Skip to main content

When you think about the qualities most desirable in a lawyer, the words that usually come to mind include: communication, creativity, perseverance, diligence. During my experience as an immigration law extern with the National Immigrant Justice Center, I have come to realize that one ability (and it is an ability) that is commonly overlooked is empathy. Defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “the feeling that you understand and share another person's experiences and emotions, [and] the ability to share someone else's feelings,” empathy is something that informs not only an attorney’s actions as a provider of legal counsel but his or her beliefs and outlook as a human being.

It is easy for millions of Americans to form an opinion on the immigration issue when there is no face on it. Human beings can walk each day in blissful ignorance of the hardship and suffering of the hungry, the poor, the homeless, and the exiled, because they are not forced to confront those needy populations each and every day. It is only when an issue takes on a face and a face takes on a story that someone can truly begin to understand that issue.

Although my grandparents are immigrants and I have always taken a strongly pro-immigration position, the immigration issue did not have a face for me until this semester. Indeed, after these last four months, immigration has gained six faces for me. First, it was Abram*, a young man who escaped the murderous gangs of Honduras who gave him an ultimatum: join or die. Facing this grave decision, Abram, a young man of tremendous Christian faith, did not waiver in his moral convictions and he almost paid the ultimate price because of it. The gang shot Abram. Miraculously, he survived and, after spending many days in the hospital, made the decision to flee to the United States. When some Americans meet a young Latino man like Abram, who is unable to speak English, they may make demeaning and negative assumptions. But putting a story to that face changes everything. It simply takes some empathy.

Then there was Elena from Mexico. Elena’s face came with three other smiling faces: those of her husband, daughter, and son. Elena’s husband recently won discretionary relief from deportation because their U.S. citizen daughter, Stefanie, suffers from a rare genetic disability. This disability has rendered her developmentally delayed and also has left her with accompanying physical disabilities that require constant medical care she would be unable to obtain in Mexico. When you perform immigration legal work with a beautiful young girl and a baby boy crawling around the room, the stakes of what you are doing are more impressed upon you than ever. What would I have done as a small child if my mother or father had been taken from me and sent 1,700 miles away with no prospect of return? The immigration issue then becomes more than an immigration ID number or a name on a family petition. It’s about a mother staying with her daughter and son who need her and a family that has been here for 14 years and is as American as yours or mine.

Finally, I met Daniel, a man who had survived the Rwandan genocide only to be persecuted by the men who he had witnessed kill his family. If you were to meet this hardworking, jovial man on the street, it would be nearly impossible to think that he had seen his uncle dismembered with a machete, his brother killed with a grenade, or his dog speared into the ground. It’s with people like Daniel that empathy becomes the most necessary and simultaneously the most difficult. I could never truly understand Daniel’s experiences in the forests and villages of Rwanda where he literally ran for his life. At the same time, however, I must make that attempt. To treat Daniel or any other immigrant’s story as just a story is to do them an injustice; it becomes your story as well.

When I met with my clients this semester and learned their stories, I realized the textbook learning I have undertaken in law school must be enlivened to be of use in real life. When I read articles about the Rwandan genocide, I read them as if I were Daniel being chased through the woods by unknown assailants. When I wrote my legal memo for Abram, I wrote it thinking of the constant anxiety that he must suffer wondering if he will be sent back to his persecutors in Honduras. And when I sat in a room interviewing Elena, I did so with the knowledge that each word I wrote and each box that I checked had significance for not just her life but her family as well. Practicing with empathy is not always thought of as a primary characteristic of lawyers, but my experience with the NIJC externship taught me that life as a successful immigration attorney and, more importantly, life as a good human being demands it.

*All client names have been changed to protect individuals' identities.

James Feigenbaum is a student at the University of Notre Dame Law School and participated in an externship with NIJC.