Years ago, I chose to represent poor immigrants. It takes its toll. Bouts of burnout are inevitable. And one certainly doesn’t get wealthy. But then I recall that a generous Sudanese man once wrote to me that I was “the light and the voice for freedom and wisdom.”
I began my legal career 25 years ago, and my work has made for lively conversation at cocktail parties.
“You must have hundreds of stories to tell,” people say.
I do. Many sound sadly familiar to me, like the one about the Hutu woman who fled Kigali in the days after her countrymen committed unspeakable horror against their fellow citizens. She, along with dozens of family members, fled to the neighboring Eastern Congo where they hoped to find refuge from the brutal revenge that followed in the aftermath of genocide. Instead, they roamed and ran through the forests where they were shot, beaten to death, repeatedly raped and starved. Strangers, acquaintances, friends, family were massacred. In the end, she was one of only three survivors in her family. Each scattered. One came to the U.S., one went to Canada, and one to Europe. She often wondered why she had escaped death; why everyone she loved had deserved to suffer such rabid vengeance despite their innocence, and thought that ultimately, survival was not so merciful.
I’ve also moved a bit since the beginning of my career – Rochester to Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and back to Buffalo. I traveled to Syria just before the civil war there began and to Guatemala last winter. After all, I have migrant blood too. My maternal grandfather immigrated with his family to France from Spain. They were humble orange-pickers in Spain, my grandmother reminded me when I started representing migrant farm workers after I finished law school. I had told her about two Haitian families with several small kids, who drew their water from a spigot, which ran only cold, located behind the trailer they all shared.
On my father’s side men with elegant black mustaches emigrated from Spain to Argentina and Cuba, where they learned profitable trades they brought back to the motherland, passing them along to the next generation, down to my grandfather, whose tailor shop remains on an elegant avenue of a city in Northwestern Spain decades after his death. Until not so long ago, Spain was a struggling country that sent waves of its people to the Americas, as did Italy and Ireland. Today my Latino clients, on the verge of being deported from the United States and noting my dialect of Spanish, sometimes inquire about the possibility of going there, where “they speak our language.”
Some say it’s not surprising I became an immigration lawyer, but I still think it is. I grew up in an affluent suburb where I didn’t feel different except when I had to pull out my “green card” to cross the Peace Bridge. I stumbled onto the practice as a VISTA volunteer, hired to complete applications during the farm worker immigration legalization program. The men and women who toiled in the fields along Lake Ontario obviously left their mark on my life.
Then I remember the Mexican man who once had a Mass held in my honor.