Part of the Diversity and Inclusion Blog Post Series
When attorneys talk about representation, it usually means whether a client is represented by an attorney in proceedings right? Well, with the release of films like Crazy Rich Asians, Black Panther, and Love, Simon, there has been a lot of discussion recently about why representation matters in another sense of the word. The gist of the conversation is that it is important for minorities to see characters like themselves in pop culture, because it shows them that the world is just as limitless for them as it is for others. In that spirit, I’d like to share a story of why representation matters in the immigration bar.
In June of 2017, I attended my first AILA National Conference in New Orleans. I woke up that Friday morning a bit out of sorts after a night out on Bourbon Street, but I dragged myself out of bed for an early panel on waivers that I really wanted to attend. I had an upcoming 212(h) waiver case, and I wanted to get some good insight before my hearing. As the panelists started really getting into the topic, I found myself a bit thrown off. I had seen two women and one man at the table, but I was only hearing one high voice and two lower voices. That was the moment when I realized that one of the panelists was a trans woman. As a young, queer immigration attorney, I practically shot out of my seat in excitement when I realized that I was learning from another LGBT+ person. Her name was Ava Benach –founding partner of Benach Collopy in Washington, D.C.– and that year, she was the recipient of the Edith Lowenstein Memorial Award for excellence in advancing the practice of immigration law.
At the end of the panel, I did something that does not come naturally to me: I went up to Ava to introduce myself. I wanted to tell her thank you, because it meant so much to me to learn from an LGBT+ role model. In the span of just an hour, that was what she had become to me. I went up to say hello, but of course, Ava was surrounded by people who wanted to ask her questions about waivers. So, I sat down at a nearby table and started writing her a note on my legal pad instead. I wrote to Ava about how happy I was to learn from her and how amazing it was to see someone like me on that panel. I thanked her for coming out as a trans woman, because in doing so, she created space for people like me to let our own identities continue to evolve, without negatively affecting our work. I told her how much it meant to me to know that, no matter where I end up landing on my own gender identity (which is pretty much constantly in flux), people wouldn’t write me off for my queerness and I could still be respected for the work that I do.
When the crush of people waiting to speak with Ava finally ebbed, I handed her my note and thanked her for the panel. Ava took my note, gave me a smile, and we both headed off. Meeting her, even for that brief moment, was the highlight of the conference for me. It felt so good to know that my professional community valued the presence of its LGBT+ members and that Ava’s trans identity hadn’t hurt her career. From that moment, I made a commitment to myself to try to live as openly and honestly as Ava, so that other young queer attorneys who join our profession can also see that we are respected and encouraged to be ourselves.
Like all of my favorite queer stories, this one has a happy ending: about a month after the conference, Ava’s firm had a position open up, and I applied. I now work for her as an associate attorney. In the last year, I’ve met so many other LGBT+ immigration attorneys through Ava, all of whom have welcomed me into the fold. Through her, I have found a community of colleagues and mentors, and a place where I feel genuinely comfortable living my truth. I remain committed to bringing this inclusivity to other newcomers to the field, and I am grateful every day for the out and proud attorneys who have come before me, paving the way. Thank you for letting me see you. Representation matters, after all!