One key lesson I learned from my work in social justice, specifically with a law firm, is that boundaries are essential. When coming into the social justice field, I mistakenly felt that every task in my workday would line up perfectly from logging in at 8:00 AM to logging out at 5:00 PM. I quickly learned that this is not the case. There are points during the day where there is a lull, and then out of nowhere, three new clients call the office wanting to schedule consultations, then the insurance claims adjustor finally emails you back, and then you realize that you are missing one more document from your client a month and a half before their filing deadline. Working at a law firm is messy and it can start to feel like tasks are melting into each other and over into the next day. One piece of advice that I would give to prospective interns is to make sure to set boundaries with your coworkers and supervisors early.
This is not to say that the people you work with will be disrespectful of your space, but rather to ensure that you are mentally checking in with yourself and ensuring that you are not overworking yourself. Sure, you could take on that new project that is due before your existing projects, but you need to ensure that it is the right move for you. Again, this is not to say to avoid contributing to new projects, but rather to make sure that you are prioritizing your mental health instead of worrying about being a superhero. That phone call can wait until tomorrow. That project can wait to be started next week. If a task at your internship severely inhibits your mental well-being, you need to have an honest conversation with your supervisor. Work with your supervisor to be flexible, and come to a compromise with them to ensure the maximum efficiency of the organization, while prioritizing your well-being.
Learning how to set boundaries is necessary at any job, but even more so in the social justice field. Working with different people of different backgrounds can affect your mental well-being greatly and can make you feel attached to your clients easily. While it is important to feel some attachment to your clients, over-attachment can overwhelm the boundaries you set for yourself and can be draining. This is something I wish I had been able to conceptualize before I started my work at the firm.
I have made an impact at the firm due to my ability to speak Spanish. Because of this skill, we have been able to take on a more diverse range of clientele. As such, we are servicing people looking into a more diverse set of legal matters. In particular, my work has helped the firm widen the variety of immigration matters we take on, such as temporary protected status, consular processing, and permanent labor certification application via program electronic review management (PERM). I believe that my ability to bring in a wider range of clientele has benefitted the firm since the firm now has a wider range of knowledge of immigration processes for future clients.
“See people as people, and nothing else.”
One concept I have learned during my time at Brandeis is the idea of trauma-informed care. I first remember hearing this term used at Volunteerfest in interactions with volunteers. I had never heard this type of language used before, which intrigued me. I remember feeling that the phrase felt sanitary and performative at first. Another area in which I began to hear this phrase used frequently was in immigration advocacy settings. For example, I heard this word used in volunteer training with The Right to Immigration Institute. The discussions that followed were about centering the client and how to treat them with empathy, while understanding that their own experiences are unique and different. It is when I heard this concept applied in real-life situations like these that I began to grasp the functionality of this idea.
The idea that you are not someone’s savior is one key component of trauma-informed care that I seek to implement when applicable. My original aversion to applications of trauma-informed care occurred because the trope seemed all too similar to relationships such as the white savior complex. I felt that, while trauma-informed care was helpful at its core, it would be misused and damaging in the process. Therefore, I remind myself to mentally check-in and ensure that I am not attempting to save a client that I am working with, but rather, work WITH them to achieve THEIR goals.
Trauma-informed care has become more significant to me due to my internship. Working with clients at the Law Office of Saikon Gbehan, LLC has been unlike any other experience. One reason why I believe this experience is unique is that it has been entirely virtual—just me, my desk, my computer, and my phone sitting alone in my office working in the cool air while the Georgia heat melts away at the outside world. While this may seem repetitive and mundane, in reality, each nine-hour shift feels like I am powering up a new tool to use. And the tool that I have been powering up recently is trauma-informed care.
Now that I am nearing the end of my work on a client’s family-based petition for legal permanent residency status, otherwise known as a green card, I have begun to reflect on my relationship with that client. I am proud of the work that we have accomplished together, but at times I felt frustrated. Why didn’t they do X? How could they forget Y? I thought they needed Z? As I pondered these questions during my time working with this client, I realized that I was acting selfishly and assuming that my thoughts were my client’s needs, and not focusing enough on their perspective. I realized that my perspective needs to take a back seat in this environment and should instead focus on the client’s needs and wants. I believe my crucial tenant of trauma-informed care can be summed up in one sentence: see people as people, and nothing else.
As a second-generation Mexican-American, I have heard stories from family members about their journeys immigrating to the United States. This inspired me to delve into immigrant advocacy and learn about the American immigration system. I began pursuing this interest with the Right to Immigration Institute (TRII), an organization that seeks to provide legal aid to Greater Boston area immigrants. Throughout my work with TRII, I have learned about immigration processes and the history behind the system. After graduating from TRII’s intensive legal training program in Spring 2022, I realized that I wanted to experience working at a law firm to potentially pursue a career in immigration law.
My immigration background brought me to my current role as a legal intern with the Law Office of Saikon Gbehan. I was drawn here due to Attorney Gbehan’s dedication to being a “zealous advocate” for her clients, a Brandeisian principle of jurisprudence. From my interview with her, she relayed to me how she zealously advocates for clients, overwhelming judges with insurmountable evidence of eligibility for the clients in pursuit of various processes. The concept of a zealous advocate resonated with me, as I feel that it is the job of a lawyer to stand up for their client in the face of institutions that must attend to the needs of individuals in society. By implementing this legal style in immigration firms, it serves to challenge unjust institutions and center the client, which is a main goal for me.
In my role, I assist Attorney Gbehan primarily in immigration matters for her client, which includes but is not limited to: researching current immigration statutes and case law to incorporate in matters of asylum, family-based petitions, and adjustments of legal status; drafting research memos and contacting representatives of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to inform clients of their prospective immigration opportunities to the United States; and meeting with clients to gather supporting evidence for their case and work on their applications.
In my time so far, I have primarily worked on family-based immigration petitions for individuals who are receiving legal permanent resident (LPR) status—commonly known as a green card holder—via a relationship with a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, through blood or marriage, for example. In addition to other forms, the primary application for this procedure is called the I-130, Petition for Alien Relative.
I believe that knowledge is power, and I am intentional about informing clients of their options and why the law functions the way it does. By putting information back into the hands of clients, it gives them the power to have a greater role in determining the outcome of whatever immigration matter they are involved in. In my work at the firm, I hope to create a ripple effect in which knowledge is disseminated among immigrant communities. In this ripple effect, I would hope that it leads to a more systemic reformation and change of the current immigration system by putting power back into the backbone of American society.