It is amazing how fast and deep one experience can change your perspective. And by perspective I mean goals, ambitions and wishes. My name is Jose Ignacio De Ugarte. I am a Spanish attorney. I am at Northwestern University School of Law studying for my LLM. Like many other LLM students, I have spent a lot of energy and most of my time during the last few months looking for a job at a law firm. This would allow me to work in the U.S. for another year.
Earlier this semester, I saw flyers asking for volunteers to do pro bono work with immigrants in South Texas with an organization called ProBAR [The South Texas Pro Bono Refugee and Asylum Project]. I thought this might be nice and interesting opportunity to do something different. So, I decided to spend Spring Break doing so. The experience turned out to be even more intense and overwhelming than I could ever expect.
I was lodged at La Posada Shelter, a catholic mission which hosts immigrants who are released from the Port Isabel and Willacy Detention Centers. While I was there, I had the opportunity to hear several people's stories. Whether I was playing basketball or walking around with my roommates, those night talks gave me a different perspective of life.
At La Posada, I had many life-changing experiences. I shared a room with people who have been tortured and have scars to prove it. I talked to a guy who was arrested for gun possession and robbery. He had been released and I was with him during his first free night after seven months of being detained. We talked about his life, why he ended up detained, and how grateful he was for a second chance. He was deeply committed to using this opportunity to start his life over and walk the right path. He completely changed my mind about rehabilitation of criminals and showed me the importance of second opportunities. This is just a sample of the stories I heard every night at the shelter.
At the children's division of ProBAR, I spent most of my time working on the case of a sixteen year old kid. His father was murdered, and he and his fifteen year old pregnant fiancé had to flee El Salvador because their lives were threatened. A few hours before meeting him I received an e-mail from a U.S. law firm with bad news, I didn't receive the job I'd applied for. I was really depressed because it was my last chance to get a job in the US. By the end of that day, I was so impressed with the kid's story I put aside my problems and focused on how I could help him. I still thought about my rejection but it was no longer as important. Surprisingly, in a short time, I developed different priorities and needs.
The Texas experience made different things important to me. It created another scale of values and provided me a new conception of the world we live in. Everybody knows about poverty, developing countries and human tragedy, but just a small percentage of these people experience what it means. During Spring Break, I witnessed one level of human suffering and it has made a huge difference in my life.
The need for deeper exploration of this experience is leading me back to Texas to spend this summer helping others. I do not know how I am going to feel after the summer but, at least, I am sure I will definitely contribute to changing people's lives; and that is enough.
Interviewing inmates for the Life Without Parole Project ("LWOP") was one of the most powerful legal experiences I have had in Law School. I never thought after two days locked in a maximum security prison, I would leave with the sense of insight, awe and motivation. But I did. I went with some attorneys involved in LWOP down to Menard, an enormous penitentiary in Southern Illinois. We interviewed juveniles who have been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. The men were serving various times of their sentences- some were in their 20's, others in their early 40's. Some of the inmates had been given their sentence at age 16, others as young as 13 years old. They were children when incarcerated and still were children in some sense as adults. They never had to encounter the challenges of living as a grown-up, with responsibilities, families, bills and jobs, though many of them had trying and complicated childhoods. Most of the inmates were charged with murder, though a number of them deny they committed the crime. Additionally, most of them understand they did horrible, heinous things, but they questioned whether locking someone up for the rest of their life was the answer.
I found some of the men to be extremely astute, clear and insightful, sort of prison philosophers, destined to reflect on life behind bars for eternity. One man told me that "after adults and teachers and people in the neighborhood all tell you that you won't add up to nothin' you start to believe them. I was never as bad or as dumb a kid as people said I was, but I started doing bad things anyways cause people said that is what I was doing." He learned to read and write in prison and was incredibly articulate and eloquent. He felt terrible about what he did as a child. Another inmate commented that "common sense isn't all that common," and that, as a 13 year old, he didn't understand the consequences of his actions. "How can you lock someone up when they are 14 years old and toss the key. We say we want to help kids, but we aren't rehabilitating them. Think about how you were at 13 years old. Everyone grows up." Another man told me that he feels like a box sitting on a shelf for the rest of his life. Like he is in a warehouse and someone forgot about him. A life sentence is a long punishment to impose on a young child. There are no incentives when you are given this sentence, there are no privileges to obtain, no classes to take, no recreation to look forward to. There is no chance of every getting out. Another man said, "I miss my family, my cousins and nephews. I feel as though I never really got to know them and they will never get a chance to know me. I feel rehabilitated, it is still changing but big changes have happened to me, I woke up one morning and knew I had grown up. If I got out I would work as much as I can so as not to be a burden on my family."
I had never spent such a long time in prison or had spoken to an incarcerated person about anything other than their current case or sentence. It was incredible to get a key into these men's lives and to talk as people, not as a lawyer/client. They were starved for a conversation with someone other than a fellow inmate or prison guard and some had not talked about their case in years. It seemed so futile to me, to put capable, strong, in many cases, smart men in jail forever, with no hope placed in rehabilitation. As a law student, it is easy to focus on the law, the statute, the cases and the legal reasoning behind it all. But we must not forget about the humanity of the law. For the law is about people and the consequences of their action. It is these stories, these miseries and successes, these failures and triumphs that resonate with me. I would recommend anyone to spend some time with a juvenile given a life sentence. I think you would be surprised to see what you learn about yourself.
"It looks messed up," I remarked as I sat there watching Marco weave the blue and white yarn I'd brought him into some sort of friendship bracelet. The starting knots looked pretty tangled, so it was difficult to discern the bracelet's pattern or even get a picture of how it would eventually look.
"Don't worry about it!" he replied, characteristically confident as ever. "It always looks like that at first, but you'll see. In the end, it'll turn out alright."
A few months ago, when Marco and I had first met, I had just completed training to become a Child Advocate (guardian ad litem) for unaccompanied immigrant minors. These are undocumented children under the age of 18, who have traveled by themselves, without parents - they are arrested and detained by immigration authorities as they try to enter the United States. Whether being the victims of human trafficking, escaping their war torn countries, or just here in search of better lives, these children cross our borders without their families. Once apprehended, the children are sent to child detention centers, where they await decisions about whether they can be reunified with family members (if they have family in the U.S.), whether they are eligible for asylum or another protective visa, or whether they have no choice but to return to their country of origin. Upon arrival at the center, the child is appointed a case worker and an attorney. Some of the children are assigned an Advocate. The Advocate's job is to get to know the child, help sort out his story, help identify his eligibility for legal relief, and advocate for the child's best interests.
Born in a Central American country, Marco's parents abandoned him before his first birthday. Thankfully, his aunt raised him until he was 5, but then she passed away. A friend of the family took him in and immediately put Marco to work. While most kids were busy learning their ABC's and watching cartoons, Marco toiled throughout the day to pay his way. At times, Marco was homeless, but he quickly learned to survive, taking on countless jobs, all the while trying to attend school like a normal kid. For several years, Marco lived in a tin-roofed, dirt shack he had constructed for himself, but even these deplorable conditions didn't stop him from dreaming of a better life. In turn, he witnessed many around him, young and old, who were so fed up with the political corruption, the widespread gangs, the incessant poverty, and the just overall bleak conditions in their country that they began leaving their homes in droves to search for a better life in America. Inspired by the promise of a new beginning and following his own instincts of survival, Marco packed what few belongings he had and began the long trek northward...
As soon as we met, we were instant pals. Visiting him every Saturday morning, I'd bring games for us to play or even lessons in English for him to learn. He'd tell me about his life story and I'd practically wince at some of the grim details. As an Advocate, however, you've got to be strong. For a role model, I need look no further than my young friend, who has been through enough trials in his short life to inspire strength in anyone. His weakness, though, is that which has eluded him from the very moment he was born: a real and loving family. He yearns for this more than anything else in this world. As an Advocate, helping him petition for a SIJ visa that could make this dream come true, it's my duty to ensure that in the end, just like that tangled bracelet he started on last Saturday, Marco's life will turn out alright as well.