Our Clients’ Stories are the Stories of America

By J. Nicole Alanko, Esq., J.D. ’18, Immigrant Justice Corps Fellow

My family loves the Fourth of July. Every year, my family gets together at a lake in rural Georgia to swim, eat amazing barbecue, and gather with extended family that we don’t get to see for most of the year. This year, while my family watched the fireworks over the Georgia pines, I was asleep in a hotel room in Arlington, Virginia.

The Immigration Clinic’s first asylum interview for an Afghan family was scheduled for early in the morning of July 5th. Rather than celebrating over the weekend, I spent my time preparing for the interview: reviewing the client’s affidavit, reviewing human rights reports about what the Taliban has done since coming into power last August, and putting the finishing touches on my closing argument. Although my family certainly wouldn’t describe what I was doing as “celebrating,” this work was my own way of celebrating.

The story of America that we celebrate on the Fourth of July is a story of resilience and perseverance in the face of hardship and oppression. It is a celebration of generations of heroes—named and unnamed—who believed in a country and a future for their children greater than the one they had. It is a celebration of the hard work, generation after generation, to make life better than it was before.

Working on an asylum case is usually the farthest thing from celebratory. The elements of asylum require us as attorneys and law students—and the government officials who decide their cases—to focus on our clients’ fear. Our cases turn on the horrific violence they have suffered, or the violence that they fear they will suffer, because of who they are. We discuss details of beatings, death threats, and worse again and again because it is necessary to build a client’s claim. We spend most of our time with our clients discussing the very worst parts of their lives. But it’s only a small part of our clients’ full stories.

Our clients’ stories from around the world are stories of resilience and perseverance. Our clients sought out an education—and excelled in school—in circumstances where girls are not allowed to go to school. Others of our clients bravely came out as LGBTQ to their parents and community, even when that meant rejection from those they love. Others still were professionals (or studying to be professionals) in law, government, and medicine. Others crossed thousands of miles of dangerous terrain to escape partners who repeatedly hurt them and their children with impunity. Still others came to the United States alone as children, looking to reunite with family members they hadn’t seen for most of their lives. Many of our Afghan clients, in the days after Kabul fell, made their way through violence and chaos at the Kabul airport to be greeted by American soldiers. Our clients left everything behind just to keep themselves and their families safe.

Our clients’ stories are the stories of America. They’re the stories of perseverance in the face of hardship and strength in the face of oppression. These are the stories—and the people—that as Americans, from all backgrounds and histories, we honor, value, and celebrate.