Peggy Rivage-Seul, professor emerita of women’s studies, Berea College
Six months after I retired from my position as chair of women’s and gender studies at Berea College, I opened the door to a new life of professional activism: immigration law. For my first winter of academic freedom, I proposed to my life-long partner that we spend a month of upcoming cold season as volunteers at the Annunciation House in El Paso, Texas. The house of hospitality opened in 1978 and has offered shelter, food, clothing and basic necessities to thousands upon thousands of migrant families. Asylum seekers have a chance to rest and re-invigorate at the Annunciation House before continuing their arduous journeys into U. S. culture. No sooner were our volunteer applications processed than the Trump administration announced the “Remain in Mexico” policy. The flow of migrants came to a dead stop and so did our volunteer opportunity in El Paso. Instead of giving up on the idea, I suggested that we go to Mexico and become short term volunteers on the other side of the border. We applied to a highly respected legal assistance organization, Al Otro Lado, that helps migrants and deportees to know their legal rights. Our applications were accepted, and without my knowing it, a new life unfolded for me.
For most of my academic life, I have pursued the scholarship of teaching and research in Latin America. Women’s and gender studies students traveled with me to Mexico, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and Cuba to listen to the perspectives of women living under the yoke of U.S. policies in the region. When I walked through the front door of Al Otro Lado, I felt at home. Even though I had missed the Monday training for volunteers, I knew just what to do. I was assigned to greet the daily flow of 50 families seeking legal counsel. Within a couple of hours, I was taking testimony for asylum seekers and translating for pro bono attorneys from the States. I remember feeling awed by the commitment of these multi-generational activists who would commit to helping families fleeing from danger in their home countries. My time in Tijuana was cut short by intestinal problems but not before I felt the pull of this timely feminist action.
When I returned to Connecticut, we moved into quarantine from Covid. I decided to take a comprehensive immigration law course to see where it would lead me. At the end of four months of rigorous on-line study and exams, I joined the volunteer legal team at Building One Community in Stamford, Connecticut. I followed other attorneys and learned how to negotiate the electronic platforms that make immigration so complicated for refugees and asylum seekers. In March of 2021, under the supervision of a young attorney, I began working with clients. My backyard dinner table became a special place of hospitality during Covid. When clients come, I serve coffee, homemade bread and lemonade. Breaking bread across our differences opens an intimate space for clients to tell their stories. The more detail and the more accuracy and coherence a story holds, the greater the possibility of presenting a compelling case for reversing deportation orders or granting asylum.
It is my background in women’s and gender studies that has prepared me for this work. Many of the women I meet are survivors of domestic violence and rape committed in their home countries, in camps along the border and even here in Connecticut. A recent case in a local community involves a teenage girl who was raped by her best friend’s brother. When undocumented citizens experience a crime committed against them, they have an opportunity to assist the police force in pursuing the criminal. In return, the U.S. government allows them to petition for a U visa that provides them a pathway to citizenship. My job was to collect the stories from the mother and daughter who left Guatemala for economic reasons. The mother was heart- broken when her daughter was raped and blamed herself for taking her daughter to the USA. The daughter was 17 when the rape occurred. Covid hit soon after the crime and everything got harder. They lost their jobs. They lost their hope. In this particular case, a team of pro bono attorneys had been working for a year to get the police report required to move the case forward. One night I looked up the police station on the internet and wrote an email to the police chief asking for assistance in securing the police report. I implored the chief to help this young woman find justice so that she could move on with her life. The next day the captain of police called me. We worked out some of the misinformation in the file and, within a month, I was accompanying this young woman to an interview with the police. The report was filed with a law firm in Connecticut and the perpetrator was arrested and convicted. Now this young woman awaits a U visa, a work permit and a chance for citizenship in a new country. While life remains hard for this mother and daughter, they now have the satisfaction of convicting the daughter’s rapist and moving forward towards citizenship for the young woman. It is these small victories that reign huge in the lives of so many people seeking refuge here in the United States.
A day does not go by when I do not ask myself what I am doing, so far from the classroom. But what I do know is that every moment I spend using my feminist knowledge of domestic violence, my Spanish speaking skills, and my own intellect to help women and children find respite in the United States, I am helping to diversify my own country. Case by case, victory by victory, we are expanding the population with new citizens from Latin America. Every case I submit further clogs the byways of immigration courts and offices. Sooner or later, the system must give way to more humane and sustainable immigration laws.
As I reflect on my activism of 2021, I have decided to take a bigger step towards full accreditation with the Department of Justice. I am trading the classroom for the courtroom. In a year’s time, I will be qualified to represent families before immigration judges and will do my feminist best to win them a new life of dignity in the United States.
Peggy Rivage-Seul is a women’s studies professor emerita from Berea College in Kentucky. Besides building a women’s and gender studies program, she also devoted her teaching and research to the study of women’s traditional cooking. “Take Back the Kitchen” continues to be her eco-feminist project to wrest control of our kitchens from the corporate global food economy. Currently she am working on a legal team to help women and their families seek asylum in the United States. It is her post-retirement goal to exchange the classroom for the courtroom and become a fully accredited representative for the Department of Justice.