This summer, I interned at the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center, a nonprofit legal organization based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, my hometown. I have always been passionate about immigrants’ rights as I believe that the peaceful movement of peoples is a human right, and that the pursuit of opportunities, safety, and happiness should be determined by the self and not by a boundary. I was fortunate to find this internship because it also gave me the chance to speak Spanish, my first language, as well as French, which I study through ICLS. Moreover, I got to experience the legal field, where I hope to make a career. The fact that immigration issues have been at the forefront of our national consciousness made for an invigorating, challenging, and oftentimes heartbreaking summer to be working in this area.

Internship background

NMILC’s goal is to empower the immigrant community, an objective which starts with helping immigrants obtain legal status. Lawyers and paralegals help clients navigate the pathways to residency or citizenship—this can include an avenue such as obtaining a U-Visa, for example, which allows a victim of a crime to gain residency, or a more straightforward process such as family-based residency. One of the primary duties of my internship was working in asylum law with the organization’s program called “PALS,” or “Program for Access to Legal Services.” This broadly-worded acronym has a highly specific application: the program benefits detainees at the Cibola County Correctional Facility, who for the most part are there awaiting their asylum process. Some context is important in understanding the work that NMILC does out of Cibola: the detention center is the only one in the country with a pod for transgender immigrants, and it has the highest percentage of asylum seekers of any detention center in the country. As part of PALS, lawyers, paralegals, and volunteers go to Cibola twice a week to meet with detainees. The help provided depends on the group NMILC sees: the men detained are all eventually moved to El Paso, where their cases will be tried, and the best we can do is prepare them to defend themselves or link them with lawyers in El Paso. The group of transgender detainees, on the other hand, stays at Cibola throughout their entire asylum proceeding, and NMILC, partnering organizations, and pro bono attorneys are able to directly represent them.

My duties at NMILC

One of my duties for PALS involved tracking each of the transgender women’s files, which are kept in what was simply known as “the box”—a beat up, overused plastic filing cabinet on wheels. The box is the primary means of communication between the detainees and our organization and pro bono lawyers—through this channel, the detainees send their applications to be translated, their messages to attorneys, and their requests for advocacy when their basic rights are being violated by ICE or officers at the detention center (an all too common occurrence, I soon learned). I tracked every message and document coming through the box, and soon enough I had the names of most of the 50 or so transgender immigrants memorized. When I went to Cibola myself, I was finally able to match the women’s stories with their faces. The contents of their files told stories of horrific abuse and violence, but in person, the detainees were kind, open, and most surprising, full of laughter. I still do not know fully what to make of this—I had gone in expecting a dismal atmosphere, but I came out convinced that people will take any shot at happiness. This sentiment is only disheartening if we consider that the United States’ current immigration policy seeks to limit these chances.

One of the most rewarding moments in my job was seeing 14 of the transgender women detained at Cibola be released on parole, following a period of what had been a near-blanket-denial of all requests since Trump came into office. I went to visit the affectionately named chicas when they arrived in Albuquerque. They were elated to be released, even temporarily. When I went back to Cibola, the mood was understandably sour, as about 40 other women wished to be released too. This dynamic felt characteristic of the ebb and flow of working in immigration as a whole: small achievements were always met with the response that there was more work to be done.

Trauma and translation

Another large component of my work involved translating—I mostly translated evidence from Spanish to English for clients’ cases, from declarations to affidavits to death certificates. Working in translation put me at the root of a person’s suffering—I found myself searching for English equivalents to disclose “they stabbed me” and “the gang killed my best friend.” My coworkers suggested that as a translator for asylum case documents, I should be as literal as possible, even when it meant improper grammar in English or imperfect idioms. This theory of translation was based on the fact that one of the most important factors in determining a judge’s decision was an applicant’s credibility—the closer the translation to the applicant’s own language, we believed, the more credible. I also worked with in-person interpretations as well—here, I came face to face with questions of how to reconcile empathy and the need for information. Paths to permanent residency in the United States are perverse in that suffering trauma is often necessary for obtaining legal status; for example, T-visas are for victims of sex trafficking, and the asylum process is for people fleeing persecution. As an interpreter for evidence-gathering meetings for these processes (I interpreted a mental health evaluation and an affidavit, for example), I had to find the words to invite a person to share enough of their story to convince an immigration judge without launching them back too deeply to their site of trauma. It was impossible not to be moved by the suffering they shared, and I wondered if this impacted the way I communicated and in turn, the way their stories came to be recorded. I had to ask myself, as the interpreter, do I try to be merely a mechanical channel for words, or do I implicate myself in their story as an empathetic figure? Does my empathy impact my translation therefore steering me further from their true expression?

Catherine’s vision

Ultimately, my experience at the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center further proved to me how deeply entangled literature and language are in achieving justice and equality. First off, it must be said that immigration is inextricably linked to other crucial societal problems—mass incarceration and criminalization, economic disparity, and persecution of minority groups are only some of the issues perpetuating social injustice that I witnessed on a daily basis. Catherine Medalia Johannet knew that literature is a force in the struggle for social change, and she selflessly acted with that information, looking to use her literary gifts in the service of others. I worked at NMILC in her memory this summer, always keeping in mind her spirit and her vision, and did my best every day to use my words to make a positive difference for someone. At NMILC, I saw how the written word of a brief, a petition, and even a government form promised an entirely new trajectory for a human life. Yet literature’s importance in inequality and injustice is also much less literal than that: everyone has a story, and everyone has a fundamental right to author their story—this right is a critical pillar of social justice. Whether a person is born on one side of a national border or another should not be the central element in determining their story’s plot. I am incredibly grateful to Catherine’s parents, her family and friends, and the ICLS department for the opportunity to work toward a value so important to me, an opportunity which has set the foundation for me to work toward Catherine’s vision of a more just and equal world.

By Daniella Apodaca