A Fordham Law-educated immigration attorney and a New York City playwright shared their experiences with immigration reform, family unity, and immigration policy with the Stein Scholars on September 16. The Stein Scholars and the National Lawyer’s Guild co-sponsored the event.
The panel, featuring Bronx Defenders attorney Michelle Gonzalez ’14 and playwright Jessica Carmona, convened hours before the second GOP debate. GOP frontrunner Donald Trump’s recent comments on immigration—namely, his remarks likening Mexicans to criminals and his desire to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants—played a role in the panel’s topic selection, Stein Scholar Lorena Mejia ’17 said.
“Who’s standing up for immigrants and undocumented immigrants?” she asked the audience before introducing the panelists. “I’d say lawyers and people’s lawyers.”
Gonzalez is one such lawyer. The Stein Scholar alumnus provides plea consultation for low-income clients and removal defense in immigration court.
The people Gonzalez represents often share a commonality: a desire to escape poverty in their home countries. In doing so, they risk their freedom in the United States. President Obama has recognized the disproportionate number of African-American and Latinos in the justice system but supports deportations for felony convictions.
“Those two things are not mutually exclusive,” Gonzalez said.
As of 2015, the Obama administration had deported more than two million unauthorized immigrants, a number comparable to his predecessor, George W. Bush.
One of Bush’s deportees, Elvira Arellano, served as the focus of Jessica Carmona’s recent play Elvira: The Immigration Play, an official selection of the 2015 New York International Fringe Festival. The play details the story of Arellano, a Mexican citizen arrested in 2002 for using a fake Social Security number to work in the United States.
“She said, ‘No, I have a right to be here,’” Carmona told the audience of Arellano’s response to impending deportation. Arellano and her young son took sanctuary in a Chicago area church before she was deported in 2007.
People like Arellano come to America, ironically, because U.S. agribusiness giants like Monsanto flood the market with corn and grain, thus leading to mass job losses, Carmona explained. The play addresses such issues while alluding to John Steinbeck’s classic novel The Grapes of Wrath.
Earlier in the evening, Rodrigo Bacus ’16, an executive board member of the National Lawyer’s Guild, recounted his experience in the Philippines this summer as a people’s lawyer, and reminded his classmates they do not need to make a distinction between being a lawyer and an activist. Much of the Philippines’ population feels disconnected from the system, he reported, making activism, such as mobilizing people for a cause, more important than lawyering in the courtroom.