At the beginning of this year I got to fulfill a little dream of mine; I was given the opportunity to take my University of Alaska Anchorage paralegal internship at Refugee Assistance and Immigration Services (RAIS) in Catholic Social Services (CSS).
It’s been a long term goal of mine to work for the United Nations, but such opportunities are scarce for a monolingual Alaskan who didn’t put nearly enough effort into his education as he should have when he was a younger man. But the paralegal program was at least a way for me to get my feet wet, so I donned the suit and tie and set off.
Much to my chagrin, I was quite overdressed. But in time I found that learning how to loosen up was as much a part of the learning process as was the professionalism. That was the easy lesson. The hard ones would come with facing the darker aspects of what people are capable of doing to one another. I’ve read it all before in human rights reports and political science books and thought that meant that I knew something, but talking to the people who go through it is quite another demon entirely. As far as I can tell, I still barely know a fraction of it.
My first day on the job was overwhelming. It was a flurry of activity and people. My supervising attorney and I set up shop at the Alaska Literacy Program (ALP) to screen candidates for naturalization. The ALP is an institution that aids immigrants and refugees who have recently received their Legal Permanent Resident status (LPR or Green Card as you may know it) in learning English, American history, and the U.S. Constitution. All of which will be featured on their final test to become American citizens.
LPRs, without a fee waiver obtained through public assistance or refugee status, will cost the seeker no less than $1,080. As participants near their fifth year as a green card holder, applicants can come into our office open hours to move into the naturalization process — which, without a fee waiver, is an additional $680. These prices are not the policy of the organization I worked with. Rather, it is a federal standard. But such fees can be debilitating to families in need but not yet quite enough need to warrant a fee waiver.
Clients would come in to be screened with any order of the spectrum of emotion etched upon their face when staring down the gauntlet of paperwork in front of them. We would sit down with each and every one of them and ask a series of questions to see if they qualified for our program. There would be, on occasion, a client that we would have to turn down for services due to the severe nature of a criminal offense. Such clients were referred to other local lawyers who could afford to take such cases. This was never meant as a sleight to those seeking naturalization, it was merely a reflection of the reality of the funding and resources that we had available.
The paperwork following the interviews is beyond extensive. After the initial meeting, they are sent home with a list of documentation that we will need to file. This can be immensely stressful for some clients as they may come from a part of a nation that doesn’t have things like birth or marriage certificates, or, for instance, all of their documentation in their homeland was destroyed by a typhoon along with a sizable portion of their hometown.
After they gather their documentation, we begin to file the official forms for them that end up going through the Department of Homeland Security. The most prominent form that I fill out is known as the N-400. Here, they’ll ask you for everything. They will also ask if you have been a member of a communist party, a “habitual drunkard,” or if you have ever committed a crime but were never convicted. For some reason, no one ever checked “yes” on that last box.
After rigorous review and cross checking, we would send the finalized version of the forms for processing. I’m happy to say that in my short time there, the majority of people I have worked with have received their citizenship.
The Very Good Days
Working at RAIS felt like working in a mini United Nations. Nationalities from nearly every continent worked together toward a common goal. None of our cultural differences mattered for even a single moment as we strove in tandem to make things work.
This was also an opportunity for me to learn about conflicts abroad that I previously had no knowledge of. The conflict in Bhutan was the most striking example of this. Entire families came here after going through the camps in Nepal. The Bhutanese handshake that I received is to this day still one of the most awesome things I have ever seen.
Every once in a while, we would get something that I would refer to as a “Somali/Sudanese Surge.” A mass of humanity would arrive at the office in need of assistance. With the office sometimes worked to capacity, it can be very difficult to get to everyone in the quick and professional manner that we desire. I guess I was feeling brave (or arrogant) on one of these days, so I thought I would wade through. We had one client who spoke Somali and English and another who spoke Arabic and English. I took care of these two men first and then begged them to help me translate for the rest of the Sudanese and Somalian refugees in need of assistance. It took time and a lot of patience, but I think that we got to everyone that day. It felt pretty damn good.
In order to better understand why Alaska would have so many from Somalia and Sudan, here’s a primer.
I’ve gotten the pleasure of working with people from Mexico, Guatemala, Cuba, Bolivia, Columbia, Belize, Argentina, France, Canada, Germany, Thailand, China, Western Samoa, American Samoa, Iraq, Sudan, South Sudan, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Bhutan, Gambia, and more still I’m sure that I am missing. Without a single exception, regardless of what culture they come from, they all have one universal thing in common; they all smile when they find out they are to become a U.S. citizen.
There were also some very trying days. We were taught at UAA to maintain a high level of professionalism. This includes an emotional element of not breaking down in front of clients. I had two instances of this line nearly being crossed.
The first was when I was instructed not to ask a client about their family, which is naturally a primary and basic part of the application process as the forms seek to identify nearly everything about you. I did as instructed, but the client brought it up on their own accord. They started crying as they described watching their entire family being executed in front of them. Not joining in on the shedding of tears was more difficult than I care to explain.
The second hardship took place when a homeless individual was mistakenly sent to the office. During the screening interview, it became apparent that there was a very severe mental health issue. They had been living very hard for a very long time. For as long as I have been alive at least. There was not one single thing that I could do to aid them in becoming a U.S. citizen within my very limited capacity. They started to cry and told me that they couldn’t go on living like this. I felt more connected to this person than I wish to speak of, but I still had an obligation to hold the line.
That was the first time that I rejected a client on my own accord for the naturalization process. I justified it to myself on the grounds that their basic safety and health and shelter had to be sought before something less needed for survival like naturalization. I sat with him for the next few hours and we talked about what it feels like to be lonely. Finally, the aid that I requested arrived and we could provide the individual with a specialized case worker.
There are a lot of things about this kind of work that I can’t talk about. Sometimes it feels cold and bitter and wasteful and mean and sad and upsetting and merciless and a whole entire library full of emotions that I have to sweep under the rug; that everyone who has to do this every day has to bury under the requirements of professionalism. I can’t even bring it up in normal conversations. Sometimes it feels like it’s always there, just sitting beneath the surface, waiting for something to relate to. That was the worst part. Those were the bad days.
Taking it Home with You
At the beginning of this summer, I visited the people I worked with during my internship at the annual World Refugee Day Fair in Mountain View. It was a carnival of cultures in a town that can take a lot of pride in its diversity.
I kind of felt my heart sink in my chest a little thinking that this may be the closest I ever get to that dream job at the United Nations. Yet, if they ever chose to open an office here, I would still be the first to sign up.
There will always be a need for help for those who come to our shores seeking the freedoms that we often take for granted. If you can spare the time, and especially if you can translate other languages, you can be a part of making a positive difference at ALP, CSS, and RAIS.
I still show up sometimes to do some data entry. It’s a nice sense of purpose between the temp jobs I’ve been taking lately. Though I’d love nothing more than to do this for a living, such prospects are not blossoming from trees. Finding a worthwhile job seems to be something that evades many of us for our entire lives, but it felt more than worthwhile to put on that tie, listen to people’s stories, and work with them to obtain their American citizenship.
It felt like a reason to breathe.