different possibilities as to what your career may look like is something I'm trying to work on myself, and seeing someone acknowledge their own may take many different forms is reaffirming. Also, I appreciate your perspective on what has to happen once many wrongs are eliminated from the immigration system. Picking out problems is important in and of itself, but discussing what to do after them is critical, and I enjoyed reading your thoughts.


Webs Webs

r8 - 25 May 2023 - 20:19:45 - IlanaDutton
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