On Their Side

by Yovana Cortez-Diaz '17
August 24, 2015

Yovana is working at the Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island through the iProv Summer Internship program

I recall many times accompanying my parents to the DMV, the Consulate, the Social Security Office or any building of the sort to serve as a translator or many times having to translate a variety of documents from these agencies to them. As the eldest daughter of an immigrant family it became something that became very normal to do and something that I did not really think much into it, rather it was just something else that needed to be taken care of. 

Over the summer, I interned at Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island (yes it’s a mouthful) as a caseworker’s assistant for their Immigration and Citizenship department. Entering the internship, I figured that I would be doing similar to helping my parents with legal paperwork; the only difference would be that it would be dealing with immigration services. I was very excited to begin to do work like this.

My family immigrated to the U.S. when I was six years old. My parents immediately began to work in the agricultural fields to support our growing family. As a child I often accompanied them because of the lack of a babysitter. Many community members had very similar lives to my family’s; many worked in the agricultural fields, picking a variety of fruits and very few spoke English because of other things such as maintaining a family took priority.

Growing up in Woodville, a small Hispanic community, I was very aware of the large discrepancies in immigration/legal services for helping immigrant families figure out how to apply for simple things such as their citizenship, DACA, a Visa or anything of the sort because of the language barrier or financial hardships. I often heard of community members being charged exorbitant prices for such services or members even being scammed by supposed “lawyers”. This gave me a drive to learn about these types of services so that I could help my community.

On two separate occasions I was taken to the USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services) office to shadow clients’ interview processes. On one occasion the caseworker and I were late due to traffic. We did not make it in time to accompany our client, Rosie Gonzalez, into her interview. Rosie was an elderly woman from the Dominican Republic. She had been going in for her second Citizenship exam. When we got the Immigration office she had already finished her interview. She came out very upset; she had not passed. The officer who had conducted the interview explained to us that she had not known enough of the civics questions to pass.

The case manager who I accompanied went over to the client to console her and explained to her what the next steps were required. As I sat there listening to their conversation she reminded me of the elderly members in my community, who simply had no faith in their abilities at their age. I was taken aback at how despite she understood why she had not passed her exam she was even more disappointed that we had not arrived on time. I had not been involved in her case nor did I know much about it or her, but she took it very to heart how both the caseworker and I had disappointed her. 

The next occasion, the same caseworker and I ensured that we would arrive one time. Our other client, Maria Guzman, was also a woman who would be taking her Citizenship exam. Maria was a middle-aged woman, single mother. Like our previous client she was also from the Dominican Republic. She was nervous, but she also seemed very prepared. She sat in the waiting area doing last minute review of the questions. She told us she had been waiting for this moment for a really long time. She passed her exam with flying colors.

Once again I was taken aback, but this time at how happy she was that we had been there for her. She hugged and kissed both the caseworker and I. In these two experiences I learned how even a little thing such as being present during a client’s interview can make a difference. While ultimately if they pass or fail is on them, they feel an empowerment that they otherwise would not feel if you are not present.

Her words “It was like you were all there for me, backing me up” really left an imprint. It brought me back to the memories of accompanying my parents many times to government agencies. I had never truly thought about how perhaps they may have felt that I was the only one there for them backing them up.

This idea that immigrant communities often times feel like it’s “us against them” (them often being the United States government) is definitely one that needs to be addressed, but until we can empower such communities to not have to feel that way or make processes such as immigration more transparent and navigable, we must be there for our respective communities so that they can feel like someone is on their side.