By Jess Kraus, J.D. Class of 2021
Covered in dusty dirt, I finally reached my destination at the top of the cliff-like hillside. I looked to my right and saw the small and simplistically beautiful church. To my left, the dirt floor barn that housed a widely attended and rowdy baptismal party the night before. Below, modest houses filled with friendly neighbors. Out in the distance just outside the village, miles and miles of fields. What I did not see were men or boys over the age of 10. Anywhere.
This was my view on a Saturday morning in July of 2015 in La Preciosita, Mexico. I had been participating in a study abroad collaborative in Puebla, Mexico. As part of the program, 8 students from my university in North Carolina and 8 students from UPAEP in Puebla went through two weeks of team building, service work, and leadership development programing in North Carolina. We then traveled together to Puebla, where we completed a course analyzing the multiple perspectives of immigration, volunteered at an orphanage, and went on several field trips to better understand the issues of immigration. A weekend stay in the homes of community members of La Preciosita was one such field trip. We were immediately immersed in the small, rural village. We helped cook meals, we attended Mass, we sat and talked with the women, we attended the aforementioned baptismal party that was nothing short of a village-wide hoedown. What we quickly came to realize was that this community was almost completely reliant on funds sent back from family members working in the United States, usually illegally. What was even more impactful though, was how distraught the community was by this. The pain of not seeing family members for many years, of not knowing if they would ever see them again, was palpable. Some had not heard from their family members and did not know if they were alive. Some did not know where their children were, but prayed every night that they were safe. Still others could not bear to interact with us because even seeing Americans brought such great pain.
I had countless experiences like this during my three weeks in Puebla. I had conversations with the UPAEP students (who quickly became dear friends) that shattered my previously held views and perceptions. I toured a health clinic struggling to meet the needs of migrant individuals seeking treatment for a countless array of ailments procured along a migratory journey to escape persecution. But there was something special about my time in La Preciosita. It was on that hillside overlooking the village that all of my experiences over the prior five weeks came to a culmination. I realized how passionate I was about the immigration issues I had learned about and that they held a special place in my heart.
At this point, however, I was entering my junior year of college and was pretty firmly set down the road of environmentalism and conservation. My career path did not seem to leave room to explore this newfound passion. And so, it became more of an interest. Years went by. I graduated from school and began working at a nonprofit doing environmental education and community outreach. I pursued law school, always with the goal of doing environmental law. I got involved in environmental law and policy work immediately upon starting at William & Mary. And then, during my 2L year, I heard about the Immigration Clinic. I was intrigued; something lit up inside of me. So, I enrolled in the clinic for my final semester of law school.
I’m really not sure I have the words to describe how working in the Clinic has impacted me over the course of the semester. I’ve spent hours meticulously curating interview questions. I’ve sifted through case files and organized facts into a legal claim. I’ve met with clients and heard their stories. I dove deep down a procedural rabbit hole and came out the other side with a plan to help my client. I’ve drafted an affidavit, memorializing my client’s experiences and tragedies on paper. Yet, none of it has felt like work. It has certainly been challenging at times. There have been many times when I experienced some “firsts” and all of the anxieties that come with them. But through all of it, there was a joy and a passion smoldering in the background.
Looking back over the past semester, I realize this has been some of the most important work I have ever done, but it has also been some of my favorite. There are moments when working on a client’s case will send me back to that hillside in La Preciosita, where the lightbulb went off and the visceral emotions involved with immigration sunk in for the first time. In those moments, and countless others, I am filled with gratitude for the opportunity to work in the Immigration Clinic. First and foremost, gratitude for the opportunity to serve our clients. In addition to that, though, I am grateful for the chance to finally put action to the profound emotion I felt six years ago, for the opportunity to serve and make a meaningful difference, and for the mentorship and guidance to enable me to do so effectively. Working in the Immigration Clinic is an experience that I will take with me for years to come, and one I will certainly seek out again in the future.