Guest Post: What Fried Okra, F.A.O. Schwartz, Staplers, and Immigration Have in Common
[Blogger's Note: Nici Kersey, my colleague at Seyfarth Shaw who directs its Immigration Compliance Center, offers another distinctive and entertaining guest post. (Her earlier posts can be found here and here.)
Today, Nici (on the right in the photo [the infant on the left is from a Hollywood casting agency]) shares the stories behind her resume, blaming the government for the fact that she now harms the same people she set out to help. I can relate to Nici's angst, as I noted in "The Distressed Bearer of Bad Immigration Tidings."
There are of course so many immigration stories, as I noted in my post, "Telling Immigration Stories," which talked about the power of narrative as a way of humanizing immigrants. That post also discussed the award-winning book -- Green Card Stories -- which masterfully depicts the personal journies of 50 immigrants to America. The back story on Green Card Stories is that it was produced with help from members of the Alliance of Business Immigration Lawyers, who urged their clients to allow their stories to be revealed as a way of inspiring others on the journey to achieving the American Dream.
Perhaps, the Editors of Green Card Stories, Laura Danielson and Steve Yale-Loehr, might be persuaded to launch a companion volume describing how 50 immigration lawyers chose (or more likely, stumbled upon) immigration law as a career. Nici's quirky story is certainly worthy of inclusion.]
A note from Nici:
Angelo has graciously invited me to post here a couple of times, and I know that my topic and style differ vastly from his. My topics are less timely (this one is about things that happened as many as 15 years ago), and my posts tend to be more about me than about immigration. (I admit to being relatively self-centered.) I’m also probably one of the least political people you’ll ever meet. (Except for my Fry Okra, Not People t-shirt and my Let a Lady Lead button, you’d be hard-pressed to find any evidence of my political leanings.) Still, I hope you enjoy this as a bit of thoughtful fluff to soften the space between Angelo’s always sharp and generally hard-hitting posts.
What Fried Okra, F.A.O. Schwartz, Staplers, and Immigration Have in Common
By Nicole ("Nici") Kersey
The other day, I received a phone call from a client. He started: I know how you feel about undocumented workers, but …. (Well, he didn’t use the word “undocumented.” He said “illegal.”) And I thought: Really? I don’t think you do. I told him as much, saying that, despite the advice I have to give my clients, I have nothing against undocumented workers. In fact, they are the reason I do what I do.
My job requires me to get people fired from their jobs. Often, the people getting fired are long-term, trustworthy employees who work hard and do their jobs well. But they may be using someone else’s SSN or a fake green card, and once that comes to light, my duty is often to recommend that their employment be terminated.
These workers are the same people I set out to help when I first thought of attending law school. Yes, when I hear the terms “sell out,” “traitor,” “turncoat,” or “double agent,” I can’t help but think of the ways in which they may apply to me. (I like double agent the best, because it’s the most dramatic, and I envision myself wearing a pretty bad-ass costume. Though turncoat might lead to more Academy Awards, as those tend to go to the period pieces.)
But, in part because this is for Angelo’s blog, and in part because it’s true, I blame the government for my defector/deserter status.
Either way, I would be working with kids:
As a freshman in college, I applied for a summer job at F.A.O. Schwartz in Indianapolis at the Circle Centre Mall. I was hired and scheduled to report just after classes let out. I never started that job. I had thought it would be fun to spend the summer in a toy store, though I’m sure the actual experience would have differed somewhat from what I imagined, which involved Tom Hanks and a giant piano.
Before the summer began, I received a phone call from my high school Spanish teacher. (This was an actual phone call on what we now refer to as a land line. Mike Maxwell called my parents’ house, and my parents relayed the message to me. Then I had to key in a special code to make a long-distance call from my dorm room to call him back. Cell phones existed, but walking around a college campus was a different experience then.)
Mr. Maxwell asked if I had a summer job yet, and I was excited to tell him of my toy store plans. He quickly told me that I would not be working at F.A.O. and instead needed to make a phone call to the Indiana Department of Education.
Crap, I thought, more long-distance charges.
For the next four summers, I worked for the Indiana Department of Education’s Migrant Education Program. The program employed mostly college students with strong Spanish language skills. We were paired up and sent off to travel around the state and tutor the children of migrant workers from Texas and Mexico. The purpose of the program was to help these children, who spent much of the school year following the crops (melons, corn, beans, and tomatoes in Indiana; blueberries in Michigan, strawberries and citrus in Florida, etc.), to keep up in school.
To be honest, I spent a large part of those four summers in the car. I teamed up with Jill, and together we covered the southern half of the state. We frequently spent four or more hours driving each day. We were paid (more than minimum wage!) from the minute we left home until we returned in the evening, and we were reimbursed for mileage. It was fantastic.
The families we worked with insisted on feeding us, and the food was the kind of authentic Mexican food that you can only get in someone’s home. The kids were sweet and eager students, and I was grateful for the job. Almost every family gave us melons, straight from the fields. I did not worry then, as I would now, about being charged with possession of stolen fruit. I proudly presented the melons to my mom, who occasionally kept one but re-gifted the rest. (Jill and I probably could have supplemented our income with a road-side melon stand, but we were not particularly entrepreneurial at the time.)
Side note (yes, I know this whole thing is made up of side notes and parentheticals): Once, a family filled our whole backseat with melons. I was paired with Andy that day, and he indicated - in Spanish - that he “wanted all the melons,” when he meant that he “liked all kinds of melons.” We all had a laugh, but despite our attempts to clear up the confusion, we drove away that day in a car that would forever smell faintly of overripe cantaloupe.
It all comes back to immigration:
While my job was to teach math, science, history, geography (I pretty much avoided teaching geography; the kids were better off that way), and English to the children, their parents seemed to assume that we had a deep understanding of immigration law. They asked, again and again, what papers they needed to file to “get legal.” They asked where they could get help. The brochures we had been given by the DOE to address these questions were generally unhelpful, as there was really not much that the workers could do.
Each summer, the state held a conference on migrant workers, and I was always interested to hear what the speakers said about immigration. According to one speaker, 2/3 of the migrant workers in Indiana were authorized workers. Looking back, I don’t think that could possibly have been accurate, but I was happy to repeat the statistic to anyone who complained about my helping “those illegals.”
One thing that the speakers consistently said when asked what could be done to help the workers “become legal” was, basically, nothing. Using the H-2A agricultural worker program was too slow and too expensive, and so the vast majority of farmers simply used the workers who showed up year after year. Except in rare circumstances, these kids’ parents were, for lack of a better term (or for my lack of willingness to come up with one) screwed. (Many of the kids themselves had been born in the U.S., so they may now be able to file petitions for their parents. But at the time, the kids were seven to 13 years old. If they had been any older, they’d have been in the fields with their parents, not sitting and studying math with me.)
At the end of each conference, there was a drawing for door prizes. Red Gold always provided gift boxes full of tomato products (picked and canned by the migrant workers), and I always wanted – very much – to win one of these door prizes. I never did. (I still don’t know why the idea of a large box of ketchup and tomato sauce was so appealing to me, and it has been suggested that I delete this whole paragraph, but I chose to leave it in as an experiment -- to see whether Red Gold, or anyone else, sends me tomato-related gifts after it is posted.)
I was pretty much doomed to work in immigration:
When college ended, and my summers with the DOE were done, I spent a brief period thinking that I would work in the theater. That (surprise, surprise) didn’t “stick.” And soon I got married and moved to Tacoma, Washington, where my husband, then a Lieutenant in the Army, was stationed at Fort Lewis. It was 2002, and the job market was not great for someone with degrees in Spanish and creative writing. I started leafing through the phone book, trying to find someone who might be looking to hire a responsible Spanish-speaker. I stumbled upon a non-profit “immigration assistance center,” and was shocked to be more-or-less hired over the phone.
At the center, we saw walk-ins and took appointments, preparing family-based immigration petitions for those who were eligible. In most cases, however, we charged a small consultation fee, listened to sympathetic stories, and told our customers that we were very sorry, but there was simply nothing to be done.
I also recall being reprimanded for stapling papers the wrong way, which I still don’t understand. (I was shown the “right way” a number of times, but I never grasped the difference. I’m sure my employee file has something in it like “incompetent at stapling.”)
How I almost ended up on the other side:
During my time at the center, I applied for a number of other jobs, some involving the theater, and others relating to immigration. I ultimately landed two: one as a passport specialist at the Seattle Passport Agency and one with INS as an enforcement officer. These jobs took a lot longer to get than did the F.A.O. Schwartz position, but they ended the same way – I never started either.
The INS job had taken nearly a year to get. The FBI had visited friends, family members, neighbors, teachers, and professors to make sure I was not a traitor, turncoat, or double agent. I had undergone the most extensive physical in my life. (I was told not to eat prior to the tests, then asked to do a series of strenuous tasks – as many sit-ups and push-ups as I could, running as fast as I could, etc. – then had about a gallon of blood drawn. It was while I watched the technologist draw vial after vial of blood that everything became pixilated, then went black.) I was sure that I had failed the physical (as INS officers probably should not faint when chasing down would-be “illegals”), but I ultimately received a congratulatory letter, indicating that I would be assigned a training date in the coming months.
Then I received a letter explaining that INS was becoming part of DHS, and that if I wanted to work for DHS, I would have to start the application process anew. I was a persistent person, but it seemed that DHS treated those applying for jobs much like those applying for immigration benefits - and I was afraid of having my blood drawn again - so I decided to work for the Department of State instead.
I accepted the Department of State job, but a few weeks before I was to start, my husband informed me that we were being transferred (PCS’d, in Army lingo) to Fort McPherson in Atlanta. And that’s how I ended up not working for the government.
After we moved, I was lucky to find a position as a legal assistant at a law firm. The law firm? Seyfarth Shaw. And I’d be working – gasp – in the immigration group. My once-and-future boss (Jim King) swears that I worked as his assistant for a couple of years. But it was only slightly more than six months. I wonder now whether it was my incompetence at stapling things that made this period seem so much longer to him …
So I up and went to law school:
Before starting at Seyfarth, I had applied to law schools; I vaguely recall that my applications – like every law school application ever submitted – said something about my desire to help people. (I know for a fact that I wrote a fair amount about elephants, diminutives, and contagion – but this story has already gone on for far too long to go into detail.) The people I had in mind were the migrant workers in Indiana and the undocumented people in Tacoma who I had been unable to help.
During law school, however, and after I began to practice law, it became clear that being a lawyer would not dramatically change the fact that I could do nothing – or almost nothing – to help the undocumented farm workers or the people who had simply come to this country to make their families’ lives better, or safer, or easier. Despite the many ways in which law school is like Hogwarts, being a lawyer did not mean that I could magically change the law.
At least at first, my job as an associate in the immigration group at Seyfarth allowed me to “help people” and to alter their lives through legal immigration. I was obtaining H, L, TN, O, and even R visas. Filing PERM applications. Responding to RFEs. And I was able to do a fair amount of pro bono work, even managing to help a couple of “those illegals.”
Then I began to specialize in compliance work, focusing mainly on I-9s and E-Verify. I enjoy this work. I help keep businesses from facing massive risk due to paperwork violations, and this means that I get to truly partner with my clients to build policies and practical solutions for their businesses.
The downside, however, is that I also face situations, almost daily, in which I advise a client to terminate the employment of an individual who lacks work authorization. I spot fake green cards and tell my clients that they have to let the employees go. But she’s my best worker, they say. She’s been with us for 20 years. She’s like family. Isn’t there anything we can do? And I have to tell my client that we can look at the employee’s circumstances, but that in all likelihood there is nothing that can be done.
I love my job. And I help my clients save boatloads of money by providing training and completing audits of their I-9s. But it is hard – extraordinarily difficult sometimes – to know that instead of helping the migrant farmworkers, the cooks, the factory workers, the housekeepers, and the construction workers, I am a key player in their loss of jobs.
And while I sometimes feel that I have let them down, I have to remind myself that I would try harder, do more – if only the immigration laws provided a path to legalization. I know that it doesn’t always have to be one extreme or the other (get them green cards or get them fired), but short of quitting my job and helping people make better fake green cards (I think I might have a talent for that!), I’m not sure how to help. I have not let go of my hope that the government will some day create a way for me to help the people I originally set out to assist. It would be lovely, one day, to be able to say: Yes, there is something we can do. This is how we start.