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Equal Justice Foundation Report - Sarah Wooten
Latin American Association Immigration Department
This past summer I worked at the Latin American Association in their legal department. I worked alongside another law student, Nicole from Georgia State. Throughout the summer we learned not only about immigration law but also, about the realities of working with lower income people who are afraid to come forward and, more often than not, face unpleasant news from the attorneys.
Every day was a challenge. We were not only sifting through the very messy and inconsistent world of US immigration law, we also had to learn to communicate our findings in English and in Spanish. Much of what we did was research and trying to establish if our clients were eligible to apply to change their status to become US citizens. Often times we did research regarding their eligibility in the face of having a criminal record or illegal entrance to the US.
Another very important aspect of the legal department is the VAWA Department, which stands for Violence Against Women Act. There they interview mostly women who need to apply for status or to change their status and are dealing with domestic violence. In all aspects of immigration law and law in general it is important to listen to the client but even more so when you are working with women who have been abused. I only worked with VAWA a little bit doing translations of client affidavits. Reading someone’s description of maltreatment by their spouse and translating it to English is a difficult undertaking.
I have always loved learning Spanish and have had an interest in immigration since my junior year in college. Having learned most of the Spanish I know from Peninsular Spain and not Latin American, I was embarrassed on a daily basis as I fumbled over words and tried to form sentences that explained immigration law or our legal policies. The people who worked in the Legal department were amazing. They helped me with my Spanish and made jokes about it and encouraged me to keep practicing. They were patient with us and gave us a lot of guidance so that we could learn to navigate the immigration legal world.
At first it was hard for me to see the impact we were having at LAA because I was mainly doing research and putting together memos and briefs for the attorney. It takes a long time for paperwork to get processed so it was hard to see that the research I was doing was actually helping our clients.
Once we received our own clients and began working on projects just for them, I could see how our presence at LAA was truly helpful. LAA has a very small legal department that gives legal services at little or no cost to low-income families. There is so much demand for help and every small thing makes a real difference, even just a phone call explaining what some paper work means. The attorneys and paralegals also helped make it known how much the work we were taking off their hands helped them service their clients better.
Overall, it was an amazing experience and I plan to go back and volunteer over winter break. The Latin American Association as a whole is an amazing non-profit organization that helps Latin American families around Georgia. The legal department is a small but very significant part of the non-profit, and my experience there taught me a lot about myself—helping me solidify my desire to work in the public interest sector. My summer at LAA would not have been possible had I not been selected to receive a partial EJF Scholarship. The money I was awarded enabled me to accept the position with LAA and help with some of my summer expenses. I am grateful to have had this experience. I not only was able to enhance my legal research and writing skills, Spanish skills and client interaction skills, I was also able to see and feel the impact of the work I did over the summer.