AILA members are sharing their first person accounts of life and work at the moment – if you’re an AILA member, please email your 400-800 word submission to firstname.lastname@example.org for consideration. Thank you for all you do!
I’m a newly minted immigration attorney, and I know how fortunate I am to be one. I have multiple layers of privilege, like a great education, fiercely supportive family and friends, and the privilege that being a white, English-speaking, U.S. citizen born stateside affords me. Everyone in my life is safe and healthy, and I have the privilege of working remotely when so many do not.
I rewrote this post multiple times because my challenges feel small in the context of COVID-19. They feel smaller when I remember that I’ve never been separated from my loved ones or had my life upended by the stroke of a pen. They feel even smaller when I remember the mothers I met through the Dilley Pro Bono Project, who gave up everything to seek safety in the U.S., and the mothers who are incarcerated with their children today, facing yet another imminent threat.
That said, I was sworn into the Illinois Bar in November 2019. I started working remotely in March 2020. It’s a very weird time to be a new lawyer.
I had the privilege of working in immigration throughout law school. I started in early 2017. My sense of what is “normal” in immigration law is shaped by travel bans, baby jails, family separation, the public charge rule, H-1B lottery overhaul, countless frivolous RFEs, and now, a pandemic.
I believe my more seasoned attorney mentors when they tell me that it didn’t used to be this way, but this is my normal. I’d like to think that I’ve learned a few things about crisis management and client advocacy in the wake of constant chaos.
I’d like to think so, but before President Trump’s latest proclamation came down, I was spiraling.
Like so many lawyers, I spent hours trying to reassure clients that they either were not impacted at all or were more impacted by travel restrictions than by the text of the proclamation itself. The distinction is hard to explain, especially when it may not matter to them. The bottom line is that most people aren’t going anywhere and need to put their plans on an indefinite hold. That harsh reality remains regardless of the cause, and I can’t fix that for anyone.
Instead of my regular client update emails, I send non-answers and non-updates, but it’s often all I have to give. It’s hard to advise on things that have literally never happened before. It’s even harder to not have answers to perfectly reasonable questions. Worse yet is having to explain that if anyone in their household has an ITIN, relief under The CARES Act isn’t coming. All I can do is apologize and hold space for their frustration and despair, as much as anyone can in an email.
This is the most vulnerable piece of writing I’ve done as a lawyer. I know immigration attorneys are a compassionate group, but we still work in a field where you aren’t supposed to let anyone see you sweat. It’s a toxic lesson that I try to reject, and I try to replace it with Dr. Brené Brown’s greatest lesson, that there is no courage and strength without vulnerability.
There’s a wealth of well-being resources through AILA, and our colleagues are often the best resource. During last week’s webinar, “Quieting the Inner Critic: Staying Positive During the Pandemic,” they reminded me that there’s an upside to everything being in flux. It means that the definition of success is also flexible.
My “wins” used to look like approval notices and green cards. While interviews are on hold, I’m learning that sometimes success looks like things we all do daily. Success looks like presenting an option the client didn’t know they had. Success looks like taking the time to explain the law well, even when that client has no form of relief. Success looks like making that person feel seen and heard, even when you have to tell them no.
Success also looks like prioritizing your wellbeing. I know, insert millennial self-care joke here, but I don’t necessarily mean face masks and binge watching. Sometimes prioritizing your wellbeing looks like taking five minutes to hydrate and breathe. It means holding yourself accountable, but also giving yourself a break. Success looks like taking compassion fatigue and secondary trauma seriously and being proactive when it happens to you.
If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that immigration practice is a marathon, and if I want to play the long game, I have to treat it that way. I am not the ideal messenger for this lesson (my team knows I am very bad at doing this), but I’m trying. That’s all any of us can do, and whether you’ve been practicing for 6 months or 20 years, you’re probably doing better than you think.