A major part of the Young Adult Volunteer program is the placement of a volunteer with a community partner. That is, in each city, the YAV program has community partners, usually nonprofit organizations or churches, that are doing important work in the community that aligns with the YAV values. Although volunteers cycle in and out each year, the aim is to maintain strong partnerships between the local organizations and the YAV program for ages. This practice demonstrates the concept of volunteering or practicing mission where invited, alongside locals.
The Tucson Borderlands YAV site has a number of local partners doing exiting, challenging work in the Southern Arizona community. (Check them out on our local website!) This year, I am partnered with the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project. We call it the Florence Project, or FIRRP, for short. The Florence Project is the only nonprofit organization that provides free legal and social services to the 5,000 immigrants who are detained on any given day in Arizona. The Florence Project began in a small town called Florence, Arizona, but now has offices in Florence, Phoenix, and Tucson, with over 80 employees.
My specific placement with FIRRP is with the Children’s Program based out of the Tucson office. We service a 300 children facility that is located within the city of Tucson, a 50 children facility that is located about 1.5 hours away from Tucson, hidden away on the side of a mountain, and a 30 children long term foster care program in Tucson. Our team consists of three attorneys, four legal assistants, a social worker, and an administrative assistant. I essentially work in the capacity of a legal assistant. To best demonstrate the work that I do, I will describe a typical week in my life at the Florence Project.
Mondays are my least favorite days. No, not just because they are Mondays, but because they are office days. A typical Monday for me is spent solely in the office, not at shelters interacting with kids, which I have come to learn is my favorite part of this job. However, I recognize that the office work is also important as it is when I work on casework for clients, such as writing declarations, drafting dependency petitions, and completing asylum applications. On Monday afternoons, we have our weekly team meetings, at which all of the above-named people (attorneys, admin, and legal assistants) gather to discuss surfacing issues, protocol changes, and upcoming events. Immediately after team meeting, we launch into what is called Joint Case Review (JCR).
JCR is an opportunity to bring up any challenging cases so that all attorneys and legal assistants can strategize together and offer each other suggestions and support. JCR is also when legal assistants bring up new, pressing cases that they have identified at the shelters and try to convince an attorney to represent the child.** Because we have only three attorneys and we service 380 children, of course, not all of the children who need an attorney can have one. Sometimes I leave team meeting and JCR feeling encouraged, sensing strong teamwork. Sometimes I leave these meetings feeling defeated by the system and all of the barriers that it presents.
**An important parenthesis: immigrants in removal (read: deportation) proceedings are not guaranteed an attorney, like defendants are in criminal proceedings. This means that most migrants, including children, must defend themselves in a court of law in front of immigration judges, against government prosecutors. A study published in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, found that “only 37% of all immigrants, and a mere 14% of detained immigrants, secured representation” in asylum hearing.
On a typical Tuesday, one legal assistant heads to the detention facility within Tucson to deliver a Know Your Rights presentation at 8:30am. We alternate giving these presentations, and I am a regular in the rotation. By law, children must receive a Know Your Rights presentation within 10 days of arriving at the facility. This presentation is conducted in Spanish, and delivered in a kid-friendly way with colorful graphics, interaction, and role-play. Following the approximately 1.5 hour-long presentation, the other legal assistants arrive at the shelter to assist with intakes. Intakes are a basic legal screening that all children who arrive at the facility receive. They are conducted in a private room, where we (ideally) cannot be overheard, but can be observed by shelter staff through a window or camera. As legal assistants, we explain confidentiality, and assure the kids that anything they tell us will not be shared with facility staff, ICE, or even their parents, without their consent. We then ask a series of questions designed to determine what type of legal relief the child may be eligible for, and to screen for abuse by Border Patrol. Intakes usually last from 10 am to about noon.
If all goes well for a child, we will not meet with them again. The best case, and most common, scenario is that within weeks (but it is usually several months) of their arrival to the shelter, they will be reunified with a sponsor already living in the U.S., usually a relative or close friend. When they arrive to their destination, we contact them to assist in finding an attorney to represent them in their legal case, which generally endures for years and years after being released from detention. If a child does not have a sponsor, or if their sponsor is rejected by the government, then we meet with child again to discuss other options. They can opt for a voluntary departure, in which they ask the immigration judge permission to return to their home country. Or, if they have a strong enough legal case (read: traumatic enough life), and are under age 17.5, we can assist them in applying for placement in a Long Term Foster Care program.
After a lunch break, we return to the facility at 1 pm to conduct follow-ups. Follow-ups are a second, third, fourth, or umpteenth meeting with a child because they are our client or they need specific assistance with their case, like applying for Long Term Foster Care or have an upcoming court hearing. After follow ups, I return to the office and complete office work for the remainder of the afternoon.
Wednesdays are my favorite day of the week! Although it is an early morning for me, arriving at the office at 7:30 am, compared to the usual 8:30, it is the day with the most direct interaction, which I have come to find very life-giving. At 7:30 am, I meet one other legal assistant at the office and we begin the 1.5 hour trek to the shelter located on the other side of Mt. Lemmon. The four legal assistants each rotate who goes to this facility each week because it is a big time-commitment. My “pet-project”, that was envisioned prior to my arrival at the Florence Project and assigned to me by my supervisor on my first day, is overseeing this facility by being a “regular” there. The goal was to have a more consistent presence for the kids there and to improve the rapport between FIRRP and the facility staff. So, while the full-time legal assistants only go to this shelter once a month, I go every week.
Beginning around 9 am when we arrive, the colleague accompanying me that day gives a KYR presentation while I conduct follow-ups. My consistent presence at the shelter has been very beneficial for follow-ups. The kids know me; I know them. I know exactly where I am in their case and what needs to be discussed each week. Some highlights of these relationships have included a child who loves to practice a bit of English with me each week and sings me Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” a child making me a thread bracelet that has my full name in the design, and children genuinely thanking me for just saying hi and asking how they’re doing.
After KYR and follow-ups, the other legal assistant and I conduct intakes with each new kid. We usually do not leave the shelter until 1 or 2 pm, so by the time we return to the office, I am almost at an 8 hour day, so a little bit of office work, and then I bike home. Though Wednesdays can be long and draining, I love the opportunity to work with the kids who are at such an isolated facility, showing them as best that I can, that they are not forgotten.
My Thursdays have a structure identical to Tuesdays. As the end of my work week, though, I tend to get a surge of energy to tie up loose ends, followed by excitement for the weekend. (The Tucson YAV model is a four-day work week at our site placements, committing to 32 – 36 hours per week. Friday is a designated community day featuring community discussions, work related to vocational discernment, local educational and activism events, and fellowship with housemates.)
You can see that my weeks are very busy, filled with work that requires much background information (which is why this post was so long!) I am very grateful for all of the opportunities that the Florence Project has afforded me over the last five months, and I am grateful to the YAV program for providing me the opportunity to work with FIRRP. I have learned about the system and its flaws through my work. I have learned about my strengths and my flaws through my work. This experience has, so far, solidified my passion for working with children, migrants, and survivors of trauma. It has also caused me to realize that channeling those passions through the legal field may not be the best fit. But, more to come on that later! For now, I hope that this post has increased your awareness of what I do with 32 – 36 hours of my life each week! There is so much more to be said, so I welcome any questions.
I hope you all enjoy and learn something useful from this carefully crafted analysis of some of our shared values relating to my personal thoughts on the Border Immersion experience.
As a result of that week, I have been struggling with this idea of what is responsibility and what is my role in that? The word “responsibility” is built off the framework of the word response, or as an action verb, to respond. Now when you add the suffix -ibility (or ability) to the end the word literally translates to “the ability to respond or take action”. As I continue to perceive and bear witness to many events unfolding around me, I am left with one simple question. What is my personal and/or moral responsibility to respond and to what extent? Yet this opens even more avenues of exploration with even more questions to accompany it. This includes everything from the abstract and theoretical to the contextual and circumstantial. Then there is the question of where does my moral, ethical and personal values intersect in the face of all this???
In my struggles to try to perceive this issue from an open-minded angle I am again confronted with many contradictory facts and ideas that just seem to further compound the situation. I believe as part of our core being, we all struggle with this to some extent and fear where it may ultimately take us. This is often due to the answers lying outside our comfort zones in the realms of the unfamiliar. We are all, to some extent, quick to make assumptions on things at face value because it offers us an easy and simplified solution to difficult and often complex problems. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing though. In some cases, it can allow us to sort through large volumes of information so that we can get to the heart or core of the issue faster with less energy exerted in doing so. Unfortunately, this can also have far-reaching and often unintended consequences. In certain instances, we can quickly glance through information that may seem trivial to us in the moment but may contain important components that allow us to perceive and understand a problem in its entirety.
In some instances, we can neglect to take responsibility and instead scapegoat the problem somewhere else. By doing so we are not only removing ourselves from the equation, but we are also essentially saying that the solutions are beyond us in a way that completely negates our ability to do something about it. One way we let go of our responsibility (and our ability to act) is through letting go of it in a way that places it somewhere else. This can be done through the act of blame which is defined in the dictionary as assigning responsibility for a fault or wrong. The word blame has many origins but in the Latin sense it comes from a word known as “blastemare” which translates roughly to “to accuse or place responsibility upon”. Blame and its historical origins may also have connections to the origins of another word we know of today as “blasphemy”. I personally found this to be very intriguing because of how this understanding of the blame could affect our ability to have free will over a given situation? In many instances, are we voluntarily limiting ourselves and our own ability to act? And, more importantly, are we exercising this in situations where we need this the most?
In the face of all these questions I seemingly have no choice but to look to other sources. Perhaps at stories of when and where others have been confronted with this same dilemma. What were the conclusions in these situations? What about biblical narratives of people who were confronted with similar dilemmas? Two stories immediately come to mind. The first, the story of Adam and Eve. This narrative seems to have philosophical undertones relating to the initial roles of responsibility and blame in the context of the formation of later humans’ value systems. Now we must consider that, to a certain extent, these were individuals within a complex system and power hierarchy that was not fully understandable to them. We must then realize that many of us are in similar situation today, but… that still does not relieve them or us of our shared responsibilities in these situations. In this story let’s look at what happens after they had eaten the forbidden fruit. God, almost immediately, shows up and asks them to explain what has happened and where they have gone. After a bit of confusion Adam not only admits but blames his wife Eve for making them eat the forbidden fruit. Then, the next direct action is that Eve does the exact same thing to the snake. Would things have turned out differently if they had merely taken responsibility for their own personal role in the events that had just transpired? Possibly, but unfortunately those events never unfolded, and we are only left to guess.
Maybe there is more to this story. First, some context clues. I believe that we can all come to an understandable conclusion that the God of the Bible is a God of order and not chaos. When God first comes to the garden who does he call first? God calls for the person in charge which was… Adam. This seems (from my perspective) like a logical and orderly way of getting to the heart of the situation (verse 9). Yet, Adam’s response was to cast blame on Eve, who then cast blame on the snake, but the snake said or did nothing in its defense. It is the very fact that the snake said nothing in response to these accusations that I found somewhat confusing. Maybe we can logically assume this is due to the snake having nothing to say or because there is an omitted piece of information that is understood. Maybe, but not likely. This information in question is that while Adam and Eve both cast responsibility of the situation onto the snake it did not return the favor or even attempt to defend itself. Perhaps, by placing blame onto the snake they unknowingly also cast away their responsibility as well. If this is true, then this also implies that the snake is the only entity going forwards (other than God of course) who has all the responsibility. God is a God of order, so I believe we can go forward logically if just like before; God will respond in a way that acknowledges that hierarchy. In the very next verse (verse 14) God responds to who first? God responds next by condemning the snake, then condemning the woman and reversing what she did by saying “Your desire will be your husband, and he will rule over you”, and finally by condemning Adam. Reversing the order of the previous interaction between them. Maybe I’m reading too much into nothing but if I haven’t this has far-reaching importance. This leaves me with one thought: “If there is truth to this, then did they unknowingly hand over control of the world to the serpent?”
Let’s not forget about another biblical narrative. What about Jesus, the person who came according to the Biblical narrative to set it all straight? Time and time again we see Jesus taking responsibility and welcoming all of God’s creations into community with him regardless of their social, material, geographic, or physical standing in life. Jesus had every right to condemn and cast blame upon the unjust systems that would inevitably lead to his untimely demise. While he challenged many of the corrupt systems in place at the time, he also had this to say: “Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgement on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy you. But you – who are you to judge your neighbor?” (James Ch. 4 v. 11 and 12). This sentiment is again echoed in the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus bravely professes to those who will listen by asking them how they can judge the speck of dust in their brothers and sisters’ eyes when they have not even begun to remove the plank from their own? A very hard-hitting question to say the least. Yet, despite seeing firsthand the ways humankind had corrupted a once pure world; Jesus still went forward and died as a “blameless” sacrifice for all regardless of this obvious fact. The fact that we were unworthy from every angle yet despite all this Jesus made us worthy by paying the ultimate sacrifice. God not only loved us before we learned to love, but God loved us even when we hated God. Now that is powerful.
Yet, what about the people themselves who are affected today? Many of whom are fleeing failing states, extreme violence, inescapable poverty, and inner cities ruled by gangs. Those who hear of the American dream and hear the stories that America is a very charitable, wealthy country made up of a melting pot of immigrants from across the globe can’t help but want some of that for themselves. In their hour of darkness many of them cling to this as their only candle of hope to guide them through this void they are surrounded by. So, the question then becomes, “Why don’t they just immigrate here legally if things are so horrendous?” Well… many of them try… and fail. This is because our system of application and visa processing is prehistorically outdated and cannot handle the sheer volume of possible applicants for starters. To give you an idea the current process is so inefficient that it can take up to an estimated 30 YEARS to be accepted for even a legal residency position (otherwise known as a green card). All the while, waiting outside a port of entry having to fees associated with the review process during this ordeal without even a guarantee of acceptance. This is no opinion either; this is what is currently being expressed to us by many who work in this field including lawyers who work in the courts, advocacy groups, and those we spoke with in the border towns of Aqua Prieta and Douglas. And just when it couldn’t get any more complicated… we haven’t even discussed asylum seekers, or those who are fleeing extreme persecution in their home countries or are under the threat of death/torture if they ever return.
I just want to finish by saying how thankful I am for all of you who take the time to read these entries and stay updated about this journey. I look forward in the new year to continuing to inform you all with updates about my time here.
Until then, Happy New Year!