Part of the Diversity and Inclusion Blog Post Series
In 1998, I moved to Mississippi from my hometown of Detroit, Michigan to work as a reference librarian at the Mississippi College School of Law in Jackson. I had always had one foot in the law and one foot outside it. In 1997, I earned a master’s degree in library and information and science from Wayne State University, where I had graduated from law school 18 years before. After a two-year stint in the Peace Corps teaching English abroad and after having earned a master’s degree in linguistics, I returned home and joined the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA).
I attended my first AILA annual conference in 1993 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, which happened to be about a four-hour drive from my home in suburban Detroit. I was one of very few black attorneys at the AILA conference that year and the only one in the AILA Michigan chapter. While most of the other Michigan AILA chapter members worked for longstanding firms, I was working for myself. That was partly because I was new in the field and no immigration law office would hire me. The fact that the only foreign language I spoke fluently then was French didn’t help (the majority of immigrants in Metro Detroit at that time were from the Middle East, South Asia, Latin America and Central Europe). I was 40 years old, a black female, and I was at the beginning of my legal career although I had graduated from law school many years before. In 1993, I was a non-traditional lawyer trying to enter a non-traditional field (at least among the lawyers I knew).
When I started my small immigration law practice in Metro Detroit, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) District Director, Carol Jennifer, was a black female. Our Michigan AILA chapter had periodic in-person meetings with her. Of course, I had been in several professional situations where I was the only black female in the room, but that situation lasted quite a long time in the immigration law world that I entered. I accepted my first immigration law case in Detroit in 1994 which probably involved filing an application or petition. I was successful in all the cases I worked on and felt that I could maybe get good at this. The combination of my foreign language ability, extensive experience with people from other countries, and my research skills gained in library school were paying off.
When I moved to Mississippi, I began working at a law library, and continued my membership with AILA as I worked on cases that were left over from my Michigan days. The few Mississippi immigration lawyers at the time were placed in the AILA MidSouth Chapter, which was basically headquartered in New Orleans. The District USCIS (formerly INS) office was located there and with the exception of Memphis, the bulk of AILA MidSouth chapter members lived there as well. For Mississippi cases, we only had immigration courts in New Orleans and in Memphis, an awfully long way to go for court or chapter meetings.
I left my job at the law library in Jackson a little over a year after I came to Mississippi. On a wing and a prayer, I went to work and volunteer with two religious organizations that led Hispanic ministries in Scott County, about an hour’s drive east of Jackson. I soon learned that there was lots of work but little pay but I gave it my all. As a black female, I often felt that the white people I was working with did not understand how detailed and complex immigration law was. They were ministers and social workers and had recruited me because I was an actual lawyer but they had unrealistic ideas of how quickly cases could be processed, so when it took me a long time to interview their congregants or when there was any small hiccup in a case, they sometimes blamed it on me rather than on the flawed and complicated immigration system. One of them even told me that I was not committed to the work after I put in many hours, driving the grueling six-hour trip to New Orleans and back to attend an immigration court hearing — without pay.
I also felt the lack of friendships I had hoped for. I was spending a lot of time with the ministers working with their congregants, but they would leave me at the offices alone until very late at night after promising, then refusing, to help me with copies or other related work. And socially, they would not invite me to certain events. It was difficult to make friends, both black and white. Black people did not understand the work I was doing with immigrants or why I was doing it. White people weren’t accustomed to socially interacting with black people. And although I tried to learn, my Spanish was not very good and it was also very difficult to spend time with the immigrants I was helping since many of them lived in other counties. But, I was interested in the work and dedicated to the clients I had.
I persevered and opened a small law office of my own. Because of the dearth of immigration lawyers in Mississippi, my practice grew and I soon began to receive numerous phone calls and have many cases. But I was still in Mississippi and racism would sometimes rear its ugly head. One day a white American woman came to my office with her Afro-Mexican housekeeper to ask how she could get legalized. In the course of our consultation, the white woman said to me that she was extremely surprised that I was a black woman in Mississippi practicing immigration law. She said that most black women were on public assistance (she called it “welfare”) and the fact that I was working to earn my living was shocking to her.
Another client once told me that black people were bad, but I was different because I was a lawyer. I knew that Mississippi was considered by many to be the most racist state in the country, but the impact hit me hard when people made unfriendly remarks. Frankly, I am surprised at how many white clients I have had in Mississippi. Historically, white people have not sought out professional services from black people. I think my success in my work is partly because there are so few immigration lawyers here, and partly because many of them view me as a competent lawyer who has helped their family members or friends achieve temporary or permanent residence or citizenship status in this country. I would like to think it is more of the latter.
In 2006, I received a grant from Equal Justice Works to work with immigrant victims of Hurricane Katrina through the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance (MIRA). That year, I created the MIRA Legal Project. I had to hire staff to work along with me. After working with some of them it became apparent that it was impossible for some staff members to accept leadership from a black woman in Mississippi. I kept working though, despite the discordant office atmosphere.
Fourteen years later, I have settled in as the MIRA Legal Project Director with a great staff that seems to respect my knowledge and experience in immigration law. As far as AILA is concerned, we are moving forward by taking baby steps. Several years ago we created a national Diversity and Inclusion Committee, as well as chapter D&I liaisons. AILA chapters are requesting training on diversity and inclusion. We have changed the name of our AILA African American interest group to the African Diaspora Interest Group where we recognize the commonality of our various backgrounds as descendants of Africans. We are beginning to talk openly about issues of ethnicity, race, gender, and age, including those of implicit bias and how we can fight against it. We are on the cusp of inaugurating our first black and LGBTQ+ president in June 2021. I have seen progress in AILA and although we still have a lot of work to do, I believe we are moving in the right direction. I am glad to have played a role in this work during my lifetime as a black female immigration attorney.
AILA members, AILA is working to promote diversity and inclusion in their educational programming as well and is asking for recommendations to help identity new diverse and dynamic speakers.