Amidst all the politically charged rhetoric about the “The National Emergency” at the border, Aspire Editor Gayle Jo Carter checked in with Safe Passage Project Deputy Executive Director Desirée Hernández whose work revolves around the youngest of these asylum seekers. Hernández shares her perspective from the front lines with us; why she’s committed her life to helping those in need and how her own family and life journey inspires her every day.
Q. Tell us what your role is as Deputy Executive Director and Legal Director for the Safe Passage Project, a non-profit organization serving the legal needs of immigrant youth in New York?
As Legal Director my job is to run the entire legal department, which is now twenty and growing, and oversee the legal representation of our 840 plus cases. This includes working with the attorneys to develop legal strategies, recruiting new staff, engaging new clients, working with volunteers, ensuring the compliance with our policies and grants, and working with outside partners. As Deputy Executive Director, my role is being the face of Safe Passage Project’s legal work. I collaborate with the Executive Director to develop organizational wide policies and with organizational planning for the future of Safe Passage Project.
Q. What led you to immigration law?
When I started law school, I knew I wanted to work with an international population and concentrate on human rights work. At New York Law School, I took immigration law with Professor Lenni Benson, an incredibly dynamic, intelligent and passionate advocate, who was also the founder of Safe Passage Project. From almost the first day of class, I knew that I wanted to become an immigration lawyer. I did several law school internships with non-profits and small immigration law firms that reaffirmed my commitment to this work. Thankfully, one of my internships led to my first job as an immigration attorney at the Law Offices of Jan Allen Reiner. During those years at the firm I worked in complex litigation cases with attorneys who took the time to teach and mentor me. I also worked with pro bono clients as a Safe Passage Project volunteer. It was my volunteer experience with Safe Passage which made me realize that I wanted to work with immigrant children in a nonprofit organization for the rest of my career.
Q. We’re all now vividly aware of the kids coming across our borders. Tell me about this situation with regards to your work.
In 2014, we had over 60,000 children leave their homes, take a dangerous journey to the U.S. border to ask us for asylum. Sadly, since then, we have continued to see thousands of children fleeing their homes in need of safety and a better life. Many of the children have been abused, neglected or abandoned. They have had family members murdered and their lives have been threatened. Their governments are not protecting them and for many, if they stay in their home countries, they would live in danger. Children that come to our borders are asking immigration authorities for help when they arrive. U.S. Customs and Border Patrol detains and processes children and begins a deportation case against them.
Many children fleeing danger have family members living in the U.S. who can offer them a safe place to live. Kids with family in New York are released after background checks to continue their immigration cases here. Our government does not provide children with free legal representation and many children are forced to present themselves to the immigration court alone. This is where Safe Passage Project comes in, meeting children in court and providing free legal services to children in deportation proceedings in New York City and Long Island.
Q. When you meet these children, what are they like? What has this journey done to them?
What continues to amaze me is children’s resilience. The children we meet are kids who were forced to leave their homes and everything and everyone they know because of violence or other difficulties in their home country. They then embark on a very difficult journey alone with little to no money in their pockets. A lot of the children just start walking north with few clothes, some food and sometimes just a name and a telephone number of a person who could help them in the U.S. Some of the children are abused during their journey. Some do not survive the arduous journey.
Then they arrive in New York City, a big place where they do not speak the language. The children have to adapt to new people, new schools, and a completely different culture, as well as worry about their immigration case. Yet, through support, therapy and people who care about them they adapt. They learn English. They make friends, do well in school, they play soccer and they go through their lives like regular kids. It is one of my favorite parts of my job – to help them during this transformative process and to help them achieve the stability that they need to continue their growth.
"The children coming to our border have suffered horrifying harm and some face death if they are forced to return to their home countries. While they are labeled as gang members, they are the ones fleeing the gangs in their homes. They deserve a chance to present their case with high quality and free legal representation."
Q. What happens to the kids who don’t have any family members here?
The kids without families can go through the asylum process while they are detained. If they are granted asylum, then they are moved to a long-term foster facility where they would be able to live until the age of 18. Those who are not granted legal status are returned to their home countries.
Q. Where did you grow up? Were you born in New York?
I was born in the Dominican Republic and grew up in Puerto Rico. My family lives in Puerto Rico. I moved to New York City for law school when I was 22 years old.
Q. What drew you to New York City? Did you always want to come to New York?
I had always wanted to live in New York City. Growing up, I loved any movie or TV show based in New York City and imagined what my life would be like if I lived there. I wanted to see the Broadway shows, try all of the different cuisines, but mostly I wanted live with such a diverse people and culture. Somehow, I just knew that New York was where I wanted to be.
Q. Was it hard to come to New York City alone?
I have been very fortunate in my life to have an extremely supportive family. My parents always encouraged me to go after my professional goals and provided me with financial help to make this transition. I am also lucky to have my uncles in New Jersey, who gave me a home away from home when I moved here by myself and went to law school. I actually look back to those years as an exciting period of my life filled with new experience, friendships and lots of growing. I got to grow into an adulthood in New York City, form a close group of friends, meet my husband and start a career I love. That was just the start of a life that I have built with people I love.
Q. What was their journey like from the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico?
My family has been one of the lucky ones in comparison to other immigrant families. I come from a family of professionals who were able to come to the U.S. and practice their professions. My maternal grandparents were the ones who made the difficult decision of leaving their home due the political turmoil in the Dominican Republic. My family has told me that while it was sad to leave their home, it was also a great move for them and an opportunity to build a new life for their young family. They moved to Puerto Rico, which is part of the U.S., but still shared many cultural traits and the Spanish language. Also, being so close to the Dominican Republic — only a 30-minute airplane ride — they had the opportunity to travel back to visit family once the political situation improved. My dad has a similar experience. He arrived in Puerto Rico as a doctor with a young family, who was able to find a job, practice medicine and have opportunities to continue his professional growth. One thing that all of my family had in common was being grateful for the opportunities that they were given and to always give back to their communities to help others who were not as fortunate.
Q. Did your background inspire you to choose immigration law at a nonprofit, which I’m sure is not as lucrative as other law specialties?
My family’s history and who they are encouraged me and showed me why this work was so important. My parents and my grandparents were always very civic minded. They taught me that I had the opportunities I had in my life not only as a result of their hard work and sacrifices, but also through luck. Through the way they treated people, the work they did in their community, and the values they instilled in me, they taught me that it was a responsibility to help those in need. It is not something that my grandparents — both maternal and paternal — and my parents just said, it was something that they practiced daily.
To achieve fairness in the immigration process, everyone should have competent legal representation. When I first learned that children, no matter how young, are not given free legal services I could hardly believe it. How is expecting a two year old child to go before an immigration judge and against a government attorney fair? It is not. Seeing that for the first time and knowing I had the tools to help made my decision to work in a place providing free legal representation to children very easy.
Q. How do you grapple, especially working with the children, with the sadness? How do you bolster yourself up? It must be rough work.
The work can be emotionally challenging and people do suffer secondary trauma as a result. The reality is that if we do not take care of ourselves, we will not be able to do our work, at least not for long, and help others.
I take care of myself by reading a lot of fiction – mostly fantasy and young adult books – during my commute. I take that time to really disconnect and not do work. When I arrive home, my husband and I cook, we chat about our day and just relax together. I also organize activities with my team to encourage others to take a break and do something fun. Our team regularly goes to karaoke, we have gone roller skating, we did an ‘escape the room’, we have group lunches, and overall encourage people to take vacation or time off.
Q. What would you say to the people living in fear of the “people pouring over our borders?” There’s a lot of disturbing rhetoric about even the children being dangerous and not worth our time and efforts.
I would encourage them to come to court with me, to sit in on one of our legal screenings, and to listen to the stories I am privileged to hear from children. They are children in need of help. The reality is that the overall number of immigrants coming across the border to the U.S. has been decreasing for years. Some of the rhetoric coming out of politicians is manufactured: there is no invasion of our border. The children coming are following the law by presenting themselves at our borders and asking for help. There is no U.S. refugee processing center in Central America where the children can ask for asylum. Our laws say that they need to come to our border and ask for protection. This is the system that we have in place right now.
The children coming to our border have suffered horrifying harm and some face death if they are forced to return to their home countries. While they are labeled as gang members, they are the ones fleeing the gangs in their homes. They deserve a chance to present their case with high quality and free legal representation. It is our time to protect immigrant children and help them integrate into our society, instead of isolating them by making our citizens fear them.
Q. What’s your hope for the future of immigration in this country? What is your hope for the future of today’s immigrants? If you could change something, if Congress could make a deal of some sort?
My hope for the future is that Congress can pass a humane and intelligent immigration reform that can fix our broken immigration system. There are many, many issues with the current state of our immigration laws – immigrants’ inability to go from no-status to having legal permanent residence, regardless of having U.S. citizen family members, too few visas for professionals in occupations needed in the U.S., harsh punishments for immigrants who enter without inspection, among many other issues. Our immigration system needs serious changes. That being said, the one thing I would do immediately for today’s immigrants would be to provide free legal representation to immigrant children nationwide. It is outrageous and extremely unfair that in the U.S. we ask children of any age to present themselves before an immigration judge, against an attorney for the government, in court and expect them to be able to competently represent themselves if they cannot afford an attorney. This is not a fair or just system. Children deserve to be represented in immigration court and no child should face this complex process without competent counsel.
*Interview has been condensed and edited.
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