The Columns

A Day in the Life: Anna Paden Carson ’16 Day in the Life, Johnson Opportunity Grant Winner, Legal Intern at Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition in Washington, D.C.

— by on September 5th, 2016

Anna Paden Carson '16

“Washington and Lee provided me with a holistic experience, both working with immigrants here in the United States and travelling to the land those very people fled.”

“We try to keep interviews under five minutes,” my supervisor told me as we passed through the metal detectors. “Send the detainees to me if you get confused with the legal jargon,” said another in passing. I had no idea what I was walking into, but for the staff and attorneys on the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights (CAIR) team, a day at the Immigration Detention Center in Farmville, Virginia, was just another day on the job.

Interviewing detainees at the six adult immigration detention centers in Virginia and Maryland this summer was an integral part of my work as a legal intern at CAIR. As the only nonprofit organization in the Capital area that works exclusively with detained immigrant populations, CAIR aims to meet face-to-face with every detainee to discuss the immigration process, hear their background stories, and assess their individual cases. Detained immigrants, or “clients,” range from asylum-seekers to long-term U.S. residents to the mentally or physically ill, and CAIR believes that every one of them deserves to be heard. Fundamental to CAIR’s mission is that all immigrants are treated with fairness, dignity and respect, and I was able to volunteer with the organization for eight weeks this summer thanks to the financial support of a Johnson Opportunity Grant.

When not interviewing clients, my days at CAIR were varied. My duties ran the gamut from researching criminal charges and tracking down a judge’s orders to working the telephone hotline and transferring detainees to family members or private attorneys. I learned so much this summer, but one of the most startling things I discovered is that in Immigration Court in the United States, undocumented immigrants do not have the right to an attorney. More often than not, detainees are justifiably lost and confused with the immigration process. Their English skills are often lacking, and they struggle to understand and submit paperwork necessary to plead their cases or defend themselves. Fortunately, CAIR is there to help.

Perhaps most helpful to adult immigrant detainees is a program CAIR sponsors called “Know Your Rights.” Know Your Rights is a presentation by CAIR advocates that educates detainees about the immigration system, empowers detainees by giving them the tools and resources to represent themselves in court, and supports detainees and their families throughout the entire legal process. I was able to assist CAIR with Know Your Rights presentations, and along with conducting detention center client intake interviews, these interactions prepared me well for what I would experience later in the summer in the Dominican Republic.

With financial support from the Kendrick Memorial Outdoor Fund, I travelled to Santo Domingo, Tubagua, and San Juan in the Dominican Republic to study the differences between rural and urban poverty and learn how natives from each area interact with nature. Over the last two summers I have worked with immigrants here in the United States, but this trip to the DR gave me the opportunity to become immersed there in an attempt to better understand the circumstances that caused my clients to flee.
With the help of locals, I travelled to remote areas to interview dozens of natives about their family histories, their daily lives, and their place in Dominican culture. We discussed everything from farming practices to Haitian immigration, and I returned home with a much deeper understanding of what it means to be a Dominican. Also, in almost every pueblo I visited, children ran up to me to touch my skin and hair, because, in their words, I was the first gringa they had ever seen! Through the warm hospitality of my new friends, I learned how to make strong Dominican coffee and even conquered my fear of using a motorcycle as a form of transportation.

Trekking the Dominican Republic as a solo female traveller certainly had its challenges, but I know the experience will help me provide a higher level of care and compassion to the Latino immigrants I hope to serve in the future. Spending two months attempting to navigate our country’s system of immigration was exhausting and defeating, but it made me even more committed to helping find acceptable alternatives to our current, unacceptable system. Through the support of the Johnson Opportunity Grant program and the Kendrick Memorial Outdoor Fund, Washington and Lee provided me with a holistic experience, both working with immigrants here in the United States and travelling to the land those very people fled. I am so grateful for this summer of service, study and discovery, and so thankful to attend a university that provides its students with myriad opportunities for growth by encouraging us to explore our passions and supporting us in our every endeavor.