An Interview with “J,” an Immigration Lawyer in Memphis
When I first joined the Socialist Party USA, I heard early on about what a badass “J” was — super smart, staunchly socialist feminist and an immigration lawyer to boot. It wouldn’t be until years later that I would get to meet her in person, at a get together where SP National Committee members from California, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Indianapolis and Detroit got to hang for a weekend with Memphis comrades. Since then, I’ve followed her work from afar and continue to admire the fight she and her co-workers put up to help undocumented women (and children) in the area get legal status. Here’s an inside look at the extraordinary work she does.
When and how did you first get involved in protecting immigrant rights?
I accidentally stumbled into this work as a law student intern at a local nonprofit. Our immigration laws reflect our nation’s deep commitment to imperialism, racism, and labor exploitation — plenty of material to keep a socialist enraged and motivated. I’m not really sure if what I do could be characterized as “protecting immigrant rights.” I help people who are undocumented get legal status so that they’re less likely to get deported and maybe one day they can get paid minimum wage.
What are the demographics of the immigrant population in Memphis?
There are a lot of data available on the demographics of the immigrant population of the Memphis area, and I have to recite those things all the time for grant applications. It always feels kind of gross to have to define people in “demographic” terms. But anyway, as with any mid-sized U.S. city, Memphis has a very diverse immigrant population. Most immigrants in Memphis are from Mexico or Central America. They are generally poor, undocumented, and relatively recent arrivals to the U.S.; the population of Latinx immigrants in Memphis is rapidly increasing, and the number living below poverty continues to accelerate. The current official estimate is about 20,000 undocumented Latinx immigrants living in the city, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the actual number was five times that.
How did your organization come about? Were there challenges specific to forming this type of non-profit?
In 2013, a few other immigration lawyers and I saw a need for an organization in the region solely devoted to providing free and low-cost representation, particularly in deportation defense and humanitarian cases (asylum, Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, and benefits through the Violence Against Women Act [VAWA]). there are some organizations around here that provide immigration services, but it isn’t their core mission — which makes those programs subject to the whims of directors, management, funders, etc. Our vision was to do immigration law, do only immigration law, and do it really, really well.
Unlike in the criminal justice system, people in deportation proceedings are not provided with free legal counsel — even babies. (I have several clients who are babies. I never get used to writing motions that begin with “so-and-so is a 2-year-old native and citizen of Honduras …”) And local “legal aid” organizations funded through the federal Legal Services Corporation are prohibited from representing people without legal immigration status with very few exceptions.
So nonprofits have to fill in the gaps.
The main problem is no one (around here) understands what the hell a nonprofit immigration law firm does or why it is important except the people who need us. Private foundations are like, “Sorry, we need to reserve our resources for the Memphis community.”