Telling Immigration Stories: It's Not Just about Code Sections
From the first prehistoric evenings sitting around campfires, humans have been telling stories. Heroic myths, fairy-tale fables, oral histories -- all have been seared into heart and memory through the power of narrative. Civil and criminal trials are merely stylized forms of storytelling. Journalism's hook, theatre's Sturm und Drang, reality television's sour and sweet confections -- all are bottomed on stories.
Although I've mentored dozens of able and bright immigration lawyers, some new, some not so, I continue to be amazed at how few appreciate the power of telling stories (double entendre intended). Sadly, the unscrupulous -- the notarios, consultants and sleazebags with a law license -- know too well the power of storytelling -- but I'm talking about truthful, factual, accurate stories, not fabrications.
Some stories tell themselves, like the saga of my pro bono client, Shyima Hall. Born in Alexandria, Egypt as Shyima Hassan, one of 11 children in a poor family, she is sold by her mother at age 9, and smuggled into America a year later to work for a wealthy Egyptian couple in my town, Irvine, California, a 'burb often rated, ironically, one of the most crime-free cities in America. After three years of captivity, working night and day for the couple and their five children, sleeping in their unheated, unlighted garage, washing her clothes in a bucket, she is spotted by a suspicious neighbor who tips off the police. The couple is convicted and Shyima is taken to Orangewood orphanage, then adopted by a foster couple, and along the way befriended by a compassionate agent of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Shyima obtains a green card as a Special Immigrant Juvenile. After high school, she travels around the country with ICE to speak about the dangers of human trafficking and urge trafficked victims to be brave and come forward. She volunteers with the Public Law Center, the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force, and other anti-slavery groups such as the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking.
Years later, serendipity leads me to Shyima (who is now a young adult). It prompted me on a whim to pop into the office of an ICE communications officer to say hello at the close of a USCIS California Service Center Stakeholders Meeting. The officer tells me about Shyima and her goal to become an ICE officer, but also of this amazing woman's preliminary need to find pro bono counsel who'll help her become a naturalized American. Asked to find Shyima pro bono counsel, I volunteer myself and my firm. The media have followed Shyima's story, since she was first released from captivity, and again just last week in this Los Angeles Times piece and this AP article as well as the following video, shot on the day of her oath-taking and embrace of American citizenship.
Not all immigration stories flow naturally with such a dramatic arc. Some are hidden and must be teased out and coaxed to appear. Immigration lawyers who can do this, in my view, "are worth their weight in gold," as another immigration-agency communications officer, Karen Kraushaar, once told the Washington Post (before she moved on to another federal job and later joined other women accusing Herman Cain of sexual misconduct -- a totally different story in itself).
In truth, Ms. Kraushaar was referring to Immigration law's complexity ("[It's] a mystery and a mastery of obfuscation"). While surely the ability to traverse code sections, regulations, policy interpretations and institutional history matters (as the Supreme Court unanimously demonstrated this week in the Judulang case), that's not the whole story.
Telling immigration stories matter(s) just as much, sometimes more. Good immigration stories entice. Unlike the physical imprisonment of Shyima's Irvine garage, they create emotional captivity. They have the power, as in Shyima's case, to melt the (too-often) frozen heart of ICE. Take for instance the 50 real-life biographies depicted so well, with vivid photos and eloquent word pictures, in a new book, Green Card Stories. These stories, however, did not tell themselves. They required worth-their-weight-in-gold immigration lawyers (mostly members of the Alliance of Business Immigration Lawyers) to bring them to life.
Immigration lawyers, paralegals, U.S. citizen spouses and families of the foreign born, employers of non-citizens, and would-be Green Card holders: Read this book! It will inspire you to make your clients', families', employees' and your own Green Card stories a reality. These stories, like all well-told immigration biographies, humanize the demonized and prove that they are worthy of welcome. These dramatically revealed tales of truth and hardship, often extreme and exceptional, unmask the lies of the nativists and the naïve, who make or believe the make-believe memes about immigration, legal and illegal. They help us "Define American."