By Melanie Dostis, Class of 2021
“La migra got ‘em.”
Four small but powerful words when strung together. These are the words I dread hearing every time I listen to a voicemail as a student of the Immigration Clinic at William & Mary Law School. I hate the thought that I might hear these words when a client doesn’t respond right away or doesn’t get back to me immediately. And, it’s also a phrase that brings me back to my childhood, one I heard growing up about family members and neighbors.
I wasn’t a stranger to the immigrant community before participating in the Clinic. As a daughter of an Ecuadorian immigrant, I grew up with the idea that people from across the world come to America to pursue the American dream. Raised in a cultural mecca like Queens, New York, I saw immigrants hustling for that dream every day. I knew of the immigrant struggle and I felt so much passion for this community I grew up in, but my thinking was pretty linear: emigration happens for X reason and then you come to America and you get the life you wanted.
Growing up, I only understood the end result of an immigrant’s journey – people either made it to America and got to stay, or for some reason that wouldn’t be explained to a child, they didn’t get to stay. I remember feeling such a cultural tug-of-war between my home country and my mother’s country. Whenever I asked her why she, or others in our family, came to America, it was: “because the opportunities are better here.” Working in the Immigration Clinic helped me better understand the myriad of stories and paths taken that lead to that “X reason” (or more accurately, reasons). My mother was fortunate and didn’t have an “X reason” that would require the services of the Clinic, such as asylum, deferred action or other humanitarian immigrant needs. Working in the Clinic, I now know just how complicated each immigrant’s story is. I also know that through all the work I’ve done and will do, I’ll never fully understand what’s it like to leave your home behind for the smallest chance at safety.
As a student in the Clinic, I fully came to understand that if America was this golden ticket, then it was truly as rare as the one Charlie Bucket won in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory– and for most, winning it seemed to also hinge on having the saddest life. Naturally and inevitably, you learn a lot of sad things in the Clinic. You hear survivors of domestic violence blame themselves; you witness children work through a locked-up memory; you listen to mothers struggle as undocumented workers in a pandemic; you overhear children crying in the background as parents share their most traumatic memories; and, through it all, you hope you don’t hear those dreaded words.
Thankfully, I haven’t heard those words in my work in the Immigration Clinic. What I have heard are stories entrusted to me that have taught me so much more about the immigrant community. I’ve learned how immigration is so far-ranging, touching on criminal law, international law and much more. I’ve gained the tools to help this vulnerable population in a time when they are arguably under attack like never before. Perhaps, more importantly, I’ve met others who share the same passion for this community and the same resolve to use their legal training to listen; care; analyze; create a plan to obtain legal status, or least buy them some time; compose and file a multitude of immigration-related documents; prep clients for the scariest interview of their life; and most significantly, show immigrants they are welcome and wanted in this country.