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The Dehumanizing Nature of the Immigration System: More Than Names on a File

“I am really sorry to ask these questions. I won’t pretend to know how difficult it must be to answer them,” I reached across the table and put my hand on top of Norma’s in a show of comfort and support.

“It is okay,” she smiled through her tears and continued, “I suppose it really is my life – it is my story.”

I had been to Norma’s apartment many times before this to visit her and her daughter, Julia. I began to feel comfortable there – like I was visiting a friend rather than a client. Every day, I would approach the red door to their apartment and knock hard because Norma was always lying down in the back bedroom. I would wait until I heard the shuffle of her feet on the ground, and the voice that would say sternly, Who is it? I would say that it was Kathryn from Tapestri, and the stern tone on the other side of the door would become a mixture of exhaustion and kindness. Norma would take some of the bags I was holding – clothes or food – and lead me to where she wanted them. As we unloaded the bags, we would talk about her day and how she was feeling. She was pregnant and had received little prenatal care. We would talk about how hot Atlanta was. I was always dripping with sweat by the time I made it to her apartment. She would hand me a bottled water, which I refused in the beginning but soon understood I should accept. Julia would join the conversation, explaining the game she was playing that day. Then, I would say my goodbyes and shut the red door behind me, hearing the lock click.

“While this job presented many challenges, both practical and emotional, the hardest challenge by far was allowing clients to make their decisions independently,” writes McElvoy, SHECP 2017 Intern.

On this day, I had come to Norma’s apartment bearing a typed version of her personal statement for her I-360 Self-Petition. In her statement, I needed her to explain how she met her husband and lived in a state where she knew no one but him. I needed her to explain how soon after their marriage, her husband became abusive to her and her daughter, hurting them physically, sexually, emotionally, and financially. I needed her to explain that her husband forbade her access to a phone or computer and did not allow her to leave the house. I needed her to explain how she fled with her daughter, leaving behind nearly everything she had. I needed her to explain that since her departure, her husband has not stopped searching for her. But unfortunately, her statement left out most of this. It told her story, but it avoided many of the horrible details that I knew to be true.

My job at Tapestri, a non-profit in the metro-Atlanta area, was to provide advocacy for immigrant victims of domestic violence. This advocacy primarily meant legal work, such as filing for temporary protective orders, custody, or divorce and completing the necessary paperwork for our clients to petition for legal status independent of an abusive spouse. However, my work was also personal, including the delivery of donations to client’s houses, listening to clients who needed to talk, and connecting clients to crisis counseling shelters and other forms of support.

While this job presented many challenges, both practical and emotional, the hardest challenge by far was allowing clients to make their decisions independently. Most had come from situations where they had little to no control over anything: their phone, when they left the house, their body, their finances. Therefore, when clients sought Tapestri’s assistance, we asked the right questions and educated them on all of their options, but we never told them what to do. Their choices, with Tapestri’s assistance, needed to be their own, authentic and autonomous.

The inability to directly advise our clients frustrated me for two reasons. First, our clients’ decisions often put them in more danger, and it was hard for me to accept this. At one meeting, a woman explained that she might stay in contact with her husband if he kept calm as he promised, though he had a 10-year history of physical abuse. I had to bite my tongue and step out to avoid speaking against this decision. Second, a barrier seemed to exist between the to-do list that my supervisors provided clients and what our clients heard. We needed a wealth of documentation, photographs, a personal statement, and other relevant evidence to put together an immigration petition. In our client meetings, my supervisors gently and slowly explained this list and process, and in response, I usually heard an overwhelmed, “okay, okay, okay”. Watching these interactions, I understood how important my supervisors’ words were, but for some reason, I did not feel like our clients felt this same urgency or grasped the meaning of the information. I chalked this up to language barriers and distrust of a system that had failed our clients many times before.

Sitting at Norma’s kitchen table that day, I was initially upset. I had waited two weeks for her to finish her statement, and I was ready. I was ready to type it up, put it in her file, and send it to petition for her status. I was ready to show how horrible Norma’s husband had been and why she deserved to remain in the United States with her family. So, naturally, I was frustrated when the statement that she gave me did not do this. But as I began asking questions so that I could dictate her answers, I realized that perhaps it was not just a language barrier or distrust that stopped Norma from including many of the details that we had asked of her. No, it was a refusal to recognize that the story that she needed to explain and prove was truly her story. It was a refusal to record on paper that version of herself and her life. But unfortunately, that is what her personal statement did. That is what the entire file did – it made her one thing – an abused woman with no other options. And who would ever want to see themselves that way?

So I came to understand that though it was the most challenging part of my job at Tapestri, letting clients make their own decisions was the most important part of my job. I needed to make Norma’s words, “it is my life – it is my story,” ring true. This realization brought me some peace of mind and helped me understand the value of presenting Norma with the resources to make an informed decision, rather than the making the decision for her. However, this peace of mind by no means resulted in complacency or inaction. Rather, I accepted that I could not control Norma’s story, but I wanted to know, how could I now use my knowledge of Norma’s situation and Tapestri’s resources to provide Norma with the best options to make a constructive and autonomous decision moving forward? Moreover, how could I use my external perspective to understand how to prevent the future Normas of the world from finding themselves in this same situation?

While there are probably thousands of contributing factors to situations like Norma’s, I will recount the most glaring ones. A lack of knowledge about her rights had allowed Norma’s situation to worsen far more than it should have. Norma had never called the police or tried to leave because she was undocumented and believed she would lose her children. Her distrust of anyone that could help her, like law enforcement or social services, was only strengthened by recent immigration rhetoric. Moreover, when she did have the courage to approach a school official about her situation, the official offered condolences but did not connect her to the appropriate resources. Finally, the legal system was inadequate to deal with the delicate and emergent nature of her situation. Specifically, in order to file for a protective order, she would have had to reveal her new state of residence to her husband or return to the state where he resides, neither of which were conducive to her safety or within the bounds of her financial capabilities.

Obviously, Norma’s situation is far more nuanced than I have presented here, but these observations reveal the information retroactively necessary for Norma to make a decision moving forward, and an important foundation for future change. For example, how could we have reached Norma about her rights in light of recent immigration rhetoric? Is there a way to help Norma to move on with her life and live safely without having to reveal her location or return to her husband’s residence? How do we create an immigration system of mutual trust and respect, rather than skepticism and fear? There are currently no perfect answers to these questions, but to tackle them, we need a line of communication. And creating that line of communication starts with basic human interaction. It starts with familiarity, and the chance to learn from one another, as Norma and Tapestri and I learned from each other this summer

Essentially, when we talk about immigration, we are talking about real human beings, and one of the biggest problems with the current immigration system, especially the rhetoric surrounding it, is its dehumanizing nature. It does not function as a line of communication between human beings; it is a line of communication between human beings and aliens. It reduces people like Norma to the 30 pages inside her file, and treats her as if that is all she is. But Norma’s file, despite our best efforts, does not tell you her whole story. It does not tell you about the red door to her apartment or the stern voice she begins with and the exhaustion that follows. It does not tell you how bright and sweet Julia is. It does not tell us that every day she offered me a cold bottled water, despite how much that water cost her. Norma is not just a file, and I learned that from talking with her every day – from being her friend. I think she even began to trust me too.


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